DOES GOD HEAR A SINNER’S PRAYER?
T. PIERCE BROWN
When I was young I heard some of the men whom I consider giants in the faith, such as Foy E. Wallace, N. B. Hardeman and others answer the question, “Does God hear a sinner’s prayer?” with a resounding “No!” They would usually quote such passages as Proverbs 28:9; “He that turneth away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer shall be an abomination.” Other such passages as John 9:31 were usually quoted. “Now we know that God heareth not sinners: but if any man be a worshipper of God and doeth his will, him he heareth.”
Occasionally they would embellish the lesson with an extended dissertation about the things for which an alien sinner might pray. Suppose he prays for light. No doubt he needs it, but Psalm 119:105 says, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my pathway.” If a person wants light, he needs to open his eyes to God’s word and obey it. If he fails to do that, and prays for light, his prayer is an abomination.
Denominational preachers often ask people to pray for grace. They need it, but Titus2:11says, “The grace of God hath appeared, bringing salvation unto all mankind.” One may appropriate that grace on the terms by which it is offered, but if he fails to do that and prays for it, his prayer is an abomination.
Many have been told to pray for faith. No doubt each of us needs faith, for “Without faith it is impossible to please God, for he that cometh to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6). But Paul also tells us how faith comes, and it is not through prayer. Romans10:17says, “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”
Others have been told to come down to the altar (or go somewhere) and pray for God’s saving power. They are lost and need God’s saving power. But Romans1:16says, “The gospel is the power of God unto salvation.” The person who prays for God’s saving power while rejecting the gospel offers a prayer that is an abomination.
All those scriptures are true, and the application of them is proper. The usual conclusion to which those great men of faith came is that there is nothing for which the sinner can legitimately pray, for every blessing he needs has been offered upon another condition. We may admit all that to be true, and still point out some things with which such reasoning, sermonizing and exegesis does not deal. For example, the question usually is asked and answered about an alien sinner. But most of the scriptures quoted apply as appropriately to a child of God. Do you need light? Do you need more faith? Do you need grace? It is just as silly for you to pray for them while neglecting the means by which you may have them as it is for the alien sinner to do so.
Part of the difficulty of answering properly the question of whether God hears a sinner’s prayer is in the failure to explain in detail how the question applies to various meanings of “hear” and “sinner.” If we define “hear” as “Recognize the sound of the voice in the realization that a prayer has been made,” then of course God hears a sinner’s prayer. The very fact that the prayer is an abomination to Him implies that He hears it in this sense. If we define “hear” as “Explicit promise to grant the request,” then God does not hear either an alien sinner or an erring child of God who turns away his ear from hearing the law. If we define “hear” as “give attention or have regard for,” then the Bible teaches that God will give attention to the prayers of some kinds of sinners. Those sinners who turn away their ears from hearing the law, whether they are alien or erring children, do not have any promise that God will attend to their prayers. However, the case of both Cornelius and Saul of Tarsus show that God was not displeased with their prayers and did not consider them an abomination.
When a person says, “It is not worthwhile for a sinner to pray,” he needs to fix his variables. The danger is in allowing persons to conclude that prayer is some short cut to some blessing or reward from God. When an alien sinner prays for salvation apart from obedience to the gospel, it is an abomination. It is also true that a person who has become a Christian but who has departed from the faith, or who prays for things apart from the will of God, such as praying for additional light on a subject on which God has already plainly spoken need not expect his prayer to be granted.
If one should teach, “If one is not a member of the church, there is no value in any kind of prayer,” he goes beyond what God reveals. One should be able to see that clearly in Saul’s case. When Saul was praying, he was told, “Why tarriest thou? Arise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts22:16). It would have been an abomination for him to turn away his ear from hearing what God had commanded him to do and try to be saved by praying for forgiveness. This does not prove that his previous prayer was displeasing to God and an abomination to Him. Nor does the Bible anywhere imply that the prayers of such men as Cornelius and Saul were of no value. It specifically teaches that such prayers are not a substitute for obedience to the gospel.
It also teaches that never will prayer substitute for obedience to any other command of God. If we assume that we can merely pray for the sick without ministering to their needs, our prayer is an abomination. If we assume that we can merely pray for the conversion of sinners without helping in that conversion, we greatly err. When preachers say, “The Great Commission says to go, but if you can’t go, you can pray and send,” they do more disservice to God’s word than they imagine. They are teaching by implication that God commanded you to do something you cannot do. Second, they are implying that when you think you cannot do what He wants you to do in the way you would like to do it, you have the right to substitute. This is false and dangerous. God said to sing. Suppose I am a deaf mute and cannot sing. So I will play or substitute something else. Nowhere does God imply that He is pleased with that sort of attitude or action.
You have no more right to say, “If you cannot go, send” than you do to say, “If you can not make disciples, make something you think is about as good.” That is a different lesson, but you should be grateful that occasionally you can get two for the price of one.
This lesson is to point out that there are many kinds of sinners whose prayers are not an abomination to the Lord. We should be careful when we give an exegesis of a passage that we do not draw conclusions that are not valid. Neither let us try to substitute some short cut for obtaining what God promised, when that promise is based on an obedient faith.