The Apostle Paul alludes to the practice of "praying in the Spirit" in at least two of his epistles, namely:

Ephesians 6:18 (ESV):

18 praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints,

1 Corinthians 14:13-16 (ESV):

13 Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. 15 What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. 16 Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying?

Unfortunately, Paul didn't provide a crystal clear definition of the practice.

Jude also alludes to this type of prayer, but he doesn't explain what it means either:

20 But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, 21 keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. [Jude 1:20-21, ESV]

How did the early Church in the ante-Nicene period understand the practice of "praying in the Spirit"? Was it understood as a special kind of prayer, as distinct from the more "basic" mode of prayer? Are there any extra-biblical writings from the ante-Nicene period addressing this topic?

Related BH.SE question: Are “praying in a tongue”, “praying with one's spirit” and “praying in the (Holy) Spirit” interchangeable expressions?

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    Yes. One can utter words of 'prayer' in the flesh. And one will not be heard. Yes, indeed. And one may be carnal and worldly and fleshly : and be dead towards God. Yes, indeed. I was alive without the law, once. Praying, fasting, bible-reading : but not alive to God and the Father.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Jul 7, 2021 at 7:27
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    +1 This is a very good patristics question. Possible answer is a list of quotations from Patristic commentary on those verses, and/or letters / sermons / essays on the topic of praying. To sharpen this question, how about explicitly excluding answers that cites other NT texts only? Answers that include both NT and ante-Nicene sources are ok. Commented Jul 12, 2021 at 16:46
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    @GratefulDisciple - I bolded 'extra-biblical writings' to emphasize that that's something I'm especially interested in.
    – user50422
    Commented Jul 12, 2021 at 16:56
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    @NigelJ I tend to agree with your interpretation. A commentary on Eph 6:18 (by William Klein) says: And they ought to pray “in the Spirit,” suggesting prayers that are consistent with the Spirit’s desires and are energized by the Spirit. Schnackenburg, 282, puts it well: “Our human praying only achieves power and effectiveness in the strength of the divine Spirit.” So it's not necessarily praying in tongue or mindless speech or under ecstasy. I'm hoping for church fathers references to back up this interpretation. Commented Jul 12, 2021 at 17:17
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    @GratefulDisciple Thank you. My own experience is that my own prayers are selfish, unwise, ineffectual and deeply ungodly, unless I walk in the Spirit and pray in the Spirit. Only He, himself, from within, in union with my own spirit, can direct my being in Christ, towards God and the Father, in a spiritual manner.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Jul 12, 2021 at 17:25

1 Answer 1


With apologies for only responding to your question at the "11th hour" I submit this account which may be relevant:

Directly after the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples in Jerusalem at Pentecost, there is an account of how Peter, who was filled with the Holy Spirit, was enabled to witness to the High Priest and other ruler and elders. It's in Acts chapter 4. Later, we hear that Stephen:

a man full of God's grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people (Acts 6:8).

Yet he was stoned to death because of his witness and testimony to Christ Jesus:

But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God... While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.' Then he fell on his knees and cried out, 'Lord, do not hold this sin against them.'" (Acts 7:54-60)

The point is that it is the Holy Spirit who indwells the believer who enables them to speak, to pray, to live for the glory of God. There is no formula. There is no manual, or method. The early Christians just did it because they were filled with the Holy Spirit. They couldn't have done otherwise!

Here is another example of what it means to pray in the spirit.

Polycarp of Smyrna, Second Century: Both Irenaeus and Tertullian record that Polycarp had been a disciple of John the Apostle, one of Jesus’s disciples. In ‘On Illustrious Men’, Jerome writes that Polycarp was a disciple of John the Apostle and that John had ordained him as a bishop of Smyrna. Polycarp is regarded as one of three chief Apostolic Fathers, along with Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polycarp

Perhaps the best way to understand how the early Church viewed praying in the Spirit is to give an example. Given the terrible manner in which Polycarp was put to death, this prayer illustrates how a spirit-filled Christian can lift his eyes to heaven and, in spite of everything he is experiencing, can give praise and thanks to God as he is borne along by the power of the Holy Spirit.

A Dying Prayer of Polycarp, the Martyr

O Father of your well-beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have known you, O God of the angels and powers and of every living creature, and of all sorts of righteous people which live in your presence, I thank you that you have graciously provided this day and this hour to allot me a portion among the number of martyrs, among the people of Christ to the resurrection of eternal life, both of body and soul, in the incorruption of the Holy Spirit.

Among them I will be received in your sight this day as a fruitful and acceptable sacrifice, you have already prepared, often revealed and now fulfilled. You are the most faithful God who cannot lie.

For all these things I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you; through the eternal High Priest, Jesus Christ, your well-beloved Son, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit, be all glory, now and forever. Amen.

Source: https://acollectionofprayers.com/2018/03/10/a-dying-prayer-of-polycarp-the-martyr/

That's an example of what it means to "pray in the Spirit".

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