Last week after a Bible class a lady asked, “How should I pray for lost individuals?” Her question might seem a bit strange. This senior from a retirement home proceeded to explain, “If God has chosen who is going to be saved, then what business is it of mine to pray for someone who is lost?”
Another lady piped in, “The Bible says that God wants all people to repent.” The first lady continued, “These ideas of election and freewill are confusing. I don’t know how to pray for lost people.”
Consider these initial observations. They can chart a biblical and harmonious path through understanding election and freewill. When we have these ideas firmly in hand, we gain a biblical footing for how to pray for the lost.
From scripture we learn that at critical junctures throughout history God has exercised his prerogative to select through whom he would work his plans to shape a people for himself. When God chose to work through someone, that choice involved not only that individual but those within him.
This ribbon of God’s choosing began with Abraham. God promised he would bless the world through Abraham and his seed. Paul wanted us to understand that this story reveals God’s determination to bless the whole world through Christ, Abraham’s descendant (Galatians 3:16,26-29).
In Romans 9:6-18, Paul steps us through some critical junctures regarding God’s choices. We learn that at each step forward, it remained God’s prerogative to choose how this movement toward the Messiah would proceed. Neither bloodline nor human works were the determinative factor. Thus God chose Isaac and not Ismael. Similarly, God loved (chose) Jacob and not Esau.
To validate this principle that God was free to choose what role anyone within this ribbon would play, Paul pointed to God’s ability to raise up Pharaoh to serve God’s purposes. This example does not teach us that God is determining the role and footsteps of every human being who ever lived. Nor does it teach that God has determined whether each person will be saved or lost. Rather, Paul used Pharaoh to validate God’s ability to choose which people he would use in his service, whether Jacob or Esau. Furthermore, this example underscores God’s sovereignty to determine whether someone would fulfill a noble purpose or not.
Eventually this story about God’s elect people arrives at Christ, the Chosen One. Those who respond to God’s call through the gospel enter the body of Christ. Since God has chosen Christ and those in Christ, disciples are elected. That is, they are God’s chosen ones. They are chosen because they belong to Christ, not because God wrote their name on the list of the saved before the world began.
God did determine what he would do for those in Christ before the world began. So Paul could write to those of us who are Christians, that before the world had begun God chose us to be holy and blameless. Furthermore, God’s plan involved determining that he would adopt us and redeem us through Christ’s blood. What God would do for us, Christ’s community, was predetermined (Ephesians 1:3-12).
When Jesus spoke about election he taught, “Many are called but few are chosen.” Through the gospel, God’s call goes far and wide. However, by comparison only a few respond. To be sure God must draw people for them to come to Christ. The way God draws people is through the hearing and learning from the Father (John 6:44-45).
So yes, God does desire all people to repent (2 Peter 3:9). While God desires all to be saved, God only chooses those who are in Christ. They are God’s elect.
What does all of this mean about praying for the lost? We can pray for God to raise up workers who will proclaim his wonderful news (Luke 10:2). Since we should also pray for God’s will to be done, we can pray for those far from God to repent.
While God will not force anyone to obey Christ, God can create opportunities that encourage people to trust in him as well as provide mercy in granting time. He might also use us to reach out to them!