In a previous post, we looked at the relationship between mortification of sin and a biblical assurance of salvation. An overview of Romans, leading up to Paul’s teaching on the Christian life in chapter 8, demonstrated that the Holy Spirit testifies to the sonship of the believer, as the believer is being led by the Spirit to put sin to death (Rom 8:9–17). This biblical manner of living is in contrast with both a “cheap grace” response to the gospel that is characterized by breaking the law “so that grace may increase” (Rom 6:1–23),1 and a legalistic response to the gospel that is one of keeping the law in servile fear (Rom 7:1–25; cf. Rom 8:15).
Upon learning this glorious and freeing truth, a question that often arises is, “How can I seek to be led by the Spirit?” As sinners, we are hardwired for the two sinful responses to the gospel described and refuted in Romans 6-7: It is all too natural for us to either live in disregard of the law, or to seek to earn our own righteousness through law-keeping. Thankfully, Paul’s teaching in the book of Galatians propounds the key to avoiding these twin pitfalls: To be led by the Spirit is to have faith in God’s promises.
Paul’s Aim in Galatians
The apostle Paul wrote the canonical letter to the churches in the region of Galatia, likely shortly after the Jerusalem Council of about A.D. 49.2 False teachers had enjoyed a measure of success in their efforts to undermine Paul’s teaching there (cf. Gal 1:6–7), and so he wrote to expound and defend his gospel of justification by faith in Christ alone, drawing out its implications for the Galatian believers.
After explaining and defending the source and evidences of the gospel he had received directly from Jesus himself (Gal 1:11–2:21), Paul explained this gospel to the Galatians. He did this by using their own experience against them: They had received the Spirit by hearing with faith; how could they now think that works of the law were the way to continue in sanctification (Gal 3:1–5)? They should know — based on Abraham’s life of faith and on Christ’s taking the curse of the law on Himself — that salvation, from first to last, is by faith (Gal 3:6–4:11).
Flesh vs. Faith
As you may have noted already, there are many parallels between Paul’s teaching in Romans and that found here in Galatians. Most relevant to our discussion is Paul’s emphasis on the opposition between the Spirit and the flesh (Rom 8:12–14; Gal 5:16–17). But whereas in Romans Paul is focused on the fact of the Spirit-led life and how it leads inexorably to ultimate glorification (Rom 8:29–30), in Galatians he is actively contrasting the way of the flesh with the way of the Spirit, seeking to show the futility of the former in contrast with the promise of the latter.
This is a helpful contrast for our purposes, particularly where, backing up to chapter two of Galatians, we find Paul framing it another way: as between flesh (otherwise described as self, law, or works) and faith:
“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Gal 2:20, emphasis added).3
The error gaining a foothold in the churches of Galatia was leading some to believe that although they had gained justification by faith (Gal 3:2–5), the Christian life needed to be lived in slavish obedience to the law (Gal 3:3, 4:8–10). On the contrary, Paul argued, the Christian life must be lived by faith in God’s promises. This was the example of Abraham (Gal 3:9), whose blessing is to be received by Gentiles also as “the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Gal 3:14). The promises of God belong to all who belong to Christ (3:14, 16, 22, 29), and faith in these promises is opposed to slavery to (or, custody under) the law (3:23).
What It Looks Like to Be Led by the Spirit
As with Abraham, so with any believer saved by faith in Christ: He will not relate to the law as its slave, but rather as one who has been freed by the promises of the gospel (including adoption as sons [Gal 4:5; Rom 8:15]), so that he now seeks to follow the law because it is his Father’s perfect and pleasing will. The believer still has an obligation (or, duty) to obey; however, that obligation is not to the law (or the flesh), but to his Father who loves him (Gal 4:1–6; Rom 8:12–15). Furthermore (as noted in the previous post), the believer is now experiencing changed desires: rather than loving his sin, he is hating his sin and being led to fight against it (Rom 8:13–14). His governing passions have switched so that while he was previously seen as a slave of sin, he can now be said to be a slave of righteousness (Rom 6:17–18).
The apostle Peter (in 2 Pet 1:2–4) actually helps us to see that these changed desires in a believer also flow from faith in God’s promises:
“Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord; seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust.”
It is by the promises granted to us through the knowledge of God in Christ that we escape the corruption that is by lust. At the points where we are tempted to go after lesser pleasures — self-justification, self-gratification, self-glorification, self-vindication — God’s promises offer (and secure for us) the greatest pleasures imaginable: true and free justification by faith, true and full soul satisfaction, unspeakable glorification with Christ, and full and final vindication (with the enemies of the cross justly judged eternally). The way to be led by the Spirit — even at the level of our desires — is to have faith in God’s promises.
How to Be Led by the Spirit
Having gleaned from Scripture that being led by the Spirit is synonymous with having faith in God’s promises, we come to the nuts-and-bolts of the “how to.” While it is certainly possible to come up with an endless list of ways to make this a discipline, common sense should tell us that there is one non-negotiable: In order to have faith in God’s promises, we must know God’s promises — learning them, and being constantly reminded and persuaded of their truth. This, of course, means reading, re-reading, meditating on, learning (from biblical preaching and teaching and study), and reminding one another of the full counsel of God in all of its breadth and depth.
More specifically, we might consider the promise aspect. More than once in his argument in Galatians, Paul refers to “the promise” (singular). This is tied specifically to the promised (and the promise to the) seed of Genesis 22:18 (and therefore of Genesis 3:15 as well).4 This, preeminently, is the promise that every believer in history has hoped in, thus living by faith (cf. Rom 4:1–25). Ever since the Garden of Eden, the Spirit of God has been promising and portraying the propitiation by faith in the Son of God, so that sinners might believe and be saved (Gen 3:15, 21; cf. Rom 3:21–26). All of this points to a more specific answer to our earlier question: In order to be led by the Spirit, one must constantly remember and believe the promise of the gospel.
Other Suggestions and Resources
- As Tim Challies has said, “Jerry Bridges was talking about preaching the gospel to yourself and being gospel-centered long before it was cool to do so.”5 Bridges teaches this concept and his methods in his books The Discipline of Grace, Respectable Sins, and The Transforming Power of the Gospel.
- Although the promise of the gospel seems to be Paul and Peter’s focus when they talk about the relationship of faith to slaying sin and lusts, it is certainly true that all of God’s promises are related to (and realized through) the gospel (2 Cor 1:19–20), and therefore that each of them is useful for combating the flesh. In light of this, these suggestions might also be of help:
- “Take Words with You,” a collection of 1,600 prayers and promises arranged around the cross — its purposes and rewards.6
- John Piper’s A.P.T.A.T. acronym:7
- Admit you can do nothing without God (Jn 15:5).
- Pray for help (Ps 50:15).
- Trust a specific promise (2 Chr 20:20).
- Act (Phil 2:12–13).
- Thank God for his provision and goodness (Ps 106:1).
- “All the Promises of the Bible,” by Herbert Lockyer.8
- I have also taken to underlining every promise I find in Scripture in green, so that I can quickly find and read/pray through the promises in a given book or text.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations in this post are from the NASB translation.
- John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible, ESV (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 1738.
- Here again, this tracks with Paul’s argument in Romans, where he likens the believer in his relationship to the law to a wife whose husband has died, and who is free to remarry. Whereas the believer was previously wed to the law, he is now wed to Christ (Rom 7:2–4).
- For an in-depth treatment of the Old Testament “seed” promises, see Chou, Abner, “Corporate Solidarity: A Heuristic Grid for New Testament Use of the Old Testament,” available at Academia.edu.
- Available free on Kindle, https://www.amazon.com/Take-Words-You-Scripture-Intercession/dp/0994834136
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