How Does the Holy Spirit Lead?

After my last Daily Devotional Livestream, someone asked me for my thoughts on how the Spirit leads us or guides us today. It’s a great question, but the answer was longer than I was willing to put into a text message.

First, let me say that I take an open but cautious approach to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Fairly frequently, someone will come to me and tell me the Spirit is leading them to start a new ministry at the church – an outreach to the homeless, a new kind of study, an apologetics podcast, etc. Those conversations put me in an awkward situation. To disagree with them is, in their minds, to disagree with God. To say ‘wait, now’s not the time’ is to quench the Holy Spirit’s work. My typical approach is to suggest we both pray about it for a time, and if the Spirit is truly leading, that he’d help me see the wisdom in it too. I am open to the possibility that the Spirit speaks or prompts us individually, but I’m cautious in my openness.

Second, I think a distinction should be made between how the Spirit typically works and what the Spirit can do. Saying the Spirit typically works this way is not limiting the Spirit. If I say the Spirit typically works through Scripture and through the community of believers, I am not saying he can’t work directly and individually.

Scripturally, I would suggest that the Spirit continues to lead and guide us through a) the word, b) the church, and c) by gifting us wisdom, d) and by shaping our loves/desires in conformity with Christ.

A) The Spirit leads us through the word. Let me say something very strongly – the Spirit will NEVER lead you to do something Scripture forbids. The Spirit led the authors of the Bible as they wrote, guiding them to write things that they didn’t even fully understand; but, they were writing for our benefit (1 Peter 1:10-12).  With the close of the canon, this normative revelatory work of the Spirit comes to a close. If one feels led by the Spirit today, those promptings must be held up against and judged in light of Scripture. Failure to do so is a sure path to heresy (see the Montanists for an example). It is in the word that we come to know what God’s will is for our lives – that we be conformed to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29ff). The Spirit guides us in understanding and applying the Word to our lives.

Additionally, the Spirit leads us through the Word incarnate. The author of Hebrews says, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Hebrews 1:1-2). We cannot minimize the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus – he was conceived by the Spirit, guided by the Spirit, lived by the Spirit. And now, the Word incarnate guides us by the life he lived and the road he paved.

B) The Spirit guides through the Church. Though the church is not infallible, the collective wisdom of the church through the ages should not be ignored. In Acts 15, we see a fantastic example of how this works. Acts 15 is a record of the ‘Jerusalem Council,’ where the early church considered how to include Gentiles into the church. Should they be required to be circumcised? What about dietary restrictions, etc.?  After hearing from Paul and Peter and some believers who had been a part of the Pharisee party, the council decided. Acts 15:22 says, “Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas.” The purpose of the visit was to deliver a letter informing the Christians of Antioch of the council’s decision. In part, the letter said, “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements…” (Acts 15:28). The Holy Spirit was active in guiding the church as it deliberated, and the same is true today.

Anecdotally, when I was considering a change to my declared career path, from law to the pastorate, I consulted with people in the church who knew me well – my pastor (also my dad), along with key leaders who knew me and were wise. The church is not infallible, but the collective wisdom of the church is more than the sum of its parts.

C) The Spirit guides by granting wisdom. This was alluded to above, but more can be said. Wisdom and the Holy Spirit seem to go hand in hand throughout the Bible, both Old and New Testament. For example, the Messiah, the Root of Jesse is described by Isaiah, who wrote,

And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. (Isaiah 11:2-3)

In Ephesians 1:17, Paul prays that the church would “may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him.”  The Spirit guides in our decision making by granting us true, biblical wisdom (as opposed to earthly wisdom).

D) The Spirit guides by renewing our hearts and minds. Part of the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer is the renewal of mind and heart in conformity to Christ. The Holy Spirit regenerates us (John 3:5-8), which is the beginning of our lives as new creations. He continues to work in us, transforming us (2 Corinthians 3:18), causing us to bear the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). As the Spirit does his sanctifying work, he changes our desires. Paul commands in Galatians 5:16, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do…” As creatures, we always do what we want. Our greatest desires move us to action (even when a gun is held to our head, and a thief demands our wallet, we desire to live more than we desire to keep the $20 in our wallet, so we comply with the thief – we do what we want most).  The Spirit changes our hearts and our desires and, thus, he guides us.

There have been a few times in my life where I’ve felt directed by the Spirit to do something – usually, pray in a certain way. Those times are the exception rather than the rule. I believe I am more in step with the Spirit as I have matured, but this doesn’t mean I hear from him directly or feel prompted more often. Instead, I hear him as he speaks in the non-extraordinary ways – through the word, the church, in wisdom, and through my transformed desires.

Thanks for the question!

2 thoughts on “How Does the Holy Spirit Lead?

  1. That is good and well said. I particularly like the phrase, the Holy Spirit TYPICALLY works…, thus but limiting the Spirit nor granting free reign to mysticism.
    You gave the example of “Spirit of wisdom,” and “Spirit of knowledge.” There are very many times spirit is used throughout the Bible. Are you saying the above mentioned refer to the same one Holy Spirit.

    • Mary, each use of ‘spirit’ needs to be taken individually. Certainly, not all refer to the Holy Spirit. In Ephesians 2 Paul speaks of the spirit that is at work in the sons of disobedience – clearly not the Holy Spirit. Sometimes ‘spirit’ is used of our spirit. In the texts I cited, Isaiah 11 and Ephesians 1:17, I do think it’s referring to the Holy Spirit. The ESV and NIV take Ephesians 1:17 this way, the NASB, RSV, and KJV do not. For me, the connection with spirit and revelation in this verse is decisive – it is always God’s role to reveal, not our or another spirits. The same, basically, holds true for how translators approach Isaiah 11. Here, the fulfillment of this in Jesus’ baptism is important – the Holy Spirit came to rest on him quite visibly, in fulfillment of this prophecy. The lines of Isaiah 11 are, in my opinion, a great example of Hebrew parallelism where lines are stacked up for emphasis. They are saying the same thing, but are complementing one another.

      That’s my take.

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