Praying in the Spirit

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On January 1, 1655, William Gurnall (1616–79), a Puritan minister in the English county of Suffolk — one of the main nurseries of English Puritanism — sat down to pen a dedication to what would be published as a four-part volume later that year. It had begun as a series of sermons on Ephesians 6:10–13 that Gurnall had preached to his congregation, whom he now addressed as “my dearly beloved Friends and Neighbours, the Inhabitants of Lavenham.” The parish church of Lavenham, in which these sermons were first given, has long been considered one of the finest Anglican church buildings in Suffolk. An imposing structure at the west end of the town, it had been a Puritan center for nearly eighty years when this book of sermons was first published. In due course, Gurnall would publish two more volumes on the verses following, Ephesians 6:14–20, in 1658 and 1661, and together the three volumes would comprise the main literary work for which he is remembered today: The Christian in Complete Armour.

In the latest complete edition by the Banner of Truth, this book runs to six hundred pages of rich, detailed Puritan exegesis. J.C. Ryle, the evangelical Anglican bishop who wrote a small biography of Gurnall — though he readily confessed that we possess “singularly little information” about him — rightly notes that, in addition to the profound exegetical material in this book, there are scores of “pithy, pointed … sayings” that provide marvelous summaries of Christian thinking and living in “short, golden sentences.”

Consider, for example, Gurnall’s commentary on the phrase “praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit” (Eph. 6:18) as it relates to the idea of prayer in the Spirit. The Puritan pastor first observes from this passage that “prayer is the creature’s act, but the Spirit’s gift.” True prayer is not learned, like other things in this world, by honing certain techniques; it is ever a “gift of grace.” Other texts, such as Romans 8:26 and Jude 20, confirm Gurnall’s point here: the Spirit “excites and assists” the believer as he prays. Gurnall finds a second basic aspect of prayer in the Spirit in Ephesians 2:18: to pray aright “it is necessary we pray by the Spirit of God.” Just as we cannot come to the Father through any mediator but the Lord Jesus, so to “pray by another Spirit than by
the Holy Ghost” is sheer folly.

But what exactly does it mean to pray in the Spirit? Well, Gurnall answers, this concept speaks of the grace necessary to pray: if the Spirit does not extend His grace in prayer, the “poor Christian is becalmed, as a ship at sea when no wind is stirring.” In fact, Gurnall is insistent that a “saint, when the Spirit of God denies his help, prays no better than a carnal man.” But when the Holy Spirit gives help to the believer in prayer, suitable affections in every area of prayer are stirred up. The Spirit creates an aching heart when sin is being confessed; He brings forth a deep sense of need when God is being supplicated; and when the Lord is being praised, the Spirit carries the heart “on high upon the wings of love and joy.”

Gurnall concludes this mini-meditation on prayer in the Spirit with typically Puritan application. He urges his hearers/readers to pray for the Spirit’s help and presence. This help, he comments, is found in the preaching of the Word, which is the “vehiculum Spiritus, the Spirit’s chariot in which he rides.” The fellowship of the saints is also important for knowing the Spirit’s help in prayer. Spending time in the company of other believers, listening to their gracious conversations, enriches the soul: “who knows but thy heart may be warmed at their fire, and from the savor of their graces be drawn thyself to the love of holiness.” Profane company, on the other hand, does not work so: “this is a great quencher to the Spirit’s work.” And, Gurnall insists, if we would know the Spirit’s help in prayer, we must live a holy life: “Sin is so offensive to the Holy Spirit, that wherever it is bid welcome he will show his distaste.” Thus, he concludes, if “thou wouldst have the Spirit of God breathe in thy soul at prayer, present it not to him besmeared with any sin unrepented of.”

It is little wonder that Ryle could comment that he found “more of definite soul-satisfying thought in one page of Gurnall” than in five of the theologians of his day, and that the great need of his time was a revival of “a taste for such books” as this. If that were true then, how much is it true now? 

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.