The Christian concept of being “led by the Spirit” is a mildly controversial issue in the contemporary church. The question is not if believers are led by the Spirit (Rom 8:14; Gal 5:18), but rather what does it mean to be led by the Spirit? So then, if there is to be any fruitful discussion on the topic, it must begin with a proper lexical analysis of ἄγω. Once this has been done, the word can be better understood contextually.
Most of the 67 occurrences of ἄγω are in the Lukan-Pauline corpus (13 in Luke, 26 in Acts; 7 in Pauline epistles). The basic meaning of ἄγω is lead, in the sense of to pull, prod, urge, move, bring, or carry along. It is used to refer to the action of pulling or prodding animals (Matt 21:2, 7; Luke 19:30; Acts 8:32 [quoting Isa 53:7]; used fig. in John 10:16 of a shepherd leading his sheep; it is used to refer to the action of bringing the sick or injured somewhere (Luke 4:40; 10:34; Luke 18:40; cf. John 9:13). Embedded in the meaning ofἄγω, therefore, is some degree of prompting, urging, or compulsion, whether through outright force (Mark 13:11; Luke 22:54; John 7:45, 18:28; Acts 6:12, 21:34, 22:5) or simple persuasion (Acts 5:26, 11:26; Rom 2:4; 1Co 12:2). When used in a context of a person’s spirituality or morality, ἄγω refers to being urged, moved, or compelled by one’s convictions, desires, or passions, that is, by one’s inner impulses (e.g., Rom 2:4; 1Th 1:5; 2Ti 3:6; cf. 1Co 12:2).
Of great significance, then, is the fact that Luke describes Jesus, the Son of God, as being “led” by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness (Luke 4:1), for Paul, likewise, describes believers, as sons of God, as being “led” by the Spirit (Rom 8:14; Gal 5:18). This corresponds with Paul’s teaching that the most distinguishing and significant mark of a believer is the inward dwelling and presence of the Spirit (Rom 8:9-11; 1Co 3:16, 6:19; 2Co 6:16; Gal 4:6; Eph 5:18; 2Ti 1:14 ), by which believers are identified as sons of God (Rom 8:9b,15; Gal. 4:6-7).
For Paul, the promise of the indwelling Spirit given to those who believe (have faith) stands in deep contrast to being imprisoned or enslaved by “the Scripture” and “law” (Gal 3:22-23; cf. Gal 3:14; 2Co 3:5-6) and “elementary principles of the world” (4:3,6). Thus, Paul warns believers not to submit to the law or any rules or regulations, and instead, to remain free (5:1). For the Galatians this meant not being circumcised (5:2-12). Of course, for Paul, freedom did not mean that believers should do whatever they desire or want; it was an opportunity for believers as free sons not to serve the desires of the flesh (and bite and devour each other), but instead to love and serve others instead (5:13-15). In other words, believers are truly free and are not under the law; however, their freedom is given not that they should use it to enslave themselves again (cf. Gal 3:21), but in order to love God and love their neighbors as themselves (ironically, in doing this, they fulfill the whole law). Notice that Paul is very careful with his words in v.14. He is not saying in contradiction to the rest of his letter that a believer should try to fulfill the law through loving others, but rather that the law is fulfilled when they love their neighbor (cf. 6:2).
The question is, then, how does one love his neighbor if not by trying to keep the law?
It is in this context then that Paul instructs Christians to “walk by the Spirit” (Gal 5:16; Rom 8:13), for in doing so they “will not gratify the desires of the flesh (ἐπιθυμίαν σαρκὸς).” What is the flesh? In a redemptive and eschatological sense, the flesh is the part of a person that has not been redeemed yet, though it will be (Rom 7:24-25; 8:11). It is the part where sin still dwells (8:3). The NIV goes too far in substituting “sinful nature” for “flesh,” for it is best to think of the flesh as simply the weak, unredeemed part of man (for the flesh is not evil in and of itself).
Here, we also must remember the occasion of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Paul was addressing a situation where there was a movement to judaize others (Gal 2:4,16; 3:2,5,10,21). This seems to have led to pressure for Gentiles to become circumcised (2:12; 5:2-12; 6:12-13). Now if we ask which work of the law could most aptly be called a “work of the flesh” (cf. 5:19), surely it is circumcision. Circumcision, according to Philo, symbolized “the excision of pleasure and all passions” (Migr. 92). In fact it would be quite natural for a Gentile to assume (or fear) that circumcision of an adult male would do more than just “symbolize” the quenching of passion, they would assume it would in some measure actually bring it about.
Thus, the Galatians were being taught (deceived) that in order to have victory over the flesh, and become righteous in their daily lives, they needed to be circumcised. By contrast, Paul was arguing that walking by the Spirit and following His lead is the only effective way to experience victory over the flesh (human weakness) in this life, which he refers to as “circumcision of the heart” (Rom 2:25-29). To be “uncircumcised of heart and ears” means to be stubborn and stiff-necked to the point of resisting the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51; cf. Deut 10:16, 30:6; Jer 4:4).
In the next verse (5:17a), Paul explains how walking in the Spirit will keep someone from gratifying their flesh. He explains that there is now within believers an internal conflict— a war of desires, for the flesh and Spirit have competing and contrasting desires, longings, and wants, and either can keep the believer from doing what He wants (5:17b). Paul does not mean to imply that we are some helpless bystander; he actually means the opposite. He means that, as believers, we are truly free (cf. Rom 7:25-8:2), and now can choose what impulses we want to obey: the longings of the flesh or the longings of the Spirit, both which now dwell within us (Rom 8:12-17; Gal 5:17).
Paul then reminds believers that “if you are led (i.e., pulled, prodded, moved, carried along) by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” In other words, if a believer has the indwelling Spirit directing his life, he is no longer obligated to obey the law; his obedience is to the leading and moving of the indwelling Holy Spirit. And this is the only way a person can truly experience victory over the weakness of his flesh which results in various sins (5:19-24). Following the Spirit by responding to His leadings will result in “love, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control; against such things there is no law.” Thus, it is vital for believers to “keep in step (στοιχῶμεν) with the Spirit” (5:25) and not the law (which relies on human effort). This, of course, leaves the believer very little to boast about since he is utterly, completely dependent on the indwelling Spirit for His sanctification (cf. 2Co 3:5-6). This helps explain Paul’s exhortation to “not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another” (5:26), for following the law, and not the Spirit, results in boasting and jealousy (6:13-14; cf. Rom 3:27-31).
So, in summary, Paul clearly understood victorious Christian living in terms of yielding to the inward moving of the Person of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, of course, will lead believers to cling to promises (not laws), rely on faith (not works), submit to others (not lord it over them), forgive and restore others (not condemn them), and so on. We know this because this is what the Holy Spirit has revealed through the prophets and the apostles. He did this in order to keep us from being deceived by false or lying spirits which seek to impersonate and imitate Him and tempt us to return to slavery, that is, slavery to the law, flesh, sin, and the fear of death. Remember, the law was given only until the coming of the promised Spirit, who now takes residence in all those who put their faith in Christ (Gal 3:14, 23-29).
Finally, it is worth noting that Paul concludes his letter with a final exhortation: “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything, but a new creation” (Gal 6:15). “A new creation” is to be associated with the Spirit, baptism, and being born again (Gal 4:28-29; Titus 3:5; 2 Cor 5:17; Rom 6:4; cf. John 3:5-8). While it is possible Paul is referring to the eschatological new creation (Rom 8:19-22;cf. Rev 21:1), this seems unlikely and hardly helps make sense of Paul’s final words, in which he invokes peace and mercy upon all those who walk by the following rule: keeping the law (by being circumcised, et al.) does not have any value; the only thing that is of value is being a new creation in the Holy Spirit, for those who are “circumcised of heart” are the true Israel of God, “for a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God” (Rom 2:29, 9:6; Gal 3:7-9; cf. Luke 19:9; John 8:33).
Shawn Wicks is an elder and full-time commended minister of the gospel at Westminster Bible Chapel, an assembly of believers in the Plymouth Brethren tradition, located in Orange Country, CA. He received is M. Div. and Th. M at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, CA.