“Pray in the Spirit”? – What does that mean?

In Ephesians 6:18, Paul wrote, “Pray at all times in the Spirit,” which, by his own definition in Romans 8:5 means “in accordance with the Spirit,” which in turn means having “our minds set on what the Spirit desires.”

To pray in the Spirit, according to Paul then, means, “praying with our minds tuned to the Spirit’s desires.” And we can do that because the Spirit is constantly communicating with our minds the things that God wants us to know, think and live by, verse 16. To have the Spirit of God living in us means a steady trickle of God’s mind and heart seeping into our minds and hearts, so that what God finds when “he searches our hearts” is “the mind of the Spirit,” verse 27. And if at times we’re not in tune with the mind and desires of the Spirit “the Spirit helps us in our weakness,” verse 26, by reaching down into our inner being and tuning our thoughts to his.

That’s why Paul prayed in Ephesians 3:16 that God would “strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being,” because the Spirit can get right down to what makes us tick, to the engine that drives us, to the “real us” – much of which we probably have no idea exists. No wonder we have trouble praying and need the Spirit’s help, because it’s only by the Spirit that all those hidden thoughts and yearnings tucked away in the depths of our inner being can be brought to the surface.

A large part of praying in the Spirit, then, is simply realizing what the Spirit is up to in our inner being. The Spirit is gradually transforming us into the likeness of Christ, 2 Corinthians 3:18, which, Paul tells us, involves the Spirit doing a lot of digging away inside us “putting to death the misdeeds of our bodies,” Romans 8:13, much like getting at the guts of a seized engine and clearing out all the gunk to get it running smoothly again.

Jude picks up on that thought too, in Jude 20. He contrasts those with the Spirit to those who “follow their own ungodly desires and natural instincts, and do not have the Spirit,” verses 18-19 . Those without the Spirit are still clogged up like a seized motor by the accumulated gunk of acting purely on instinct and wrong desires.

But those “who have the firstfruits of the Spirit,” Romans 8:23, are having the core of their inner being steadily cleaned up by the Spirit, so that our prayers to God and our relationships with each other are running ever more smoothly “in accordance with the Spirit,” and in tune with “what the Spirit desires.”

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Do we all have a spirit, non-Christians included?

All humans beings have a spirit, but while we were “dead in our transgressions and sins,” Ephesians 2:1, that spirit lay dormant. And while it remained dormant, our sinful minds continued on their merry way being “hostile to God” (Romans 8:7) and not the least bit interested in God or in anything he had to say. Our minds were tuned to “the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient,” verse 2. As such we were totally taken up with “gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts,” verse 3.

That all changed dramatically, however, when “God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions,” verses 4-5. When Christ died and rose back to life again, all us humans who were stuck in our dormant state were brought to life with Christ. Our spirits that were totally under the control of the spirit ruler of our world were released to have a chance at experiencing life as it’s supposed to be. That condition now exists for all human beings, non-Christans included, which is exactly the good news that Christians want everyone to hear.

God isn’t exclusive, he wants all of us to be saved from the dead empty life of simply gratifying our selfish desires, and he sent the Spirit to enable that to happen (Galatians 5:16, 24). And how the Spirit does it is remarkable, Romans 8:16 – “The Spirit himself testifies with OUR SPIRIT that we are God’s children.” Suddenly, we come alive to the fact that God isn’t some distant ogre, he’s actually our Father who loves us dearly (Galatians 4:6), and it’s the Spirit in connection with our spirit that does that. We always had that spirit in us, but it’s not until “the Spirit of God lives in you,” verse 9, that our spirit clues in that we have a Father and son relationship with God, just like Jesus has with the Father (John 17:26).

When “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you,” verse 11, that’s when our spirit comes alive, verse 10, and it comes alive in a most noticeable way. Where before we couldn’t care less about God or see any value in what he had to say, we now welcome him as our Father and look to him to take care of our every need. We literally “live to God,” Romans 6:10, rather than living to gratify self.

And in every human being this spirit exists, just waiting to be brought alive by the Spirit of Christ.

Hold steady and trust

Christianity in our Western culture puts a lot of emphasis on OUR acceptance and belief, our choices and decisions, our growth and responsibility, our free will and how we use it, and on us being good enough on Judgment Day to go to heaven, not hell. So much is up to us.

It creates a problem, then, when not much is happening. Perhaps our church isn’t growing, or it doesn’t feel like we’re growing much personally either. And what if people aren’t impressed enough with our Christianity to ask us about what we believe? It may even feel like we’re going backwards rather than forwards as our congregation gets smaller and we’re not having any impact in the community. What if we don’t bring anybody to Christ? Oh dear, we’re not doing our part very well, are we?

But what of the Scripture that says the Holy Spirit works everything out for good for those who love God? Isn’t that saying the Spirit has everything under control very nicely, thank you very much, despite appearances to the contrary? Well, it sounds good, but isn’t there an “if” in there somewhere, that the Spirit works things out for good IF we love God? So, do we love God enough to warrant the Spirit’s help? Oh dear, another thing to worry about.

But Scripture says it’s the Spirit that gives us the love. It’s the Spirit in our hearts that calls out, “Abba, Father” (Galatians 4:6), and Paul said it was “Christ’s love” that compelled him (2 Corinthians 5:14). So it wasn’t his own love, or love that Paul had to come up with by himself. The love that drove Paul came from Christ, and there wasn’t anything Paul had to do to get the love flowing either. He simply found himself with it, and he couldn’t stop it coming either.

It didn’t mean that Paul was on an endless high of love and devotion, or that his focus was totally on God and off himself. It wasn’t. Life was extremely worrying at times, especially when people heard the gospel and wanted him dead, or a health problem threatened his effectiveness. He learned through those experiences, though, that even when it seemed like nothing was happening, or it looked like things were going backwards, Christ and the Spirit were still on the job.

He learned that God was up to something in everything, in negative times as well, so that rather than worrying, “Oh dear, not much is happening,” Paul said, “I press on.” He held steady and trusted, believing to the end that God was faithful and HE would make happen what needed to happen.

What do Christians have that non-Christians don’t have?

Some non-Christians seem a lot more Christian than Christians. They’re nicer, kinder, happier, more giving, more sociable, more involved in the community, more even-tempered, more disciplined, and better adjusted. It’s a bit discouraging when you’re a Christian bumping into people like that, because if non-Christians can be such good people, why bother being Christian? Or, put another way, what difference does Christianity make if you can be very ‘Christian’ without it? 

Paul answers that in Romans 8:9. “You (Christians), however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you.” The difference between Christians and non-Christians is who is in control of their lives. What a person does, therefore, isn’t as important as who’s doing it.

So, who is doing it? Is it one’s sinful nature or the Spirit, because it can only be one or the other. All people fall into two categories: those who are controlled by the sinful nature (the law of sin and death), and those who are controlled by the Spirit (the law of the Spirit of life). And it makes a huge difference as to which of those two is in control, because “Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires,” verse 5.

So, what does “the sinful nature” desire? Well, it certainly doesn’t desire God, “because the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God,” verses 7-8. That’s stating it bluntly, but clearly – that the sinful nature has no interest in God.

In contrast to that, what does “the Spirit” desire instead? Well, the Spirit isn’t hostile to God, for “you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry ‘Abba, Father,'” verse 15. The Spirit also desires that “the righteous requirements of the law be fully met in us,” verse 4, so that we can submit to God’s law. And as far as pleasing God, the Spirit “puts to death the misdeeds of the body,” verse 13, which pleases God immensely because it frees us personally “from the law of sin and death,” verse 2. In three clear ways, then, the Spirit’s desires are the absolute opposite to the desires of the sinful nature.   

So that’s what Christians have that non-Christians don’t have: They have the Holy Spirit constantly tuning their minds and hearts to God’s nature, rather than being blown all over the place by the whims and desires of the sinful nature. 

Baptism with the Holy Spirit: What difference does it make?

“I baptize you with water,” John the Baptist said, “but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit,” Mark 1:8. So what’s the difference between the two baptisms, and does it matter?

It certainly mattered to Paul when he discovered some disciples in Ephesus in Acts 19:1-2, because the big question on Paul’s mind was, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” No, they replied, they’d never “even heard that there is a Holy Spirit,” which made Paul wonder what baptism they’d received instead.

“John’s baptism,” they said, which to Paul was all well and good as a “baptism to repentance,” but far more important was belief in Jesus, verse 4. So they were all baptized again, this time “into the name of the Lord Jesus,” at which point “the Holy Spirit came on them,” verse 5.

But what difference did the Holy Spirit coming on them make? There’s a clue in verse 13. Some Jewish exorcists were using “the name of the Lord Jesus” to try and rid people of evil spirits. But it hadn’t worked (verse 15-16). To have power over evil, the name of Jesus wasn’t enough. More was needed. But what?

A famous sorcerer in Acts 8 knew the answer to that. He’d watched many of his followers being baptized when they heard about “the name of Jesus Christ,” verse 12. He was even baptized himself (verse 15). But when Peter and John arrived, “they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus,” verses 15-16.

So, again, the name of Jesus wasn’t enough. More was needed, and Simon the sorcerer saw what it was. When he “saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, ‘Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit’.”

Simon knew where the power was. It was in the Holy Spirit, and if he could lay his hands on people like the apostles did and that kind of power was released in people, how much more famous Simon could be. He’d watched Philip, for instance, cast out evil spirits and heal paralytics (verse 7), so think of the power the Holy Spirit would give him too.

HE knew what difference the Holy Spirit makes. The Spirit has the power to cure anything that ails us. A baptism to repentance doesn’t do that, nor does baptism in the name of Jesus. It’s only by receiving the Spirit AS WELL that power over evil is possible.

Why do we need the Holy Spirit?

We need the Holy Spirit because the Spirit makes Christ’s love real (Ephesians 3:16-19). And to Paul that was a burning passion, that we understand Christ’s love for us so well that we’ll trust our lives to Christ like a woman trusts her life to a man in marriage (2 Corinthians 11:2).

Paul knew what the Holy Spirit would then do in people who could love and trust Jesus like that. The Spirit would “transform (them) into Christ’s likeness with ever-increasing glory,” 2 Corinthians 3:18. Just as the workings inside the body of a young, gangly girl transform her into a poised and beautiful woman, so does the Holy Spirit work inside us to grow us up into the beauty and likeness of Christ in everything (Ephesians 4:13-15).

We can “live a life of love, just as Christ loved us,” Ephesians 5:1. Imagine being a person like that – where nothing but “what is helpful for building others up according to their needs” is what we think about and say to people, Ephesians 4:29. But this is where the Holy Spirit comes in. I can’t make myself into such a person, but the Spirit can, and wants to.

How I must “grieve the Holy Spirit,” verse 30 – or break the Spirit’s heart – when I forget I have the HOLY GOD living and breathing his life in me all the time. God has made himself as intimate to me as he can, by actually “sealing” himself inside me (verse 30). He’s willingly stuck himself inside me for life, with no escape. He has no intention of escaping either, because now that he’s in me he can do what it takes to repair all the damage, suture up the wounds, do a heart transplant and pump his life into my bloodstream. And I’ve got that now working inside me, simply for believing Christ really does love me and I trust him.

That was all it took for the door to my spirit to open up to the Holy Spirit. “Believe in the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ,” Acts 8:12, and because of that belief the Holy Spirit “comes upon us,” verse 16-17. Now the power begins – transformation, healing, and growing us up into an entirely new creation from the inside out, unrecognizable from the “infants” we used to be “blown here and there by every wind of doctrine and the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming,” Ephesians 4:14.

No more are we the easily influenced youngsters we were. We’re being grown up to become wise, strong and beautiful, fit to be the wife of Christ himself (2 Corinthians 11:2). And it’s the Holy Spirit’s great pleasure to do that for everyone.

Confident, free, and no worries. How?

There are two Covenants and two ministries being compared in 2 Corinthians 3, and both of them are called “glorious” by Paul – which seems a little strange, because how could a ministry that “brought death” and “condemns men” (verses 7 and 9) be glorious?

Paul’s talking about the Old Covenant that was “engraved in letters on stone” (verse 7). He called it a Covenant “of the letter,” but, he says, “the letter kills” (verse 6) – which doesn’t sound very glorious at all. He also says its “radiance was fading away” (verse 13), so it wasn’t even meant to last either. It was just a temporary arrangement that condemned and killed people.

But it clearly served a glorious purpose as a comparison to the New Covenant, which Paul called a Covenant “of the Spirit,” and it’s so much “greater” than the Old Covenant (verse 11) that “what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory” of the New.

But how is this new ministry so surpassing in its glory? Because, verse 3, it’s “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” – and whatever the Spirit is writing on human hearts it “gives life” (verse 6), it “brings righteousness” (verse 9), and it “lasts” (verse 11).

And it’s all being done by God himself, because, Paul writes in verse 17, “the Lord is the Spirit.” The Spirit, therefore, is not only “the Spirit OF the living God” (verse 3), the Spirit IS God. The Spirit is “Lord” too, so in the New Covenant it is God himself who is ministering to us. Everything in our lives now “comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit,” verse 18.

This is why the New Covenant is so much greater than the Old Covenant; it’s because none of it depends on our doing. We “are BEING transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory.” This is something the Spirit Lord is doing to us. It’s not like the Old Covenant where blessings of any kind depended entirely on the obedience of the individual or the nation. This is the New Covenant where the blessings of life, righteousness and gradual transformation into “the Lord’s glory” (verse 18) all come from the Spirit Lord, and do not depend on anything we do.

That’s why “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,” because in the New Covenant the Spirit is totally in charge of our lives, and he is doing the job of transforming our hearts perfectly. “Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold,” verse 12. We can walk through life every day utterly “confident” (verse 4). We have no worries. We are free.