Sunday, May 25, 2014

Sermons through














The Purpose of God

Part Two

Romans 8:28-30

Conformed to the Image of Christ


With Study Questions







Pastor Paul Viggiano

Branch of Hope Church

2370 W. Carson Street, #100

Torrance, CA 90501

(310) 212-6999


The Purpose of God

Part Two

Romans 8:28-30

Conformed to the Image of Christ


And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. 29 For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. 30 Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified (Romans 8:28-30).




          In our last meeting we touched on how the initial verse (Romans 8:28) conveys that God has a definite plan wherein He is utilizing “all things” toward the consummation of that which is “good” and glorious.  In life’s difficulties, God does not enter in on the third, ninth or eleventh hour like the cavalry who rescues then seeks to make the best of a bad situation.  What we see in the course of human events is according to a glorious and benevolent design.


God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: (Eph. 1:11, Rom. 11:33, Heb. 6:17, Rom. 9:15, 18)[1]


Our heavenly Father doesn’t merely see us through the storm; He is the maker of storms (Psalm 107:25). 

But the artwork of God’s hand is can be so intricate that the strokes will often appear to us as random and even devastating things.  He is like the artist you will sometimes see rapidly painting a picture on a stage to music—a scribble here, a scrawl there and an occasional dot and it just looks like a mess—until in the end he turns the canvas right-side up and you become astonished at the portrait that was painted before your very eyes.

          This masterful, yet often difficult to identify, artwork is designed “for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose” i.e. Christians.  We discussed last time how we lose the richness of the fabric of this verse if we nurture a false notion of what the “good” is that God has in mind.  What is the good of which Paul writes?  If we are called according to God’s purpose, what is that purpose? 

The noun “purpose prosthesis means “that which is planned in advance.”  What is the resolve, the purpose and plan of God to which the Christian has become such a central component that we can view all of the operations of creation as having an aim toward our good?  I must say, it’s an overwhelmingly optimistic view of life.

          But we must dispense with the notion that the “good” and “purpose” has to do with our dreams or things working out the way we would prefer, which is where the verse often brings us in our thinking.  As if the current difficulty is a bump in the road—a road leading to God eventually giving me what I really want.  Romans 8:28 is much greater than that! 

As we seek the context of Romans 8:28 we find a doctrine the Apostle connects to this great verse of encouragement that wars against, not only the natural mind, but often finds disfavor within the church itself.  One might wish to consider that the passages in the Bible that war against our natural intuitions carry the most sanctifying messages; this certainly falls into that category.

          We have been given the firm conviction that our prayers are submitted “according to the will of God” (Romans 8:27) by the Holy Spirit and, therefore, answered in perfection.  The Apostle desires his readers enjoy the blessed assurance that all things, good and evil, are operating according to the impeccable design of God for the good of His children.  This now culminates in an explanation of God’s holy and eternal decree as it pertains to His unalterable design for you and for me.  This is expressed in the next verse (and again in the one following).


For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren (Romans 8:29).


For Whom He Foreknew


          Since this is one of the many flagship passages expressing the doctrines of grace, otherwise known as Calvinism, there is a temptation to launch into an apologetic in defense of that position (and there certainly will be a bit of that).  I would prefer, though, to remain tethered to the encouragement and blessing (rather than entering into a polemic) the Spirit of God provides with these words. The doctrines of grace should not be reduced to a mere theological argument.  The doctrines of grace are to be presented as a blessing!

          In order for the child of God to enjoy the unadulterated encouragement designed lift us through and strengthen us in “the sufferings of this present time” (Romans 8:18) this verse needs to be understood in its fullness.  For that to be achieved, certain impositions on the text must be addressed and dismissed.  What I mean by that is this verse presents God as much more sovereign (or in control of all events, including our very hearts) than people are comfortable with.  Because of this, the verse gets thrown into an exegetical blender where men push the button of human autonomy.

          We find one example of that in the opening phrase “For whom He foreknew.”  This phrase has been the source of continual and often acerbic debate for centuries.  A popular understanding (the first one given to me as a young Christian) is that of God looking down the corridors of time and knowing in advance the choice a person will make.  It is in the light of that knowledge that He predestines them to be conformed to the image of His Son. 

There are numerous variations of this found in Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, Arminianism, Molinism, Open theology, etc.  But these all amount to approximately the same thing—that God will not impose His will upon the creature.  Of course with that comes the necessity of a reconstruction of our understanding of the level of sin and its damaging affects upon the human heart and will. 

If you will indulge a few short answers (since I do prefer to offer why this is such a blessed message, I will be brief):  Scriptures are not short of passages which teach of complete and total inability found within the natural human heart to seek after God.


As it is written: “There is none righteous, no, not one; 11 There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God.12 They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one” (Romans 3:10).


          So, if foreknowledge meant that God was looking for who, in the future would, according to their own will, seek after Him, it would be an empty set.  Not to mention that if God sees that they will choose Him, what necessity is there in Him predestinating them?  They can get there on their own just fine.

          Recognizing this difficulty, some suggest that the Holy Spirit will supply a certain level of prevenient grace.  He will sort of pick up the incapacitated sinner and seek to shake him to his senses.  But in the final analysis, it is left to the sinner to exercise his own independent volition to grab hold of salvation.  He will lift us to the top of the tree, it is supposed, but we must pick the fruit.  He will throw us the life-saver, but we are left to our own will to grab it.

          A question that is so often left unanswered in this brand of grace is what is the independent antecedent cause for the right choice of the sinner?  If it is not God who effectively and graciously changes the human heart leading the sinner to most assuredly grab the fruit, then what is it?  Who is it?  What is it about you that brought you to say “yes” to Christ—to cry out “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15)?  Some say free will, as if the human will is an uncaused cause, rather than the hinges on the door of decision which must be pushed in one direction or the other.

          It is precisely here that we begin to underestimate not only the strength of God’s hand in our salvation, but the eternal, infinite love of the Father toward those who have called upon His name.  If our eyes have been opened by the grace of God to the truth of Christ our minds must go deeper than thinking that God is a friend that we just happened to meet—even though He knew in advance that it would take place.

          “For whom hos He foreknew” is much more personal than simply knowing an event will happen, as if God is an infallible fortune teller.  “For whom He foreknew” conveys a superior thought than “For what He foreknew.”  What this verse loses in that inferior understanding is that God knew you and He knew me. 

What we find if we look through the Scriptures which speak of God knowing you or me is a reference to God’s eternal and covenantal love for those whom He has chosen.  One of many examples can be found in God’s calling of Jeremiah as a prophet.  There is a parallelism with God’s knowledge, consecrating and appointing:


Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; Before you were born I sanctified you; I ordained you a prophet to the nations (Jeremiah 1:5).


          The verse is not limited to saying God knew what would happen with Jeremiah.  From eternity past God knew him, sanctified him and ordained him to be a prophet.  When God knows someone it is not relegated to simple fact gathering or our resume—past, present or future.  In Amos 3:2 God says of Israel, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth.”  Did God not have infinite knowledge of the surrounding nations as well?  He certainly did; but not in the same way.

          In a very personal, intimate, loving and covenantal (promise making and promise keeping) way, God has known you from eternity past and has decreed—predestined—that you would not be left in your sins but that you, brothers and sisters in Christ, would be “conformed to the image of His Son.” 




          “Predestined” has become a provocative word.  Mention it in the Bible study and the eyes will roll and the excessive carbon dioxide which accompanies the immoderate exhaling, no doubt, contributes to the global warming crisis.  But the word is in the Scriptures (numerous times) so to avoid it for the sake of peace does harm to the message contained therein.  And the word does mean what it sounds like.

          “Predestined” proorisen in the Greek, similar to English is comprised of a prefix pro meaning in front of or before and horizo meaning to mark out definitely or to determine; all this to say that our destinies are determined by God “according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11).  God has a purpose for you and me.  There is a place where we are being brought—a destiny He has determined.

          This is not presented to us by Paul, or by the Holy Spirit, to goad us into an argument or for us to figure out ways to dismiss it because, at first blush, it appears to violate our notions of human freedom.  This is presented to us that we might rest in the peace of knowing that in the same way (to go back a few verses) our prayers are presented refined and perfected by the Spirit; in the same way every last single event is designed for good to those who love God and are called according to His purpose; that God has, and will continue to work out His immutable purpose to bring those whom He knew in eternity past to be conformed to the image of His Son. 

Humans, for some reason, like things to be left (at least to a certain extent) to chance.  We like games where you roll the dice or deal cards.  We like to combine that chance or luck with our own skill to see what we can do what we’ve been given.  From a certain perspective life can be observed this way.  But the last thing we should desire is that our eternal destinies be left to chance combined with human wisdom and virtue. 

When, by the Spirit of Christ we cry “Abba, Father,” when we, though checkered with sin and doubt, come to realize that we have faith in Christ, that says much more than we initially realize.  We can rest assured that God has “put His seal on us and given us His Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Corinthians 1:22).  We can know that “all the promises of God find their Yes in Him (Christ)” (2 Corinthians 1:20).  God knew us from eternity past and will most assuredly bring us to His desired good of which verse 28 speaks.  So what is the destination?  What is the good toward which all things work?  Verse 29 seems to indicate what God is doing in us and verse 30 what He has done for us.  We will speak of what God is doing in us then get to verse 30 in our next meeting.




The Image of His Son


          The good to which all things are working and that which God has predestined to take place in all believers is that we “be conformed to the image of His Son.”  In an ultimate and eschatological sense we see this reach its fullness in the final resurrection when the Lord Jesus Christ…     


…will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself (Philippians 3:21).


The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48 As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven (1 Corinthians 15:47-49).


          But the conforming to Christ is not restricted to the final resurrection.  One might say the eschaton has invaded human history.  For even though we will one day in glory fully bear the image of the man of heaven, it would be a mistake to assume that God is not currently doing that work of transformation.


And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed (present, passive, indicative) into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18).


          No doubt this comes from the pastoral heart of the apostle.  It comes from the pastoral heart of pastors, parents and all those seeking to see Christian maturity in those under their care.  As Paul wrote:


…my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you (Galatians 4:19)!


          This is the good to which all things are working.  As discussed earlier, this can be a highly uncomfortable process.


For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Hebrews 12:11).


          The “good” to which “all things” work should not be thought of as the events working out as much as the training of our souls.  All of creation is God’s classroom and we are His students.  He will faithfully train us.  He will complete the work He began (Philippians 1:6) and then we will, like Christ, referred to here at the “firstborn among many brethren” enter glory.  Paul will build on what that glory consists of in the following verse.


Questions for Study


  1. Where is God when it comes to the storms of life?  How is this comforting to the Christian (pages 2, 3)?
  2. Define the foreknowledge of God.  What is it?  What are some ideas people have about what it is (page 4)?
  3. Why do people choose to believe in Christ (pages 4, 5)?
  4. What is predestination and why is it so provocative (pages 6, 7)?
  5. What does it mean to be conformed into the image of Christ (page 8)?
  6. What is the good to which all things are working (page 9)?








[1] The Westminster confession of faith. (1996). Chapter III, 1. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Purpose of God, All Things, Romans 8:28-30, Part One

Sermons through














The Purpose of God

Part One

Romans 8:28-30

All Things


With Study Questions







Pastor Paul Viggiano

Branch of Hope Church

2370 W. Carson Street, #100

Torrance, CA 90501

(310) 212-6999


The Purpose of God

Part One

Romans 8:28-30

All Things


And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. 29 For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. 30 Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified (Romans 8:28-30).




          The initial verse under our consideration has been reduced to such a cliché that one hesitates to offer it as a remedy to human sorrow or hardship.  You might even say it’s become threadbare through overuse, often wrenched from its rich context—a context which would serve well to keep the nap of the verse’s fabric thick with the warmth and comfort that was little doubt, the Apostle Paul’s intention.

          It might be a little overly optimistic to suggest that a phrase exists which is capable of effectively and immediately extracting the pangs of sorrow from the human soul or the difficulty of sickness and suffering from our mortal bodies.  So often I’ve thought if I only had a button I could push to alleviate your (or my) physical pain, emotional heartache or current trying circumstance, I would assuredly do so. 

But, alas, there is no such a button and we are left to endure the sorrows and grief.  Though sorrows and grief are generated from the fall of man, they in and of themselves are not inherently sinful.  Of Jesus, it was anticipated that He would be “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). 

So the question, not merely for the Christian but for any human is not ‘will there be sorrow, grief, pain and trials in this life,’ but is there any sense to it?  Is life, as so many dark poets suggest, a tragedy?  Are we humans merely carbon based pain gatherers rocketing toward a meaningless oblivion?  Or is there a message—news from heaven which turns that dark message on its head?

Years ago in a physiology class I was given definitions of two similar feeling, yet dramatically opposite, experiences.  The professor spoke of pain versus discomfort.  The distinction was not a matter of intensity—that is to say that discomfort could be much more painful than pain (if you follow).  The distinction between pain and discomfort (maybe there are better terms) is that pain involves injury and discomfort does not.  Discomfort is a component of healing or the gaining of strength.

I am currently going through rehabilitation for a fairly minor knee surgery.  I’ve gone through this before.  The first time when I was in high school I did my rehab at Pauley Pavilion at UCLA.  In one of my first sessions I recall the late legendary trainer, Ducky Drake, working on a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, Happy Hairston, who also had knee surgery.  Happy apparently had scar tissue in his knee that Ducky was dealing with by bending his leg further than Happy was happy with.  I recall Happy yelling, “It hurts Ducky, it hurts”.  Ducky was unmoved by the prayers and petitions of Happy.  He continued bending and twisting until Happy was back on the NBA court.  Ducky wasn’t injuring Happy, but the discomfort was necessary for true healing to take place.

There is a great redemption, restoration, rehabilitation if you will, taking place in the cosmos.  For those, who by the grace of God, have cried out “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15) there is no (by the definitions offered above, for sake of clarity) pain for the children of God for God is not seeking to injure His children.  There is only discomfort.  It may be a discomfort ending in the grave itself—it inevitably will be—at which point the faithful will cry with Paul “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).

          God’s power to restore is not frustrated even by death itself.  The “gain” of which Paul writes is certainly the gain as he enters glory, but it is also gain for the advancement of the gospel.  God took Paul home at the perfect time for Paul and the perfect time for Paul’s ministry.  In order for a passage/verse like the one we are looking at this morning to have its desired effect, there are things that must be observed. 

If we don’t, for example, agree on what the “good” of which Paul writes is, we might be frustrated when things don’t turn our way.  If we think the chief end of God’s goodness is ensuring our dreams are fulfilled (as in a sermon I heard recently), or that events in this life will eventually turn our way (at least by our own definition), then this passage will be a bitter disappointment.

          Paul had just addresses our tendency toward frustration when our prayers are not answered in the way in which they are submitted.  Our prayers are groanings which the Holy Spirit refines and submits “according to the will of God” (8:27).  We then have the confident knowledge that God’s answer to prayer will always be superior to the prayer itself. 

          How perfectly Paul’s short treatise on prayer folds into this most popular verse, utilized by the children of God for comfort in the midst of difficulty!  In the same way our inadequate, shortsighted and perhaps even sinful prayers are utilized by God toward a just, holy and righteous end, Paul now expands that to “all things”. 


And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28.


We Know (at least we ought to know)


          The verse begins with the verb “we know” oikamen, as if Paul is about to instruct on something that was common knowledge.  What did everyone seem to know?  What was so obvious?  Perhaps it was the notion that if we have a Father in heaven who is infinite in being, glory, blessedness and perfection—who is almighty and everywhere present, knowing all things and most wise—who is most merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth—who because of the great love with which He loved us, sent His only begotten Son to die for us, He certainly will not allow that great work to be in any way upset by a random universe.   

There is not a micro-second nor a quantum or nano-meter that falls beyond His power and jurisdiction.

          The “all things” in this verse is just that—every last single thing—things that at first blush might make us uncomfortable.


The Lord has made all for Himself, Yes, even the wicked for the day of doom (Proverbs 16:4).


Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come (Lamentations 3:38)?


But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips (Job 2:10).


Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid? Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it (Amos 3:6)?


          It is not uncommon for people to understand Romans 8:28 to mean that God will make the most of a bad situation, as if man has scrambled the eggs and God will make an omelet.  But it is not as if God is walking into the room of tragedy and saying, let’s see if we can clean up this mess.  Such thinking puts restraints on our understanding of the true sovereignty of God.  God is not merely the one who sees us through the storm, He is the one who “commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted the waves of the sea” (Psalm 107:25).  God is the one who makes the storm.

          In the tapestry of God’s unfolding history, we have threads of good and threads of evil.  What we learn in a verse like this, and others like it, is that God has ordained all these threads to form the design of His purpose and pleasure.

          And what Paul is telling you and me is that the aim of God in the administration of His infinite love and power is the inclusion of all those that love Him in His good and glorious plan; a plan that will most certainly includes days of heartache and trial.

Yet God is doing something magnificent, so much so that Paul can only express it:


What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him (1 Corinthians 2:9).


We might be careful not to take Romans 8:28 and view it as a promise that we will eventually get what we want, though sidetracked for the time-being.  We will then be tempted to measure whether or not God has kept His promise based upon whether or not we approve of the way things have worked out.

The “good” of which Paul writes is a good determined by God.  As we shall see in the verses to come, that good certainly includes the very personal and (to borrow from Paul) unimaginable ouk anebe (lit. beyond our thoughts) preparations of God.  But unless we are moved to lay aside our own paltry definitions of “good” this glorious verse will lose its weight.

Not to be corny, but I can’t help think of the speech William Wallace gives the soldiers as they look across the battlefield, drawing the conclusion that they are about to be slaughtered.  And why—that the nobles can have more land?  Wallace convinces them that there is something greater than the nobles, greater than preserving the extension of their own lives.  He makes the great speech for freedom.  It is with an enlightened recognition of this greater thing that they fight like “warrior poets.”  Have we been convinced of what the “good” is to which all things are being cinched?


Lovers of God


When Paul writes that the recipients of this “good” are those that love God, it is just another way of denoting those who are Christians.  This becomes clear with the phrase which accompanies it, “those who are called according to His purpose.”  The “call” here being the effectual calling of God.  It is not the outward call but the inward call—that irresistible call which transforms a heart of stone to a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26) and opens blind eyes (John 9:25).

It is a great, comforting and glorious truth that all things work together for good.  It is equally true that those who trust in Christ can rest in the assurance that they are the unique beneficiaries of all these things which are working together for good.  But what is this “good?”  Is it the job I want, the family I desire, is it health, friendships, reputation, respect? 

Shortly, Paul will begin a thought with the words “What then shall we say to these things” (Romans 8:31)?  Then he will give his own speech—a speech that in my opinion is virtually unparalleled in terms of depth and encouragement.  In that speech he sets the temporal, historical and stark reality of “being killed” and “regarded as sheep to be slaughtered” against the eternal and spiritual reality of being “more than conquerors through Him who loved us.”  What is this “good” that God is accomplishing that can yield, that can justify, such a statement?  We will pursue that more fully next time.










Questions for Study


  1. Are pain, sorrow and grief sinful?  Why or why not?  How do people generally deal with such things (pages 2, 3)?
  2. What is the distinction between pain and discomfort?  Why is this significant (page 3)?
  3. What does Paul assume his readers know (page 4)?
  4. What is included under “all things” (pages 4, 5)?
  5. What kind of limitations do we put on our understanding of the sovereignty of God if we think of Romans 8:28 as God merely fixing the mess (page 5)?




Sunday, May 11, 2014

Prayer—A Treatise On Human Incompetence

Romans 8:26-27


Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. 27 Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God (Romans 8:26-27).




          Some of you know I celebrated a birthday this last week.  My wife and I went out to dinner, just the two of us, to a pretty fancy restaurant.  This restaurant offers a free dinner if you come in on your actual birthday.  We went to the same restaurant on my wife’s birthday and received the same deal.  But the place is pretty expensive, so even though we received a free meal the bill was quite high.  We wanted to make sure that didn’t happen again. 

          One category on the menu that can really get you is the wine list.  I thought one glass of wine with dinner would be appropriate but as I perused the options I was reminded that this establishment was not shy about its prices.  I had to be very careful here.  I found the cheapest glass of wine and ordered it as if it were my preference.  To which the very courteous food server responded, “Very good sir.”  ‘Look at me’ I thought with my wife observing in admiration, ‘I did very good.’

          We enjoyed an intensely delicious meal after which we received the bill which strangely resembled a mortgage payment.  I apparently accidentally ordered the wrong glass of wine.  A little embarrassed I asked the waiter to double check, which he graciously did.  After my perceptive and attentive wife confirmed that I did in fact say “Twomey” rather than “Roth” I thanked the waiter, paid the bill and became, once again, reacquainted with the reality that I know nothing about wine and that it is moderately irresponsible for me to hold a wine list in my hand.

          I share this little story because I think most of us have a general notion of our own limitations in a variety of areas in life.  I would never fix my own brakes nor would I perform surgery on myself.  And when my mechanic or my surgeon seeks to explain what they’re doing to my car or my body, I generally arrive at the conclusion (after a little courteous head-nodding) that I am entirely at their mercy.


We Know In Part


          As a pastor, having been educated both experientially and institutionally in the field of ministry and theology, one would think that I have my field of expertise and that I can confidently tread the waters of the ministerial enterprise of being a Christian and helping others along that path.  And I won’t pretend that, at some level that is not the case.  But it does seem that every step forward I take (have ever taken) in the landscape of Christian maturity and piety, I come to see another acre of unexplored territory. 

          How emphatically true Paul’s words are, “For we know in part…” (1 Corinthians 13:9).  I don’t want to be misunderstood here.  I am not remotely suggesting that the knowledge of God and the things of God are so vast that it becomes a meaningless gesture to take those steps forward.  The verse does say “we know”.  And I don’t think it is a stretch to say that that knowledge, as minute as it might be when one contemplates the infinite breadth of the Godhead, is true knowledge and the most precious treasure contained in our souls. 

          But what the Apostle Paul seems to be saying here is that our prayer list is like a wine list and we really don’t know what to order.  We may know how (pos in Greek) to pray, but we don’t know “what” (ti in Greek) to pray.  Now our initial response to such news may be to simply disengage in prayer.  Why would I bother praying when I really don’t know what to pray for?  But these two short verses should encourage us in just the opposite direction.


Prayer and Magic


          We may all have various explanations as to why we engage in the sin of lethargy when it comes to prayer.  Maybe it’s our schedule, maybe we’re shy, embarrassed, inarticulate, confused, distracted, etc.  But maybe we just think it doesn’t matter.  We expect prayer to be magic and because it doesn’t appear to magically work, we have grown cold in the exercise of it.  Can you imagine how active your prayer life would be if it were magic?  You could go from house to house healing people, feeding people and solving people’s various problems.  We could all be Dumbledore!

          But we seldom stop to consider how self-deifying (making ourselves God) such a notion actually is.  Someone might say, how could it be wrong to heal, to feed and to solve problems?  Certainly as human beings we should do what we can to minister in these areas within our own limited capabilities.  But it is quite beyond us, even if we had the power, to have the wisdom of God when it comes to having the final say in governing the course of human events. 

Of whom but God can it be said, “The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble” (Proverbs 16:4)?

Or what created being could righteously call “for a famine” (2 Kings 8:1)?  If prayer were magic and you were given the autonomous power to “form light and create darkness…make well-being and create calamity” (Isaiah 45:7) how would you wield such power?  For what would you pray?  If God called for a famine could you, with the same wisdom, authority and end game in sight, call for its end?


Helps In Our Weakness


          Perhaps we can begin to see just how weak we are in this category.  And how unreasonable our complaints when our prayers are not answered in the manner in which they are submitted.  Again, our natural inclination might be to cease in prayer altogether—which would be, and has been, a monumental error.  Because it is with our weakness in mind that the Apostle Paul writes of the Spirit who “helps” synantilambanomai. 

          There is tremendous force in this word “help”.  It carries the idea of the Spirit taking part in our burden.  The word was used of assistance offered to an infant unable to support himself or the sick “tottering and hardly able to walk.”[1]  It doesn’t require deep examination to see the (what is called) the economic relationship of the Trinity working in harmony on the part of the children of God.  It is by the blood of Christ that we approach the Father and it is by the intercession of the Spirit that our prayers are, as it were, refined.




          The passage begins with the word “likewise” hosautos, beckoning back to the universal and collective groaning of creation (verse 22) and our own groaning (verse 23) in anticipation of our final resurrection (verse 23).  We read now of a groaning extending to our prayers.  What do we make of this groaning?  What is taking place here?

          The noun “groanings” stenagmos merely means to sigh, as one oppressed.  It is the word from the Septuagint found in Exodus 6:5 where God “heard the groaning” of the enslaved Israelites.   Paul adds to the description the notion that the groanings “cannot be uttered” alaletoios.  I think it would be a mistake at this point to draw the conclusion that God is operating via some secret language, e.g. the “tongues of angels” (1 Corinthians 13:1) that is utterly disconnected from rational thought lest we draw the conclusion that God is entirely unknowable (which itself would reveal something we can know about God—that He is unknowable—hence a self-refuting position). 

          Going down that road would leave us at the mercy and direction of impulses or “passions” epithymiais (2 Timothy 3:6).  Or we may fall into a George Benson[2] epistemology where we try “to talk it over but the words get in the way.”  If we dispense with knowable, godly thoughts and propositions we are left at the unpredictable dispatch of temperament, caprice and whim.  Truth, beloved, loves a definition, and anyone who is not willing to at least make an effort at offering a definition is (whether wittingly or not, I won’t suppose to say) prefers the water remain sufficiently murky.

          It must be briefly stated that this passage is not addressing the gift of tongues.  Time does not allow a thorough examination of that subject, suffice it to say for now that the gift “tongues” was not, even in the New Testament era, universally given to Christians, “Do all speaks with tongues” (1 Corinthians 12:30)? the implied answer being ‘no’.  But this passage addresses the condition of all believers.

          Enough of what it is not, what do we make of these groanings?  Similar to the groaning of creation and the inward groaning of the believer due to his fallen estate, we have the Spirit induced groanings which proceed from the believer in prayer.  Whether we are praying for the weak, the sick, the unregenerate, the poor or the proud or the wealthy, we reach the end of ourselves to sufficiently vocalize what must truly take place. 

          Could not the most brilliant scribe in all of Israel have written, and offered, a beautiful, poetic and (even if not a prophet) relatively accurate prayer to God for deliverance from slavery?  I would say ‘yes’.   And yet in writing it, would he not have eventually, if he were a wise man, come face to face with his own inadequacy?  Would he not then groan?  If a child finds him/herself in danger and screams (because of the great fear and/or limited vocabulary) unintelligibly, that doesn’t mean there is no describable problem?  Certainly not!  It merely means that they/we currently have not the ability to express it.

          But the mother knows the voice of her child.  And when the cry for help comes, it is the mother who will properly evaluate the nature of the cry and the proper course of action in response. 




          It is just here that the “intercession” hyperentynchano takes place.  Intercession means to plead for someone, to intercede on someone’s behalf.  The passage is not easily worded, but for the sake of simplicity it unfolds in this way: 


·       We don’t know what to pray.  This is the current weakness addressed.

·       Because of the Spirit’s work, the believer will pray, but the prayers are subject to human fallibility and amount to groaning.

·       The Holy Spirit intercedes in such a way as to present our prayers to God according to God’s own will.


Thomas Schreiner expresses it well:


The Spirit fills this lack by interceding for the saints. Indeed, verse 27 indicates that he intercedes for them according to God’s will, that is, he articulates the will of God in his intercession. Believers are weak in that they are unable to enunciate fully the will of God in their prayers. The Spirit compensates for their deficiency.[3]


          Perhaps it is easiest to understand that in the same way that Jesus intercedes (Romans 8:34) and presents us holy to the Father by His own blood, the Spirit intercedes and articulates and presents our prayers in such a way that they conform to the will of God.


Searching and Knowing


          The passage speaks of God who “searches” the hearts of men and “knows what the mind of the Spirit is.”  What does God find when He searches our heart?  It might be easy to answer with the typical Calvinistic truth, that He finds a great deal of sin.  I am always a little concerned when someone finds comfort with the words “But God knows my heart”.  As someone once said, “that God knows our hearts…that’s the the bad news.” 

          It would appear, at least in this passage (and in much of Romans) that Paul highlights the heart kardi as that aspect of man that is under the operation of the Spirit of God.  In Romans 1:21 he describes the natural rebellious man have having a “foolish” and “darkened” heart.  A similar thought is conveyed in Romans 2:5, where wrath is being stored up due to an “impenitent heart.”   

He then begins to explain that true circumcision of “a matter of the heart” (Romans 2:29).  Later he will explain that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).  In Romans 6:17 Paul is thankful that his readers have “become obedient from the heart.”  Earlier in this very chapter Paul will make the distinction between those who walk “according to the flesh” versus those who walk “according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4). 

          All of this to say that when God searches the heart of a Christian, though He will certainly find sin, He will also find a heart cultivated by the labor of the Holy Spirit yielding an unutterable longing to conform to the will of God, in our lives and in all of creation.  This was the work of the Spirit in that hour we first believed, placing our souls in the hands of Jesus and the Father as the Savior of our souls and Master of our lives.  It is the first (first in priority and often first chronologically) prayer of those who are the objects of God’s grace.  And when God searches the hearts of the elect, this is what He will find.


And you, Solomon my son, know the God of your father and serve him with a whole heart and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches all hearts and understands every plan and thought (1 Chronicles 28:9).


          It may be a profitable endeavor for us to ask ourselves if this is what God finds when He searches our hearts.  Not to suggest a theology of perfectionism, but a theology of confession of sin and sincere faith in the One who delivers from sin and leads us in life by the wisdom of His counsel. 

          The Father knows, by the effective work of the Spirit who belongs to Him and He knows the “mind” phronema of the Spirit.  This is not the normal word for mind nous, but a word which means mindset or way of thinking.  In other words, the Father knows what the Spirit has in mind—what His holy and sanctifying intentions are. 

          We pray with the general notion (though it may appear specific to us) that we are to subject all things to Christ, put off the old man and put on the new, glorify God in our thoughts, words and deeds and tend to the needs of our neighbors.  We are a temple under construction and when in our prayers we order wooden pillars, the Spirit submits a request for granite.  When we ask for ease, the Spirit intercedes, elevating the petition to strength and long-suffering.  We ask for wood, hay and straw, but when the Spirit flies to the Father on our behalf the words are transformed to gold, silver and precious stones.

          How much greater than magic is the gift of prayer.  To list the tome of passages which elevate the value and power of prayer would be an endeavor pushing past the length of any single sermon, but James says it succinctly:


The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much (James 5:16)


          The Father is engaged in a divine, powerful and perfect work in the lives of us individually and the creation as a whole.  One of the means by which God accomplishes this work is through the fallible prayers of saved sinners, presented to Himself in their perfection through the Spirit of God.

I pray for my wife, my children and our church.  But I continually walk away from those prayers with a sense of deficiency, as if I haven’t the wisdom to say the right things or make the proper requests.  But what if I knew that every time I prayed some shortsighted, inadequate prayer for my children that the Holy Spirit took that prayer and edited it to perfection and presented it to God to the eternal benefit of my beloved quiver full of arrows…would I not engage in that activity with renewed vigor? 

We are told that we have not because we do not ask (James 4:2).  In light of this passage, have we ever truly considered what we don’t have because we don’t ask? 























Questions for Study


  1. What does it mean that we “know in part?”  What human limitation is addressed in these two verses (pages 2, 3)?
  2. Have you ever thought that prayer should be like magic?  What would be the problem if that were the case (pages 3, 4)?
  3. How do you see the Trinity at work in this passage (pages 4, 5)?
  4. Discuss what the “groanings” are and are not.  Why is this an important issue to understand (pages 5, 6)?
  5. Explain the intercession of the Holy Spirit when it comes to our prayers (pages 6, 7).
  6. When God searches your heart, what does He find (pages 6, 7)?
  7. What is the mindset of the Holy Spirit?  What is He doing?  What are His intentions (page 8)?
  8. Why should the knowledge contained in this short passage be a great incentive to prayer (page 9)?














[1] Calvin, J. (1998). Romans (electronic ed.). Albany, OR: Ages Software.
[2] Lyrics from his 1976 hit, Masquerade.
[3] Schreiner, T. R. (1998). Romans (Vol. 6, pp. 443–444). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.