|Therefore, brethren, we are debtors; not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, "Abba, Father." 16 The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs; heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together. Romans 8:12-17|
In Acts 16 we read of how Paul was prompted by the Holy Spirit during his missionary journey, leading him into Macedonia rather than Asia.
Now I think that Paulís experience of the Holy Spirit was in many ways different to ours: he did many miracles to authenticate his Apostolic message. Paul was bringing new revelation in the form of teaching and writings which have become part of Scripture. The special miracles that occurred were necessary to back up Paulís new revelation.
However, in Romans 8:14 Paul says: For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.
What does it mean to be led by the Spirit of God? Can it happen nowadays, here in Toronto? I was reading a book a couple of weeks ago, Climbing by Rosalind Goforth, when I came across the following passage:
New Yearís Day, 1887, was bitterly cold. Jonathan Goforth and I started for a walk through the Rosedale ravine just north of my home. On reaching Parliament street, instead of turning northward to the ravine, I stopped short and said, "Jonathan, I feel strangely impressed that we should go south down to the slum district."
He looked at me amazed, and for several moments we stood debating, for he strongly objected, saying very truly that Parliament Street was the last place for a loverís walk!
At last I said, "Did you ever feel so clearly led to do something that you just had to do it?"
To this he replied, "If that is how you feel, let us go south." (But it was a very silent walk!) For almost a mile and a half we walked down Parliament. Then I led the way a block east. By this time I was getting pretty nervous.
Hesitating for a moment, I led on down Sackville Street for over a block, then stopped in front of a small cottage and said, "O Jonathan donít look at me as if I had gone crazy! Let us knock at this door."
Jonathan, evidently getting anxious, exclaimed, "But why?"
Although this photograph was not taken until
1936, some 40 years after the visit of Rosalind
Goforth (née Bell-Smith), these cottages were
typical of the area of Toronto where she was
then ministering. Photo: City of Toronto Archives
"I donít know," I replied. Now I must say the man of the house was such a drunken fellow I had always avoided visiting his wife at times when he might be in. But this time I knew of no reason whatever why I should call. We knocked.
The husband opened the door, and on seeing me cried out, with tears running down his face, "Oh, Miss Bell-Smith, God has sent you!"
We found the place like an ice houseóno fuel, no fire, no food. The poor wife was lying on a miserable bed with but little over her and seemingly coughing her life away. In the corner of the room lay a dead baby, born a few hours before. Their sad story was quickly told. The man had gone to the city hall for help, but it was closed, it being New Yearís Day. Returning to his wife with his last hope of help gone, he sank down by her bedside and joined her in crying to the Lord to send someone to them. At that very time the strange impelling had come to me.
The story would not be complete without the following: Forty years later my daughter Ruth (Mrs. D. I. Jeffrey of Indo-China) when on furlough addressed a meeting in the East End Mission Hall. A poor old crippled woman was helped in and seated at the door. She asked that Ruth be brought to her. Then tremblingly she unwrapped a tiny parcel and handed to Ruth a small gold coin worth two dollars and fifty cents, saying, "give this to your mother and tell her I have never forgotten how she saved my life forty years ago." She had been keeping the coin for that purpose for years.
This is a striking story [which made a special impression on me since I live on Sackville Street!] but it raises a very difficult question: are we to expect this kind of thing in our own lives and, if so, how do we distinguish the true from the false? The problem is that we can sometimes think we are led by the Spirit of God, but we discover later that we are mistaken.
Take, for example, George Whitfield and Howell Harris. These godly men were famous evangelists in the 1700ís and were greatly used by God.
Howell Harris fell in love with a godly lady who was very suitable for him. She was a great help in his ministry, she loved him deeply and he loved her. But he was worried by the strong emotions that were stirring within him. He didnít know how to cope with these emotions and he was concerned. Then he hit on a plan: George Whitefield needed a wife and Harris felt that if he could marry this lady off to George Whitefield, then it would deal with the problem of his own emotions and solve two things at once. And so he persuaded George Whitefield and the lady to marry. The result was very unfortunate, because he was still in love with her and she was still in love with him which gave him anguish of heart for many years afterwards. The ladyís marriage to George Whitefield really wasnít the best of marriages. It was an unfortunate mistake, but Harris believed he was being led by Godís Spirit.
I will give you a more personal example. Many years ago I wanted to buy a guitar. There was a particular guitar I saw in a store that I thought was just the one the Lord had for me. As I prayed about this, I felt that I had some passages of Scripture that indicated to me that God was leading me to purchase this guitar in particular. I earnestly wanted to be led by the Spirit so that this purchase would be the right one, and I felt that the Lord was leading me very definitely to this particular guitar. Before I bought it I thought I would make a few inquiries from somebody who knew a lot more about guitars than I did and I discovered that this model of guitar had some rather negative features about it. Suddenly I wasnít interested in buying it at all. I was shocked at how quickly my sense of leading evaporated. As I looked at these passages of Scripture, I realized that they were actually not really leading me to this guitar at all. They were something I had concocted in my own heart to provide a rational reason why God should be leading me in that particular way.
This is the problem that we can struggle with. How do we know that God is leading us? How do we know whether a particular experience is God prompting us or not?
Let us look to the Scriptures for an understanding of this problem.
Back in verse 5, Paul explains to us about these two principles:
For those who live according to the flesh
set their minds on the things of the flesh,
but those who live according to the Spirit,
the things of the Spirit.
How shall we define "flesh"? In the past there was some confusion about this. Some tried to deny the flesh by becoming hermits or living at the top of poles. Monks in monasteries would try to subdue the flesh by beating themselves. But the flesh is not our physical body.
It is everything that is self-centred and self-focused.
It can include physical desires, comfort and pleasure if it is for its own sake.
It is a commitment to finding our lives and not losing them for Christ.
On a large scale it is any ambition that is not an ambition for Christís sake.
On a small scale it is over-eating, being lazy, passing on a tasty piece of gossip for the fun of it, indulging ourselves.
It is failing to love a brother or sister because of the cost or inconvenience, failing to put ourselves out and greet the stranger.
The flesh is comfortable and feels good. The cross is a sacrifice which the flesh shrieks at us to stay away from.
Only the Spirit in us can keep us from being enslaved to the flesh.
Paul goes on to tell us that all Christians have the Spirit in them (v.9):
But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His.
Paul has a lot more to say about these two principles in Galatians 5:16-17, 24-25:
I say then: Walk in the Spirit,
and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.
For the flesh lusts against the Spirit,
and the Spirit against the flesh;
and these are contrary to one another,
so that you do not do the things that you wish.
And those who are Christís
have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.
So the first point is that we have these two principles warring within us.
Have you ever been in a situation where you are trying to talk to someone and there is so much background noise you cannot understand what they are saying? A couple of years ago my son Luke and I went to the Indy car races here in Toronto. Once the race had started, the volume of noise from the car engines was so loud that if Luke put his mouth up to my ear and shouted, I could barely hear him.
Sometimes it is like that with our flesh. If there is something we very badly want, we can easily mistake the voice of the Spirit because of the loud volume of the flesh. I know of a Christian girl who began going out with an unbelieving man. She would not hear any argument against it because she was sure the Spirit gave her peace when she was with him and no peace when she was parted from him. Do you think that was the Spirit or the flesh generating those feelings? When we want something very badly, the flesh can make some pretty loud noises in our heads.
James tells us about people whose prayers were driven by the flesh (James 5:3-5):
spend it on your pleasures. Adulterers and adulteresses!
You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may
Let us look back at the two examples of people being wrongly led:
Howell Harris was passionately in love and did not know how to handle the strong feelings. He desperately wanted to get control of these feelings, but mistakenly assumed that strong feelings of human love must be of the flesh, so any crazy scheme to get rid of them must be of the Spirit.
I confused my own desire for the guitar with Godís leading, because I had such a strong desire to buy it.
But sometimes our promptings are from the Spirit: Just recently I lost a valuable document. Much prayer and a week of searching and it still was not found. One day as I came to the end of a time of prayer I asked God to lead me as to how I should spend the next hour. I immediately felt a strange urge to tidy a room that I seldom go into. I was perplexed but went to tidy the room anyway. Within seconds I had found the missing document.
But on the other hand I remember an incident in my life when a friend was in a crisis. I felt very deeply for his problem and was convinced that the Lord had given me a burden to pray for the situation. I prayed for him every spare moment and even got up in the night to pray, and I was convinced that since God had given me the burden, He would answer the prayer with a yes. When the prayer was answered with a no, I was deeply upset and felt let down by God. But now as I look back on it I donít think it was a burden from God at all. I simply felt very deeply for my friend and had confused this strong natural feeling with the leading of the Spirit.
If God took away our sinful natures the moment we were converted, we would have no trouble hearing the Spirit, but this is not the case, we are stuck with the flesh until we die. Godís Word came to Elijah, not in the mighty wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in a still small voice. Is there any hope for us to hear that voice in all the hubbub?
Jesus indicates that hearing and recognizing His voice is a real possibility. In John 10:3-5 we read:
To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.
And then in John 10:27:
My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.
Isobel Kuhn wrestled with this question as a missionary in China. The first time the communists invaded she listened to the flesh and ran away when there was no need to, causing a long and painful separation from her family. The second time she stayed where she was, determined to wait for Godís timing before making a move.
She wrestled with this same question: "How do we distinguish Godís voice?" and concluded that we have to learn His voice in small things and then progress to bigger things. This is an interesting idea, but is only partly true because we can be mistaken just as easily with small things.
Let us look again at the passage in Romans 8, particularly at verses 13 & 14.
There are two ways of living being presented, two forces fighting each other. The Spirit is leading us into battle against the flesh.
The Spiritís work of fighting sin in v.13 cannot be separated from His leading in v.14. In fact most of his leading is just that: leading us away from sin and into a Christ-like life.
We can learn to tell apart the voice of the flesh and the voice of the Spirit in this simple way:
When we feel an urge within us to break Godís law, or to turn away from a life devoted to Christ, then we can be sure that is the flesh.
When we feel an urge to love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, or self-control, then we can be sure that it is the Spirit.
We should learn to recognize these two voices. We should compare them with the Scripture and let Godís written word be the test.
When we learn to distingush the voices in simple and clear cases, it will be easier for us to recognize the leading of the Spirit in the middle of confusing and complex circumstances.
Here is an example. Suppose a group of people visiting Israel are going to be led on a tour of Jerusalem by a teacher through crowded streets and busy markets. Before the tour they spend some time in a classroom with the teacher. If they first learn to recognize the teacherís voice in the quiet of the classroom, they will be able to hear it in the busy street. If we want to hear the Spirit in the chaos of life, we had better be sure we listen to Him when He is speaking clearly. Every time we get an urge towards doing right and instead we follow the flesh, we damage our ability to hear that voice, and we grieve the Spirit. When He convicts you of that little sin, you had better listen, and make yourself sensitive to His speaking.
I started this sermon with the story of Rosalind Goforth, but some would say that we cannot expect the Spirit to speak to us like that in these days. I agree with Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones who says that this passage is mostly talking about being led to a Christ-like life but very definitely does include the kind of guidance/leading that Rosalind Goforth experienced.
Another promise of the Spirit leading in an individual and personal way is Luke 12:11,12.
Now when they bring you to the synagogues and to magistrates and authorities, do not worry about how or what you should answer or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.
I want to reiterate what I said in the last two articles, that this kind of leading is never authoritative. We can never tell others "Thus saith the Lord, He has spoken by me." We cannot command others to obey a subjective impression we have had, that may or may not have been the Spirit. Even in Old Testament times when God spoke authoritatively to the prophets, He looked for them to follow Him faithfully. Why did God not speak to Eli the high priest, but to his servant boy Samuel? Because Eli was terribly compromised by sin. So we see that sin in our lives will greatly hurt our abililty to discern the Spiritís voice.
When we learn to distinguish the voices in simple and clear cases, it will be easier for us to recognize the leading of the Spirit in the middle of confusing and complex circumstances.
So, to sum up, in order to hear the Spirit leading us we need to learn to recognize His voice when He speaks to us about sin and about righteousness. Now, we need to take care that when any strange thought pops into our head, we donít say, "That is the Spirit speaking to me." We can get ourselves into all sorts of trouble if we think everything that pops into our head is the Spirit. God has given us minds that can reason. God has given us understanding and He does not want us to throw out our minds when we become Christians. God has given us counsel from other godly Christians. We can ask advice from others. And most importantly God has given us His Word. He will never give us an idea or impression by the Spirit that is contrary to His Word.
Isobel Kuhn concluded that we are not always to look for some special sense of leading. God can be leading us just as effectively when we use the spiritual wisdom that He has given us to make decisions.
Look at Romans 8:7, "The carnal (or fleshy) mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be." But, by implication, Paul is saying that the Spirit is subject to Godís law. By the Spirit we have the law written on our hearts (Jer 31:33, Ezek 11:19). We cannot separate the Spirit from the Word. The Bible is the Word of Christ and the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ (v.9). The Spirit gives power to the Word and drives it home in our hearts.
And finally, this leads to intimacy. See the progress:
v.13 putting to death the deeds of the body
v.14 being led by the Spirit
v.15 through the Spirit having such intimacy with the father we can call him "Abba" (Daddy).
v.16 a feeling of belonging to God in the present
v.17 assurance of being together with Him in the future
Part 1: There was a servant girl who worked for her master. He wrote a detailed list of the tasks she was to do each day and fixed it up on the kitchen door. She knew she had to complete the tasks or she would lose her job.
óThe list represents Godís Word. This is a picture of salvation by works, certainly not the picture of our relationship with God.
Part 2: The master fell in love with the servant girl and they were married. From then on she was not at risk of losing her job. However she still kept the list and was careful to do everything on it because she knew it pleased her husband.
óA picture of salvation by grace because she was secure in her husbandís love. A good picture in some ways but inadequate to explain how we should view the Bible.
Part 3: As their love deepened she wanted nothing more than to please him. She began to study the list of duties so as to understand him better when he spoke to her. For example, she could tell from the list that he was very concerned that the windows be cleaned, so when in conversation he made a small hint about the windows, she correctly understood his desires. The list became a route to intimacy with her husband, helping her to understand what kind of a person he was.
óWe should study the Scriptures as a route to intimacy with God because through them we can find out the kind of person that He is. Then when His Spirit speaks to us, we can understand Him more clearly. The Bible is not to be viewed as a set of commands that we will die if we donít follow, it is not even to be viewed as a duty that we do because we love Him; it is a route to intimacy with our Lord.
As we study this Word we will learn about our Love, our Lord, our Christ. We will learn how He thinks, His desires, His pleasures and so we can draw closer to Him. In verse 15 it says, "You did not receive a spirit of bondage." We are not in bondage but "you received a spirit of adoption, by whom we cry out Abba, Father." He is our dear Lord whom we long to please.
Do you want to be led by the Spirit day by day?
Do you want a close and intimate relationship with your God and Father?
Then learn to listen to the voice of the Spirit, day by day, as he prompts you to live a life that is closer to that lived by Jesus Christ.
This is Part 3 of a series by Dr. Andrew Fountain, Principal of Toronto Baptist Seminary and Bible College, on God's Works and His Words.
Go to Part 4