The Spirit’s Help
Topic: Expository Passage: Romans 8:26–27
Ever since the Garden of Eden, one of humanity’s favorite hobbies has been trying to improve God. People think he’s too big or too small, too just or too merciful, too distant or too near, too complex or too simple, and they want to fix him.
So, pagans began making idols and telling religious tales. Even Israel tried to improve God at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Muhammed imagined God as he wanted him to be and called him Allah. More recently, Joseph Smith, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and many others have tried to tweak God to make him a little better or a little more palatable.
But when you compare all these gods or supposedly improved versions of God to the God of the Bible, you know what you find? They are all worse than the true God. People may prefer them for some self-serving reason, but they aren’t better. We can’t imagine a better god than the God of the Bible. He is perfect and wonderful in every way.
Today’s passage offers one of my favorite windows into God’s glory and how his concern for us. (read). We’ve talked a lot about the indwelling Spirit. The idea that infinite God would make your body his temple is amazing enough, but here we learn that the Holy Spirit also knows you intimately, in fact better than you know yourself. And he is accomplishing his good and sovereign purpose for you. Our passage details this incredible work in three stages. First…
I. The Spirit helps (v. 26a).
Notice that the verse begins with “in the same way” or “likewise.” That tells us that this verse is making a comparison with something preceding it. What is that? Remember that vv. 18–25 explained how suffering fits in the Christian’s pathway to glory. Life in this world is hard. We suffer for Christ, and we suffer under the general effects of the curse.
However, vv. 24–25 remind us that the gospel is a gospel of hope. The primary blessings of the gospel are in eternity, not in this world. This hope provides strong encouragement as we suffer here. Hope keeps us focused and motivated to persevere through every challenge.
Therefore, the connection between vv. 18–25 and vv. 26–27 is that Paul will offer a second help for weary Christians as we suffer in this world. Not only does gospel hope encourage us, but “The Spirit also helps our weakness.” He is there to help bear the load.
The remainder of the passage especially concerns our weakness in prayer, but I believe this this opening statement concerns general human weakness because of the connection to vv. 18–25. And Paul is especially thinking of spiritual weakness because the primary concern of Romans 8 is our struggle for spiritual transformation.
So, incredibly, God declares that the Holy Spirit helps us as we endure general human suffering but especially our own spiritual weakness.
Yes, the world and the devil strongly resist our spiritual progress. But your biggest enemy is your own weakness. Your sin nature constantly resists doing God’s will. You battle temptation and many evil desires. And your physical limitations only increase the struggle. We get tired. We are forgetful. Our understanding is small. Sometimes we can’t even understand our own desires.
We are very weak. And that weakness makes life difficult, it slows spiritual progress, and it’s often discouraging.
But God hasn’t left us alone in our weakness. He has given us the Spirit who helps with our weakness. This verb means, “joining with to help,” “bearing a burden along with.” It pictures the Spirit as right alongside us helping to carry the burden of our weakness.
Yes, he helps us with every weakness and every challenge of life in a sin-cursed world. But the primary concern of Romans 8 is God’s promise to form godliness in his people and bring us to glory. Therefore, the primary idea is that the Spirit helps us overcome our pride, sinful passions, and spiritual blindness and move toward glory. He’s with us every step of the way!
It’s an incredibly encouraging image because God could have just said, “Trust me, future glory outshines present suffering. Be tough, deal with your weakness, and I’ll see you in heaven.” But he didn’t. He gave you the Holy Spirit who is always with you, and he promises to help you with every weakness on your way to glory.
You can trust him to sustain your faith through every trial. He will help you get up from every failure. He will help you battle every temptation. He will keep you focused through every distraction. He will convict you about every blind spot. The Spirit will help with your every weakness.
Give thanks for the Spirit’s presence. God cares. He is near. You are blessed. Then take courage. Your weakness can feel overwhelming at times. But you are not alone. The Spirit is under the load with you, you can overcome, and by his grace you will overcome. Then, Paul zeros in on one incredible, specific way the Spirit helps our weakness. The 2nd stage of our text is…
II. The Spirit prays (v. 26b).
This is an incredible little statement, though I must warn you that it is filled with interpretive and theological land mines. We must deal with them in order to understand it accurately. But we must also stand in awe of what God is saying and learn how to rest in God’s promise. That said, the first part of the statement fairly simple. I’m going to call it…
The Christian grasps. When Paul says, “we do not know how to pray,” he’s not concerned with our method of prayer—things like our posture, our place of prayer, or even the words we use. Rather, he is concerned with the requests that we bring to God. We know this because he goes on to describe the Spirit’s intercession, meaning his requests for us. So, God is saying that we often don’t know what we should be asking for.
I want to reemphasize that Paul’s primary concern is spiritual growth. Yes, we often don’t know what to pray for about many things. You may not know which job to take, what’s the best financial choice, or how to answer a tough question. God cares about all of that, and but the specific concern in this context is that we often don’t know what to pray for as we pursue godliness.
That’s because we do not fully understand our spiritual needs, and what really targets we must hit to become godly. We also don’t know the best route to get where we need to go.
Why is that? Jeremiah 17:9 says our hearts are deceitful. We don’t even know ourselves. We certainly don’t know the challenges that lie ahead and what we will need to overcome them. We are so weak that we don’t even always know where to go, much less, how to get there.
Now, that doesn’t mean that we don’t think we know what we need. Have you ever evaluated your life and thought, “If God fixed this one thing, I would be so much godlier”? Maybe you have thought, “If my parents had done _, I would be much more spiritual.”
Maybe you were abused or traumatized as a young person, and you think you would be so more spiritual if that had never happened. Maybe you think that it would be easier to be godly if you were not so susceptible to a certain temptation. Maybe you think that if God would remove a certain trial from your life, it would be easier to have joy and easier to be godly.
Or maybe you long to do more ministry. You think that if you were smarter or more outgoing, you could do so much more for God. All of us have probably thought such things.
I am not saying we shouldn’t pray for God to change these things. If as far as you can tell your desire is godly, bring it to God. This passage is not encouraging a bland, sheepish prayer life where we assume we have no idea what God wants so all we ever say is, “Your will be done.”
The Bible is filled with very specific prayer requests, which God often answers. And even though God knew better than to grant Paul’s request for his thorn in the flesh to be removed, that doesn’t mean he was wrong to ask. So, we should work to align our prayers with God’s revealed will in Scripture. Then we should pray specifically and boldly.
But when God says no, or you are tempted to think he messed up somehow or that he is being unkind or unfair, remember this verse. First, remember that God is always far more concerned with forming godliness in you than in making you comfortable, which is best for you, not just for God.
But then remember that even when you have the right goal, you can’t always see the best way to get there. You don’t know what to pray. You are very weak. This may seem depressing, but we should not be discouraged because while the Christian grasps…
The Spirit translates (read). This statement is in strong contrast with the previous statement. So, we do not know how to pray, BUT the Holy Spirit intercedes with perfect understanding. It’s an incredible statement that offers strong assurance.
However, it raises two very difficult questions that we must answer. First, whose prayers are these? Are they the Spirit’s prayers or the Christian’s prayers? Second, what does Paul mean by “groanings too deep for words”?
Regarding the primary author of these prayers, the text is pretty clear. It says, “The Spirit Himself intercedes,” and v. 27 says that the Father “knows what the mind of the Spirit is.” Therefore, these prayers are fundamentally the Spirit’s prayers.
So, the idea is that the Holy Spirit lives in our hearts, and he knows us perfectly, in fact better than we know ourselves. And this one who also possesses infinite wisdom knows exactly where we need to go spiritually and how to get us there. Then, his passion for our sanctification inspires him to plead for our spiritual progress and his wisdom informs his perfect requests regarding the steps we must take to get there.
It’s incredible to think that the Holy Spirit of God is that involved in my life and my discipleship. Verse 34 will say that God the Son is praying for us at the Father’s right hand, and v. 26 says that the God the Spirit is also praying from inside our hearts. God is near to our struggle, and he is working for us!
But while these prayers are fundamentally the Spirit’s, the text also indicates that we participate in them. Afterall, it makes the most sense to see the “groanings” as those of believers not those of the Spirit. As well, v. 27 says that God the Father is also searching our hearts. That indicates that our hearts and our desires participate in these prayers.
Now, there’s clearly a mysterious element to this. But the thought seems to be that the Holy Spirit creates in us a hunger for godliness. We want to please the Lord, and we want God to create godliness in us. In fact, we groan for it.
Remember that v. 22 said the subhuman creation groans for redemption, and v. 23 said that Christians groan for glory. Now Paul adds that the Spirit inspires our groaning after God’s purpose. God’s people aren’t content with where we are. We have a holy dissatisfaction and a longing for sanctification.
Therefore, we have these “groanings too deep for words.” You may wonder, what in the world is that? I’ll go ahead and mention that many charismatics believe Paul is describing charismatic experiences of praying to God in tongues. They believe this is some kind of private prayer language.
That can’t be what Paul has in mind because the gift of tongues was clearly not a universal gift, but v. 26 is describing a universal ministry of the Spirit. As well, the idea is not “unintelligible speech”; rather, it is “wordless groanings.”
So, just like the groanings of anyone who is suffering, the Holy Spirit inspires Christians to groan for our sanctification. We aren’t always sure where we need to go or how to get there, so we don’t always know how to pray. Sometimes, we are at a complete loss for words. But the Spirit knows perfectly what needs to happen. So, he takes our groanings and puts real content behind them. He prays perfectly and specifically to the Father for the things that we need.
I am reminded of Paul’s personal testimony in 2 Corinthians 12. The Apostle Paul tells us that he had some sort of “thorn in the flesh.” Some have speculated that he had bad eyesight or possibly a speech impediment. We do not know exactly what his thorn was, but Paul believed it was a hindrance to ministry, and it seemed that he could do so much more for God if it were removed. He prayed to that end.
But the Spirit knew Paul’s heart better than he did. He knew that if this thorn were removed, Paul would become proud and stop depending fully on God. God knew that this thorn was critical to the success of Paul’s ministry. So, while Paul thought he knew what he needed, he didn’t really know what to pray for.
But the Spirit, who knew Paul’s heart perfectly, transformed Paul’s ignorant prayers into his own perfect prayers to the Father so that Paul would get what he really needed in order to grow spiritually and serve effectively.
Aren’t you glad that the Spirit is interceding for you? Where would we be if God gave us everything we thought we needed, or if it were left up to us to determine where we need to go? At times we may pray passionately for things which would bring horrible results if God granted them.
But how incredible is it that when we don’t know what to pray, or even when we pray for the wrong things, the right prayers are still making it to the Father’s ear. What a blessing it is to know that the Spirit knows our hearts and is praying perfectly for our growth. But that’s not the end of the story. Not only are the perfect prayers being offered, v. 27 adds the third stage…
III. The Father answers (v. 27).
Verse 27 never explicitly states that God the Father is the actor, but that’s clearly who is in view because the Bible everywhere assumes that our prayer should generally be directed to the Father. That said, v. 27 assures us that…
The Father knows. We just saw that the Spirit knows our hearts perfectly. Now Paul adds that the Father also knows our hearts perfectly. Our God is in the heavens, but he is also very near to his people. He is searching our hearts. He knows our needs.
But more importantly, he “knows what the mind of the Spirit is.” The Holy Spirit doesn’t even have to tell the Father what he thinks. The Father already knows. And adding to our confidence, Paul adds…
The Father agrees. Notice the final statement of v. 27. The reason the Father knows the Spirit’s mind is because the Spirit always intercedes for us according to the will of the Father.
That’s obvious, but it’s also incredible. Verse 26 noted that very often we don’t know what we need. As a result, our prayers are often contrary to the will of God. We are wrong, God disagrees, and the answer is “no.”
However, the Father never disagrees with the Holy Spirit. They both earnestly desire our spiritual growth. They share the same vision of what that looks like, and they agree on the best path to get there. Therefore, while the text doesn’t say it explicitly, it clearly implies that…
The Father answers. He will answer every prayer of the Spirit for our growth in godliness. No desire of the Spirit will be left unanswered.
I love how John Murray summarizes the story of this text, “As God searches the heart of the children of God he finds unuttered and unutterable groanings. Though they are thus inarticulate, there is a meaning and intent that cannot escape the omniscient eye of God—they are wholly intelligible to him. And, furthermore, they are found to be in accordance with his will. They are consonant with his will because, though surpassing our understanding and utterance, they are indited by the Holy Spirit and are the ways in which his intercessions come to expression in our consciousness. Since they are the intercessions of the Holy Spirit, they always meet with the understanding and approval of God. They are agreeable to his will.”
Then he adds, “Not our infirmity of understanding and request is the measure of God’s grace but the knowledge, wisdom, and love of the Holy Spirit.”
Our God is amazing. He is not far off and apathetic toward our meager existences; he is very near, highly involved, and very concerned about us. We should be so grateful that he is our God. We ought to love him and worship him passionately from the heart.
Then, we should draw strong confidence from what this passage teaches about the Spirit’s ministry for us. First, be confident in God’s sovereign will for your life. He knows what you need far better than you do, and he doesn’t waste any hardship you endure. Everything he does is good and right. You may not understand why, but you know that he understands perfectly, and you know that you can trust him.
Second, be confident that God will keep you, he will sanctify you, and he will bring you to glory. You don’t know what the road ahead may look like, what temptations and threats are ahead. You also don’t know what God’s plan is to carry you through. But you know that God has a plan, and all 3 members of the Trinity are working together to accomplish it. That is enough. Trust the Spirit to accomplish his good purpose in you.