The Study of the Holy Spirit
How Does the Guidance of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament Differ from the Old Testament?
There is something within many sincere Christians that compels them to long for an iron-clad guarantee that they are walking perfectly in the will of God. They long to hear an audible voice from behind them saying, "This is the way, walk in it," whenever they "turn to the right or to the left" (Isa. 30:21). And yet, whoever hears that voice? A closer examination of Isaiah 30:18-26 reveals that it is best understood as a promise made to the redeemed of Zion and Jerusalem during the Millennium. So frankly, I would not expect to hear that voice today.
There has always been exceptional guidance, both in the OT and the NT. God spoke directly with Adam (Gen. 1-2). Yet Adam and Eve chose to reject His voice and follow the voice of the serpent (Gen. 3:1-7). God communicated directly with Noah and told him to build an ark (Gen. 6:13-7:5). God told Abram to leave his country, his relatives, and his father's house for the land He would show him. He would make of Abram a great nation, and He would bless all the families of the earth through him (Gen. 12:1-3). We could go on and on.
God customarily spoke through prophets. God communicated with Moses, perhaps the greatest OT prophet (Ex. 3:1-4:23; 19:18-31:18). God spoke to Joshua (Josh. 1:1-9); to Samuel (1 Sam. 3:1-14); to Elijah (2 Kings 17:1-16); to Isaiah (Isa. 6:8-13); to Jeremiah (Jer. 1:4-19); to Ezekiel (Ezek. 2:1-10). We could go on and on.
In the NT God spoke to many people though Jesus, the Messiah (Heb. 1:1-2). His messages have been recorded in the four gospels. Jesus promised His Apostles ("sent ones") that He would send them His Helper, the Holy Spirit, to teach them all things and remind them of what Jesus had said (John 14:26). The Holy Spirit would even unveil the future to them so they could pass those predictions on to their readers (John 16:13). Jesus spoke directly to Saul, who became Paul (Acts 9:1-6). Paul became the 12th Apostle in the absence of Judas. The Holy Spirit instructed leaders in Antioch to set apart Barnabas and Saul for the work to which He had called them (Acts 13:1-3). These Apostles later wrote letters, affirming that they had been called as an Apostle to communicate truth unerringly to their readers (Rom. 1:1-7; 1 Cor. 1:1-2; Gal. 1:1-2; 1 Pet. 1:1; 2 Pet. 1:1; Rev. 1:1-2).
But this is all exceptional guidance. Not all believers are apostles (1 Cor. 12:29). Not all believers are prophets (1 Cor. 12:29). In fact, whether any believers are apostles today or prophets today is open to legitimate question. After all apostles and prophets were foundational (Eph. 2:20). We are well up into the superstructure of the Church by now.
Much of the guidance by the Holy Spirit in both the OT and the NT was what I call "Quiet Guidance." No voices, no miracles, no signs. The Holy Spirit guided, but at the time, one did not know it. Let's call it Providential Guidance. Who can read the Book of Ruth and not be impressed with the Providential Guidance of God? Why did Ruth, a Moabitess, choose to follow her mother-in-law instead of her own mother? Why did she choose her mother-in-law's land, people, and God, and burial place (Ruth 1:14-18)? Why did Ruth just happen to find herself in the field of Boaz, the relative-redeemer she needed but didn't even know existed (Ruth 2:1-3, 20)? Who guided Naomi in her plan, and why was Ruth willing to follow it? And why was Boaz happy to oblige (Ruth 3:1-18)? Why was the other relative-redeemer willing to purchase Elimelech's land from Naomi, but unwilling to marry Ruth (Ruth 4:1-6)? And why was a woman who had been married before, but without bearing any children (Ruth 1:1-5) suddenly able to bear a son (Ruth 4:13)? And how could a Moabitess become the ancestor of two of Israel's greatest kings (Ruth 4:17-22; Matt. 1:1, 5)? Was it surely not the providential guidance of God's Spirit? The providential guidance of God's Spirit is subtle. One doesn't know about it until after the event has passed!
But surely the same sort of thing happens in the NT. One of the favorite verses of Christians is Romans 8:28. We read there, "And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose." How can that be? When we are going through hard times, we often are convinced God is not guiding us. Yet He is, isn't He? How can He be doing so? Well, it is partly, Paul tells us, because the Holy Spirit is praying "for us with groanings too deep for words" (Rom. 8:26-27). It is also because God has "predestined" us "to become conformed to the image of His Son" (Rom. 8:29).
Isn't it true that God has used His Spirit to prompt people to utter words that are incorporated into Scripture? Look at the examples of Elizabeth (Luke 1:41-45), of Zacharias (Luke 1:67-79), of Simeon (Luke 2:25-35), of Peter (Acts 4:8). Has it not always been true that God's Word "is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path (Ps. 119:105)? Hasn't it always been true that if we treasure God's Word in our hearts, we will not sin against Him (Ps. 119:9-11)? Isn't God's Word always profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16-17)? So it stands to reason that the more closely we follow God's Word, the more likely we are to be guided by God's Spirit.
The Holy Spirit and Guidance in the New Testament
The New Testament affirms that all who are being led by the Holy Spirit are sons of God (Rom. 8:14). How do we know when that is happening? I have heard Christians claim that they were being guided by God's Spirit when they did something. Perhaps they were, and perhaps they only thought they were. When we look at the results of what they did, we say, "I would hate to attribute that decision to the Holy Spirit!" Unfortunately, perhaps, the Holy Spirit gets blamed for a lot of poor decisions Christians make.
And on the other hand, perhaps, we need to leave room for growth. We expect more from toddlers than we do from infants, and we expect more from teen-agers than we do from elementary school children. Maybe the Holy Spirit didn't have a lot to work with when that Christian did something that he or she thought was right, but that caused some damage to another Christian's psyche.
We know that Jesus promised us the Holy Spirit. He is the Spirit of truth. He remained with the OT believers, but He remains inside us NT believers (John 14:16-17). We know that the Holy Spirit enables us to perceive spiritual truth (1 Cor. 2:12; 1 John 2:20-21). We are commanded to be constantly filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18). But it is possible for us to quench the Holy Spirit (1 Thess. 5:19) and to grieve the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30). I take it that unwholesome conversation grieves the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:29), as do such things as bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice (Eph. 4:31). When we are kind to one another, tender-hearted, and forgiving, I take it that we are filled with the Holy Spirit and are being led by Him.
It is pretty easy to tell when we are operating in the energy of the flesh (Gal. 5:19-21). The results are pretty dismal. But when we are operating in the energy of the Spirit, the results are spectacular (Gal. 5:22-23). Clearly, to live by the Spirit is to resist carrying out the desires of the flesh (Gal. 5:16-18).
Back to an earlier point. I think some Christians want a button they can press. That button is labeled, "You are now being guided by the Holy Spirit. It is impossible for you to make a mistake or sin." I don't think that button exists. I think being guided by the Holy Spirit takes a lot of hard work on our part. It takes reading and studying the Bible. It takes praying. It takes deliberately yielding ourselves to the power of the Holy Spirit instead of just giving in to what we want to do. Above all it takes faith. Faith is the number 1 commodity for getting along with God (Heb. 11:6). And if you don't have faith, you are sinning (Rom. 14:22-23). And it probably takes a lot of practice. I wouldn't expect a new-born Christian to be following the leading of the Spirit as much as I would a mature Christian.
And in the end, I think we often see the Holy Spirit's guidance in our rear-view mirror. We have an "Aha" moment - "Oh, now I see why God took me through that trial! I am a stronger Christian because of it!"
(Scripture quotation taken from the NASB 1995.)
Published July 17, 2014
Updated February 3, 2022