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The Holy Spirit #10: The Leading of the Spirit

The Holy Spirit #10: The Leading of the Spirit by Pastor Jack Lash

We hear many references today in Christian circles to following the leading of the Holy Spirit. Usually these references speak of following the leading of the Spirit in the sense of the Spirit giving us guidance about what decisions we should make in non-moral matters. (I mean non-moral in the sense of matters the Bible does not directly address. You do not hear Christians saying, for instance, that the Holy Spirit led them to tell the truth or to resist temptation. These are moral issues. When it is a moral issue, we don’t need specific direction because God has already provided that direction in His word.) In this article we will examine what the Bible says about this subject and perhaps find some surprising results.

Romans 8:14 and Galatians 5:18

The first thing to notice is that there are only two places in the NT which speak of being led by the Holy Spirit:

1- Romans 8:14 "For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God."

2- Galatians 5:18 "But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law."

Let’s look at each of these verses in their context.

Here is Romans 8:12-15:

"So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — 13 for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. 15 For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, ‘Abba! Father!’"

The context is clearly not talking about making decisions in non-moral issues. Paul is talking here about righteous living. Paul is talking about following the Spirit’s leading to do what God has commanded us to do in His word. When God refers here to leading us by His Spirit, He’s not referring to giving us information in addition to what He’s given us in His word. Rather, He is referring to the fact that He has sent His Spirit into our hearts to incline us to do what He has commanded. And so He says, "Be led by the Spirit and not by your sinful desires." The meaning of Romans 8:14 is this: True sons of God are those who are led by the Spirit of God to obey the word of God.

The same meaning of being led by the Spirit is found in Galatians 5:18:

"But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law."

Everyone is either under grace or under law. Christians are under grace. Everyone else is under law. That is, they still stand under the law of God, and the judgment of God (for their disobedience to the law) hangs over their heads. They haven’t yet come under grace and received the forgiveness of Christ. And yet at times believers begin to act like they are under law. But when they submit to the Spirit, doing deeds of righteousness, instead of doing the sinful deeds of the flesh, they show by that that they are under grace and not law. Once again, being led by the Spirit here means submitting to the Spirit’s guidance to avoid the deeds of the flesh and walk in the way of righteousness. It is very close to the notion of conscience. It is as if the Holy Spirit presses us to do what we know we should do. And when we submit to that pressure we are following the leading of the Holy Spirit. But these verses do not refer to what most Christians mean today when they talk about being led by the Spirit. It does not refer to being led by the Spirit in non-moral matters.

What is ‘being led by the Spirit’ being contrasted with in these two passages? Being led by your own fleshly impulses. It is referring to the battle between flesh and Spirit: that which is of the Spirit in us is in opposition with that which is of the flesh. In both contexts Paul is saying, "Don’t follow the sinful desires of the flesh but follow what the Spirit wants you to do, follow what the Spirit is moving you to do." This is what God also says in Ezekiel 36:27: "I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances." The only times that the NT speaks of being led by the Spirit, this is what it’s talking about.


What then about the question of Spirit-guidance in non-moral issues? We know that the Spirit inspired the Scriptures and that He leads us into obedience of its instructions, but what does the Bible say about the Spirit giving guidance to individual Christians in the areas outside of the commands of God? I don’t believe that there is one place in the Bible where it talks about God leading in the kind of way that so many Christians today talk about, where God tells them to do this or they feel the Spirit leading them to do that, in non-moral matters. Verses like Acts 8:29 (And the Spirit said to Philip, "Go up and join this chariot.") are not helpful because this is clearly prophecy. Philip would have been sinful to disobey this. (I believe there are big problems with thinking that prophecy continues today: see my Biblical Investigator, volume 3, especially #’s 2 and 4.) What we are left with is the process of wisdom that is outlined in Scripture, which is the application of Biblical principles to our lives, involving hard thought and wise counsel.

What about praying in the Spirit? Well, in the last article we saw that praying in the Spirit doesn’t mean that God gives us the words to pray if we listen close enough to the Spirit, nor that He tells us what decisions to make. Praying in the Spirit means that He moves us to pray, and He moves us to seek God’s will in prayer, and He stirs up in our souls a sense of the love of Christ and a sense of the Fatherly goodness and affection of God towards us as His children so that we can really pray with sincerity of heart.

Thoughts from God

But what about thoughts we get which we sense are from God? On the one hand, I think there is great danger in carelessly attributing impressions in our hearts to the Holy Spirit. I myself sometimes get a certain impression in my mind which seems as if God is speaking to me. But I think it is necessary to exercise much caution here. There are other times when it is hard to tell if my thought if from God or from me. I certainly believe that God speaks to us through our thoughts. However, it is clear that we are not able, and therefore cannot be trusted, to infallibly discern whether our thoughts are the direction of God or a temptation of Satan. Recently a Christian told me that in a dream he heard God tell him to kill someone that he was angry with. Now fortunately this person had the wisdom to recognize that this was not really the voice of God. But quite a few murderers say that God told them to do it. This is the kind of danger involved in thinking that we hear the voice of God.

And it’s not enough to say that this can’t be the voice of God because it contradicts Scripture. If you sensed that God wanted you to go kill your son, you would know that it was not from God. And yet when God told Abraham to kill his son, He knew it was from God. God is able to change His instructions. He told Abraham to do what was contrary to His word. Through Ezra He led the Israelites to divorce their heathen wives, which was contrary to the instructions He had given in His word. True prophecy can at times contradict the word of God in Scripture. And this is one of the reasons why you can’t mess around with prophecy. (And this is why God commands that false prophets be stoned – Deut.18:20-22; 13:1-5).

Three dangers of thinking that God speaks to us directly today

I. Obviously the greatest danger in this is people hearing God tell them to do things that are contrary to His word. As a pastor I have heard this a number of times from people who want to get out of a marriage. The Bible says in 1 Corinthians 7:10 "to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband." Well, there are occasions when there are exceptions to that. Jesus makes an exception in the case where one’s spouse commits adultery (Matt.5:32, 19:9). And Paul in his apostolic authority makes another exception in the case of a believer who is deserted by a non-believing spouse (1Cor.7:12-16). I recently heard a person justify deserting their marriage on the basis of being led by God to a number of passages that spoke of God delivering people from those who were evil. This is a way that Satan frequently draws God’s people away from obedience, through these impulses that they rationalize or interpret as being from the Lord. This is the great danger in all of this. We are so prone to find a way to do the things that we really want, even if it means blaming it on God by deluding ourselves into thinking that He is leading us into it. Interpreting our impulses as the voice of God is so often just a way of justifying our own desires, or erecting obstacles to the opposition that others might present. Who is going to argue with you when you say, "God told me to do this."? And when you go to get counsel, and you say, "I believe that God is telling me to do this" who is going to dare to say, "Well, I don’t think you should."? How much of man’s foolishness gets blamed on God!

II. A second danger is the danger of reading Scripture as if it is a source of specific directions in non-moral matters from God. For example, I was once talking to a member of another church – a church that was looking for a church building to meet in. This brother found the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the fact that one building they had found out had the same number of parking spaces as there were booths in the OT temple, and in the fact that the building’s dimensions were the same as the OT tabernacle. Take the issue of finding a pastor for your church. What is the right procedure to be followed? If there were several candidates that were being looked at, would it be appropriate for the members of the search committee, when having their personal devotions each day, to be on the look-out in the Bible for some indication of which man God wanted them to choose? For instance, if six of the candidates are tall and strong and handsome, and one is small and mousy-looking, and if I’m seeking the Lord over this and asking for His guidance and I open my Bible up and it falls open to the story of Samuel choosing David to be king over his brothers, should I take that as God’s leading that we should choose the short, mousing-looking candidate over the others? Obviously not.

III. The third concern is when people abandon the process of wise decision-making that God has given to us as His people, in favor of impulses or signals they interpret as sent from God. I don’t mean that God cannot use impulses or circumstances as part of our decision-making process. But when receiving impulses or reading signals takes the place of wise and careful consideration, then there is great danger. For instance, recently a woman in our church was sharing with me how difficult it is to know how she should be using her time: what things should she keep in her life and which things should she give up? And she was saying how she wished that God would just tell her what she was supposed to do. And all of us can identify with that, can’t we? There are a lot of dilemmas that we face. And it would be a lot easier if God would just tell us what He wanted us to do. But God hasn’t told us everything He wants us to do. And it’s good that He hasn’t, because He’s teaching us to grow up and to take responsibility for our own lives, to make decisions as His servants according to His wisdom. Well, there are three ways that a person like this could go about making these hard decisions.

1- One would be to look in the Scriptures for indicators of what God wants her to keep and what God wants her to cut. And so every day before she opens her Bible she prays that God would show her what she’s supposed to do. And in roaming around and looking for direction she finds a verse in the prophets where God says that He is going to make the land desolate, and all the crops are going to be destroyed. And she says, "Maybe God wants me to cut out my gardening and devote myself to the other things." And then "God leads" the woman to the verse in James 3:1 "Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment." And she says to herself, "Maybe God led me to this verse as a way of telling me to give up teaching Sunday school. Why else would He keep leading me to this verse? Yesterday, I came across this same verse, and the pastor even mentioned it in his sermon last week."

2- Another way to seek the will of God in this situation is to look for indicators from God in the world around us. One day as our friend is driving down the road, she’s praying fervently for God’s direction. "Should I give up my Sunday school class or should I give up my political involvement? Lord, show me what I should do!" And she looks up and there’s is this bid bright flashing sign that says. "KEEP RIGHT." And she says, "There it is! God has answered my prayer! God wants me to maintain my political involvement and give up the Sunday school." Now these things may sound far-fetched. But this kind of thing happens all the time.

3- The third alternative, apart from looking for indicators in the Bible or for signals in the world is to go through the process of wisdom. That is, to take the principles of God’s word about what’s most important and what our highest responsibilities are, to weigh it all in light of the circumstances God has places us in, to ask "What’s best for the kingdom? What does my husband want me to do? What do wise counselors think I should do? What do my close godly friends think I should do? What seems to be most in line with my gifts and abilities? What is most consistent with my sense of God’s calling in my life? What would God be most pleased with? What would help the people of God the most? What would contribute most to the cause of Christ? What would be the most edifying and beneficial? What is most consistent with godly priorities?" It means going through this wise but strenuous process of godly decision-making.

The role of impulses

There’s nothing wrong with having an impulse. There’s nothing wrong with having a sense that we ought to do something. God is sovereign over our minds and He puts thoughts and impulses upon our minds and hearts. (And He is certainly the One who providentially gives us the sense that some thought or idea or impulse is from Him – though He never guarantees that these senses are accurate, which is why they alone cannot be trusted as the sole basis for making a decision.) That is certainly one of the ways that He moves people to do certain things. And yet we all know that many wicked things are done in the name of God telling someone what to do. And so we have to ask the question: When a person has an impulse, how can he be certain that that’s what God wants him to do? That’s my big concern here. How do you know that it’s not just your own desire? How do you know that it’s not a temptation instead of a direction? Someone might say, "I recognize the voice of God." And I would say, then that’s prophecy. If God is telling you things, and you have the ability to infallibly discern between His voice and all the other voices, then what you’re talking about Biblically is prophecy. And if you can’t discern the voice of God infallibly, then you can’t be certain that your impulse is a message from God. And so if you can’t know for sure that an impulse is a message from God, then you have to handle it carefully. In other words, we should take our impulses with a grain of salt. We should not be so certain that it is a message from the Lord. You don’t have to ignore the impulse, but you should evaluate it according to the Scripture and according to godly wisdom. You should ask, "Is this is a good thing? Is this a wise thing? Is this a Biblical thing?" If it’s a weighty matter you should get counsel from others and weigh the matter according to the word of God and according to what you know of His ways. As in all other non-moral matters, you use the process of wisdom that God gives us to make decisions in our lives.

Some people are slaves to their impulses. They might even think they are slaves to God. But by misinterpreting their impulses as from God, they are actually slaves to their own ideas. Just because we have a very strong feeling, just because we have a thought that makes a very powerful impression on our minds and hearts, this doesn’t mean that it is message from God. It’s just so hard for us to separate our own desires and our own human impulses from the will of God. Therefore we’ve got to be on guard against doing what we really want to do, and blaming it on God, as if He’s the One who told us. We have an amazing capacity to deceive ourselves, and to be blind, unwilling to face the truth. And so, without doing it consciously we try to change the truth.(Some actually assume that the inner voice that tells them to do what they don’t want to do is the voice of God, which is equally dangerous.) Either way, without realizing it, many abandon the Scriptures today for what they call the Holy Spirit’s leading. This business of God telling me this and God telling me that is very dangerous. And it’s just not biblical. How many horror stories have we all heard about dying people being told that God says they’re going to be healed, and then they die? Recently I heard of a Christian man who was dying and his family all suddenly had a sense that the Lord had told them that God was going to heal him. And then he died. What a bad testimony this is to the world! How it misleads! How it confuses!

So does this mean that the Holy Spirit is not our guide and our leader? Not at all. The Bible tells us that He leads us. But let’s let Him lead us in the manner in which He says He will lead us. The Holy Spirit guides us into righteousness. He leads us to Christ. He leads us in the way that He has called us to go. He guides us into the way of love. He shows us the path of truth.

Now I realize that this flies in the face of what is commonly thought of as the leading of the Holy Spirit. But this is what the Bible teaches. This is the leading of the Holy Spirit. Following the leading of the Holy Spirit means doing what you know God wants you to do, yielding to the Spirit and not to the flesh, obeying the part that wants what God wants, not to the part that wants to sin. For example, say a store clerk is rude to me. I should be asking, What is my flesh wanting me to do, and what is the Spirit wanting me to do? We get all wrapped up in questions like how are we going to spend our time and what are we going to do. But this is not the kind of question God is primarily concerned with. He is concerned about the godliness of our hearts. He is concerned about our affection for Christ. Too many times we are saying, "Lord, lead me in this decision," when we should be saying, "Lord, lead me in the way of righteousness." And even when it comes to specific non-moral guidance, there is no denying the fact that the Holy Spirit provides guidance for believers, but it is a very serious question just how He does it. He does it by leading us by means of the process of wisdom, which includes the evaluation and consideration of impulses, but doesn’t give them absolute sway as if they were the infallible voice of God.