Is it Biblical to Pray for the Salvation of Unbelievers?
God has honored, and in many instances has answered, the fervent prayers of believers for the salvation of unbelievers. Concerning his own salvation, L. R. Scarborough, the second president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and inaugural occupant of the first established chair of evangelism in the world (“The Chair of Fire”), recounted:
The human beginning of the influence leading to my salvation was in the prayer of my mother in my behalf when I was an infant. She climbed out of bed, having gone down toward the grave that I might live, and crawled on her knees across the floor to my little cradle when I was three weeks of age, and prayed that God would save me in His good time and call me to preach.
In fact, research has revealed in the last two decades that regardless of their sizes or locations, Southern Baptist churches who report the highest rates of baptisms attribute praying for the salvation of unbelievers by name to their evangelistic effectiveness.
Although historical examples and investigative evidence of God’s blessing on believers’ prayers for the salvation of the lost can be documented, do any biblical precedents exist concerning praying for the salvation of unbelievers to substantiate these examples and evidences? Yes, the Bible does in fact establish precedents for believers to pray for the salvation of the lost, when one considers that Jesus practiced, Paul acknowledged, and Scripture instructs prayer for the salvation of unbelievers.
The Example of Jesus
The Bible attests that Christ prayed for the lost. Concerning the suffering Servant of the LORD, Isaiah writes: Therefore I will divide Him a portion with the great, And He shall divide the spoil with the strong, Because He poured out His soul unto death, And He was numbered with the transgressors, And He bore the sin of many, And made intercession for the transgressors” (Is 53:12, NKJV, emphasis added). In his account of the death of Jesus, Luke confirms that He interceded on behalf of those who crucified and reviled Him. He writes:
And when they had come to the place called Calvary, there they crucified Him, and the criminals, one on the right hand and the other on the left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” And they divided His garments and cast lots. And the people stood looking on. But even the rulers with them sneered, saying, “He saved others; let Him save Himself if He is the Christ, the chosen of God.” The soldiers also mocked Him, coming and offering Him sour wine, and saying, “If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself” (Luke 23:33–36, NKJV, emphasis added).
As Christ suffered for the sins of the world on the cross, He prayed for the forgiveness of sinners who crucified and reviled Him. The Bible does not indicate that all, or even many, of those for whose forgiveness He prayed actually received it. Nevertheless, one of the crucified criminals who at first derided Him (Matt 27:44) later entreated the Lord. As a result, he was forgiven of his sins and naturalized a citizen of Paradise by the Savior who cared enough to pray for him.
The Acknowledgement of Paul
In addition, the apostle Paul acknowledged praying for the salvation of unbelieving Israel. He wrote to the believers in Rome, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved” (Romans 10:1, NKJV). Paul’s desire for the salvation of his fellow countrymen led him to pray for their salvation. Although not all Israel was saved during his lifetime, he looked forward in faith to a day when the fullness of the Gentiles’ salvation would be accomplished and his prayer for Israel to be saved would be answered (Rom 11:26a).
The Instruction of Scripture
Finally, believers are commanded to pray in various ways for all people, kings, and authorities. Paul writes,
Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:1–4, NKJV).
The apostle explains that the prescribed petitions on behalf of “all men, … kings … [and those] who are in authority” 1) should be practiced in order to live godly and reverently in peace and 2) should prove good and acceptable to God who desires the salvation of everyone. For these reasons, the supplications, prayers, and intercessions required of believers should include a petition for the salvation of all people.
Consider that most, if not all, of the kings and authorities to whom Paul refers were not only nonbelievers, but they had actively oppressed believers. No wonder Paul appeals to the hope of a day when believers could lead godly and reverent lives in peace, free from the threat of persecution. Such a day was possible if the believers in Paul’s day would pray for the salvation of these tyrannical rulers, and as a result of hearing the gospel they would believe, thus bringing an end to their oppressiveness.
In addition, Paul claims that praying for the salvation of all men is pleasing and acceptable to God. As Thomas Lea explains, “The relative clause of v. 4 provides the basis for the assertion in v. 3 that prayer for all people is pleasing to God. The goal of the prayers Paul urged is that all people be saved. Intercession for all people pleases the God who desires all to be saved.” God desires to see everyone saved and come to the knowledge of the truth, though not all will do so.
Therefore, in order to lead godly and reverent lives in peace and to please God with their supplication, prayers, and intercession, believers are instructed to pray for the salvation of all people, great and small.
In a sermon he entitled, Mary Magdalene, C.H. Spurgeon urged the following in regards to believers’ responsibility to plead for the salvation of the lost:
Until the gate of hell is shut upon a man, we must not cease to pray for him. And if we see him hugging the very doorposts of damnation, we must go to the mercy seat and beseech the arm of grace to pluck him from his dangerous position. While there is life there is hope, and although the soul is almost smothered with despair, we must not despair for it, but rather arouse ourselves to awaken the Almighty arm.
On their own merit, historical examples like that of Scarborough and/or pragmatic evidences like those documented by Rainer and Parr provide believers reasons to pray for the salvation of unbelievers. However, the example of Jesus, the acknowledgement of Paul, and the instruction of 1 Tim 2:1–4 as presented above reveal to believers their obligation to pray for the salvation of the lost.
When a believer prays for the soul of a lost person and he is subsequently saved, skeptics may attribute it to nothing more than mere coincidence. When churches pray for the salvation of unbelievers by name and effective evangelistic growth results, cynics might consider it pragmatism. However, perhaps the most appropriate label to designate believers who pray for the salvation of the lost would be “biblical.”
 Thom Rainer, Effective Evangelistic Churches (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996), 67–71, 76–79 and Steve R. Parr, Steve Foster, David Harrill, and Tom Crites, Georgia’s Top Evangelistic Churches: Ten Lessons from the Most Effective Churches (Duluth, Georgia Baptist Convention, 2008), 10–11, 26, 29