All true believers are justified equally by the same righteousness of the same Mediator, Jesus Christ. But do all Christians pray with the same power or efficacy?
Is it possible for God to hear the prayers of various believers differently due to their godliness? Or, to put it a slightly different way, can our lack of godliness, or a specific sin in our life, hinder our prayers before God?
This is a subject that needs careful treatment. A quick yes or no to these questions may reveal a lack of sensitivity to what the Scriptures have to say about the prayers of God’s people. Let’s look at what God has to say.
Sin Can Hinder Our Prayers
While we cherish the truth that we are justified by faith alone, that our heavenly inheritance is as secure as those who are already with Christ, we cannot avoid the teaching that our sin can hinder our prayers. As we see in God’s word,
“If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Psalm 66:18).
“If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination” (Proverbs 28:9).
“Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear” (Isaiah 59:2).
“You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:3).
“Husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Peter 3:7).
Willful sin can create a sort of barrier between God and his people. We will always have indwelling sin until we die or until Christ returns. But the Bible has in mind a sort of willful pattern of sin whereby Christians can, for a time, cut themselves off from God’s ear until they repent of their sin.
Righteousness Gets God’s Ear
If sin can temporarily cause our prayers to be hindered, the opposite also seems to be the case. The “righteous person” in James 5:16 is not an unqualified reference to all Christians: “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”
Some Christians possess a peculiar efficacy in their prayers because they are peculiarly godly. Notice that James also exhorts Christians to confess their sins before he speaks of the type of Christian who offers powerful prayers. These godly saints have great faith and possess a gift for praying fervently and frequently. Not all Christians have the same gift for fervent prayer in the Spirit. If James did not mean that, he might simply say, “Pray for yourself.”
Christ Is the Righteous Man
Christ’s prayers were effective for several reasons. He prayed fervently and frequently, always in faith. But he also understood the will of God. Long before Christ, the prophet Elijah prayed for God to withhold the rain. Elijah did not request this because it seemed a good idea to him. Rather, he offered his petition based on what God had said in the Scriptures when he threatened various curses against his people, including drought (Deuteronomy 28:22, 24).
James mentions the exemplary prayer of Elijah to show that such a petition “has great power as it is working” (James 5:16). If Elijah remains such an example for us, how much more is Jesus in his earthly prayers?
In John 17, Jesus asked that God would fulfill his promises made to him as the Son. He was not presumptuous, as some of God’s people tend to be, but diligent in “reminding” his Father of his promises to Jesus and his people. This persistence did not stop after he offered up his High Priestly Prayer, but continues in heaven until all is accomplished.
Christ was promised the nations (Isaiah 49:1–12), so he asked for them (John 17:20). He was promised glory (Daniel 7:13–14), so he requested it (John 17:1–5). We have no reason to doubt that during his life on earth, Jesus asked for everything that was legitimately promised to him.
Lack of faith hindered the disciples from being able to cast out an unclean spirit from a boy (Mark 9:17–23). Christ, the man of truest prayer and truest faith, was able to do what the faithless disciples could not do. Along with the Spirit (Matthew 12:28), Christ’s own prayers and faith were responsible for casting out the demon. In other words, Christ did not expect one thing of the disciples and something different for himself.
In another place, we are told about Christ’s prayers and the reason he was heard: “he was heard because of his reverence” (Hebrews 5:7).
We may summarize Christ’s prayer life as godly fear by the God-man praying in the Spirit.
What Sort of Righteous Man?
James tells us that the righteous man’s prayer is powerful. Since all true believers possess the imputed righteousness of Christ, does James simply mean that the prayer of all Christians is powerful in its working? Are knowledge of God’s will and a practice of fervent prayer the only requirements for powerful prayer?
Consider the apostle John’s words: “Whatever we ask we receive from [God], because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him” (1 John 3:22). This verse makes clear that receiving from God is connected to obeying God.
So then, we indeed ought to desire the prayers of righteous people (Luke 1:6; 23:50). Ask for the prayers of those who do the will of God, not those who claim to belong to God but neglect to do his will (Matthew 7:21).
God listens to the godly, and he often answers their prayers. But as for those who do not do his will, the Scriptures could not be clearer that sin inhibits prayer. As Sinclair Ferguson writes, “In the realm of prayer, too, . . . faith without works is dead.”
So, we know that there are some whose prayers are hindered for reasons of sin, but those who pray diligently in faith and keep God’s commandments will have more effectual prayers. Satan trembles when he sees the weakest Christian on his knees — imagine when Christ bent down in prayer. Then let us strive for the holiness of Christ, the Spirit-given holiness which commended his prayers to God, making them powerful and effective in their working.