Divine Guidance Through the Holy Spirit

Part 3 of series:
How Does God Guide Us?

The Bible reveals that the God guides his people. Scripture abounds with examples. Some are dramatic, as in the Book of Exodus. There, not only does God direct Moses by speaking through a burning bush that is not consumed, but also God guides Pharaoh to release his Israelite slaves by sending catastrophic plagues upon the whole nation of Egypt. Sometimes God’s guidance is ironic, as when God guides Balaam through his donkey or Jonah through a giant fish (Numbers 22; Jonah 1-2). At the theological center of the Old Testament, we find the Law, the Torah (which means “instruction” in Hebrew), by which God seeks to direct the life of his people. Often the Lord guides his people through the messages of the prophets.

In the New Testament, divine guidance comes in a variety of ways, principally through the agency of the Holy Spirit. In Luke 4:1 we read that “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan River. He was led by the Spirit to go out into the wilderness.” Throughout the Book of Acts the Holy Spirit guides Jesus’ followers by filling them, speaking to them, moving them around, giving them visions, and endowing them with spiritual powers (Acts 4:31; 8:29, 39; 10:9-16, 44-45).

The examples of spiritual guidance among the earliest Christians illustrate Paul’s counsel in Galatians 5:25: “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.” When we put our faith in Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes to live within us. Moreover, we live in the Spirit, as the same Spirit who gave us new life in Christ continues to transform us. When we become children of God through faith in Christ, we are then in a position to be led by the Spirit and not by our sinful nature (Rom 8:12-14). True spiritual guidance is Spirit-inspired. It comes, neither from an angelic guide, nor from a departed relative, nor even from the spirit of Barbie, but from the very Spirit of God.

People in my branch of Christianity, the Protestant/Reformed/Evangelical branch, sometimes get “weirded out” by too much talk of the Holy Spirit. In a church near where I live, the preacher recently gave a sermon on the nature and work of the Spirit. It was relatively simple and clearly biblical. After that sermon, a mature Christian woman who has been faithful in church attendance for more than seventy years said, “That was a great sermon. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon about the Holy Spirit before.” Seventy years of church, more than 3,000 sermons, none about the Holy Spirit! (Note: I was not the preacher that day.)

El Greco, "Pentecost," 1789

Why do many of us get squeamish when people talk about being led by the Holy Spirit. Perhaps it’s because we have known Christians who claimed to experience all sorts of unusual  things under the inspiration of the Spirit. Some of these oddities appear in Scripture, such as speaking in tongues, and cannot therefore be easily dismissed. Others have been more troubling. A few years ago, for example, some Christians claimed that the Spirit inspired them to do things in worship services like laugh hysterically or bark like dogs. These bizarre behaviors got quite a bit of press in some Christian circles, thus leading to the “weirding out” I mentioned earlier. Yet, even in mainline Protestant circles, it’s not uncommon for people to claim to be led by the Spirit into behavior that is contrary to biblical teaching.

It has been tempting, therefore, for some Christians to greatly limit the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding us today. I’ve heard fellow Christians for whom I have great respect argue that the only way the Spirit guides us in this age is through the biblical interpretation. Everything besides Bible study, Bible teaching, and preaching is suspect, and likely to be some sort of spiritual counterfeit.

This reaction to the excesses of some Christians seems to me an overreaction, even though I can surely understand it. If we take Scripture seriously, however, then we have to acknowledge that the Spirit does more than interpret Scripture for us, even though I believe this particular work of the Spirit is both wonderful and essential, and it’s the way I tend most frequently to receive God’s guidance. Yet I don’t believe it’s wise to limit the way in which the Spirit guides us so as to rule out of bounds that which we find taught or exemplified in Scripture.

In my next post I’ll examine one kind of spiritual guidance that is common both in Scripture and, I believe, in our experience.

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  • I cannot wait for you to continue this series.  I hope you will expound upon HOW the Holy Spirit guides us, other than through the Word of God (not to diminish that).  I think the passage I read this morning is related:  “For to us God revealed [God’s hidden wisdom] through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God…Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, taht we might know the things freely given to us by God.” 1 Cor. 2:10-12.
    It goes on but it this is already a long comment.  Love that you are doing this series.

  • Eric Hill

    Thank you, Dr. Roberts, for tackling this subject. The Holy Spirit is THE transformational Presence of Jesus Christ in our lives. (John 16:3-15; Titus 3:3-7)  It’s phenomenal that He is ignored or treated as an afterthought in so many Evangelical circles. I’m grateful for sound Evangelical scholars like you, Gordon Fee, Craig Keener and others who are not afraid to speak freely about the Holy Spirit’s activity in the lives of Believers. (In fact, this is a great follow up to your series on the Kingdom of God, since the Holy Spirit is the primary agent of the Kingdom in this age) At any rate, I believe the more we are able to discuss His Presence in light of Scripture and balance out the excesses, the more He will be able to move freely in our midst and truly reveal and glorify Jesus to us, and to the world.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your comment, Eric.

  • Linda Lee

    Thank you for helping us know more about God’s Holy Spirit, and presence with us.  I’ve been thinking about how Jesus instructed his disciples to not go any other place or make decisions but to “wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about….” Acts 1:4  So often in our churches, sessions, and GA meetings we pray for 10 minutes or less  and discuss our plans, events, views, and goals for hours (or days sometimes).  Instead,
    what would happen in knowing God’s will and ways if we turned that around and “waited”, in one accord to hear God’s Holy Spirit speak to us.  What would happen if we “waited” on God, trusting that He does speak to us, for say hours or days together instead of the token opening prayer.  What if we examined what is hindering
    the work of the Holy Spirit?  It is hard to learn to wait on God when we are consumed with our own plans, views, desire to act, to be in controll, to lead as many of the leaders are prone to do. 
    So, thank you for starting this discussion about why we need the Holy Spirit.   

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your comment. I fear the whole notion of waiting on God has gotten lost in our culture of instant gratification and gratuitous impatience.