There are a number of similar expressions which are appearing with increased frequency in the religious press. Sadly enough, they are, as often as not, found on the lips of conservatives; i.e., those who are generally reckoned with the conservative side of religion as ever against liberals. These expressions sound rather pious and leave a good impression in the minds of many as to the orthodoxy of the one who uses them. They are, I have noticed, having a considerable effect also upon people in general, for I have heard the expression (or some form of it) from the lips of various people on more than one occasion. Yet it is all a matter of no little concern.
The expressions to which: I refer go something like this: “I am waiting for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in this matter.” “I am ready to follow the leadership of the Spirit.” “The Spirit has laid upon my heart to . . .”
“The Spirit must show us the way in this matter.” “Let us pray for the direction of the Spirit.” You must have heard or read such expressions. Or similar ones. All have this in common: they speak of living and making decisions by means of the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
This sounds very pious and seems to give indication of a strong spiritual life.
In a recent Church paper, another aspect of this whole matter was discussed. The author of an article was speaking of “sins against the Holy Spirit.” He claimed that there were two sways in which one could sin against the Spirit. One such way was to claim that social activism is really the work of the Spirit. One sins, then, when one ascribes certain works to the Spirit (such as the Viet Cong offensive in Viet Nam, the efforts of blacks to gain equal rights, women’s liberation movements, etc.) which are not the fruit of the Spirit at all. But there is another way to sin against the Spirit. This is to deny the presence of the Spirit in movements where the Spirit is obviously working. When one denies that the Jesus Movement, Explo 72, Billy Graham crusades, Pentecostalism, etc. are not the works of the Spirit, when one sins against the Spirit also—in the same way that the liberal sins against the Spirit when he claims for the Spirit work which the Spirit never does.
Generally speaking, when one talks about being guided by the Spirit or being led by the Spirit or waiting for the Spirit to show the way, he is speaking of a particular problem which he faces. I have, for example, read this expression in connection with people who are trying to make up their minds whether or not they should leave a denomination which is obviously going the way to false doctrine. They stay in their denomination, but speak of waiting for the Spirit to show them what they ought to do. I have heard the same expression used repeatedly in connection with a great deal of present-day liturgical renewal. We must, so it is said, give the Spirit free rein in our worship services. We must liberate the Spirit, for the Church has too long shackled the Spirit in stereotyped forms of worship. Again, the expression is used sometimes in support of Evangelism Thrust Programs in various churches where people are urged to alter radically the whole political structure of the Church so as to give the Spirit more room to operate. Only then will the gospel be made effective and have a liberating influence on the communities about us. We are then reminded that the Spirit is like the wind “which bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth.” John 3:8.
This sort of thing troubles me greatly. And there are, it seems to me, insuperable problems with it all. I may, e.g., think and claim that the Spirit tells me to remain in an apostatizing denomination for a while yet. But my brother who belongs to the same congregation and is as determined to maintain the truth as I am, informs me that the Spirit tells him the time has come to leave and seek the pure preaching of the Word. Who has the Spirit? Dare I tell him that he is mistaking the leadership of the Spirit for some devilish influences of one sort or another? And what if he tells me that I am not being led by the Spirit in my decision to stay, but am doing so out of ulterior motives? Who is to know? Who can tell?
Nor will it do simply to make the whole matter a question of conscience; for every man’s conscience will say something different. And one is reduced to concluding that it is impossible to tell how or where the Spirit works, and impossible to know if the Spirit is working at all. Even if the Spirit operates as the wind, does this mean then that we can never decide with any certainty where the Spirit is to be found? It all seems to me to lead into the morass of spiritual and theological subjectivism and a kind of moral agnosticism so that, with respect to central questions of our calling, we have no way of determining with certainty what the Spirit has to say and where He is leading.
This is, if carried out to its extreme, a hopeless situation.
There is an answer to all of this. That answer is a principle which has been cherished by Churches of the Reformation ever since the beginnings of the 17th century when the Reformers set forth their views on this matter. And that answer is simply this: the Scriptures are the only rule for faith and life. We have given to us of God the objective standard of the Scriptures. That is Goid’s Word to us which covers all our life and calling. It is something which every one can understand. It is a rule and canon for us in our life. It is given as a lamp unto our feet and a light upon our path. It always shows the way.
Indeed, the Spirit operates in the. hearts of God’s people in such a way that He leads them and guides them Paul even speaks in Rom. 8:14 of the fact that “as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.” But it is a firm truth which must be maintained and defended, that there is never any guidance of the Spirit apart from that Word. The Spirit always and only works in connection with that Word—never apart from it. There is direction given by the Spirit in the hearts and lives of the people of God indeed. But this can never be a testimony of the Spirit divorced from the objective testimony of the Scriptures. When the work of the Spirit is isolated in this way from the Scriptures, there is no work of the Spirit at all; and man falls prey to his own personal desires, wild imaginations and deceptive heart. The Spirit works in connection with the preaching of the Word above all. He renews, enlightens, restores, and applies that Word. But, when a believer subjects himself to the Scriptures and bows humbly before the Word of God, then, even in his personal life, he may expect that the Spirit will speak to him directing him in. his life’s pathway and calling, but always by pointing him to specific teachings of the Scriptures. There is no inner light, no subjective revelation, no personal insight which the Spirit gives which is apart from those Scriptures. They are a firm rock to which our life must be moored. When the Spirit tells us what the Scriptures say, then, and then only, do we know that we are on safe ground.
When someone claims, therefore, to remain in an apostatizing denomination which cannot be recalled to the ways of truth and righteousness; when he knows that a faithful witness to the truth can be carried on only by way of separation, then he may be sure that the Spirit does not tell him to remain for a while. And he must not talk about waiting for the direction of the Spirit in this matter.
When a man is intent on liberating the Spirit (it seems strange to me how a man who is committed to faith in the sovereign work of the Spirit can speak of “liberating” the Spirit) by means of liturgical renewal and alterations in ecclesiastical structures for the sake of various evangelistic programs such as Explo 72 or Key ’73, then he had better first go to the Word of God and bow before it and discover for himself what Scripture requires concerning the institutional structure of the Church and concerning principles of the worship of God and concerning evangelistic programs. If he so fervently wants the leading of the Spirit, the Spirit will soon enough show him that this sort of thing is contrary to God’s Word, and that the Spirit will never work in such ways. In fact, if he persists, he is not liberating the Spirit or following the Spirit, but defying the Spirit and going his own boastful and proud way in the face of what the Spirit has said in God’s Word. We must, John tells us in his first epistle, try the spirits to see whether they be of God. There are many spirits around today which are called the Holy Spirit. The Word of God will tell. It will tell to any one who will listen. It will tell to anyone who is enlightened by the Spirit. Paul speaks precisely of all this in I Corinthians 2:10-16, a passage which is precisely in the context of his preaching the Word of God to the Corinthians. He writes: “But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is of God; that we may know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet, he himself is judged of no man. For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.”
I am, of course, aware of the fact that there are specific problems of life which are not specifically revealed to us in Scripture. I refer, e.g., to the fact that a young man may, in his High School years, believe that he is called to be a minister of the gospel. He will probably talk the matter over with his parents and his pastor; and they will, if they are Godly people, tell him that he must seek to know the will of God in this matter. He may, I presume, be urged to follow the guidance of the Spirit to seek a resolution of his problem. He will very quickly assure us all that there is no specific passage in Scripture which has his name in it and which objectively points out that he is called to the ministry. And there are more problems like this in life. What then? Do we not have a case here where, in specific matters, the guidance of the Spirit is apart from the objective testimony; of the Word of God?
No, even this will never do. In the first place, the whole decision is made within the context of the Scriptures which speak of the fact that men of God within the Church are called by God to be ambassadors of Christ in preaching the Word. And this is important and must not be underestimated. In the second place, such a young man must make his decision prayerfully and carefully seeking to know the will of God by an objective consideration of many different circumstances, The Lord must give him the gifts and talents to do this work. The Lord must give him a love for the ministry and a desire to study. The Lord must open the way for him to go to school for many years. These things and many more are objective evidences of the Lord’s will. But even then, when everything else is said and done, no man is called to the ministry until he has finally received such an objective call from the Church of Christ itself. He must answer, when he is ordained, that he believes he is called by Christ’s Church and therefore by Christ Himself.
And so it is in all of life.
The history of the Church of Christ is a history replete with examples of efforts made on the part of wicked men to drag the Church and believers away from the objective standard of the Word of God. Every heresy is an attempt to do this. Every perversion of doctrine and life has this as its evil source. But if one abandons the objective standard of the Word of God (and history shows how true this is), one has really only two alternatives. The one is to set up the standard of reason as the final arbiter of matters of life. This is rationalism; and the evidence is clear that the Church has had her share of rationalists over the centuries. The other alternative is to set up the feelings, the emotions, inner convictions as a standard of the truth and of life. This has been historically pietism or mysticism, or, as it can properly be called in our day, Neo-Pentecostalism. Those are the only two real alternatives there are. Forsaking the Scriptures, one must fall back on reason or inner light. But both are essentially the same—at least in this respect, that they make man himself the final judge of truth and right—whether it be man’s mind or man’s inner feelings. And both are subjectivism. And both are hopeless.
There are many who would vehemently disavow any tendencies towards Neo-Pentecostalism in their lives. Yet they repeatedly speak of the guidance of the Spirit as divorced from the Scriptures, and become, to the confusion of all, Pentecostals in fact. They may not speak in tongues; and they may not believe in faith healing. But when they divorce themselves from God’s Word, they fall into the same deadly trap.
Let us, then, be led by the Spirit; for we are the sons of God. But let us be very, very sure that we know and understand that the leadership of the Spirit comes through the shining light of the Scriptures, the Word of God.