Led by the Spirit: The Meaning of Galatians 5

In the previous post, graciously contributed by my friend and brother in Christ, Shawn Wicks, there was provided a beautiful summary of the major works and activities of the Holy Spirit as presented in the New Testament (a crash course in Pneumatology if you will), most of which I am in firm agreement with. I agree with the proposition that the Holy Spirit regenerates (allowing us to be born again and transforming us into new creations), baptizes, convicts, inspires, empowers, moves, illuminates, and indwells the believer in a meaningful sense. Further, I agree that the Holy Spirit urges, convicts, and prompts us (in a sense, though not in the same sense I think Shawn perhaps thinks He does). In this post I will construct what I take the central argument to be and where it goes off the rails.

First, it needs to be pointed out, that on a purely logical basis, it makes no difference how many Bible passages are referenced if they do not the speak to the central issue at hand, i.e., as Shawn pointed out “what does it mean to be led by the Spirit?” Let me clarify further (insofar as Shawn is responding to what I have previously written – if he is not then my comment does not apply), the issue is specifically, what mechanisms does the Spirit use to communicate his will to believers, and what should believers expect from the Spirit as a matter of their normative experience today. This is significant because one can, in an erudite fashion (which I believe Shawn has) bring together and spin a very detailed systematic web of passages that deal with the Spirit’s various activities. However, just because there are a multiplicity of references (and Greek words!) does not entail that they have much if anything to do with the central issue (and in point of fact in this case, they don’t!). In fact, Furthermore, it can and will be demonstrated in future posts, if anything, a survey of the semantic range of ἄγω definitively supports my position rather provide any obvious counter-examples to it.

Second, the crux of the argument seems to be the following (In my formulation, I am also supplying details that were mentioned outside of his post in our facebook conversation):

(1) The NT teaches that all believers should be “led by the Spirit.”

(2) “led by the Spirit” means, “listening” for a specific prompting, urging, or feeling, whereby the Holy Spirit reveals to individual believers tailor-made instructions for how they should live their lives (Specifically the claim is that there are ways for individual believers to “hear,” “discern,” and “detect” the voice of God that are epistemically independent of, though not in conflict with, scripture or godly instruction based on the principles of scripture or natural reason)

(C) All believers should be “listening” for a specific prompting, urging, feeling, whereby the Holy Spirit reveals to them tailor-made instructions for how they should live their lives.

There is no doubt about premise (1). The controversial premise is obviously (2). Let’s take a look.

The most glaring problem with the argument is that there is an equivocation fallacy being committed between (1) and (2), i.e., the word “led” is being used in two different ways in each premise. Again the question is not, should we be led the Spirit, but how does the spirit lead? Gal. 5:18 and Rom. 8:14 unequivocally do NOT just (if at all) mean waiting for internal, inaudible, promptings or feelings generated by the Spirit which dictate how specific believers ought to live their lives. It must be recognized that the concept of leading is much bigger and comprehensive than that. The Spirit “leads” in many ways and through many means in scripture (though not all are normative for believers) as I’ve pointed out in previous posts (e.g., dreams, the scriptures, angels, visions, trances, godly council and the list goes on).

Consider for example Gal. 5:18: most of what Shawn said is correct concerning the occasion and purpose for the writing of Galatians and the immediate application these verses had for those early Christians in responding to the Judaizers. However, if one simply reads Gal. 5:16-26, the meaning of “led” is quite clear. Before we delve into it, as a side point, I would contend that the Greek renderings do not make a significant difference as to how the word is being used this context. This is an important point that I know Shawn knows, but others reading may not. Simply giving the semantic range or lexical definition of a word in the original language is not by itself sufficient to tell one how a word is being used in a given context, flow of thought, or argument. Now to Galatians:

16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. 17 For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. 19 Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, 21 envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another.

The first thing is to note that “led,” “walk,” “not carry out,” “crucified” and “live” are functionally equivalent terms, that is, they are either being described as the means that one undertakes to achieve some goal or end, or just are the end itself. In this case, “walking” according to the spirit is the means one undertakes to get to the end, i.e., being “led” by the spirit. Further, the words “spirit” and “flesh” are being put up as antithetical concepts to one another. The word “flesh” here represents sinful desires that are the cause of impure living, while the “spirit” represents holy desires that lead to virtuous (Godly) living. Thus, the apostle is encouraging us both negatively to crucify, not carry out, not practice the deeds of the flesh, and positively to live and walk according to the spirit, thus causing you to be “led by the Spirit.”

Now, here’s the obvious and crucial question that needs to be answered, what does it mean to live, walk, and be led by the Spirit in this context? Clearly, it means that we as believers should not “practice” the deeds of the flesh and we should “practice” the deeds of the spirit. The text says nothing about receiving internal private revelations, promptings, or urgings. This is nowhere given as the means the apostle is prescribing that must be used to be properly “led by the Spirit.” It’s saying, to summarize, don’t sin and do good (i.e., practice the deeds of the spirit which I, Paul, have identified for you). Those who do this, are being led by the Spirit, and those who don’t, are not.

In reality, it may be actually misleading (though I’m not settled on this) to assume that the use of “πνεῦμα (pneuma) in this context is referring to the Spirit, as in the Holy Spirit, rather than something more like spiritual, eternal, godly, holy etc. Its very difficult to see how in context being led by the Spirit has anything directly and immediately to do with the Holy Spirit at all, i.e., WE are exhorted to “not become boastful,” to not “practice such things” to “crucify the flesh.” These are not actions undertaken by the Spirit, but by the person who would desire to “walk” in step with the Spirit. In fact, there is no reference to the Spirit communicating to believers about anything in this passage, much less communicating through private, inaudible urgings or feelings, it is nowhere part of the argument Paul is making. (I am aware that my Calvinist brethren will say that this paragraph sounds completely synergistic…well, so be it!)

One last point, if “led by the spirit,” means only what Shawn says it means, i.e., an “inward moving of the Person of the Holy Spirit,” then we are left with a dilemma in the text, which I’ll call “The Inner Prompters Dilemma.”

Should we (1) assume that living according to the flesh (in contrast to those led by the spirit) is referring to persons who simply ignore such inner promptings or leadings, but who could be responsive to correction from scripture, godly council, etc.? That would seem to be entailed by Shawn’s interpretation. Or (2) if “led by the Spirit” in this context refers to all of the means God uses to inform and convict believers (e.g., scripture, dreams, gifts, etc.) then why should we think that inner promptings should be included among those means? If “led by the Spirit” is a comprehensive and general statement of all the means God uses, then the passage cannot be used to justify the practice of waiting and listening for inner promptings without begging the question. An independent argument would need to be made.

In closing, Gal. 5:18 and Rom. 8:14 (which I dealt with in an earlier post and as far I can tell, was not in any way refuted by anything Shawn wrote – the inner prompter’s dilemma also applies to that passage) do not support the practice of waiting for private individual inaudible revelations from God. My bottom line: I think Shawn has put forth premises of an argument based on fairly sound exegesis, but then draws conclusions based on isogetical considerations (reading things into the text and making assumptions that are not there).

In a future post I will deal with his argument from indwelling as well.

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