This is not a question which can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” The terms need to be defined before answering.
What is meant by “hear”? The word “hear” can mean “to hear a sound without understanding” (e.g. Acts 9:7), or it can mean “to hear with understanding” (e.g. Acts 22:9). It can mean “to hear with understanding whether favorably or unfavorably received” (e.g. Acts 17:32), or it can mean “to hear favorably or receptively” (e.g. Matthew 18:15; 1 Timothy 4:16).
God certainly hears with understanding all that men say. Consider: 1) Job 42:7, “The LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “My wrath is aroused against you and your two friends, for you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has.” God knew what they had said. 2) Psalm 139:4, “There is not a word on my tongue, but behold, O LORD, You know it altogether.” 3) Matthew 12:36-37, “Every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” 4) James 2:12, “So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty.”
Therefore, let us clarify the issue. The issue is – does God favorably receive the prayers of sinners? Do sinners have a welcomed audience before His throne? Are they favorably received?
What is meant by “sinners”? Some may mean “those who sin, or have sinned” (e.g. Luke 18:13-14). However, the term “sinner(s)” is frequently used in the Bible in contrast with the righteous (e.g. Psalm 1:5; Proverbs 11:31; Matthew 9:13; Luke 5:32; 15:7), and in contrast with those who are sons of God (Luke 6:32-36).
It must be clarified that the term “sinners” is being used in the second sense. If not, who could pray (Romans 3:23)?
1. The Bible is clear that the unrepentant sinner will not be heard (Psalm 34:15-16; 66:18; Proverbs 15:8; 15:29; Isaiah 1:15-17; 59:12; John 9:37; 1 Peter 3:12). Do not pursue a life of sin and rebellion before God, and then think that you can petition Him in prayer. A child of God needs to repent and pray for forgiveness when he sins (Proverbs 28:13; Acts 8:22; James 5:16). Such is the only kind of prayer which should be given. One will not have a successful prayer life so long as he refuses to repent and confess his sins to God.
2. The Bible warns the Christian that a bad home life will hinder prayers before God (1 Peter 3:7). A good home life is not just about tranquility in the home. It is about maintaining a good relationship with God.
3. The Bible teaches that it is the prayer of the righteous which avails much (James 5:16). Man today can be counted righteous only in Christ (Philippians 3:8-9). The alien sinner is never instructed to pray for salvation. There is no example of “the sinner’s prayer” in all of the New Testament. The alien sinner’s pray for salvation will not be heard. One must believe, repent, confess and be baptized to be saved (Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:47; Acts 2:38; Acts 8:36-37).
Is God receptive to any prayer offered by the alien sinner? Wayne Jackson speculated, “If an alien sinner sincerely seeking to know and do the will of God, and praying that somehow he might come in contact with the truth so that he could ascertain the Lord’s will relative to being saved, it is surely possible that God, consistent with His providential means, could work matters out where the individual would be exposed to the preaching of the Gospel” (A Question From A Reader, Christian Courier, Dec. 1981). Perhaps so (cf. John 7:17; Acts 10:1-6). However, the fact remains that prayer alone will not save the alien sinner.
What about Cornelius? Didn’t God receive his prayers before he became a Christian? Yes, he did (Acts 10:3-4; 30-31). I believe that Cornelius lived in a transitional time. Michael Hatcher has written, “The application of what Jesus did was not seen for the Gentiles until Cornelius (Acts 10). During that time (between Christ’s death and Cornelius), if a person was faithful to the Law of God given through the fathers (Patriarchal Law), then he would have been in a right relationship with God and thus have a right to pray… Now the Law of Christ was coming into effect for the Gentiles he needed to hear the word of Christ and obey it…” (2000 Bellview Lectureship, p. 303-318, quoted in Apologetics Press article, Does God Hear and Respond to the Prayers of Alien Sinners?)
4. The Bible teaches that God cares about one’s attitude (Psalm 51:17; Luke 18:10-14), motive (Matthew 6:5), and genuineness (Matthew 6:7) in prayer. He is not impressed with self-righteousness. He does not want a performance for men. He does not want vainly repeated words.
May we, at the Youngsport church of Christ, truly be a people of prayer. Let us offer the kind of prayer that ascends like incense before Him (Psalm 141:2).