Rev. Marcus is pastor of the First Protestant Reformed Church in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
And I say unto you, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?
When Jesus was about to ascend into heaven forty days after His resurrection, He said to His disciples, “And, behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you” (Luke 24:49). He was referring, of course, to the Holy Spirit, whom the Father had promised. Upon making this promise, Jesus instructed the disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they were “endued with power from on high.” However, when the disciples returned to Jerusalem, they didn’t just wait around for the Holy Spirit to come; instead, Acts 1 tells us, they “all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication.” No doubt they were praying for the gift of the Holy Spirit.
We might be tempted to think that praying for the Holy Spirit was something only for that time in history. But nothing could be further from the truth. It’s true that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on that Pentecost day some two thousand years ago was an event that is not repeated today. We don’t hear the mighty rushing wind today. We don’t see cloven tongues like as of fire. We don’t find ourselves spontaneously speaking foreign languages. Nevertheless, still today God does give His grace and the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him. God wants us to pray for the Holy Spirit. God wants the elderly to pray for grace and the Holy Spirit to deal with the trials of old age. He wants husbands and wives to pray that the Holy Spirit would work in them greater love for one another. He wants parents to pray for the Spirit to give wisdom and strength so that we may train up our children in the way they should go. He wants young adults and young people to pray for the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to guide them to make wise choices in this world full of lies. He wants children to pray for the Spirit’s grace to honor their parents and all those in authority over them. God wants officebearers to pray for the grace of the Holy Spirit in order faithfully to shepherd His flock. He wants His people to pray for grace to be able to forgive others who have hurt us deeply.
He wants all of His people to pray for the Spirit in order that we might manifest the fruit of the Spirit. God would have His people manifest love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance.
These are not qualities that our old man can produce. Such fruit can come only from the new man as he is nourished by the waters of the river of life. That is to say, such fruit can come only from the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. Surely, we all fall far short in manifesting the fruit of the Spirit. When we see our sins of omission and commission, we need to confess and seek forgiveness for our sins and our sinful natures. But we also ought to pray for the Holy Spirit to work His fruit in us. If we want to bear fruit, then we need the Holy Spirit.
When Jesus commanded His disciples to ask, seek, and knock, He was telling them to pray. When we pray for the Holy Spirit as Jesus instructs us, He promises that we will certainly receive what we desire.
Ask, seek, and knock!
Jesus teaches that we should be asking, seeking, and knocking in order to obtain the Holy Spirit. “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children:
how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?”
Jesus was not talking about praying for the Holy Spirit to regenerate us and thus to give us spiritual life for the first time. The simple fact is that no unregenerated person would see the need to be regenerated. No spiritually dead person would ever desire the life of the Holy Spirit. Only those who have already been given life from above would desire the Holy Spirit. Jesus assumes those making such a prayer for the Holy Spirit can already call God their Father: “How much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” If those making this prayer are able to call God their Father, it must be that they have already been regenerated by the Spirit.
Rather, Jesus is teaching us to pray for the grace and the power of the Holy Spirit. The disciples who gathered together on Pentecost needed the grace of the Holy Spirit in order to serve in their stations and callings. They needed the Holy Spirit to give them boldness to preach the Word. They needed the Holy Spirit in order that they might bear fruit for the kingdom’s sake.
Similarly, we pray for the grace of the Holy Spirit because we want to bear more of the fruit of the Spirit. We want to be like trees planted by the riverside. As the tree is nourished by a ready source of water, it grows up and bears fruit in due season. Our prayer ought to be that the Holy Spirit would work in us and cause us to bear the fruit of righteousness as we are sanctified by Him. God promised in Ezekiel, “And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them” (Ezek. 36:27). This is the Spirit that Jesus teaches His disciples to pray for.
Praying for the Holy Spirit is not, for the child of God, just a good idea. Praying for the Holy Spirit is a necessity.
It is necessary to pray for the Holy Spirit because Jesus Himself commands us to pray. He commands us to ask, to seek, and to knock. That’s not something we need to do once in our lives and then we are done. It’s not a prayer that we make only once a year or once a week. The form in which these commands appear in the original indicates that we are to keep on asking, keep on seeking, and keep on knocking. We must constantly pray for the Holy Spirit to work in us.
Why keep on praying for the Holy Spirit? Because we lack the fruit of the Spirit. If we are honest with ourselves, we see that we do not manifest the fruit of the Spirit as we ought. We don’t manifest enough love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, etc. Too often, the works of the flesh manifest themselves. The flesh lusts against the spirit so that we do not manifest godly fruit as we ought. We lack both the wisdom and the strength to live the godly life we should be living. That’s why we must pray for grace and the Holy Spirit. We must pray in order that we might fight the good fight of faith. We are still in the midst of the battle and we need strength to fight. But without the strength of the Holy Spirit, it would be impossible to battle the old man of sin, and it would be impossible to bear any spiritual fruit.
We must pray for the Spirit because without His work there would be no sanctification. Of course, that doesn’t mean we are stocks and blocks who have nothing to do with our spiritual life. We are not merely passive creatures swept along by the Spirit apart from our will. Therefore, we must not say to ourselves, “That’s the Spirit’s work; so I don’t need to make any effort to live a godly life.” We must not say, “I don’t need to pray for the Holy Spirit, because if He is going to give me grace, then it’s up to Him.” To think that way would be to go directly against what Jesus teaches His disciples. He teaches us to ask, seek, and knock. We ought to pray for the Holy Spirit because we need His grace and strength to live a sanctified life. Pray that the Holy Spirit would work in us both to will and to do according to His good pleasure.
The truth of the matter is, if we don’t ask for grace to walk as God would have us walk, then He won’t give us the grace to do so. This is why the Catechism says in Lord’s Day 45, “God will give His grace and Holy Spirit to those only who with sincere desires continually ask them of Him, and are thankful for them.” This is the teaching reflected in Jesus’ words to His disciples. Those who ask, they shall receive. Those who seek are the ones who shall find. And those who knock are the ones to whom it shall be opened.
This doesn’t mean that asking God for grace somehow merits grace for us; not at all. All the grace that we have received and will receive in the future has been purchased by Jesus Christ and comes to us only on the basis of His merits. Grace is ours because we are in Christ. The proper way of understanding the connection between our prayers and God’s gracious gifts to us is to see that our prayers are the means that God uses to give us the grace of sanctification.
Think about that. If God sanctified us without our asking for it, we might be inclined to think that we ourselves had accomplished our sanctification, apart from His grace. We would think that we had made ourselves to differ. But when we pray for grace, we are acknowledging that all our salvation, including our sanctification, is from the Lord.
Furthermore, when we hunger and thirst for the grace of the Holy Spirit, it can only be that the Holy Spirit put that in our hearts in the first place. When we grieve over our lack of desire to live a new and godly life, even that is the work of the Holy Spirit in us. Nevertheless, when we recognize our lack, we ought to pray for grace and the Holy Spirit that we might be turned. We pray, “Turn me and I shall be turned; for thou art the Lord my God” (Jer. 31:18).
Jesus promises that when we continually ask, seek, and knock for the grace of the Holy Spirit, God will certainly give us what we pray for.
When we ask for things that are truly good for us, God will give them to us. That’s a promise! The same promise is repeated elsewhere in Scripture: “And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us: And if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him” (I John 5:14-15). When our requests are according to God’s will, they will also be for our good. These are the requests that God promises He will hear and grant to us. When we pray for the greatest good, that is, when we pray for the Holy Spirit, our heavenly Father will give us what we ask for. If earthly fathers know how to give good gifts to their children, surely our Father in heaven will give good things to them that ask Him. Jesus, our elder Brother, has promised.
How do we know for sure that Jesus will give us what He promised? Consider the fact that Jesus is the one who secured that promise. He secured the right to grant us the blessing of the Holy Spirit when He went to the cross and paid for the sins of His people.
Furthermore, because Christ was faithful, and humbled Himself to the death of the cross, God has given Him the authority to send the Holy Spirit. Just before Jesus ascended into heaven, He told His disciples that all authority had been given unto Him in heaven and on earth. He has authority to rule over the church and over all the world. According to that rule, Jesus sends forth the Comforter whom He Himself promised. Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to His people.
The promise therefore is sure. Christ Himself tells us. To illustrate how sure it is, Jesus points to the example of earthly fathers. Which of us would withhold necessary food from a child who came to us hungry and thirsty? Who would be so cruel as to give something worthless or even deadly in the place of that necessary food. Surely we would give good things to our children. Jesus says, “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” (Luke 11:13). Jesus was arguing from the lesser to the greater. If it’s true with human fathers, then surely it is true with our Father in heaven.
Having that promise, all those who call God “Father” can pray to Him in Jesus’ name. We can pray with the confidence that He will give us the Holy Spirit. He is gracious and compassionate and will give us what we need when we ask for it. God will not be upset with us for asking. Nor will God tell us to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and live a godly life in our own strength. Just the opposite, God is pleased when we seek our strength from Him and He is pleased to grant our request. The disciples, knowing their weaknesses, asked for the Holy Spirit, and God gave it to them abundantly. Peter previously had three times denied the Lord Jesus during His trial. Recall that he had failed to pray for grace to resist temptation. In contrast, at Pentecost, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, Peter did not deny Jesus. Rather, He confidently affirmed his faith in the Lord Jesus. He did not hesitate to say that the Jesus whom the Jews had crucified had risen from the dead. This was nothing other than the grace of the Holy Spirit working in him. God was faithful to His promise.
As we see our need for the Holy Spirit, God’s word to us is, “ask and it shall be given; seek and ye shall find; knock and the door will be opened unto you.” May we ask knowing that God remains true to His Word.