Should We Pray in, for, or to the Holy Spirit?

Prayer to the Holy Spirit

“The Holy Spirit is at once the sphere and the atmosphere of prayer,” wrote W. H. Griffith Thomas (1861–1924).1 He made this remark while explaining that while it is possible for Christians to pray to the Spirit, for the Spirit, and in the Spirit, the Bible overwhelmingly focuses on the latter. Prayer in the Holy Spirit, understood in its full Trinitarian context, is the very shape of New Testament devotion. There is a strong and steady directional current to Christian worship, and it flows toward the Father. The inseparable works of God are from the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Our return to God, based firmly on this, moves back up the triad, “in the Holy Spirit, through the Son, to the Father.” This Trinitarian pattern is the “heavenly directory” of Christian prayer,2 and the Holy Spirit is its executor. We must get this clear in our minds and keep it in our minds as the main thing.

Still, the question arises, can we also pray to the Holy Spirit? More precisely, is it proper for Christians to focus their attention on the distinct person of the Holy Spirit and address prayers to him? The short answer is yes. You can pray to any person who is God, and therefore the Holy Spirit is infinitely qualified.

The Holy Spirit

Fred Sanders

In this addition to the Short Studies in Systematic Theology series, Fred Sanders teaches readers how to hold a proper understanding of both the person and power of the Holy Spirit, exploring his role in both the Old and New Testaments. 

The long answer is that while it is permissible, there is always something eccentric about directing prayer to the Holy Spirit. Eccentric can mean strange, but its root meaning is “offcenter.” We know that the center of prayer is the Father, toward whom we move through the Son in the Spirit. The prayer that the Holy Spirit empowers and enables is radically concentric, always moving the worshiper into the heart of an encounter with the Father. What is the Holy Spirit’s position in this encounter? This is where we want to be sure to think very clearly about what is happening to us in prayer, following the Bible’s guidance.

The Son and the Holy Spirit are never excluded from our encounter with God in prayer. To shut them out of it would be, practically speaking, to treat them as means to an end or some kind of optional props just there to get us to the goal. That would mean demoting them to nondivine status, as the way to get to God but not as God. But the one true God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We never have to do with God minus the Spirit. We worship, adore, and love the Holy Spirit himself. When we rightly insist on this and worship the whole Trinity, we sometimes make a kind of mental gesture of setting the Trinity off in the distance as the object of our prayer. To do so is a little too abstract. It suggests that Trinitarian prayer is simply prayer toward a goal, which is the Trinity. But Trinitarian prayer is much more of an inside job. Such prayer is, in fact, already taken up into the dynamic of the Trinity, not the arms-length Trinity “over there,” as it were, but the whelming Trinity that has brought the believer into a relation to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. Notice the deep importance of the little word in for our understanding of prayer and the Holy Spirit. To pray in the Spirit is to pray in the Trinity, concentrically. This is why Andrew Murray says, “Of the offices of the Holy Spirit, the one that leads us most deeply into the understanding of His place in the divine economy of grace, and into the mystery of the holy Trinity, is the work He does as the Spirit of prayer.”3 The depth dimension of the Spirit’s presence in prayer is crucial, and it is what we are in danger of missing if we shift from the main, concentric reality of prayer to the merely optional, eccentric devotion.

The Son and the Holy Spirit are never excluded from our encounter with God in prayer.

Another part of the long answer to our question about prayer to the Spirit involves the biblical witness and its traditional interpretation. The fact is that there are no definite prayers addressed to the Holy Spirit in Scripture. What are we to make of this? Only a few highly literalistic Christian traditions have ever taken the Bible’s silence here as a conclusive reason not to pray to the Holy Spirit. Most of the major Christian churches and denominations have prayers to the Holy Spirit, especially in the form of song. There are very old Greek hymns to the Spirit, the Latin hymn “Come, Creator Spirit” by Rabanus Maurus (ca. 780–856) and Charles Wesley’s “Come, Holy Ghost, Our Hearts Inspire,” with its profound final verse that says to the Spirit:

God, through himself,
we then shall know, if thou within us shine;
and sound, with all thy saints below,
the depths of love divine.4

We also find numerous prayers addressed to the Holy Spirit in the various liturgies of the churches through the centuries, especially as subsections of longer prayers that pray in turn to each of the three persons. The best of them are wonderfully elaborate and almost always invoke the Father and the Son as well, directing the worshiper’s mind to the fullness of the Trinitarian relations. And these are just the written documents of Christian devotion; imagine all the unrecorded times and places that believers have addressed prayers to the Spirit.

In sum, there seems to be a sense on the part of Christians that the absence of prayers to the Holy Spirit in Scripture establishes a kind of guideline for our prayers. Prayer to the Holy Spirit is permissible and may even be important for reaffirming the Holy Spirit’s full deity and distinct personality or rehearsing the Spirit’s work. But it should be kept in due proportion. Both as individuals and as churches, Christians should seek to conform their prayer lives to biblical proportions. If you were to pray mainly to the Holy Spirit, you would not be breaking any biblical command, but your devotional life would be strikingly unbiblical in its proportions. The Holy Spirit himself pushes hard against this eccentricity, both in person and in the book he wrote. H. C. G. Moule summarized the wise position thus:

While watchfully and reverently seeking to remember the laws of Scripture proportion, and that according to it the believer’s relation to the Spirit is not so much that of direct adoration as of a reliance which wholly implies it, let us trustfully and thankfully worship Him, and ask blessing of Him, as our spirits shall be moved to such action under His grace.5

The full answer to the question, Can I pray to the Holy Spirit? is yes, but mainly you should pray in the Spirit, through the Son, to the Father.6

This question about prayer is a perfect microcosm of our whole doctrine of the Holy Spirit. As usual, and for the third time now, what may seem like a liability or complication in pneumatology turns out to be a blessing. Does the Bible speak impersonally of the Spirit? Yes, because he is personally working within us. Is the Holy Spirit’s name not very name-like? Yes, because it takes the whole Bible to develop his manifold name. Does the Bible lack prayers to the Holy Spirit? Yes, because all Bible prayers are in the Holy Spirit. In all these ways and more, the Spirit himself calls us to learn who he is from him rather than from our random and wayward expectations. “God, through himself, we then shall know.”

When we pay close attention to the Holy Spirit in the way he wants us to, we find that he has not only received our worship but has also sovereignly directed our attention to the Father and the Son. A Christian living and walking in the Holy Spirit mainly talks about Jesus Christ and mainly talks to God the Father.


  1. W. H. Griffith Thomas, The Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1986), 283.
  2. John Owen’s nickname for Eph. 2:18, the Bible’s most luminous statement of the pattern. John Owen, Communion with the Triune God, ed. Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor (1657; repr., Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 420.
  3. Murray, Spirit of Christ, 195. Murray’s book, sharply focused on the Holy Spirit, concludes each chapter with a set of prayers. These prayers are all addressed to the Father, precisely because Murray is meditating on the Holy Spirit and is following the Spirit’s lead.
  4. John Wesley and Charles Wesley, Hymns and Sacred Poems (London: Strahan, 1740), 43.
  5. Moule, Veni Creator, 18.
  6. I will end this book with a Charles Wesley hymn to the Holy Spirit, an example of the kind of prayer described above, making the Spirit’s place in the Trinity apparent. For further comments on prayer to the Holy Spirit, see J. I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit, 2nd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021), 261; and Graham Cole, He Who Gives Life: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007).

This article is adapted from The Holy Spirit: An Introduction by Fred Sanders.

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