How the Spirit Helps Us to Pray
John D. Van Meerbeke
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26). With these words, the apostle Paul gives encouragement to the saints in first-century Rome.
He makes a broad assumption about Christians here. He does not suggest that it’s a rare thing to struggle with prayer. He says, rather, that “we do not know what to pray for as we ought.” But in Romans, chapter 8, Paul writes these things not to disturb or discourage us, but to set the stage for the ministry of the third person of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit.
The Christian should be well-acquainted with the doctrine of our adoption, “an act of God’s free grace, whereby we are received into the number, and have a right to all the privileges, of the sons of God” (Shorter Catechism, 34). In Romans 8:15–17, Paul offers the divinely inspired words of assurance that, having received the Spirit of adoption as sons and heirs with Christ, “the Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” Similarly, 1 John 3:1 says, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.”
The Lord works his assurance in our hearts in two ways. There is the external witness of the sacred Scripture and the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. The work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer is a multifaceted ministry. In John 14–16, Jesus promised the near-future arrival of the Holy Spirit, directly associated with the ascension of our Lord. It is precisely the earthly “absence” of our Lord that makes possible the range of the Spirit’s activity in our life. We can be strengthened in the assurance of grace and salvation because of the testimony of the Spirit of adoption that we are the very children of God, mystical members of the body of Christ. With that assurance also comes the Spirit’s work in increasing our faith and our obedience of faith. Jesus told his disciples that the Spirit would come to them as another Helper, “to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:16–17). In the same discourse, Jesus promised, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (14:26).
The Work of the Holy Spirit
To Paul, an important and integral feature of the work of the Spirit is to “help us in our weakness” by interceding for us. Even as the ascended Son intercedes for his church before the Father, so the descended Spirit ministers on our behalf by intercession. Even more basic, as Sinclair Ferguson explains: “No-one can call Jesus ‘Lord’, or God ‘Father’ except by the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3; Gal. 4:6).” The “weakness” mentioned in Romans 8:26 is that the Christian does not know how to pray or specifically what to pray for. The Spirit is our divine Helper in this respect. “Likewise” seems to refer to the hope to which we are called and entitled as God’s children, in verse 25. Our hope “of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:2) in Christ—because of his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension—is a certain hope. The hope is in what is unseen, because it is eternal. And because it is eternal, it is more firm than the earthly ground on which we now stand. But because it is unseen, it is also something that requires (and deserves!) patient endurance. For the Roman believers, there will be very difficult times ahead, especially in the form of oppression and persecution by the government. Rome was a city of great power and wealth, and unspeakable cruelty. The Holy Spirit is sent upon the church to strengthen her faith and hope.
There are any number of questions that may come to mind at this point, but there are two questions in particular that seem to get at the heart of the matter in that verse. The first question is about the Christians. Just what does it mean that believers—including, apparently the apostle himself—do not know what to pray for? The explanation may be found in verse 27, in that the Holy Spirit’s intercession for the saints is according to the will of God. The mind of God so transcends the mind of men that “the totality of God’s will is hidden from them.” The weakness, then, lies in the believer’s inability to know the entire will of God, especially in prayer. This is most especially true in time of trial and affliction. Whether it be the persecution of our brothers and sisters under anti-Christian regimes, or the personal pain that attends the loss of loved ones, or the hard trial of physical pain and mental anguish, the Christian may often wonder what God’s will is, especially for the purposes of prayer. What do I pray for? The Spirit knows the mind of God, and so the Spirit intercedes for us.
The second question is about the Holy Spirit. Just what does it means that he helps us? And what are these unspeakable “groanings” with which he intercedes? Some have taken this to mean that when we have no words to say, but moan like the creation (8:22), it is then that the Holy Spirit intercedes. Others have attempted to connect these verses with the rather modern idea of speaking in tongues. And still others have argued that believers are groaning because their entreaties are too deep for words, and are somehow translated by the Spirit. But the believers in verses 26–27 are bracketed by references to the helping activity of the Holy Spirit. The groanings are his, not because he cannot articulate the will of God, but precisely because what the Spirit communicates to the Father is gloriously transcendent. What he communicates to the Father is wholly incomprehensible to us, but perfectly in keeping with the Father’s promises and purposes for us, that we should be conformed to the image of his Son.
The mind that is set on spiritual things will hunger more and more for spiritual things. The Holy Spirit bears witness within you that you who are united with Christ by faith are the children of God. He comes alongside you to bring gospel comfort. He brings to your remembrance the things that Jesus has taught you. And he brings to the mind of the Father words that cannot be spoken by anyone but himself.
This promise of the Spirit’s help reaches back in time to the prophets of old, even to eternity. We should be reminded of the words of the Lord, speaking of the church in Old Testament terms: “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy” (Zech. 12:10). By the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are assured of the outpouring of the Spirit of our adoption at Pentecost, upon the church and within our hearts. The Holy Spirit may bring to mind the will of God and words of Christ in the Scriptures, but not with man’s wisdom (1 Cor. 2:11).
Christians are not left with the inability to pray according to the will of God. The Spirit’s help is for every believer in every age. He works in us and with us to be more and more conformed to the image of God’s Son, and so we grow in our praying. Prayers become less superficial and more doxological, less worldly and more biblical. There is no shortage of the testimony of Scripture in this regard. “And it cannot be denied but that the work and actings of the Spirit of grace in and towards believers with respect unto the duty of prayer are more frequently and expressly asserted in the Scriptures than his operations with respect unto any other particular grace or duty whatever.”
 By “absence,” I do not suggest anything other than Jesus’ ascension into heaven, ensuring the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the church at Pentecost. In John 14:23, in fact, Jesus promised that the Father and the Son would also come and “make our home with him,” along with the Holy Spirit. While he is the emissary of the Father and the Son, the Spirit is present within us, indicating a Trinitarian presence. See D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 505. Sinclair Ferguson writes: “Jesus goes to the Father in order to prepare a dwelling-place (monē, Jn. 14:2) for the disciples, while the Paraclete comes from the Father in order to prepare a dwelling-place (monē, Jn. 14:23) for the Father and the Son.” The Holy Spirit (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 187.
 Ferguson, Holy Spirit, 188.
 Robert L. Reymond, Paul: Missionary Theologian (Fearn, UK: Christian Focus, 2000), 226–27.
 Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 443.
 Abraham Kuyper, The Work of the Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1941), 618–19.
 John Owen, “A Discourse of the Work of the Holy Spirit in Prayer,” in The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 4 (1682; Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1988), 253.
The author is pastor of Living Hope OPC in Gettysburg, Pa. He quotes the ESV. New Horizons, June 2013.