18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. – Gal 5:18 NASB
Dogma of the Spirit
I don’t know about you, but I despise the idea of being “led.” I have owned several businesses, and I very much enjoyed being my own boss. I don’t really do well as an employee. What I’ve noticed as an employee and as an employer, though, is that nobody really does well as an employee. If I am led, I am not calling the shots. Someone else is calling the shots. Being led just isn’t American. We are a nation of rugged individualists. I want to be the leader, not the led.
When we are led, we surrender the agenda to another. We acknowledge that we don’t have an end-game, a workable plan for success. When we are led, oftentimes we don’t even know what the destination is.
Consider the picture above, of a dog with its owner. I used to make the analogy that if you want to make a dog let go of a bone, you have two choices. You can try to wrestle the bone away from you, which may work. But the dog will not be happy. Or, you can dangle a thick juicy raw steak in front of him. He’ll drop the bone in an instant. However, in both of these cases, you still have a dog which has to be manipulated by a sort of forceful means. Whether you obey because of the threat of the law (a leash) or you simply don’t obey, you’re still carnal in your sins. This isn’t the kind of dog I want.
We used to have a beautiful golden retriever named Murphy. She had been a seeing-eye dog for years before we got her. She was the sweetest and most affectionate dog ever. And she listened to us very intelligently and obeyed perfectly. It was really amazing. Now that’s the kind of dog I want! She had a calm intelligent trust.
Taking Murphy on a walk was probably very different than taking the beast in the picture above on a walk. If I stopped, she stopped. If I said sit, she sat. If I went forward, she went forward. She didn’t need coercion or threats, she hardly even needed a leash. She didn’t need a steak dangled in front of her. In fact if I said sit, you could dangle a steak in front of her and she would want it, but she would stay sitting. And of course she always got the treat, because she was such a beloved and great dog. It reminds me of David’s Psalm:
8 I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you should go; I will counsel you with My eye upon you. 9 Do not be as the horse or as the mule which have no understanding, Whose trappings include bit and bridle to hold them in check, Otherwise they will not come near to you. – Psa 32:8-9 NASB
Now, most of us are not Murphy. We are the mongrel dog straining at the leash, who very much needs the leash. But the difference between being that dog and being Murphy, cannot be easily boiled down. I don’t think it can be taught. There is certainly some training that happened with her, but she also had an innate sweetness and compliance that made things very easy. The first thing I did when we got her was to spend a lot of time bonding with her. I got down on the floor and curled up with her, and the boys (who were young then) played with her constantly. She grew to trust us, and to love us. So I think that besides her training and her innately sweet demeanor, she knew that we loved her and she trusted us. So if I said sit, she did it. She wouldn’t necessarily do that for everyone. In the same way, we are not asked to be obedient to everyone and everything that comes along. Obedience is not the goal. “Obedience” smacks of the law and is quite different than being “led by the Spirit”.
This is the Big One
My Dad used to love to give presents! He would wrap them all crazy and disguised and put post-it notes that said “this is the BIG ONE.” Well, Jesus teaches us to ask for stuff:
23 “In that day you will not question Me about anything. Truly, truly, I say to you, if you ask the Father for anything in My name, He will give it to you. 24 “Until now you have asked for nothing in My name; ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be made full. – Jhn 16:23-24 NASB
This is a pretty amazing promise. What are you asking for in Jesus’ name? Isn’t it actually so small? What is the biggest, most outlandish, most ambitious and sparkly thing you could possibly ask for? What would that be? How about this:
“So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 “For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened. 11 “Now suppose one of you fathers is asked by his son for a fish; he will not give him a snake instead of a fish, will he? 12 “Or if he is asked for an egg, he will not give him a scorpion, will he? 13 “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?” – Luk 11:9-13 NASB
Asking for the Holy Spirit isn’t asking for tongues or getting “slain in the Spirit” or such. It is asking for God to reside in you. Let that sink in. The creator of the universe, the Godhead itself. We are talking about Christ in us, the hope of glory. There is honestly nothing bigger or more ambitious or more amazing or more cosmic than asking for the Holy Spirit. So if we ask for anything, let us ask for this.
Paul says this is the ultimate key to behavior change. “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.” Galatians 5:16. Look at that! It is the one magical solution to everything. The law can’t do it. You can’t do it. You don’t know the way. But the Holy Spirit can lead you. It is not something you earn. It is a free gift.
I don’t think that you can teach a person into being led by the Spirit. But I do know some things the Scriptures say about all this. First, the manifestation of the Spirit is an undeniable touchstone experience.
5 So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? – Gal 3:5 NASB
The Galatian church had such an obvious and memorable provision of the Spirit that Paul could point to it as a proof of the reality of their experience with God. What are the hallmarks of the leading of the Spirit? The scriptures are voluminous.
- It is an outpouring of love within our heart. “the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” – Rom 5:5 NASB
- It is the Spirit of God’s Son crying out “Abba Father”. The leading of the Spirit is as a cherished child calling out to their beloved Daddy. “Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” – Gal 4:6 NASB
- If you don’t feel that you know the manifestation of the Spirit, you can bet that you can ask God and it will be truly given to you. “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?” – Luk 11:13 NASB
Jesus on the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is a Spirit. This word “Spirit” is the Greek word “pneuma”, which means breath or wind. And I think that when the wind of God is blowing through us, it has a certain fragrance. It isn’t just any spirit. Jesus has much to say about this wind which is a Person.
13 “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. – Jhn 16:13 NASB
Jesus says He is the Spirit of truth. So there is this fragrance, this ring of truth. It isn’t the spirit of weird or strange. It is the Spirit of truth. The presence of the Spirit of God resonates with you as being in great accordance with reality, with authenticity, with genuineness.
14 “He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you. – Jhn 16:14 NASB
Jesus also says that the Holy Spirit glorifies Him. So if the wind running through you seems to glorify Jesus, to lead you to Him, to exalt Him and His cross and resurrection, you are experiencing the manifestation of the Spirit of God.
7 “But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you. – Jhn 16:7 NASB
Jesus starts His teaching on the coming of the Holy Spirit by telling that He is a “Helper”. This is the Greek word “Paraclete”, which means to come along side, to support. So when the wind of the Spirit comes through, it will feel helpful and supportive. It will feel like there is strength when you are weak. It will feel like you are comforted and helped when you are discouraged. When you are overwhelmed and out of your depth, it will feel like you are not alone. There is a Helper. God is with you in a very present way.
8 “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” – Jhn 3:8 NASB
Jesus is very explicit that the Holy Spirit is a Person of the Trinity. As such, He is not to be conjured or controlled by religious practices or incantations. We cannot pray hard enough or worship a certain way to force Him to manifest the way we want when we want Him to. He is not a force to be controlled. The law presumes that there is a formula by which we can control God – if we behave well, we think He is obligated to do as we wish. But the Holy Spirit is not our puppet to be manipulated at our fancy. We do not lead Him. He leads us. We cannot do certain things or pray a certain way or worship in a perfect way to “usher” Him in. He is God. We will not so presume here. But because Jesus has died for us, He is always present with us to help. He is Holy in a way that is constant in grace.
The Real Reason the Spirit Leads Us
There is an elephant in the room that contains the real answer to why we would or wouldn’t have the Holy Spirit’s leading presence in our lives. Our conscience knows all the secrets to this. Our conscience knows that the Holy Spirit of God is actually HOLY. In our guilt, our shortcomings, our moral imperfections, and in our selfishness and isolation, we inherently know that Holy God should not be seen with us. We know that we are the wrong place for the Holy Spirit to hang out. And our conscience is correct about this. We are the wrong place. You know it. So you feel this: all of this talk about the Holy Spirit and being led by the Spirit sounds great, for all of the other good people – but not for you. You are stuck in your sins.
But this is the exact message of the gospel: Christ has died for your sins. It worked. You are cleansed. You are made holy. The burning coal of Christ has touched your lips. Your scarlet sins have been made white as snow. And this, not because you have repented well of your sins. No, it is because God has shown His own love towards you, in that while you were yet ungodly and sinful, Christ died for you. The Holy Spirit does not come to you and lead you AFTER you have dealt with your fleshliness. The Holy Spirit comes to you on the basis of faith that Christ has died for you. There is no greater holiness than this simple faith in Christ. And notice this: the leading of the Holy Spirit comes to you in the midst of your fleshliness, to guide you to a better and more joyful walk. It doesn’t even make sense to say, “become unfleshly, and then the Holy Spirit will come.” Unfleshliness comes because of the presence of the Holy Spirit through faith.
The time for the manifestation of the leading presence of the Holy Spirit in your life is now, while you are still sinful and in need. Jesus has made you holy so the Spirit can indwell you. There is no reason whatsoever to wait to seek and welcome His presence in your life.
If the world has given you up for lost and washed their hands of you; if your friends have written you off and turned their backs on you; if even your family has disowned and disccarded you; yes, if every single person in this world regards you as a hopeless, embarrassing failure at life, the Father of all mercies does not. He will search you out, find you, embrace you, kiss you, and shout to all the earth, “This is my beloved son! This is my beautiful daughter! This is my child, my heir, the apple of my eye! With you I am well-pleased!” – Chad Bird