The Holy Spirit and prayer: Understanding Romans 8:26-28
Trying to examine and understand all that the Bible teaches about the Holy Spirit’s role in the prayers of God’s people is too big a job for us to tackle now. But we must look at one passage which is often mentioned, namely Romans 8:26-28. Let us try to understand it as accurately and clearly as we can.
Romans 8:26, "Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered."
Although we have a soul which desires to please God, we groan because we are still encumbered by a body which does not. We long for the time when we will be relieved of our sinful flesh and put on immortality (II Cor. 5:1-9, Phil. 1:21-23). For that reason "the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities."
The idea of the words "we know not what we should pray for as we ought" is not that we are not smart enough or that the troubles of our lives are so great that we cannot think of the right words to pray and therefore the Spirit must make up the difference. Rather, the verse says that "we know not what we should pray for." That is, we lack the proper information to pray exactly as we ought. Remember, prayers should be according to God's will (I John 5:14,15). No matter how wise we are, there are things we can never pray for "as we ought" because we do not know all that God knows. Only God can pray perfectly according to His own will. Therefore, it is not just that we do not pray in the right way (although that is a problem), but that we do not know what only God knows. And so the verse states, "the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered ( by men)” because men do not know what God knows.
For example, a believer could pray and pray for the relief of some great stress in his life, and yet that stress could lead to his death. After all, no one is saved with a promise to lead a life of comfort in this world. In another example, a believer could pray and pray for the salvation of someone, and yet that person may die as an unbeliever. The reason is that a person does not become saved because of the amount or the kind of prayers that have been offered to God on his behalf. Nor does someone remain lost because the prayers for his salvation were too few or not offered properly. Only God knows how a stressful situation will further His plan, only God knows who are His elect. Although believers may not always know what God's will is, they do know that "all things work together" for the spiritual benefit of the elect (Rom. 8:28). The tremendous comfort of Romans 8:26 is that God does know all things, and when His Spirit prays, His will always comes to pass. God knows what His will is in every situation. When the Spirit prays for something, it is a certainty that it will be done because the Spirit knows all things (I Cor. 2:9-11) , especially who will be saved. Therefore, verse 26 emphasizes the sovereignty of God, that He is wise and able to fulfill His loving plans for his elect.
The word "as" seems to imply that verse 26 teaches the idea that we are ignorant about the manner of prayer. However, our ignorance is not about the right liturgical form or physical posture as we pray, but about the right spiritual content. We know that we must reverently honor God, lovingly thank God, humbly ask for His forgiveness and patiently beseech Him for the benefit of others - including our enemies. The Bible tells us much about prayer. Nevertheless, there is much about the fulfillment of God’s gospel in history that we do not know and cannot know because we do not perfectly know the mind of God. Because of that ignorance, we are not always able to pray exactly according to the will of God. Our desire is that God's will is done, but we do not always know what it is and so cannot pray as we ought. It is the testimony of Romans 8 that the Spirit, who does know the mind of God, prays for us that God's will be done.
Romans 8:27, "And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God."
The Spirit knows that believers are encumbered by a sinful body. He knows that they sin and need help, not only for their salvation (Isaiah 65:24), but also for their lives as Christians (Rom. 7:24,25, Col. 2:10, Phil 2:13). As they struggle in this world, they rejoice that God is sovereign, knowing all things and able to do all that is necessary to help them (Psalm 94:17-19, 103:10-17, 124). They want to do God's will and sometimes do not. They want to cry out to God in prayer and sometimes cannot because there are things they do not know.
The wonder of the gospel is that believers' problems become God's problems. He changes their hearts to desire His will even though they may not always know exactly what His will is. God understands their deficiencies in prayer. Their imperfect prayers do not harm their relationship as children of God. God is ready to help. In grace His prayers mingle with their prayers (Rev. 5:8, 8:3,4) because His Spirit also prays perfectly according to God's will on their behalf. The reason that the Spirit intercedes perfectly is that God knows His own mind (I Cor. 2:10,11). The confidence and joy is that the prayers which the Spirit makes "for the saints" are always answered exactly as He utters it, for He prays "according to" what God wills.
Romans 8:28, "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose."
It is important to understand this verse as it fits into the logic that flows from the verses just before it to the verses that follow it. By comparing verse 28 with verse 26 we notice that although "we know (oida: understand with our mind) not what we should pray for as we ought," nevertheless "we know (oida) that all things work together for good to them that love God." Our assurance “that all things work together for good” today and our hope “that all things (will) work together for good” tomorrow is based upon the fact that, although we groan under the burden of our flesh (Rom. 8:23) and we live in a broken world that groans under the curse of sin (Rom. 8:22), we nevertheless have the comfort that the Spirit also groans as He calls upon God to fulfill His eternal will for His people. And the Spirit knows that will perfectly because, as God, He carefully designed it before the foundation of the world. Therefore, Paul can write in verse 28, "we know" that our present struggles will end in a future total victory because, according to Romans 8:29 and 30, the eternal plan of God, of which the Spirit groans in prayer to God, will be fulfilled for His saints (Rom. 8:39).
Believers' present struggles are no hindrance to the complete fulfillment of God's will for their lives or His plan for the ages. The victory of God's righteousness is not dependent upon the faithfulness of His people nor upon their prayers, neither of which are perfect. Rather, it depends upon His wisdom and ability, for He is in control of all things.
Believers may not know exactly what God's will is, but they know that it is "for good," that is, for their good. This knowledge is the comfort of those who struggle now in the flesh. They know that "all things work together for good." That is, all the good things, now and in the future, for which the Spirit prays on their behalf, will always come to pass exactly as He prays, for the Spirit knows the mind of God, being God Himself.
The good things are only for "them who love God," that is, for those who are saved. Only believers are “the called according to his purpose.” The blessings God has planned are only for those in whom God has placed His love and who now live with the right heart. The words "according to his purpose" refer to the salvation purpose or objective of God, as verses 29 and 30 emphasize.
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