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In a recent small group Bible study sponsored by a local Pentecostal church, attendees were encouraged to "pray in the Spirit." The study leader cited these verses:

So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. 1 Corinthians 14:15 (NIV)

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord's people. Ephesians 6:18 (NIV)

But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. Jude 20-21 (NIV)

The leader then continued to teach that "praying in the Spirit" meant to pray in "tongues"—a spiritual language that can only be spoken and interpreted miraculously. Is this interpretation of these passages consistent with any church doctrines or writings that predate Pentecostalism?

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You will need to understand what it means to pray, and also what it means to be in the breath. – Decrypted Aug 31 '14 at 1:52
I suggest reading this (…) – Decrypted Aug 31 '14 at 1:57
To answerers: I've downvoted each of your answers. Please note that I specifically ask if the Pentecostal interpretation of these verses is consistent with any doctrines that predate Pentecostalism. That is, are there established church writings (scriptural commentaries, church fathers, reformers, etc.) that also say that "to pray in the Spirit" means "to pray in tongues"? Since you've each given your own reading and not presented one such established source, you haven't answered the question as it was posed. – Andrew Jun 17 at 8:44

4 Answers 4

Praying in the Spirit is a concept that was put forth by Paul in the book of Romans.

Romans 8:26 and 27 Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. 27 And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God.

The underlying thought appears to be that since God is Spirit that communication between our spirit and Spirit God so to speak have their own language as indicated by intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.

And in verse 27 he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, appears that the Spirit itself has a mental process foreign to ours, and that God looks at our hearts rather than our entreaties.

Hope this helps.

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I suggest reading this (…) – Decrypted Aug 31 '14 at 1:59
@Bye the passages you use are talking about Spirit God making intercession for us with groanings--- not us to the Spirit. We have to look at the sentence structure. maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered is a verb; so what is doing the verb? the Spirit itself – Jeremy H Sep 9 '14 at 18:09
@HandofDon you appear to be disputing verse 27. Of course it is the Spirit of God making intercession for us, but that intercession comes from the Holy Spirit conversing with our spirit as is indicated by:he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God. We are privileged by having an intercessor who can converse with God on his level – BYE Sep 9 '14 at 18:51
@Bye Clarity: when you say the Spirit of God and Holy Spirit, you're talking about the same being, right? – Jeremy H Sep 9 '14 at 19:02
@HandofDon Absolutely that is cleared up in Genesis chapter 1 verse 1. and also the he in verse 27 also refers to the Holy Spirit, Ghost or what ever name you affix to that Spirit, however the 'the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit' refers to our spirit. – BYE Sep 9 '14 at 20:31

Unfortunately, in my opinion, no at least for Eph 6:18 and Jude 20-21.

It is a strange new world to know that the Bible is not merely a historical document to be studied and analyzed, it is a life-giving and nourishing word that we should long for, taste, and eat.

…Long for the guileless milk of the word… –1 Pet. 2:2

How sweet are Your words to my taste! –Psa. 119:103

Your words were found and I ate them… –Jer. 15:16

Beginning from Origen, the early Christians referred to this as lectio divina (divine reading). Also from every period of church history, including Origen, Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory the Great, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, Andrew Murray, W. H. Griffith Thomas etc.

Although definitions abound, Mariano Magrassi in his book, Praying the Bible, summed it in this quote:

We find that Leclercq’s definition, brief and concise as it is, gets to the heart of the matter: ‘Lectio divina is prayed reading


In order to pray, we do not need to rack our brains, artificially evoking interior acts, thoughts or excessively refined affections. All we need to do is react in the presence of the text with free and spontaneous prayer. And when this spontaneous outpouring stops, we return to the text for fresh nourishment.

E. M. Bounds in the his book, The Necessity of Prayer, says:

The Word of God is made effectual and operative, by the process and practice of prayer… the Word of God is the food, by which prayer is nourished and made strong.

Lastly, we should also put verse 17 of Ephesians 6 with verse 18:

17 And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

18 With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints,

Paul is actually telling us to pray-read or pray with the Word.

Thomas Aquinas on 1 Cor. 14

What am I to do? Because someone could say: inasmuch as prayer in a tongue is without fruit to the mind, but the spirit prays, should one then not pray in the spirit. Therefore, the Apostle answer this objection, saying that one should pray in both ways, in the spirit and in the mind; because man should serve God with all the things he has from God. But from God he has spirit and mind; therefore, he should pray with both: “With all his heart he will praise God” (Sir 47:8). Therefore, he says: I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also. And so he says that he will pray and sing; because prayer is the beseeching of God, and so he says, I will pray, or it is praising Him, and so he says I will sing. Concerning these two Jas (6:13) says: “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing.” “Sing praises to the Lord” (Ps 9:11). I will pray, therefore, in the spirit, i.e., imagination, and with the mind, i.e., the will.

Origen in his example of the inner working of the Triune God in prayers from 1 Cor 14:15 commented:

I will pray in the Spirit, and I will pray in the mind also ... For our mind cannot pray unless the Spirit prays first ... just as it cannot sing out .... hymning the Father in Christ, unless the Spirit which searches all things, even the depths of God, first gives praise and hymns him who depths he has searched out and, as he is able, comprehended.

Origin identifies as necessary in writing about prayer is, "The illumination of the Father is needed", "as well as the teaching of the firstborn Word and the inner working of the Spirit".

Carol Harrison says that according to Origen, "... God's Trinitarian work as Creator, Redemer and illumniator/inspirer therefore provides the grounds for prayer;"

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As a student of Pentecostal history and a practicing charismatic/Pentecostal, the simple answer to your question is no, it is not the meaning all church history pre dating Pentecostalism put on those scriptures.

There is a huge period of cessationism in the church

For a full research on tongues through out history go here

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Welcome to Christianity.SE! For a quick overview of what this site is all about, please take the Site Tour. About your answer, though it is a good start, to be a good answer here it would need to quote and comment on relevant passages from your linked source rather than just linking to it. For some tips on writing good answers here, please read, What makes a good supported answer? – Lee Woofenden Sep 5 at 17:45

I agree with Bye's answer that praying in the Spirit can mean what is spoken of in Romans 8:26-27 about the Spirit offering up groanings on our behalf when we can't find the words. But there is another passage I think needs to be mentioned as well. Paul himself dealt with those who interpreted praying in the Spirit as meaning speaking in tongues, and he absolutely disagreed with them.

1st Corinthians 14:13-20

13 Wherefore let him that speaketh in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret.

14 For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful.

15 What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.

16 Else when thou shalt bless with the spirit, how shall he that occupieth the room of the unlearned say Amen at thy giving of thanks, seeing he understandeth not what thou sayest?

17 For thou verily givest thanks well, but the other is not edified.

18 I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all:

19 Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.

20 Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men.

Praying in an unknown tongue is not praying in the Spirit, and praying in an unknown tongue in public worship doesn't edify anyone, since they don't understand what was said and therefore cannot say "Amen" to the prayer, so Paul says stick with a language everyone can understand in public prayer.

Edit:-- I will add the "the spirit" here seems not to even be the Holy Spirit but the human spirit. The idea behind praying in or with the spirit seems to be to pray with sincerity, i.e. from the heart. Even when it comes to tongues, Paul here attributes it to the human spirit, in verse 14, "For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful." The important thing in praying "in the spirit" is praying sincerely, from the heart. But when people pray in an unknown tongue, their heart may be in it apart from the intellect, which is what Paul is saying should not be done.

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Paul talks about praying "with the spirit" and "with understanding" as a contrast. Presumably "with the spirit" is either without language or in an unknown tongue. Paul warns against doing this in a public meeting, but you haven't demonstrated that he thought "praying in the spirit" meant anything other than "praying in an unknown tongue." – disciple Aug 31 '14 at 1:08
@disciple, Yes I have, since he says he will pray with both the spirit and the understanding, which demonstrates that praying in the spirit does not require praying in an unknown tongue. – david brainerd Aug 31 '14 at 1:21
I suggest reading this (…) – Decrypted Aug 31 '14 at 1:59
I asked a question about it in Biblical Hermaneutics:… . Let's work on improving and getting good answers to that question, or take it to chat if there's still a misunderstanding. You could improve your answer here by clarifying how you interpret those verses, and I apologize for not suggesting that earlier. – disciple Aug 31 '14 at 4:05
@disciple, I saw that question on biblical hermeneutics. I actually did update my answer a bit, although you may have missed it. – david brainerd Aug 31 '14 at 5:01

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