Does Jesus Pray for the Non-Elect?
September 22, 2023, 12:00 PM

Question: Did Jesus ever pray for unbelievers (i.e., the non-elect)?

Answer: This is an interesting question. My first reaction was to say tentatively “no” because I couldn’t think of a case in which Jesus prayed for the non-elect. Then I did a search in the Gospels on the word “pray” and got this result. Of the 37 times the word “pray” appears in the Gospels, most of those are Jesus commanding His disciples to pray, or Jesus describing how His disciples ought to pray, or the Gospel author saying that Jesus went to pray. Then I found this verse in John’s Gospel: “I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours” (John 17:9 NKJV).

Here in this verse, “world” (kosmos) is used in contrast to the disciples. Jesus refers to the disciples as “those whom You have given Me.” The disciples are people whom the Father has given to the Son. Consider how Jesus refers to them in John 10 as the sheep whom the Father has given to Him and for whom He (Jesus, the Good Shepherd) will lay His life down. If Jesus is praying in His “High Priestly” prayer for His disciples and not for the world, then the “world” must refer to those whom the Father hasn’t given to Jesus; namely, the non-elect. Jesus does not pray for the non-elect, but only for His disciples.

This is further reinforced when we see Jesus praying for unbelievers who haven’t yet come to faith or who haven’t even yet been born. If we look at v. 20, we read: “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word” (John 17:20 NKJV). For those who will believe is in the future tense, meaning from our perspective, they aren’t yet believers. These would be the elect who are currently unbelievers or the elect who haven’t yet been born. We also see this in Jesus’ Great Shepherd discourse: “And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16 NKJV). Jesus has “other sheep” who are “not of this fold.” This is presumably Gentile sheep. Again, they are currently unbelievers, but will come to believe through the ministry of the apostles.

This would stand to reason when you consider the question theologically. According to Ephesians 1:3-14, the Father has chosen us (believers, the elect) from before the foundation of the world. In other words, in eternity past, the Father has decreed to save a definite number of people from fallen humanity. These people whom the Father has elected, the Son will come into the world to redeem through His blood. When Jesus died on the cross, He atoned for the sins of all those who believed, were believing, and will believe in Him. In other words, Jesus redeemed the elect. Finally, we see the Spirit seal unto the elect the redemption that the Son purchased. If this is the case, biblically speaking (and it is), why would Jesus pray for those whom the Father hasn’t chosen? For what would He pray?

Now, you may be thinking, “What about Matthew 5:44 and Luke 23:34?” That’s a good question. Let’s look at those verses:

[44] "But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, (Matthew 5:44 NKJV)

[34] Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do." And they divided His garments and cast lots. (Luke 23:34 NKJV)

You read these verses and you have Jesus saying, “Love your enemies…pray for those who spitefully use you,” or Jesus asking the Father to forgive those who had crucified Him. Are we to conclude that Jesus is praying for elect people who haven’t yet come to faith? That doesn’t seem likely, does it? I would agree, it doesn’t seem to make sense that Jesus is only referring to elect people in these verses. How should we see this? Those who reject a Reformed view of salvation would probably point to these verses as disproving our view because you would have Jesus asking the Father to forgive people that He has no intention of forgiving.

Space doesn’t permit me to show how Scripture clearly teaches the Reformed view of salvation. If you grant me this, then we must interpret what is less clear by that which is more clear. If God sovereignly elects those who will be saved, how do we interpret Jesus’ prayer in Luke 23:34? Jesus cannot be asking the Father to forgive those who are non-elect. Why? As we stated earlier, Jesus knows those who are His by name for the Father has given them to Him. On the one hand, we don’t want to say these are “empty words.” On the other hand, we know Jesus knows those who are His. The best way, I think, to resolve this is to say that Jesus is modeling the behavior He commands in Matthew 5:44. This is seen in how Stephen imitates Jesus during his stoning in Acts 7:60. This does not detract from the fact that Jesus lamented the lost state of Israel (cf. Matthew 23:37). This was a real lamentation. The prayer was a real prayer. Nevertheless, we know Jesus specifically intercedes for His sheep, the elect.

While this is an interesting question, I don’t like to look at things from an “elect/non-elect” viewpoint. Why? Because we’re not told who the elect and the non-elect are? Jesus could pray for the elect because He knew who they were (“My Father gives them to Me, and I know them by name”). We don’t have this information, so we must pray for all men (1 Timothy 2:1) and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks us about the hope that we have in Christ (1 Peter 3:15). Our prayers and our witnessing are the means that a sovereign God uses to bring His elect to saving faith in Christ.

I hope this helps.

~ Pastor Carl