What Does It Mean to Be Led by the Spirit?

Johannes Pflaum

“For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God” (Rom 8:14). What does that mean in practice?

When the Bible says that we should be filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph 5:18), it’s not talking about an ecstatic experience or “more” after new birth (such as an additional baptism of the Spirit or a “second blessing”). It establishes the fact that the Holy Spirit has full right to live and rule in and through us. Paul shows that being filled with the Spirit is inconsistent with drunkenness (Eph 5:18). Being filled with the Holy Spirit relates to obedience (cf. Eph 5:8ff.).—“…The Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey him” (Acts 5:32).

Some enthusiasts invoke Acts 2:13, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the apostles at Pentecost: “Others mocking said, These men are full of new wine.” But this ridicule wasn’t about the apostles’ seeming ecstatic or stumbling around, but the different languages. Peter himself was clear about this (v. 15), and he hit the mark with his “stone-cold sober” sermon.

Paul calls the Holy Spirit a spirit of “sound mind” (discipline, or prudence—2 Tim 1:7). And in Galatians 5:23, he describes temperance (also translated as “self-control”) as a fruit of the Spirit. It’s a matter of being in control of oneself, of moderation, which is the opposite of drunkenness. In the Bible, a staggering state is a sign of God’s judgment (Isa 19:13-14; 28:7; 29:9; Jer 25:16), and being drunk or intoxicated is a bad thing (Isa 51:21; 63:6; Nah 3:11; Hab 2:15; Jer 25:27).

The Holy Spirit’s Guidance
The Acts of the Apostles calls Peter, Stephen, Barnabas, and others “full of the Holy Ghost.” This applies to their preaching, ministry, and discipleship. The Holy Spirit led them on their way (cf. Acts 8:29; 10:19; 13:2, 4; 16:6-7). We don’t find the phrases “Spirit-led” or “spiritual guidance” in the book of Acts, but we can see evidence of it in the different events recorded there.

We read of how the Holy Spirit spoke to send Paul and Barnabas out on the first missionary journey (Acts 13:2). The connection with Acts 13:1 suggests that this speaking was done through the prophets in that congregation. Regarding this, it should be noted that the role of the New Testament prophets (Acts 11:28; 20:23; 21:10), together with the Apostles, belonged to the foundation of the Church and cannot simply be carried over to the present day (cf. Eph 2:20).

But even if prophets in the New Testament sense no longer exist, the Holy Spirit is still using people to call others. But we’re not gushing about a word from the Spirit, or using it as a form of leverage. The Holy Spirit can use elders, praying brothers and sisters, or a church sermon to initiate a call to ministry.

Personal readiness and confirmation are always part of a call from others. Paul, for example, had had this since his conversion. It speaks to the Apostle’s greatness that he could put his true life’s mission on hold for so long, until he was sent out by the church in Antioch. God’s Spirit is still calling through other people today. We could call this spiritual guidance.

Relying on What the Holy Spirit Is Saying
We read of the Holy Spirit speaking in Acts 1:16, 4:25, and 28:25. Each time, the Old Testament is referenced. This makes it clear how the Holy Spirit leads and guides through God’s Word, because it is also speaking there.

Acts 20:28 records Paul’s farewell speech to the elders of Ephesus. There he refers to them as overseers appointed by the Holy Spirit. It begs the question: how did the Holy Spirit do this? From Acts 14:23, we can see that Paul and Barnabas installed elders in the churches; that is, the elders were appointed by the people and by the Holy Spirit. Why? Because Paul and Barnabas asked for and acted on God’s will. This is why 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 also mention spiritual qualifications for the office of elder. They were the standard by which Timothy and Titus could determine who was fit for ministry. Of course, choosing elders always involves prayer. But when the Holy Spirit appoints people, this shouldn’t be confused with false, mystical notions of spiritual guidance. Rather, they are affirmed by the Word of God for this ministry.

But there are also passages in Acts where the Spirit of God speaks directly to people (Acts 8:29; 10:29). This is how the Lord can lead His children today, without it always having to be connected to a special experience of enlightenment. For example, someone may experience the peace of God and the associated certainty regarding a particular matter. Or, you may have an impression that you should call or visit a certain person, or pray for somebody. In preparing to preach, it’s important to have a particular Scripture passage to speak about.

Now, it’s important to be careful that we’re not prematurely marketing subjective impressions as the Spirit’s guidance. If the Lord has ordained something, it will always be confirmed in time. We’re often not even aware of it, because we’re simply doing the task set before us. Therefore, let’s resist using the phrase, “The Holy Spirit told me.”

Even in Acts, it is only directly stated that the Holy Spirit said something two times (cf. Acts 11:12; 21:11). This was during the time when divine revelation of canon hadn’t been completed, and the New Testament prophets were still active. In a third passage, Paul records how the Holy Spirit warned him that he would be imprisoned (Acts 20:23). The disciples preach what the Holy Spirit has said, and relate it to what God has already revealed, in three other places (Acts 1:16; 4:25; 28:25).

Preaching and Speaking by the Holy Spirit
As we have seen, the Acts of the Apostles describes proclaiming God’s Word as the Holy Spirit speaking. This is an essential feature. After the ministry of the Apostles and the New Testament prophets was over, and the whole Word of God as a divine revelation was complete, no additional revelation was needed. So, the Holy Spirit primarily speaks through the Word of God today. Therefore, a prophetic word given through preaching isn’t the spreading of supposed visions, dreams, or revelations. It’s an interpretation of God’s Word that speaks into the situation and strikes the audience. The preacher often isn’t even aware of it; he’s simply interpreting and applying God’s Word. But someone sitting in the audience is asking himself, “How could he possibly know that about me?”

On November 4, 2012, theologian Rolf Scheffbuch led a Bible study with the subject, “On the Way to Heaven.” In his message, he spoke so clearly and succinctly about today’s spiritual situation, that a listener asked him what had caused him to say it all that way. Rolf Scheffbuch didn’t know that this was to be his final act of service; he was called to eternity just six days later. His sermon became his spiritual legacy, and I’ve heard it many times myself. It’s an example of how the Holy Spirit is speaking prophetically through the preaching of God’s Word today.

As mentioned previously, Scripture tells us in various places that the apostles preached in the Spirit. The first time is Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2:4. What was the heart of this message? The unique significance of Jesus, and the salvation that is connected with Him. Even Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, pointed toward Jesus at the end of his Acts 7 message on redemptive history.

We find the same thing when Peter preached the Gospel to Cornelius and the Gentiles in Caesarea (Acts 10). Of course, the disciples also spoke about the Holy Spirit or quoted Scripture when doing this. But a Spirit-filled sermon was always about Jesus and His significance. It was probably Pastor Wilhelm Busch who once said, “The Holy Spirit works most strongly where Jesus is made great.”

Direct and Indirect Leading of the Spirit
Paul and Barnabas were set apart for their ministry by the Holy Spirit. The start of the first missionary journey was directly related to this message from God.

Paul set out on his second missionary journey after deciding on his own (Acts 15:36). We read the same of his third missionary journey in Acts 18:23. There is no mention of a special commission from God’s Spirit in either case. Paul didn’t sit there passively waiting for spiritual guidance; he made a decision and set off. We can be sure that Paul prayed a great deal and made his decision prayerfully before he left. But nothing is said of a special word from God or a special event.

At the onset of the second and third missionary journeys, we see that God’s Spirit also indirectly guides people who live in their Lord’s presence, dependent on Him. By “indirect,” I’m not implying an inferior leadership, but spiritual guidance without an extraordinary event or God explicitly speaking. Of course, the precondition is that we’re ready to align ourselves with God’s Word and will.

An Important Example of the Holy Spirit’s Guidance
Acts 16:6-10 describes a special event related to the Apostle Paul’s spiritual guidance. He and Silas were on the second missionary journey, and then the Holy Spirit twice prevented them from preaching God’s Word. We don’t know how it happened, but Paul and his companions realized that the Lord was thwarting their no-doubt prayerful plans.

Paul doesn’t simply attribute this hindrance to the devil. This facile, seemingly pious explanation is often used. If we don’t get what we wished for or our plans don’t work out, we blame the devil for it. But sometimes it can also be the Lord Himself who nullifies even righteous plans and desires, because He has something completely different in mind for us.

In 1 Thessalonians 2:18, Paul speaks of Satan having prevented him from coming to Thessalonica twice. In the case described in Acts 16, however, he recognized that it was the Lord who was hindering that progress and its associated ministry, through His Spirit. It is interesting how Paul and his companions dealt with it. Some misconceptions about leadership can be corrected through their example.

When the Lord denied Paul and Silas’ plan, they didn’t sit idly by or passively wait for a revelatory experience. First, they intended to go west to the province of Asia to preach the Gospel, but the Holy Spirit denied them. Paul and Silas didn’t just twiddle their thumbs; they moved on to Mysia and tried to advance east to preach the Gospel. Again, the Spirit didn’t allow it. So they moved on to Troas. That’s where they received the order to go to Macedonia, by means of a face in the night.

John MacArthur describes this incident as an example of recognizing God’s will in his book, Found: God’s Will. He compares the Christian to a 30-ton truck.  At rest, it requires a truck-mounted crane to move it. But when it’s already in motion, it’s much easier to steer. So many Christians sit and ask for God’s will instead of moving. But the Lord wants to guide us while we’re in motion, as we see through Paul and Silas’ example. MacArthur writes:

“Keep moving—what a principle! So many people sit around waiting for that celestial crane to move them, saying, ‘I don’t know what God wants me to do.’ They need to start moving so God can steer them to that area of service He has planned. Knowing God’s will may mean pushing down a narrow line until you hit a dead end. At that point, God will open a door so wide you won’t be able to see around it—only through it!

“What was Paul’s response? It is recorded in the book of Acts: ‘When he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them’ (Acts 16:10).

“Paul responded immediately, and that is the only reaction when a persistent heart meets an open door [. . .] You may bounce off a lot of closed doors, but that is God’s way of forcing you into His open one. Get rolling! Be persistent.”

John Heading sees threefold guidance in the Apostle’s life regarding the events of Paul’s second missionary journey. First, Paul was guided by “personal means.” He made a personal decision in Acts 15:36, to visit the brothers he had preached the Gospel to on his first missionary journey. This was his personal mission. Second, the “spiritual means” which prevented Paul and Silas from continuing, and which then led to their call into Europe at Troas. Third, after having ministered at Philippi, Paul followed the east-west road in Macedonia to Thessalonica. This is where the north-south and east-west routes crossed. This was a “natural means.” This shows how the Lord’s guidance included personal, spiritual, and natural elements. The church there came into being through the preaching in Thessalonica.

These insights from MacArthur and Heading are very helpful in protecting against misconceptions about spiritual guidance and the associated recognition of God’s will. Of course, if we’re not yet clear about our calling, there can be situations where we truly do have to wait until we have recognized God’s will. When it comes to making important decisions, we don’t have to rush in, or do what someone else wants. This doesn’t contradict Paul and Silas’ behavior. They knew their calling, and they kept moving until the Lord directed them to where He wanted them. 

We can’t always derive corresponding rules for the present day from the events of the Apostles’ day. But every follower of Jesus must desire to be filled and guided by God’s Spirit. It has little to do with extraordinary events, but more to do with a daily life spent in God’s Word, in fellowship with the Lord, doing His will in everyday things.

Midnight Call - 09/2021

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