By Donald P. Ames
In John 9:31 we read, “Now we know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does His will, he hears him.” This passage has been frequently referred to by some to prove God will not hear the prayer of a non-Christian. (Possibly it was once so used in a debate against the “mourner’s bench” concept – I do not know.) But such is not the idea of this passage, and this we shall try to demonstrate in this study.
First of all, the Jews said, “We know.” They did not say “We think” or “in our opinion.” Now how did they “know” this? It had to come from God’s word (O.T.), so this ought to help us understand the basis for their statement and what they “knew.” Turning back to Proverbs 28:9 we read, “One who turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer shall be an abomination. ” This statement was made to the Jews regarding their own actions. Again, in Isaiah 1: 15 God told the Jews that “when you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood” (see also Psa. 34:15; 66:18). This served as the basis for what the Jews “knew” in John 9:31.
In these passages there is no parallel to the argument made by some today that John 9:31 proves God will not hear the prayer of a non-Christian. For that to be so, God would have had to tell the Jews (his people) that he would hear their prayers, but would refuse to hear the prayers of a Gentile. God did not state such, and in Jonah 3:7-10 we have a clear example where he heard such, which refutes any such argument from these passages in the O.T.
In each of the passages in the O.T., God did not hear the prayers offered by the Jews (his own people!) because of their sins and rebellion. The Gentiles are not even mentioned in these passages! It was based on this information that the Jews condemned Christ in John 9:31. Note the accusations: “He does not keep the sabbath” (9:16), “He is not from God” (9:16), “This man is a sinner” (9:24), he was not a disciple (follower) of Moses (9:28). He was also accused of being a deceiver (7:12), being a Samaritan, having a demon (8:48) and being guilty of blasphemy (10:33; 5:18). Thus, to them he was indeed a rebellious, disobedient “sinner” who could not possibly expect to be heard by God, per the plain statements in the O.T.
Now let us also note some other passages. In Acts 10:2 Cornelius was praying to God. His prayer came to God’s attention (10:4) and “has been heard” (10:31).
We do not know what Cornelius was praying for, but it was not for salvation, as he did not yet even know he was lost! Again in Acts 9:11, God told Ananias Paul “is praying.” He had been heard! This is not “mourner’s bench” salvation nor is salvation offered to a non-Christian on the basis of prayer. Yet the facts are very plain that both men, non-Christians, were praying and had been heard!
Some argue these two were “special cases.” Why? Is God a respector of persons (Rom. 2:11)? Or is it that they have assumed an argument (contrary to the O.T. basis and to the context of John 9:31) and this is the only way to escape the obvious statements found in Acts 9 and 10 that so plainly contradict their conclusions.
Note this fact also: the statement in John 9:31 was not based on the belief Jesus was a Gentile and hence had no access to God (as some try to argue about non-Christians). They knew he was a Jew (John 7:41). They accepted him therefore as a “child of God.” But though such, he was branded as a “sinner” – of such low character that God would not even be interested in the prayers of such a rebellious person – and they had the O. T. to prove it! Again, there is no way to fit this case to the argument God will not hear any prayer of a non-Christian.
The truth is that the “sinner” of John 9:31 is not at all talking about a non-Christian (or a Gentile), but of a “child of God” (as in the O.T.) who would not even listen to the law of God. He would not “worship” God or “do his will.” He had no right, such being the case, to expect God to listen to him. These conditions are necessary today even if a Christian expects to be heard by God (read 1 Jn. 3:22). This was the frame of mind of the “sinner” who went down justified in Luke 18:13-14. This same reverence and submissiveness was also apparent in the attitudes of the “sinners” who were heard in Acts 9 and 10.
The true parallel to John 9:31 is found in 1 Peter 3:7, where a Christian (a child of God – parallel to the Jews of the O.T.) is told if he doesn’t treat his wife right (as told by God), God will not hear his prayers (and Psa. 34 is quoted as evidence in 1 Pet. 3:12!).
Let us beware that we do not make false arguments to reply to false positions, and thus reach other false conclusions. Keeping the statement in John 9:31 in its proper context will make it much easier to understand correctly – and to apply properly.
Guardian of Truth XXXII: 20, p. 613
October 20, 1988