Does God Hear a Sinner’s Prayer?
In Acts 10, Luke records for us the conversion of Cornelius. As the angel of God tells him to send for the apostle Peter, when the apostle arrives at his house in Caesarea, this unbaptized sinner says,
Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and, behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing, and said, Cornelius, thy prayer is heard, and thine alms are had in remembrance in the sight of God. (Acts 10:30-31, emp. SW)
Does God hear a sinner’s prayer? Well, He did in the case of Cornelius. Yet, there are other passages that seem to lean in the other direction (cf. John 9:31; 1 Pet. 3:12). Therefore, let us notice some things that we need to keep in mind as we study the question, “Does God hear a sinner’s prayer?”
First, many words have more than one connotation. As we examine the beauty of words, we see that the same word can take on different connotations based upon its usage (i.e., bat). For example, consider the biblical word “works.” Does God save sinners by works? No, if we use the word “works” to mean deeds of merit, as Paul used it in Ephesians 2:9. Yes, if we use the word “works” to mean acts of obedience as James used it in James 2:24. Thus, the word “hear” has more than one connotation. It signifies the perception of sound by the ear. In this sense, God hears us even if we curse, lie or blaspheme. In this sense, God hears the prayers of the wicked, or how else could Proverbs 28:9 be true: “He that turneth away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer shall be abomination.” It also signifies the act of listening attentively. A parent asks a child, “Do you hear what I am saying to you?” Moreover, it signifies the act of listening with favor and consideration: “Hear me when I call, O God of my righteousness…” (Ps. 4:1).
Not only that, but also the word “sinner” has more than one connotation. While the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language gives only three words in defining the word “sinner” (one who sins), I hardly think that it is adequate, for that would mean that God never hears any prayers. Christians commit sin, but I hesitate to call them sinners. I sometimes drive nails, but that does not make me a carpenter; I may replace a faucet washer or a light fixture, but that does not make me a plumber or an electrician. In other words, I do sin, but that does not make me a sinner in the sense that John 9:31 uses the word. Paul penned, “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8, emp. SW). This implies clearly that we are no longer sinners. There are God-fearing sinners–ones who are seeking to do the will of God, but who have not had the opportunity to hear the gospel taught in its purity and simplicity. Cornelius was in this category (cf. Acts 10:1-2), as was Saul of Tarsus (cf. Acts 9:6-11; 23:1). A person who is prejudiced and will not listen to the truth, no matter how devoutly religious he might be, does not fit into this category. Cornelius and Saul were seeking the truth, and they obeyed it when they respectfully heard it. On the other hand, there are wicked sinners (cf. Prov. 28:9)—people who turn their ear from the word of God, although they might be devoutly religious people (cf. Matt. 13:15). These are those who are immoral (1 Pet. 3:12). Wicked people often pray when they get into trouble, but their prayer is an abomination to God (Prov. 28:9), which means that their prayers are detestable or loathsome to God. Thus, there are people who once were Christians, having obeyed the gospel of Christ, but who have turned back to the beggarly elements of the world (cf. Gal. 4:9). These are in a worse condition than if they had never known the way of righteousness (2 Pet. 2:20-22). Certainly, the prayer of such a person is abomination, but if such an individual will genuinely repent, confess his sins and pray for forgiveness, then God will pardon him (1 John 1:9). John is not talking about the alienated sinner, but one who became a Christian by obeying the gospel and became unfaithful later.
Second, God never saves alienated sinners directly in answer to prayer. The prayers of Cornelius played a part in his eventual learning the truth and obeying the gospel for salvation, but God did not directly give salvation in answer to his prayer. The prayers of Saul played a part in his eventual learning the truth and obeying the gospel for salvation, but God did not directly give salvation in answer to his prayer.
Third, what are alienated sinners to do in order to receive salvation? They are to do what Cornelius and Saul of Tarsus did. They are to do the very same things that the people on Pentecost did in Acts 2, the Samaritans and the Ethiopian nobleman did in Acts 8, Lydia and the Philippian jailor did in Acts 16, the Corinthians did in Acts 18 and the twelve men at Ephesus did in Acts 19. All of these heard the gospel of Christ, believed it, repented, confessed Christ and were baptized for the remission of their sins.
In conclusion, if we want God to hear our prayers, then we must be willing to obey His will!