22nd January 2012
As we prepare our church for yet another prayer week , I have thought that it may be profitable for us to consider the role of the person of the Holy Spirit in prayer .
The “locus classicus“, the classical text which may be quoted for this purpose, is found in Romans 8:26-27(ESV):
“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. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
Let me help you to understand the background against which the apostle Paul makes this statement, after which I will make a perhaps surprising observation .
The letter to the Romans is Paul’s profoundest exposition on the doctrine of salvation. He helps us to see that all of mankind is in need of redemption, “for all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God “ (Rom 3:23) . Somebody put it like this : “In Adam’s fall we sinned all “ , referring to Rom 5: 12-21 . All of mankind is for this reason under the just wrath of a holy God ( Rom 1:18ff) , unless God does something to change that problem. And He does! In His great love and mercy God chooses to freely, unconditionally and sovereignly impute righteousness to many people. He does it by pouring His righteous wrath upon His own sinless Son , the Lord Jesus Christ. He not only dies the cruelest of deaths on the cross but He experiences being forsaken by His Father with whom He had otherwise always had been in eternal , happy , loving fellowship. By this act Jesus had borne the sins of many, making atonement for them (Rom 5:15) . By this act He justifies the many , making them positionally righteous before God the Father. That is why Romans 8:1-2 is such a great truth for the Christian to embrace : “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”
Once you are justified by God through Christ by the working of the Holy Spirit who opens your eyes to the truth of God’s way of saving people and reconciling them to Himself, you will never be the same !
Now here is the problem with which converted men and women frequently struggle : If I am justified by God through Christ does this mean that I am now perfect – free from sin and all that?
Well , yes and no!
Yes, through your conversion you are perfect because Christ has made you perfect before God, and should you die right now, you will be ushered into God’s presence , righteous and holy on account of Christ’s merits which have been imputed to you.
No, - although you have been justified and even though your spirit is renewed , you continue to live in a fallen body , and in a fallen world in which Satan still exercises his destructive and deceptive rule until Christ comes and defeats him. For this reason you as a Christian still struggle with sin in every way conceivable and that is the point of Romans 7 where Paul confesses his struggle with sin in Rom 7: 15-20 .
Now why am I telling you all this ? Because this is the context in which our text is found . I am going to relate this context to the problem that we all have with prayer. Let me begin by giving you three propositions and work them out from this text and context before applying this to a renewed call to pray more in 2012 , individually and corporately with the help of the Holy Spirit.
My three propositions are these :
(i) You must pray
(ii) You can’t or won’t pray
(iii) The Holy Spirit helps you to pray
2. A surprising Observation !
Were you surprised that I said , that you can’t or won’t pray? Where do I get that from? I get that from two observations :
(i) from experience
(ii) from Scripture
From experience I know that my prayer life is horribly stinted. I suspect that this is also true for you , unless you have received unusual grace from God in this regard (and some people do!) The fact is that the average Christian, if honest, will confess that he or she is lazy to pray ; they will confess that they are easily discouraged , and that they easily give up in prayer. Most of us know and confess that we do not pray as we ought to pray .
We see this also confirmed in the Scriptures that we have read. Read Rom 8:26 again: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought….” .
The apostle Paul confesses and identifies with you and me that he is weak and unable to pray as he ought to ! That encourages me somewhat , but not too much, because I know that must pray and that prayerlessness has spiritual consequences. But I can’t seem to pray as I ought to. I can’t get going.
This means that we are going to have to look for the ability to pray elsewhere , but before we get there allow me just to make these things clear :
- The weakness of our prayer life does not lie in the fact that our salvation from God is lacking !
- The weakness of our prayer does not lie in our justification . Remember? In or through Jesus Christ we are justified ; we are made right with God . We lack nothing there .
- The weakness of our prayer also does not lie in our sanctification . Many people think that it does , because they erroneously think that sanctification is what we contribute to our salvation. I used to believe that , until I was corrected by the Scriptures . I now know that sanctification is as much the work of God in us as is our justification. Sanctification is the progressive and ongoing work of the Holy Spirit after we have been justified when we first believed. There is nothing lacking here.
So where can the weakness of your and my prayer life be found? It is found in us! We have weak bodies and weak minds. So when we try to pray in our natural strength then we shall find that we do not have it in us to pray as we ought to pray. We find that we are either too phlegmatic or too tired or too distracted (the devil helps in this!!!).
We see this in Jesus’ disciples . The disciples could not keep awake in the hour of Christ’s great trial in the garden of Gethsemane. He asked them to watch and pray with Him . Three times He came back and found them asleep. He warned them that they should stay awake at this hour , otherwise they would fall into temptation ( Matt 26:41) …. AND THEY DID ! ( Matt 26:56) . The bottom-line is that in ourselves we lack perseverance. When it comes to prayer then we all know that we are weak. We find that many days go by without any meaningful prayer work being done. And when we do it , we find it dull and we watch the clock and we cannot wait for this time to finish, so that we can scratch the quiet time off our duty list! Does this sound familiar ?
The same is true when it comes to planning for our corporate prayer time at the end of the month. We need to pray corporately! We cannot afford not to pray, because the work of God here at Eastside Baptist Church is so big and so profound that all of our combined human genius will not cope with the demands before us. We need God’s power not our power. We need God’s power to survive in this world and to win spiritual battles .
It is therefore important that we should pray together corporately – as one body ! You have seen the power of corporate prayer from the Scriptures ( e.g. Acts 4: 23-31 ; Acts 12 ; Acts 10; Acts 13: 1-3 etc) and you may even have been part of a corporate prayer meeting in our, or in another church after which God had moved in amazing swiftness and power to answer that prayer .
The problem is that you will not and cannot find it in your heart to pray! You are willing to put in an appearance for conscience sake, but I tell you that even now you are beginning to formulate objections in your mind as to why you cannot pray or be there for 5 hours during prayer week. Many of these objections that you are formulating in your mind may have an air of respectability about them …. Your children need to be in bed at that time ; you may have a lot of work to do … you may need to be away etc . …
The point is that we must pray. It does not help us if we do not pray. We will remain powerless as long as we fail to to plead with God to help us in this work .
What then must we do against our lack of desire to pray ?
3. The Role of the Holy Spirit in Prayer :
We must rely on the power of the Holy Spirit, and thankfully He is given by God the Father and the Son for this purpose to help us in our weakness! Knowing then that it is not in you to pray as you ought , and thinking about those five daily hours at the end of the month, you say to yourself : “ I can’t do it….” .
The Scripture now suggests that you need to seek help from the Holy Spirit for this task : 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. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
Paul knows that the life and health of the church depends upon the power of God. The power of God must be solicited by prayer , and if the problem is that you can’t seem to pray or simply won’t pray – then what must you do ?
You must cast yourself in your weakness upon the Holy Spirit !
And what will He do , once you confess your weakness and your helplessness in this matter?
(i) He helps us
(ii) He Himself intercedes for us with groanings to deep for words
(iii) He intercedes for the saints ( you!) according to the will of God !
This puts a fresh perspective on prayer and I trust that you will be bold enough to test God in this matter . If prayer is God’s will (Phil 4:6 ; Col 4:2 ; 1 Tim 2:8) and if you find yourself frustrated in this , then ask the Holy Spirit for help !
Please note again :
- You must pray
- You will not pray
- You must ask the Holy Spirit to help you. He is the promised Helper who is sent by Jesus ( Jn 14:16) to help us . Take this seriously as you approach prayer week and as you by faith now make plans to consistently pray with us through the week for the many areas of our life and ministry together , and for spiritual breakthroughs in lives in and surrounding our community .