Praying for the Holy Spirit

BUSA, Baptist Union of Southern Africa, Assembly

The theme for the 132nd Assembly of the Baptist Union of Southern Africa was Missions. Click image to enlarge.

I’ve just arrived home from the Baptist Union of Southern Africa‘s 2013 Assembly (It was the 132nd gathering of South African Baptists). The keynote sermons are a mixed bag of fruit. A sermon that really stood out for me this year was preached by Charlie Rampfumedzi. He is the principal of Christ Seminary (can someone closer to the seminary confirm the actual name of the seminary for me? I was told by Rocky Stevenson this past week that it’s actually Christ Baptist Seminary) in Polokwane. Christ [Baptist] Seminary is a campus of The Master’s Academy International.

Now in my home, over Sunday lunch, we play punch the preacher. OK, that’s an overstatement, Liezl (and whoever else is visiting for lunch) gives a critique of the Sunday sermon. Anything’s up for grabs, mannerisms to content, there are no holy cows. I find it useful to my personal growth and it’s become a way for me to gauge whether the main point of my message translated into the mind of my hearers.

BUSA, Baptist Union of Southern Africa, Assembly, Trent, Trent Eayrs, Umbizo

A highlight of the conference for me was the rich worship. Click image to enlarge.

Anyhow, the following critique emerged after I preached a sermon from Acts 1 (from both a parishioner and my wife), “You said you must be filled with the Spirit but you never said how.” This past Tuesday, when I sat down with a group over lunch and discussed Charlie’s sermon with them, John Rowland’s critique stood out for me because I’d heard it before. Let me be clear – I’m not advocating John’s position (he makes a link to Dispensationalism whereas I’d make the link to Cessationalism – and for the record, I’m both) but I’d love there to be some debate and John was bold enough to put pen to paper. Below is his thinking. I’d be interested to hear what you say (for the record Charlie only had 20 minutes to preach a sermon on a chapter from Acts so it was impossible for him to develop every theological point, however because this was noted, and because it’s been pointed out in my own preaching, and because John MacArthur… oh, you get the point… read it and comment below):


The thesis of this short paper is that it is an inherent aspect of dispensational theology that Christians should not pray that God would grant the Holy Spirit to them.

In Luke 11:13 Jesus says:-

“If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”

CI Schofield comments:-

‘To go back to the promise of #Lu 11:13, is to forget Pentecost, and to ignore the truth that now every believer has the indwelling Spirit #Ro 8:9, 15 1Co 6:19 Gal 4:6 #1Jo 2:20, 27.’

In his book ‘Found: God’s will’ Dr John MacArthur, Jr writes:-

‘I have sat in church and heard sincere people pray, “O, God, send Your Spirit,” and have thought to myself, No, He is here. He is here! I have heard people pray, ‘God give me more of Your Spirit,” as if He came in doses.’

Is it not also significant that MacArthur says nothing in his study Bible on Luke 11:13 about the wonderful promise, in answer to prayer, of our Father’s gift of the Holy Spirit?

Both Schofield and MacArthur are being consistent with dispensational theology. This teaches that after the Jews had rejected Christ and the kingdom, God moved to his parenthetical plan B and introduced the church age. Hence since our Lord’s words in Luke 11:13 were given in his teaching to Jews they no longer pertain to the church age because the church received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

I have heard two brothers from dispensational backgrounds; give moving messages on the need of the power of the Holy Spirit in ministry. Especially, they spoke of our need of him in preaching. Both failed to tell us how to obtain that power.

There are two problems with dispensational theology at this point:-

1 It dismisses precious truth taught by our Saviour as irrelevant.

2 It does not account for prayers in the other parts of the New Testament:-

‘I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.’ (Eph 1:17)


‘For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being,’ (Eph 3:14-16)

On the same page quoted above, MacArthur also dismisses prayers for more grace. In many of the letters of the apostles we find such greetings as:-

‘Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.’ (Phil1:2)

Also closing words of their letters such as:-

‘May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.’ (2Cor 13:14)

Are these two latter references not prayers?

To my dispensational brothers, I encourage you to turn from such erroneous teaching and to seek the Lord’s face for what the church in South Africa desperately needs. We need an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in revival. Pray in terms of our Lord’s promise in Luke 11:9-13.

John Rowland

6 thoughts on “Praying for the Holy Spirit

  1. Eph. 5:18 is also relevant here: “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.” This is a post-pentecost command, and it is in the passive (it is done to us by God). So clearly God does want Christians who have received the Spirit in the sense of conversion to continue to receive him in the sense of continuing and completing what that conversion began. If it is the Spirit that sanctifies then it is to the Spirit that we must turn in prayer that he would do that by giving us more of himself, renewing our hearts and our minds, causing us to love Jesus more. This would certainly be a biblical prayer. MacArthur’s comments seem to limit the work of the Spirit to regeneration, when it is clear that it is the Spirit that that sanctifies, and ultimately glorifies (see also Phil. 2:13).

  2. I think we need to make a greater effort to define what we mean when we pray for what we pray for. In this case, two people may pray, “Lord, send your Spirit” and yet they may mean two very different things. On the one hand, I doubt they mean: “Lord, I am regenerate but I don’t have the Spirit, please grant Him to me” or, “Lord I am regenerate, but only have 50% of the Spirit, please grant me more.” On the other hand, they probably mean (and certainly ought to mean): “Lord save the unregenerate in our midst” or, “Lord sanctify the regenerate in our midst.” I.e. They are asking God to ‘send His Spirit’ to bring about conversion and growth (such that God would get the glory for the conversion and growth).

  3. So have you now taught your congregation on ‘how to be filled’? It is a command, after all. I like Brad and Craig’s responses.

  4. Pingback: “The true aim of our Christian life consists of the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God.” | A vow of conversation

  5. Acts 4.31 “And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the Word of God with boldness.”

    Peter was among those who prayed in Acts 4, he was already filled in chapter 2. So, we can pray according to Luke 11and we can be filled more than once.

    Let us pray….

  6. Dear brethren,

    Thanks to Mark for blogging on this.

    John Rowland’s letter is contained in Mark’s blog, and some responses have been received. For the record, I have discussed this previously with John, and interacted at length on the issue. It has been a helpful dialogue, and now that the matter is in the public space in digital form, I want to bring some contribution. What follows is mostly an edited “cut & paste” from e-mails between John and I, and some other brothers.

    I need to hasten to say that this is not a “bone of contention” between John and I in any way, and I am merely engaging in the conversation to bring (I hope) some balance to the discussion.

    I feel compelled to engage on this because the matter appears to have created confusion even in the minds of some church folk at Randburg Baptist Church , and I have had to try and resolve that pastorally. A few folk have been rattled by allusions to the need to “pray for the Holy Spirit”, and I get the questions afterwards, “What does that mean? If I have the Spirit already at conversion, why do I still need to pray for Him?” So the time taken to respond to this is not merely academic debate, but flowing from pastoral concern.

    I am not out to defend a dispensational position, nor to defend a so-called “MacArthurite” position. I just have a niggling concern that we might not be properly hearing these men, and thus pillorying them on one point, whereas an understanding of the broader issues may well settle the matter. We may even find much common ground.

    To begin, I accept that there is disparity on this matter of the giving of the Holy Spirit. For example, Utley maintains, “I do not know of one place in the Scriptures that we are to ask the Father for the Holy Spirit since we are given the Holy Spirit at salvation.” [Utley, R. J. 2004. The Gospel according to Luke. Study Guide Commentary Series. Vol. Volume 3A (Lk 11:13). Bible Lessons International: Marshall, TX]

    Similarly, a strong dispensational position would be seen the BKC notes on the Luke 11 passage :

    “Jesus stated that this good gift is the Holy Spirit, the most important gift that followers of Jesus would receive (cf. Acts 2:1–4). The heavenly Father gives both heavenly gifts and earthly gifts. Believers today are not to pray for the Holy Spirit because this prayer of the disciples (for the Holy Spirit) was answered at Pentecost (cf. Rom. 8:9).” [Martin, J. A. 1985. Luke. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck, Ed.) (Lk 11:9–13). Victor Books: Wheaton, IL]

    I would suggest that any discussion on Luke 11 : 13 also needs to hang together with a thorough treatment of the parallel in Matthew 7 : 11, and to allow those 2 passages to shape each other.

    At its heart, does the issue not revolve around what is actually meant by the phrase “the heavenly Father gives the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” from Luke 11 : 13?

    Some maintain that this is binding for all believers until the Lord returns. Fine, let’s accept that as a working position for the moment.

    But what does that actually mean? How do they relate that to Pentecost? How do they relate that to the fact that we are already Spirit-baptized? How does that relate to the fait accompli statement of the apostle John where he writes : “Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.” (1 John 3:24, ESV – emphasis mine)

    So again, even accepting that we can and should be praying in this way, what does it actually then mean to pray for the gift of the Spirit? If I settle in a place where I am happy to entertain that Luke 11 : 13 is in fact a binding prayer command, how does it practically shape my praying so as to also be consistent with the fact that I already have the Sprit indwelling (totally not in part), and that I already have every spiritual blessing in Christ? How do I then pray in a way that is not confusing to myself and others?

    I am simply looking for a clear, concise answer as to what is actually means to pray that “the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”

    You see, we can accuse MacArthur and his ilk of error, deficiency or inconsistency, but by failing to thoroughly work through the implications of this command to pray in this way, do we not fall into the same trap?

    That is my appeal – to think it through thoroughly from all angles. What are the implications?

    Do we, for example, pull this back to assume application to just an unbeliever? The Puritan Guthrie understands the Luke 11 : 13 reference to be one that applies to an unbeliever who needs salvation, and thus the prayer is for God to graciously give the Spirit so as to bring about saving faith. See highlights below :

    “But all these words will not take effect with people, until ‘God pour out His Spirit from on high’ (Isa. 32:15); to cause them to approach unto God in Christ; yet we must still press men’s duty upon them, and entreat and charge them, by the appearing of the Lord Jesus Christ, and their reckoning to Him in that day, that they give the Lord no rest until He send out that ‘Spirit, which He will gee to them who ask it’ (Luke 11:13), and cause them to know what belongs unto their peace, and bring them to their duty.”
    [Guthrie, W. 1996. Your salvation (electronic ed.) (127). Christian Classics Foundation: Simpsonville SC]

    I am not convinced Guthrie got that right! And I’m sure neither MacArthur or MLJ or Hendrikson would restrict to just that pre-conversion application.

    So then, is MacArthur inconsistent? He is quick to point out that we already have the Spirit and the power and the benefits, and thus there is no need to pray for the Spirit. John Rowland reacts against that statement from MacArthur’s “Found : God’s Will.” But MacArthur in numerous other areas is equally quick to exhort and practice a dependency on the Spirit in many areas of spiritual life and ministry. One just has to skim his Ephesians commentary notes on passages like 1 : 3, 3 : 14, 5 : 18 and 6 : 18ff to see that he strongly advocates prayer for the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the believer.

    Hmmm… is that an inconsistency? Or is it maybe just two facets of the same issue, that appear to be contradictory, but in fact are not?

    I suspect, from a cursory read (and accepting this is not fully researched) that MacArthur et al do not hold to praying for the Spirit as a person because He has fully come, and is already indwelling believers. However, they appears to be very comfortable with fervent praying for more of the work of the Spirit in terms of conviction, empowering, filling etc.

    If that is the case, where is the problem?

    In fact, that is my contention. If those who want to see believers praying for the Holy Spirit were forced to push through the matter that we are to pray that “the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (while simultaneously holding to the fact the Spirit has come), would they not come to the same practical outcome?

    Surely the gift referred to in Luke 11 : 13 then is actually the powerful anointing and guidance of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life? Of that I think all the parties would be agreed (hopefully!)

    As Packer observed :

    It means too that, as the Prayer Book says, he is “always more ready to hear than we to pray,” and is “wont to give more than either we desire or deserve.” “If you then, who are evil,” said our Lord, “know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11; the parallel saying in Luke 11:13 has “Holy Spirit” for “good things,” and the sustained ministry of the Holy Spirit was surely one of the good things Jesus had in mind.) To know this truth of God’s fatherly love to us gives boundless confidence not merely for praying, but for all our living.
    [Packer, J. I. 1994. Growing in Christ (164). Crossway Books: Wheaton, IL – emphasis mine]

    The prayer is thus not for the Holy Spirit as a person, but for more of the sustained ministry of the Spirit.

    The Puritan John Owen (citing our text in question) appeared to be on the same page as he wrote that believers put their trust in the promises of the comfort of the Spirit and pray for Him and His work in them (Gal. 3:2, 14; John 7:37–39; Luke 11:13). Thus believers have a responsibility to seek the Spirit.

    Beeke notes that, given their deep interest in the Holy Spirit, the Puritans invariably rooted their discussion of prayer in Him and His work. A cluster of biblical texts were central in giving shape and substance to their reflections on this vital subject: the description of the Spirit as “the spirit of grace and of supplications” (Zech. 12:10); the admonition both to ask the Father for the Spirit (Luke 11:13) and to pray always in the Spirit (Eph. 6:18; Jude 20); the experience of calling upon God as “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15–16; Gal. 4:6); and the encouragement in that unique passage on the Spirit’s intercessory work, Romans 8:26–27. [Beeke, J. R., & Jones, M. 2012. A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (425). Reformation Heritage Books: Grand Rapids, MI]

    Then as we look back at MacArthur writing elsewhere we see words consistent with this position :

    Paul was certain that the Holy Spirit would grant him whatever was necessary to sustain him in any situation. The Greek word translated “provision” in Philippians 1:19 means “bountiful supply” or “full resources.” Paul understood that he could rely on the complete resources of the Holy Spirit, based on what Jesus promised (Luke 11:13; John 14–16; Acts 1:8).
    That truth is a source of confidence—not just for Paul, but also for us. Every genuine believer possesses the Holy Spirit and therefore has full access to His resources. Romans 8:26 says: “The Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” That’s how things work out for good (v. 28). Trials, tribulations, and sufferings don’t resolve themselves for us in some vacuum. But we are able to endure them through the provision of God’s Spirit—a provision we can know by faith and obedience.
    [MacArthur, J. 1995. The Power of Suffering. MacArthur Study Series (77). Victor Books: Wheaton, IL – emphasis mine]

    Is MacArthur inconsistent? I think, upon closer examination, his position would probably be this : that there is no need to pray for the Holy Spirit because believers already have Him in full, but it is essential to be praying for more of the filling and working and ministry of the Spirit in our lives.

    Is that not consistent with traditional orthodox belief? Do not the Puritans, Packer, MLJ and Hendrikson hold to the same?

    In his book on Expository Preaching, Olford goes the same way :

    “Luke records that as Jesus was being baptized He was praying (present tense, see 3:21). Later the Master reminded His disciples that if they were to know the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives, they would have to ask in prayer. He declared, “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” (Luke 11:13). Commenting on this verse, G. Campbell Morgan affirms that “the highest in prayer is that attitude that seeks and obtains from God, His Holy Spirit. That is initial, but also continuous. This is where we begin, and when we receive the Holy Spirit at first, we are born again; but the prayer-life is the life that is always seeking and always receiving—the filling, the infilling and overflowing of the Spirit” (emphasis ours). That is why the verbs ask, seek, and knock (Luke 11:9) are in the present tense. We are to go on asking for God to go on giving. The reason why we do not know authority in our preaching is because we do not know anointing, and the reason we do not know anointing is because we do not go on asking. As Professor Leon Morris points out, “Luke is interested in the work of the Spirit and here he sees the gift of the Spirit as man’s highest good.… The reference is … to the Spirit’s work in the Christian’s life generally, as in Romans 8.””
    [Olford, S. F., & Olford, D. L. 1998. Anointed Expository Preaching (219–220). Broadman & Holman Publishers: Nashville, TN – emphasis mine]

    Having said all of that, I would again urge caution in attributing either error or inconsistency before the fuller weight and implications of all sides are considered. I come back to my point : We’d probably find that both sides fully agree that the Holy Spirit has fully come already, and that believers do not need to pray for Him AS A PERSON as we already have Him in full. But, we can be praying, in full dependence on the Spirit of God, for more filling of the Spirit, for more empowering from the Spirit, for more of Christ to be formed in us as the Spirit works, for more conviction of the Spirit as evangelism occurs etc etc etc.

    Thanks for the conversation – it is indeed a sharpening one! 

    In Him,


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