Gentle Answers #3: Unbelieving Prayer?

Here’s the great question that came to us: “Is it legitimate for unbelievers to pray the Lord’s Prayer?”

Rut responds:

Dear Reader,

The Lord’s prayer, or any other prayer for that matter, is heard and answered by God the Father only when we come to Him through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ (John 14:6).  Prayer to the true and living God is one of the most precious privileges which Christ purchased for His people through His redemptive work (Hebrews 4:14-16).  Those without Christ exist in a state of condemnation; they have thus far refused to repent of their sin and to confess the risen Christ as Lord and Savior (John 3:18).  Thus, the most pertinent prayer for them is one which seeks salvation in Christ, not one which presupposes it, as does the Lord’s prayer.  Praise our merciful God, He hears and gladly answers the cry of all those who seek salvation through Christ! (Romans 10:8-13) Not only does He hear, answer and save the repentant sinner from his or her guilt and sin, He declares that sinner righteous in Christ (Romans 3:21-26).  Not only does He declare the sinner righteous in Christ, He actually adopts the repentant sinner as His child (Romans 8:15).  And it is as God’s children that we take upon our lips the prayer and the kind of prayer the Lord teaches His disciples.  Because of Christ’s work, they who trust in Him, and they alone, may address God as “Our Father.”

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Barry responds:

If by legitimate you mean acceptable to God, then, no, an unbeliever praying the Lord’s Prayer is not legitimate. Here are three simple reasons why.

First, only prayers of believers are acceptable to God.   “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, but the prayer of the upright is His delight” (Proverbs 15:8).  Only those prayers offered in the name of Christ, i.e. in His righteousness, are pleasing to God.  So no prayer of an unbeliever is acceptable.

Secondly, in the immediate context of instruction on the Lord’s Prayer, He warns His disciples not to pray like the Gentiles (Matthew 6:7-8).  Gentiles, or unbelievers, think God will listen to them for their piety displayed in their repetition.  But clearly Jesus teaches the Father is not impressed with their meaningless repetition and many words.  Usually unbelievers use the Lord’s Prayer in the very way (i.e. repetitive) that Jesus was instructing us not to pray.  This also serves as a warning to believers not to use it in this manner as well.  It is a pattern for godly praying, not a repeated formula for praying.

Finally, note the prayer starts with the address “Our Father.”  If one does not know God as Father, then that adds a whole new meaning to the idea of “legitimate.”  The unbeliever praying this prayer would be pretending to be a child of God when in fact he is illegitimate.  His most immediate need is not to pray the Lord’s Prayer, but to believe upon the One who gave it to us.

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Jared responds:

The word choice is interesting: if legitimate is defined as “lawful”, of course it’s legitimate. I know of no Biblical laws preventing anyone from praying the Lord’s Prayer. Related would be whether we would allow unbelievers to participate in our worship by singing Psalms to God.

But if we change “legitimate” to “effective”, the answer changes radically: no, it is not effective for unbelievers to pray the Lord’s Prayer.

First, I want to make clear that (1) God knows and hears everything and (2) has the right to affirmatively answer the prayers of unbelievers. However, in John 9:31, Jesus makes a strong point: We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him. This “listening” Jesus refers to is not the listening of knowledge (God hears every prayer!) but the the listening with grace. In other words, God is disposed against unbelievers and disposed toward believers.

So an unbeliever praying the Lord’s Prayer isn’t doing something inherently unlawful, but until they are joined to Jesus by faith, they also aren’t doing something effective. If you know an unbeliever who takes some comfort in repeating the Lord’s Prayer while never having God as his Father, encourage them to reject their superstition and seek to be able to pray the Prayer in truth!

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Please join the conversation in the comment section!

8 Comments

  1. Shawn June 12, 2012 at 2:32 pm #

    Great question, helpful responses.

    Another thought is that Jesus is teaching his disciples “how to pray” with the Lord’s Prayer as a model. ALL sinners ought to learn the Lord’s Prayer in that it is teaching them how to be reconciled to God through Jesus and to live the life that they were made for.

    While God only hears prayers made in faith, through Christ, here is the content by which they ought to be expressing their faith. Perhaps we should be leading converts through the Lord’s Prayer instead of the Sinner’s Prayer.

  2. Ron June 12, 2012 at 4:11 pm #

    Here is another question, perhaps for clarification. What about the cry of the unbeliever to God who recognizes his desparate situation, however, has no clear understanding of the Gospel of Christ? Must faith in Christ come first or can a cry to Almighty God for help (salvation) be the catalyst to faith and full salvation? Note this is not meant as a point of contention, but as a legitimate question raised for clarification)

    • Jared Olivetti June 13, 2012 at 8:57 am #

      Hi Ron,

      Thanks for writing in! Yes, I’d agree that a cry for help can be the beginning of true salvation. But in and of itself, a cry for help does not (cannot!) dispose God toward an unbeliever because his wrath still necessarily lies upon them without the interceding blood of Jesus.

      So, in practical terms: if we know an unbeliever who is praying regularly to God for help, we should rejoice that may be close to finding Jesus, and we should do everything we can to close the gap: show them how–if they really want God to hear them graciously–they need to repent and trust Christ for salvation.

      Jared

  3. sarmishtavenkatesh June 13, 2012 at 12:24 am #

    thanks for these well rounded and helpful answers -pastor Barry, Jared and Rut. What would be your answer if the praying person is an unbelieving yet baptized child? Since all of you are Presbyterians I’m sure this prayer is taught to the baptized children of your church. How do we reconcile Prov 15:8 with the sacrifice of a baptized yet an unbelieving, depraved child?

    • Jared Olivetti June 13, 2012 at 9:49 am #

      Hi Sarmishta,

      That’s a great question–it puts a very practical point on the question and the reference from Prov. 15:8 is very helpful for the whole conversation (The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD, but the prayer of the upright is acceptable to him.).

      As reformed/covenant Christians, we teach our children that they belong to God and therefore have a covenant responsibility to live in faith in Jesus. Therefore we teach them from the earliest age to trust Jesus and to sing and pray to God (including the Lord’s Prayer). We certainly don’t know infallibly the state of their hearts, but we operate with optimism (optimism granted by the covenant promises of God), and seek to lead them to faithfulness in the covenant. At some point if they prove themselves to be unregenerate (perhaps by overt statement or a long period of hardness toward God), we need to re-focus our parenting on evangelizing them as covenant-breakers. Perhaps that’s where Proverbs 15:8 would come into play, by encouraging them to not put their hope in outward shows of religion (like repeating the Lord’s Prayer or listening to sermons), but simply to turn to God in faith and repentance through Jesus.

      Having said that, let me add: I’m discouraged when I hear parents of young covenant children speak of them as unbelievers. How can a parent of a young child even know that their children are unbelievers? (The idea of a 5-year old praying “the sinner’s prayer” as a conversion event should be out of place in covenant churches.) Rather, let’s operate with covenant optimism, trusting God to bring our children to new life and while trusting Him for that, teaching them what it is to live faith in Jesus. And if God chooses to not bring them to new life (or to wait for a time), we accept that from His hand…but we shouldn’t assume that’s what’s going on until it becomes clear.

      I hope that helps. I recognize that some might disagree with what I’ve written here, but this is how our family and our session has worked out the principles of parenting covenant children.

      In Christ,
      Jared

      • sarmishtavenkatesh June 20, 2012 at 11:14 am #

        pastor Jared, that’s a very helpful reply. To clarify, I’m Presbyterian too, but the practical application of discipleship of covenant children and how we must view them is not very clear in some of our local churches. Your explanation on seeing them as “in the faith” till proven otherwise is also helpful, since most of us imagine that regeneration is a single, unique, “experience”, whereas many experience or rather, understand their regeneration as having happened over a period of time.

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