We believe that the eighth chapter of the letter of Paul to the Romans is the richest chapter in this entire epistle. It is up there in the Bible alongside the opening chapter of the letter to the Ephesians. They are two chapters that stand apart as the most majestic pieces of writing to have been recorded in the history of mankind. They are words that will last for ever, and that is why we are considering the teaching of Romans 8 these Sundays. The chapter is particularly important because of the observations it makes about the person and work of the Holy Spirit. No other chapter in the Bible has as many references to the Spirit as Romans chapter 8. I want to consider today this theme that every Christian is led by the Spirit of God.
- HOW THIS TRUTH OF BEING LED BY THE SPIRIT IS EXPRESSED.
I would have expected Paul to express himself in another way, in other words, to have turned these phrases around and to have written something like this, that those who are the sons of God are led by the Spirit of God. This would then be a word of assurance and comfort. “Every child of God, however new, can rely on this reality, that he is going to be led by the Spirit of God,” That is true but Paul writes it in the way our text expresses it, which is very challenging. That is not unique. Let me draw your attention to its similarity to words written by John in his first letter. You would have expected the apostle John to write in his letter something like this, “Everyone who is born of God loves and knows God.” That is what we think we are reading, that the mark of every truly born again man is that he loves and that he knows God, but again John like Paul turns it around quite unexpectedly. He says this, “Everyone who loves . . . has been born of God and knows God” (I Jn.4:7). In other words, you see a really loving person and you say, “That person is a Christian.” So Paul in our text is saying, “When you see a person being led by the Spirit of God then you know that such a person is a Christian.”
Do you understand? The character of those who have been given a new birth by God, and have been adopted into the family of God – those who have been given the right to be called the sons of God – theirs is an utterly different lifestyle and character from everyone who is ignorant of God. So as you Christians start to meet and know other believers and as you watch them, sometimes year after year, then you come to this conclusion about them, “Only someone who is in Christ, and Christ is in them, could behave in that way; only a Christian could love like that. They are sons of God. That is why they live like that. That is what makes them tick!” Unbelievers will of course never come to that conclusion. They don’t nudge one another as they stand behind you at the check out counter while one mouths to another “He is a Son of God!” Of course not. They don’t know Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and so they certainly don’t know that we are led by the Spirit of God. But we do know that someone is born of God. Warfield tells the story of a riot in a city in America and the soldiers had been sent onto the streets to keep order. One officer saw another officer in command, so efficient and wise and sensible, marked by such authority, and he went up to him, looked at him and said to him, “What is man’s chief end?” The man looked back at him and said, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever.” “I thought you were a Shorter Catechism boy,” he said to him. Christians can see the character of men and women and know that they are led by the Holy Spirit.
Let me make this as clear as I can; the apostle John is saying that everyone who loves as Paul describes love in I Corinthians 13 must be born of God and knows God and is being led by God. Here is a description of a born again person; “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. [It hears the gospel, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures. He was buried and he rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” and the person who loves rejoices with that truth. “Praise the Lord,” that person says]. Paul continues about love in I Corinthians 13 that, “It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (I Cor. 13:4-8). A man or woman who lives year after year like that can only do so by the energy of the Holy Spirit in their lives as a result of their being born by the Spirit and indwelt by the Spirit.
So here in our text Paul is saying that if you see someone being led by the Spirit of God all through their lives, year after year, then you can know one thing for sure, that he’s a son of God. “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (v.14). The choices that they have made, the beliefs that they hold dear, the errors they reject, the compromises they shun, the kindnesses they continue to show, the mortification of sin that they’re engaged in, the sacrifices they are prepared to make – all bring you to this blessed conclusion, “The Spirit of God is in them and they are being led by him; they are sons of God.”
In 1961, over half a century ago, I crossed the Atlantic in a German cargo boat from Liverpool. The journey took 11 days and I got to know the ship, the chief engineer and some of the crew well; we four passengers had lunch with the Captain each day. When we got to Chesapeake Bay in Virginia a boat came alongside us and on board came the young American pilot who navigated the ship the twenty miles through the Bay to our dock in Norfolk. We arrived without any mishaps because we had a pilot who knew the dangers of rocks and shallow water, where they were located, and what was the safest route to our moorings. We had someone to lead our ship to safety.
Again, when American pioneers traveled west 150 years ago they crossed the continent on wagon trains and they forded rivers and went through deserts and blizzards and the Rocky Mountains; they faced hostile Indians and outlaws. How indispensable was the role of the experienced wagon master leading them to their appointed destination. Again, imagine that you are climbing a mountain and a thick mist falls; how crucial to have a guide who knows that peak like the back of his hand. He knows the path and where the dangers lie, and he is leading you.
We all need leaders; we may believe that the eva
ngelical church is weak today because of its lack of leaders. Consider the world stage; who can name more than two of the presidents or prime ministers of the countries of Europe? Where are the inspirational political leaders? Who are your own role models whom you follow? But we need more than role models and leaders, we need personal guides in the pilgrimage before us.
You are a young person facing the great journey of life. A career, buying a house, marriage, fatherhood or motherhood, old age, losing those you love, facing death – who is going to lead you? How then should you live? What should be your values? What is truth? What should you do with your gifts and energy? What can prepare you for death? Who can guide you aright? What if you should fall in with people who would lead you astray? It’s always a possibility, especially if you are a weakling. Think of the opening chapter of Proverbs and see an identical situation to the gang culture in London today: “My son, if sinners entice you, do not give in to them. If they say, ‘Come along with us; let’s lie in wait for someone’s blood, let’s waylay some harmless soul; let’s swallow them alive, like the grave, and whole, like those who go down to the pit; we will get all sorts of valuable things and fill our houses with plunder; throw in your lot with us, and we will share a common purse.’ My son, do not go along with them, do not set foot on their paths; for their feet rush into sin, they are swift to shed blood” (Provs. 1:10-16). Don’t be led by the in-crowd, by your peers, by cruel, stupid, thieves. Be led by the Spirit!
Do you have a leader? Does everyone here have a leader, someone whom you know will guide you well, lovingly and safely through life and then when you walk through the valley of the shadow of death he is still with you comforting you? Do you have such a person? If so who is that one? Who leads you? Who is your example? Name him now in your mind. I am not that leader; I cannot be because I am not so good a man, and I cannot be with you always; we are warned of putting our trust in princes. Paul is speaking here in Romans 8 to every single Christian in the congregation in Rome – all were being led by the Spirit without exception. Paul is addressing the mere Christian, a child of God, and that the great privilege every believer possesses is that he is led by the Spirit of God. You remember that wonderful scene in Genesis 2 where God makes Eve from Adam and he leads Eve to Adam. He introduces her to her husband. God the Spirit leads us all.
The same word is used of Jesus after his baptism that he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. We also find Paul telling the Galatians, “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law” (Gals. 5:18). In Matthew 21 the word is used of leading a donkey, but generally it describes persons who are being led. In the parable of the Good Samaritan it is used of the way he led the wounded traveler to the inn (Luke 10:34); it is also used of the blind man of Jericho being led to Jesus (Lk. 18:40). It is used of Jesus being led to Caiaphas (John 18:28); it is used of Stephen being led to the council (Acts 6:12); it is used of Christians being arrested and led bound to Jerusalem (Acts 9:2); it is used of Simon Peter being led by his brother Peter to Jesus (John 1:42).
The Holy Spirit leads just like that; this is very personal guidance; he has a loving, controlling influence over the sons of God. You see it in Psalm 73, “Yet I am always with you;” that is what he says to the Lord, and “you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterwards you will take me into glory” (Psa. 73:23&24). A Christian is someone who has a new leader. Everyone’s got a leader. No escape from having someone to lead you, but we have the very best leader. We’ve been delivered from the leading and guiding of sin. Sin once told us, “You ignore God, and ignore the Bible, and the ten commandments, and the church and ‘morbid thoughts’ of death and eternity.” Sin told us the lie that no one has come back from the grave and no one knew what happened afterwards, and we believed that falsehood. We were all led by sin as sheep going to the slaughter, but that slavery to that cruel master is all behind us. Our chains have fallen off and our hearts are free. We’re no longer doing what sin once told us to do; now we are being led by the Spirit. Praise God! And you appreciate that we’re not being compelled against our wills to go reluctantly along with him – “Well, I suppose I’d better go along with what the Spirit tells me . . . it’s not fair,” talking like a whining teenager. We have been given life from heaven, real delight in God, the power of a new affection, and a pure heart, and that causes us to walk as the Spirit directs us. Of course we sigh and we acknowledge that we are “prone to wander, Lord we feel it, prone to leave the God we love” but we could never leave God completely; we could deny him at a fireside surrounded by non-Christians; we could know a season of luke-warmness but always at the back of our minds we’d rather be led by the Spirit; that is our chief desire, and we find that when we do wander the good Spirit is constantly bringing us back. The Spirit turns us and leads us in the right path again and again. He gives us repentance, like he gave it to Peter when he went out and wept bitterly. Because we are the sons of God we are going through life not where we want to go but where he wants. We don’t do what we might wish but what he determines. We don’t fill our cups each day with what we want to drink but we take the cup our heavenly Father gives and we drink that. Every single Christian without exception is led by the Holy Spirit because he is a son of God. If you were a father would you let your children be led to think and speak and act in any way they pleased? Would you permit them come under all kinds of harmful influences and just do nothing? Of course not. Neither does the heavenly Father of all his children let them walk into hell. He leads us by the Spirit.
What is this leading? First some negatives and then some positives:
i] This leading of the Spirit is not that we may stop thinking and choosing, simply to let the Spirit do the choosing for us. You remember how Paul captures the tension of the Christian life in Philippians chapter two and verses 12 and 13 where he says; “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” You work because God works. You think! You consider! You make wise judgments. You work out what it means to be a Christian inwardly, in your heart and mind, and then in the home, and in your place of employment, with your neighbours, with the members of the congregation – wherever God puts you, because he is working in you. You apply yourself to working out with dead seriousness what it means to please God as a redeemed person in every activity of life. You must do that. It is not a thoughtless automatic activity like breathing. It is not guaranteed, like your heart beating. In the leading of God you get caught up; you have to make wise choices continually. < /span>
ii] This leading of the Spirit does not consist in a series of hunches. Don’t we get hunches? I get them all the time. Impulses, certainties, sudden convictions that I should do this or that. Once you have one it becomes obsessive, certainly for me. “Surely this is of God,” you think. “I am being led by the Spirit of God – like it says in Romans 8.” The dangers are these. Firstly, that everyone in the world gets hunches and does the most terrible things because of impulses. Secondly, they are the easiest things for Satan to initiate. He can counterfeit the divine leadings in the realm of our emotions very, very easily. The third danger is this, that at times such promptings are absolutely right, of course they are. It was a good hunch! But at other times, alas, they land us in deep trouble and our problems are compounded. We have all heard of the man who says to the surprised woman – who hardly knows him – that he has been led by God to marry her. Every organization and political party and cultural group and church has a crank or two like that. We’ve got them! There are times when you get zapped, when you feel strongly that you must move away, or change your job, or invest in some shares, or apply to a certain university. Paul tells the Thessalonian church to test the spirits to see whether they are of God or not. Let me say some things that will help you to understand how the Spirit leads us:
A] Leading means two things, firstly that the big picture is made clear to every Christian. We are going home to God in heaven and so we’re purifying and preparing ourselves each day for the sight of Christ. That is where our compass is pointing every single day. That is the general direction, but then there is something more, that God will reveal the next immediate stage to us, a few more steps, day by day . . . this summer, no more than that, that is all. Not the whole journey; never the complete route. Be content with little by little. As your days so your leading will be.
B] The Spirit is not a celestial kill-joy. You hear foolish Christians saying that God seems always to be telling you to be doing what you hate most to do, or to go somewhere that’s the last place you want to go to. “That’s the sort of God he is.” That is nonsense; it is a caricature of the Holy Spirit. I have not found the Spirit to be that kind of God. He is kind, and as gentle as Jesus. He delights in bringing joy to those he leads. He is the Creator and sustainer of whatsoever things are true and lovely and worthy of praise and of good report in our lives. The Spirit is like the delighted response of parents at the first steps of a child. The mother sets the toddler down and the father switches on his video camera and they say, “Come on now! Come to Daddy! Come to Mummy.” Arms are open wide! And the child takes two steps and is captured on camera for ever. Hooray. The child likes the praise and he tries to walk again, but he falls flat. They don’t give him a row! They pick him up and tell him he’s a big boy now. The Holy Spirit is anxious that we follow him, that we walk in the Spirit day by day, and he encourages all the early steps we take following him.
C] The Spirit does not lead just white-haired Christians, bald men who have been believers for many years. He leads children and teenagers, new Christians who are in school or who are plumbers and refuge collectors. Joseph was young when the Spirit led him in Egypt; Daniel was a teenager when the Spirit led him in Babylon. Before they had a single grey hair God was leading them.
D] The Spirit does not confine himself to unusually strong feelings or coincidences. There are strong feelings in the Christian life – there have to be such when you are dealing with the living God – but they are neither normal nor necessary. It is more usual for the Spirit to lead us by a still small voice, through constant biblical preaching, through good advice from other Christians, through the directions of providence tested by the clear counsels of the Bible.
E] Most of the mega-important decisions we take in life come about through many mini-important decisions that we’ve had to take, so that the big choices become almost second nature to us. For example, meeting someone or hearing a particular message – occasions that seemed at the time so casual and low key – eventually resulted in great good, but only because of non-negotiable values and standards we have imbibed over the years and stand upon. The little choices are important because they are set in the context of big convictions. Sometimes we ca see that what we saw as little decisions are not so little after all, and so Jesus speaks of the fall of a sparrow to the ground as being determined by God. That fall was important to that sparrow. How much may depend on something very small. The fruit that Eve ate was very small. The red ribbon that Rahab hung in her window was small. The five loaves and the two fishes were insignificant, and yet momentous consequences can come from such small things. That is why we pray about everything. Now I’m glad to find a free parking place in Aberystwyth, but I don’t make that the great evidence that God hears prayer, because many drivers in the town are looking for one and probably some of them need one more than I do. So I am thankful to get one, but examples of answered prayer are rather more humbling than that. So, I don’t pray about what tie or socks I am going to wear that day I just exercise common sense as a gift of God for such mechanical things and so I don’t inevitably pray about parking places. I try to live and drive trusting in God. I am always looking to God for help. But when we set off to Scotland last week before I turned the key in the ignition we bowed and I committed the journey to God. Lead us Holy Spirit!
I was in Machynlleth yesterday at the end of the mission week. They had distributed thousands of Christians evangelistic newspaper to the town and the little villages and homes on the hills surrounding the town. The previous week a truck drew up outside Richard Davies’s home and all these newspapers arrived, half a ton of them on a pallet. “My responsibility is to deliver them to your home,” the driver told Richard, “It is not to bring them inside. That is your responsibility.” “All right,” said Richard. The man had a forklift truck and he deposited this vast pile of newspaper on the sidewalk. “I suppose I should start taking them inside,” thought Richard (who is seriously unwell). He was just beginning when two neighbours came along. “Can we help? Do you need a hand?” they asked him, right at that moment. They were led to come by and they carried into the house all the papers. Now that kindness was shown to Richard because he does the big things; he is a good neighbour; he seeks to love his neighbour as himself; he cooperates with the Spirit and is led by the Spirit in serving others in many mini-decisions, so that when this maxi-need came into his life God had his way of helping him. God led those people to him. Leading is not a series of hunches it is a life that is lived in constant good works. Again, negatively . . .
iii] Again, this leading of the Spirit is not something that only super-Christians experience. This is nothi
ng spooky in being led by the Spirit, but this is the common, normal privilege of every believer without exception, generally when we are not conscious of the Spirit’s work in our lives. This leading is what differentiates us from unbelievers. We may modify the inspired words, “If any man have not the Spirit of Christ he is not led by the Spirit.” It is not a matter of pride for a Christian to claim that he’s led by the Spirit. It’s a matter of truth and daily reality. It’s a matter of gospel privilege which we all enjoy who love the gospel. It’s a matter of necessity and dependence; I dare not trust the sweetest frame of mind I might be in. I’m an unworthy and unstable person and so I have to be led by the Spirit. It is a sheer necessity.
“Holy Spirit, help us, daily by Thy might,
What is wrong to conquer, and to choose the right” (William H. Parker, 1845-1929)
Now for three positive reminders;
i] The purpose of the Spirit’s leading is not to enable us to escape the difficulties, dangers, trials or sufferings of this life, but specifically to conquer sin. The context is mortifying remaining sin. The letter to the Romans begins back in chapter one with a description of the sheer rottenness of sin, and then goes on to describe the great deliverance that Jesus Christ obtains for his people. The Spirit’s work is to bring that new life to us, and clean us from the inside, making us holy people. Another phrase for the leading of the Spirit is the tough, single Latin-based word ‘sanctification’. In other words, we are being led into Christ-like living, and constantly restored to a godlike lifestyle when we fall and repent. Do you see that this can’t be the privilege of a few hyper-Christians who have had the second blessing? This is the blessing which every Christian experiences and its purpose is to conquer sin in our lives.
ii] Again, this leading of the Spirit is a continuous work. It affects the whole of the believer’s person, his mind, his imagination, his affections, his soul and his body. The Spirit has made up his mind that all those to whom he has been sent by God are going to be freed from sin. They will be led into holiness during the years of their earthly pilgrimage, so that every part of us that needs to be delivered from sin the Spirit of God is going to be at work. On our death beds he will deliver us from dying doubts. So when we talk biblically about being ‘led by the Spirit’ we are not talking of special promptings, and insights, and deliverances, and hunches, and feelings. We are talking of the way the Spirit leads us to break with sinful habits, and guides us down the paths of good works and service. In other words, when we deem other people better than ourselves we are being led by the Spirit. When we bear the burden of the weak we are being led by the Spirit. When a husband loves his wife as Christ loves the church he is being led by the Spirit. When a wife respects her husband she is being led by the Spirit. When we are ready to give an answer to a person who asks us for the reason for our hope then we are being led by the Spirit. When we present out bodies a living sacrifice to God we are being led by the Spirit. When we clothe ourselves in the armour of God then also we are being led by the Spirit. That is how and why he leads us.
iii] Again, this leading of the Spirit is always according to the teaching of the Bible. We are going to get a biblical education! It will never be into the ways of sin. However hard the way, and however strenuous the effort and however mysterious the trials and sufferings we pass through, when desirable doors close and undesirable doors open, yet we are making progress because he is leading us all the way. We are not going down the road of life by our own power but by the power of the one controlling us and leading us to the appointed goal, the throne of God. There was a Scottish woman who once said, “I have learned that in the long run the Almighty is always right.” Let me quote a hymn and just change the word ‘Saviour’ to the word ‘Spirit’;
All the way the Spirit leads me; cheers each winding path I tread;
Gives me grace for every trial, feeds me with the living bread.
Though my weary steps may falter, and my soul athirst may be,
Gushing from the rock before me, Lo! A spring of joy I see.
(Frances Jan Van Alstyne 1820-1915)
What a consolation this truth is, that we have been led by the Spirit of God even to this very moment, and to this precious theme. So, we have to acknowledge that as Christians we have found ourselves falling into sin often – sin which is far more powerful than the natural man – yet let us not despair as Christians because the indwelling Holy Spirit is far greater and more powerful than remaining sin. We’d despair if we were simply meeting sin after sin, but we are not. We are meeting mercy after mercy; we are meeting the energy to carry on the journey. The Spirit of grace himself produces the believer’s conflict against sin, and he’s also the spur to continue the fight. The victory is assured. The Spirit is within us and we cannot fail. He will lead us home.