It might surprise you, as it did me, to learn that the phrase “led by the Spirit” occurs only twice in the New Testament:
- Romans 8:13-14 – 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. For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.
- Galatians 5:16-18 – But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law.
That’s Not How We Use It
But people rarely do restrict their usage of this phrase to the specific context of mortification. Instead, I’ve observed that we use it in (at least) two ways. First, we say that the Spirit led us to do something in order to give glory and credit to God for favorable and gracious circumstances and providences that we’ve experienced. Some good thing has happened, and we simply are being conscious to not take any glory for good things to ourselves. Rather, we desire to ascribe the various mercies we receive to the good, meticulous providence of a sovereign and loving God who ministers to His people through the agency of His Holy Spirit.
And I think this is good. Even though we must stipulate that we’re not using the phrase exactly as Paul coined it, we aren’t trying to slip in any weird theology. We’re just trying to give credit where credit is due. And besides, since Scripture does teach the absolute sovereignty and meticulous providence of God, we have a theological basis for speaking this way. It is good, and right, and proper. In fact, I’d even say that we must give credit to the Spirit in this way.
But some people speak about being led by the Spirit in another way, too. They use it as a seal of their authority for what they have to say or what they propose to do. This is wrong, for it assumes that the Spirit is subjectively “leading” them in some revelatory sense, similar to how Paul was forbidden to enter Asia in Acts 16. (In fact, these people may often cite such passages in Acts, entirely ignoring the drastic differences in redemptive history between then and now.) This is not only not what being “led by the Spirit” means in its Scriptural context (cf., again, Rom 8:14 and Gal 5:18), but it misunderstands how God speaks and how the Spirit guides us in this age: namely, both through the sufficient, Spirit-inspired and God-breathed Scriptures.
It All Comes Back to Authority
The issue of authority is, I think, the kicker for how this second sense of the phrase differs from the first, and also how it errs theologically. When people in the first category are saying that the Spirit led them to do something – for example, God seems to have “laid it on your heart” to pray for someone – they’re simply trying to deflect glory for a good thing that has already happened. By contrast, when people in the second category are saying that the Spirit is leading them to do something – for example, to sell their house and move in with you (true story) – they’re trying to garner authority for something that has not yet happened.
Thus, aside from the strictly Biblical usage of the mortification of sin, the “leading of the Holy Spirit” is discerned much like the decretive will of God: only in retrospect. We’re able to look back on a good thing that God has accomplished in our lives – even something as internal as feeling led to pray for someone some particular week, only later to find out that they had a really rough week and needed that prayer – and discern: “The Spirit was leading me to pray for you this week!”
On the other hand, it is without Scriptural or theological foundation and thus entirely invalid to say, “The Spirit is leading me to sell my house and just step out in faith,” or “The Spirit is leading me to preach in your pulpit this Sunday.” Though the person might be sincere, this really is just scrambling for some authority to validate one’s own subjective gut-feelings and impressions.
And if you disagreed with me, what if I told you that the Spirit led me to write this blog post? What could you do? You'd be entirely stymied by my appeal to the authority of the Spirit with no objective means of evaluation. You most certainly wouldn't want to resist the Holy Spirit, would you? You see how that just becomes a power play?
Scripture is Our Authority
But God has already given us a perfectly sufficient means for evaluating and validating such impressions: it is His perfectly sufficient, always-profitable (2Tim 3:16-17), everything-we-need-for-life-and-godliness (2Pet 1:3) Word, as revealed in many portions and in many ways in the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. Peter declares that the prophetic word as revealed in Scripture is something more sure even than the personal eye-witness of the transfigured Christ (2Pet 1:16-21, ESV)!
That is our authority. And if anyone attempts to elevate his own subjective impressions to be at least on par with the authority of Scripture by flippantly adding that he was “led by the Spirit” to do something, he dishonors the sufficiency of what the Holy Spirit has already led men to speak and write as the uncontestable Word of God (2Pet 1:21). Indeed, the “things of the Spirit” (ta tou pneumatos; Rom 8:5 cf. 1Cor 2:14) are the words spoken and written by the Apostles as they were taught by the Spirit (1Cor 2:12-13).
when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,
but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.
For when he received honor and glory from God the Father,
and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory,
"This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,"
we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven,
for we were with him on the holy mountain.
And we have something more sure,
the prophetic word,
to which you will do well to pay attention
as to a lamp shining in a dark place,
until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
- 2 Peter 1:16-19, ESV -