Many people believe quite firmly that the doctrine of election discourages its adherents from praying for the lost to receive salvation and from engaging in evangelism. To be honest, I did pull away from these two activities when first started embracing Reformed theology, reasoning that I couldn’t alter God’s predetermined plan. But as I continued studying Scripture, I came to understand that the facts of election and predestination don’t mean that we shouldn’t pray and proclaim the Gospel.
Certainly, we affirm God’s sovereignty as the One Who brings people to salvation. Furthermore, Ephesians 2:1-9 teaches that people can only come to Him as He enables them to believe the Gospel. Jesus said, point-blank, than no one can come to Him unless the Father draws him or her (John 6:44). Consequently, we depend on Him, rather than the ability of those in need of regeneration, to open their eyes to the truth. We don’t know whom He has chosen, so we pray that He will have mercy on the lost.
In His Word, the Holy Spirit calls Christians to bring our requests to Him (Philippians 4:6) and to intercede for others (1 Timothy 2:1-4). Due to the limitations of our human understanding, these commands seem contradictory to the principle of sovereign election. We have difficulty reasoning it out.
Still, the Bible gives numerous examples of praying for people to turn from sin so that they might walk in obedience to the Lord. I can’t list each instance of such intercession, but I’d like to draw your attention to an incident in which the prophet Samuel prayed for rebellious Israel in obedience to the Lord.
19 And all the people said to Samuel, “Pray for your servants to the Lord your God, that we may not die, for we have added to all our sins this evil, to ask for ourselves a king.” 20 And Samuel said to the people, “Do not be afraid; you have done all this evil. Yet do not turn aside from following the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart. 21 And do not turn aside after empty things that cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty. 22 For the Lord will not forsake his people, for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased the Lord to make you a people for himself. 23 Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you, and I will instruct you in the good and the right way. 24 Only fear the Lord and serve him faithfully with all your heart. For consider what great things he has done for you. 25 But if you still do wickedly, you shall be swept away, both you and your king.” ~~1 Samuel 12:19-25 (ESV)
Did you notice verse 23? Samuel made it clear that a refusal to pray for Israel, even though the Lord had already elected them to be His people, would be a sin on his part. God’s sovereignty didn’t give Samuel an excuse to disregard his responsibility to pray. And neither does it excuse us.
I’ll be the first to admit that praying for the salvation of unbelievers in the face of election and predestination perplexes me. And truthfully, I realize that I have no business trying to figure it out (see Psalm 131:1). But in the past few years, as I’ve grown deeper in my acceptance and practice of Reformed theology, I’ve found myself praying for the unsaved more regularly and with greater passion. Lately, close to 50% of my prayer list consists of prayers for unsaved family members, friends and secular leaders to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. I pray because only the Holy Spirit can open their hearts to the truth.
I’ve also noticed that I proclaim the Gospel more frequently as a result of understanding Scripture’s teachings on election. Again, I do so out of obedience to Christ (Matthew 28:18-20, 1 Peter 3:15). Unlike the omniscient Lord, I don’t have any idea who is elect and who isn’t, but I do know that as I proclaim the Word, the Holy Spirit will use it to produce faith in those whom He has appointed to salvation (Romans 10:14-17).
I used to believe that evangelism required me to “win souls for Christ. After two or three years of witnessing frantically to every human being who crossed my path, I had to grapple with the reality that I had led only one person to the Lord. Although I would occasionally witness to people after that point, I pretty much concluded that evangelism wasn’t for me because of my low success rate.
God’s Word, however, only holds Christians responsible to declare the Gospel, not to convince people to “accept” Jesus. As we faithfully proclaim His Gospel by using Scripture in our presentations, the Holy Spirit will be even more faithful to soften (or harden) the hearts of our hearers according to His will.
10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. ~~Isaiah 55:10-11 (ESV)
Prayer for the lost and evangelism do not contradict the doctrines of election and predestination, as much as opponents to these to doctrines insist they do. I don’t think I’m the only one who has actually become more evangelistic upon understanding that God assumes full responsibility for how people respond to Him. Since I trust His sovereignty, I feel greater freedom to simply obey Him.