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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:Be encouraged because the Holy Spirit helps our prayers
Text:Romans 8:26-27 (View)

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 48:1,2

Hymn 48:3,4 (after the reading of the law of God)

Hymn 50

Hymn 49

Psalm 34:1,2,7

Scripture reading: Acts 2:1-13

Text: Romans 8:26-27

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ,

Have you ever felt insecure about your prayers?  That can happen even when you’re praying by yourself.  Our Catechism speaks about a prayer which pleases God and is heard by him.  We’re taught that we’re to call upon God from the heart “for all that he has commanded us to pray.”  What he’s commanded us to pray is all in the Lord’s Prayer.  But how many times does it happen that you’re praying and you forget to ask God to hallow his name?  How many times have you forgotten to pray for his kingdom to come?

And then you can have insecurity about your prayers when you’re leading in prayer with others.  You can’t help repeating yourself.  You say “Amen” and then you realize what you forgot to mention in your prayer.  Or you realize how you said something in a way that could be misunderstood.  Maybe you just feel that your whole prayer sounded silly and immature.

It’s not uncommon for Christians to have these kinds of insecurities about prayer.  We all have them, including me.  Our text for this Pentecost Sunday morning speaks to these insecurities we have around prayer.  It brings us good news, gospel encouragement. 

The gospel is a message which encourages us to know that all our sins have been paid for by Jesus on the cross.  It’s news which announces that Jesus has lived a perfect life in our place.  The gospel proclaims that Christ rose from the dead victoriously on the third day, proving that his sacrifice in our place was accepted by God.  The good news tells us that our Saviour ascended into heaven and is now seated at God’s right hand, ruling over all things.  But it doesn’t stop there!  On the day of Pentecost, he poured out his Spirit on his church.  This is part of the good news too.  The gospel includes our Saviour pouring out the Holy Spirit.  One of the reasons he did that was to give us encouragement for our prayer lives.   Loved ones, be encouraged because the Holy Spirit helps our prayers.  That’s the theme for this morning’s sermon.  We’ll consider:

  1. Why we need his help
  2. How he helps
  3. What happens when he helps

Right before our passage, Paul was writing about the “sufferings of this present time.”  He highlights the fact that we live in a time of groaning.  Creation groans because of the impact of sin and so do human beings.  It’s a broken world.  But we’re not without hope.  The gospel of Christ promises us that we’ll be glorified – we’ll fully experience adoption as sons and the redemption of our bodies.  We have gospel hope to encourage us in our suffering.

Our prayers are often a response to this suffering, but they’re also not immune to this suffering.  Our prayers are included in it.  So Romans 8:26 says that just as the gospel gives us hope and encouragement in our sufferings, so it also gives us encouragement when it comes to the weakness of our prayers.  This is why it says “Likewise…” in verse 26.  Verses 18 to 25 are about encouragement of one kind, and likewise verses 26 to 27 are about encouragement of another kind.

Our prayers suffer from weakness.  Because we’re sinful creatures, our communication with God is often going to be falling short of what it should be.  Here God’s Word points out that our prayers are weak specifically in terms of content:  “For we do not know what to pray for as we ought…”  The “what” there in verse 26 tells us that this is about the content of our prayers.  We’re ignorant about praying for the things we should.  We’re ignorant about praying for the things God wants us to pray for.  We have this ignorance because we’re fallen human beings.

Sometimes praying according to God’s will means praying for the things he tells us to pray in his Word.  For example, we could think again of the Lord’s Prayer.  God wants us to pray for the hallowing of his name.  God wants us to pray that he would be seen by everyone to be impressive.  But we forget to do this.  There may be some level at which we know the Lord’s Prayer and we know that Christ teaches us to pray for the hallowing of God’s name, but at that moment as we’re praying we forget and so there’s a sense in which we don’t know at that moment.

But praying according to God’s will is also about praying in line with his decree, how he has determined that everything will unfold in time and history.   We don’t know God’s secret sovereign decree.  We have no access to the inner workings of God’s mind.  That’s known only to God.  Because we’re creatures and he is the Creator, there’s a huge difference between him and us.  He has the capacity to sovereignly determine how everything will happen and then to make it happen.  We have no such capacity and we have no possibility of knowing the intricate details of God’s mind.  It’s impossible for us to pray according to his will in this sense.

Ideally our prayers would line up with God’s will in every respect.  But they can’t.  We need help with this.  We need someone to lend us a hand so our communication with God is what it should be.

Well, we can be encouraged because we have someone who can and does help.  We have the Holy Spirit, poured out among us by our Lord Jesus.  The Holy Spirit is God, the third person of the Holy Trinity.  He was present on the earth already in Old Testament times.  Even back then no one would have been able to have faith in God’s promises without the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts.  He’s always been needed for the work of regeneration.  But in John 15 and 16, Jesus told his disciples that the Holy Spirit would come to the church in a special way.  He would come to be another Paraclete.  The English word “Paraclete” is derived from the Greek word that Jesus uses to describe the Holy Spirit in John 15.  It’s often translated as “Comforter,” but it can also be translated as “Helper.”  Our ESV Bible translation goes with “Helper.”  Jesus says that after he’s ascended into heaven, the Holy Spirit would come as another Helper.  From Romans 8, one of the things we learn he helps us with is our prayers. 

We have weakness.  We have ignorance.  These things could impact our prayers.  But the Holy Spirit steps in and he helps.  How does he help?  He “intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”

The Holy Spirit steps in and he makes our prayers what they should be and then presents them perfect before the throne of grace.  He does so with “groanings too deep for words.”  We have groanings here in this broken world.  Do you ever do that?  Do you ever just sigh at the messed up world we live in?  Your sigh says something words can’t capture.  Similarly the Holy Spirit mysteriously communicates our true needs before the throne of grace in heaven.  As our Helper, he perfects our prayers and he passionately and powerfully pleads our cause.   He is both the Prayer Perfecter and the Prayer Persuader.  That’s the Holy Spirit’s work of intercession on our behalf. 

Now if you read further in Romans 8, you’ll find that Christ is also described as being at the right hand of God interceding for us.  That’s in verse 34.  So that might make you wonder:  who is it that intercedes for us?  Is it Christ or is it the Holy Spirit?  The answer is: both.  Christ intercedes for us in the sense that he constantly holds forth his work on our behalf as the basis for our relationship with God.  The Holy Spirit intercedes for us in regard to our prayers.  He brings our prayers in line with the will of God and then powerfully pleads for those prayers to be heard and answered.  So both the Son and the Spirit intercede for us in their own way, a way unique to who they are and what they do or have done.

In his commentary William Hendriksen has an illustration to help us understand how the Holy Spirit helps our prayers.  There once was this pastor who was dearly loved by his congregation.  He came down with a serious illness.  The congregation prayed and prayed for his healing.  But, sadly, he died.  The family asked another pastor, a friend of the family, to lead the funeral service.  The pastor said something like this during his message:  “Perhaps some of you are in danger of arriving at the conclusion that the heavenly Father does not hear prayer.  He does indeed hear prayer, however.  But in this particular case two prayers were probably opposing each other.  You were praying, ‘O God, spare his life, for we need him so badly.’  The Spirit’s unspoken prayer was, ‘Take him away, for the congregation is leaning altogether too heavily upon him, not upon thee.’  And the Father heard that prayer.”  You see, we don’t always know what to pray for, but the Holy Spirit takes our weak and imperfect prayers and he brings them into line with God’s will.

It’s important to realize that we’re talking about how the Holy Spirit helps our prayers.  He “helps us in our weakness.”  But implied in that is that we ourselves are still going to be praying.  God doesn’t want you to hear this and go, “I don’t need to pray.  The Holy Spirit can do it for me.”  No, Scripture plainly teaches that God wants his people to call upon him in prayer.  But we realize that we do it in weakness.  To encourage us spiritual weaklings, God promises that his Spirit will graciously help, perfecting our prayers and making our cause his own.  That motivates us to keep praying and to pray at all times with confidence.  We don’t need to get bogged with our insecurities.  Loved ones, keep praying and trust that the Holy Spirit will take your prayers and make them good, true, and beautiful before God’s throne.

There’s more encouragement in God’s Word here in verse 27.  Let’s look at what happens when he helps. 

Verse 27 refers to “he who searches hearts.”  That’s speaking about God.  It’s using familiar language from Old Testament passages like Psalm 139:1, “O LORD, you have searched and known me…”   We say that God is omniscient, he knows everything.  As part of that, he also knows what lives in everyone’s hearts and minds.  That truth is meant to encourage us here when it comes to our prayers. 

The Holy Spirit is the one who intercedes for believers, for the saints.  He is God the Holy Spirit, one of the three persons of the Trinity.  If God searches and knows the hearts of human beings who are creatures distinct from him, wouldn’t he also know the mind of his own Holy Spirit?  The thoughts of the Holy Spirit, those groanings which are too deep for words, will surely be known by God.  God will know the Holy Spirit’s thoughts perfectly and exhaustively.  What the Holy Spirit does for us in perfecting our prayers and intereceding will definitely reach the ears of our heavenly Father.  God’s omniscience, his all-knowing, and his intra-Trinitarian relationships guarantee that our true needs will always be addressed.

Our heavenly Father knows that the Spirit is interceding “for the saints according to the will of God.”  You might notice that there’s a footnote next to “because” in verse 27.  If you look at the bottom of the page in your Bible, you can see that an alternative translation is “that.”  I think the footnote is a better translation, since it fits better with the context and logic of the passage.  Because our heavenly Father knows the mind of the Holy Spirit, he knows that the Spirit is interceding in this way.  He hears him.

And this intercession is “according to the will of God.”  Here we need to also consider what Scripture says in 1 John 5:14, “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.”  When we pray according to God’s will, we can be confident that he hears and answers our prayers.  Now bring verse 27 of Romans 8 into the picture.  The Holy Spirit brings everything we pray into line with the will of God.  So, if it’s true that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us, and if the Holy Spirit is perfecting our prayers according to God’s will, then we have the utmost confidence that he hears us.  We can be sure that our prayers are reaching God’s ears. 

When God answers, he then answers according to the perfect prayers that were presented for us by the Holy Spirit.  The answer isn’t according to your imperfect prayers made out of your weakness.  The reason for this traces back to who the Holy Spirit is.  He is perfectly good.  That means he is never going to perfect your prayers in a way that will result in your ultimate harm or destruction.  He’s completely invested in your flourishing, in your ultimate well-being.  The Holy Spirit is perfectly wise.  That means he knows the best end result for you and he knows how to perfect your prayer in a way that will lead to that end result. 

Loved ones, this gives encouragement for our prayers.  You may feel like your prayers are weak and lacking in all kinds of ways.  Well, objectively speaking they are and so are mine.  But let’s never forget what God promises about his Spirit and our prayers.  God promises that his Holy Spirit will help in our weakness.  So whenever you pray, take comfort from the fact that the effectiveness of your prayer isn’t in your hands.  It doesn’t depend on you.  While we still want to pray biblically, God is such a merciful and gracious Father and he loves us so much that he gives us what we need so that our weak and pathetic prayers are crafted into exactly what he wants to hear.  Trust his Word on that.

And what about after we pray and we see God’s answer unfold in our lives?  Like in the example of William Hendriksen, perhaps we prayed for healing for ourselves or for a loved one and God said “No.”  His answer was, “No, I’m not going to grant healing.”  What should we think then?  Did the Holy Spirit fail us?  Well, we’re assuming the answer we desire is the one that is “according to the will of God.”  But the answer we get is the one the Holy Spirit has determined is in fact “according to the will of God.”  Sometimes that’s not easy to accept, I get it.  But here’s where we need to ask ourselves whether we really believe in the goodness and wisdom of not only the Holy Spirit, but of the Father and the Son too.  If we believe that God is good and wise, then we need to learn to accept the answers that he gives us when we pray.  That takes humility.  That takes the humility to admit that we have weakness.  We’re not infinitely good and definitely not infinitely wise.  We don’t always know what to pray for.  We’re like little children with their Father.  We’re like little children who have so much to learn yet.  But we have seen and experienced how our Father is good and wise in different ways.  Most of all we’ve seen how our Father is good and wise in how he’s graciously saved us through Christ crucified.  We should know by now that we can trust him and his Word tells us that we can trust his Holy Spirit too.

The human author of our text had to learn all these things too.  In Second Corinthians 12 Paul wrote about that thorn in his flesh.  He had some affliction that troubled him – what it was exactly, we don’t know.  But he says he pleaded with the Lord about it.  Paul wanted that thorn gone – his thinking was that it’d surely be better for him to be without this thorn in his flesh.  And you know what?  The Holy Spirit helped him in the weakness of his prayer.  The Holy Spirit interceded and perfected his prayer.  Then the answer came to him:  “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  It wasn’t what Paul prayed for, but it was what the Holy Spirit prayed for.  In faith, Paul trusted in God’s goodness and wisdom and he accepted this answer.  Brothers and sisters, let’s do likewise as we pray about the thorns we and others experience.  Let’s trust the Holy Spirit to help us in our weak prayers.  AMEN. 


O Holy Spirit,

Thank you for promising to help us in our weakness.  So often our prayers are falling short.  We don’t know what to pray for as we should.  So we’re thankful that you promise to intercede for us with groanings too deep for words.  We’re encouraged to know that you will take our prayers and make them perfect and acceptable before the throne of grace.  O Holy Spirit, please help us to find encouragement from what you’ve said in Romans 8.  With your help, may we never be discouraged from praying because of how we feel our weakness.  Please help us too so that when our prayers are answered, we accept these answers with humility, knowing that you are good and wise.  Help us with your power to always trust our heavenly Father like humble little children.

O God, thank you for pouring out the Holy Spirit upon your church.  We praise you that the good news includes his ministry on our behalf.  We love you for the rich blessing that he is for us as your people.                                                                                             

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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