Many in the religious world believe in the “sinner’s prayer.” This is the “prayer” which you would hear, say, at the end of a Billy Graham crusade, or in various denominational churches around the country, in which the sinner is encouraged to come to Christ and “invite Jesus” into his life and thus be saved by prayer. Going even further, there are some who believe that God hears and answers the sundry prayers of those who have never even obeyed the gospel, who are not Christians. But what does the Bible says about this issue?
The first point that needs to be made is that there is a difference between the alien sinner and the child of God. Addressing the situation of the Gentiles under the Old Covenant, Paul said that “at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). While the alien sinner is now amenable to the New Covenant, as all men are because it is universal (e.g., Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15,16), because he has not submitted himself to God’s covenant, he does not enjoy the benefits of that covenant.
When Jesus said, for instance, “Come unto Me all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28), He was saying that those who do not come to Him cannot have rest from their sins. There is a difference, therefore, between the one who has come to Him and the one who has not. In fact, all spiritual blessings are in Christ (Eph. 1:3). There are no spiritual blessings that are not found in Christ.
Prayer, however, is a spiritual blessing. It is the prayers of the saints which John says rises as an odor of spiritual incense in the nostrils of God (Rev. 5:8; 8:3,4). It is the prayer of a righteous man that avails much (James 5:16). Because prayer is a spiritual blessing, and all spiritual blessings are found only in Christ, prayer is only effectual to the one in Christ. The alien sinner’s prayer is no more effectual than the alien sinner’s Lord’s Supper.
Furthermore, there are various passages which state explicitly that God does not hear the alien sinner’s prayer.
- John 9:31 – Now we know that God heareth not sinners: but if any man be a worshipper of God, and doeth His will, him He heareth.
- I Peter 3:12 – For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and His ears are open unto their prayers: but the face of the Lord is against them that do evil.
- Isaiah 59:1,2 – Behold, the LORD’S hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither His ear heavy, that it cannot hear: But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you, that He will not hear.
- Proverbs 28:9 – He that turneth away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer shall be abomination.
- Proverbs 15:29 – The LORD is far from the wicked: but He heareth the prayer of the righteous.
These passages are indeed clear. However, because God is omniscient (I John 3:20; Job 37:16), He actually knows what the alien sinner is praying. Therefore, the question, Does God hear the alien sinner’s prayer, is not simply a question of God literally hearing and knowing what the alien sinner is praying, but does God hear with the intent of answering those prayers. Clearly, according to scripture, God does not listen to, with a view to answering, the alien sinner’s petitions to God.
Sometimes, Cornelius is offered as an example of an alien sinner whom God heard. Cornelius was neither a Christian nor Jew. Yet Acts 10:31 says, “Cornelius, thy prayer is heard.” How can this be reconciled with the previous passages and the thrust of the argument presented in this article? Here are two possible answers to this.
First, while it is said that God heard Cornelius’ prayer, his prayers were heard as a memorial that came before God. Notice verse 4: “Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God.” It is not that God had heard and answered the specific prayers Cornelius prayed, but that God acknowledged that Cornelius was praying and that he was a good man. This is in perfect harmony with the view that God knows all things and would know Cornelius’ prayers.
We don’t know all that for which he was praying. Did Cornelius think he was doing right? The fact that he was giving alms and praying to God presupposes he was doing what he thought was acceptable to God. Like others who believe that they are acceptable to God, he very likely was praying for quite a lot of things, good health, wisdom, temperance, patience, etc. But did God answer those specific prayers? The implication surely is that when the angel first appeared to Cornelius, that this was the initial response to Cornelius’s actions, both prayers and alms. If God hears with a view to answering the alien sinner’s prayers, then God would have been answering at least some of his prayers all along. But Acts 10 suggests this is not the case.
The word used for “hear” in Acts 10:31 is defined by W. E. Vine as “‘to listen to’ (eis, to, and No. 1), has two meanings, (a) ‘to hear and to obey,’ 1 Cor. 14:21, ‘they will not hear’; (b) ‘to hear so as to answer,’ of God’s answer to prayer, Matt. 6:7; Luke 1:13; Acts 10:31; Heb. 5:7.” The basic idea of the word is “to listen to.” Vine says that this word when used in Acts 10:31 means “to hear so as to answer.”
Because God is omniscient, He knew Cornelius was a devout man seeking Him. Because of this, God responded to his prayers and his deeds by sending an angel to instruct him to send for Peter who would give him the information needed to obey Him (Acts 10:6). Cornelius’ case was unique in that he was the first Gentile convert to Christ who was not first proselytized to Judaism. Even in this, God heard his payers as a memorial, and did not specifically answer his petitions.
A second answer to this question of Cornelius’ prayer was offered by Guy N. Woods. Brother Woods suggested that Cornelius was still under the law of patriarchy and that is why his prayers were heard. Under this view, he was not an alien, but an obedient child of God living under the final moments of the Patriarchal Law.
Brother Woods wrote:
“That the devout officer was worshipping God under the system of patriarchy is the only conclusion harmonizing the difficulties of the case. It is, to this, no valid objection that, after the angel’s visit, Cornelius was to hear words whereby he and his house were to “be saved” ; at the moment the angel appeared to him he became accountable to God under this, the Christian dispensation; prior to the visit of the angel he was answerable only under the system which alone was available. Nor, can it be affirmed, from these premises, that on the foregoing assumption, all men, who have not heard the gospel today ought to be regarded as in his category. No one lives in his category; the gospel had never been extended to embrace the Gentiles prior to the events of Acts 10. It follows, therefore, that the condition of the Gentiles, from Pentecost to the house of Cornelius was legally that which characterized the Jews from the cross to Pentecost. When one law supersedes another, the effects of the superseded law carry over to the point where the newer law becomes effective” (Questions and Answers Open Forum Freed-Hardeman College Lectures, 1976).
Either one of these two possibilities answer the question regarding Cornelius’ prayers. Whatever may be the answer, the correct answer will not contradict the clear teaching in both the Old and New Testaments that God does not hear, with a view to answering, the alien sinner’s prayers.
Eric L. Padgett