Lately I have been thinking of what it means to be "led by the Spirit". Paul uses this phrase in Galatians 5:16-18. It's a phrase used by Christians on a regular basis, but I wonder if we really know what it means.
16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 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. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
Does it refer to some mystical experience? Is it an internal spiritual prompting? Or something much simpler?
Synonyms for Being Led By The Spirit
My quest to understand what it means to be led by the Holy Spirit eventually brought me to the point of looking for parallel phrases and ideas in the New Testament that might shed more light on this concept.
I eventually found other phrases that seemed very similar to the idea of "walking" or "being led" by the Spirit.
6 If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:6-7)
4 I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.
Here John uses phrases such as "walking in the light" and "walking in the truth" almost interchangeably. And he contrasts it to walking in darkness. It seems pretty obvious that walking in darkness would be living in disobedience to the truth whereas walking in the truth would mean living in obedience to the truth.
But what is the connection between John's use of truth and Paul's use of the Spirit?
The Spirit of Truth
The last piece of the puzzle was solved when I discovered that the Holy Spirit it described in the book of John as the Spirit of Truth.
John 14:16-17 says:
16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.
The Holy Spirit is described as the Spirit of truth again in John 16:23:
13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
In other words, John understood that the Holy Spirit was the Spirit of truth, who would lead us into all truth. So when he celebrated that believers were "walking in the truth", he was celebrating the fact that the Holy Spirit was revealing truth to believers and they were living in obedience to that truth.
Paul's use of "walking by the Spirit" or "being led by the Spirit" could have been his way of saying the exact same thing, but explicitly recognizing the work of the Holy Spirit in the process.
An Old Testament Parallel
Finally, I came across another verse in Psalm 86:11 that shed further light that I was on the right trail.
Teach me your way, O Lord,
that I may walk in your truth;
unite my heart to fear your name. (Psalm 86:11)
David asked God to reveal the truth to Him so that he could "walk in your truth", which is the exact phrasing John uses in the New Testament.
A Pattern For Being Led By The Spirit
What we ultimately see is a pattern emerging. Here are a few observations we can make about what it means to walk in the Spirit:
- It implies a knowledge of the truth as revealed by God's Spirit.
- It implies a response of faith as evidenced by obedience to the truth.
Psalm 86:11 recognizes that truth is not something that one simply comes to know through study, but that it is the result of special revelation from God. This is similar to what 2 Timothy 3:7
7 always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.
In other words, we can use every human effort to discover truth, but ultimately genuine knowledge of the truth can only come when God chooses to reveal it. Thankfully, we have received this revelation through Jesus Christ who said that His purpose for coming to earth was to testify to the truth.
37 Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”
The conclusion we reach is that in order for us to "walk by the Spirit" or "walk in the truth" we must first encounter the divinely revealed truth of God. And according to the New Testament, this truth is most clearly encapsulated in the gospel, but more generally in the Word of God.
Beyond A Knowledge Of the Truth
But being led by the Spirit isn't simply about knowing the truth. Instead, it requires being "led" by the truth. What good is truth unless it is received and incorporated into our lives through obedience.
Sadly it is far too common for us to fill our heads with knowledge while at the same time neglecting to consider how our lives much change in light of this knowledge. This is why it brought John so much joy to see his children walking in the truth.
Jesus demands obedience to the truth and not merely knowledge of the truth. This is why making disciples involves teaching Christians to "observe all that He commanded". (Matthew 28:18-20)
The internal Battle
The life of obedience is a never-ending battle. Our flesh constantly wages war against the Spirit and makes obedience difficult at times.
Our hearts are divided. On the one hand, God's Spirit gives us a desire to please the Lord, but on the other hand our flesh resists obedience. This is the battle that Paul describes in Galatians 5:16-18 (written above) as well as in Romans 7:21-25:
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
And this is the reason why David not only asks God to teach him His ways, but to also unite his heart to fear God's name (Psalm 86:11 - written above). David recognized even within himself a heart that was divided.
Victory In Jesus
Paul laments the sin he found in his own heart, but he also recognized that the victory comes through Jesus.
He says, "24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! "
Jesus is the one who:
- Came to earth to bear witness to the truth
- Revealed the ways of the Lord
- Died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sin
- Provided the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth
- Gives us the power (through His Spirit) to resist the flesh and walk in obedience
Applying The Truth
So if being led by the Spirit essentially means living in obedience to God's revealed truth, there are a few things we need to do.
- Spend more time reflecting on how to apply God's truth to our lives.
- Remember our goal is to "walk" in the truth, not merely to "know" the truth.
- Looks for pockets of rebellion in our lives that need to be surrendered to God.
- Spend more time praying and asking God to reveal how our lives need to change in light of what He is teaching us in His Word.
- Being aware of when we're being led by our "feelings" or our "flesh" rather than God's truth.