Does God hear the prayers of unbelievers?

My friend, Steve Kneale, says no.  You can read his reasoning here.  Why does it matter?  Well, it will affect our approach to church life, pastoral ministry and evangelism.  A lot of churches organise their meetings around the assumption that unbelievers will be there.  We invite them to stand and sing with us.  We organise Christmas carol services where we let people join in.  In family life, we teach our children to pray.  Now, if you are from a strict paedobaptist background, then you will have no problem at this point if you assume that the child’s baptism marks them out as in someway within the covenant.  If you are baptistic, then if you take Steve’s view then strictly speaking, you should insist to your children that they do not pray. You should tell them that their prayers are worthless and pointless.  Increasingly, in recent times, evangelism methods have even relied on getting people to “Try Praying” indeed, there is a specific campaign that has in effect branded this.

It even affects our public theology.  Did you notice what happened during the pandemic?  There were calls for national prayers of repentance, just as there were national days of prayer at times of crisis in the past.  Follow social media and as soon as there is a tragedy or atrocity somewhere and #PrayFor[place] will quickly trend.  Yet, if we do not believe that unbelievers can pray, then we should be honest about this. We should say #PrayerDoesNotWorkForYou.

In this article, I want to set out the argument for the other side, to help you make your mind up.  In order to do so, I want to clear the ground on two things.  First, Steve is making an important point.  If you do not go through Christ, if you are not in him, then Steve is right, you do not have right of access. You cannot presume upon God’s mercies.  You are not entitled to become disappointed when you don’t get the answer you want. When Jesus teaches about prayer and faith in a good Father, notice that his emphasis is on The Father, it is relational, it is a family thing.

Secondly, some of the examples used to disprove Steve’s point don’t work.  I’ve seen people mentioning Cornelius, he was a Gentile, who did not yet know Christ but he had his prayers answered for someone to come.  I don’t think this disproves Steve’s point because what we see there is the process of salvation at work.  The Holy Spirit is already at work in his life, convicting him Regeneration may be instantaneous but it may happen over a period of time.

However, I think that you will also find examples of unbelievers crying out to God in Scripture as well.  There’s the people of Nineveh in Jonah.  The evidence of history is that although they cry out and there is a form of repentance, it is not repentance that moves to covenant faith.  Therefore, they are not brought into God’s covenant family but they are rescued from immediate judgement.

There’s also I would suggest Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4, who interacts with God, in fact God speaks to him in a dream, in response he praises God.  I think we need to include the dreams and prophecies given to unbelievers as well as their prayers.  Access is both about coming to speak to God and to hear from him. 

In the New Testament, I think we do have a good example of unbelievers who benefit from answered payer.  It’s in Hebrews 6:4-6.

For it is impossible to bring back to repentance those who were once enlightened—those who have experienced the good things of heaven and shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the power of the age to come— and who then turn away from God. It is impossible to bring such people back to repentance; by rejecting the Son of God, they themselves are nailing him to the cross once again and holding him up to public shame.

Now, some people have read this to mean that a Christian can fall way permanently and lose their salvation.  However, that would go against clear statements elsewhere in Scripture that Christ will not lose any give to him.  Read on a bit and you learn a bit more:

Dear friends, even though we are talking this way, we really don’t believe it applies to you. We are confident that you are meant for better things, things that come with salvation. 

The writer insists that these things won’t happen to their audience and the reason is that they will benefit from salvation.  This suggests that those in v 4-6 are actually unbelievers who haven’t been saved. However, they benefit in some way from being in the church and even have some experience of the Holy Spirit’s work.  They have a taste of God’s goodness and power but they don’t eat the good food, they spit it out.

Over the years, so many times, I’ve seen people like that. They’ve engaged to a level where they benefit from the goodness that accompanies Christian faith without actually having that faith.  They even see prayers answered.  Yet, the still walk away.

Steve is right when it comes to the question of saving grace.  You cannot have access to God for salvation without believing.  However, I would suggest that we need to allow for another type of grace, common grace.  We see God’s providential care for all and that includes answers to prayers.

Now, this still leaves us some thinking to do.  Yes, it is possible for an unbeliever to have their prayers answered.  However, Hebrews 6 identifies risks with that.

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