When we hear the phrases "walk by the Spirit" or "led by the Spirit," most Christians immediately assume that the subject matter is about hearing God's voice in order to find out if Suzie is the one to marry, or if they should work for Apple, or move to another city. We have been programmed by the influences of the Pentecostal and charismatic movements to such an extent that we find it difficult to think any other way!
But, what do those phrases really mean? Do you know where they are found in the Scriptures? Of course, the only way we can truly know what these phrases mean, is to actually study the passages in question, where these phrases are used.
Image courtesy nicholsoncartoons.com.au
Sure, some "heard" God and did things and it worked out for them. Yet, for many others who "heard" God, it never worked out! This created an extra pressure on Christians to hear God better. If you did not hear God, Who was to spell out your life's journey for you, then you just were not spiritual enough! Of course, we learnt that we could not do anything unless God gave the go ahead. If God did not tell you to change jobs, you simply stayed put, no matter how unbearable the situation. If God did not tell you to marry Suzie, no matter how you felt, you simply had to stay away from the love of your life. You even had to resist telling people about Jesus in case you ended up telling the wrong person! It became the new law: hear God's voice, or stay put!
However, I would like to show in this post, that the phrases "walk by the Spirit" and "led by the Spirit", as used in the New Testament, have nothing to do with hearing God's voice in some form or another, in order to find out your next step in life, or what your vocation should be, but all about your Christian conduct in this life.
The phrase "walk by the Spirit" is found 3 times in the New Testament (Rom 8:4; Gal 5:16, 25), while "led by the Spirit" is found 4 times (Mt 4:1; Lk 4:1; Rom 8:14; Gal 5:18).
For obvious reasons, the phrase "led by the Spirit" as used in Mt 4:1 and Lk 4:1 will be excluded from this study, as it relates specifically to Jesus in a specific leading by the Holy Spirit of Jesus into the wilderness for the purpose of temptation by the devil.
"Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil." Mt 4:1
I believe that the phrase has a different meaning in the context of Romans and Galatians, from that used in the two gospel passages. Also, the passages where the two different phrases are used in Romans and Galatians, have very similar contexts.
Obviously, the meaning of a phrase is not always the same wherever it is found. Words and phrases only have meaning within a context of other words, phrases, paragraphs, chapters, etc. So, if I say the word "bank", what does it mean? "I'm going to the bank today!" If you read this phrase in the middle of a story, what would you think it means? Is this person going to the bank to withdraw money, or is he going to the river bank? It all depends on the context, doesn't it? Why do we think context in the Bible is any less important? For instance, does the word "world" always mean the whole world or every single person in the world? What about Ac 17:6, "And when they could not find [Paul and Silas], they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, 'These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also.'" "World" here obviously has a localized meaning and does not literally mean all the people on all 7 continents!
So, let's start with the Galatians passage.
Gal 5:1 starts off by informing us that Christ has set us free for freedom, and that by turning to the law for regulating our lives is to "submit again to a yoke of slavery." If the Galatians accepted circumcision, they would've accepted the law and Christ would have been "of no advantage" to them. In fact, by doing so, they would have been severed from Christ. This idea runs from verse 1 to verse 12. Freedom in Christ means freedom from the law!
In verse 13, Paul again picks up the "freedom" thread. Yet, this time it is freedom in a different context. While the first 12 verses dealt with legalism, making the law our way of life, now Paul takes up licentiousness, antinomianism! Now "he warns them not to allow this freedom to become an excuse for sinful behaviour. The opposite of legalism is antinomianism, the idea that since we are not under the Law that we are not under any law and can therefore live like we want, yet will be saved anyhow."1 Paul has already told us that we do not live by the law, and to counter living by the flesh--without any law, like the heathen--we are told to "walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh." (Gal 5:16)
Why are we told to walk by the Spirit? "For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do." (Gal 5:17) Walking in the Spirit is set in contrast to "walking in the flesh!" Remember, we have already been told not to live by the law, so "fixing" or correcting the sinful flesh is not done by the law of the Old Covenant. It is done by walking in the Spirit. Then comes the final contrast in verse 18: "But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law."
It is within that context that we find our two phrases, "walk by the Spirit" and "led by the Spirit." It is clear from this context that these phrases do not have the meaning of leading us into the next job or where we live or whether we must marry Suzie (or, for the ladies, Peter). The meaning in this passage has to do with our Christian conduct. We must conduct ourselves as Christians should, and not live after the flesh, as if no law applies to us. Paul dealt with this issue in Rom 6:15-18:
15 Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.
Our conduct should be according to the righteousness that comes from faith in Christ. In order to walk in proper Christian conduct, not biting and devouring each other (Gal 5:15), we need to walk in the Spirit. Philip Ryken says it so aptly:
"This verse [v16] contains both a command and a promise. The command is to walk with the Holy Spirit; that is, to live within the atmosphere of his grace. The promise is that when we live a Spirit-controlled life, we will no longer follow through on our sinful desires. The promise is emphatic: You will not sin."2 [italics by the author]
Walking by the Spirit, being led by Him, the Spirit, therefore, will lead us away from our sinful desires, and we will not be under the law.
"The remedy against the desires of the flesh is to walk in the Spirit. What does it mean to 'walk in the Spirit?' It simply points to our conduct as the result of the Spirit in our lives. Back in 3:2 we discovered that we received the Spirit (salvation) by faith. Now Paul extends that idea by telling us to conduct ourselves in a way harmonious to the very gospel that we claim to have received. We received the Spirit (salvation) by faith; now walk by the Spirit (way of salvation) by faith."3
Next, we move onto Romans 8.
What we find in Romans 8 corresponds to what Paul wrote in Galatians 5. Once again, there is contrast between the gospel, a life of grace and the Spirit, and the law, which could not do what the gospel did through Christ (v3). The other contrast which we found in Galatians 5, which can be found here too, is that of walking according to the Spirit, against walking according to the flesh (v4). This discussion drives Paul's thought until at least verse 17! Paul points out emphatically, that the antidote against living as an unsaved sinner (living according to the flesh), is not the law, but walking according to the Spirit!
Doug Moo writes:
"In verse 5-8, then, Paul presents a series of contrasts between flesh and Spirit. His overall intention is clear: to show that sarx brings death while the Spirit brings life (v.6). Paul leads up to this key claim by tracing people's manner of life to their underlying way of thinking. In verse 4, he has used the antithesis of 'living' (lit., 'walking') by the flesh/Spirit. The beginning of verse 5 picks up this same idea with a slightly different Greek construction (simply 'according to the flesh/Spirit'). The lifestyle of the flesh flows from a mind oriented to the flesh, whereas the lifestyle of the Spirit comes from a mind oriented to the Spirit. And 'the mind of the flesh is death' whereas the 'mind of the Spirit [brings] life and peace.'"4 [italics by the author]
Walking by the Spirit refers to our daily conduct as Christians as opposed to the unsaved, walking by the flesh, for "the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God." (v7-8) So, by the time we read the phrase "led by the Spirit" in verse 14, we once again realize that this phrase does not carry the meaning of being led into our next job, who to marry or where to move to, but how to conduct ourselves. We read in verse 13 that "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." Then verse 14 starts with the conjunction for, to make a clear connection between being led by the Spirit and putting "to death the deeds of the body" in verse 13. Further, Paul connects being led by the Spirit to being saved ("sons of God"). Here he most probably is referring back to verse 9: "You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him." We are not in the flesh if the Spirit dwells in us, and those who do not have the Spirit, does not belong to Christ.
So, those that walk in the flesh are unsaved and are hostile to God, while those that belong to Christ are led by the Spirit towards righteousness, putting "to death the deeds of the body" by the Spirit (v13).
So, what have we learnt about the meaning of the phrases "walk by the Spirit" and "led by the Spirit?" We have learnt that these phrases are not related to life guidance in terms of hearing God's voice on where to work, who to marry, what to buy/sell or where to move to next!
The contexts in both Galatians and Romans 8 are very clear; these phrases are about the Spirit in us, leading us in our conduct in daily life, as opposed to following the law to control our conduct. We no longer depend on a written code that tells us how to live, but the living God has sent His Spirit to take residence in us leading us in a righteous walk with God.
It is imperative that when we use phrases that exist in the Bible, that we make use of the meanings of those phrases as they exist in the Bible. We cannot assign new meanings to them. By using the new man-made meanings, we eventually see those meanings when we read these phrases in the Bible, altering our understanding of the passages where these phrases occur.
1. William Dicks, Galatians Part 10: Paul defends the gospel (e)—2:15-6:16, Theo-Enthumology.
2. Philip Graham Ryken, Galatians, P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, New Jersey, 2005, p220.
3. William Dicks, Galatians Part 10.
4. Douglas J. Moo, Romans: The NIV Application Commentary, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 2000, p250.