Thanksgiving sermon preached on Romans 8:26-28 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 11/25/2012 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“The Spirit Also Helps”
Prayer. That is our topic for today. It’s something so central to the Christian. And yet it’s something that we can also find to be difficult. This passage addresses this. And it encourages us. What we see first in this passage is why we need prayer. We have, as it says in verse 26, weaknesses. These weaknesses are why we need to pray. And yet this passage goes on to acknowledge that we have troubles with our prayers. Verse 26 says we don’t know what we should be praying. That’s a problem of course. I’m sure it’s one that all of us can relate to in one way or another or at one time or another in our prayer life. Notice even that the Apostle Paul puts himself in this same category because he uses the first person plural, “we.” “We do not know what we should pray for,” he says (emphasis added). And so Christians have many needs that require prayer. But we have troubles in knowing how to rightly pray. And yet this passage tells us that there is help for us with regard to prayer. Paul reveals to us that the Spirit of God helps us in this. The Holy Spirit within us is praying for us. He’s praying concerning our weaknesses, and he knows what to pray. And so that is a very quick summary of today’s passage and of today’s sermon. Let’s dig into the details now.
We’ll begin by considering our weaknesses. Christians have many different kinds of weaknesses. Verse 26 tells us this. Notice that it’s in the plural. Not just one weakness. Multiple weaknesses. Well, in the context of Romans, we’ve seen lots of weaknesses that humans have. Let’s review some of the bigger ones. One weakness is that we live in a time of suffering right now. This is to state this very broadly, because suffering encapsulates many of our troubles. It would probably be more accurate to say that our various sufferings expose many of our different weaknesses. Paul mentioned this a few times already in chapter 8, verses 17 and 18 particularly. We have a future of glory that will get rid of all these sufferings. But right now, we live in a time that will involve suffering. Such suffering comes in many ways. Such suffering serves to test us. We tend to refer to them as “trials.” That is of course were our weaknesses shine because we don’t always pass each test. Often times we do fail the trials that such suffering brings. Our specific weaknesses are exposed in these times of suffering. We need prayer for strength in the trials of our sufferings.
A second weakness is related to this. Paul has encouraged us by telling us that our time of suffering will be replaced with glory. He said in verse 18 that the two are of no comparison – glory is incomparably better. He said this is our hope, the hope of glory. But then he went on to say that such is hope is not something we see now. It’s an unseen hope – verses 24 and 25. But that’s the second weakness of ours to mention. We have a hope, but we can’t see it yet. And that can be a struggle for many of us. That can expose weakness in our faith. We believe, but at the same time struggle to believe. We believe, but we want some greater assurance of our faith or hope. Things can shake our yet unseen hope. This is a weakness we can have, and it’s one we need prayer for strength.
A third weakness to mention is over our struggle with sin and the flesh. Paul has been telling us that Christians are to live according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh. Chapter 7 really brought out his own personal struggles in this. He knows how he should live as a Christian, but doesn’t always live that way. He has this constant tension between doing the right thing and doing the wrong thing. Paul’s own struggles reflect our own struggles. This too is a weakness for us. We have the weakness of remaining corruption. We have the weakness of a sinful nature that has not been fully put to death yet. We struggle to live holy. This weakness too needs prayer for strength.
I’ll mention one last major weakness today, though of course, we surely are still just scratching the surface. It’s the weakness of our prayer life. We already touched on this. I’ll delve more into this in a moment. But as we are listing out our weaknesses, let’s make sure to jot this one down too. Our prayer life is not what it should be. We don’t know what to pray for. This too needs prayer for strengthening.
All of these, and more, are weaknesses we face as Christians in this life. But the good news is that God does great things in and through our weaknesses. I remember 2 Corinthians 12:9-10. There Paul recounts one of his own weaknesses and struggles. He described a thorn in the flesh that he was having. He doesn’t tell us specifically what it was. But he tells us what God told him about it. This was God’s answer after Paul three times asked for it to be removed. God said this, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” In reply, Paul says that he realized that therefore when he is weak, he is strong. This is us. We have many weaknesses. But our passage for today tells us that God makes us strong. As we’ll see, that in part, that’s because the Spirit helps us in our weaknesses, even with regard to prayer.
Well then, let’s turn now to expose further our weakness with regard to prayer. Paul tells us in verse 26 what our problem is. He says we don’t know what we should pray. The most literal understanding of this from the Greek seems that this is a content issue. Surely this is something we can relate to. Maybe an example for some was the last election. I had people tell me things like they didn’t like either candidate that much. Well, how do you pray when you aren’t happy with either candidate? Or how do you pray if you are not happy with the outcome. Given that the vote was split almost 50%/50%, you’d think there are a lot of people unhappy with the outcome. Now, I’m not saying that there aren’t plenty of good things to pray for in such circumstances. I could give you a list of things to pray about with regard to the election and its outcome, even if you aren’t sure about the candidates or the outcome. But I bring it up hopefully to get us to begin to think about times where maybe you struggled how to pray and what to say. Again, even the Apostle Paul included himself in that category.
And so when we stop and think about it in light of this verse, I think we can see several ways we struggle in our prayers in this way. In terms of the content of our prayers. Let’s list out how this might be realized then. One, we can be unsure of what to pray for. We can go to pray about something, and just not have any real sense of what to pray for about a certain thing. Second, we can have an incorrect request. In other words, we might be fully convinced about the content of your prayer, but God might think that’s the wrong thing to be asking. Scripture tells us in 1 John 5:14-15 that we can have confidence in receiving from God what we ask of him, if we pray according to his will. And yet isn’t that our problem? That is another weakness of our prayer in terms of content. We pray some specific request, but it’s not according to God’s will. It’s not what God would have us to ask. It may be a prayer of great conviction, but it can still be for the wrong thing.
A third way this weakness of prayer can be realized is with doubt in what you ask. This can be similar to the first one I mentioned about being unsure of what to ask for. But let’s say you actually do make a decision on what you should pray. But then you make your prayers and petitions but do so with doubt. Even as you pray, you suddenly realize how you lack certainty over whether it’s the right thing to be praying for. James says in James 1 that if you have doubting in your prayers, it’s like being a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. He says such people should not expect that God will answer that prayer. And so again the point is that this doubt is another aspect of how we can have weakness in our prayers, especially in terms of content.
Fourth, and the final one I’ll mention today, is that we can pray with faulty motives. In other words, the content of our prayers is marred by the fact that we ask with the wrong goals or purposes. We have selfish ends in mind. We look to serve ourselves in our prayer life, and according to our own standards, instead of
serving God according to his standards. Proverbs 16:2 says that all a man’s ways seem innocent to him, but motives are weighed by the Lord. Surely this is in view too, because verse 28 talks about how God searches the heart. And so when we pray, God searches our hearts. He knows our motivations. They can be found to be at fault as God examines them.
And so in our prayers and in the content of our prayers, we find varying weaknesses. In one way or another, they end up being prayers not according to God’s will. But what is really stinging in all this, is that verse 26 has the words “as we ought.” We don’t know what to pray, as we ought. We don’t know what to pray, but we really should. Surely this is part of that remaining corruption in us. Our minds and hearts need further renewal when it comes to what we should be praying.
So we’ve talked about our need for prayer. We have weaknesses, many weaknesses. And so we need prayer for strength. But we don’t know how to pray as we ought. What are we to do? Well, the good news is that this passage tells us instead what God has done for us. Indeed, when we are weak, we are strong. For God’s strength comes to our aid in our weakness. That is what this passage tells us with regard to prayer. And so verse 26 says the Spirit helps us in our weaknesses. Literally, he comes to our aid in them. Verse 26 then identifies that what aid means for us. If we can’t pray properly, well then the Spirit will pray for us. The Spirit intercedes, and that, it says, for us, in verse 26. For the saints, verse 27. For you, and me, and all who are called by the name of Christ, the Holy Spirit is living inside us and praying to God on our behalf. Later in this chapter we are told that Jesus Christ is at the right hand of God interceding for us. Here we see that the Holy Spirit from within us is interceding. Isn’t this great news for a people who have troubles and who have troubles even with their prayers? That God the Holy Spirit and God the Son are both speaking to God the Father on our behalf! Praise the Lord!
Verse 26 describes how the Spirit prays for us. It says that the Spirit prays with groanings which cannot be uttered. Now let me say this, there are some strange interpretations of this verse and this groaning. For example, some Charismatics who believe the gift of tongues still is given today, say this is referring to praying in tongues. And so they think that when someone is praying in tongues that this is really the Holy Spirit praying through them. That sounds interesting, but that would have to read an awful lot into the text. Plus it fails to do justice to the qualification of verse 26 which says these groanings cannot be uttered. That means what it sounds like – these groaning aren’t something that are spoken aloud. These groanings are inexpressible, they are unspeakable, they are wordless. That’s the point of verse 26 here, and so it means you aren’t going to hear the Spirit’s intercessions.
However, even some conservative theologians still in my estimate think they can understand these groanings a little more than I think is warranted in this text. Some would say, for example, that the groanings referenced here are found in our own hearts. They point to different impressions or movements of our hearts toward certain things and suggest that these could be such groanings of the Holy Spirit in us. That sounds nice, but I think it’s also saying more than the text says.
I think instead that we just need to step back and let the context help us to understand these groanings. Notice the word that starts off this passage. “Likewise.” That word “likewise” is connecting verses 26-27 with something in the last passage. We have to ask what is the connection? We have to look for conceptual or linguistic connections to figure out what comparison is being made. As we do that, we see that there is a word that appears three times in verses 18-26. Once here in our passage for today, and twice in the previous section. It’s the word of groaning. Creation groans. We groan. And the Holy Spirit groans. It would seem this is the clearest connection between this passage and the last passage. If we understand what the first two groanings are about, then that surely will help us to understand this third groaning, the groaning of the Holy Spirit inside us. Well, the creation and us were both said to be groaning about the same thing. The creation and us, it said, are groaning for the new creation, for glory, when our sufferings will be complete. The creation groans to be set free from its corruption. We groan to be delivered from our bodies of death. Note that in both cases, the actual focus on the groaning is not necessarily on a physical phenomenon. When the creation is said to be groaning, Paul was clearly personifying the creation. No audible groaning was surely intended. When we are said to be groaning, though we can think of some real physical groans we might make, the point is beyond that. Such groans would be to express how we can’t wait to be free from our current sufferings. And so the point is how we can’t wait for glory. How we, and even the whole creation, can’t wait until Christ returns and delivers us from our sins and sufferings and miseries. Should we think then that the groaning of the Holy Spirit is different than that? I don’t think so.
And so it seems best to connect the groaning of the Holy Spirit with these previous two groanings. As such, it seems the Holy Spirit groans along with us over the coming redemption. Put this in light of our weaknesses. We are weak, we have troubles, so the Spirit groans with us. The Spirit groans then for the day of Christ. The Spirit groans that we will persevere in patience until that day. The Spirit groans as it experiences with us all our struggles until that day. In other word, the groans of the Spirit are like the other groans – they are that passionate desire for glory to come and to be done with all the troubles that we’ll have until then. And yet the Spirit’s groans are directed positively. We can understand how human groaning could lead toward complaining. But not the Spirit’s groaning. The Spirit’s yearning for us to come to glory means that he prays for us. The Spirit expresses his groans with prayer! He prays for us because he sees that is something we really need. And so he intercedes.
So, in light of this understanding, verse 27 answers the question then of how God hears the Spirit. If the Spirit intercedes for us without words, how does God hear the prayers? And should we have confidence that God not only hears but answers these prayers? Well, verse 27 encourages us that God both hears and answers the prayers of the Spirit on our behalf. Let me explain. Verse 27 says, “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.” He who searches hearts, is clearly a reference to God. Scripture says time and again that God is the one who knows, tests, and examines the hearts of men. This is by the way, why we know God hears us even when we pray in our mind, without speaking out loud our prayers. Well, this essentially is saying that if that’s true for us, then it’s true for the Holy Spirit. The same God who knows what we are thinking, knows what the Holy Spirit is thinking too. In other words, God knows the speechless prayers of the Holy Spirit. Remember, the Holy Spirit does not have a body. His prayers won’t ordinarily be audible because he is Spirit and does not have a tongue or vocal chords like men. But that doesn’t make his prayers any less real or any less intelligible to God the Father. God knows the Holy Spirit’s intercessory prayers.
And so the encouragement comes that verse 27 says that God knows that the Spirit’s mind is in according to God’s will. Literally, his prayers are “according to God.” Remember, I quoted earlier 1 John that says that our prayers are promised to be answered, if they are according to the will of God. Well, the Holy Spirit’s prayers that come from within us – they are according to the will of God! Think about it. We can have bad motives in our prayers. We can pray not according to the will of God. But not the Spirit. His motives are pure. He always prays according to God’s will. We don’t pray as we ought. The Holy Spirit always prays as he ought! His mind is fully in accord with God, because he is God! And so this means that we can be confident that the Spirit’s prayers will be answered. Every time!
And so this is the gospel encouragement in this passage. God sent Jesus to die on the cross to save you from you sins. And then he sent the Spirit to draw you unto Christ in faith. Scripture’s clear. God has had this plan to save you all along. And so the Spirit’s ongoing prayer from within you is all a part of that plan. God knows the sufferings you’ll experience and weaknesses you’ll have before we get to glory. But God has a plan. And to make sure you make it unto glory, he gives you his Spirit to even pray for you. This is why that famous verse comes next. Romans 8:28 is still in effect, in part because the Spirit is inside you praying for you. The Spirit groans, eagerly waiting for you to enter into glory and escape your present sufferings. The Spirit makes sure that happens at every juncture in your life, praying for you in all circumstances. Because the Spirit prays for us, then surely all the circumstances in our life are worked out for our good. So that we who have been predestined, would get called, and then we would be justified, and ultimately glorified. The Spirit is helping us by his prayers in all these things unto these goals. Ultimately unto glory. This is the Spirit of Christ helping us. Christ is at work by his Spirit in our lives, to make sure our faith is brought to completion unto glory. Christ prays in heaven for us. The Spirit prays in our hearts for us. In turn, God works all things for our good. The Spirit and Christ know God’s good purpose for us, and they pray to that end, and that is what comes to pass. Be encouraged saints. This is all part of the gospel and God’s wonderful salvation at work in our lives. Now do you understand why all things work together for your good?
Saints, I’d like to close out our message for today with two closing applications. First, have trust and confidence in God in all things. Because the Spirit is praying. Often in our own prayers we have the temptation to become disheartened. We pray and pray about something and we don’t seem to get the answer we want. But it’s been pointed out by theologians that while we are praying, the Spirit is praying too. If our prayers conflict, guess whom God will answer. But that should give you more and more confidence and trust in God amidst all things. Even when you don’t understand why certain things must happen. God still has the best plan. Trust God’s plan. Trust God’s plan in part because you know the Spirit inside you is constantly there to help us. There’s a reason he’s called the Helper.
The second application is to keep on praying yourself. You might wonder why you should even bother to keep praying if you know that both Christ and the Spirit are praying for you. You might wonder why bother praying if the Spirit always gets the prayers right, and we too often get it wrong what we should be praying. That logic might seem understandable. But if you do have that temptation, then surely that will be something the Spirit will begin to pray about for you! The Bible is clear. We are to pray. We are pray continually, persistently, fervently, and with much faith. Yes, we struggle to pray what we should pray. But God still calls us to pray. And he still says we ought to know what to pray. And so this is a call today not just to pray. But there is also an implied call to work at learning how to pray better. The Bible is constantly instructing us in the skill of prayer. Learn this skill. Learn it from the Word. Practice it. Work at it. Grow in it. This too is something the Spirit will help you in. Remember, earlier in this chapter we saw that it’s the Spirit that sparks you to cry out, “Abba, Father.” And so the fact that the Spirit prays for us, and that he works a spirit of prayer in us, these are compatible. He will keep this up all the way to glory. Let us then look to walk in step with him all the way. Amen.
Copyright © 2012 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.