The question comes: Does God hear the prayer of a sinner?
It is a good question, and one with a great many implications. Different people will of course, give different answers to the question. There are many people, perhaps, who simply assume that God hears and answers the prayers of everyone, regardless of situation. Perhaps they also just sort of assume that God is just happy if anyone wants to pray.
But the opinions of men don’t really matter much when it comes to the actions of God. The one who can best answer the question is God Himself, and so the wise course would be to look in the Bible itself for the answer.
The passage that many will find most readily on the subject is John 9:31, in which it is declared: “Now we know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does His will, He hears him.” (NKJV)
The speaker being quoted in the above verse was a man who had been healed of blindness by Jesus and was defending the Lord as being a godly man by reason of the evidence of the miracle. The blind man, though not a man inspired of God, was nevertheless arguing from a standpoint of authority – that authority being the Scriptures he had no doubt heard many times from childhood on. He was making a point that he thought to be irrefutable, from a scriptural standpoint. His listeners must have also thought it irrefutable, because instead of making a cogent argument against it, they instead kicked him out of the synagogue (cf. John 9:30-34).
Perhaps the Old Testament passage the blind man had in mind was Isaiah 59:1-2, in which the prophet was given the following message by God: “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; nor His ear heavy, that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear.” (NKJV)
The passage speaks directly to the question of God hearing sinners and informs us that while God is capable of hearing sinners, He sometimes makes a conscious choice not to listen to their prayers. Their sins are of such offense to Him that the sinner is spiritually separated from God, and God does not want to hear their prayers.
There are other passages which say much the same. In Isaiah 1, God makes clear He does not desire the worship of sinful men (cf. Isaiah 1:11-20), even stating, “Even though you make many prayers, I will not hear.” (Isaiah 1:15; NKJV) The prophet Micah speaks of a people judged for their sins, writing, “they will cry to the Lord, But He will not hear them; He will even hide His face from them at that time, because they have been evil in their deeds.” (Micah 3:4; NKJV)
There are many other passages which echo the thought of the Psalmist who wrote, “The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their cry. The face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” (Psalm 32:15-16a; NKJV) So true is this principle, that God even went so far at one point to tell Jeremiah that He, the Lord, would not even hear prayers made on behalf of certain sinful people. (cf. Jeremiah 7:16, 11:14).
Clearly sin can affect prayer and the effectiveness of our prayers to God. Which is why the Christian is counseled in the Bible to pray from the vantage of a clean heart and clean hands (cf. 1 Timothy 2:8). Christian couples are even reminded that they need to live in harmony with their spouses so as to not hinder their prayer life (cf. 1 Peter 3:7).
Now, there is a caveat to this principle, and it is one we should bear in mind. When a sinner humbles themselves, and turns to God penitently, God is more likely to accept that prayer, as He did the prayer of Cornelius (cf. Acts 10). But God is under no obligation to hear our prayers. The Bible teaches that the effectual, fervent prayer of a righteous man is very powerful. If you wish to have a powerful prayer life, then the first step is to get your soul right with God.
If you would like to learn more about how to get right with God, and develop a spiritual relationship with Him that insures a good prayer life, the church of Christ invites you to worship and study with us at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, Ohio. Likewise if you have questions you would like answered, contact us at chapelhillchurchofchrist.org.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ.