How does the Holy Spirit lead us?

On Facebook last night I'd posted a mini-discernment lesson regarding a tweet Beth Moore had written advocating a process for distilling whether a prompt from the Holy Spirit is legitimate or if it's your own imagination. I wrote the following in response to her tweet:

Beth Moore is an alleged 'Bible teacher'. She has 753,000 followers on Twitter alone. The following comment is something she taught a few hours ago on Twitter. Nothing in the Bible says what she taught and teaches. What solid and credible Bible teachers do is teach their pupils to go externally and seek the source of all truth, the Word of God. Moore teachers women to go internally and rely on mystical warnings, feelings, and prompts. What Moore is actually teaching is the insufficiency of scripture and the sufficiency of ourselves in obeying personal feelings.

If Moore was a true Bible teacher she should have written that we seek wisdom from the Bible and follow its commands. We do not rely on the timing of mystical feelings in order to make decisions. We don't even have to wonder if it is our imagination if we read it in the Word of God. Here is what she should have written-

"Take caution not to override a command of the Lord in His word. Pray persistently in seeking the strength from the Lord you need to obey what is written. Mind the Lord and His statutes."

I thought that it would be obvious that Moore is teaching something extra-biblical. Obvious.

I was wrong.

I received several comments, one of which asserted that I'd misunderstood the tweet. While it's always possible I misinterpret an author's intent within the confines of a 140 character tweet, in this case I've studied Moore's work widely enough to know that I had not done that in this case. I also thought the tweet was plain enough in its assertion.

Another commenter tried to to convince me that there was room for direct revelation. She knows there's room, she said, because though 99% of the time scripture is enough, sometimes God speaks "very clearly" to her and she knows it's Him because what He says comes true according to her wishes and wants at the time.

If scripture isn't sufficient 100% of the time, it is not sufficient at all. God is not speaking clearly or audibly to anyone in any form, not in...

impressions on our heart
'told me'
spoke audibly

...because the Bible says that God has spoken though His Son, who IS the Word. (Hebrews 1:2)

Peter said personal experience is never a proper validation of God's authority, because the word is more sure. (2 Peter 1:19). I notice in these kind of discussions that people assert that it must be God is telling them stuff because what they wanted is coming true. However I notice it never seems to be the case that 'the Lord told us very clearly one of us will die from cancer', or 'the Lord told us very clearly that we will never have children,' or 'the Lord told us very clearly that I should stop sinning via pornography.' No, the direct leading of the Spirit people claim they receive are never that kind, the type that brings bad news against their wish list or commands the person to slay their besetting sin.

Worse, women who claim "He told me very clearly that..." means the woman is claiming prophet status - which elevates her to a position she does not have. Moreover, it discourages other women who have not had the privilege of "hearing directly from God". They begin to doubt their situations when they aren't given such personal, clear commands.

One commenter did ask a good question, which formed the basis for this post. She asked, "Where does the Holy Spirit come into it?" Her question is a good one, but a sad one. An entire generation of women have been taught by the Beth Moores etc. that we should expect to be directly (or audibly) led by God, that they do not know what to be led by the Spirit actually means. So here is a post on what it means to be led by the Spirit.

We know the Spirit does lead us. One verse in particular comes to mind, Romans 8:14, where it says so.

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.

Now, the Holy Spirit does guide us and convict us and teach us and help us but not in a way we know at the time. You might look afterwards and say, gee, that sure was from the Lord. But at the time, we cannot, must not, rely on feelings, prompts, whispers, inclinations, or imaginations, and attribute them to God. That is dangerous because the flesh is at war with the Spirit. One can never really know if it's the flesh or not. We are commanded not to obey the flesh, but to slay it. (Mt 16:24). Just because Beth Moore teaches that if the feeling hangs around long enough it must be God is ridiculous on the face of it. The flesh is persistent. Very persistent.

It's also mysticism and divination to follow promptings and claim they were from God. How can we interpret? We can't, we're sinful. So while the Spirit leads, His main ministry is to point to Jesus, who is the Word. John 16:14. That's why a good teacher also points to the Word, which is more sure.

Here is John MacArthur on the Romans verse 8:14, with a very simple explanation of the Spirit's leading:

How does He lead us?  Two ways.  Externally, by the Scripture – externally, by the Scripture, Psalm 119:18: "Open my eyes that I may behold wonderful things from Your law." Show me the truth of Scripture. Externally by Scripture, internally by sanctification. Those two ways. Externally, Scripture; internally, sanctification.

Therefore, there's no need for a teacher such as Moore to teach an extra-biblical process for figuring out if the prompting is imagination or not.

Sinclair Ferguson at Ligonier Ministries has a good take on leading by the Spirit, which concurs with MacArthur's in terms of the main leading of the Spirit being illumination of the scriptures. Remember, the point of the Spirit's ministry is to point to Christ - who is the Word. (John 16:14, 1 John 4:2).

Spirit of Light, by Sinclair Ferguson
Why, then, are Christians today—in contrast to their fathers—so thirsty to experience immediate revelation from God, when His desire for us is the ongoing work of the Spirit opening up our understanding through the mediated revelation of the New Testament? There seem to be three reasons:

1. It is more exciting to have direct revelation rather than Bible revelation. It seems more “spiritual,” more “divine.”

2. For many people, it feels much more authoritative to be able to say, “God has revealed this to me” than to say, “The Bible tells me so.”

3. Direct revelation relieves us of the need for painstaking Bible study and careful consideration of Christian doctrine in order to know the will of God. In comparison to immediate revelation, Bible study seems—to be frank—boring.

Lest we be brow-beaten and develop a kind of siege mentality as Reformed Christians, here are some things we should bear in mind about the work of illumination:

This is the divine method that produces authentic Christian growth, because it involves the renewal (not the abeyance) of the mind (Rom. 12:2) and it is progressive (it takes time and demands the obedience of our wills). Sometimes God does things quickly. But His ordinary way is to work slowly and surely to make us progressively more like our Lord Jesus.

The result of the Spirit working with the Word of God to illumine and transform our thinking is the development of a godly instinct that operates in sometimes surprising ways. The revelation of Scripture becomes, in a well-taught, Spirit-illumined believer, so much a part of his or her mindset that the will of God frequently seems to become instinctively and even immediately clear—just as whether a piece of music is well or badly played is immediately obvious to a well-disciplined musician. It is this kind of spiritual exercise that creates discernment (see Heb. 5:11–14).

In other words, the Spirit leads us by slowly conforming us to Christ-likeness through the application and illumination of the word in us. Our affections change. As MacArthur above said, by the word externally and by inner sanctification as the word works through us.

Now, is there such thing as impressions or promptings? Ferguson below then Phil Johnson below that, explain...yes...and no.

Ferguson from the Ligonier article above:
Well-meaning Christians sometimes mistake the Spirit’s work of illumination for revelation, which, unhappily, can lead to serious theological confusion and potentially unhappy practical consequences. But the doctrine of illumination also helps us explain some of the more mysterious elements in our experience without having to resort to the claim that we have the gift of revelation and prophecy.

Here the late John Murray spoke with great wisdom: “As we are the subjects of this illumination and are responsive to it, and as the Holy Spirit is operative in us to the doing of God’s will, we shall have feelings, impressions, convictions, urges, inhibitions, impulses, burdens, resolutions. Illumination and direction by the Spirit through the Word of God will focus themselves in our consciousness in these ways. (Collected Writings, I, p. 188).

Again, it's through the Word.

Phil Johnson, Shepherds Conference 2002, “Super Seminar: Private Revelations”

Now, does the Spirit of God ever move our hearts and impress us with specific duties or callings? Certainly. But, even in doing that, He works through the Word of God. Experiences like this, impressions and all, are not in any sense prophetic or authoritative except as they echo what the Word already says. They are not revelation. Those sensations, those impressions, those feelings you get are not revelation, but they are the effect of illumination. When the Holy Spirit applies the Word to our hearts, and opens our spiritual eyes to His truth. And, we need to guard carefully against allowing our experiences and our own subjective thoughts and imaginations to eclipse the authority and the certainty of the more sure Word of God. This is a very practical application of the principle of Sola Scriptura.

Think about this…to what ever degree you seek private messages from God outside His Word, you have abandoned the principle of Sola Scriptura.

It is simpler and more direct to say something like "My husband and I decided to adopt 3 children." rather than "The Spirit led us to the adoption agency." It's more honest to say, "We decided to purchase the organ for the church because we adhere to the biblical principle of cheerfully giving" than to say "We felt led by the Spirit to drive down Main Street where we saw the organ store and God clearly told us to buy it."

The Spirit leads us into sanctification, where we gradually and inexorably conform to Jesus' likeness, not by having Him specifically give us explicit directions for certain actions at any given time. But what a joy to know He does lead us!


  1. Hmmm. Let's apply this advice to Noah. The Bible states that Noah heard from the Lord once during that particular incident and was told since God was going to destroy the earth by a flood, he was to build a massive ark to hold every species of animal on the earth at that time. Because of the utterly incredible, out of the ordinary command, he more than likely in his human nature would have considered that it either was his imagination or a bad fig he had eaten and forgot about the whole thing. But here is the thing. He didn't. He got right to work. Why? Because there was no doubt that it was God who had spoken, even though God only spoke once to him on that particular occasion. Every single person who God commanded in the Bible by speaking to them understood from the get-go that it was God speaking, not their imagination. Even Balaam who simply ignored Him and went to curse the Isrealites anyway.

    Today we have classes and instructions on hearing the voice of God. We are told ad nauseam to listen to God speaking to you and obey that voice. This leads to all kinds of error and heartache in the end. I know personally how such error can wreck an individual's spiritual life. It creates haves and have-nots, special Christians who God "speaks to" and those who feel inadequate or unaccepted by God because they hear nothing.

    One final thought. If you are a born again Christian reading this blog and happen to be one of those who desperately want to hear God speaking, have been praying for such, and are saddened because you haven't experienced it, praise God that He has protected you from greivous error. Thank Him and then go to your Bible. There you will find His voice coming through loud and strong.

    2 Peter 1:19
    And we have the word of the Prophets as more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

    1. I agree, listening for God's voice brings a person down a rabbit trail that ends in spiritual wreck. In the past, God did speak to Noah directly and to Balaam thru a donkey. He also spoke thru angels, through a bush, and more. Hebrews 1:1 says

      Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets,

      but the verse goes on to say, "But in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, " Hebrews 1:2. Teachers who refer to the Old Testament voice of God's engagement with His people deliberately skip over this important verse and twist the Bible to suit their own passions.

  2. As someone who has been harmed by this Type of theology I thank you for bringing the truth.

    I developed a severe anxiety disorder from trying to distinguish my thoughts from God speaking to me, when I became born again I was taught by Beth Moore and Joyce Meyers bible studies. I was taught to listen for God talking to me on my thoughts and obey and if I didn't obey then I was sinning. Trying to figure out which was God almost drove me insane and as my anxiety grew my thoughts got scarier and I thought to myself if I could just figure out what God was telling me the anxiety would stop. It was like I have to hit the spiritual lottery to know what God was trying to tell me. I even quit my job thinking maybe that's what he was saying, but guess what that wasn't it and the anxiety grew as I tried to figure out if what thoughts were God talking to me. (Thankfully my boss let me have my job back)

    I also remember when I was having an anxiety attack, my friend told me it was the Holy Spirit warning me and I needed to obey. This type of thinking will break people and their faith.

    And let's talk about individual backgrounds of people, I grew up in a extremely critical home where nothing I did was good enough, so I struggle with perfectionism, well guess what voice became Gods to me, the one that my father used on me that nothing I did was right. We are all broken, our thoughts are shaped by so many things, how can we discern?

    I am starting to come out of this thinking but the fear I have of not listening and disobeying God is hard to overcome. It's almost like being brainwashed with wrong theology.

    1. Hi Jt,

      Thank you for reading and the comment I am so sorry you had so much trouble descending into this false theology. The Spirit wasn't kidding when He inspired the writers to write that it destroys, it upsets whole families, and it makes you a captive.

      How did you begin to over come it?

  3. Right now I am in the word studying every time the Holy Spirit and how God spoke in the Old Testament.

    I also stated using common sense, I mean why would God have us running around like chickens with our heads cut off trying to figure out if it was him. I also read some I tersting articles that made sense to me. One was if Jesus taught us how to specifically pray, then why wouldn't he tell us how God would speak to us and the markers of discernment to figure it out. He didn't because it doesn't happen that way he's always turns is back to scripture. The thought was if you are saying God told you something you better be sure or your taking his name in vain. That really hit me hard because no one can be 100% sure so we are breaking that commandment.

    I was just at my daughter's soccer game and speaking to one of the moms and she was telling me how the Lord told her, that her daughter couldn't go to the college they were planning on sending her and she was sure it was him. Learning what I am learning it just sounds so weird to me, back before I wouldn't have doubted that she heard from the Lord I wouldn't dare suggest it wasn't him because I could be wrong now I am starting to see the error of this theology and it is freeing to me, but everyday is a battle to get past that mind set.


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