Some of the best questions you all send to us come from the tensions you see directly in Scripture as you read the Bible — like the one we have today. Do we pray for the salvation of unbelievers directly? Or do we pray for the evangelists who bring the gospel? It’s an interesting Bible question on this Friday, as we close out week number 489 on the podcast.
The question today is from a listener named Tim: “Hello, Pastor John! Can you tell me if we are commanded to pray for unbelievers? It seems like the prayers and the instruction on prayer in the New Testament are focused on praying for believers in contexts of evangelism. I’m thinking of Colossians 4:3–4 and Ephesians 6:18–20. In those places Paul is seeking prayer for his bold preaching, not prayers for unbelievers themselves. Is this instructive for us? Are we to pray for unbelievers? Or pray for evangelists? How does the Bible instruct our priority here?”
Yes, the Bible teaches us to pray for unbelievers, and particularly to pray for their salvation — but not only for their salvation, but also lots of blessings of other kinds that flow from salvation or lead to their salvation.
But the question Tim asks is not uncommon because Tim is right that, ordinarily, Paul in particular asks for prayer for his preaching more than he asks prayer for those who are hearing his preaching. Now I’ll come back at the end to why that might be the case, but that is the case, and that’s why the question arises.
I can remember maybe forty years ago at a conference at Wheaton College where a person stood up in the audience and asked J.I. Packer point-blank, “Give me one text where we’re told to pray for unbelievers.” And I’ll tell you what he said in a minute when I get there, but this is not an unusual question. Now, my reason for saying the Bible does teach that we should pray for unbelievers is that there are at least five lines of evidence pointing more or less explicitly in this direction.
David’s Prayers for Enemies
First, there’s the Old Testament example. It may be surprising to you (it was to me) that this example turns up in a psalm where righteous indignation, the righteous indignation of the psalmist, is calling on God to vindicate him against his enemies. But listen to what brought him to this point in Psalm 35:11–14:
Malicious witnesses rise up;
they ask of me things I do not know.
They repay me evil for good;
my soul is bereft.
But I, when they were sick —
I wore sackcloth;
I afflicted myself with fasting;
I prayed with head bowed on my chest.
I went about as though I grieved for my friend or my brother;
as one who laments his mother,
I bowed down in mourning.
So, the psalmist had prayed for his enemy until, evidently, God showed him that he’s going to become an instrument of God’s judgment. That happens in the psalms. So we’ve got an Old Testament example of praying for our adversaries.
Jesus New-Covenant Commands
Second, there are Jesus’s instructions in Matthew 5:43: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Same thing in Luke 6:28: “Pray for those who abuse you” — not “pray against them.” These aren’t imprecatory prayers. This is, “Pray for them — pray for what they need.” And what they need most is faith in Christ and eternal life.
‘Bless Those Who Curse You’
I think this is what the command of Jesus to bless means as well. Jesus said in Luke 6:28, “Bless those who curse you.” Well, what does bless mean? It means we pronounce a Godward wish of well-being on someone. Blessing is the hope that things will go well with someone, and then that hope is directed to God in longing and expressed to our enemy in words. That’s the way blessings work, whether they’re to believers or unbelievers. You can see it in that famous blessing in Numbers 6:24–26: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you.”
So you’re asking the Lord to do something, but you’re speaking directly to a person. So this command to bless our enemies became a watchword in the early church. It’s amazing how frequent it is:
- 1 Peter 3:9: “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless.”
- Romans 12:14: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”
- Paul set an example of this in 1 Corinthians 4:12 when he said, “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure.”
Now, these blessings are prayers; they’re prayers for unbelievers — that God would cause things to go well for them, for their ultimate good, for their salvation.
‘As in Heaven’
Then there’s another instruction Jesus gave. I think it indirectly tells us to pray for unbelievers, and this is the answer that J.I. Packer gave. I remember it all these years later because I didn’t expect him to go here at all. He went to the Lord’s Prayer:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:9–10)
“The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer for unbelievers to believe and obey and do the will of God the way the angels do it.”
Well, when it says to pray for the kingdom to come and for God’s will to be done as in heaven, that phrase “as in heaven” means not just that God’s sovereign will would be done the way Judas did it — that’s not the way it’s done in heaven — but that it would be done the way angels do it. And the angels do it full of joy, full of faith. So, think of the Lord’s Prayer as a prayer for unbelievers to believe and obey and do the will of God the way the angels do it in heaven. I thought that was a remarkable, insightful answer.
There are a lot more direct answers. I’m not sure why he went there — maybe that was just all that came to his mind at the time — but I thought it was remarkable.
Jesus’s and Stephen’s Dying Pleas
Here’s the third line of evidence: There’s Jesus example — not just the instructions that we just saw, but his example. While he is on the cross, he prays for his enemies: “And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’” (Luke 23:34).
And then Stephen continued that same dying prayer as he was being stoned in Acts 7:60: “And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’” That’s amazing. He prayed for his unbelieving killers.
Paul’s Prayers for His Kinsmen
The fourth line of evidence is Paul’s example, not only of blessing, which we just saw for those who persecute him, but also of explicitly praying for the salvation of his lost Jewish kinsmen in Romans 10. I think, if somebody asked me in public, “Give me one example of the Bible teaching that we should pray for unbelievers,” I’d say Romans 10:1: “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.”
So I take this to mean that this was his steady prayer as he ministered in the Lord’s name: “Lord, save my brothers in Israel, and make them my brothers in Christ.”
Paul’s Personal Requests
And now the fifth line of evidence. Tim, when he asked the question, pointed to Colossians 4 as a typical way that Paul asks for prayer — namely, for the preachers and not the hearers. And I commented that this is typical. That’s right. Paul does that most often. He said this: “Pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison — that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak” (Colossians 4:3–4).
We see the same thing in Ephesians 6:19, where he says, “[Pray] for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel.” And we could add to this 2 Thessalonians 3:1: “Pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you.”
Now, none of these texts says explicitly that we are praying for the unbelievers — none of those last three that I quoted. But when you think it through, what they’re asking for is that Paul’s word would be bold and clear and unhindered and triumphant and glorified. You can’t avoid the fact this includes, “Lord, grant converts to Paul’s preaching.”
“God has bound salvation to the news of Jesus Christ so that Christ gets glory for the faith.”
So, I think Paul is indeed asking indirectly for prayer for unbelievers. And I suspect — this is my effort to answer the question of why Paul spoke the way he did most often — that one of the reasons Paul asks for prayer this way (namely, for himself and his preaching) is that he is so keenly aware that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). He knows that it is God who raises dead people spiritually and brings them to faith. And God gives them life and faith and eyes to see the glory of Christ by causing them to hear the word of God.
Paul really wants us to keep in mind that God does not move around through the world bringing people to faith apart from the hearing of the gospel. God has bound salvation to the news of Jesus Christ so that Christ gets glory for the faith. So let’s always keep these things together — namely, prayer for the salvation of unbelievers and prayer for the word to run and be glorified through more and more faith.