Praying in The Spirit: What is it and Why is it Important?
By Dr. Michael A. Milton
There are some doctrines that we see but we cannot see through them.1 The believer is often called upon to hold biblical truths in tension. We must be content to merely see through the glass dimly until we know even as we are known (1 Cor. 13:12). There are several biblical doctrines in this category. Praying in the Spirit is not one of them.
Praying in the Spirit is an indispensable part of the Christian life that has, sometimes, generated “more heat than light.” Opinions admittedly vary about the exact meaning of praying in the Spirit. There are assorted theological claims about how to “achieve” prayer in the Spirit as if the admonition is a skill to be acquired. It is not. It is a gift to be received, a life to be lived.
The Scriptures are clear: Praying in the Holy Spirit is approaching the throne of grace in humble and devout intercession and supplication entirely on God’s terms, not ours. Or, as one older Christian author, Jacob Gregory, put it so plainly: “No human can pray without divine help.” Prayer with divine help is praying in the Spirit.
What Do the Scriptures Say?
“No human can pray without divine help” seems to be a saying far too simple. We want more. We want to know what we must do to encourage the experience. Our contributing to the work of the Holy Spirit is as preposterous as presuming that praying in the Holy Spirit is an ecstatic experience to be cultivated. However, this phenomenon of “God can do it, but I must help Him along” is a wrong-headed but universal impulse of humanity to deal with God as we would with a mortal king. “I will do this, and so you will do that.” Such an error reveals, not necessarily an evil intent (haven’t we all thought that way at one time or another?), but rather a sad misunderstanding of God’s grace in Christ. “Praying in the Spirit” is altogether a divine activity that one appropriates through faith in Jesus Christ and in His finished work on the cross. Simple? Yes, and infinitely glorious.
I am reminded of Peggy Nunan’s line from her book, On Speaking Well:
“Most of the important things you will ever say or hear in your life are composed of simple, good, sturdy words. ‘I love you. ‘It’s over.’ ‘It’s a boy.’ ‘We’re going to win.’ ‘He’s dead.’”
Praying in the Holy Spirit is a simple, good, sturdy doctrine. But it is simply amazing. There are numerous passages in both the Old Testament and the New addressing prayers made in the power of the Spirit. The great E.M. Bounds (1835-1913), a Methodist Episcopal pastor who “majored” in the lifelong study of the biblical doctrine of prayer, wrote of one such example concerning Hannah in 1 Samuel 1:
“Her desires were too intense for articulation. She poured out her soul in prayer before the Lord.” Insuperable natural difficulties were in the way, but she “multiplied her praying,” as the passage means, till her God-lightened heart and her bright face recorded the answer to her prayers, and Samuel was hers by a conscious faith and a nation was restored by faith.
Hannah’s tears were like saltwater sacraments that spoke of a deep, unseen desire. This longing was lifted to God with God’s help. She was praying in God’s power, not her own. While there is no specific wording, “praying in the Spirit,” the narrative (and narrative is the chief literary genre in the Old Covenant text) clearly demonstrates that both Hannah and her son were believers who prayed with “divine help.” This is praying in the Spirit.
The New Testament is characterized, not only by narrative but “didactic” literature. That is, the New Testament writers, particularly the Lord Jesus and His Apostles, speak or write in order to teach: to communicate God’s revealed truth to humankind. Within this primary genre in the New Testament, we can better isolate and examine exact teaching on the subject of praying in the Holy Spirit. Here are but a few selections that teach “prayer with divine help.”
5 Bible Verses about Praying with Divine Help
- “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Galatians 5:16,17 ESV).
- “Praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints” (Ephesians 6:18).
- “But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit” (Jude 1:20).
- “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” (Romans 8:26-27).
- “What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also” (1 Corinthians 14:15).
We say again: these are but samples of the doctrine of praying in the Spirit. Each glorious passage is worthy of its own careful consideration. The passages are mysterious only in the sense that all truth about the grace and condescending love of God is incomprehensible to mere mortals, but the teaching therein is plain and accessible. The passages are like the proleptic pods of Red Winter Wheat filled with life but buried beneath so much snow in a Kansas field.
One sees a frozen field and says, “nothing good can ever grow there!” Ah, but wait for spring and you will see that the very field that appeared barren was pulsating with invisible power. The springtime fields in Kansas become a landscape of golden grains swaying in the breeze. So, too, the biblical teaching about “praying in the Spirit” is a seed hidden within those who trust in Christ Jesus. We see the dear lady in the nursing home, and we might be tempted to think, “How powerless the poor soul is!” But you could not be more wrong. As the hidden seeds of wheat burst forth in warm sun of the spring, so, too, does the Holy Spirit move within her to inspire her prayers, to perfect her prayers, and bring pain to prayer and prayer to providence and providence to praise! What a golden harvest from such a tiny vessel! These Scriptures about praying in the Spirit burst forth from the pages of the Bible to grow into golden grains of life for those wise farmers of the Word, for those who pray, not in the flesh, but in the Spirit.
Whether in narrative (e.g., Acts 4:41) or in didactic (“teaching”) expression, (e.g., Ephesians 6:18), the Old and New Testament demonstrates that praying in the Spirit happens when we come to Almighty God in the name of Jesus Christ and according to God’s revealed will.
How to Pray in the Spirit
I risk repetition here, but we must not leave any room for the ever-present human tendency to add or take away from the plain truth of Scripture. To pray in the Spirit, walk in the Spirit, and worship in the Spirit (“in Spirit and in truth,” John 4:24) is to come before the Lord according to His appointed means—that is through the One whom the Spirit magnifies, the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 8:26-27), depending on His revealed Word and pleading as a lesser creature to our glorious Creator.
The Holy Spirit also takes our prayers and perfects them before the Almighty (e.g., Romans 8:26). The Holy Spirit prays within us when we cannot utter a word (again, Romans 8:26). To pray in the Holy Spirit is to also build unity in the body of Christ. When you are praying in submission to the Lord God and His Christ, the Holy Spirit within you will testify to Himself in His Word, in your prayers, and even in those other believers praying with you. These things and so much more are ignited by the dynamite of praying in the Spirit.
What Praying in the Spirit is Not
Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the Welshman who was the Queen’s surgeon-turned-King’s Ambassador, used a large segment of his teaching at Westminster Chapel, London on praying in the Holy Spirit by demonstrating, from Scripture, what it is not.2,3 I cannot take up as much space as Dr. Lloyd-Jones did (you can listen to the excellent teaching supplied in the footnote), but I affirm from the Word of God (and with “the Doctor”) that praying in the Spirit is not an act of mere emotion. One cannot be “excited into praying in the Spirit.” Such a divine arrangement cannot be held captive to mortal sensations. Alternatively, to pray in the Spirit is to undoubtedly pray with one’s whole being, “head and heart.” Emotion, in this case, is an effect of praying in the Spirit rather than the cause. Thus, ecstatic utterance or other physical manifestations are not the seals of authenticity for praying in the Spirit any more than Stoicism is a trusted sign of emotional poise in the Christian life.4 Let me give an example.
I know of an elderly Christian man who lives alone. This unassuming and kind man is a retired banker, a quiet and reserved person by nature. An Anglican, this gentleman reads the “daily office” from the Book of Common Prayer. He reads Old Testament, New Testament, and a Psalm. He prays the Collect of the Day (a special written prayer, mostly by Thomas Cranmer [1489-1556] for the respective seasons of the Church, assembled in the Book of Common Prayer). As he bows before the Lord and prays, using these ancient forms, is this man somehow unable to pray in the Spirit? Of course not. He may or may not be praying in the Holy Spirit (I know him and believe that he most certainly is). So, praying in the Spirit is not demonstrated, necessarily, by visible excitement, but by faith in God’s Word and God’s will, by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Spirit of God magnifies the Son of God and His will for His lambs: you and me.
Why Does Praying in the Spirit Matter?
Praying in the Spirit is vital to our sanctification (growth in grace and knowledge of Christ and in our ethical response to God in every area of life). Moreover, praying in the Holy Spirit is God’s glorious means of advancing His will on earth as it is in heaven. The late J. Oswald Sanders (1902-1992) of New Zealand pointed to the believer’s blessing of praying in the Spirit in his classic book, Prayer Power Unlimited:
“Here is the secret of prevailing prayer, to pray under a direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit, whose petitions for us and through us are always according to the Divine purpose, and hence certain of answer.”
Praying in the Spirit cultivates a vital relationship with our resurrected and reigning Lord Jesus Christ. When you come to see Christ face-to-face, He will be the One you have grown to love throughout all of the days of your life. To pray in the Spirit is to open your life to the filling of the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ. Prayer in the Spirit changes us from the inside out and makes us ready and willing to do God’s will.
Who Can Pray in the Spirit?
I want to be very encouraging to all of you who are reading this. Each and every one of you may come to God and pray in the Holy Spirit. There are no tricks, cryptic lingo, and no insider information you have to acquire. Repent of self and all of the sinful consequences of trust in “the flesh,” and receive Jesus Christ by faith. The Spirit of God will come into you and make His residence in you. You become a veritable “temple” of the living God. Then, you will have a new God-implanted desire to follow Him: in worship, witness, fellowship, and in prayer. Prayer in the Spirit is the “natural” next-step in following Jesus as Lord and Savior.
There once was a believer who brought his burden to God in prayer. Twice this man had been engaged to be married and twice he had lost his fiancée to an illness. Joseph Scriven (1819-1886) had a promising career in music after graduating from Trinity College in Dublin. The losses that he suffered caused him to go to Canada to take up a life of a teacher and educator. But the grief was overwhelming. Indeed, on top of all of this, his mother in Ireland missed him so very much. Joseph Scriven died August 10, 1866; it remains unclear whether the poor man drowned by accident. However, his family, the Christian community that surrounded him, and all those who loved and cared for him could take comfort in the words that he wrote, words that were a veritable prayer from his heart. You see, even though this poor man suffered in silence and brought his brief to God, he composed a prayer that became a hymn. You may know that hymn very well: What a Friend We Have in Jesus.
“What a Friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.”
Carry everything to God in prayer. Do so by His power and according to His will. If you do that, you will be praying in the Spirit. O that the golden grains of revival will move in the gentle breeze of the Spirit’s presence. Such a refreshing time of renewal is available to you, your local Christian community, and even to a nation of believers as the veiled, prevailing seed of prayer bursts forth to accomplish what we cannot.
Michael A. Milton, PhD (University of Wales; MPA, UNC Chapel Hill; MDiv, Knox Seminary), Dr. Milton is a retired seminary chancellor and currently serves as the James Ragsdale Chair of Missions at Erskine Theological Seminary. He is the President of Faith for Living and the D. James Kennedy Institute a long-time Presbyterian minister, and Chaplain (Colonel) USA-R. Dr. Milton is the author of more than thirty books and a musician with five albums released. Mike and his wife, Mae, reside in North Carolina.
1. Hans Urs Von Balthasar (1905-1988), the remarkable Swiss theologian said as much in his parish notes on the phrases of the Apostles Creed, collected into the book, Credo. I am indebted for his insights on the mystical nexus between revelation and mystery. This preeminent Roman Catholic priest and doctor of the Church reminds us of the reality of Deuteronomy 29:29: The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (English Standard Version of the Holy Bible.
2. See more insight into this seminal figure in twentieth-century evangelicalism, see Christopher Catherwood, Martyn Lloyd-Jones: His Life and Relevance for the 21st Century (Crossway, 2015); and Iain Hamish Murray, The Life of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, 1899-1981 (Banner of Truth Trust, 2013).
3. See, e.g., Praying in The Spirit (Westminster Chapel, London), accessed December 3, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WtpuOuO01Ac#action=share.
4. For a Pentecostal view on Praying in the Spirit, see Dr. Steven J. Land in his fine scholarly article, “Praying in the Spirit: A Pentecostal Perspective.”,” Pentecostal Movements as an Ecumenical Challenge, 1996, 85–93
Carson, D. A. “Praying with Paul.” Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic (2014).
Miller, Paul E. A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World. Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2017.
Murray, Andrew. “Praying in the Spirit.” Alliance Weekly (1940): 597.
Sanchez, Leopoldo A. “Praying to God the Father in Spirit: Reclaiming the Church’s Participation in the Son’s Prayer Life.” Concordia Journal 32, no. 3 (2006): 274.
Whitney, Donald S. Praying the Bible. Crossway, 2015.
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“Learning to Pray in the Spirit and the Word, Part 1.” Desiring God. Last modified December 31, 2000. Accessed January 2, 2019. https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/learning-to-pray-in-the-spirit-and-the-word-part-1.