In Romans 8:26, the Apostle Paul says: “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.”
Before addressing how the Spirit helps us in prayer, let’s establish two foundational truths. First, every believer is indwelt by the Holy Spirit. In Romans 8:9, the Apostle says: “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to Him” (see also Eph. 1:13–14).
Second, the instruments used by the indwelling Spirit to help and strengthen believers are God’s appointed means of grace. Statements to this effect are contained in both Lutheran and Reformed standards. Luther’s explanation of the third article of the Apostles’ Creed in his Small Catechism is a good example: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord; or come to Him, but the Holy Ghost has called me by the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts.” In short, the indwelling Spirit illumines our minds to comprehend God’s grace in Christ through the ordinary means of the Word and sacraments. And, as passages such as Ephesians 4:15–16 and Hebrews 10:24–25 tell us, the Holy Spirit ministers to us also through vital and vibrant fellowship within the body of Christ.
Returning to the topic of prayer, Paul, beginning in Romans 7:7, unpacks the reality, implications. and struggles of remaining sin, leading him to cry out: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (7:24). The answer that he gives, of course, is Christ. So throughout Romans 7–8, Paul references by way of contrast the weakness of our flesh and the help of the Spirit. We don’t always feel or act like children of God, but the Spirit bears witness that we are (8:15–17).
The reason Paul doesn’t know how to pray as he ought is that he feels unworthy to petition God because of his remaining sin. But the Spirit helps believing sinners to come boldly to the throne of grace, reminding us through God’s appointed means that through our union with Christ we are indeed the children of God and joint heirs with Christ. Therefore, when we cry out, “Abba, Father,” we are heard by a gracious, loving Father. The Holy Spirit, then, helps us in prayer to recall who we are and to comprehend the grace of the Lord to whom we’re praying.
Rev. Ken Jones is pastor of Glendale Baptist Church in Miami.