Can Non-Christians Pray?

Series: Question Box

by Rick Phillips July 29, 2001

Tonight I have two questions that I want to answer, starting with the ability of non-Christians to pray. The person who wrote heard from an evangelical preacher that God refuses to hear the prayer of any unregenerate sinners, with the exception of the so-called “sinner’s prayer”. “Is this really biblical,” he asks.

There is a plausible logic behind the claim that God does not hear the prayers of unbelievers, and it goes like this: since access to God in prayer is one of the privileges of our adoption and one of the benefits of Christ’s redemptive work, it must therefore be true that unbelievers do not have this privilege nor this benefit. As a general rule, I suppose that is reasonable enough, and yet the blanket statement that God does not hear the prayers of non-Christians is really without biblical warrant.

Certainly, we want to encourage people to come to God through faith in Christ, partly because of this privilege of prayer as a child of God. And yet, God’s interactions with sinful mankind are quite a bit more complex than that simple assertion allows. There are numerous examples in Scripture of God interacting with people who we should suppose are unregenerate. Nebuchadnezzar, the vile Babylonian king whom God caused to go insane, praised God quite convincingly and with sound doctrinal content after God restored him. Yet, those who therefore claim that he must have been saved go much farther than we have any biblical reason to go. Hebrews chapter 6, in a difficult passage, tells the story of people who had made false professions of faith, church members who later fell away and thus showed that they never had been saved. Yet its description nonetheless speaks of considerable spiritual experience. Though unsaved, they have, through their participation in the church, “tasted of the heavenly gift, shared in the Holy Spirit, and tasted of the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the age to come.” I don’t see why such people might not have had prayers answered by our gracious God, even though they turned out not to have ever been born again.

One category we hear little about today is that of common grace. God is good to all his creation. He is the God of every living creature. God may do all sorts of good to even his enemies, including answering their prayers, simply because it brings him glory. One thing that concerns me about the teaching that non-Christians cannot pray is the logical implication that we should not invite or encourage them to pray in times of need. It is true that a sinner’s greatest need is salvation through faith in Christ, and yet a non-Christian neighbor may receive terrible news of a sickness or the loss of a job, and we should invite them to take their cares in prayer to the only true God. How do we know that God is not leading them to himself, starting a relationship in this way that will lead to salvation.

As is often the case, I think there is a category mistake that explains this issue. The problem is not with God’s unwillingness to show mercy to unregenerate people, but rather that unregenerate people will not pray. Lack of regeneration is about the state of their souls, not about God’s willingness to show them grace. Every creature relates to God as Creator, and thus should pray to him. Christians have the inestimably greater privilege of speaking to him as sons and daughters, completely sure of his favor and of access through Christ. Non-Christians may have to pray as servants rather than as sons; they necessarily pray with great uneasiness and lack of assurance. But we should never discourage any truly spiritual act such as prayer, which is after all a form of worship and which God is worthy to receive.

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