NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER EIGHT (Lesson XXXIII)
The Apostle James takes knowing what God wants for our life another step: “If you want to know what God wants you to do, ask Him, and He will gladly tell you, for He is always ready to give a bountiful supply of wisdom to all who ask Him; He will not resent it. But when you ask Him, be sure that you really expect Him to tell you, for a doubtful mind will be as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind; and every decision you then make will be uncertain, as you turn first this way and then that. If you don’t ask with faith, don’t expect the Lord to give you any solid answer.”1
And the Apostle John is in agreement. He tells his readers: “Dearly beloved friends, if our consciences are clear, we can come to the Lord with perfect assurance and trust, and get whatever we ask for because we are obeying Him and doing the things that please Him.”2 Later on John reiterates: “We are sure of this, that He will listen to us whenever we ask Him for anything in line with His will. And if we really know He is listening when we talk to Him and make our requests, then we can be sure that He will answer us.”3
So the point here in Paul’s teaching is that when the Holy Spirit joins us in our petitioning God for what we need to do His will, He will answer. The Spirit always helps us ask for things that are in accordance with God’s will for our lives and our destiny. That’s because the Spirit knows the mind of God and what He wants for us.4 This led early church scholar Origen to say that Paul is telling us that God pays less attention to the words we use in prayer than He does to what is in our heart and on our mind.5 And the early church writer of a commentary on Paul’s Epistles notes that Paul makes it clear: since the prayer of every spirit of man is known to God, from whom nothing is secret or hidden, how much more then should the Father know what the Holy Spirit, who is the same essence as Himself, is saying.6
Then an early church Bishop of the Syrian Orthodox Church makes the point we often see that all the good promptings which bring us to repentance result from the activity of the Spirit, and pure prayer which brings all these good promptings to completion, is also stirred up in our soul as the result of the Spirit’s activity. He too, in a hidden way, initially arouses us to groan at the memory of our sins.7 And then we have the thoughts from the Bishop of Arles, who was known for his pastoral skills, that even when one of God’s saints kneels or stands in silence, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit causes the shouts of their heart to be heard in the presence of God.8
Reformer John Calvin finds what Paul says here as a rational motive to enhance our confidence that we are being heard by God when we pray with His Spirit because this allows the Father to thoroughly know our desires because they are also known by His Spirit. Calvin advises that we should notice how Paul uses the world knows to indicate that God does not regard these emotions of the Spirit as new and strange. Therefore, He does not reject them as being unreasonable. Instead, He permits them to rise upward to Him as prayer. Then He graciously receives them as something that He allows and approves of.9 As Calvin sees it, Paul is saying that God not only listens when we come to Him as children, but that He willingly draws us close to Him so that our unanswered prayers do not become a reason for doubting that our heavenly Father loves us with all His heart.
Wesleyan theologian Adam Clarke explains his understanding of what Paul is saying here. To him, it implies that our Lord is making intercession for us to the Father. He does so by negotiating and managing all the affairs pertaining to our salvation, as a friend and personal representative. To think about it, that’s a lot to ask of the King of Glory. And the Holy Spirit also makes intercession for the believer. Not by petitioning God on their behalf, but by directing and qualifying their prayers in a proper manner. He does so by His authority and influence on their hearts. This is all in accordance with what the Gospel says about the particular work and office of the Holy Spirit.10 But Clarke also focuses on the fact that the Holy Spirit speaks for us in a way that conforms with God’s mind, intentions, and design for our lives. This is true even when saints express themselves in words, desires, groans, sighs, or tears. For Clarke, God reads the language of the Holy Spirit, even if we do not understand, and prepares an answer according to the request the Spirit communicates to Him on our behalf.
Clarke then draws this conclusion: what we can learn from all this is that a person need not be fluent and trained in how to recite prayers. That is not essential to praying. In God’s eyes, even a simple and uncomplicated prayer can be considered a powerful expression of need or praise. This is true even when the person praying is unable to utter a single word. How precious this is, that God understands even the unutterable groan of a person who is mute because it contains God’s language spoken by the Holy Spirit. We all know that sometimes our needs or desires are so deep and personal that they are hard to express. Even if we could speak many languages there’s none expressive enough to say all we’d like to tell God. Often, such requests and desires have been put in our heart by God. And since they came from Him, they express what God really wants for us. In Clarke’s mind, this provides a sense of great encouragement to all those who are agonizing for the day they will enter heaven’s gates.11
Robert Haldane gives us an outline to help us see what Paul is saying here about intercession. For Haldane, someone might object and ask: “To what purpose are those groanings which we cannot understand?” He believes that if the Apostle Paul were here today he might share some of these reasons: First, God knows exactly what these prayers mean because He is able to search a person’s heart, something He knows very well.12 Even when a believer sighs and groans due to his being in such bewilderment and distress that he cannot utter a single word, those sighs and groanings are full of meaning to the omniscient God. Secondly, God knows what is “on the Spirit’s mind.” Therefore, whatever the Spirit is dictating in the believer’s heart is approved by God because He and the Spirit are of one mind. Thirdly, because He makes intercession, it is not necessary that we fully understand His intercession. It is for this reason why God knows the mind of the Spirit. It is also the reason why He will hear and answer the groans which the Holy Spirit evokes. A further reason is, that this intercession is custom made for believers. That is why He said: “Gather to me my faithful, those who made a covenant with me by sacrifice.”13
And finally, it is added that the Spirit makes intercession “according to the will of God” (verse 27). These prayers are heard then because when the Spirit intercedes for the children of God, He inspires no desires except what is agreeable to God’s will. This helps us see how sure we can be that those groanings which cannot be articulated will be heard and answered. For “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us.”14 Haldane is convinced that the most effective prayers are not those of human eloquence, but those which spring from the sincere desires of the heart.15
Charles Hodge notes that although there are times when our desires and needs are too difficult to express, that the eye of Him who searches the heart can read and understand them. This is not a new concept, it was already revealed in the First Covenant. For instance, Jeremiah tells us: “Only the LORD knows! He searches all hearts and examines deepest motives so He can give to each person his right reward, according to his deeds—how he has lived.”16
Albert Barnes notes a similar understanding of how the believer is benefited. He says we should not believe that when the Holy Spirit assists and inspires our prayers we are infallible and cannot make improper requests. Rather, with the influence that the Holy Spirit has over the believer’s mind, they can avoid asking for things they really don’t need or that do not fit God’s calling on their lives compared to how much they are willing to yield to His guidance. Barnes says, that believers are safest when they yield themselves completely to the directional influence of the Holy Spirit. And the doctrine Paul states here is one that brings great consolation to the believer’ heart. We may be considered poor and needy, or ignorant and blind, but in the midst of our feebleness, we can ask God for help through His Spirit. When He answers, we can rejoice in His presence. And we can be assured that His power will sustain us through our hours of sighing, and to guide us as we march toward that city whose builder and maker is God.17
John Stott makes us aware of those involved when we pray. First, there’s us, kneeling in our weakness, not knowing exactly what to pray for. Second, the indwelling Holy Spirit comes to our aid by interceding on our behalf, using our voice to do so. But when we are speechless because our need or burden is too difficult to utter, He will not only speak for us but do so according to God’s will. Third, there’s our Mediator, Jesus, God’s only Son who is at His right hand ready to endorse the prayers that the Holy Spirit brings to the Father in His name. And fourth, there’s God the Father who both searches our hearts, knows the Spirit’s mind, and is moved with love when He sees the nail prints in the hands of His Son. He hears and answers accordingly to what the Spirit says and the Son agrees we need. Of these four, Paul emphasizes the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Stott points out that Paul states three facts about the Holy Spirit. First, “the Spirit helps us” (because of our weak state of mind and spirit); secondly, “by interceding for us” (because in our ignorance we are not sure what to pray for); and thirdly, “according to God’s will” (this causes God to listen and respond without hesitation).18 What can be said then that would make us any more confident when we pray?
1 James 1:5-8
2 1 John 3:21-22
3 Ibid. 5:14-15
4 2 Corinthians 2:11
5 Origen: on Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
6 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 Philoxenus of Mabbug: On the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit. (Mabbug is near today’s Kirkuk, Iraq.)
8 Caesarius of Arles (France): Sermon 97.2
9 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
10 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 157
12 1 Chronicles 28:9
13 Psalm 50:5 – Complete Jewish Bible
14 1 John 5:14
15 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 388-389
16 Jeremiah 17:10, (Cf. Psalm 139:1-12; Revelation 2:23
17 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
18 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.