Romans 8:26-27 challenges translators and interpreters at numerous points. Come explore some of these with me in a Q & A format.
How do these verses relate to the context?
There are two connections: the Holy Spirit and Suffering. The believer’s life in the Holy Spirit is the main topic of verses 2-16. Within these verses, note that verse 15 describes something similar to verses 26-27 — Spirit-aided prayer. The next major block within chapter 8 is verses 17-25, and here the focus is on suffering. Within this section, verse 23 is noteworthy for its pairing of the Spirit and suffering — the Spirit gives suffering believers a preliminary experience future glory. Verse 26 extends the suffering theme with references to the believers’ weakness, ignorance as to what to pray for, and groanings (“groaning” also appears in verses 22 and 23). In this context of suffering, then, verses 26-27 focus on the Spirit’s ministry of intercession.
How should we understand the word “Likewise” (NIV: “In the same way”) at the head of verse 26?
Verses 18-25 speak of God’s gracious provision for our suffering — the promise of glory on the far side of suffering. Verses 26-27 present another gracious provision — the gift of the Holy Spirit who helps us pray when suffering.
Are the groanings of verse 26 “too deep for words” (ESV) or “wordless” (NIV)?
To restate the question, the groans could consist of (a) thoughts so profound that human language is incapable of expressing them, or (b) sounds that do not include any recognizable words. See under the next heading for why I prefer the second option.
Who is uttering the groans of verse 26, the believer or the Holy Spirit?
The Greek text is ambiguous as to the answer to this question. Perhaps Paul left this ambiguous because both the believer and the Spirit are groaning. But I think the better option is to take the Greek phrase for “wordless groans” as a dative of reference: “The Spirit intercedes in regard to the wordless groans.” Paul expects his readers to understand that the groans are the same groans that he described in verse 23 (the groans of believers), and that these groans are wordless because, as he has just stated, the believers do not know what to pray for. We suffer, we don’t know what God’s will is in our suffering, and we groan without making a specific request. The Spirit carries our groaning to the Father on our behalf. Verse 27 will expand upon this.
Is “he who searches hearts” in verse 27 the Father or the Spirit?
Given the context (the believer groaning and the Spirit carrying that groaned prayer to the Father), it would make most sense if this is a reference to the Holy Spirit who searches the hearts of believers. What we are about to see is that the Spirit not only hears the groans, but also understands the heart behind the groans. It is also worth noting that the only other place that Paul uses this particular verb for searching is 1 Corinthians 2:10: “…the Spirit searches everything….”
How should we understand the phrase that is translated as “the mind of the Spirit” in verse 27, given the fact that the exact same Greek phrase (phronēma tou pneumatos) is found in verse 6 and translated there as “the mind set on the Spirit” (NASB)?
We should understand it as a reference to the mind of the groaning believer. Paul moves now to the next logical step. The Spirit knows the mind underneath the groans. Because the believer’s mind is set on the Spirit, and because the Spirit knows the believer’s mind, the Spirit can bring our deepest desires to the Father when we cannot express those desires with words. The repetition of the Greek words for “what” and “know” creates a parallel between the middle line of v. 26 and the first line of v. 27: what to pray for, we don’t know; but the Spirit knows what the mind set on the Spirit is. We don’t know what to request, but the Spirit knows our mindset, and he turns that mindset into a prayer that he presents to the Father on our behalf.
How should we understand the last line of verse 27?
The Greek preposition that is translated “according to” in verse 27 mirrors the use of same preposition in verse 26: “according to how we ought….” This repetition highlights the contrast between the believer and the Spirit. Suffering believers sometimes don’t know how to pray according to God’s will, but the Holy Spirit does. The conjunction in the middle of verse 27 should be translated “so that” (a consecutive hoti): the Spirit knows the believer’s mind so that he can intercede.
Of all the different terms that Paul could have used to describe Christians, why did he choose the word “saints” at the end of verse 27?
The word “saints” means “holy ones,” and the term “holy” is especially used to describe the Spirit. The term “saints” concisely references the fact that believers have an intimate connection to the Holy Spirit who is making them holy.
Putting all of this together, how do you translate verses 26-27?
Likewise also, the Spirit is helping us in our weakness. For we do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself is interceding for us with respect to our wordless groans. He who searches hearts knows what is the mind that is set on the Spirit so that, with prayer that is according to the will of God, he intercedes for the saints.
[Italicized words are interpretive additions].
Paraphrasing into simple English, I get something like this: Also in this age of suffering, the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. We don’t know what we should ask God for. The Holy Spirit, however, intercedes for us and our wordless groans. The Spirit who searches our hearts knows our Spirit-oriented mindset. This way he can intercede for us saints, and he does so with prayer that is in harmony with God’s will.
Kenneth Berding, “Who Searches Hearts and What Does He Know in Romans 8:27?” JBPR 5 (Fall 2013).
C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. T&T Clark, 1975.
Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans. NICNT. Eerdmans, 1996.
Peter O’Brien, “Romans 8:26, 27. A Revolutionary Approach to Prayer?” RTR 46 (1987).
Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology. J. R. De Witt, trans. Eerdmans, 1975. Pages 227-228.