“Those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” (Romans 8:14)
“If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.” (Galatians 5:18)
A thorough discussion and examination of the teaching of “led by the Spirit” in the New Testament and its implications is one of those papers I’ve always wanted to write. The little piece today is not that paper. Today I will only briefly touch on the subject in relation to some personal reflections.
I see the issue of “led by the Spirit” as a fundamental lynch-pin of New Testament teaching. It is central to our knowledge, our obedience, and our confidence (see John 14:26, Romans 8:5-17, 23-27, 1 Cor. 2:10-16, Gal. 5:18, 1 John 2:27). In short, it is central to Christian life. How you understand this truth, or fail to understand it, will affect your interpretation of Scripture and your living out of Christian life.
What does it mean to be led by the Spirit?
If asked this question many Christians could probably give a generic answer along the lines of “Being led by the Spirit means God teaches us,” or “It means God will guide us.”
But what is the practical out-working of such statements? What does it mean in the rubber-meeting-the-road of actual life? In our present day life how are we to understand the distinction between being ruled by law and being led by the Spirit? Most Christians have a vague or deficient understanding on this subject which results in a multitude of problems.
In the book of Galatians we see Paul dealing with an extreme failure to understand what it means to live by the Spirit. The Galatians were slipping toward the position of replacing a life led by the Spirit with one controlled by law. Doctrinally, they were standing perilously on the edge of replacing Grace with Works.
We may not have the Galatians’ raging controversy over circumcision, but to say that we don’t face the same failures in spiritual understanding today would be wrong. The debate over circumcision then was a manifestation of a deeper problem, and there are still people today who teach a gospel of works, which is no gospel at all, even if fleshly circumcision is never mentioned.
Thus we could take the teaching of Paul in Galatians and apply it to refuting the present day false doctrines of those who have fallen away from the gospel of grace. That would be a valid and profitable application of Scripture–but not where I’m going today. Rather than refuting heretics, my thoughts turn to considering how true Christians fail to consistently live out the truth of a life led by the Spirit.
As Paul teaches in Romans and Galatians (Romans 6:14, 7:4-6, 8:14, Gal. 3:10-12, 5:18, etc), life by law is contrary to life by the Spirit. Where the latter of life led by the Spirit is lacking you will find the former of life controlled by Law. Attempting to live by law is seeking to justify oneself (Gal. 3:11-12). As we all struggle with sin and rebellion against dependence upon God in our daily living, so we all stumble and fail to live perfectly in the life led by the Spirit. I don’t exempt myself from this weakness.
But sometimes and in some places this stumbling becomes a systematic failure. That is, a little seed of failure to believe and obey the truth sprouts into a larger plant of failure, which in turns produces a great fruit of flawed understanding so that in churches and Christian lives it becomes a pervasively corrupted understanding of what it mean to live righteously and obey God.
When I look around at the church at large in America I see this as particularly evident. Actually, to broaden that, in the very existence of denominationalism, nay, the very existence of institutional church evidences this clearly. For wherever church becomes an institution, (and as a historical shift this occurred when the emperor Constantine made Christianity a state religion,) you have laws and by-laws, rules and regulations, and such things which institutions necessitate. And where you have law regulating conduct you choke out Spirit guided conduct.
Thinking about this subject both excites and frustrates me. I am excited by the beauty, truth, and power of life led by the Spirit, as taught by Scripture. I am frustrated by my own inability to articulate this Scriptural teaching well, and also the great failure of institutional Christianity to understand and live this foundational truth with its vast implications.
I have pondered this a long time as I have struggled to understand (for myself) and to articulate (for others) the great friction between what I believe Scripture teaches and what institutional Christianity practices. I still haven’t achieved the quality of articulation which I desire, but I have come to the point where I feel I have a pretty clear understanding. In succinct form, the institutional church does not conform to the clear New Testament teaching. More than that, the institutional church in its existence and methods is completely contrary to New Testament teaching. Further, living according to the teaching of the New Testament would blow the institutional church to smithereens. Such is the irreconcilable difference between the reality of Biblical teaching and manifest practice.
Previously, while understanding this on a gut level, whenever I spoke or thought in concrete terms it would always come out in particular manifestations. That is, I would say, â€œThis thingâ€ or â€œThat thingâ€ is wrong with the institutional church. However, while those points were true, they were not the source of the problem, only manifestations of something deeper. In thinking that way I was not helping the clarity of my thought, or my communication with others because it gave the appearance that my issue with the institutional church was just this or that thing so that if there were an institutional church without this or that I would be satisfied. Instead, the real necessity is to bring the underlying problem to light. For when the foundation is solid, then the whole building is solid, and when the foundation is rotten it doesn’t matter how much you patch the roof–the building is still going to fall.
In a way this hearkens back to what I previously wrote on the subject of reverence–that is, the great difference between what seems reasonable to human thinking and what is pleasing to God. Laws are proper and reasonable to human thinking and appeal to man’s desire of self-accomplishment, that desire to establish ones own righteousness–â€œthe one who does these things will live by themâ€ (Romans 10:3-5, Gal. 3:12). Everything is spelled out. There is the list of dos and don’ts. Check off the boxes, connect the dots, make sure you have your bases covered. In short, man justifies himself by his efforts.
Life live in the Spirit and led by the Spirit, by contrast, does not seem reasonable to human thinking. It is, “The righteous will live by faith” (Gal. 3:11) and, â€œ‘The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,’ that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming.â€ Not words written on tablets of stone or in the church rule book, but the word in our mouth and heart–the Spirit living and active in our lives, teaching and leading us personally. To live a life led by the Spirit requires faith–it cannot be done by worldly sight, wisdom, or effort. It requires the constant, daily, exercise of faith. It is unreasonable to the flesh. In fact it is complete madness to fleshly thinking, something incapable of working. To live by a faith led by the Spirit is forsaking confidence in fleshly things and putting to death the flesh with its desires, reasoning, and passions.
It is the failure to live in this faith which gives place to law. It is the failure to believe that the working of God’s Spirit in His people is enough–that instead we must add law to make sure, to accomplish by our own efforts the ends we see as necessary. It is the same underlying current that we see in the failed understanding at Galatia that Paul wrote to correct. That flawed mindset which says, â€œWe need law to live righteously, we need laws to obey God.â€
The institutional church is law. It consists of laws and regulations–laws are what make institutions, whether they be petty laws about when this our that will be done, or serious laws delineating what constitutes a member of the institution. The laws of institutional church chokes out the faith in seeking God’s leading. The laws appeal to, and satisfy, the desires of the flesh to have things in our control. The institutional church, in its structure and operation, teaches people to depend on law instead of the leading of the Spirit. It feeds spiritual immaturity and starves deep spiritual life.
It is interesting to note that people defending the institutional church will not deny the reality of laws governing regulating the institutional church. Rather, they will argue the such is a very necessary reality. To which we must say, “Necessary on whose terms? Man’s, or God’s?” If the institutional church will die without law, maybe the institutional church needs to die.
I have spoke in general terms, which will frustrate anyone who would wish to be contentious with me. But I am at present reflecting on what I see, not attempting to persuade anyone else that it is true. True persuasion, I believe, comes from a willingness to believe what the Bible says, a readiness and determination to study it seriously and earnestly, and then the faith to obey what is revealed, no matter how radical the direction or how great the cost. And here the cost is one thing people seem to intuitively grasp. They see that an absence of law and institution will not please people, it will not appeal to people–in fact, it will offend people and they will reject it. How can we do something that the masses will reject? And so it is dismissed.
After a fruitless exchange with such people they–perhaps sensing in me a very earnest fellow or else just wanting to shut me up–will usually say, â€œWell, why don’t you change the institutional church? Instead of just complaining, what would you change in the church? Why don’t you go and try to do something about it?â€
This would previously always leave me feeling somewhat at a loss as to how to respond, and in the end I would usually mumble something in essence like, â€œIt wouldn’t work.â€ Which, while not untrue, didn’t convey the truth adequately. The full truth is that the institutional church doesn’t need to be changed–it needs to be destroyed. The institutional church is law: some silly, some arbitrary, some unnecessaryâ€”all different kinds of law. Not Mosaic law, not law unto salvation by works (at least in any church with orthodox soteriology) but in the end all law of works to please and obey God. And, as I have been trying to say, law is contrary, it is antithetical, to life led by the Spirit in faith, through grace. As it is said, “I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothingâ€”if it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?” (Gal. 3:2-5). You don’t “fix” or “change” that failed thinking–you get rid of it! To attempt to work within the structures of the institutional church is to attempt to work by and through law. The answer to such an idea is, “Are you so foolish?”
Without law, the institutional church ceases to exist. With the law that supports the edifice of the institutional church, the truth of New Testament teaching about life lived by the leading of the Spirit is choked out. To be wholly obedient to the teaching of the Bible there is no place for the institutional church–one cannot take law and fashion grace, or a dead word and create living spirit.
What would I do, you ask me. I would be as “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him’ ” (Matt. 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4, John 1:23). To all who would listen I would speak, to all who hunger and thirst I would point them to the truth. To those who find the Spirit quenched in the rules and regulations of men I tell them of the life lived in the leading of the Spirit, as taught by the New Testament. What I would do (figuratively) is pack the institutional church with dynamite and blast it to rubble. Then I would walk through all the dust and smoke and hand everyone a Bible and tell them, â€œSeek God. Listen to Him. Obey Him.â€
â€œMy sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.â€ (John 10:27)
â€œAs for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit–just as it has taught you, remain in him.â€ (1 John 2:27)
On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”
Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.”
From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:60-69)