I assume that you, like Paul, pray fervently for the salvation of close family members or colleagues at work. In Paul’s case, they were the many Jewish men and women of his day who had openly and persistently denied that Jesus was the Messiah. He expressed his profound and persistent sorrow and grief over their lost condition back in Romans 9:1-3. In Romans 10:1 he declares unashamedly that his “heart’s desire and prayer to God” is “that they may be saved.”
Paul doesn’t say anything about the nature of this prayer. He doesn’t give any details about the wording that he might use. We don’t know beyond his general affirmation precisely in what way he would ask God to save them, but my suspicion is that he prayed that God might ravish their hearts with his beauty and that he might unshackle their enslaved wills and cause them to come alive!
When you pray for lost souls, what specifically are you asking God to do? Do you ask God to orchestrate circumstances in their life that might open the door for someone to share the gospel with them? Do you ask God to put a Bible in their hand or another book or a gospel tract? Do you ask God to stir their hearts to ask relevant questions, such as: What happens when I die? Does my life have any meaning? Do you ask God to plant in their hearts an uneasiness with their lost condition, such that they begin to ask questions about whether or not there is a God and what is my relationship with him? Although those are certainly legitimate things to bring to God, I want to suggest that there is far more that we should make the focus of our prayers.
A person in need of conversion is “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1); he is enslaved to sin (Rom. 6:17; John 8:34). Paul says that Satan, the god of this world, has blinded the minds of lost people that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ (2 Cor. 4:4). In one of his more graphic portrayals of the condition of the unsaved, Paul describes them as being “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity” (Eph. 4:18-19). We saw earlier in Romans 8:7 that the unbeliever is “hostile to God” (Rom. 8:7). These are just a few of the reasons why we must then ask God in prayer to make the lost person alive and release his will from bondage and enlighten her mind and soften their hearts so that hostility is effectually replaced with affection and rebellion is actually turned to submission.
As noted, although Paul doesn’t give specific information on the content of his prayer for unsaved Jewish people, I believe he would pray that God might do for them what he did for Lydia: he opened her heart (which would have otherwise remained “closed”) so that she gave heed to what Paul said (Acts 16:14). I will pray that God, who once said, “Let there be light!”, will by that same creative power utterly dispel the darkness of unbelief and “shine in their hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).
I will pray that he will “take out their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26; 11:19). And with all my praying I will try to “be kind and to teach and correct with gentleness and patience, if perhaps God may grant them repentance and freedom from Satan’s snare” (2 Timothy 2:24-26). I trust that you will pray, “Lord, circumcise their heart so that they love you” (Deut. 30:6). Pray: “Father, put your Spirit within them and cause them to walk in your statutes” (Ezek. 36:27).
J. I. Packer described our prayers for lost souls in his book, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God.
“You pray for the conversion of others. In what terms, now, do you intercede for them? Do you limit yourself to asking that God will bring them to a point where they can save themselves, independently of Him? I do not think you do. I think that what you do is to pray in categorical terms that God will, quite simply and decisively, save them: that He will open the eyes of their understanding, soften their hard hearts, renew their natures, and move their wills to receive the Saviour. You ask God to work in them everything necessary for their salvation. You would not dream of making it a point in your prayer that you are not asking God actually to bring them to faith, because you recognize that that is something He cannot do. Nothing of the sort! When you pray for unconverted people, you do so on the assumption that it is in God’s power to bring them to faith. You entreat Him to do that very thing, and your confidence in asking rests upon the certainty that He is able to do what you ask. And so indeed He is: this conviction, which animates your intercessions, is God’s own truth, written on your heart by the Holy Spirit. In prayer, then (and the Christian is at his sanest and wisest when he prays), you know that it is God who saves men; you know that what makes men turn to God is God’s own gracious work of drawing them to Himself; and the content of your prayers is determined by this knowledge. Thus by your practice of intercession, no less than by giving thanks for your conversion, you acknowledge and confess the sovereignty of God’s grace. And so do all Christian people everywhere” (pp. 15-16).
Many of you no doubt spent time these past few days of the Christmas season with friends and family members who do not believe in Jesus. As you reflect on them and your time together, in what way do you pray for God to save them? I hope this brief article has provided a measure of guidance as you intercede for them at the throne of grace.