September 23, 2007 Q & A

Prayers of Unbelievers


Does God answer prayers of an unbeliever? I was in group of unbelievers and believers and one said he was sick and some unbelievers said they would pray for him. I said that's good, but prayers of unbelievers do no good. Was I right and if there are any verses to back this up? All I could find was Isaiah 1:15 where they talk about the wickedness of Judah.


Good question, because it goes to the heart of understanding who we are as sinners before the holy God our Creator and Judge and the absolute necessity of the saving work of Jesus Christ for us.

Twenty-some years ago President Jimmy Carter, an evangelical Christian, got himself in trouble when a reporter asked him if God hears the prayers of Jews. He answered (I have to paraphrase, I don't recall his exact words) that God hears the prayers of those who come to him through Jesus Christ. This created a public furor. President Carter then took back what he had said and said something like God hears the prayers of all sincere people, whatever their affiliation, or something like that. He was right the first time.

You're right, Isaiah 1:15 is about God's not hearing wicked Israelites when they pray. But later in the chapter (vv. 16-20) he calls them to repent and in Isaiah 55:6,7, promises to hear and forgive when they do turn back to him in repentance (see Luke 18:9-14). You could add to Isaiah 1:15, Proverbs 28:9, "He who turns away his ear from listening to the Law, even his prayer is an abomination" (see also Prov. 15:8, 21:27).

Psalm 24:3 asks the question: "Who is permitted to come into God's holy presence?" The answer given in vs. 4 is "He who has clean hands and a pure heart ..." That cuts us all out. With just one exception, no son or daughter of Adam has ever had (in himself, of himself) clean hands (free from committed sins) and a pure heart (sinlessly loving and delighting in God). "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). All, that is, with one exception, and that one exception is the Son of God who came from heaven to redeem sinners. Jesus was telling it straight when he said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me" (John 14:6).

Those who reject the living God to worship false gods of their own making and those who profess some kind of faith in Christ but are actually unbelieving and hypocritical (Isaiah 29:13) should not delude themselves into thinking their worship or prayers are received and accepted by God. Those sinners who humble themselves before the Lord, confessing their sin and their total dependence on his grace in Jesus Christ, may be sure that he does hear their prayers—for Jesus' sake and because of his merits and atoning work. He is our great high priest, interceding for us at the Father's right hand (Hebrews 7:25, 10:19-22, 4:14-16).

Even then, not all that we ask in prayer may be done for us just as we ask. Even our Savior in the garden, praying in perfect and sinless devotion to his Father, submitted himself to his Father's will: "not my will, but yours be done."

So your saying "prayers of unbelievers do no good" is right. It is also very offensive to people to be told that. It runs absolutely counter to so much thinking in the world. The devil loves "religion." He wants people to think that being "spiritual" and praying, and such, they are good in themselves. He wants people to think that because they meditate or pray or go to religious services they are on the right side with God and do not need to fear the Day of Judgment and the wrath of God, but that person is a liar who uses religious activities to delude people and to keep them from seeing their need of Jesus Christ.

We need, however, to have the right attitude when we correct people in this area. When God gives you the opportunity to set someone straight on this, do it kindly and humbly ("I'm not saying this because I think I'm better than you. I know I'm a sinner, and the only way I can go to God is through his Son Jesus and what he did for me").

Hope this helps.



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