The Spirit is a person, He is God, and we know Him not by what we imagine, but by what God has revealed. Likewise, we are not Spirit-led apart from Him and His sword, that is the Word of God.
Too often this phrase is misused to describe worship styles that are anti-liturgical; or at best only loosely organized. Some mistakenly believe that to be organized, or to plan ahead, is to work against the Spirit. This is to pit our minds against the Spirit as though He wants us to have an unreasonable faith, an unthinking doxology.
Rather, we know the Spirit illumines our minds, teaches, guides us into truth, enables us to cling to truth, and is always growing us in our understanding. One early example of this is found in John 2, and John 14-16. Jesus described the role of the Holy Spirit to His disciples in what we refer to as “the upper room discourse.” The Spirit would bring to mind what Jesus had taught, He would lead them into all truth, He would clarify what they could not yet handle or understand, He would continue to manifest God to them. In John 2 we read of this plainly:
So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.John 2:22
Later in this series we will discuss at length 1 Corinthians 2, yet it may be helpful for you to turn to verses 10-16 for a moment. To one who is ‘spiritual’ (that is to say, to one in whom dwells the Holy Spirit) the mind will be filled with spiritual thoughts (that is to say, thoughts taught by the Spirit as described here). Quite often it feels as though we are merely remembering something from Scripture, when in reality, we are remembering because of the Spirit guiding and teaching us, as is His custom, from the Scripture; and we too will believe, and delight in orthodoxy.
This phrase is also misused to describe worship services that encourage congregants to engage in highly expressive personal worship in the midst of what should be corporate worship. Too often the Spirit wants to lead us as One Body in fellowship and unity, and we prefer “spirit led” experiences of “me and Jesus” pretending the rest of the crowd is not present. We deny the purpose of the worship service and glorify our emotions over our God. We deny that it is our glory to be a part of the Body; our American autonomy invades our theology too often.
A Brief Study in Key Passages
Let us turn to a few key passages that instruct us on what being “Spirit-led” means in God’s vocabulary. “Spirit-led” and “Spirit-filled” is thrown around amongst Christians who use these phrases differently, and do not agree on their terms. And sadly, it is often heard as derogatory: Their worship was not spirit-filled; or their service was not spirit-led… These sorts of conversations are not working towards edification (a sign of our own walking with the Spirit is that we work towards edification) but simply criticizing.
It is important to use this phrase in a God-honoring way. It is imperative that we grow in our knowledge of the Spirit, so that we do not absent-mindedly agree with heresy, or try to redefine “Spirit-led” according to the spirit of the times. With that in mind, this four part series will begin today by asking what a few New Testament texts teach about the Spirit’s work in the life of believers.
For any who are thirsty for more, I heartily point you to Sinclair Ferguson’s book, The Holy Spirit, part of the Contours of Christian Theology Series; and to John Owen’s book, Communion With God (available here); and the classic which should be on every shelf, J.I. Packer’s Knowing God.
Romans 8, the Spirit of Adoption
The ideas you’ll find in this beloved chapter include our Belonging to God, being accepted, our being indwelt by the Spirit, given joy and peace by the Spirit, mortification of sin, our sure inheritance and our ability to pray. We also see this phrase “all who are being led by the Spirit…”
This phrase cannot be isolated; it cannot be understood out of context. We have no “right” to apply it to our lives out of context. This verse specifically speaks to our mortifying pet sins. Christ’s death abolished our slavery to sin, yet we sin. The Spirit leads us day by day to put to death the deeds of the flesh, since we are no longer slaves to sin. He is our Helper, strengthening us for the battle, giving us the desire to battle, and growing us in wisdom that we may choose to walk in ways pleasing to the LORD.
Being led by the Spirit relates to our obedience (see Romans 16:25-27 and 1:1-5, paying attention to the use of the word ‘obedience.’ When our hearts long for the obedience of faith, it is a testimony to us of the Spirit’s work in us, beloved.). He leads us in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake (see Psalm 23!). This verse in Romans is not speaking to all the various ways the Spirit works; nor is it speaking about whether He will lead you to make decisions in your life (should I get up? Should I get dressed? Should I feed my family breakfast? Should I work out? Should I shower?), or about planning for your future (should I do this or that? Should I give to the poor? Should I name my child any particular name? Should I buy a house or rent? Should I switch jobs?).
When God has grown you in wisdom, He expects you to walk in it, without returning to ask if He has changed His mind about the wisdom He’s given to you. By all means, get up, get dressed, feed your family! Go to work, earn, live your quiet life in all godliness and dignity, praying without ceasing! (1 Timothy 5:8; 2 Thessalonians 3:10-13; 1 Timothy 2:1-3)
We have other passages to turn to when wondering–does the Spirit lead me by telling me exactly what to do every moment of my life? Perhaps you’ve found yourself demanding “since you spoke to Joseph in dreams, I want dreams too!!! Speak LORD, NOW!” Pause here to read Hebrews 1:1-4 many many many times, memorize it, ponder it–He has promised to give you understanding, beloved; but He has never promised to speak to us all in the various ways that He spoke prior to the Incarnation.
So, according to Romans 8, the Spirit leads us to slay our sins, to fight sin, to not let sin rule in our hearts. We will not be perfect in this land of our sojourning, but we will battle, and put to death the deeds of our flesh. We will not be enslaved or conquered or killed by our sins.
And we will pray. Being led by the Spirit means being led into a life where we pray without ceasing, believing that He is near. The Spirit is described this way:
“I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him…and weep bitterly over Him…”Zechariah 12:10
And so Paul teaches that we have “received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba, Father!” We pray, we cry out, we lift up our voices of supplication by His Spirit dwelling in us.
Finally, to be Spirit-led means to be reminded of our union with Christ, of our adoption into His family. To all our doubts and fears, we are promised that the “Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.” We so desperately want Him to whisper secrets to us, or to testify to our spirit what we should do, where we should go, etc…
He has promised to testify, specifically. He reassures us of our belonging; of our future; of our inheritance; of the surety of our days here being filled with suffering. Anyone who says He will give you a life of ease here and now is a heretic. Anyone who promises that the ‘right’ path will be easy, pleasant, and fill your heart with complete peace, forgets that in this world we have tribulation (see John 16:29-17:21).
Hebrews: in these last days He has spoken…
The book of Hebrews has a very high view of Scripture, reminding us that we must cling to what we have heard without drifting away from it. Our hope is sure, His promises are sure; we ought to have already pressed on to maturity and be able to teach others from the Scriptures. And because we trust His words, we are eagerly awaiting His return and seeking the city that is to come.
In this way, we have hearts strengthened by grace which cannot be “carried away by varied and strange teachings.” He expects us to learn from teachers, consider their faith and imitate them; but not once are we encouraged to pursue being led by the Spirit outside of what He has revealed. We need the Scriptures, and we need the Church, as both are means by which the Spirit leads. (see chapters 5, 6, 10, 13.)
This book opens with a most concise statement of revelation:
God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much better than angels, as He has inherited a more excellent name than they.
In these last days He has spoken to us, how? And what did Jesus say about the role of the Spirit? And do you ask Him to instead give you dreams and visions as He spoke to the prophets, or are you contented with the indwelling, and with how the New Testament describes the Spirit leading and guiding?
Sometimes we read the word “lead” or “guide,” perhaps in a Psalm (i.e. 32), and we let our imaginations define His role rather than coming to Him and asking for understanding. Yes, He teaches and guides, but did He promise to speak in all the same ways He used to–or is He committed now to using His Word? Beloved, He illumines our minds, gives spiritual understanding, and leads us in paths of righteousness, as we interact with His Word the way the author of Psalm 119 did (see chapter four of Deep Simplicity: Meditations on Abiding in Christ, available here).
Ephesians 5 & 6
On being filled and praying, but working backwards.
Please read Ephesians 6:10-20; remembering that this whole passage is addressing the unseen warfare we are engaged in. To be Spirit led is to “stand firm” in our faith, to engage in this battle with the whole armor of God. This armor ends in verse 17, but should not be understood apart from verse 18, or indeed the whole passage.
And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view…
Many crave a time of prayer that is Spirit led, but that excludes the Word of God, wanting the Spirit to lead them ‘personally’ in way that He has never led any other human being. For it to be real, it has to be unique, so they think. The Spirit has never claimed that He will lay aside His sword for you; nor is any man alive able to add to Scripture saying “but now He has spoken to us in His Son, and until Christ returns He will speak to all individuals a new word just for them for that day.” (Remember Hebrews 1:1-4?).
Now let us back up to Ephesians 5:18-20
“And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and humans and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father;”
Dissipation is a wasting of your mind by misuse and even abuse. Your mind is a gift from God, He created you to know Him, know others, know about the world He created, and live an intentional and meaningful life. Yet, if you misuse your mind through drunkenness what becomes of your mind? What becomes of your ability to reason, to think, to communicate, to understand, to remember rightly, or to do any of the things your brain usually handles with ease, like walking?
Rather than dissipation on account of your drunkenness (and hear me loud and clear, this is not a call to abstain from alcohol, it is a call to abstain from the abuse of alcohol) we are called to be filled by the Holy Spirit. He fills, and as He does–what happens? We worship corporately, from the Scriptures. We sing psalms! Together!!!
Our minds are able to know all we have to be thankful for. It is the Spirit that leads us in this mindset, in this knowledge, in this spiritual understanding (see Colossians 1:9). The Spirit fills, but does not lead the church to be enraptured with nonsensical emotions or to seek new visions or to worship apart from His words.
There is truth, beauty, delight and thanksgiving, order, reason, knowledge and understanding, as the Spirit fills us and leads us in worship.
Thank you for sticking with me, I hope this has been helpful and given you many portions of Scripture to muse upon. Other helpful passages will be covered in the next three parts of this series, so stay tuned!
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash