Posted in discernment, theology

Being led by the Spirit: What does it mean exactly? Should I expect to hear directly from Him? part 2

By Elizabeth Prata

Yesterday in part 1 I’d examined the fact that women for generations now have been taught from so-called Bible teachers and book & devotional authors that we hear directly from God. Whether these revelations or direct contacts are in the form of whispers, prompts, visions, impressions on our heart, ‘told me,’ or audibly, we’ve been taught that it’s supposed to be normal to have a relationship full of lively, direct communication.

I’d said no, that is not the normal method of communication from God, He speaks from the Bible and the Bible alone.

Now that begs the question, how does the Spirit lead us? He dwells within us. He’s in our bodies. He transforms our mind. He convicts of sin. He illuminates the scriptures to our mind, and He leads us on our sanctifying walk. There IS some form of direct communication from God to us, but do we feel it? Know it at the time? Respond to it consciously?

One verse in particular comes to mind, Romans 8:14, where it says so.

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.

Now, the Holy Spirit does guide us and convict us and teach us and help us but not in a way we know at the time. You might look afterwards and say, gee, that sure was from the Lord. But at the time, we cannot, must not, rely on feelings, prompts, whispers, inclinations, or imaginations, and attribute them to God. That is dangerous because the flesh is at war with the Spirit. One can never really know if it’s the flesh or not. We are commanded not to obey the flesh, but to slay it. (Mt 16:24). Just because these celebrity women teach that if the feeling is persistent long enough it must be God, something Beth Moore explicitly taught, is ridiculous on the face of it. The flesh is persistent. Very persistent.

Priscilla Shirer teaches in her book “Discerning the Voice of God” that our primary problem is that we’re not listening. I don’t think Paul was listening when God made Himself heard. I don’t think Amos was listening when he heard the voice of God, he was just picking figs and shepherding his sheep. When God wanted to say something he made Himself heard. He has that ability, you know.

Shirer says we have to restrain ourselves “so we can hear the Spirit’s whisper”. With these women, God never speaks, (Luke 9:35), thunders (2 Samuel 22:14), resounds (Psalm 18:13), or roars (Revelation 1:15). With these supposed revelations you would think God has only one speaking mode and one volume, the much-mentioned whisper.

It’s also mysticism and divination to follow promptings and attribute them to God. How can we interpret? How can we measure this prompting against the Bible? We can’t. So while the Spirit leads, His main ministry is to point to Jesus, who is the Word. John 16:14. That’s why a good teacher also points to the Word, which is more sure. (2 Peter 1:19).

Notice this: John and James saw the transfigured Jesus in Matthew 17. They heard the voice of God above. They were stunned at this experience. Then immediately after in Matthew 18 they wanted to know who was greatest. By Matthew 20 they’d gotten their mother involved to settle the argument and to request to sit at His right and left hand. They actually had heard directly from God, and yet their flesh reared up immediately and polluted the experience with pride.

So how can we be sure our promptings and whispers et cetera aren’t polluted with pride? We cannot. That is why Peter who was also there at the transfiguration, said the word is more sure. (2 Peter 1:19).

Here is John MacArthur on the Romans verse 8:14, with a very simple explanation of the Spirit’s leading:

How does He lead us? Two ways. Externally, by the Scripture – externally, by the Scripture, Psalm 119:18: “Open my eyes that I may behold wonderful things from Your law.” Show me the truth of Scripture. Externally by Scripture, internally by sanctification. Those two ways. Externally, Scripture; internally, sanctification.

Therefore, there’s no need for a teacher such as Moore or Shirer or Bill Hybels to teach an extra-biblical process for figuring out if the prompting is imagination or not.

Sinclair Ferguson at Ligonier Ministries has a good take on leading by the Spirit, which concurs with MacArthur’s in terms of the main leading of the Spirit being illumination of the scriptures. Remember, the point of the Spirit’s ministry is to point to Christ – who is the Word. (John 16:14, 1 John 4:2).

Spirit of Light, by Sinclair Ferguson
Why, then, are Christians today—in contrast to their fathers—so thirsty to experience immediate revelation from God, when His desire for us is the ongoing work of the Spirit opening up our understanding through the mediated revelation of the New Testament? There seem to be three reasons:

1. It is more exciting to have direct revelation rather than Bible revelation. It seems more “spiritual,” more “divine.”

2. For many people, it feels much more authoritative to be able to say, “God has revealed this to me” than to say, “The Bible tells me so.”

3. Direct revelation relieves us of the need for painstaking Bible study and careful consideration of Christian doctrine in order to know the will of God. In comparison to immediate revelation, Bible study seems—to be frank—boring.

Lest we be brow-beaten and develop a kind of siege mentality as Reformed Christians, here are some things we should bear in mind about the work of illumination:

This is the divine method that produces authentic Christian growth, because it involves the renewal (not the abeyance) of the mind (Rom. 12:2) and it is progressive (it takes time and demands the obedience of our wills). Sometimes God does things quickly. But His ordinary way is to work slowly and surely to make us progressively more like our Lord Jesus.

The result of the Spirit working with the Word of God to illumine and transform our thinking is the development of a godly instinct that operates in sometimes surprising ways. The revelation of Scripture becomes, in a well-taught, Spirit-illumined believer, so much a part of his or her mindset that the will of God frequently seems to become instinctively and even immediately clear—just as whether a piece of music is well or badly played is immediately obvious to a well-disciplined musician. It is this kind of spiritual exercise that creates discernment (see Heb. 5:11–14).

In other words, the Spirit leads us by slowly conforming us to Christ-likeness through the application and illumination of the word in us.

Now, is there such thing as impressions or promptings? Ferguson below then Phil Johnson below that, explain…yes…and no.

Ferguson from the Ligonier article above:

Well-meaning Christians sometimes mistake the Spirit’s work of illumination for revelation, which, unhappily, can lead to serious theological confusion and potentially unhappy practical consequences. But the doctrine of illumination also helps us explain some of the more mysterious elements in our experience without having to resort to the claim that we have the gift of revelation and prophecy.

Here the late John Murray spoke with great wisdom: “As we are the subjects of this illumination and are responsive to it, and as the Holy Spirit is operative in us to the doing of God’s will, we shall have feelings, impressions, convictions, urges, inhibitions, impulses, burdens, resolutions. Illumination and direction by the Spirit through the Word of God will focus themselves in our consciousness in these ways”. (Collected Writings, I, p. 188).

Again, it’s through the Word.

Phil Johnson, Shepherds Conference 2002, “Super Seminar: Private Revelations

Now, does the Spirit of God ever move our hearts and impress us with specific duties or callings? Certainly. But, even in doing that, He works through the Word of God. Experiences like this, impressions and all, are not in any sense prophetic or authoritative except as they echo what the Word already says. They are not revelation. Those sensations, those impressions, those feelings you get are not revelation, but they are the effect of illumination. When the Holy Spirit applies the Word to our hearts, and opens our spiritual eyes to His truth. And, we need to guard carefully against allowing our experiences and our own subjective thoughts and imaginations to eclipse the authority and the certainty of the more sure Word of God. This is a very practical application of the principle of Sola Scriptura.

Think about this…to what ever degree you seek private messages from God outside His Word, you have abandoned the principle of Sola Scriptura.

It is simpler and more direct to say something like “My husband and I decided to adopt 3 children” rather than “The Spirit led us to the adoption agency.” It’s more honest to say, “We decided to purchase the organ for the church because we adhere to the biblical principle of cheerfully giving” than to say “We felt led by the Spirit to drive down Main Street where we saw the organ store and God clearly told us to buy it.”

In other places Johnson has said it’s better just to say “I decided to minister to my friend because she came to my mind and I decided to go to her…” rather than attribute any specific prompting to the Spirit…because we can’t know for sure. Ministry is deciding things anyway. In scripture you see the Apostles just deciding to go here or there or do such & such. Providence is God’s taking our decisions and making them conform to our mind and His plan.

Luke 1:3 decided to write the Gospel,
Acts 11:29 decided to help the brethren in Judea,
Acts 19:21 decided to go to Jerusalem
Acts 15:22 decided to send men to Antioch,
2 Corinthians 9:7 deciding what or how much to give

They knew the Spirit was leading them, but they made decisions that seemed good to them. It’s a mystery how we decide to go here or there or reach out to that one or this one, and also God foreordains it, it’s providence’s outworking.

The Spirit leads us into sanctification, where we gradually and inexorably conform to Jesus’ likeness, not by having Him specifically give us explicit directions for certain actions at any given time. But what a joy to know He does lead us, and providentially conforms our actions and decisions to His plan!

Further Reading below the photo if you care to continue.

Spurgeon on impressions: Here is Nathan Busenitz at The Cripplegate unraveling that one: “Spurgeon, Impressions, and Prophecy

Phil Johnson, sermon Providence IS Remarkable

But how do we understand that inner sense, especially when God seems to use it to prompt us to pray, or to witness, or to duck and run at exactly the right moment?  Because, let’s be honest, that kind of thing does happen to most of us from time to time.  Here’s the point.  I do believe that God might providentially use a spontaneous thought in my head to accomplish something wonderful.  But that’s what it is, and nothing more. It is a remarkable providence, not a prophecy. As I’ve been saying, God ultimately controls and uses everything providentially. And here’s the problem.  That is as true of my sins as it is of the thoughts in my head.  God can and does use them all for His good purposes. The fact that He uses an idea in my mind to achieve some good purpose doesn’t make the idea itself inspired. It also doesn’t make a bad idea good just because God uses it for good.



Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.