It is all too common to hear pastors and “worship leaders” say “as the Spirit leads” during prayers, singing, altar calls, and even before sermons. Here are some excerpts from different churches:
Calvary Chapel: “A preacher needs to be able to spontaneously quote any number of scripture passages as the Spirit leads. The same is true for a worship leader. He/she needs to be able to bring up a song as the Spirit leads.”
Baptist altar call: “As we stand and sing I invite you to come as the Spirit leads.”
Reformed Worship (CRCNA): “Open, free, spontaneous prayers—people contributing in as the Spirit leads—are another way of involving the congregation in prayer.”
Before the outbreak of Pentecostalism all over the evangelical world, “as the Spirit leads” was rarely heard. From where did this expression come? This saying comes mainly from two texts. The first is Romans 8:14, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” As in most popular evangelical expressions, the use of this verse in worship is out of context.
Romans 8:14 is near the end of Romans 8:1-17, where Paul explains the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a Christian, especially in his struggle against sin. He begins by contrasting life in the “sinful flesh” and life in the Spirit, “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death… By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (verses 2-3). Paul then sets the distinction between life in the Spirit and life in the “sinful flesh” (verses 4-8). He then assures us that we “belong to [Christ]” and overcome sin and death because the Spirit indwells us (verses 9-11).
In verses 12-15, Paul summarizes his discourse, saying that those who live “according to the flesh” will die. But those who live “by the Spirit,” “who put to death the deeds of the body,” will live. Therefore, those who live by the Spirit are those who are “led by the Spirit of God.” And who are the ones who live by the Spirit? These are believers, who are called “sons of God” and “fellow heirs with Christ” who suffer, but will be rewarded in glory.
Galatians 5:18 also uses the same phrase, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” Christians who “walk by the Spirit” do not “gratify the desires of the flesh.” We are saved by the Spirit who has given us faith and repentance, and not by the works of the law. And since we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, we no longer walk in our sinful desires, but in holiness and righteousness given by the Spirit.
How are Christians “led by the Spirit?” By dreams and visions? Signs and wonders? Speaking in tongues? No, we are “led by the Spirit” by means of two things. First and foremost, by the Word of God. The canon of Scripture is closed, so Paul says that it is sufficient for all of Christian doctrine, worship and life, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17). Notice that all Scripture is breathed out by God, which means it was written by the Spirit of God through the inspired writers. Peter even says of this work of the Spirit in the writing of the Scripture, “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pt 1:21).
This is why Jesus prayed to his Father, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (Jn 17:17). The only standard of truth is God’s Word, and the means to sanctification, of putting sin to death, is knowing and obeying the Word of God. And how do we know, understand and practice the Word of God? Through the Spirit of God, Who alone can give us understanding and discernment (1 Co 2:14).
The second means used by God to “lead us by the Spirit” is the covenant community, the church. Paul says that the church is “one body and one Spirit,” and this Spirit gives spiritual gifts to each believer to serve his church, “But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (Ep 4:4, 7). And to the church, Christ also gave gifts after he ascended into heaven. What are these gifts? These are men who have been tasked by the Spirit to build up the church by Word and Spirit, “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ep 4:11-12). There are no more apostles, prophets and evangelists today (no special ordination given for these three), but we have the shepherds (pastors) and teachers.
When we lived in Davao City, a friend related this story about a Baptist church where he regularly attended. One Sunday, the pastor began his sermon by declaring, “I didn’t prepare a sermon today, as I wanted to be led by the Spirit.” So his eardrums split at these words, and he couldn’t help but interrupt the pastor, accusing him of negligence of his duty to diligently prepare a sermon every LORD’s Day.
Therefore, “as the Spirit leads” as used in Romans 8:14 and Galatians 5:18, points to the Spirit-led life of a believer to discern, avoid and put to death his sinful desires. It does not mean that a pastor has “to be able to spontaneously quote any number of scripture passages as the Spirit leads.” It does not mean “open, free, spontaneous prayers” by the pastor, worship leader, or anyone in the congregation, which often leads to nonsense babbling and fumbling for words.
And most of all, it must never be used in altar calls in persuading unbelievers to “accept Jesus, as the Spirit leads,” because only regenerated children of God are indwelt and led by the Spirit in putting sin to death.