Sunday, 13 February 2011

Led by the Spirit?

Sometimes in the New Testament a figure is shown to have been guided by the Holy Spirit in some way. For instance:

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. (Matthew 4:1)

The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.” (Acts 8:29)

Some think that such examples ought to give Christians an expectation that the Holy Spirit will communicate with them and give them instruction at least semi-regularly. Under this view a Christian should learn to listen and discern the Spirit's promptings which are often said to feel like a strong inner impression, or nudge. 

The trouble is that these passages do not describe the manner in which the Spirit communicated his message. There is no justification for reading notions of "inner impressions" into these passages. They just aren't there. In fact nowhere in the New Testament do you find Paul or anyone else giving instruction like this:

"Listening to the Spirit's promptings is very important! They'll be ambiguous at first, but they are like strong inner impressions. It can be hard to discern what is God, and what are your own thoughts and feelings, but with more practice, the better you'll get!"

I think the reason why no such instruction exists is because these encounters with the Spirit are not to be considered normal. And if they do happen, they do not require years of training in discernment to understand. I expect the Spirit is a very effective communicator and as such if he wants to tell you something it will be UTTERLY UNAMBIGUOUS. Knowing how frustrating practically the regular special communication view is, I find this take on the issue very liberating!

What of other "led by the Spirit" passages?

Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. (Romans 8:12-14)

For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. (Galatians 5:17-18)

Do these passages support the view that we should expect and discern the Spirit's promptings? The context is key here. In both passages the authors are talking about moral concerns and are contrasting the flesh (that is, our weak sinful nature) with the Spirit. What is being discussed is not following some special communication from the Spirit, but following/pursuing the desires to please God that the Holy Spirit gives every Christian. This Spirit-given desire is contrary to the desires of the sinful nature, which are desires to sin against God. 

Again we must be wary of what presuppositions we bring to the text!

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