I sometimes receive email messages which ask theological questions, and I always give them an answer. Sometimes, I pass these on by way of a blog post. Recently a short question arrived which puzzled me a bit, but it generated a profitable exchange, which might be of interest to others.
A man called “David” asked me: “Is it fair to say that, like Calvin, you doubt that the Holy Spirit prays?”
I replied as follows:
Your question puzzled me a bit, since I didn’t know what aroused it. For starters, I wondered why you say that Calvin doubted that the Holy Spirit prays. Romans 8:26-27 is possibly the place where Paul speaks most directly of the Spirit’s ministry of prayer, and I think that passage teaches us that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us. In Calvin’s commentary on Rom 8:26, however, I suspect I am looking at the grounds for your stating that Calvin doubted that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us.
[I later learned that David’s question was aroused by my quoting Calvin on p. 263 of Providence & Prayer.]
Calvin wrote: “And the Spirit is said to intercede, not because he really humbles himself to pray or to groan, but because he stirs up in our hearts those desires which we ought to entertain; and he also affects our hearts in such a way that those desires by their fervency penetrate into heaven itself. And Paul has thus spoken, that he might more significantly ascribe the whole to the grace of the Spirit. We are indeed bidden to knock; but no one can of himself premeditate even one syllable, except God by the secret impulse of his Spirit knocks at our door, and thus opens for himself our hearts.”
Commenting on v. 27, Calvin encourages us that “we are heard by God when we pray through his Spirit, for he thoroughly knows our desires, even as the thoughts of his own Spirit. . . . As then Paul had before testified, that God aids us when he draws us as it were into his own bosom, so now he adds another consolation, that our prayers, of which he is the director, shall by no means be disappointed.”
I don’t know why Calvin hesitates to take Paul’s statement that the Spirit “intercedes for the saints,” in its most obvious sense, but Calvin’s own explanation of what is going on has the same power of encouragement as a more literal sense would have, in my estimation. Even by Calvin’s cautious explanation, the Holy Spirit has an intercessory involvement in the process of our own prayer. In Calvin’s commentary on these verses, he states that “the Spirit takes on himself a part of the burden, by which our weakness is oppressed; so that he not only helps and succours us, but lifts us up; as though he went under the burden with us.”
I believe that the Spirit of God is vital to our prayer life and ministry, but I find very little said in Scripture which teaches directly about the Spirit’s intercession for us. Nonetheless, Paul clearly teaches that the Spirit “helps us in our weakness,” when we are uncertain how to pray and can do little more than sigh. At times like this, the Spirit intercedes for us according to the will of God (Rom 8:26-27). Paul therefore urges believers to “pray in the Spirit at all times” (Eph. 6:18).
It is through the Spirit that both Jews and Gentiles have access to God (Eph 2:18). As Gordon Fee puts it, emphasizing that salvation in Christ is conveyed in Trinitarian terms: “Through the work of Christ and by the present ministry of the Spirit, we have access to the Father” (God’s Empowering Presence, 685).
Praising God is perhaps the most important thing we can do in prayer, but no one can sincerely call Jesus “Lord” except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:3), and it is only when “God has sent the Spirit into our hearts” that we are inclined to call upon God as “Abba! Father!” (Gal 4:6). True worship is Spirit initiated because God is spirit (Jn 4:23-24). An excellent demonstration of this fact is seen in the way the Gentiles in the household of Cornelius praised God when the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out on them (Acts 10:46). For this reason, Paul asserts that only the true “circumcision” (i.e., those who are circumcised in their hearts), can “worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh” (Phil 3:3).
In regard to the Holy Spirit’s intercessory ministry on our behalf, I am much better pleased by John Murray’s way of speaking (The Epistle to the Romans NICNT) than by Calvin’s, although Murray was a great fan of Calvin, as I am. He wrote:
“The children of God have two divine intercessors. Christ is their intercessor in the court of heaven . . . , The Holy Spirit is their intercessor in the theatre of their own hearts (cf. Jn 14:16, 17). Too seldom has the intercessory activity of the Holy Spirit been taken into account. The glory of Christ’s intercession should not be allowed to place the Spirit’s intercession in eclipse” [Vol I, 311-12].
Concerning the groanings of which Paul wrote in Rom 8:26, Murray writes:
“They are the concrete ways in which the intercession of the Spirit comes to expression. . . . It is not sufficient to say that they are created and indicted by the Holy Spirit; they are the intercessions of the Spirit and the groanings are but the way in which these intercessions are registered in the hearts of God’s children. . . . They are, however, the media of the Holy Spirit’s intercession and they ascend to the throne of grace in the form of groanings” [Vol. I, 312).
Re: Rom 8:27, Murray writes:
“It is the Holy Spirit who makes intercession. Since his intercession must be in accordance with the mind and will of God, this is the guarantee that the searcher of the hearts knows the content and intent of the intercession. . . . Since they are the intercessions of the Holy Spirit, they always meet with the understanding and approval of God. They are agreeable to us as well as are the intercessions of Christ at the right hand of God [Vol. I, 313].”
Shortly after sending to David my response to his question, I learned that he has very serious health problems, which have frequently threatened his life, so he found my comments to him very encouraging. He has often had occasions to utter the inexpressible groanings of which Paul wrote, times at which he does not know how to pray or what to pray for, but he cries out to God in his helplessness, and he can have the assurance of Scripture that in his inarticulate cries the Holy Spirit is at work interpreting his groans and interceding for him, to the Father. Of the effectiveness of that intercession, we can have no doubt, given the trinitarian nature of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.