January 7, 2001
Bethlehem Baptist Church
John Piper, Pastor
LEARNING TO PRAY IN THE SPIRIT AND THE WORD
But you, beloved, ought to remember the words that were spoken beforehand by the
apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ, 18 that they were saying to you, “In the last time
there will be mockers, following after their own ungodly lusts.” 19 These are the ones
who cause divisions, worldly-minded, devoid of the Spirit. 20 But you, beloved, building
yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, 21 keep yourselves in
the love of God, waiting anxiously for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to eternal life.
22 And have mercy on some, who are doubting; 23 save others, snatching them out of
the fire; and on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the
flesh. 24 Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand
in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy, 25 to the only God our Savior,
through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all
time and now and forever. Amen.
Why Pray in the Spirit?
The focus last week and this week is on the phrase in verse 20, “Praying in the Holy
Spirit.” Last week we answered the why question: Why pray in the Holy Spirit? We got
the answer from the relationship between the participle “praying” and the main verb which
follows it (verse 21a), “Keep yourselves in the love of God.” “Praying in the Holy Spirit,
keep yourselves in the love of God.” In other words, one essential way to keep yourself in
the love of God is to pray in the Spirit. By praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in
the love of God.
We called prayer a “means of divine grace.” Why did we use that term? Because keeping
ourselves in the love of God is not something we can do on our own. God is the decisive
keeper of our souls. If God doesn’t keep us, we will not persevere in faith; we will perish.
We saw that in verse 1 and verse 24. Verse 1b: “To those who are the called, beloved in
God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ.” Notice the passive verb: We are “kept,” not
“we keep.” We are kept by someone else, not by ourselves.
By whom? We saw the answer in verse 24: “Now to Him who is able to keep you from
stumbling . . .” Who is able to do that for us? The answer is in the next verse (verse 25):
“. . . to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” So God the Father is our
ultimate keeper through Jesus Christ.
Which means that our task of keeping ourselves is dependent on God’s decisive keeping.
That is why prayer is mentioned as a crucial way of keeping ourselves in the love of God.
God is the decisive keeper. How then do we keep ourselves, if God is the decisive
keeper? Answer: we ask God to keep us. That is, we pray. Praying is the “means of
grace” that God uses to keep us in his love. God is the decisive keeper and he uses
means to keep us. One of the means he uses is our prayers, so we are dependent
keepers. And we show our dependence mainly by praying for him to do his decisive work.
We saw an example this kind of praying in Luke 21:36. Jesus says, “But keep on the
alert at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are
about to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” Do you want to be kept from
the destructive effects of the last days? Yes? Well, Jesus says, “Pray that you may be
able . . . to stand before the Son of Man,” when he comes.
Another example of praying for God to keep us comes from Jesus’ example of how he
prayed for Peter in Luke 22:32. After saying that Peter would deny him three times,
Jesus says, “But I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once
you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”[i] This is the way we should pray for
ourselves and each other. It is God the Father who decisively keeps, but we have a
dependent role to play: We pray. And we pray like Jesus: O Father, don’t let my faith fail;
keep me. Prayer is the means of grace that God uses to keep us secure and cause us to
persevere to the end in faith.
Now today the question is not, Why? But, What? And How? What is “praying in the Holy
Spirit”? And, How do we pray in the Spirit?
What Is “Praying in the Spirit?”
The best brief statement I have found of what it means to pray in the Holy Spirit goes like
this: It means “so to pray that the Holy Spirit is the moving and guiding power.”[ii] The
key words there are “moving” and “guiding.” In other words, when you pray in the Holy
Spirit, the Spirit of God is “moving” you to pray. That is, he is the one who motivates and
enables and energizes your prayer. And when you pray in the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of
God is “guiding” how you pray and what you pray for. So, to pray in the Holy Spirit is to
be moved and guided by the Holy Spirit in prayer. We pray by his power and according to
The Power of the Spirit
Let’s see where this interpretation of praying in the Holy Spirit comes from in the Bible.
The first thing to notice is the very close parallel passage in Ephesians 6:18, where Paul
says, “With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit.” The reason this is
important is that it shows that “praying in the Spirit” is not a special form of prayer - like
speaking in tongues. We can tell this is so because Paul says in Ephesians 6:18 that we
should pray “at all times” in the Spirit. In other words, all prayer should be “in the Spirit.”
Praying in the Holy Spirit is not one form among several. It is the way all prayer is to be
The second thing to see is the parallel in Romans 8:26 where Paul says, “The Spirit also
helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself
intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” Here it is plain that one thing the
Holy Spirit does for us is help our weakness when we need to pray but can’t the way we
should. So it is natural to take “praying in the Holy Spirit” to mean praying with the help of
the Holy Spirit - with the strength and enablement of the Spirit to make up for our
A third parallel would be Romans 8:15-16 where Paul says, “You have received a spirit of
adoption as sons by which we cry out, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit Himself testifies with our
spirit that we are children of God.” The point here is that the Spirit of God helps us have
assurance that we are children of God by causing us to cry out from the heart (to pray!),
“Abba, Father.” In other words, the Spirit moves our prayers. He motivates, enables and
energizes our prayers. That’s a key part of what “praying in the Holy Spirit” means.[iii]
The Guidance of the Spirit
The other part of what it means to pray in the Holy Spirit is that when we do so, our
prayers are not only “moved” by the Spirit, but also “guided” by the Spirit. This is no
surprise, because if the Holy Spirit is prompting and enabling and energizing our prayers,
it would natural to think that he does so in a way that accords with his nature and his
Word. We would not want to say, The Spirit moves our prayers, but they are not
according to God’s will. If the Spirit is moving us to pray, then he would move us
according to his will and Word.
So praying in the Holy Spirit would mean not only experiencing the power of the Spirit to
help us pray when we are weak, but also experiencing the guidance of the Spirit to help
us when we are foolish or confused or selfish. For example, James 4:3 says, “When you
ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what
you get on your pleasures.” That would not be praying “in the Holy Spirit.” That would be
praying “in the flesh” or in your own sinful nature.
How Do I Pray in the Holy Spirit?
So now the question is the practical one: How do you pray in the Holy Spirit? Don’t fail to
see how utterly unusual it is to be told to do something by the power and guidance of
another. It is God telling me to do it - pray! And yet telling me that it is a work of the Holy
Spirit when I do it. It is just like other things in the Christian life: Galatians 5:16, “Walk by
the Spirit.” Romans 8:13, “Put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit.” 1 Corinthians
12:3, “Say Jesus is Lord by the Spirit.” Philippians 3:3, “Worship by the Spirit.” In all
these things we are supposed to do something. But we are to do them in a way that it is
the Spirit who is doing them through us.
This is the way human life is, since God is sovereign and we are responsible. We act.
We are responsible to act. But God is the decisive actor. Our action is dependent. So
when we are told to “walk” (Galatians 5:16), or fight sin (Romans 8:16), or confess the
Lordship of Jesus (1 Corinthians 12:3), or worship (Philippians 3:3), or pray (Jude 1:20),
we are told to do it “in the Holy Spirit.”[iv] You do it so that it is the Holy Spirit who is
doing it in and through you.
So how do I pray so that it is really the Holy Spirit prompting and guiding the prayer?
Trusting God to Give His Spirit
I think there are two basic answers. The first is faith. We pray “in the Holy Spirit” when we
take our stand on the cross of Christ (which purchased all divine help) and trust God for
his help by the Spirit. In other words, when you admit that without the help of the Spirit
you cannot pray as you ought, and then you consciously depend on the Spirit to help you
pray, then you are praying “in the Holy Spirit.” So the first answer to the question, How?,
is by faith - by trusting God to give you the Holy Spirit to help you pray.
You can see this from the New Testament in several ways (see, for example, Galatians
3:1-5; 2 Thessalonians 2:13). One is that in Philippians 3:3 it says, “We worship in the
Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.” Here,
worshipping “in the Spirit of God” is explained by “put no confidence in the flesh.” I think
that means, instead we put confidence in the Spirit, that is, in God’s blood-bought mercy
to help us worship as we ought by his Spirit. So I take it that the way to “pray in the Holy
Spirit” is the same as the way to worship “in the Spirit of God,” namely, by not putting
any confidence in what we can do in our own nature, but instead looking away from our
own resources and trusting in the mercy of God to help us pray by his Spirit.
That is what we should do this year in all our praying. Trust God for the help we need to
pray. When you are too weak or too confused or too depressed or too angry or too dull to
pray, at that moment do not assume that you can’t pray. Instead, consciously look away
from yourself to Christ and to the mercy of God in Christ, and trust him to help you - even
if it is only to produce groanings too deep for words (Romans 8:26). Learn to distrust
yourself and to trust God in prayer. Learn that without him you can do nothing and cast
yourself on him at all times for all you need in order to pray.
Let Your Prayers Be Shaped by God’s Word
The other answer to the question of how to pray “in the Holy Spirit” is to bring all your
praying into conformity to the Word of God which the Spirit inspired (2 Peter 1:21; 2
Timothy 3:16-17). Right here is where God’s call to be in the Word every day and his call
to pray at all times in the Spirit become intertwined. If you live in the Word of God,
meditating on it day and night by reading it every day and memorizing portions to carry
with you all day and savoring them hour by hour, then your prayers will be shaped by the
Word. Which means they will be shaped by the Spirit. And that is what it means to pray
“in the Holy Spirit.” Not only to be moved by the Spirit in prayer, but to be guided by the
Spirit in prayer. And since this is something we are called to do (“pray in the Holy Spirit”),
our role is to take what we know about the Spirit’s will from the Word and saturate our
prayers with it.
Keep Yourselves in the Love of God
So that is my pastoral appeal to you this year: Keep yourselves in the love of God by
praying in the Holy Spirit. That is, pray continually by banking on the Spirit’s help and by
living in the Spirit’s word in the Bible. Stay in the Bible and stay in prayer, and look away
continually from your own resources to the infinite and merciful resources of God in
I close with some concrete examples of praying in a Bible-saturated way - which is a key
to praying in the Holy Spirit.
When you ponder praying for $2.7 million more in pledges for EDUCATION FOR
EXULTATION, recall texts like 1 Chronicles 29:18, where the people give lavishly to build
the temple and David prays, “O LORD . . . preserve this forever in the intentions of the
heart of Your people, and direct their heart to You.” Then pray about the intentions of the
hearts of people and call on God to shape them and incline them toward generosity. And
say with David in verse 14, “All things come from You, and from Your hand we have given
When you ponder praying about the future of our church in 2001 and how to respond to
growth, and how to structure for pastoral care and building and church planting and
missions, etc., and how it all fits together to meet so many hundreds and thousands of
needs, recall what Solomon prayed when the Lord said to him in 1 Chronicles 3:5, “Ask
what you wish me to give you.” Solomon did not ask for long life, or riches or revenge on
his enemies (3:11), but asked for “an understanding heart to judge Your people to discern
between good and evil” (3:9).
When you ponder praying about the staff additions that are to come this year at
Bethlehem, recall what Jesus said to the crowds in Matthew 9:38, “Beseech the Lord of
the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.” Pray with warrant from Christ himself
that the right workers would be positioned in his kingdom.
When you ponder praying for boldness for yourself and others in evangelism, recall the
way the church prayed in Acts 4:29 and what happened, “And now, Lord, take note of
their threats, and grant that Your bond-servants may speak Your word with all confidence.
. . . And when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken,
and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God with
And when you love someone and ponder praying for his or her conversion, recall Romans
10:1 where Paul set his sights on his own Jewish kinsmen and said, “Brethren, my
heart's desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation.”
To be in the Word rightly is to be in prayer. And when faith and the Word shape prayer,
we are praying in the Holy Spirit. And when we pray in the Holy Spirit, we keep ourselves
in the love of God. And there every blessing in heaven will be ours. O learn to pray in the
Word - for the sake of your soul and for the sake of the nations.
[i] Similarly, Jesus prays in John 17:11-15 that the Father would keep us. “I am no longer
in the world; and yet they themselves are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father,
keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one even
as We are. While I was with them, I was keeping them in Your name which You have
given Me; and I guarded them and not one of them perished but the son of perdition, so
that the Scripture would be fulfilled. But now I come to You; and these things I speak in
the world so that they may have My joy made full in themselves. I have given them Your
word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not
of the world. I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the
[ii] Johannes E. Huther, Meyer’s Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the General
Epistles of James, Peter, John, and Jude, translator Paton J. Gloag (Winona Lake,
Indiana: Alpha Publications, 1980, original, 1883), p. 697, italics added. See also John
Calvin’s excellent comment on Jude 20: “This order of perseverance depends on our being
equipped with the mighty power of God. Whenever we need constancy in our faith, we
must have recourse to prayer, and as our prayers are often perfunctory, he adds, ‘in the
Spirit,’ as if to say, such is the laziness, such the coldness of our makeup, that none can
succeed in praying as he ought without prompting of the Spirit of God. We are so inclined
to lose heart, and be diffident that none dares to call God ‘Father,’ unless the same Spirit
puts the Word into us. From the Spirit, we receive the gift of real concern, ardor,
forcefulness, eagerness, confidence that we shall receive - all these, and finally those
groanings which cannot be uttered, as Paul writes (Romans 8:26). Jude does well indeed
to say that no one can pray as he ought to pray, unless the Spirit direct him.” (John
Calvin, A Harmony all of the Gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke, vol. 3 and the Epistles of
James and Jude, translator, A. W. Morrison [Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans
Publishing Co., 1972], pp. 334-335).
[iii] See also the enabling role of the Spirit in our confessing Jesus as incarnate Lord:
“Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus is
accursed’; and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians
[iv] Similarly 1 Peter 4:11, “If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God
provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the
glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.”
Copyright John Piper