What Prayers Does God Answer?
Asking According to His Will
God never ignores his children. He is never too busy. Never lacking in resources. Never confused. Never ill-disposed. He is always attentive. Always gracious. Always eager. Always wise. Always loving. He hears every request from his humble, trusting children, and he answers with whatever is best. It always pays to pray. Always.
That does not mean a life of prayer is not perplexing. My aim is to encourage you in your prayers by answering three especially difficult questions: (1) What does it mean to ask God for things “according to his will” (1 John 5:14)? (2) Why are we not told to pray for the forgiveness of “sin that leads to death” (1 John 5:16)? (3) What does “whatever” mean in 1 John 3:22, when it says, “Whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him”? I think a text-based answer to each of these questions is a great encouragement to pray.
I focus on these three questions because, in trying to answer the first one, I realized that the context led to answers for the other two as well. Here is the text that raises, and answers, the first two questions:
This is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him. If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life — to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death. We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him. (1 John 5:14–18)
Two Wills in God
What does “according to his will” mean in verse 14? “If we ask anything according to his will he hears us.” There are two possible meanings for “God’s will” found in the Bible. On the one hand, God’s will is what he commands, or what he tells us is right to do. On the other hand, God’s will is whatever God decides will come to pass. We can call the first meaning God’s will of command. And the second we can call God’s will of decree.
“A single act might be God’s will in one sense, but not in another.”
For example, you can see God’s will of decree in Ephesians 1:11: “[God] works all things according to the counsel of his will.” Or in James 4:15: “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” In both of these texts, the will of God refers to God’s control over all that happens: “All things.” Staying alive and doing “this or that.” This is God’s will of decree. Everything that happens is God’s will in this sense. “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3; cf. Psalm 135:6).
On the other hand, you can see God’s will of command, for example, in 1 John 2:17: “Whoever does the will of God abides forever.” Or Mark 3:35: “Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” Or 1 Thessalonians 4:3: “This is the will of God, your sanctification.” We can see that “will of God,” in these verses, does not mean “all that happens.” It refers to what God commands as right for us to do.
The fact that there are two biblical ways to speak of “God’s will” means that a single act might be God’s will in one sense, but not in another. For example, it was clearly sinful and contrary to God’s will of command that innocent men would be crucified. God commanded, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). But men murdered Jesus, according to God’s plan of redemption. Isaiah 53:10 says, “It was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief.” And Acts 4:28 says that these murderers (Herod, Pilate, Gentiles, Jewish crowds) did “whatever [God’s] hand and [God’s] plan had predestined to take place.” So the killing of Jesus was God’s will in the sense of his will of decree, but not his will in the sense of his will of command.
Now, which of these is intended when John writes, “If we ask anything according to his will he hears us” (1 John 5:14)?
Do Born-Again People Sin?
The answer is found as we keep reading in verse 16:
If anyone sees his brother committing . . . sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life — to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that.
This concern with “sin that leads to death” and “sin not leading to death” is part of John’s larger concern in this letter. From beginning to end, John is concerned to guard against two opposite errors: (1) treating ongoing sin lightly and (2) despairing that if a believer sins he is lost. Both are errors.
“As God decrees that a straying saint repent and return, so he decrees the prayers that bring him back.”
Some of John’s community seem to think that you can continue sinning and still be born again. Others seem to think that, if you are born again, you don’t have any sin in your life. To the first group, John says, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning” (1 John 3:9). To the second group, he says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” (1 John 1:8). In other words, Christians sin, but Christians do not settle in with the practice of sin. Born-again people confess their sin as abhorrent (1 John 1:9), and make war on their temptations (Romans 8:13).
Sin That Leads to Death
So when we come to 1 John 5:16 and read about two kinds of sinning, we should not be surprised. One kind “leads to death.” And the other kind does “not lead to death.” John is not referring to a particular sin. What, then, is he referring to when he says, “there is sin [not a sin] that leads to death”?
Verse 18 gives the clue. Right after saying, “There is sin that leads to death” (v. 16) and “there is sin that does not lead to death” (v. 17), John says,
We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God [Jesus] protects him, and the evil one does not touch him. (1 John 5:18)
So the sinning that does not lead to death is the sinning of those who are “born of God,” but whose sinning is restrained by Jesus. Jesus protects and keeps his own. He restrains their sinning. He does not make them perfect in this life. But neither does he leave them to the power of sin. He protects them. And the evil one does not touch them in the sense of bringing them to ruin.
This implies, then, that “sin that leads to death” is the sinning of those who are not born of God. Their sinning is not restrained by Jesus. In fact, they are not true believers. They may be part of the church for a time, but they give way to patterns of sin and fall away. John describes them in 1 John 2:19:
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.
“Keep God’s word, do what pleases him, and ask.”
The reason I say they are not true believers is that John says, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God” (1 John 5:1). In other words, saving faith is a sign that one has been born of God, and we just saw in 5:18 that those who are born of God are kept by Jesus. He does not let them go on sinning — that is, he keeps them back from “sin that leads to death.”
So I am concluding from 1 John 5:18, and the wider context of 1 John, that “sin that leads to death” is not a particular sin, but a pattern of unrestrained sin that leads one away from Christ, and shows that one was never born again (1 John 2:19; 5:1, 18). It “leads to death,” therefore, in the sense that it leads to destruction. Final ruin. Hell.
‘I Do Not Say to Pray for That’
Now we are in a position to circle back and see how verse 16 (“There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that”) sheds light on the meaning of verse 14 (“If we ask anything according to his will he hears us”). Does verse 14 refer to God’s will of decree, or to his will of command?
To answer this, we should ask why John writes, “I do not say that one should pray for [the sin that leads to death].” The reason is that there is no point in it. The prayer would be for repentance and forgiveness and life (as in v. 16a). But John has made clear that this sinning leads to death. There will be no life. That’s the whole point of saying there is sin that leads to death. If one could pray successfully for life, the sin would not be sin that leads to death.
Now here’s the implication for the meaning of praying “according to [God’s] will.” It is clearly God’s will of command that we pray for sinners that they would repent and be saved. Paul said, “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved” (Romans 10:1) — including those who are “accursed and cut off from Christ” (Romans 9:3). And he prayed for believers, that they would be “kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23).
“God hears every request from his humble, trusting children, and he answers with whatever is best.”
So, if it is “according to [God’s] will” that we pray for straying people, why does John say, “I do not say that one should pray for [the sin that leads to death]”? The answer is because God does not intend to save them. They have crossed a line. They are like Esau in Hebrews 12:17, who had sinned in such a way that he could not repent and find forgiveness.
In other words, it is not God’s will to save those who have sinned in a way that “leads to death.” He will not grant repentance. His will of decree is to let them go. No praying will change it.
According to God’s Will of Decree
But why does John not come right out and say, “Do not pray for that,” instead of saying, “I do not say that one should pray for that”? It’s because he does not assume we can always know who these people are. To command us not to pray for them would imply we can always recognize them. But we can’t. We can’t always tell when someone has sinned to the point of being beyond repentance. So John only says that praying for them would be ineffectual. God has willed to leave them alone. “I do not say that one should pray for that.”
Which means that if you ask for their repentance and forgiveness, you will not get it.
But verses 14–15 say, “If we ask anything according to his will . . . we have the request.” Therefore, I do not take “according to his will” to mean “according to his will [of command],” because, as we’ve seen, it is according to his will of command that we should always pray for straying saints and unbelievers. Rather, I take “according to his will” in verse 14 to mean “according to his will [of decree],” because verse 16 shows that God has decreed not to save these people. So you need not pray for them, and if you do, you will not receive what you ask. It doesn’t accord with God’s will of decree.
So when John says, “If we ask anything according to his will he hears us” (1 John 5:14), he means, “If we ask anything that accords with God’s all-wise plan — his all-wise decrees for the world — he hears us and grants our request.”
This Does Not Make Prayer Pointless
A common response to this conclusion is that it seems to make prayer pointless, because answered prayer happens only when God has decreed that something be done. Wouldn’t the decreed event happen anyway? So why pray?
“If we ask anything that accords with God’s all-wise plan, he hears us and grants our request.”
But that kind of response does not come from careful biblical thinking. Careful thinking would see that God really does things in response to prayer. “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2). God wills that events be caused by prayer. And careful biblical thinking would also see that, just as God decrees effects, he also decrees the causes of those effects. As he decrees ends, so he decrees means. As he decrees that a straying saint repent and return, so he decrees the prayers that bring him back.
Prayer is a real cause of real events in this world. God has willed it to be so. And so it is.
‘Because We Do What Pleases Him’
Now what about our third question? What does “whatever” mean in 1 John 3:22 when it says, “Whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him”? The answer is connected to what we have seen.
A different condition is laid down for answered prayer here in 3:22 than was laid down in 5:14. There the condition was that the answer to prayer comes, if we pray according to God’s will — according to God’s all-wise plan, his will of decree. Here the condition is that the answer to prayer comes, if we “keep his commandments and do what pleases him.”
How do these two conditions go together?
What Pleases God Is Glad Submission to His Sovereignty
Here is my suggestion. The condition of 3:22 includes the condition of 5:14. That is, doing what pleases God includes consciously and gladly submitting to God’s will of decree. This decree will always be the wisest and most loving response to our prayers.
John says that whatever we ask we receive, if we “do what pleases [God].” What does please God? When it comes specifically to prayer, at least these three things:
According to 1 Peter 5:6, it pleases God if we are humble before God: “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God.” So it pleases God when we gladly admit we are not God. We are in no condition to run the world, or to take the reins of the universe out of God’s hands.
According to James 3:2, “We all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man.” It pleases God for us to admit this. And the words “what he says” include “what he says in prayer.” We don’t suddenly become perfect when we pray. We are finite and fallible. We make mistakes. God is pleased when his people admit this.
According to James 4:15, Christians “ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’” We ought to say this. That is, it is pleasing to God, when we actually say (in prayer!), “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that!”
“Set yourself to please the Lord in all humility, admitting your fallibility, and submitting to his perfect plan and his all-wise decrees.”
From these three biblical descriptions of what pleases God when we pray, it seems to me that the condition we must meet, according to 1 John 3:22, in order to receive what we pray for, includes the condition we must meet in 1 John 5:14. The condition there was this: “If we ask anything according to his will [of decree] he hears us.” I’m suggesting that implicit in this condition is the God-pleasing disposition to embrace God’s decreed responses with confidence that they are best. In other words, what pleases God is a humble mind that confesses our finiteness and fallibility, and says, “If the Lord wills, the people we pray for ‘will live and do this or that.’”
‘Whatever’ Is Best for Us
What then is the answer to our third question — the meaning of “whatever” in (1 John 3:22)? “Whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.”
The meaning of “whatever” is shaped by the all-wise, all-encompassing, loving plan of God for the good of his children and the glory of his name. By “shaped” I mean limited or expanded, hastened or delayed, purified and completed, but never ignored. If we ask for bread, he will not give us a stone, but he may give us cake, or cornbread, or cod liver oil. If we ask for a fish, he will not give us a snake, but he may give us steak, or stew, or lutefisk (Matthew 7:9–11).
He is our Father. His resources are infinite. His love is perfect. His wisdom is unsearchable. He is never at a loss. Therefore, he will only give us whatever is good for us (Romans 8:28, 32; Matthew 6:33). That is what I think “whatever” in 1 John 3:22 means.
So, be encouraged to pray. Set yourself to please the Lord in all humility, admitting your fallibility, and submitting to his perfect plan and his all-wise decrees. He has decreed millions of things to do in answer to prayer. Our prayers are real causes of the events God planned — just as much as flipping a light switch is a real cause of light in the room, or turning a faucet handle is a real cause of water in the sink, or swinging a hammer is a real cause of a well-sunk nail. It is absolutely true that we “do not have, because [we] do not ask” (James 4:2). So, ask. Keep God’s word. Do what pleases him. And ask.
Of course there are things he will not do. That was the point of 1 John 5:16. He does not forbid us to pray for those, because we cannot always know what they are. But he does tell us that only his wise decrees will come to pass. And he calls us to please him by being humbly submissive to his sovereignty in what he brings to pass. Therefore, it always pays to pray. Always.