This post is the fifth and final post on the five elements of saving faith.
The five posts are listed here:
1. The certainty of invisible, spiritual realities: past, present and future
2. The assurance of things hoped for, both in this world and the next
3. The conviction of personal sin
4. Active reliance on Christ as all-sufficient Savior, provider, and protector
5. Reception of spiritual guidance
In recent years, we have become increasingly more dependent on GPS software to guide us to the destinations of our lives. Originally, I had a large unit that stuck to my windshield by a suction cup. Now, I use a direction app on my smartphone. This capability is a modern marvel, enabling us to navigate from where we are to where we want to go with amazing accuracy. Every left and right turn we need to make has been calculated. But how are we to know when to turn to the right or left in our two infinite journeys of sanctification and missions?
Guidance in the Internal Journey
Isaiah prophesied a day when the highway of holiness would be established in our hearts and the navigation system would be activated to guide us along it: “And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness. The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in that Way; wicked fools will not go about on it” (Isa. 35:8). “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it’” (Isa. 30:21). Jesus says in John 14:6 that he is the “Way of Holiness.” The gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit is our navigation system, for Romans 8:13-14 teaches us that those who are led by the Spirit to put sin to death are the children of God. Moment by moment, the Spirit speaks to the heart of a child of God, saying “This is the way, walk in it.”
By faith, we enjoy a delightful intimacy with Christ that guides us through life: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). I believe that this intimate relationship is secured for us by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. This kind of guidance was both demonstrated and promised in the Old Testament. David felt God’s guidance personally, as reflected in Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (Psalm 23:1-3).
In the internal journey, it is especially in “paths of righteousness” that the Lord leads us, warning us from temptations, protecting us from evil, guiding us to spiritual mentors or churches or good books that will help us grow in grace and in the knowledge of Christ. The Lord warns us and guides us safely through Satan’s traps, showing us the “way of escape” that he has sovereignly guaranteed will always be available for us: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13, ESV).
Guidance in the External Journey
In the external journey of Kingdom advance, God guides us by giving us insight into the best, most fruitful paths of service for his glory. In the New Testament, the Lord gave specific strategic guidance to his servants again and again in the Book of Acts for the purpose of the external journey of worldwide gospel advance. For example, in Acts 8, Philip is guided to a certain desert road by an angel of the Lord, and then to a specific chariot there by the indwelling Spirit, resulting in a prime witnessing opportunity with the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-29). This same guidance completely covered the life and ministry of Paul from the moment of his conversion until the end of his life. The Holy Spirit clearly guided the church at Antioch to set apart Paul and Barnabas, and send them on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:2-4). On Paul’s next journey, the Spirit led Paul and Silas forcefully west toward Europe rather than east toward Asia by means of a vision of a man from Macedonia begging for help (Acts 16:6-10).
Common Forms of Guidance
Such dramatic communications from the Lord to his servants by means of supernatural visions, dreams, angelic visitations and the like are clearly not the norm (nor were they for the Apostles). The Holy Spirit speaks to us most clearly through his written word, the Holy Scriptures. However, we should also recognize his guidance and influence manifested through impressions and internal convictions. These quiet impressions from the Lord may have to do with personal spiritual growth (internal journey) or missionary strategy (external journey), or other vital details of our spiritual health and fruitfulness. Such impressions must be tested by the Word of God, for no private impression can ever take priority over Scripture. Furthermore, it is good to test them by the elders of the local church and by the Body of Christ in general. But to reject them altogether is dangerous. James 1:5-8 commands us to seek wisdom from the Lord in prayer, and to not doubt that he gives it. This is God’s usual way of giving guidance to his children: by the Spirit, by prayer, by the Scripture, in a still, small voice.
God may also guide his people by giving them a “burden” for a specific ministry or a “calling” that governs the whole direction of their lives. Some may have a burden for a specific unreached people group, or for the urban poor. Others may have a calling into vocational ministry that God presses on their hearts. An important way God leads people to specific patterns of ministry is by the spiritual gifts he gives them (Rom. 12:1-8; Eph. 4:7-17; 1 Cor. 12-14). These gifts become determinative in guiding people to clear patterns of service that last their whole lives.
God also uses his sovereign control over daily life to guide his people. There are providential signs of “open doors” of ministry opportunity (2 Cor. 2:12; Rev.3:8) that God’s people have perceived and passed through, resulting in eternal fruit.
The Clearest Guidance: Scripture
For all of this discussion of spiritual “impressions,” however, first place must be given to the most significant form of direct, spiritual guidance the Lord gives to his people: by means of the Spirit’s illumination and application of Scripture directly to our hearts. “So, as the Holy Spirit says: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts…” (Heb. 3:7-8). In Hebrews 3:7-4:11, the author does an extended meditation on Psalm 95, written by King David almost one thousand years before. And Psalm 95 itself was David’s thoughts on the rebellion of the Jews almost five centuries before that. But the central concept it that, by scripture, God is always speaking to his people “Today.”
Note therefore with great precision how the author introduces his meditation on Psalm 95: “So, as the Holy Spirit says, ‘Today, if you hear his voice…’” (Heb. 3:7). David is not mentioned here at all. What matters is that it is the Holy Spirit who speaks Psalm 95 to us today. Note also the tense of the verb: “As the Holy Spirit says.” Not “said” but “says.” This is essential to the very next clause, “Today, if you hear his voice.” It is not David’s voice but the voice of the Holy Spirit that we must hear. And according to Hebrews 3:7, God speaks to us by the Holy Spirit through the texts of Scripture.
So, if you want to hear God speak to you today, sit down and read the Bible, doing so in total reliance on the Holy Spirit. This is the “living and active” Word of God (Heb. 4:12), it is Christ speaking to his sheep, it is the Holy Spirit guiding us in the two infinite journeys, it is “everything we need for life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3).
Obedience Promotes Understanding
The more faithfully we obey his commands in Scripture, the more clearly we will hear him speak to us in the future: “I have more understanding than the elders, for I obey your precepts” (Psalm 119:100). The key moment of our entire Christian lives is the moment when the Spirit speaks to our hearts by the Scripture. If we soften our hearts, yield, obey, and follow, we will grow. If we harden our hearts, resist, rebel and turn away, we will stop growing. Nothing could be more vital than to hear Christ speaking to us in the pages of the Holy Bible, and follow him in obedience: “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him” (John 14:21). Note the steps: we must 1) have Christ’s commands (i.e. read the Bible); 2) love Christ (it logically precedes the obedience, since the obedience proves the love); 3) obey Christ’s commands. If so we will 4) experience the love of the Father and the Son, especially by 5) greater self-disclosure by Christ. Christ says “I will show myself to him.” That means greater revelation, a closer, more intimate relationship. Obedience leads to relationship, and from this relationship we will know his will better.
A spiritually mature person has a constantly growing faith. This faith involves an ever-increasing sense of total reliance on Christ for everything. He is the vine, we the branches, and apart from him, we can do nothing (John 15:5). So also a growing faith results in a clear sense of constant guidance from the Lord primarily through the Spirit, the Bible, and prayer, but also through providential things God does in life.