“THE WORK OF THE SPIRIT AS TO THE MATTER OF PRAYER
“The first thing we ascribe to the Spirit herein is, that He supplies the mind with a due comprehension of the matter of prayer, or what ought to be prayed for; without which no man can pray as he ought. The testimony of the apostle is express to this purpose, Rom. 8.26, “Likewise also the Spirit helpeth our infirmities, for we know not what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit itself makes intercession for us with groanings that cannot be uttered.”
It is true that whatever we ought to pray for, is declared in Scripture, and summarily comprised in the Lord’s prayer: but it is one thing to have this in the book, another to have it in our heart; without which it cannot be to us the due matter of prayer. Without the assistance of the Spirit we neither know our own wants (needs)-nor the supplies of them that are expressed in the promises of God-nor the proper end for which we should seek those supplies.
1. The Spirit of God alone is able to give us an understanding of our wants (needs).
(1.) The principal matter of our prayer has respect to faith and unbelief; the apostles prayed, “Lord, increase our faith;” and the poor man in his distress, “Lord, help my unbelief.” To this end we must be convinced by the Spirit, of the nature and guilt of unbelief, and of the nature and use of faith; for neither conscience nor the law will convince us of the evil of the one, nor instruct us in the nature of the other; and without both, we know not our greatest wants (needs), or “what to pray for as we ought.”
(2). The matter of our prayer respects the depravity of our nature; the darkness of our understandings; the perverseness of our wills; their reluctance to spiritual things: and the secret workings of our lusts, which keep the soul from a due conformity to the holiness of God. Believers have a special regard to these things in their confessions and supplications; and their great concerns with God in prayer are for mercy in their pardon, for grace in their removal, and the daily renovation of His image in their souls. Without a sense of these matters, I must profess I know not how any man can pray; and this knowledge we have not of ourselves. Nature is blind, and cannot see them; it is proud, and will not own them; stupid, and is insensible of them.
(3.) As it is with respect to sin, so it is with respect to God and Christ, grace, holiness, and spiritual privileges. The inward sanctification of all our faculties, with supplies of grace for this purpose, is what we want (need) and pray for. But we have no spiritual conceptions of these things, but what are given us by the Spirit of God; and without these, what are our prayers, or what do they signify? Without these men mays say on the world’s end, without giving any glory to God, or gaining any advantage to their own souls.
(4). With respect to temporal concerns, we know not of ourselves what to pray for. Whatever our sense may be of them, and our natural desires about them, yet how and when, under what conditions and limitations, with what frame of spirit, what submission to the will of God, they are to be made the matter of our prayers, we know not: “For who knoweth what is good for man in this life, all the days of his vain life, which he spendeth as a shadow?” Eccles. 6.12. In these also we need to be “taught of God”
2. The Spirit of God alone acquaints us with the grace and mercy prepared for our relief in the promises of God. What God has promised we are to pray for, and nothing else. There is nothing that we can want (need), but God has promised it: and there is nothing that He has promised, which we do not want (need) It is therefore indispensably necessary that we should know what God has promised. He knows our wants (needs) infinitely better than we do ourselves; yea, we know nothing of them but what He is pleased to teach us; and from the promises we may learn them more certainly than by any other means. And this we affirm is by the Spirit of God, for the “things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God;” by Him alone we “know the things that are freely given unto us of God,” 1 Cor. 2.11., namely, the grace, mercy, love and kindness of the promises.
3. The Spirit of God alone directs believers to pray, or ask for anything to right or proper ends. Men may lose all benefit of their prayers by proposing to themselves improper ends, as the apostle James affirms of some, “Ye ask and receive not, because ye ask amiss, to consume it on your own lusts.” There is nothing so excellent it itself, so useful to us, so acceptable to God in the matter of prayer, but it may be vitiated, corrupted, and rendered vain, by an application of it to false or mistaken ends. And that in this case we are relieved by the Holy Ghost is plain from the text under consideration; for “helping our infirmities,” and teaching us “what to pray for as we ought,” He makes intercession for us “according to the will of God,” verse 27. He does it in us, and by us, or enables us so to do. He directs and enables us to make supplications “according to the mind of God”: and herein God is said to “know the mind of the Spirit;” that is, His end and design in the matter of His requests. This God knows, that is, approves and accepts.
The Spirit of God directs believers not only as to the matter, but as to the end of all their requests. He guides them therefore to design, (1) That all the success of their petitions may have an immediate tendency to the glory of God. Without His special aid we should aim only at self; our own profit, ease and satisfaction. (2) He keeps them to this also, that the issue of all their supplications may be the improvement of holiness in them, their conformity to God, and nearer access to Him. When these ends are not aimed at, the matter of prayer may be good, but our prayers themselves may be an abomination.”
-From The Holy Spirit His Gifts and Power by John Owen (1616-1683) Published by Kregel Publications Grand Rapids, MI 1954 Pages 327-330.