Within many Christian circles today it is not uncommon to hear statements like: ‘Just let the Spirit lead.’ Similarly, I’ve heard: ‘Do not force your doctrine or teaching. Rather let us be led by the Spirit of God.’ Essentially, it is only one’s sense of the Spirit that matters. Any form of rational inquiry is deemed worldly and unspiritual, distracting us from God’s purposes and power. Within this approach, we achieve spiritual knowledge by merely listening to the Spirit. Theological truth is located almost exclusively within the individual. Consequently, you can regularly hear believers defending actions or motivating decisions by saying: ‘The Holy Spirit told me. So it is the will of God.’

You can regularly hear believers defending actions by saying: ‘The Holy Spirit told me.’

Here is one example. Recently, in Ghana a pastor bathed women publicly, in church. He claims that he was directed in this by the Spirit, so that the women might be clean, holy, and pure. Is there any truth in such strange teachings and practises? Is the Spirit’s leading enough to condone the violation of those women’s modesty and whatever else the bathing entailed? In this article I will attempt to answer those questions, inspecting the claim that some people receive special directions from the Holy Spirit.

Spirit versus Bible Led

Surely the Spirit, being God, will only lead us in what is true. So while Christians affirm the Spirit’s presence in their lives, we don’t expect that guiding presence to radically diverge from what God says in the Bible. Yet many who claim to be privately and peculiarly led by the Spirit suggest this very thing. The individual’s experience becomes authoritative, even over the Bible.

Furthermore, appeals to being led by the Spirit discourage dialogue and discussion, as well as discernment (see Acts 17:11). For when a pastor claims that he is following the Spirit’s lead, opposing him appears to oppose God himself. The result of this, similar to claims of being anointed by God, is that theological error and harmful practises go unchecked. These are tragically carried out in God’s name.

The Spirit does not contradict in secret what he inspired in scripture.

The church has always looked to the Bible together with the Spirit for guidance. But in most appeals to the Spirit’s leading God’s authoritative word is abandoned. If being Spirit led requires nothing other than appealing to some private revelation or special anointing then there is no stopping these claims and the abuses that follow. Regrettably, these claims aren’t only profoundly false. They lead to dangerous, destructive, and unaccountable ministry.

Does the Spirit Still Lead Us Today?

For anything to be true, it must be consistent with God’s word (Psalm 119:160; John 17:17). Blind leading of the Spirit is strange to the Bible. Therefore we should not trust it, at least not without examination and careful discernment. For when teaching wanders far from the Bible, it isolates people from God and his will. The Spirit does not contradict in secret what he inspired in scripture. God never encourages subjective fantasy. Rather he conforms believers to the character of Christ. And he does this by and through his word: teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training us (2 Timothy 3:16).

When teaching wanders far from the Bible, it isolates people from God.

Therefore when claims to being led by the Spirit are irreconcilable with the Bible, we must challenge them. In fact, when so-called leading by the Spirit tends towards teaching and practises that are wildly different from what we read in the Bible, we should ask another question: Which ‘spirit’? We don’t deny that the Spirit can still lead believers today. However this guidance will only ever be towards God, going deeper into his truth. This is exactly what Jesus tells us to expect of the Spirit’s indwelling presence (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). For the Spirit is no passenger. His presence is purposeful, as he exhorts us to grow and guides us in obedience.

The Spirit Bears Witness to Jesus

There is perhaps no clearer outline of the Spirit’s work than the one Jesus provides in John 14-16. If we want to know how the Spirit leads and guides us, then we must consider these chapters. I’ve highlighted just three statements from them:

  • “The Helper, the Holy Spirit…will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26)
  • “The Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me” (John 15:26)
  • “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:13-14).

Behind those statements is a clear theme: the Spirit leads us to Christ. He helps us to see, hear, and know Jesus (John 17:3). As the author of the Bible, he opens our eyes and minds to understand God’s will (1 Corinthians 2:10-16; Ephesians 1:17-19), and perceive right doctrine (Titus 2:1). This will lead to faithful living and Christian maturity. Thus the Spirit reveals Christ and raises people to follow him in obedience.

The Spirit leads us to Christ. He helps us to know Jesus.

As Isaac Makashinyi once said, “Nothing so shapes the way that we live, and nothing is more important to the Christian life than the content of the faith we profess.” To that I would add: the Holy Spirit discloses this content to God’s children, creating a hunger and thirst for truth, as well as the desire to honour God in all of life.

“Test the Spirits”

Therefore, let us take care that we test claims about the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:21; 1 John 4:1). Christian, examine these claims alongside the scriptures, to see whether the teaching is leading us to God and his gospel. The Holy Spirit’s guidance is not some relative or exclusive revelation, contradicting what he says in the Bible. That is a strange spirit, which should be rejected. Yes the Spirit still leads us today, but this work won’t redirect us away from the clear leading in scripture. So let us pray that the Spirit continues to lead us in applying the Bible accurately and contextually, with the goal of obedience and gospel proclamation.