Where is the Spirit in the Lord’s Prayer?

Last week I had a curious discussion with someone online. Commenting on one of the events for Remembrance, I noted that the prayer said by the Christian leader took the form of a general invocation of a deity, but wasn’t actually a Christian prayer. ‘What do you mean by a Christian prayer?’ came the response. ‘One that is Trinitarian’ I replied. ‘Well, in that case, the Lord’s Prayer isn’t a Christian prayer’.

I was rather struck by that, not just as I hadn’t considered it, but also because it explains something about how the Lord’s Prayer is commonly used. Just as the Ten Commandments have been commonly thought of as a general set of rules for life that anyone can follow and, contrary to its location in Exodus 20, not particularly attached to the story of God’s dealings with his people Israel, so that Lord’s Prayer is often treated as a general kind of prayer that anyone can say. It is that assumption which made the controversy, exactly three years ago, about showing the prayer recited in cinemas rather odd. Even Richard Dawkins thought there could be little objection!

But this raises the question even more sharply? In what sense is the Lord’s Prayer Christian? Is it a prayer that assumes or requires that the person saying it is a Christian? Is it Trinitarian—that is, does it bear the hallmarks of that thing which distinguishes Christian belief from all others? Kevin Giles, commenting on the historically orthodox understanding of the Trinity, comments on the ordering within the Trinity in the following terms:

Although the three divine persons are the one God, working inseparably with one will, their life is ordered. Both in eternity and in the world of space and time, how they relate to each other and how they operate follow a consistent pattern that is unchanging and irreversible. This order in divine life is seen in many ways. For example, there is a processional order: the Father begets the Son and breathes out the Spirit in eternity and sends them both into the world in time. ere is a numerical order: the Father may be thought of as the rst person of the Trinity, the Son the second, and the Spirit the third. And there is order in how God comes to us and we to him: the Father comes to us through the Son in the Spirit, and we come to the Father through the Son in the Spirit. This order in divine life and operations, it needs to be stressed, does not envisage any sub-ordering in divine life. Ranking or hierarchically ordering the three divine persons in being or power introduces the Arian error.

I think this helpfully identifies the nature of Christian prayer, which is to the Father, through the Son, and in or by the Spirit. Mike Higton, in his explanation of the Trinity in words of one syllable, puts it slightly differently:

So there is God, the one to whom we pray, the one to whom we look, to whom we call out, the one who made the world and who loves all that has been made. And then there is God by our side, God once more the one with whom we pray; God in the life of this man who shares our life, this man who lives the life of God by our side, and who pours out his life in love for us. And then there is God in our hearts, God in our guts, God one more time, the stream in which we dip our toes, the stream in which we long to swim, the stream which filled the Son and can fill us too, and bear us in love back to our source.

This is what it means for prayer to be Trinitarian, and it is why some kind of Trinitarian formula is often included in Christian prayers—and at the very least a mention that we pray in the name of Jesus, and to the Father.


So in what sense is the Lord’s Prayer Trinitarian? Well, it is clearly addressed to God as Father, and the prayer is presented in the gospels as being taught by Jesus. But the question remains: where is the Spirit?

The first thing to note is the place of the prayer in Luke’s gospel. Matthew presents the prayer (Matt 6.9–13) in the context of Jesus’ teaching in the so-called Sermon on the Mount, and particularly in the context of Jesus’ teaching about the devotional practices of giving, prayer and fasting. But the context of Luke’s slightly shorter version (Luke 11.2–3) is quite different. First, it actually springs from the example of Jesus’ own prayer, which his disciples observe, and then ask him to teach them to pray in the way he does (which raises the interesting question about the petitions for forgiveness of sins and resistance to temptation). But, secondly, Jesus then immediately follows the prayer by teaching about asking for the gift of the Spirit. There appears to be the implicit assumption that this is not a prayer you can prayer without the Spirit’s help.

What of the specific wording of the prayer? Can we find the Spirit there?

Our Father in heaven. Although addressing God as father was not unknown in first century Judaism, all the evidence suggests that it was Jesus’ distinctive and striking form of address to God, so that we have in Mark’s gospel the Aramaic term ‘Abba’ that Jesus actually used in Gethsemane (Mark 14.36). Moreover, Paul is clear that a key work of the Spirit is to grant us the same relationship with God after the pattern of Jesus:

Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” (Gal 4.6)

The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” (Rom 8.15)

Addressing God as father is something the Spirit works in us.

May your name be-known-as-holy. The Spirit is described as ‘Holy’ throughout the gospels, Paul, Hebrews and 1 Peter. A large part of the work of the Spirit in us is sanctification—make us more and more holy as God is holy—so that Paul addresses those to whom he writes as ‘saints’, holy ones.

May your kingdom come. In the ministry of Jesus and in the growth of the church, under the leadership of the apostles in Acts, the coming of the kingdom and the ministry of the Spirit are intertwined.

If it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. (Matt 2.28)

It is rather poignant that, when the disciples in Act 1 ask about the kingdom of God in terms of Israel nationalism, Jesus’ response is offered in terms of their testimony in the power of the Spirit:

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1.8)

May your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Although ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ refer in spatial terms to the realm of God’s presence, and the creation which has become estranged from him, in the New Testament they also have a temporal reference, in that the ‘age to come’ will involve heaven coming down to earth, depicted in Revelation 21 as the New Jerusalem coming to earth from God. Paul talks of the Spirit as the ‘deposit’, the first downpayment of that which is to come (2 Cor 1.22), so we have a foretaste now of the heavenly realm as we ‘walk in step with the Spirit’ (Gal 5.25)

Give us today our daily bread. The term here translated ‘daily’ is unusual, and has the sense of ‘bread of the day to come’, so is rendered by some as ‘bread of the morrow’—that is, bread of the heavenly age, gifted to us in the present that we might do the works of the kingdom. This, again, ties in with the gift of the Spirit, and particularly in Luke, Jesus’ teaching and ministry is exercised ‘in the power of the Spirit’ (Luke 4.14), even after his resurrection (Acts 1.2).

Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. In Gal 5, Paul contrasts the impulses of the sinful human nature (‘flesh’) with the fruit of Spirit. In Acts 2.38, Peter links repentance, the forgiveness of sins and receiving the gift of the Spirit, and these are assumed links not only in John’s baptism of Jesus and the coming down of the Spirit (though in Jesus’ case this is not a ‘baptism for forgiveness of sins’) but also in the incident in Acts 8:14-17 when the Samaritans have been baptised but (oddly) not yet received the Spirit. In relation to forgiving others, Paul’s central meditation on love as the heart of true S/spirituality in 1 Cor 13 includes the qualities of ‘patience’ and ‘not keeping a record of wrongs’ (1 Cor 13.5).

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. In all three synoptic accounts, the Spirit is integral to Jesus’ temptations in the desert and his resisting them. In Mark 1.12, the Spirit ‘throws’ or drives Jesus into the desert; in Luke’s account, Jesus enters the desert ‘full of the Spirit’ but returns from the experience ‘full of the power of the Holy Spirit‘ (Luke 4.1, 14).


The net result of all this is that, though the Spirit might not be named explicitly within the Prayer, the work of the Spirit is the essential corollary to the praying of the Prayer. Perhaps that explains why so many find it an easy prayer to say, without fully realising the implications. It is only as we encounter God as Spirit that we really understand all that this prayer of Jesus, prayed to the Father, actually involves.

Do you see any other connections? Do please comment!


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9 thoughts on “Where is the Spirit in the Lord’s Prayer?”

  1. I wonder whether that is over complicating things? The very simple Maranatha – Come Lord Jesus might not mention Father and Son as indeed a child’s prayer to Jesus. However, when we name members of the Trinity as God, then I would suggest that our prayers are trinitarian. Primarily, the Lord’s prayer is to the Father, but exactly by naming him as Father we recognise The Son and The Spirit. Technically we might want to talk Inseparable Operation and Perichoresis here. There’s also been an assumption in many circles that because we come to the Father through the Son and in the Holy Spirit that prayers most generally are addressed to the Father but in the name of the Son

  2. Fascinating! I did some hard work on the so-called “Beelzeboul controversy” last year and the amazing and hard-hitting words of Jesus,

    “Therefore I tell you, people will be forgiven for every sin and blasphemy, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come…”

    The point being that Jesus was ‘bringing in the kingdom’ and that was a work of the Spirit – hence the seriousness of accusing Jesus ministry of being energised by the prince of demons! The ‘Holiest’ Spirit if you like confused with the least holy. So yes, “thy kingdom come” reinforces the trinitarian nature of the prayer…..

  3. That’s an interesting question about whether any other parts of the NT deal with the Lord’s words “But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:15).
    It made me wonder about that odd incident following the resurrection recorded in John 20:22 -‘And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
    And perhaps also the reference in James 5:16 – ‘Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.’
    Why would anyone want to retain the sins of anyone unless there was a recognised reason for not doing so? The James exhortation could be viewed in a similar way in the context of unity in the Christian worshipping community. It reminds me of the Lord’s words “Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23) We are to help one another find forgiveness of sins through tender-hearted, forgiving relationships.

  4. Kenneth Cragg translated “daily bread” as “Messiah’s bread” – much the same as ‘bread of the morrow’ but one more step of clarifying what Jesus actually meant? The bread of the One long Promised.

  5. I’d throw in too that Luke 11:5-13 continues the theme of what it means to ask our Heavenly Father for good things; and the ultimate good thing, in that context, is that He gives the Spirit to those who ask. So in a sense the answer to the various requests within the Lord’s Prayer is the gift of the Holy Spirit, who Himself enables those requests to be voiced and worked out ongoingly. Parallels well with Paul’s understanding of the gift of the Spirt as the fulfillment of God’s promised blessing to Abraham in Galatians 3.

  6. Practical matter – something seems to have gone wrong with the ‘Reader view’ for this post – the beginning and some subsequent bits have dropped out!

    • How odd! I have had a look, and there was some html code at the end which messed things up, which I have now deleted. Not sure why the first para is not visible though…will try and sort.

      Thanks for mentioning.

  7. “Just as the Ten Commandments have been commonly thought of as a general set of rules for life that anyone can follow and, contrary to its location in Exodus 20, not particularly attached to the story of God’s dealings with his people Israel, so that Lord’s Prayer is often treated as a general kind of prayer that anyone can say.”

    Well, John Stott was not so naive as to think that “anyone can follow” the Ten Commandments – but in Chapter 5 of “Basic Christianity” he taught that the Ten Commandments are binding on everyone. And many of us have been brought up with the notion that the Lord’s Prayer is for everyone to say – while the Sermon on the Mount is nominally addressed to “his disciples” (St Matt 5:1), it reads as though addressed to anyone and everyone: imposing an obligation on all of us, Christian, Jew and unbeliever alike, to do everything that Jesus says, including calling God “Father.”

  8. I’ll have to look back at Stott at some point. But saying that something is covenant binding on Israel in the context of the Exodus does not take away from its general right or wrongness. Which I guess is Stott’s point. Dont murder, dont steal etc are objectively wrong but God’s people are called to not do those things specifically in the cpntext of God’s saving acts. Objectively God is Father, because of the Trinity. Whether or not people know it or call hj that is irrelevant, it is objectively his true name. Indeed there is a level in which we refer to him as father by creation – Adam was a son of God but we have to recognise that outside of Christ we are fallen, alienated, so that We are under a different father, the father of lies. It is only through the Son, that we can know God is father and only through him that we can be adopted and call God our Father. So indeed it is only Jesus who can teach us to pray this way.

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