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What does it mean to be “led by the Spirit”?


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We’ve spent time thinking about being filled with the Spirit and being taught by the Spirit. One aspect of the Spirit’s sanctifying ministry to believers remains: being “led by the Spirit.” In order to understand that ministry, it’s important to distinguish between leading and guidance.

  • Guidance relates to decision-making. Scripture describes three means by which the Spirits guides decision-making: providential means (e.g., Acts 16:6-8), extraordinary means (e.g., Acts 16:9-10), and ordinary means (e.g., Acts 15:28-29).

  • Leading relates to obedience and focuses more on living than on leading. The phrase “led by the Spirit” occurs only twice in the NT (Rom 8:14; Gal 5:18). Those passages suggest that the person who walks by the Spirit will be led by the Spirit.

We’ll focus on Galatians 5:16-26, although Romans 8:5-14 is virtually identical. First, let’s set the context. In Galatians, Paul is combating false teachers who argue that a person not only must believe in Jesus but also must keep the OT law. Throughout the letter Paul uses a series of three contrasts: promise vs. law; freedom vs. slavery, and Spirit vs. flesh. At times the terms are nearly synonymous. A further complication is that in Galatians 5:16-26 Paul uses three different verbs modified by the phrase “by the Spirit”—walk (v.16, 25), led (v.18), and live (v.25). “Walk” and “led” are essentially the same. One (“walk”) focuses on outward obedience; the other (“led”) focuses on inward submission. Again, the emphasis is more on living than on leading. Remember: the person who walks by the Spirit will be led by the Spirit. So what does a person who walks by Spirit look like? According to Galatians 5:16-26, that person exhibits three characteristics.

First, the person who walks by the Spirit crucifies the deeds of the flesh (v.19-21, 24). You’re probably familiar with these verses, although we tend to pass over them pretty quickly in order to get to verses 22-23. We don’t have time to go into detail on all of sins listed, but we can at least note the four areas the fifteen vices cover: sexual sin (immorality, impurity, sensuality), religious sin (idolatry, sorcery), social sin —both individual and corporate—(enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying), and behavioral sin (drunkenness, carousing). So, if I’m walking by the flesh, my entire life has the potential to be a mess.

That’s the bad news. It gets worse. Romans 8:13 says, “If you are living according to the flesh, you are about to die.” But there’s good news, too. Again, listen to Romans 8:13—“but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Galatians 5:24 simply states it differently: “Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”

Is your life a mess? Is the flesh running it for you? If so, you need to take a careful look at verse 21b— “. . . things like these, of which I forewarn you just as I have forewarned you that those who practice such times shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” Then, you need to get into the crucifixion business. By the power of the Holy Spirit you need to say “No!” to the deeds of the flesh and “Yes!” to His leading. That’s the attitude that which results in sanctification.

Second, the person who walks by the Spirit cultivates the fruit of the Spirit (v.22-23). You might say, “The Spirit produces the fruit. How can I be expected to outdo Him?” I’m sorry, but we aren’t expected simply to sit back and be passive. Divine sovereignty goes hand-in-hand with human responsibility. Remember Philippians 2:12—“Work out your salvation with fear and trembling”? Or how about 2 Peter 1:5-9?

Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge; and in knowledge, self-control; and in self-control, perseverance; and in perseverance, godliness; and in godliness, brotherly kindness, and in brotherly kindness, love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Are you cultivating the fruit of the Spirit? Are you adding love and patience to your joy? Are you adding kindness and goodness to your peace? Are you adding gentleness and self-control to your faith? If not, isn’t it about time you got started? That’s where the Spirit wants to lead you.

Third, the person who walks by the Spirit corrects attitudes that cause division (v.25-26). If verses 16-24 are somewhat general, verse 26 is very specific, applying Paul’s teaching to the church in Galatia. He identifies three attitudes which they should reject: boasting, envying, and challenging one another.

It might be that we become boastful about our many years of service to the congregation. It might be that we envy the recognition someone else receives or the success of another ministry within the church. It might be that we challenge the direction the church is going because we think we know a better direction for it. Whatever the specific occasion, the person who walks by the Spirit will recognize those divisive attitudes as deeds of the flesh and will replace them with the fruit of the Spirit.

The person who walks by the Spirit will be led by the Spirit. If you want to be led by the Spirit, you’ll get busy walking by the Spirit. You will crucify the deeds of the flesh, cultivate the fruit of the Spirit, and correct the attitudes which cause division.

Written by Dr. John Harvey, Dean of CIU's Seminary & School of Ministry 

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