philosophy pray

Does God Hear Sinners?


This is one of those questions that, at first blush, have an easy answer. Some folk might automatically say, “Yes, surely God hears sinners. God loves his children!” Others might respond “Of course not: God is holy!”

The question “Does God hear sinners” is actually very complex not because of the terms (we’ll look at that in a second), or hidden assumptions in the question, but because of the unknown baggage carried in by the questioner.  Who knows what’s the theological ideas behind it and, nowadays, theological common ground can’t be assumed.

All that being the case, I want to look at the large network of ideas that undergird this issue by addressing it in at least three levels: philosophically, Biblically, and theologically.

The Philosophical Answer

Take a look at the question for a second.

“Does,” means that the question (might) deal with ability to perform a certain action. “God” refers to the maximally greatest being defined (for the sake of my argument) in the Christian Scriptures. “Hear” (usually—more of that in a second) refers to the ability to listen. And “sinners” refers to a category of people who sin (whatever that means—leave it aside for now).

Scripture describes God as Spirit (John 4:24), which means that God doesn’t have a physical form (John 1:8) and thus no physical members like eyes, hands, or ears.  Quite literally, that means that God isn’t standing around receiving sound waves against eardrums.

In that sense, God can’t hear anyone—sinners included.

But Scripture often speaks of God with ears (Psalm 34:15; 1Peter 3:12; 2 Chronicles 6:20; Psalm 10:17; Psalm 18:6) and eyes (Psalm 33:13; Heb 4:13)—definitely not in the sense of God having actual physical eyes and ears. Getting a bit theological, in these passages it underscores the idea of God paying attention and knowing things.

This might fall under the doctrine of God’s omniscience and omnipresence: God knows all things and everywhere is equally accessible to Him.

If that is the case, an equally possible philosophical answer is that Yes, God does “hear” sinners because he “hears” all things.

But, what if the problem is about the nature of sin and the nature of God? The Bible says that God is thrice holy (Rev 4:8), that he dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim 6:16), and there is no variation in him (James 1:17)—no darkness at all (1 John 1:5).

Maybe there’s something about the nature of sin that is so antithetical to the nature of God that he lacks the ability of knowing or dealing with anything that comes from that corner.

Unfortunately, that sounds like a serious shortcoming.

God would lack the ability to know when evil is occurring, or if someone is actually planning something wicked, or if someone tells him they’re planning to do something wicked.  That seems to fly in the face of being omniscient.

It only gets worse when Paul says that all have sinned (Rom 3:23). If the above is right, God wouldn’t be able to hear anyone.

Philosophical Conclusion: I think this starts to expose the actual issues. The question is not really about God lacking some ability. Rather, it’s about God’s relationship with sin, prayer, confession, repentance, and God’s willingness to address the requests of those who sin.

That winds up a theological answer but we can’t get there without first dealing with various texts.

A Biblical Examination

Before even getting to the verses that actually deal with the question, I want to underscore the depth of the situation.  Mind you, none of this section will be exhaustive since all of this deals with the breadth of Scripture.

God is holy. The only aspect of God that is clumped in a pattern of three is his holiness (Isaiah 6:3; Rev 4:8). That’s not to emphasize the number, but to underscore that when the Scriptures wants to underscore this aspect of God, it dovetails back into the word itself: God is holy, holy, holy.

Yes God is love. Yes God is good. But his holiness is this characteristic that shoots right through the others.  It’s why he’s not only good; he’s the ultimate good. It’s why his love is hot and unhindered.

It’s why Scripture can say that every good gift is from God above (James 1:17).  It’s why every single thing that happens depends on his approval lest they get wiped out. The buck stops with him because he’s right enough to handle it.

Holy has a range of meaning but we get an idea of what it’s getting at when dealing with God by looking at how its used. The ground where the bush burn, where God is, is labeled as holy (Exo. 3:5) and Moses has to act a certain way. The temple is called holy (Is 64:10), as are offerings to the Lord (1 Sam 21:5-7), and places where he resides (Josh 5:15).  God demands to be treated as holy (Lev 10:3) so people offer the sacrifices and worship God alone (Deut 6:4).

There is no evil in him (Psalm 5:4), no darkness, no variance (James 1:17; 1 John 1:5). God’s holiness results in awe (Isa 6) since he is impossible to be compared (Is 40:25)—he is to be hallowed (Matt 6:9).

Clean. Set apart. Other. Different. Perfect. Righteous.

It’s why God gives law (Exodus 20).  It’s why God must be treated as other. It’s why God loves righteousness (Psalm 11:7; (35:5; 37:28; 99:4). It’s why entering into a relationship with God means becoming like him (Lev 19:2; 1 Pet 1:14-16). It’s why God can also be seen as the only just God (Deut 32:4). It’s why God, ultimately hates the abominable (Jer 44:4; Heb 1:13) and must stamp it out (Isaiah 13:11) because, at the end of the day, he is the Holy God.

Sin is abominable. A program for teaching the gospel to children defines sin in this way: anything we do, anything we say, and anything we think that stands against God. That’s a good summary since the Bible is fraught with the drama of the disaster of sin.  Grudem defines it as any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature.

From the initial disobedience against God’s rule (Gen 3) to the thing that is waiting to take control of a person and destroy everything in the way (Gen 4); from the lie trying to save ones own life (Gen 12:10-16) to the abject rebellion that embraces a culture of violence (Gen 6), rebellion (Gen 11), and outright reveling in wrongdoing (Gen 19).

God finds it abhorrent, poisoning even that which he requires, resulting in him hating those things (Isaiah 1:10-14)! It is the strutting with vileness (Isaiah 7:8), a weight (Psalm 38:4), experientially knowing evil (Gen 2-3), putrefying infection (Isaiah 1:6), impurity that defiles (Titus 1:15; 2 Corinthians 7:1), darkness (1 John 1:6), a tilting of the heart away from God (Gen 6:5; 8:21), and ultimately what damns humanity (Rom 3:9-20) and the creation he was made ruler over (Rom 8:18-20). It is corruption (Rom 8:21) that results in death (Rom 6:23) and whose power is in being antithetical to God by taking advantage of frailty (1 Cor. 15:55).

Sin is so wrong that God spends an entire book (Leviticus) explaining how sacrifices must be offered so that he can remain in the midst of the people.

Don’t be confused. This isn’t merely some dimness that has made getting around harder. Neither is it some magic junk that sticks to our D.N.A. Nor is this some sort of energy that we tap into that makes us do evil things.

We all, as former family, are in broken fellowship from God and thus in abject rebellion against him.  Keep this as the backdrop for everything that follows.

First, the textual evidence for God hearing sinners. God hears the grumblings of the people (Exodus 16:6,8) and notes their rebellion. God he hears the requests of sinners and responds fulfilling their request to their detriment (Num. 11:31-33; Num 14:26-29). God hears the evil prophet Balaam and forces him to prophesy against his intent (Num. 23-24).  Indeed, the Psalmist makes an imprecatory request that God takes the wicked person’s plea for leniency as sin for judgment (Psalm 109:7) and in Proverbs 15:8 we see that God sees their sacrifice as an abomination especially if they have a wicked intent to the offering (Prov 21:27). Not only does God hear sinners’ prayers; he sometimes takes their prayers as judgment against them!

Second, the textual evidence for God refusing to hear sinners. God hears the requests of sinners and ignores them (Job.27:9; 35:13). God hears them and refuses to listen (Job. 27:9; 35:13; Psalm 18:41). If the Psalmist cherished sin in his heart, God, he says, wouldn’t have listened (Psalm 66:18). If the wicked refuse to listen to God, God in turn refuses to listen to them—and then subsequently laughs at their calamity (Prov 1:22-32).  God goes out of his way to hide his face when the wicked pray (Isaiah 1:15; Lam 3:8; Mic 3:4) and will not answer them so that they can perform miracles (John 9:30-33). Indeed, Isaiah 59 underscores just how bad it is to be a sinner before God: he refuses to hear, he hides his face, he removes justice, and truth is denied. In this case it seems that not only does God know and hear when they pray, he actively refuses to acknowledge them.

Third, the textual evidence for God hearing the righteous. Unlike the sinner, the godly man is heard by the Lord (Psalm 4:2; 1 Pet 3:12). He cries out and he’s heard by the Lord—not merely in hearing the request but in getting a response (Psalm 34:17; 116:1 Prov. 15:29). The requests of a righteous man are addressed and effective (Gen 17:20; James 5:16). We even have the example of a broken Samson calling out to God (Judges 15:18–20) and the list can go on. The evidence seems to support that unlike sinners, God is active in hearing and responding to the requests of the righteous.

Fourth, God hears the needy (Psalm 69:33), the sorrowful (Isa 30:19), those who are groaning (Exo. 2:24)—even though these same people eventually keel over in the wilderness as abject sinners (Heb 3:17). God hears the young even when he knows how they’ll grow up to rebel (Gen 21:17; Jonah 4:11).

Indeed, in going back to the earlier passage of all the evil of the people and the words where God hides his face from them (Isaiah 59:1-4) God responds (Isaiah 59:16-20) and promises that His Spirit will never leave these wicked people who are his covenant community (Isaiah 59:21). He responds to them, not how they want but how they need.  Indeed, the Psalms are full of a request that God does right by addressing the imbalance in the world (Gen 18:25) and helping the needy (1 Sam 2:8; Psalm 113:7,8; Prov 14:31)—even if the needy are, by circumstance, the judged!

Fifth, the ultimate bad news: everyone is a sinner and no one is righteous. This is the worst part of this entire survey. The Biblical data is very clear. That although it makes a distinction between righteous and sinner, although some are labeled as righteous, it also draws a hefty conclusion that leaves us wondering how anyone is labeled “righteous” at all: all are sinners. Sacrifices aren’t enough to placate God, and there’s constantly a remembrance of sin within the sacrifices, so no one is every truly clean. All have sinned, all are damned by sin, no one is righteous, there is none that seeks after God, everyone has gone astray, all are sealed up under unrighteousness and deserve the wrath of God (Romans 3 gives this nutshell argument).

Sixth, the textual evidence of God NOT responding to the righteous. When they’re suffering and wondering about God’s silence, God doesn’t respond (Psalm 13, Hab 1:2; Zech 1:12; Rev 6:10).  When the righteous wonder about God’s timetable, he doesn’t seem to answer—not how we’d like anyway (Daniel 9-12; Acts 1). When the righteous ask in the wrong way, God doesn’t answer (James 4:3). When the righteous refuse to make petition relying on his will, God doesn’t answer (1 John 5:14, 15).  When the righteous prove to be unrighteous by being those who never forgive (Mark 11:25—in which case they were never really the righteous). When the husband doesn’t treat his wife properly, prayers are hindered (1 Peter 3:7).  When the righteous cherish sin in their heart, God wouldn’t listen (Psalm 66:18). When the righteous doubts that God can actually give wisdom then God doesn’t give it (James 1:5-7). And of course, God doesn’t hear when the righteous don’t ask (James 4:2).

Biblical Data conclusion: The Biblical data seems to be clear: God hears sinners, sometimes he answers them in their need, and other times he answers them in judgment—even with their specific requests. He never answers them on their authority, and definitely isn’t beholden to respond to their requests because he often outright ignores their petitions. On the other hand, he deigns to respond to the righteous and be attentive to their needs and requests—but not always. There are certain things that God doesn’t respond to and it seems to be sometimes correlated to sin and other times merely related to his own prerogative. Even so, the righteouses are, as it were, invited to make petition of him. The problem is that no one is righteous and everyone is a sinner. We’re all needy, as it were, but also in rebellion.

The Theological Answer

Taking all the information we have mentioned thus far, we can conclude several theological points.

In light of God’s Godness (all those attributes that shine forth as infinitely his like omniscience, omnipresence, Omni-benevolence, holiness, justice,  eternality, etc) we must see that God gets to act any way he wants. Surely in light of his character, but he has that prerogative. He doesn’t need to respond to any prayer request; he condescends and does so.

Scripture says that by Him, everything is held together (Col 1:17) and everything is held together by his powerful word (Heb 1:3). So God would have been completely in his right to wipe the whole lot of us out just by refusing to deal with us anymore.

Moreover, he has every right to judge and stamp out sinners. Romans 1 to 3 is all about how all of humanity is caught in the spotlight and stands under God’s righteous and holy indignation. God must deal with sin and will deal with it. Indeed, even as he waits, things happen that are the outpouring of his wrath. That isn’t necessarily storms or things like that.

This could be giving us sinners to exactly what we have asked for.

Thing is, God also stands behind every thing. As the one who decides if things should continue or come apart, he is the giver of gifts. He gives rain to both the just and the unjust (Matt 5:45)—and sometimes, right when sinners are asking for rain (or food, or justice), because he is God.

Yes he stands in wrath against sinners, but he cares for sinners by providing all good things, and even grace for their own situations. He gives sinners the blessing of marriage, and work, and morality. He allows sinners to continue as bearers of his image and he stands waiting for repentance (Rom 10:19-21) since he’s not willing that anyone should perish (2 Pet 3:8-10).

He doesn’t have to do this. Even though God reveals himself and provides good things, even in answer to requests, sinners refuse to give thanks (Romans 1:21) and those requests become a condemning witness.

It’s like climbing into God’s lap to spit in the face.

This being the case, God did the dramatic. He didn’t merely set aside who he is so as to answer prayers, nor did he sit there high and aloof and upset waiting for us to finally come to our senses.

He sent his son as a servant.

Oh we sinners did to him exactly what he knew we would. We want to put God’s light out so when God becomes flesh we finally get our chance to show what we really think of him. And yes, if we had fully known who he was we wouldn’t have done it out of fear (1 Cor 2:6-8), but he so perfectly represented God as a man that we hated him and pinned him to a tree as condemned.

This wasn’t unplanned. God knew we would do it and he did it anyway. He sent Jesus to his own people expecting the rejection.

And then, on the cross, Christ became sin for us sinners (1 Timothy 3:16 ; 2 Corinthians 5:21). Now that isn’t to say that he became the actual evil mentioned above, but it is to echo what Isaiah 53 says: he was hurt for our law breaking, he took our pain and suffering, the punishment that brings us peace fell on him.

He did this for all humanity but especially for the church 1 John 2:2. He addressed this need for humans before they asked (Rev 13:8) making it possible to pass over sins previously committed (Rom 3:25), empower an entire sacrificial system (Isa 1:11, cf Heb 9 and 10), and not wipe out the whole lot of us.

Therefore, whoever believes in him doesn’t come to him on their own righteousness. God takes this ridiculous thing of faith, this thing which isn’t something we do but a failing to do and relying on God to do what he said, and he credits it as something good.

It’s like God had to search around to find something to assign as a channel for our shortcoming and decided that the silliest thing, our weak trusting (we are idol producing machines that put our trust in anything), and electrified it so that he could give us everything that addresses our need.

It’s why Isaiah 59 depicts God as both ignoring sinners and coming to their fundamental rescue as savior. God loved this evil world in exactly this way: that he gave his son to die for us that whoever trusts, weak stupid thing, in Him would have unending life.

But not like the life we had before.

This is a life where God’s own righteousness is poured into us, where we become God’s righteousness, where we’re seated in heavenly places as co-rulers with Christ, where we are presented pure and holy, where we are new creatures, and where God—who took the initiative with this whole project—will complete it. Where sinners are now saints, where we who are far off are now near, where we are living stones of a temple for God and where he dwells within us, and where his own Spirit has been poured out into us so that we are constantly in a state of communion with him even when we don’t know it. Because we don’t even know what to ask for when we pray, we’re so weak. So God’s Spirit takes our prayers and translates them to what we really, fundamentally need.

The theological answer is the good news that God came to save sinners and make them his own family in a completely new relationship. This gets to what the word “fellowship” truly means: participation, united, community, and close bond.

Now, in this eternal union with God, sinners-who-are-saints come boldly into God’s own throne room (Heb 4:16), not on our own merit but on the authority of the one who gave himself for us.

Therefore, beyond hearing sinners asking for rain—be it to the Living God or the god on their mantelpiece—and mercifully responding; beyond hearing sinners ask for food and responding in judgment; beyond hearing sinners asking in their need and responding in mercy; beyond hearing sinners ask and turning their request into condemnation; beyond hearing sinners and ignoring them and laughing at their ruin: he makes it possible for sinners to now have unhindered access into his very presence so that he can listen to them and still respond as he sees fit, but this time, for their good.

This is freeing!

There is absolutely no broken fellowship between those who God has justified, sanctified, and glorified because fellowship is unity in communal relationship. We’re in a union with God that is on a vector of the union of Christ with the Father (John 17).

God hears these sinner-saints because they are declared, and becoming and will be, righteous.

This is huge. There is nothing, no nothing, which will separate us from this tight union with the living God. Neither death, nor life, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things on earth, nor things under the earth, nor things to come—nothing will separate us (Romans 8).

As the texts above showed, there are times that God doesn’t respond to the righteous. Sometimes it’s the way they ask him (on their own wants or doubting) or about his time-table (when the kingdom will be established, when suffering will end), and sometimes because we’re not getting along with our wives!

The Psalmist listed another reason that God wouldn’t hear him and it was if he was cherishing sin in his heart—but for these New Creatures, for us, that doesn’t seem to be an option.

The Old Testament believers could cry out to God “Don’t take your Holy Spirit from me!” (Psalm 51:11). They would find themselves like Samson, with God actually departing from them (Judges 16:20), and them not even knowing it. Or like King Saul, prophesying but never a believer.

The Sinner-Saint, on the other hand, is actually the living temple of God. God will never depart from them. He is forever indwelling them, transforming them, and conforming them into the image of Christ. God will always hear them and never depart from them (Matt 28:20).

This is why believers who cherish sin might still find that God hears, and may even continue responding to and blessing them, while God is actually being grieved (Eph 4:30). This is why you might find believers who are blessed with all types of earthly and spiritual riches and simultaneously infants in Christ (1 Cor 1:7 cf. 1 Cor 11). This is why sinner-saints are constantly encouraged to stop sinning (Eph 5:11) and to refuse to have fellowship with sin (2 Cor 6:14) and to walk in the light (1 John 1-2). And this is why, sometimes, God finally deals with the Sinner-Saint by promoting him to glory (1 John 5:16-17).

Even so, God right now is working within them completing the work that he started (Phi 1:6). This is why the Holy Spirit can actually pray for us addressing our deepest needs, even when we sinner-saints don’t know what to pray for. None of us would pray for persecution, but the Spirit might know that is exactly what we need.

Theological argument conclusion: Sinners stand condemned before God. Although God might respond to them, they make petitions with no authority. That being the case, God does what he wants with them: be it judge them, ignore them, or condescend in answer. God did an amazing thing by sending his Son, the only righteous one, to die in the place of sinners so that sinners would be made into the image of his Son. These sinner-saints can ask God for anything because they come in the authority of Christ. Now, as new creatures who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, they function in an eternal unbroken union with Christ whose prayers might be hindered for various reasons but that union is never, ever broken or slowed down.  God hears them and will never leave them.

Some Objections (though I imagine there will be others)

You didn’t mention this single verse that totally demolishes your point!

This topic, as I said, is huge because of the web of theological ideas that must function as a corrective and fail safe before properly answering. There are loads of passages that I didn’t address because it winds up being directly tied to Christ and the Gospel—the story line of the entire Scriptures.

1 John 1:6-7 explicitly says that if we sin we don’t have fellowship with God.

Actually, 1 John 1:6 says that if we are practitioners of evil, then we really have no fellowship-union with God and thus don’t practice truth. John is saying these folk are actually unbelievers. If we walk in the light, and sin, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins (1 John 1:9). In this light, we have fellowship with one another being cleansed from all sin (1 John 1:7) because of the blood of Jesus.

Hebrews 12 teaches that the righteous can break fellowship with God when they sin.

No, it teaches that God disciplines his children and that we know we’re loved when we suffer. The writer points out that they haven’t died (Heb. 12:4) but never forget that the believers are being treated as sons (Heb. 12:7). Indeed, he points out that the fact God doesn’t answer or deal with them would rather be a sign of being bastards—never children to begin with (Heb. 12:8).  Lastly, the suffering we go through isn’t a broken union but rather the pain done for our good (Heb. 12:10) as part of the body of Christ (Col 1).

If there is no broken fellowship between the righteous man and God when he sins, then why not keep sinning?

Because, as a person who is a new creation that doesn’t die, we must count ourselves dead to sin. We died and were buried with Christ and now we’re to live a new life (Romans 6:1-14) as those freed from sin. Therefore we are to count ourselves dead to sin, not because of the threat of a broken union but because our identity has been redefined.

So wait, since we’re in a new relationship, can’t we just keep sinning because we’re free?

Of course not. We’re slaves to someone, be it sin or The Sanctified one. We, the Sinner-Saints, have been set free from sin to become slaves of God. As a benefit we get holiness that culminates in eternal life. (Rom 6:15-22).

Does God hear sinners, answer yes or no: it seems like a pretty simple question.

It is not. The answer was dependent on a whole gamut of things. I didn’t even deal with the nature of the sacrificial system, the necessity of atonement, what propitiation means, the wrath of God, the coming judgment, and the eternal state which are also pertinent to this subject.

This all sounds pretty stupid. Of course God hears his children. You Christians are so close-minded.

The stuff I wrote here is essentially the Christian message that sinners couldn’t save themselves and God came close to save them. It’s an exclusive message. What’s silly is thinking that God would go through such great lengths if other ways were open.

You don’t have enough reference notes. Show your work.


Doesn’t sin hinder our effectiveness for Christ? Doesn’t that mean a break in fellowship with God so that he doesn’t hear our prayers?

Yes, sin hinders our effectiveness but that doesn’t mean a break in fellowship with God nor does it mean that God stops listening to our prayers that we pray with the Holy Spirit working and Christ interceding. We don’t pray to God on our own righteousness but on Christ’s righteousness, the imputed righteousness of God. We make requests on the authority of Christ Himself! We might not be effective in our endeavors since our testimony is ashes but that doesn’t mean we’re in a state of being broken off from God.

Romans 11 says that God might break us off when we’re proud over our situation.

Romans 11 is a bit more complex than that and I deal with that elsewhere.

I am a sinner: will God hear me if I ask him to convince me?

Indeed he might. He says he is not far from anyone. Right within reach. Ask him.

  • Carson, D. A. (1991). The Gospel according to John (374). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans.
  • Grogan, G. W. (1986). Isaiah. (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.)The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel.
  • Grudem, W. (1994) Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press
  • Kittel, G., Bromiley, G. W., & Friedrich, G. (Eds.). (1964–). Theological dictionary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  • Strong, A. H. (1907). Systematic theology (p. 371). Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society.
  • Watts, J. D. W. (1998). Isaiah 34–66 (Vol. 25, p. 282). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.
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