Do you find yourself groaning as a Christian? You don’t groan alone. The Holy Spirit groans with you, according to Romans 8:26: .
"In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express."
What makes the Holy Spirit groan? Is he disappointed with us? Are inarticulate groans sighs of self-pity and despair? Do inarticulate groans refer to the experience of speaking in tongues?
In our exploration of the anatomy of groaning in Romans 8, we want show that the Holy Spirit groans as he gives birth within us to a new identity in Christ that wills to do what God wants.
Who is the Spirit?
Romans 8 contains more references to the Spirit than any other chapter in the Bible, yet not once is the name “Holy Spirit” used. Instead of a proper name, we have descriptions: Spirit of life (v 2), Spirit of God (v 9), Spirit of Christ (v 9), Spirit of Him who raised Jesus (v 11), Spirit of Sonship (v 15) or simply “the Spirit.” God the Son has a proper name. He is Christ Jesus (v 1). God the Father is “Abba, Father” (v 15). But nowhere do we hear of the Holy Spirit in Romans 8.
Good theological reasons stand behind this ambiguity. The Spirit’s groaning is not inarticulate. “He who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with the will of God” (v 27). Paul tells us two things. First, the Holy Spirit is a person with a mind whose groans are intelligible to the Father. Secondly, the Holy Spirit’s groaning is intelligible because it is congruent with God’s will. The Holy Spirit accords with the will of God because the Holy Spirit is the will of God. The Holy Spirit is the going forth of God in the power of his love. Going forth in power assumes a source and a goal. God the Father is the source, and Jesus Christ is the goal. The Holy Spirit is neither source nor goal but that which unites both. As the will uniting Father and Son as well as the power of God in us, the Holy Spirit acquires many names depending on the function He plays: counselor, comforter, enlightener, etc. These functions and more are summarized by the name “Holy Spirit” as defined in the Apostle’s Creed: We believe in the Holy Spirit.
God’s Spirit and Our spirits
If the Holy Spirit is God’s will going forth in the power of his love, how does God’s Holy Spirit relate to our spirit? “The Spirit,” Paul tells us, “bears witness to our spirit that we are God’s children” (v 16). How do we know through our experience we are God’s children?
We know we are God’s children, Paul tells us, whenever we put to death the lingering enmity towards God that constitutes our old way of life. The transition from verse 13 to verse 14 captures the relationship between our spirit and the Holy Spirit. Paul starts this section reminding us we have an obligation (v 12). The obligation we have grows out of the previous section in which we are told our old self is dead because of sin, and our spirits are alive because of righteousness. We have a new self. It is Christ in us (v 10). Christ in us complements verse 1 where we are in Christ. Christ in us is a new identity based on his perfect sacrifice for our sins and his perfect obedience imputed to us (v 4). Verse thirteen contrasts those who live according to their old identity to those who “by the spirit put to death the deeds of the body.” The spirit in verse thirteen refers to our spirits as the means of mortification. This is shown by the causal link to verse 14: “Because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” The Holy Spirit cannot be both cause and agent of resistance to sin. We have an obligation to mortify sin as the Spirit of the Lord empowers us to do so. Our active resistance to sin is the sign we experience as the work of the Holy Spirt in us showing us that we are God’s children.
How do we mortify sin? John Owen (1616-1683) wrote a book that is vital for us today entitled, Mortification of Sin in Believers. In short, Owen advises us to name it, repent of it, starve it and oppose it by trusting in Christ’s perfect obedience in us. Oppose lust with Christ’s joy, resist anger with Christ’s peace, and defeat pride with Christ’s humility. Christ’s perfections are preferred over our old hatred of God by the power of God’s love manifested in us through the Holy Spirit.
The Groaning of the Holy Spirit
The work of the Holy Spirit in us is called vivification. To vivify means to animate or give life. Paul compares the groaning of the whole creation to childbirth in verse 22. Think of a newborn. After the trauma of childbirth, a newborn is held aloft and spanked on the buttocks to cause it to scream. A scream inflates the lungs, filling them for the first time with the breath of life. To the newborn a scream is shocking, but to everyone else it is a welcome sign of life. To us, the Holy Spirit’s cry is a wordless shock at the overwhelming power of God’s love over our unloving, faithless hearts (which can be expressed by the gift of tongues, the outpouring of our hearts to God). To God, it is the welcome sign of his love at work in us to want what God wills. Vivification is the other side of mortification. As we put to death our old self, the Holy Spirit brings to life our new self hidden in Christ.