All the promises of God are sure, and a single promise is warrant enough for the most confident faith. But in the matter of the assistance of the Holy Spirit in our prayers, we have something better even than a promise. The promise was given in Old Testament times for fulfillment in New Testament times. We, therefore, living in New Testament times, and under the dispensation of the Spirit, stand not on the ground of promise, but on the ground of fulfillment. God has poured out upon His people the Spirit of grace and of supplication. As Christian believers we have to deal not with the promise so much as with the fact.
There is a distinction between promises and facts which is sometimes overlooked. Promises are meant to be claimed, and to be made matter of argument in prayer. Facts are meant to be received, believed, rested on, and used. The call which comes to us is not the call to ask God to give us the Holy Spirit to teach us to pray, but the call to recognize that the Spirit is already given, is ours, is within us for this very purpose, and thus a call to rely on Him for the help He is there to bestow.
That God has fulfilled His promise is the plain teaching of Galatians 4:6. There we read: "When the fulness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, that He might redeem them which were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because ye are sons, God sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, Abba, Father" (Gal. 4:4-6). Here is the fact a fact as gloriously full of blessing as the promise. For we see what this verse tells us.
1. It tells us that the Spirit whom we have received is "the Spirit of the Son." Praise God for these words! They are full of blessing for the soul who understands them. For the Spirit of the Son means, to begin with, the Spirit received by the Son. God has sent into our hearts the same Spirit who dwelt in the heart of Jesus of Nazareth, and made His life a life of unbroken communion with God. When we read the Gospels and marvel at the prayerfulness of Jesus, and at His unbroken fellowship with the Father, let us say reverently, "My life may be as the life of Jesus, for I have received the Spirit of Jesus, and He can make my life as much a life of prayer as the life of my Lord."
Then the Spirit of the Son is certainly the Spirit promised by the Son. The words recall us to the upper chamber, where we see the Master communing with His disciples ere He goes forth to bear our sins in His body on the tree. We hear Him say, "It is expedient for you that I go away; for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I go, I will send Him unto you" (John 16:7). And as we hear Him tell what the Spirit will do, as the words drop from His lips, "He shall bring all things to your remembrance" (John 14:26), "He shall guide you into all truth" (John 16:13), "He shall glorify Me" (John 16:14); and as we remember this is the Spirit whom we have received, our hearts are filled with holy joy.
Further, the Spirit of the Son is the Spirit bestowed by the Son. The words remind us not only of the upper chamber, but of the streets of Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. As we read them, we hear the Apostle Peter preaching, "Jesus of Nazareth... ye by the hand of lawless men did crucify and slay...This Jesus did God raise up, whereof we all are witnesses. Being, therefore, by the hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He hath poured forth this which ye see and hear" (Acts 2:22-33). The Spirit who dwells in our hearts to teach us to pray has come from the throne of God where our risen and glorified Redeemer sits.
2. Galatians 4:6 tells us that the ground of our receiving the Spirit is our sonship. It says, "because ye are sons, God sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts." It says, "Christ redeemed us that we might receive the adoption of sons; and because ye are sons, God sent forth His Spirit." It is most important to notice this. The gift of the Spirit has been won for us, not by anything we are or have done, but by the Atonement of Christ. And we become partakers of the Spirit when we become partakers of Christ. Indeed, if we have not been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, we do not belong to Christ at all. It is the emphasis with which the text asserts this, that shows us that we are here dealing not with a promise, but with a fact.
"Know ye not that ye are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?" (1 Cor. 3:16). "Know ye not that your body is a temple of the Holy Ghost, which is in you, which ye have from God?" (1 Cor. 6:19). As those who are the sons of God by faith in Christ Jesus, we have the Holy Spirit, and it is our duty and privilege to give ourselves up to Him, that He may do His blessed work within us. What this work is, the text before us suggests.
3. Galatians 4:6 speaks of the Spirit of the Son as "sent forth." This phrase is not without meaning. It is used several times in Scripture, and wherever it is used it is implied that those to whom the Spirit is "sent" did not possess Him before as they are to possess Him now, and that He comes to do a work within them which was not done before. When God sent the Spirit of His Son to us, He sent Him to begin an entirely new work in our souls. This work is both general and special.
The Spirit dwells within us to carry on the work of sanctification which from beginning to end is His work. He comes as the Spirit of the Son to enable us to live as sons. In carrying on this work He reveals Himself as the Spirit of love. He sheds the love of God abroad in our hearts, fills us with delight in our Father, and with desire to please Him. Then He reveals Himself as the Spirit of wisdom. He comes as the Spirit of wisdom and revelation to reveal to us what is the hope of our calling, and what the riches of the glory of our inheritance, and what the exceeding greatness of Gods power to usward (Eph. 1:18-19). That He may sanctify us, He unfolds to us the whole extent of Christian duty and privilege. Then He reveals Himself as the Spirit of power, by whose enabling might our holy standing in Christ may be translated into experience. We may know the will of God and love it, but without the Spirit we cannot do it. It is the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus that actually sets us free from the law of sin and death.
But His general work of sanctification leads the Spirit on to a special work in connection with prayer. One aim of the Spirit in sanctifying us is to fit us for a life of unbroken communion with God. But communion with God is the very heart of prayer. If the Spirit, therefore, is to sanctify us, He must teach us to pray. And He does this most gloriously. He cries within us, "Abba, Father," and we in Him cry, "Abba, Father." "He shows us that in the Only Son we are nothing less than sons, welcomed into the inmost home of eternal life and love. We find ourselves indescribably near the Fathers heart, because we are accepted and newly created in the Beloved. And so we learn the happy, confident call of the child, Father, O Father; our Father, Abba." He fills us with a yearning for fellowship with God, which grows in intensity until it cannot restrain itself, and finds utterance in prayer.
God has done all this for us. He has sent forth His Spirit into our hearts. Let us welcome the Indweller, let us yield ourselves to Him, that His glorious work may be unhindered. So shall we indeed learn to pray in the Holy Spirit.
What to Pray for
Prayer is a very wide term. It includes adoration, confession, thanksgiving, petition, and total self-surrender. These are all essential to rich, full, deep prayer. And in connection with them all the help of the Holy Spirit is indispensable. But for the present we limit our attention to the work of the Holy Spirit in connection with petition. This is the central, most characteristic feature of prayer. Prayer is more than petition, but without petition there is no real prayer. Prayer is the making of our requests known unto God. But for this work we are ourselves insufficient. The Apostle Paul expressly declares, "We know not what to pray for as we ought" (Rom. 8:26). Our ignorance of the right matter of prayer puts an arrest on the work of praying.
If our prayers are to prevail before God, they must conform to three conditions. They must be for what we need; they must be for what God has promised; they must be for what will be to the glory of God that He should grant.
1. Prayer in order to prevail must be prayer for what we need. But the Holy Spirit alone can reveal to us what our real needs are. To some it may seem strange to be told that we know not what we need. But it is undoubtedly true. Sometimes, alas! when we go to prayer we do not even know what we want. Some begin to pray without having paused for a moment to think of what they are going to pray for. They have no definite business to transact with God. Their prayers are utterly vague. If after they had knelt down someone were to ask them, "What are you going to pray for?" they would be at a loss to reply. But vagueness of purpose leads inevitably to weakness of desire, and to powerlessness in pleading. If our prayers are to be powerful, they must be definite; and if they are to be definite, they must be Spirit-taught.
The Holy Spirit alone can reveal to us our temporal needs, and teach us rightly to pray about the affairs of this life. There are few things about which earnest Christians find more difficulty than about how to pray rightly for temporal blessings. We may pray for health when God is about to allow a sickness which will bring infinite blessing; we may pray for deliverance from straitened circumstances and hard conditions of life, the removal of which would be a spiritual disaster. Our prayers for temporal blessings must be in the line of the Divine purpose concerning us. But this is known to the Holy Spirit, and if we are under His control, obedient to His voice, and attentive to hear it, He will share with us what our Fathers purpose for us is, and lead us to pray for things which are according to His will.
Further, the Holy Spirit alone can reveal to us our spiritual needs. How infinite these are! How little we know of them, and how utterly inadequate our prayers about them are! Our spiritual needs spring mainly from the presence of sin within us and around us, from the depravity of our hearts, from the power and malice of Satan, and from the necessity of attaining to holiness of life.
But how little we know of sin! The ignorance even of Christians as to the condemning, polluting, misleading, seducing, blinding, deceiving, ensnaring, destroying power of sin is simply appalling. The shallowness of the spiritual life of many is due to the shallowness of their thoughts about sin. Deeper conviction of sin is one of the greatest needs of the church today. We shall never pray rightly for mercy or for deliverance until the Holy Spirit has revealed to us the exceeding sinfulness of sin.
And how little we know of ourselves! Self-deception about our spiritual condition is terribly easy and terribly common. Our hearts are so corrupt they cannot fathom their own corruption. We may think we have obtained final victory over a besetting sin, when it is only asleep, waiting till we are off our guard to spring upon us, and fling us to the ground. We are usually weakest where we fancy ourselves strongest. If left without the assistance of the Blessed Spirit of God, the things we forget to pray for will probably be the things we most need. He must daily search us, discover to us our weakness and emptiness, that He may moment by moment keep us abiding in unbroken fellowship with Him in whom is our fullness and our strength.
Then how little we know of the subtlety and strength of the adversary! Peter warned us to be on our guard. "Be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour" (1 Pet. 5:8). The promptings of the Spirit of God are needful to discover to us the devices of Satan, and to teach us how to pray against them.
Then again, how little do we know about holiness! How few of us have seen its beauty! Would our prayers for holiness be so intermittent, so feeble, so easily arrested, if the glory of a holy life were revealed to our souls? We will never rightly pray to be like Christ, until the Holy Spirit shows us our need, until He discovers to us how far we are from being like our Lord, and how infinitely blessed and glorious it is to be conformed to His image.
2. Prayer, in order to prevail, must be prayer for what God has promised. Promise must always precede prayer, for we have no warrant to pray for anything which God has not promised. John Owen says: "God knows our wants, what is good for us, what is useful to us, what is necessary to bring us to the enjoyment of Himself, infinitely better than we do ourselves; yea, we know nothing of these things but what He is pleased to teach us. Hence believers may learn what is good for them, and what is wanting to them, from a study of the promises more clearly and certainly than by any means whatever." Ignorance of Gods promises is a more fatal hindrance to prayer even than ignorance of our own needs.
Now although by diligent study of the Bible, and by the aid of a faithful memory, we may obtain such a knowledge of the promises of God as to be able to use the words of the promises in prayer, yet the glory and power of the promises can be revealed to the soul only by the Spirit of God. Everyone knows that a promise may be quoted in prayer without being a steppingstone on which the soul rises to take hold of God. "This is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He heareth us: and if we know that He hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of Him" (1 John 5:14-15). This confidence that we are praying according to Gods will, and that our prayers will prevail, becomes ours through the work of the Holy Spirit bringing home the promises of God in power to our hearts. We cannot live a Christian life aright unless we know how to pray aright; we cannot know how to pray aright unless we know the promises of God, and these we can know only by the revelation of the Holy Spirit.
3. Prayer, in order to prevail, must be for what it would be to the glory of God to grant. A right motive and a right aim are essential to true prayer. There must be an entire absence of self-will. How often God has to say to His children, "Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss"! Sometimes our prayers are actually sinful. We endeavor by prayer to make God minister to our self-esteem. How often has very earnest prayer for the fullness of the Holy Spirit been in vain, because he who sought that unspeakable blessing sought it rather for the glory which the possession of it, or the reputation for the possession of it, might bring to man, than for the honor and praise that might be brought to God.
And oftentimes our prayers are foolish. We ask for things shameful and hurtful, and our Father in His love refuses to answer our prayers. On the fly-leaf of the Bible of a Scottish minister the words were found written, "Thanks be to God for many unanswered prayers." If we are to pray aright, our prayers must have a right aim and end. We need teaching here, and teaching we may have. The indwelling Spirit, if we yield ourselves to Him, will help our infirmities, will remove our ignorance and foolishness, and lead us out to pray only for those things which will be for the glory of God and for our own good.
A Final Word of Counsel
If you would pray in the Holy Spirit, recognize more deeply the impossibility of praying without Him. But you ask, "How am I to do this?" Well, first of all, by continual self-examination. That will do it. A better knowledge of ourselves would drive forever from the heart of the proudest of us the delusion that by ourselves we are equal to the work of prayer.
Then by constant study of Scripture. This will carry on the work. Through study of the Scripture we gain a better knowledge of what God would have us be, of the exceeding breadth of His Law, of the glory of our calling, and of how much depends on right prayer if we would be obedient to the Law and walk worthy of our calling. Such knowledge brings us in lowliness to commit ourselves to the Spirit.
And, lastly, by meditation on the excellency and glory of God. The vision of God is what destroys our self-sufficiency. As we see the glory of God, we fall at His feet as dead. We feel how presumptuous it would be in us to approach Him at all. So we are prepared for a full reliance on that Spirit by whom, through Jesus Christ, we have access unto the Father.
"Beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life" (Jude 20-21).
SI Moderator - Greg Gordon