Being led implies following the will of another. For example, a prisoner is led by guards to prison; sheep are led by the shepherd to pasture. To be led by the Spirit is to follow the guidance of the Spirit. It is to be submissive to His will, making His desires the rule of life. He is the commander. We are to obey.
The leadership of the Holy Spirit is essential for every believer. To follow the path of selfishness leads to sin, and to follow the path of law leads to bondage. God has revealed in the life of Jesus Christ and in Galatians that there is a third path – following the Holy Spirit. In Galatians 5:16 walking in the Spirit defeats sin. And in Galatians 5:18 being led by the Spirit avoids bondage to the law. The only proper path for a believer is the one Jesus modeled, following God in personal relationship through the Spirit. Romans 8:14 teaches that following the guidance of the Holy Spirit is the identifying trait of the children of God. It is essential for every believer to understand the leading of the Holy Spirit and to submit to Him.
Various Ways the Spirit Leads
The first way the Spirit leads is through providential teaching. Jesus promised his disciples in John 16:13 that the Spirit would lead them into all truth. Though this promise applied to the apostolic writing of the New Testament, it applies also to Christians today (compare 1 Corinthians chapters 1 and 2). In Matthew 10:19-20, Jesus instructed the 12 disciples, when arrested for their faith, not to prepare a defense, but to trust the Holy Spirit to give the right words to say. The Spirit can direct the believer’s thoughts and words. Similarly, in 1 John 2:27 John encouraged believers to trust the Spirit to distinguish between truth and error. They are not at the whim of fickle teachers and complex-sounding arguments, but have confidence the Holy Spirit will guide them to the truth.
A second way the Spirit leads is through conscious teaching. For instance, when King David gave Solomon the plans for the temple in 1 Chronicles 28:12, David was conscious that the Spirit had led by putting the plans in his mind, helped him to write them down, then explained the details to David (verse 19). In a similar way, the prophets were “carried” by the Spirit as they spoke their prophecies (2 Peter 1:21). Then also at the conclusion of the Jerusalem council meeting in Acts 15:28, the participants knew their final decision was the decision of the Holy Spirit. Likewise, Paul was conscious that his own preaching was a result of the Spirit at work (1 Corinthians 2:3-5). The principle is that, when needed, the Spirit can direct the thoughts and give understanding in such a way that the believer is conscious that the product is from the Holy Spirit.
A third way the Spirit leads is by communicating specific commands from God. For example, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert for the purpose of being tempted by the devil (Luke 4:1). Similarly, the Spirit told Philip to go to the Ethiopian’s chariot (Luke 8:29). The Spirit gave a specific detailed command Philip could obey. Another example is when the Holy Spirit spoke up at a prayer meeting and said “Set apart Barnabas and Saul for me for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2-4). After the commissioning service, the two set out, considering themselves to be sent by the Holy Spirit, not by the church leaders. Then there was the time Paul’s mission trip plans were interrupted by the unexpected prohibitions of the Spirit (Acts 16:6-7). The Spirit can clearly give direct commands, when necessary.
Especially helpful here is the time the Spirit dramatically instructed Peter to go to Caesarea to visit the Gentile Cornelius (Acts 10:19). Because of Peter’s strong conviction to the contrary, the Spirit had to be very clear. Note that the Spirit did not always give commands to Peter. To the contrary, Peter received his guidance to go to Samaria by being appointed to do so by those in authority (Acts 8:14); he went to Lydda as part of a prepared tour (Acts 9:32); and he went to Joppa because of the urgent appeal from Christians there (Acts 9:38). Caesarea? That took a vision, the voice of the Spirit, and a human request (Acts 10:9-24). The principle is that the Spirit will take whatever steps are necessary to lead in a particular situation. A human request alone would not suffice for Caesarea. A vision would be superfluous for Lydda.
Observations Regarding Direct Commands from the Spirit
From the above examples in Scripture, a few generalizations can be made about occasions when the Holy Spirit gives direct commands. First, this leading of the Spirit is clear. In every example where God gives a command through the Holy Spirit, the direction is specific and understood. God never mumbles. The Holy Spirit doesn’t give out clues. A believer should not worry that he has somehow misunderstood God’s special direction. When the Holy Spirit speaks, the hearer knows what He has said.
Second, the commands of the Spirit are personal and only intended for the recipient. For instance, only Jesus was called to a wilderness fasting temptation. This is not to be applied as an imperative for every believer. Likewise, Paul never considered the warnings the Spirit gave Agabus (Acts 21:11) to be a new command for himself (see Acts 20:22-23). Note how Joseph was right to decide to divorce Mary (“being a righteous man” – Matthew 1:19), in spite of her story of the angel’s visit. Only after God gave personal guidance to Joseph did he change his plans. All these illustrate that special leading applies to the one who receives the leading personally, and not to others. This personal character of the leading of the Holy Spirit means that one person’s leading does not trump another’s responsibility to follow Scripture and wisdom. For instance, one church board member may be led of the Spirit to start a new kind of ministry, but that does not mean the rest of the board must agree with him. They must apply wisdom to the decision, and if God does not lead them the same way, they might need to say no to the other’s request.
A third observation is that verbal commands from the Spirit are not the normal Christian experience. For instance, there is no indication Paul expected any Spirit-guidance when he planned his mission trip itineraries. Paul simply planned his trips and made adjustments as needed along the way. Only when there was something specific God wanted Paul to do, something that Paul would not otherwise plan to do, did God communicate through the Spirit additional guidance to Paul (Acts 16:6-10). So, if a believer receives no special guidance from God, that is no cause for concern. Rather, it is a compliment that God considers that believer fully capable of obeying God through proper study of Scripture and application of wisdom.
A final generalization is that commands from the Spirit often seem unwise. Since guidance from the Spirit is usually not what a person would come up with in his own wisdom, the command often seems unusual or even foolish. For instance, Gideon’s military attack with only 300 men and Joshua’s strategy of walking around Jericho as a means to conquer it, would both be considered foolish if it were not for God’s specific direction.
This “against wisdom” principle has two important applications. First, when a believer receives special leading from the Spirit, he likely will not be able to convince others that it is the right thing to do. Samson could not convince his parents that his marriage to a Pharisee was “from the Lord” (1 Samuel 14:4). Any missionary God calls to a foreign land, when it requires him to leave his family for long periods of time, will have those who accuse him of doing wrong. Again, the disciples considered Jesus crazy for going to Jerusalem when people were poised to kill him there. In these situations, the believer must simply follow God’s direction in humility and faith.
A second application of the “against wisdom” character of specific commands from the Holy Spirit is that we should not judge one another. Every believer must follow the Lord’s Word and the Spirit’s leading, and it is not for others to judge. Ousted King David stated this principle when defending the abusive Shimei (2 Samuel 16:9-10).
There is little, if any, controversy today over the fact that the Holy Spirit guides providentially. He makes the believer’s paths straight. He works within to bring about sanctification. He illumines the Word, giving wisdom and spiritual insight. To be led by the Spirit providentially is a matter of faith and obedience to the Word of God. The Holy Spirit also guides individually and experientially. There is legitimate extra-Biblical divine guidance today whenever God desires a believer to do something specific that can’t be attained through following the Scripture and wisdom. Though the exact process may vary, the result is clear: a definite, specific and confident knowledge of God’s will for oneself. Let us trust the Spirit to lead, and confidently serve the Lord. — by Dan Thornton
This first appeared in the Fall issue of GraceConnect magazine, the publication for the people of the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches. A downloadable pdf version of this issue is available by clicking here. It also may be read online at issuu.com. If you would like to receive the magazine delivered to you at no charge via U.S. Mail, click here to subscribe.