How does knowledge of the doctrine of election encourage/help those who are praying for lost loved ones? So many times, when discussing this doctrine for the first time, people feel discouraged and even desperate over the fact that someone that they love may or may not be elect. How can the truth of God’s election encourage someone who is praying that God will save a loved one?
I would like to answer your question by telling you a story from history. In the 4th century, there was a very devout Christian lady named Monica. She was married to a prominent man who did not share her Christian faith. He was often very cruel to her, causing her physical abuse. Every day she would go to the church and pray for his conversion. Later on in his life, he did in fact become a Christian.
Yet the pain and anguish her husband caused her seemingly paled into insignificance compared to that which she suffered because of her oldest son. Her mother’s heart was broken, time after time, seeing the reckless life her son was leading. He not only did not share his mother’s faith but would join himself to anti-Christian groups, using his sharp mind to seek to convince others to follow him. He lived a very immoral life. He had a mistress but left her for another and had a son born out of wedlock, named Adeodatus. Monica was not personally able to convince her son of the truth claims of Christianity, but she determined never to stop praying that he would turn to the Lord.
For two decades this went on, with Monica persisting in prayer for her son, seemingly seeing no results. Her son was later to write about all this and tells us that she wept more for his spiritual death than most mothers weep for the bodily death of their children. Distraught, she went to see the well known Bishop Ambrose of Milan to speak about her plight. Knowing her anguish of soul he said, “Go your way and God will bless you, for it is not possible that the son of these tears should perish.” She accepted the answer as though it were a word from God Himself.
Monica’s prayers for her son were answered very suddenly. One day he was in a garden experiencing much agony of soul because of his sin. God the Holy Spirit was certainly working on him. In his own writings he recalled what happened next – suddenly he heard the voice of a boy or a girl, he was not sure which, coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, “’Tolle, lege; tolle, lege” a Latin phrase that meant ‘Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.’
Later, in his own writings, he wrote, “Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon….
So I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius [his friend] was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle’s book when I had left there. I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence I read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: ‘Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof’ (Rom. 13:13). I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.” (1)
Monica’s many years of prayers were answered in a single moment. Her son experienced a dramatic, life changing conversion to Christ.
What Monica could not have known was the impact her son would have, not only on his contemporaries, but on the many generations to come. Her son became one of God’s greatest ever gifts to His Church, Augustine of Hippo (354 AD to 430 AD). There is no doubt that Augustine was the greatest theologian of the Church (outside of the New Testament) for the first thousand years, and arguably, he was the greatest theologian in Church history. Augustine’s writings on the subject of grace would become a massive influence on both Martin Luther (who was himself an Augustinian monk) and John Calvin. God used these men to bring about the greatest move of God in the history of the Church as entire nations were brought under the influence of the gospel in the 16th century Protestant Reformation.
In the same way, as we consider the biblical story of the man who found Christ right at the end of his life, the man known as “the thief on the cross,” we should note that even up until the very last day in this man’s life, there was nothing we could observe outwardly that would indicate he was one of God’s elect. Until this time, the man had lived the life of a notorious criminal with seemingly no interest in following Christ. The fact that he was indeed one of God’s elect only became clear when he came to Christ so shortly before death.
While hanging on a cross next to Jesus, he turned to Him and said, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42)
Immediately, upon speaking these words, this man was given the unique and unspeakably gracious privilege of being told by Jesus Himself that he would be with Him in paradise that very day (v. 43). As far as I know, no one else in the entire New Testament heard the Lord speak such words of assurance. If ever a man could be certain of his election, it was this man.
Yet, using our sanctified minds, perhaps we could imagine his mother as a Christian and praying for him as a wayward son. This is complete speculation of course – but lets for a moment suppose that his mother was still alive, a follower of Christ, and was witnessing the events of that day. There would have been nothing that she could have observed with her senses that would have indicated that the last hour of his life would mean his conversion. It looked like it was going to be a tragic end to a tragic life. I certainly could imagine her bitterly intense sorrow in seeing her son walk the same hill as the Savior, the difference being that her son was walking up the hill because he deserved it… and then, out of nowhere, it would seem, God the Holy Spirit moved in invisible but irresistible grace and took out the spiritual heart of stone and gave him a new heart, with new affections so unlike the old ones. Immediately, her son trusted in the work of the One dieing next to him and in no time at all, ultimate assurance was given to him that the day would not be over before he would be with Christ in paradise. As I say, this is all speculation concerning his mother and her anguish of heart, but what is indeed certain is that the man was converted with just hours to go before he died. Absolutely no one is beyond God’s reach, even to the last moment of a person’s life. Praise the Lord!
The Scripture tells us, “the Lord knows those who are His…” (2 Tim 2:19). The identity of the elect are known only to God, not to us. Only upon seeing someone defy God until their very last breath in this world should we assume someone is non-elect. Though the salvation of our children or loved ones is always in God’s hands, it should be an immense comfort to us knowing that if an individual’s conversion is so much upon our hearts, this in itself is a very strong indication that it is God Himself who is behind the whole thing and has laid this burden upon us, in order that He would use this (our burden to pray) as a means to accomplish His ends (the conversion of one of His elect sheep). Just as the Lord opened up the heart of Lydia to respond to the things spoken by Paul (Acts 16:13,14), so our only hope is that the God who can open any heart, will do so for the ones we love and care for. Salvation (and the timing of conversion) is of the Lord (Jonah 2:9).
(1) Augustine, ‘Confessions’, VIII.12.29.