By Dennis C. Abernathy
“Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which can- not be uttered. Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom. 8:26-2 7).
There are various meanings given by godly and learned men to these verses. Is the Spirit the Holy Spirit or the human spirit? What is the meaning of “makes intercession,” and whose “groanings which cannot be uttered” are under consideration here — man’s or the Spirit’s? Do we know how to pray and for what we should pray? If we do, how do we come to know it? If we do not, why don’t we?
The things I shall say are uttered with fear and trembling, knowing that men of greater knowledge than myself understand these verses differently. I certainly do not fear disagreement nor criticism, but my prayer is that we always understand that we are brethren in the Lord who are studying and seeking truth.
I do believe in prayer. I do believe that God answers prayer. If the Holy Spirit plays a part in our prayers that I do not fully understand — if he renders help to us that I do not fully see — then I, standing in need of all of the help I can get, readily accept such. I want to always be open to study and I surely want to be open to assistance that is afforded to me from God.
My thoughts on this matter flow from my overall understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit, that being, revealing the mind of God to man. I hope you will be moved to further study of this matter and your comments and thoughts are solicited. These are difficult verses in a difficult context and I certainly am not dogmatic in rejecting another view as long as it does not violate clear and scriptural principles.
I do believe that we err when we do not interpret passages dealing with the Holy Spirit in their proper time set- ting. When we take passages with an application relating to the age of spiritual gifts when the revelation of God was being given (orally in the man), and give them the same application today when God’s complete revelation has been given and is now in the book, we arrive at erroneous conclusions. Thus, understand Holy Spirit passages as one would understand them who possessed and witnessed spiritual gifts that made possible the revelation of God’s final and complete revelation, and do not strain and interpret them to fit today when we neither possess nor witness spiritual gifts, because God’s final and complete revelation is here.
The most common interpretation of the verses we are considering is the following: “When a Christian cannot express his prayer in words, the Holy Spirit takes his groanings and intercedes for him before God who does understand and know what the mind of the Spirit is.” I believe there is another interpretation which makes more sense, at least, to me, and
so I shall precede to try and point it out to you.
Let me begin by saying that the work or mission of the Holy Spirit was revelation! He was to make known God’s mind to man (see 1 Cor. 2:7-16; 1 Pet. 1:10-12; 2 Pet. 1:21).
Thus, the Holy Spirit gave us God’s mind unmixed with error and we can be assured that the Bible is the Word of Truth and that it is all of the Truth. (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13). The reason we can have this assurance is because the Holy Spirit confirmed the truth as a divine revelation. Had God’s revelation not been confirmed it would have been impossible to distinguish between the genuine revelation and counterfeit ones. Thus, miracles to confirm the Word were the means of furnishing supernatural evidence of a supernatural revelation. Hence, the Holy Spirit’s confirmation of the Word by miracles assures us of the integrity of the Bible and validates its claim to be from God.
What a wonderful thought this is. The Holy Spirit’s mission and work was to reveal to man God’s wisdom and plan in his great work of human redemption. How else would we know God’s mystery (see Eph.3:1-7)?
The Bible teaches that it is the work of the Holy Spirit to reveal the mind of God to man, through selected men, and confirm the revelation as being genuine. If Romans 8:26-27 means that the Spirit takes the groanings of the Christian and makes them known, or reveals the mind of man to God would this not be a direct reversal of the general work of the Spirit in revealing the mind of God to man? I can understand why it was necessary for the Spirit to reveal the mind of God to man, but I have difficulty in under- standing why God needs the Spirit to reveal man’s mind or interpret his needs to God. This is especially true since there is no creature hidden from his sight “but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account” (Heb.4:13). All is bare and uncovered before God’s penetrating eyes. He is aware of every act and every thought and can judge the very secrets of men. I realize all too well that because I may have difficulty understanding a matter does not prove a thing one way or the other.
Was this work attributed to the Holy Spirit in behalf of Christians also available to the Israelites while they were in Egyptian bondage? In other words, did the Spirit work in this way in the Old Testament also? I know of no indication of such. Perhaps there is, but it has escaped my attention. Exodus 2:23 says: “The Israelites groaned in their slavery, and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and He remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.” Chapter 3:7, says: “. . . I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. The word “groanings” in verse 26 is the word used with reference to the Israelites in Egyptian bondage. They groaned, cried to God, God heard them, he understood them, and was thus concerned about them! Also, were the prayers of Cornelius under- stood by God (Acts 10:4, 31)?
The following quotations will set forth the common view with regard to the Spirit’s work in Romans 8:26-27. Read them carefully.
Paul said: “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities.” “The idea is, he gets, as it were, his shoulder under them, and bears them. He carries them with us, in us, and for us, strengthening and enabling us for the burden. We know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Holy Spirit knows. It knows perfectly both what we need and how to pray for it. It therefore becomes, in some measure, a remedy for our weakness. The mode in which the Spirit intercedes is by prayer; and the mode in which it prays is in groanings which cannot be framed into human speech, for the reason, it may be, that they embody wants for which human speech has no names. They are the deep real wants of human nature. The groanings which give inarticulate expression to these wants are not the Spirit’s groanings. They are our groanings. But the Spirit, if it does not cause them, which it may, so forms and directs them as to make them express our true wants and in strict harmony with the Father’s will. For otherwise, I can see no advantage they would have over our common prayers. Is not this passage proof that the Holy Spirit does something for us beyond the aid which he gives us in his Word? This intercession and help which the Spirit gives us is not through the Word but apart from the Word. This does not mean that the Holy Spirit has a will for us which is not revealed in the Word, but it does mean that in this he does a work on our behalf which he does not do through the written Word. He does this work in heaven for us who are on this earth.” These quotes are taken from The Holy Spirit And The Christian by James D.Bales, 101-103.
These quotes are typical, especially with brethren who believe in the personal, literal, indwelling of the Spirit in the Christian. The men quoted by Bales, and James Bales himself, are very knowledgeable men and I certainly do not come up to their level of scholarship, but I must respectfully disagree with their conclusions. From their statements one would have to conclude that the Holy Spirit: (1) Strengthens and enables us for our burdens, (2) Helps us overcome sin, (3) Becomes a remedy for our weaknesses, (4) We don’t know what we should pray for but the Holy Spirit does, and so he takes our groanings (which are uttered in our common prayers) and makes them express our true wants, thus changing them so that they are in strict harmony with God’s will, (5) The Spirit does the aforementioned things apart from the Word of God. (6) Thus, he takes our common prayers and transforms them into uncommon or prayers in harmony with God’s will.
If the above is true, where does this place our common (?) prayers? A good definition of prayer is “Expressing our deepest desires and yearnings of the heart to God.” Are we able to do this when we pray? How do we know how to pray? Are we not instructed by the Word of God? Aren’t we thoroughly furnished unto every good work and made perfect or complete through the Scriptures? If what some are saying is true, then, apparently, the Word of God is insufficient, at least in the area of prayer.
What connection then, does the Holy Spirit have with prayer? In the apostolic age, there was inspired prayer. “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful” (1 Cor. 14.14). We know that “tongues” was one of the spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:1, 10). If one spoke in a tongue, it was by direct revelation. If one sang in a tongue, it was by direct revelation (v. 15). If one prayed in a tongue it was by direct revelation. Therefore, a prayer in a tongue was an inspired prayer!
“. . . they told you that there would be mockers in the last time who would walk according to their own ungodly lusts. These are sensual persons, who cause divisions, not having the Spirit. But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit” (Jude 18-20).
Ephesians 6:18, speaks of “praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit . . .” It seems reason- able to conclude then, that praying in the Holy Spirit” was “praying by inspiration of the Spirit.” Thayer says, regarding the prepositional phrase, “in Spirit” “to be in the power of, be actuated by, inspired by, the Holy Spirit; Rom. 8:9 (Greek-English Lexicon of The N.T. 211; see also Rev. 1:10; 4:2).
In the apostolic age there was (1) inspired preaching (1 Cor. 14), (2) inspired singing (l Cor. 14), (3) inspired prayer (Jude 19-20; Eph. 6:18; 1 Cor. 14). But, we do not live in the apostolic age. Is there inspired preaching to- day? No! We preach what has been revealed by the Spirit to inspired men contained in the written Word of God. Is there inspired singing today? No! God’s record is complete and we teach and admonish one another with regard to it, when we sing (Col. 3:16). Is there inspired prayer today? No! We understand how to pray through the teaching of the written record and we have prayers recorded to guide us. I can understand why they needed the miraculous aid of the Spirit in the area of preaching, singing, and praying while the Word of God was being given. But I have difficulty in understanding why we today do not need the Spirit’s help, apart from the Word in our preaching and in our singing, but we do need the Spirit’s help when we pray. Why just prayer?
It appears to me that when we argue that the Spirit does things for the Christian beyond the aid he gives in his Word, i.e., he does a work on our behalf which he does not do through the written Word and then we, at the same time argue, that the Spirit does not aid or do a work on behalf of the alien sinner, except through the written word, we show our inconsistency and face a dilemma from which we can never extricate ourselves.
For example, the alien sinner seeks God but knows not how he ought to seek him, but the Spirit knows his intentions and helps him to the Word and to obedience. Thus, the Spirit is working apart from means. At the same time the Christian seeks God in prayer, but knows not how, but the Spirit knows his intentions and helps him to pray, turning his common, unacceptable prayers into acceptable prayers according to God’s will. Again, the Spirit is working apart from means. It seems inconsistent, to me, at least, to say that the Christian who has infirmities and needs help has the Spirit in the Word and in addition to the Word, but the alien sinner has the Spirit working and aiding and helping him only through the Word. Thus, the Christian has infirmities and needs extra divine help and power through the aid of the Spirit, but that to the alien sinner, the Spirit working through the Word is sufficient.
J.B. Moody stated the following in his debate with brother J.A. Harding: “I believe that man is so depraved that he cannot render acceptable obedience to the Gospel unless aided by the divine power of the Spirit in addition to the Word” (The Nashville Debate 415). Is it also true that the Christian cannot render acceptable worship (prayer) unless aided by the divine power of the Spirit in addition to the Word?
Is the inspired Word of God insufficient to teach us to pray understandable and acceptable prayers? Is it sufficient to teach us, but we are unable to understand its teaching? If it is sufficient to teach and instruct us and if we can understand its instructions, but we are still unable to pray as we ought, and the Spirit must take over and turn our insufficient prayers into sufficient prayers, thus interpreting them for God, is this not a direct working?
The Holy Spirit worked miraculously in giving and confirming the Word of God, but today the Holy Spirit does not work miraculously, but through the Word of God. Thus, when we study the work of the Holy Spirit, communication is at the center. Any position that has the Spirit, today, operating above and beyond the written Word casts doubt upon the inspiration of the Scriptures as the all-sufficient guide for sinner and saint.
It is important for us to look at the term “intercession. “ The verb signifies “to fall in with a person; to go to or meet a person, esp. for the purpose of conversation, or supplication; hence, to pray or entreat” (Thayer). “It means properly to be present with anyone for the purpose of aiding . . . ; hence, to intercede for anyone, or to aid or assist in any manner” (Barnes Notes, Romans). I believe intercession in some passages simply means, to intervene, interfere, to aid or assist, thus in Romans 8:26, it is not the Spirit that pleads in our behalf, but that he throws himself into our case, takes part in it, for the purpose of conversation, thus aiding and assisting the saints in accordance with God’s will. In inspired prayer didn’t the Spirit fall in with the person, thus intervening, aiding and assisting him?
James Macknight gives this as a possible explanation. He said: “Perhaps the apostle meant that the Spirit helped their infirmity by inspiring them with a proper prayer” (Macknight On The Epistles 99). I conclude, therefore, that the term intercession is not always used in the same way. Most understand that Christ is our Intercessor in a unique way (1 John 2:1; Heb. 7.25). The Holy Spirit and Christ do not sustain the same office. James Macknight, again says: “Besides, nowhere in scripture is the Holy Spirit said ‘to intercede for men’ in the proper sense of intercession, which is the merit of the intercessor pleaded in behalf of another. In the proper sense there is but one intercessor with God, the man Christ Jesus” (99).
In John16:13-15, we read: “However, when He, the Spirit of truth has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine. Therefore I said that He will take of Mine and declare it to you.”
I want to emphasize: “He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you.” This highlights the work of the Spirit — revealing the Lord’s will to mankind! Where is the passage which teaches that “the Spirit will take of what is man’s (his insufficient prayers) and declare them to God (interpret them or make them sufficient)? But, on the other hand, if the Holy Spirit’s intercession in this context is inspiring the prayer, then, the Spirit was making known the mind of God to man. We must study the Holy Spirit passages in the context of the setting in which they were written.
The idea that the Spirit is literally in man and doing things for man that are not accomplished by the Word of Truth, be he alien sinner or saint, is an untenable position and cannot be sustained. To hold to the theory of an immediate indwelling of the Spirit without the Spirit having an immediate influence is to hold to an insignificant theory, unworthy of argument. I submit to you the following quotation for your consideration:
It is further maintained, that whatever God does in the Christian, is done through faith, through gospel facts believed, gospel truth apprehended, and appropriated by the soul, as the food of its life, and not by immediate, super- natural energy. . . . the work of the Spirit in strengthening and comforting Christians is confirmed to the ordinary laws of thought and the inner life quite as completely as is His work in the conversion of sinners. . . . The presence of this truth in connection with every divine effect in the inner man, whether in the conversion of sinners, or the growing holiness of saints, is an unquestionable fact of the universal Christian consciousness. That the Spirit of God enlightens and converts sinners, comforts and strengthens saints, through the truth; that love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, fidelity, meekness, self-control, are fruits of the Spirit, we learn, not from consciousness, but from the Word of God . . . . For myself, I make no pretense of having been the subject of any influence which I could consciously recognize as immediately, i.e., without the intervention of truth, from the Spirit. The con- conceptions of God, of Christ, of the Holy Spirit and His work, as they exist in most minds, even with all the advantages of revelation, are painfully crude and inadequate. The source of all clear truth on these questions, is undoubtedly, the Word of God. Whatever may be said about the idea of a Creator and Moral Governor, it is certain that, without revelation, we should not know that there is any Christ or Holy Spirit, This knowledge comes to us, confessedly, from without — through the revelation that God has given us. However real these personalities, we know them not by sense, nor by direct cognition, but by holy Scripture. The facts regarding them are facts of faith, or they are mere delusions . . . Whatever present, personal agency (of the Holy Spirit — call it providential, suggestive, or whatever name may be thought most appropriate — can be held in consistency with the view that divine influence, whether in converting sinners or comforting saints, is not by naked impact, but mediated to the soul by divine truth. I most willingly accept. Said Alexander Campbell, in his debate with Dr. Rice: ‘The Spirit (of God is ever present with His truth, operating in it, and through it, and by it’ . . . Similarly, let us insist that God, in the sphere of redemption, is immanent in truth, in the forces of truth — that He quickens morally dead sinners, sustains and comforts believers, in no case, by naked, mechanical impact, but evermore through influences mediated by truth . . . (Symposium On The Holy Spirit, 63, 64, 69, 71, 76, 77).
Make no mistake about it, the teaching that the Holy Spirit literally and personally indwells the Christian inevitably leads to the Spirit doing things for the Christian apart from the Word, accomplishing things the truth cannot accomplish.
Stanley E. Sayers says in his book, Reflecting On TheSpirit, 190:
The very fact that the great preponderance of Scripture bears upon the indwelling of the Spirit in the Christian as a Person, not outside the Christian, but inside where the need is known and the comfort called for, not in concept but in reality, urges that if He is there to help us, help us He will. And this help extends strongly to prayer where we often find ourselves the most inept.
As I said at the beginning of this study. I need all of the help and guidance available to me. I believe and accept any spiritual influence, any help, any comfort that is conveyed from the loving and Infinite God, realizing that I am a pray- ing, struggling, and trusting human soul — but I believe such help comes through faith, mediated by divine truth! Is this position devoid and destitute of true spirituality? I don’t think so. How else can one be spiritual except it be by the guidance of the Spirit through God’s revelation?