on the ministry of the Holy Spirit

Kent Brandenburg, a pastor friend and frequent commentator on this blog, poses an interesting question in his latest post at WHAT IS TRUTH. The question is, how can two people, faithful believers in Jesus Christ, led by the Spirit of God, arrive at opposite conclusions on any given issue? The question is an important one. We are confronted with a wide array of Bible teachers, and a vast storehouse of Bible teaching, more widely available than at any time in history. Sifting through all this teaching is impossible, but it is possible to observe a truly “Christian world view” that is generally consistent across denominational lines within “evangelicalism”. [See Note 1 below]

Most conservative observers would agree that there is moral, spiritual, and theological deterioration at various points in the ‘evangelical’ spectrum. In spite of this deterioration, a Christian world view remains consistent across a wide variety of differing and sometimes antagonistic ‘party’ lines. If we move from the broad view down to the individual, we find that few individuals have complete unanimity of faith and practice. Even if you select some individuals from within the same ‘evangelica’ group, while there will be much agreement, you still find stubborn individuality making distinctions of some kind. Yet if you were to interview any decided disciple you would find the self-perception that he is faithfully following the leading of the Holy Spirit, consistent with the Word of God in every respect, and this even though he differs, sometimes quite strongly, with his brother.

How can such a situation arise that men who are disciples of Christ, seeking to follow the Spirit, arrive at different conclusions regarding matters of faith and practice?

It is one thing for differences to exist where there is disingenuity at work. Some differences certainly are the result of wolves in sheeps’ clothing – the wolf professes sheep-hood, but holds the truth insincerely. Given the history of the church, it is foolhardy to deny that such situations exist, and it surely must exist in every church group.

But we cannot explain ALL different perceptions of the leadership of the Holy Spirit to false profession (wolf-hood). If we did, everyone else would be a wolf, and I would be the only sheep. Right???

Neither can we explain the differences with the notion that the Holy Spirit leads different men different ways for His own purposes. Titus 1.2 says God ‘cannot lie’. 2 Tim 2.13 says God ‘cannot deny himself’. Heb 6.18 says that ‘it is impossible for God to lie’. Our understanding of the nature of truth would be stood on its head if we were to assume the Holy Spirit is some kind of divine relativist, leading one man to one ‘truth’ and another man to another ‘truth’. Such a spirit wouldn’t be very Holy, and such a god would not be very dependable.

My friend Kent answers the question with this: the problem is not the Holy Spirit and not disingenuity, but rather disobedience. He says:

These verses say that even His disciples will not receive some of His truth. They’re either taught wrong and are not using discernment, they refuse to listen when told, or they won’t start practicing or proclaiming what they now do know. Many of these sadly are pastors who have a loyalty to a non-Scriptural institution or a group of friends above God and His Word. Instead of submitting to Scripture, they stick with private interpretation…

First, I have to say that in general I agree that this is the case in many circumstances of differences over the leading of the Spirit. Many people stubbornly cling to ‘private interpretations’ as Kent says. I have described this before as ‘doctrinal bonding’. There is a thing that psychologists (I know, I know) call ‘bonding’. It is supposed to be very important in parent/child relationships, and it probably is. But bonding occurs with ideas as well. It occurs in theological minds when they give birth to a new thought. Occasionally the new thought will be the brainchild of the one who thought it. They bring this thought into the world, they nurture it, they develop it, they wrap it in swaddling clothes, they make it one of the unique aspects of their teaching and doctrine. In short, they are in love with the thought processes of their own minds. (We are ALL susceptible to this.) The new thought can also be presented to us by a much loved teacher. It is not our thought, we did not bring it to birth, but it is the ‘thought-child’ of our mentor, and since we love him, we love his ‘thought-children’ also. We warmly and uncritically accept all and everything that our theological hero teaches, replicating his errors in our own thinking by bonding to them.

In short, we are prone to disobedient thinking. We cling to notions that we love. The disciples themselves were prone to this as well. They asked the Lord, on the day of ascension: “Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?” [Acts 1.6]. They still had not shaken the notion of an earthly kingdom in their own time.

Where we are disobedient, the Holy Spirit is not leading us. May the Lord grant us discernment to see our areas of disobedience.

But now, having set all this up (are you still reading this?), I want to go a bit further. Is disobedience the only explanation for differences between apparently Holy Spirit led individuals?

The Lord Jesus promised his disciples that the Holy Spirit would guide them when he left them behind. Here are his words on the subject:

Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come. [John 16:13]

A couple of questions regarding this promise need to be answered. First, WHO will the Holy Spirit guide? Is the promise applicable to all disciples at all times or is it only applicable to the apostles? Second, WHAT is all truth? Does the Lord promise to guide his followers in every detail of truth, in every detail of Christian living, in every detail of daily living, or is his promise limited to some specific body of truth?

As to the first question, the Lord is AT LEAST promising to lead the apostles into all truth. The question, then, is whether this promise applies to other disciples besides the apostles. The notes of the NET Bible say:

“Since in the context of the Farewell Discourse Jesus is preparing the twelve to carry on his ministry after his departure, it is probably best to take these statements as specifically related only to the twelve. Some of this the Holy Spirit does directly for all believers today; other parts of this statement are fulfilled through the apostles (e.g., in giving the Book of Revelation the Spirit speaks through the apostles to the church today of things to come).” [NET Bible notes, Jn 16.13]

There is a sense in which the ongoing ministry of the Spirit of God is to lead every disciple, but in this passage, the primary sense is that the Lord promised to lead the apostles into ‘all the truth’ by means of the Spirit.

As to the second question, I think we can demonstrate from Scripture that the Holy Spirit did not lead even the apostles, let alone all the believers, to know all the truth about every detail of Christian living or every detail of daily living in the same sense that the Spirit led them to ‘all the truth’ about divine revelation. When Peter erred in Antioch, he was apparently not being led by the Holy Spirit, ‘because he was to be blamed’ [Gal 2.11]. Was Peter’s disobedience a failure to be led by the Spirit? In one sense, yes, but was the Lord’s promise intended to protect him from such failure? I don’t think so.

Wiersbe has an interesting comment on Jn 16.13 here:

“When you compare John 14:26 with 16:13, you see the wonderful way that God arranged for the writing of the New Testament Scriptures. The Spirit would remind them of what Jesus had taught them; this gives us the four Gospels. The Spirit would also ‘guide’ them into all truth; and this would result in the epistles. ‘He will show you things to come’ refers to the prophetic Scriptures, especially the Book of Revelation.” [See Note 2 below]

The promise of leading into all the truth was fulfilled in the inspiration of the Holy Scriptures. God led these men perfectly in their activity of ‘inscripturation’ (to use a Minnick word). God led them into ‘all the truth’ [article present in the Gk].

From this operation of the Holy Spirit, the same spirit continues to lead the disciples who follow the apostles, but he does so in this way:

“There is a sense in which all truth was committed to the apostles in their lifetime. They, in turn, committed it to writing, and we have it today in our NT. This, added to the OT, completed God’s written revelation to man. But it is, of course, true in all ages that the Spirit guides God’s people into all the truth. He does it through the Scriptures.” [See Note 3 below]

Thus, the promise of Holy Spirit leadership is not a direct promise to direct our thoughts. We may find ourselves sincerely in disagreement with a Spirit-led brother, and neither of us be really in disobedience to the Holy Spirit’s leadership. The Holy Spirit has not promised to “possess” us so that we will arrive at some sort of position of spiritual infallibility. We can be as sincere as we can be in attempting to follow the Lord, but we can fail to completely discern his will and leadership through a variety of causes, including disobedience, but not excluding just plain dullness and stupidity.

We should not expect Spirit-led disciples to arrive at complete unanimity since this is not what the Lord promised. The leadership the Lord promised is that of the apostles, into ‘all the truth’ (i.e., the written revelation of the Old and New Testaments). We need to put our trust in those documents, seek to know what they mean in their context and in application to our lives today, and not be exceedingly disturbed when our brothers don’t quite see everything as perfectly as we do.

None of us sees everything completely clearly. We all see through a glass darkly.

And we shouldn’t be afraid of differences between brethren. Some of those differences are important enough to limit fellowship, and some are not. They should be expected (and corrected if possible), but they should not cause us to doubt the perfection of the Holy Spirit’s leading. The differences are not to be laid at the Holy Spirit’s feet. He didn’t cause them.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

[Note 1: I am using the term “evangelicalism” in its old sense, a sense which describes essentially non-liberal Protestantism … and Baptists (a little sop to my Baptist friends who don’t think they are Protestants).]

[Note 2: Wiersbe, W. W. (1996, c1989). The Bible exposition commentary. “An exposition of the New Testament comprising the entire ‘BE’ series”–Jkt. (Jn 16:12). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.]

[Note 3: MacDonald, W., & Farstad, A. (1997, c1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary : Old and New Testaments (electronic ed.) (Jn 16:13). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.]


  1. Kent Brandenburg says:

    Hey, I just read this. You have added a lot to the point I made on the blog. Of course, I thought the parable in Mark 4 gave an answer to the question. Seeing through the glass darkly resonated with me from your article. However, is perspecuity a doctrine? If it is plain, then it could be our own self-imposed darkness, sin-engendered.

    Another thought is the container for truth—getting truth outside of the God-ordained venue, the church, results in it’s perversion.

    Thanks for the thoughts.

  2. Don says:

    Is perspicuity a doctrine? Yes, but it doesn’t mean that everything in the Bible is clear. An article on Bible.org says this: “The doctrine of the perspicuity of scripture itself had arisen during the Reformation and the sense had always been that the salvific message of the Bible is clear, clear enough even for a child to grasp it.” [http://www.bible.org/page.asp?page_id=1818]

    Another comment on the same site: “The Reformers argued for the perspicuity of Scripture–that it was sufficiently clear to be a good guide in essential matters, such as the person of Christ, the Trinity, salvation.” [http://www.bible.org/page.asp?page_id=1549]

    The point is that not all the Bible is equally clear, but it is clear enough for the average sinner to see the truth of Christ and salvation in him alone.

    I was thinking about your blog and got to thinking that in addition to what you had said there is also a misconception about the leadership of the Holy Spirit. God has not promised to lead us to perfection, he has called us to perfection. That includes our understanding.

    I generally try to take the “I just feel led…” line out of the vocabulary of Christians justifying all kinds of weirdo ideas.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3