Does Praying in the Spirit Mean Praying in Tongues?

Jason Dulle


We often use the term "praying in the Spirit" (Ephesians 6:18, Jude 1:20) to mean praying in tongues. Can you give me Biblical evidence that this is what it really means?


The only place where praying in/with the Spirit is explicitly defined as praying in tongues is 1 Corinthians 14:14-15. Paul wrote, "For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful. What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding."

For Paul, "pray[ing] with the spirit" is equivalent to "pray[ing] in a tongue." This is made abundantly clear by his contrast between "pray[ing] with the spirit" and "pray[ing] with the understanding." Praying with the understanding refers to prayers in Paul's native tongue -- a language he understands. In contrast, "pray[ing] with the spirit" involves praying in a way that does not result in understanding ("my understanding is unfruitful"). To pray with the spirit, then, is to pray in a language given by the Spirit. Verses 16-19 strengthen this interpretation. Here Paul says that one who praises God in the spirit will not be understood by others, so it is better in the church to speak "five words with the understanding" than to speak "ten thousand words in a tongue." Praising God with the spirit is to praise God in tongues.

While Paul uses "praying with the Spirit" in 1 Corinthians 14 to mean praying in tongues, that does not necessarily mean that he means the same thing by the phrase in Ephesians 6:18, or that Jude is using the phrase in that way either. The phrase "in the spirit" is used 20 times in the NT, and only once clearly refers to praying in tongues.

It's also important to note the difference in the Greek constructions in each passage:

proseuxomai to pneumati  1 Cor 14:15
proseuchomenoi … en pneumati   Eph 6:18
en pneumati hagio proseuchmenoi   Jude 20

First Corinthians lacks the preposition en, whereas both Ephesians and Jude include it. This preposition is often used in the dative to indicate angency. We are to pray by means of the Spirit; i.e. in accordance with the Spirit and His power.

While it's possible that Paul was referring to tongues when he instructed believers to "pray at all times in the Spirit" (Ephesians 6:18), the context suggests otherwise. In verses 19-20 Paul instructed them to pray for two specific needs: (1) that Paul be given the right words to speak when presenting the Gospel; (2) that he would speak those words in boldness. It would not be possible for his audience to make these specific prayers in tongues since they had no control over, and no knowledge of what they are saying when praying in tongues. Such prayers would require "praying with the understanding"--to use Paul's earlier terminology. If Paul was referring to praying in tongues when he said to "pray at all times in the Spirit," then they would not be able to pray for him as he requested. It seems better to understand Paul as referring to praying in according with the Spirit's will and power at all times. This prayer can surely involve praying in tongues, but is not limited to praying in tongues.

What about Jude? There is nothing in the context to suggest that Jude has tongues in mind. He speaks of unbelievers who are "devoid of the Spirit" (Jude 19). In contrast, believers are to build themselves up in the faith by praying in the Holy Spirit (Jude 20). Again, this most naturally lends itself to the interpretation that we are to pray by the power of the Spirit. It is only the power of the Spirit in our lives that will preserve us to the end (Jude 21,24). While such prayer surely includes both praying in tongues and praying in our native language, there is no reason to think that Jude is exclusively referring to one or the other.

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