The "Leading" of the Spirit?
Deep down, we're all intrigued by the mystical. Many find it to be more "spiritual" if they experience something working powerfully and inexplicably upon them. This, no doubt, is partially the reason why charismatic views of the Holy Spirit prevailed throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. There is everything right about wanting to experience more of the power and working of the Holy Spirit, provided we rightly understand the biblical teaching about the power and work of the Spirit. Two of the most frequently misunderstood and wrongly interpreted passages of Scripture with regard to the work of the Spirit are Romans 8:14 and Galatians 5:18: "For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God," and "If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law." Many have intimated that these verses speak of a personal, supernatural guidance by which God directs those who are living in a close and intimate relationship with Him. Without in any way wanting to diminish the privilege believers have of living in a close and intimate relationship with the triune God, I do wish to correct misunderstandings about the "leading" of the Spirit in these passages. So, what is the "leading" of the Spirit about which the Apostle speaks?
B.B. Warfield once explained that many misunderstand the concept of being "led by the Spirit" by suggesting that it is referring to "something sporadic, given only on occasion of some special need of supernatural direction."1 Rather, Warfield insisted, it is "something continuous, affecting all the operations of a Christian man's activities throughout every moment of his life." How did Warfield arrive at this conclusion?
When we consider the contexts in which these verses occur, and specifically the context of Romans 8, we will have to conclude that the "leading" of the Spirit is related to our sanctification. Romans 6:1–8:14 forms a pericope about the place of holiness in the lives of believers. Giving consideration to the immediate context, Warfield wrote,
"In the preceding context Paul discovers to us our inherent sin in all its festering rottenness. But he discovers to us also the Spirit of God as dwelling in us and forming the principle of a new life. It is by the presence of the Spirit within us alone that the bondage in which we are by nature held to sin is broken; that we are emancipated from sin and are no longer debtors to live according to the flesh. This new principle of life reveals itself in our consciousness as a power claiming regulative influence over our actions; leading us, in a word, into holiness."2
It is the process of sanctification that Paul has in view in this context. In short, the "leading" of the Spirit is merely shorthand for "sanctification." Again, Warfield explained,
"When we consider this Divine work within our souls with reference to the end of the whole process we call it sanctification; when we consider it with reference to the process itself, as we struggle on day by day in the somewhat devious and always thorny pathway of life, we call it spiritual leading. Thus the "leading of the Holy Spirit" is revealed to us as simply a synonym for sanctification when looked at from the point of view of the pathway itself, through which we are led by the Spirit as we more and more advance toward that conformity to the image of His Son, which God has placed before us as our great goal."3
Every true believer is being led by the Spirit of God. We are led away from our sin and into paths of righteousness. This is what it means to be led by the Spirit of God. There is, to be sure, no greater experience to be enjoyed by the children of God than that of being transformed by the Spirit of God into the image of God. When the Spirit leads the sons of God, He leads them into conformity to the Son of God. As children of God we gain the family likeness. God is committed to conforming His children into holy sons and daughters. In order to do this, He gives us His Spirit to lead us to mortify sin. The leading of the Spirit then is not a special mystical experience reserved for the few, but a present reality for all true believers in Jesus Christ.
- B.B. Warfield The Power of God Unto Salvation (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1903) p. 158
- Ibid., p. 156.
- Ibid., pp. 156–157.