The Leading of the Spirit (Part 1)

B. B. Warfield

New Horizons: June 2001

The Holy Spirit

Also in this issue

The Spirit-Filled Christian

The Return of the Holy Spirit

Discerning the Work of the Spirit

The Door Opens in Québec

"For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God" (Romans 8:14 RV).

These words constitute the classical passage in the New Testament on the great subject of the leading of the Holy Spirit. They stand, indeed, almost without strict parallel in the New Testament.

We read, no doubt, in that great discourse of our Lord's which John has preserved for us, in which, as he was about to leave his disciples, he comforts their hearts with the promise of the Spirit, that "when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he shall guide you into all the truth" (John 16:13). But this guidance into truth by the Holy Spirit is something very different from the leading of the Spirit spoken of in our present text, and it is appropriately expressed by a different term.

We read also in Luke's account of our Lord's temptation that he was "led by the Spirit in the wilderness during forty days, being tempted of the devil" (Luke 4:1-2), where our own term is used. But though undoubtedly this passage throws light upon the mode of the Spirit's operation described in our text, it can scarcely be looked upon as a parallel passage to it.

The only other passage, indeed, which speaks distinctly of the leading of the Spirit in the sense of our text is Galatians 5:18, where, in a context very closely similar, Paul again employs the same phrase: "But if ye are led by the Spirit, ye are not under the law." It is from these two passages primarily that we must obtain our conception of what the Scriptures mean by "the leading of the Holy Spirit."

A High Privilege

There is certainly abundant reason why we should seek to learn what the Scriptures mean by "spiritual leading." There are few subjects so intimately related to the Christian life, of which Christians appear to have formed, in general, conceptions so inadequate, where they are not even positively erroneous. The sober-minded seem often to look upon it as a mystery into which it would be well not to inquire too closely. And we can scarcely expect those who are not gifted with sobriety to guide us in such a matter into the pure truth of God.

The consequence is that the very phrase, "the leading of the Spirit," has come to bear, to many, a flavor of fanaticism. Many of the best Christians would shrink with something like distaste from affirming themselves to be led by the Spirit of God, and would receive with suspicion such an averment on the part of others, as indicatory of an unbalanced religious mind. It is one of the saddest effects of extravagance in spiritual claims that, in reaction from them, the simplehearted people of God are often deterred from entering into their privileges.

It is surely enough, however, to recall us to a careful searching of Scripture in order to learn what it is to be led by the Spirit of God, simply to read the solemn words of our text: "As many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God." If the case be so, surely it behooves all who would fain believe themselves to be God's children to know what the leading of the Spirit is.

Let us, then, commit ourselves to the teaching of Paul, and seek to learn from him what is the meaning of this high privilege. And may the Spirit of truth here too be with us and guide us into the truth.

Who Is Led by the Spirit?

Approaching the text in this serious mood, the first thing that strikes us is that the leading of the Spirit of God of which it speaks is not something peculiar to eminent saints, but something common to all God's children, the universal possession of the people of God.

"As many as are led by the Spirit of God," says the apostle, "these are sons of God." We have here, in effect, a definition of the sons of God. The primary purpose of the sentence is not, indeed, to give this definition. But the statement is so framed as to equate its two members, and even to throw a stress upon the coextensiveness of the two designations. "As many as are led by the Spirit of God, these and these only are sons of God."

Thus, the leading of the Spirit is presented as the very characteristic of the children of God. This is what differentiates them from all others. All who are led by the Spirit of God are thereby constituted the sons of God, and none can claim the high title of sons of God who are not led by the Spirit of God. The leading of the Spirit thus appears as the constitutive fact of sonship.

And we dare not deny that we are led by God's Spirit, lest we therewith repudiate our part in the hopes of a Christian life. In this aspect of it, our text is the exact parallel of the immediately preceding declaration, which it thus takes up and repeats: "But if any one hath not the Spirit of Christ, that one is not His" (Rom. 8:9).

It is obviously a mistake, therefore, to look upon the claim to be led by God's Spirit as an evidence of spiritual pride. It is rather a mark of spiritual humility. This leading of the Spirit is not some peculiar gift reserved for special sanctity and granted as the reward of high merit alone. It is the common gift poured out on all God's children to meet their common need, and is the evidence, therefore, of their common weakness and their common unworthiness.

It is not the reward of special spiritual attainment; it is the condition of all spiritual attainment. In its absence, we should remain hopelessly the children of the devil; by its presence alone are we constituted the children of God. It is only because of the Spirit of God shed abroad in our hearts that we are able to cry, "Abba, Father" (Rom. 8:15).

What Is the Goal of the Spirit's Leading?

We observe, therefore, next that the end in view in the spiritual leading of which Paul speaks is not to enable us to escape the difficulties, dangers, trials, or sufferings of this life, but specifically to enable us to conquer sin.

Had the former been its object, it might indeed have been a special grace granted to a select few of God's children, and its possession might have separated them from among their brethren as the peculiar favorites of the Deity. Since, however, the latter is its object, it is the appropriate gift of all those who are sinners, and is the condition of their conquest over the least of their sins.

In the preceding context, Paul displays to us our inherent sin in all its festering rottenness. But he displays 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.

If we consider our life of new obedience from the point of view of our own activities, we may speak of ourselves as "fighting the good fight of faith" (see 1 Tim. 6:12); a deeper view reveals it as the work of God in us by his Spirit. 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 roundabout 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.

It is obvious at once, then, how grossly it is misconceived when it is looked upon as a peculiar guidance granted by God to his eminent servants in order to insure their worldly safety, worldly comfort, and even worldly profit. The leading of the Holy Spirit is always for good, but it is not for all goods, but specifically for spiritual and eternal good.

I do not say that the good man may not, by virtue of his very goodness, be saved from many of the sufferings of this life and from many of the failures of this life. How many of the evils and trials of life are rooted in specific sins we can never know. How often even failure in business may be traced directly to lack of business integrity rather than to pressure of circumstances or business incompetence is mercifully hidden from us.

Nor do I say that the gracious Lord has no care for the secular life of his people. But it surely is obvious that the leading of the Spirit spoken of in the text is not in order to guide men into secular goods. And it is not to be inferred to be absent when trials come—sufferings, losses, despair of this world. It is specifically in order to guide them into eternal good—to make them not prosperous, not free from care or suffering, but holy, free from sin.

It is not given us to save us from the consequences of our business carelessness or incompetence, to take the place of ordinary prudence in the conduct of our affairs. It is not given us to preserve us from the necessity of strenuous preparation for the tasks before us or from the trouble of rendering decision in the difficult crises of life. It is given specifically to save us from sinning, to lead us in the paths of holiness and truth.

When Does the Spirit Lead?

Accordingly, we observe next that the spiritual leading of which Paul speaks is not something sporadic, given only on occasion of some special need of supernatural direction, but something continuous, affecting all the operations of a Christian man's activities throughout every moment of his life.

It has but one end in view, the saving from sin, the leading into holiness, but it affects every single activity of every kind—physical, intellectual, and spiritual—bending it toward that end. Were it directed toward other ends, we might indeed expect it to be more sporadic. Were it simply the omniscience of God placed at the disposal of his favorites, which they might avail themselves of in times of perplexity and doubt, it might well be occasional and temporary. But since it is nothing other than the power of God unto salvation, it must needs abide with the sinner, work constantly upon him, enter into all his acts, condition all his doings, and lead him thus steadily onward toward the one great goal.

It is easy to estimate, then, what a perversion it is of the "leading of the Spirit" when this great saving energy of God, working continually in the sinner, is forgotten, and the name is accorded to some fancied sporadic supernatural direction in the common offices of life. Let us not forget, indeed, the reality of providential guidance, or imagine that God's greatness makes him careless of the least concerns of his children.

But let us much more not forget that the great evil under which we are suffering is sin, and that the great promise which has been given us is that we shall not be left to wander, self-directed, in the paths of sin into which our feet have strayed, but that the Spirit of holiness shall dwell within us, breaking our bondage and leading us into that other pathway of good works, which God has afore prepared that we should walk in them (Eph. 2:10).

(to be continued in the next issue)

This article first appeared in The Power of God unto Salvation, published by the Presbyterian Board of Publication in 1903. The author was a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey. He provides his own translations, usually following the RV. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2001.

New Horizons: June 2001

The Holy Spirit

Also in this issue

The Spirit-Filled Christian

The Return of the Holy Spirit

Discerning the Work of the Spirit

The Door Opens in Québec

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