7 Apr 2021
A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 8:23-27. The sufferings and the glory of God’s children (continued).
Fifthly, *we wait for it patiently* (25b), that is, for the fulfilment of our hope. For we are confident in God’s promises that the firstfruits will be followed by the harvest, bondage by freedom, decay by incorruption, and labour pains by the birth of the new world. This whole section is a notable example of what it means to be living ‘in between times’, between present difficulty and future destiny, between the already and the not yet, between sufferings and glory. ‘We were saved in hope’ brings them together. And in this tension the correct Christian posture is that of waiting, waiting ‘eagerly’ (23, cf. 19) with keen expectation, and waiting ‘patiently’ (25), steadfast in the endurance of our trials (*hypomone*). The same verb occurs in both verses (*apekdechomai*, 23 and 25, as also in 19), and includes in itself the note of ‘eagerness’, whereas ‘patience’ or ‘perseverance’ is added to it in verse 25. The combination is significant. We are to wait neither so eagerly that we lose our patience, nor so patiently that we lose our expectation, but eagerly and patiently together.
Yet it is hard to keep this balance. Some Christians over-emphasize the call to patience. They lack enthusiasm and lapse into lethargy, apathy and pessimism. They have forgotten God’s promises, and are guilty of unbelief. Others grow impatient of waiting. They are so carried away with enthusiasm that they almost try to force God’s hand. They are determined to experience now even what is not available yet. Understandably anxious to emerge out of the painful present of suffering and groaning, they talk as if the resurrection had already taken place, and as if the body should no longer be subject to weakness, disease, pain and decay. Yet such impatience is a form of presumption. It is to rebel against the God of history, who has indeed acted conclusively for our salvation, and who will most assuredly complete (when Christ comes) what he has begun, but who refuses to be hustled into changing his planned timetable just because we do not enjoy having to go on waiting and groaning. God give us a patient eagerness and an eager patience as we wait for his promises to be fulfilled!
In this life of expectancy Paul now brings us another encouragement. It again concerns the ministry of the Holy Spirit. This ministry he has so far portrayed in relation first to the law which he enables us to fulfil (2-8), secondly to our fallen nature which he subdues (9-13), thirdly to our adoption into God’s family, of which he assures us (14-17), and fourthly to our final inheritance of which he is the guarantee and foretaste (18-23), Now, fifthly, he writes of the holy Spirit in relation to our prayers (26-27). Indeed, true Christian prayer is impossible without the Holy Spirit. It is he who causes us to cry ‘Abba, *Father*’ (15) when we pray. Prayer is in itself an essentially trinitarian exercise. It is access to the Father through the Son and by the Holy Spirit (Eph.2:18). The inspiration of the Spirit is just as necessary for our prayers as the mediation of the Son. We can approach the Father only through the Son and only by the Spirit.
*In the same way*, Paul begins (26), probably meaning that as our Christian hope sustains us, so does the Holy Spirit. In general, *The Spirit helps us in our weakness* (26a), that is, in the ambiguity and frailty of our ‘already-not yet’ existence. In particular, he helps our weakness in prayer. In this sphere our infirmity is our ignorance; *We do not know what we ought to pray for* (26b). But he knows what we do not know. In consequence, *the Spirit himself intercedes for us* (26c). Thus ‘the children of God have two divine intercessors’, writes John Murray. ‘Christ is their intercessor in the court of heaven…’, while ‘the Holy Spirit is their intercessor in the theatre of their own hearts.’.
Moreover, the Holy Spirit’s intercession is said to be *with groans that words cannot express* (26d), or ‘sighs too deep for words’ (RSV). Strictly speaking these translations are inaccurate. For the adjective *alaletos* simply means ‘wordless’ (BAGD). The point Paul is making is not that the groans cannot be put into words, but that in fact they are not. They are unexpressed, rather than inexpressible. In the context, these wordless groans must surely be related to the groans both of God’s creation (22) and of God’s children (23), namely ‘agonized longings’ (JBP) for final redemption and the consummation of all things. Why do we not know what to pray for? Perhaps because we are unsure whether to pray for deliverance from our sufferings or for strength to endure them (cf. Phil.1:19ff.; cf. Jn. 12:27). Also, since we do not know what we will be (1 Jn. 3:2) or when or how, we are in no position to make precise requests. So the Spirit intercedes for us, and does so with speechless groans.
It is truly amazing that, having written of the groaning creation and of the groaning church, Paul should now write of the groaning Spirit. Indeed some commentators have resisted this, declaring that the Spirit never groans, and that Paul means only that he causes us to groan. Yet Paul’s language is clear. The Spirit intercedes for us in unspoken groanings. That is, his intercession is accompanied by them and expressed in them. True, God’s creation and God’s children groan because of their present state of imperfection, and there is nothing imperfect about the Holy Spirit. It must be, therefore, that the Holy Spirit identifies with our groans, with the pain of the world and the church, and shares in the longing for the final freedom of both. We and he groan together.
These groans can hardly be *glossolalia*, since those ‘tongues’ or languages were expressed in words which some could understand and interpret (Acts 2:4ff.; 1 Cor.14:13ff.; 26ff.). Here Paul is referring rather to inarticulate groans. Although wordless, however, they are not meaningless. For God the Father, *who searches our hearts* – a uniquely divine activity (cf. 1 Sa.16:7; Ps.7:9; 139:1ff.; Je.17:10; Acts 15:8; 1 Thess.2:4) – *knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints* (that is, the people of God) *in accordance with God’s will (27; cf. 1 Jn.5:14).
So three persons are involved in our praying. First, we ourselves in our weakness do not know what to pray for. Secondly, the indwelling Spirit helps us by interceding for us and through us, with speechless groans but according to God’s will. Thirdly, God the Father, who both searches our hearts and knows the Spirit’s mind, hears and answers accordingly. Of these actors, however, it is the Spirit who is emphasised. Paul makes three statements about him. First, ‘the Spirit helps us’ (because of our weakly half-saved situation); secondly, ‘the Spirit intercedes for us’ (because of our ignorance of what to pray for); and thirdly. ‘the Spirit intercedes according to God’s will’ (and therefore God listens and responds).