Lead by the Spirit

by Donald Macleod

Probably no question is put to ministers more frequently than that of guidance: How can we know God's will, especially at critical points in our own lives? The query reflects not only the stress of decision–making but also the widespread confusion which prevails, mainly because evangelicalism has for long been bedevilled by a whole mythology of guidance. Young Christians hear constant references to such experiences as 'being led', 'feeling called', 'the Lord laying a burden' and 'Scripture speaking'. Some believers seem to be told very directly whom to marry, others are given explicit instructions to go as missionaries to precisely designated areas and yet others are called to the ministry by unchallengeable voices from heaven.

Young Christians react to this ideology in two ways. Many quickly conclude that because they lack such experiences they are very poor Christians, if indeed they are Christians at all. Others, more impressionable, seek the experiences they hear so much of, adopt the canonical terminology and soon begin, like everyone else, to feel led and spoken to.

Staggering claims

We are now so familiar with this thought–world as to be completely unconscious of the staggering claims it involves. In effect, the people concerned are saying that they receive special revelations. God has revealed to them that they should marry or change lobs or become ministers or missionaries.

One problem with this is that it puts pressure on the rest of the Christian community. Revelation cannot bind only the person who receives it. It binds everyone else as well. If God has revealed to someone that He is calling him to be a minister, He is also revealing that He requires the church to recognise, train, license and ordain him. It then becomes sacrilegious to ask questions implying a doubt or a desire to test the call. Who are we to question God's revelation? This probably explains why in every branch of the church people are admitted to the ministry who are totally unsuited to the work. How can a mere committee ask mundane questions about health, academic background, spiritual gifts and working experience of an applicant to whom God has spoken directly?

In fact the claims go beyond what the church enjoyed even when God was clearly giving her canonical special revelation. During that time certain men undoubtedly received direct disclosures of the divine mind. But the privilege was not common to all believers. It was confined to prophets who received an audience with God, heard His secrets and were commissioned to act as His spokesmen. The rest of the believing community were not spoken to directly. They received their guidance from the prophets.

Conceivably things might have changed under the New Testament and every single believer receive special revelation as he receives Spirit baptism. But this is not what we find. The early church, however enriched beyond the level of the Old Testament, still had special ministers of the word. It was guided by prophets and apostles. It was through prophets, for example, that Paul and Barnabas were called to missionary work in Galatia (Acts 13: 2). It was an apostle who was forbidden to speak the word in Asia (Acts 16:6) and it was an apostle who received the Macedonian cry (Acts 16: 9). It is perilous to take these experiences of a few individuals, called to a unique ministry, as models for ourselves. Prophets and apostles existed precisely because not all members of the church received special revelation.

It is difficult to see how current ideas on guidance can be reconciled with the position laid down in the Westminster Confession (Chapter One, Section One) to the effect that 'these former ways of God's revealing his will unto his people have now ceased'. We have already seen that these 'former ways' did not mean giving special revelation to every believer. It was confined to apostles and prophets. The point being made here is that this, too, has ceased. God no longer reveals Himself in this way even to prophets and apostles. The language of the Confession is very careful, however. It does not say that revelation has ceased, but only that the former ways of God's revealing Himself have ceased. We still have revelation and we still have the ministry of apostles and prophets: but we have them only in Scripture. The Bible is not the mere record of revelation. It is revelation itself, God's word for today. Furthermore, the 'former ways' –– the ways which lie behind Scripture –– did not cease until 'the whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life' had been set down in Scripture (Westminster Confession, Chapter One, Section Six). In other words, the reason why God no longer reveals Himself as he did to the apostles and prophets is that in the Bible we have everything we need to know. Hence, says the Confession, nothing is to be added to the Scriptures, 'whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men'.

The Mind of Christ:

But if we rule out guidance by special revelation, what can we turn to? For the moment, we must confine ourselves to two reference-points.

The first of these is the description of the incarnation given by Paul in Philippians 2: 5-11. Behind the enfleshment of Christ lay a pre-temporal decision to become incarnate, and the relevance of this passage to our present enquiry is that it allows us a glimpse into what led the Lord to take that decision. One factor stands out dramatically: His altruism. He did not look to His own things (interests) but to those of others. The same thought lies behind the puzzling words of verse six, as rendered in the Authorised Version: 'He thought if not robbery to be equal with God.' The word translated robbery occurs only here in the New Testament and this makes it difficult to define its meaning exactly. Leaving the complicated grammatical and linguistic arguments aside, the problem resolves itself into this: Was being equal with God something the Lord did not have and might be tempted to grasp at (hence robbery)? or was it something He did have but was willing to forego?

There can be no doubt on theological grounds that the latter is the correct interpretation. The Lord was equal with God, possessing all the titles, attributes and prerogatives of His Father. But he did not regard this equality as something to be clung to. This was highly relevant to the church at Phillipi, which was being torn apart by disputes relating to status. Everybody knew who and what he was, stood on his dignity and claimed the respect due to his position and years. Christ's attitude was completely different. He had the most exalted status conceivable, but He did not cling to it. He was willing to be sent out from God (Gal. 4: 4) and to make Himself poor (2 Cor. 8:9).

That glorious form, that light insufferable,

And that far–beaming blaze of majesty

He laid aside; and, here with us to be,

Forsook the courts of everlasting day,

And chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.

The final outworking of this appears in verse seven. The clause translated He made himself of no reputation means literally He emptied himself. Whenever it appears elsewhere in the Greek Scriptures the verb requires to be translated metaphorically. Here in Phil. 2: 7 the best translation is He made Himself nothing. The self-emptying of Christ did not consist in His laying aside something. Instead, the truth is expressed in the startling paradox, He emptied Himself . . . taking. It was a subtraction by addition: and what He did take is defined as the form of a servant, the likeness of men and the cursed death of the cross. He accepted a dramatic reduction in status, undergoing a demotion and degradation so complete that at last His identity was totally obscured and all that could be seen was a man disgraced, disfigured and damned, His deaththroes intensified by His terrible sense of alienation from God.

This willingness on the Lord's part to be nothing is decisive for our own theology of guidance. As Christians, we never have the right to put our own interests first. We have to view our options from the stand–point of others, even though this may lead to serious loss for ourselves. God's will, for us as for Christ, may involve a downward rather than an upward movement, demotion rather than promotion. We have no choice. Entry to the Christian life is through the 'strait gate', always too narrow to allow us to bring the baggage of our own egotism through. To be converted is to have accepted in principle the role of a servant, so that our own personal wants and desires can never again be paramount. We live to do God's will and that often meets us as something we shrink from, as the Lord shrank from His cup and Moses, Jeremiah and Paul shrank from preaching.

We may go further. Not only will service come between us and our desires. It may also come between us and our needs, simply because our concern to meet the needs of others makes it impossible to attend to our own. God's will may, for example, cut right across our temperaments. The gregarious may be called to loneliness, the shy to intense publicity, the physically weak to great tests of endurance.

The inescapable fact is that God's guidance always leads to kenosis: to that self–emptiedness where one asks only, What will best meet the needs of others?

Christian prudence

The second reference–point in plotting our doctrine of guidance is a neglected but highly important statement in the Westminster Confession (Chapter One, Section Six): 'There are some circumstances concerning the worship of God and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the word, which are always to be observed.'

What the divines have in view, of course, is that Scripture, despite its sufficiency as a rule of faith, cannot determine such things as the time and place of public meetings, the order of services, the versions to be read, and the number of office–bearers to be appointed. In these matters we are left to 'the light of nature and Christian prudence' .

But the teaching here is relevant to a much wider area of the Christian life. In fact, it gives us, in brief compass, a very comprehensive theology of guidance.

This involves three principles.

First, we are always to observe the general rules of the Word. We can never appeal to the light of nature or to Christian prudence or to special revelation or indeed to anything else in support of a course of action which violates a biblical principle. We cannot, whatever light we pretend to, marry an unbeliever or a man we are not prepared to obey or a woman with whom we are not prepared to have an exclusive life–long relationship. We cannot wilfully put ourselves out of a job ('he who does not provide for his own is worse than an infidel'). We cannot assume responsibilities which make it impossible for us to honour our parents or bring up our children in the knowledge and instruction of the Lord.

These things may seem obvious. But in fact many so–called problems of guidance are not problems of guidance at all. God's will is clear enough. The difficulty, for all our protests about the need for more light, is that we are not prepared to submit to it. 'I can say from experience,' wrote Donald Grey Barnhouse, 'that 95% of knowing the will of God consists in being prepared to do it before you know what it is'.

The second principle is that we are to be guided by the light of nature. This 'light of nature' is a recurring concept in the Confession and indeed would merit some study in its own right. In Chapter 1, Section 1, we are told that the light of nature manifests the goodness, wisdom and power of God. According to Chapter 20, the church and the civil magistrate may proceed against those who 'publish such opinions and maintain such practices as are contrary to the light of nature'. And Chapter 21 tells us that it is the law of nature that a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God.

The concept is also important in the New Testament. To quote only two instances: Nature itself teaches that it is a disgrace for a man to have long hair (1 Cor. 11:14); and the Gentiles sometimes do by nature the things contained in the law (Rom. 2:14).

Applying this to the problem of guidance, it means that we can never be 'led' to do what is unnatural: God's will will not disregard our physical needs, impose intolerable psychological stress or violate deep–seated social and sexual instincts. More important still, it means that we will not allow ourselves to fall below the world's own standards. The Gentile conscience may to a large extent be darkness, but it is still offended by a man going off with his father's wife (1 Cor. 5:1), by religious meetings which degenerate into confused shambles (1 Cor. 14:23), by Christians giving up their work because they think the Second Coming is imminent (2 Thess. 3:11), by men neglecting their wives and families in the name of religion and by marriages between parties whose ages or cultures are incompatible. It is inadmissible to dismiss the judgment of such men on the ground of their being 'unspiritual'. They still have the light of nature and may be wiser, especially in practical matters, than the children of light.

Using our minds

The third principle laid down by the Confession is that we are to be guided by Christian prudence. This roots the task of ascertaining God's will firmly in the thinking of the Christian. 'God's promises of guidance are not given to save us the bother of thinking', writes John Stott. Sadly, many Christians seem to think it is. As they plead for guidance what they are really looking for is a way of knowing God's will which dispenses with the need for disciplined and rigorous thought. They not only want absolute, revelational certainty. They want it painlessly, in some overwhelming, supernatural flash.

The Confession, by contrast, insists on our using our minds. This is in complete agreement with the New Testament. 'Be transformed by the renewing of your minds', says Paul in Rom. 12:2, repeating the message in Eph. 4:23, 'Be renewed in the spirit of your minds'. Peter is equally insistent: 'Gird up your minds', he writes (1 Peter 1:13).

Basically, then, Christians will come to know God's will through careful reflection. But in saying this we should not forget that what we are talking about is Christian prudence. We are not discussing the natural human mind. We are considering the new mind of a man or woman indwelt by the Spirit, operating prayerfully and dependently and aiming for the glory of God. Such a mind will be enriched by experience, strengthened by interaction with other Christian minds and sensitive to every biblical guideline, general and specific.

This sensitiveness –– this spiritual fine–tuning –– is of enormous importance. If we grieve the Holy Spirit, neglect the Scriptures and cut ourselves off from Christian fellowship, our minds will become totally unreliable. The backslider will make monumentally wrong decisions because his prudence will no longer be Christian. It will be worldly and selfish and lead to courses of action which, however plausible, will be totally contrary to the will of God.

If so much stress is to be laid on weighing up things for ourselves, what are the factors which, according to Scripture, we ought to be considering?

First, our own inclination. What we ourselves want can never be decisive. Neither, however, can it be ignored. When Paul lays down rules for the ordination of elders he begins by saying, 'He who desires the episcopate desires a good work' (1 Tim. 3:1). As a general rule, if God wants us to do something He will make us want to do it. As Oliver Barclay points out, there is certainly no virtue in the idea that the most unpleasant alternative is always the right one.

Second, we will ponder all the advice we receive. Christian fellowship is about sharing: and one thing to be shared is our decision–making. There are always others older, wiser, more experienced and more objective (about our situation) than ourselves. These friends must accept the responsibility of advising. It is no help if they simply say, 'You must make up your own mind!' Of course we must: and of course it is also true that the best thing about advice is that you can refuse it. But we still need all the help we can get. In some situations, indeed, the church should make the decisions formally and officially. This was done frequently in the past. Today, the movements of ministers are too much a matter of individual whim, with far too little regard to the needs of congregations and the gifts of individuals.

Third, we must consider our own gifts. Christian service, even in the secular sphere, is determined to a large extent by the abilities God has given to us. These may be manual, artistic, professional, commercial, political or ecclesiastical. It is difficult to be realistic in judging ourselves in this connection. On the one hand, we are liable to think of ourselves more highly than we ought: on the other, we are liable to disparage ourselves. The Bible prescribes a middle course: we are to exercise sober judgment (Rom. 12: 3). In the secular sphere, the subjective element is hardly important. Examinations, interviews and other assessments will show us all too clearly where we stand and dramatically narrow our career options. But within the church, too, judgment of our gifts will often be in the hands of others and what we need is grace to submit to it. A candidate for the ministry who refuses the church's judgment shows by that very refusal that he is unfit for the office.

Fourth, we must weigh up the probable impact on our families of the various options open to us. What demands will be made on the wife? Is there a good school locally or will schooling involve the children being away from home? Is there a strong local church which will give rather than require support? Will our children find other Christians of their own age? Will they find employment? These –– and many other similar factors –– deserve to be pondered over and over again. Wives –– and maybe even children –– may have a right to volunteer for work in deprived or even dangerous or primitive areas. But husbands have no right to dictate to them: and even less to disregard their needs.

Fifth, we should look at the implications our decisions may have for the church. We are members of the body of Christ and our decision–making cannot ignore that. So far as our wisdom allows, we must do the edifying thing, refraining from what weakens and impoverishes, from what divides, from what might injure weaker brethren and from what would expose the church to the world's scorn and contempt. Nor is it enough merely to avoid harming the church. We must aim at what is positively beneficial –– acquiring skills useful to the body, extending its influence, developing useful contacts and ensuring that particular congregations have an adequate supply of office–bearers, treasurers, Sunday School teachers, youth leaders and (not least) hospitable homes for informal fellowship. The conclusion that we have something to offer, something the church needs, is of course a difficult one for humility to come to. But there are occasions when we have to decide either that we are redundant in a congregation with an embarrassment of riches or that within our own limited sphere we are temporarily irreplaceable.


Three brief points in conclusion.

[1] We must never absolutise our own decisions, as if they had the force of divine revelation. The man who claims, 'God put me here' is being arrogant. So is the preacher who equates his own choice of text with God's will for his congregation (on other levels, of course, he is being manipulative and exhibitionist. He wants to instill some drama into the occasion and to remind his listeners of his personal closeness to God). All we have is our own decision, in which we may be more or less confident, but which is always fallible and always liable to be falsified by events. I can never get beyond: 'This is what I think is right. So help me God.'

[2] Again, we must recognise that the rightness or wrongness of our decisions cannot be judged by the events which immediately follow. When Jonah wrongly decided not to go to Nineveh, all at first went well with him. When Paul rightly –– and against the advice of his friends –– went up to Jerusalem, his decision led to bonds and imprisonment. There are still times when those fleeing from their Godgiven roles will meet with marvellous encouragement and coincidences. 'The devil is apparently allowed', writes Oliver Barclay, 'not only to arrange signs, but also to bring about remarkable coincidences to tempt us to evil.' And just as surely there are times when those determined to follow God's will will encounter a harrowing succession of harassments and difficulties. These are the times when we have to cling to the truth of Cowper's familiar words:

Deep in unfathomable mines

Of never failing skill

He treasures up his bright designs

And works his sovereign will.

[3] Finally, we must develop a proper attitude to our mistakes. How many Christians get into trouble on this score, as if God would never allow His children to make mistakes! He clearly does, for His own reasons. These mistakes are not signs that we are reprobates. Nor are they unforgivable: the blood of Christ will cover the guilt of even our most ungodly decisions. Above all, the mistakes are not irretrievable. Through our own folly, we may sometimes find ourselves where we ought not to be. The temptation will be strong to conclude that we are condemned henceforth to live lives which are sterile and useless. But it cannot be so, if God works all things together for good for those who love Him (Rom. 8: 28). Wherever we are, we can live meaningfully. From wherever we are, there is a road to the glory of God. 'God provides light through every one of his tunnels,' says an anonymous writer: 'Even through those we should never have got into.'


The Spirit of Promise. Donald Macleod. Christian Focus Publications. 1986, pages 57-68.

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