How do we learn to follow the Spirit?

There are some things you just can’t Google.

When it comes to life’s major decisions, we often stand at a crossroads and look around wondering what we should do. If we are followers of Jesus, this comes with the added desire to follow “God’s will for my life.” We have to decide whether or not to go to college, who to marry, where to find a job—and a whole host of other major life decisions.

How do we honor God with our decision making? How do we learn to listen to the guidance of the Holy Spirit?

Graham Cole’s extensive study of the Holy Spirit offers three basic “tests” for our decisions, which I’ll summarize below as a set of questions.


First, does our potential decision match up with Scripture? Naturally, if we are going to follow God’s leading, we should ensure that our decisions match the character of God revealed in the Bible.

But can’t the Holy Spirit speak to us today? Can’t the Spirit speak to us in new ways, regardless of what He may have communicated in the past?

Yes and no. The Holy Spirit does absolutely speak to us today. But He does so most directly through the Word of God. In the New Testament, three distinct writers tell us that the Spirit speaks through God’s word today.

  • Jesus:

When debating some religious leaders about the resurrection, Jesus quotes the text of Exodus to make His point. But He does so by saying: “[H]ave you not read what was said to you by God” (Matthew 22:31)? Ah, we should say; Jesus is telling the folks of His day that God spoke to them through Moses, even though Exodus was written something like 1500 years prior (!).

  • Paul

Paul says something similar. He talks to the Corinthians about Israel’s history, and argues that “these things happened to them [Israel] as an example, but they were clearly written down for our instruction” (1 Corinthians 10:11).

  • Hebrews

Finally, the writer of Hebrews applies Psalm 95 to the lives of his readers. He quotes Psalm 95, prefacing it by saying: “as the Holy Spirit says” (Hebrews 3:7), and that God “appoints a specific day, ‘Today,’ saying through David” (Hebrews 4:7). It’s easy to overlook that in both these verses, the writer is using the present tense. We could just as accurately translate the text to say that “the Holy Spirit is saying [through David].”

For Jesus, Paul, and the writer of Hebrews, the Bible isn’t just an ancient book; it is the contemporary means by which God communicates to His people. So does the Spirit speak to us today? Yes; at least through His Word. But the Spirit will never, ever speak in such a way as to contradict the Bible, because the Bible is the present Word of God in our lives today.


Secondly, we need to ask whether our decision will serve to magnify the name and reputation of Jesus in our lives and communities.

Recall that part of the Spirit’s job is to testify to Jesus (John 15:26). So if we follow the Spirit’s leading, others will see how our lives radiate the character of Jesus. That is, does our decision seek to serve others, or primarily ourselves? Does our decision enable us to serve as Christ’s witnesses in our communities? Will our decisions increase our dependence on God, or on ourselves?


Finally, our decisions should honor the values of the community to which we belong, the Church. Now, we have to be careful here, because unlike the Word of God the Church isn’t always right. Still, it’s not for nothing that Solomon once wrote that “with many advisors a plan succeeds” (Proverbs 15:22). Paul refers to the Church as “a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). The Church represents a complex web of relationships, and these relationships overlap and reinforce each other. If the people in our lives disagree with our decisions, then perhaps this is a sign that we should at least consider alternatives.


Ultimately, though, we must recognize that our desire to “find God’s will” is determined more by our culture than we might realize. We assume that there’s some set path that we should take and if we miss it, we’ve failed. But there’s a reason God’s word tells us that “we are the potter, and [God] is the clay” (Isaiah 64:8). God shapes and molds us in time as we learn and grow in Him.

J.I. Packer says something helpful:

“That God has a comprehensive, foreordained purpose and plan for all of world history, form the greatest events to the smallest, and that this includes a specific, detailed intention for the life of every human being, is to my mind beyond doubt: the Bible is clear on it. That his intention, once you become a Christian, is comparable to an itinerary drawn up for you by a travel agent, where everything depends on you being in the right place at the right time to board the plane or train or bus or boat or whatever and where the itinerary is ruined once you miss one of the preplanned connections, is, by contrast, a sad misconception.”[1]

Trying to “discern God’s will” is a good impulse, to be sure. But if this desire turns to worry, it can paralyze us and prevent us from following God in the day-to-day. God has a plan for us. Let’s trust Him and step forward.


[1] J.I. Packer, “The Ministry of the Spirit in Discerning the Will of God.”

Can we pray to the Holy Spirit?

“We’re sorry, your call cannot be completed as dialed. Please check the number and dial again.”

Has there ever been a phrase that’s generated more frustration? Technology connects us across distances our ancestors never dared imagine, yet these connections are conditioned on our ability to enter the right string of numbers in just the right sequence.

Is prayer like that? Does God expect us to connect to Him in some specific way?

Even if you say “no,” you may find yourself wondering how prayer works with the Trinity. Or maybe you’ve caught yourself being a bit sloppy—you pray to the Father, but you thank Him for dying for your sins. Or you conclude with “in your name” when you’ve been speaking to the Father—not Jesus.

But what about this one: can we pray to the Holy Spirit?


Historically, the answer to this question has been an emphatic “yes.” The Holy Spirit is God, so why shouldn’t we seek to connect to Him directly? In Graham Cole’s recent book on the Holy Spirit, he cites an older prayer that children were taught to pray even from a very young age:

“Heavenly King, Paraclete, Spirit of truth, who are present everywhere and fillest all things, treasury of goodness and Giver of life, come, dwell in us and cleanse us from all stain, and, of thy mercy, save our souls.  Amen.”[1]

As a matter of fact, there have historically been a variety of prayers written to the Holy Spirit. And if we say “no,” we shouldn’t pray to the Holy Spirit, we may be in danger of denying His full equality with God.


On the other hand, we simply can’t find examples of prayers to the Holy Spirit. We normally see prayers directed toward the Father, and occasionally the Son (Stephen in Acts 7:59-60; Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:8-10), but never the Holy Spirit.

Furthermore, Jesus taught His followers to pray to the Father directly (Matthew 6:9-13), and ask for things in the name of the Son (John 14:13). Still, even if this is the “typical” pattern, I don’t see why this prevents us from praying to the Spirt on occasion. But it may be helpful to get some clarification on the Spirit’s role in prayer.


First, the Spirit is what connects us to God. Paul says that “through [Jesus] we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18). So the Spirit empowers our connection to God.

Secondly, this also means that our prayers are meant to reflect the specific roles of the Trinity in prayer. Cole writes:

“Jesus is our great High Priest, and the believer is adopted into the family of God….Christ represents us to God and God to us….[The Holy Spirit] impels Christian prayer.”[2]

So can we pray to the Spirit? Sure; there’s no reason not to. But Scripture points us to a pattern that actually involves the whole Trinity: we pray to the Father in the name of the Son, and by the power of the Holy Spirit.


On select occasion, the writers of the New Testament encourage Christ’s followers to “pray in the Spirit.” What does this mean? It means that our prayers align with the character of God. This means that if we pray “in the Spirit,” our prayers will always be answered—that is, our prayers will be answered because they align with God’s perfect will.

Of course, the reason our prayers are not always answered is because we are unable to consistently pray in a way that reflects God’s will. But that’s ok; God has made provision for this:

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26-27)

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the Spirit will put words in our mouth. What it means is that when we don’t know how to pray, or what to pray for—or if we accidentally pray for the wrong person!—God knows and God understands.

This also touches on how the gospel shapes our prayer life. Have you ever felt as though you were unfit to talk to God because of some “disqualifying” sin in your life? If the Spirit empowers prayer, don’t you see how foolish this is? Through the Spirit, God gives us the means and the ability to connect to Him through prayer. God gives us the means to connect with Him; we didn’t earn the privilege through our own merits. So in the end, the Spirit offers us assurance of God’s desire for relationship and for connection.

So put the phone down. Rejoice that the Spirit enables you to talk to the Father.

[1] Cited in Cole, 84.

[2] Cole, 85-6.

Magnify: How the Spirit Keeps the Son at the Center of Our Universe

A friend of mine was once given a piece of precious sports memorabilia: a baseball signed by a half dozen or so of the New York Yankees. Even those of us who’ve historically been O’s fans can appreciate the significance of this gift.

When something is beautiful, or valuable, or simply a conversation-starter, you want to show it off; you want people to know about it. That’s what the Holy Spirit does for Jesus—He illuminates the character of the Son; He magnifies His teachings in order that all men might be drawn toward Him.

In Jesus’ farewell address, He makes this clear to His disciples. He tells them that a major part of the Spirit’s role is to testify about Him:

26 “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. (John 15:26)


13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:13-15)

This doesn’t make the Spirit lesser than Jesus. They are, after all, equally God. But Jesus says that a part of the Spirit’s role is to “glorify” Jesus.

The writer J.I. Packer puts it this way:

“It is as if the Spirit stands behind us, throwing light over on Jesus, who stands facing us.  The Spirit’s message to us is never, ‘Look at me; listen to me; come to me; get to know me,’ but always ‘Look at him and see him, and see his glory; get to know him, and hear his word; go to him, and have life; get to know him, and taste his gift of joy and peace.”[1]

Why is this so significant? Because where you place your focus determines a great deal about how you conduct yourself and how you treat others. This is why Paul appeals to the example of Jesus in his letter to the Philippians. If we place Christ at the center of our beliefs, we will conduct ourselves with Christ’s level of humility.

Part of the reason Christians have struggled with the nature of the Spirit over the years is because it’s been tempting to place the Spirit—not Christ—at the center of our belief system. There have been those who have organized their beliefs around the day of Pentecost rather the day of Calvary, and in so doing have focused on the day of empowerment rather than the day of humiliation. Granted, both events are important. But when we make the Spirit primary, we begin to look for God in extraordinary, miraculous events rather than in the simple, ordinary way of Christ.

Don’t misunderstand; I’d never deny the Spirit’s ability to do great things amongst God’s people. But if we only see the Spirit working in these sorts of events, we have placed God inside a box. If the Spirit moves someone to enter ministry or do something spectacular, it’s easy to nod and affirm that “it’s a God thing.” But no one says that when the Spirit moves someone to change diapers in the nursery, or to volunteer for ministry.

Yet the Spirit is no less active there than anywhere else. Why? Because in every small act we see the humble, loving example of Jesus, and see His love magnified in our midst. Sometimes God does something big. But plenty of other times, the Spirit’s work is seen as the sum of a series of small acts of Christian love. Don’t be afraid to dream of something big, but don’t ever be unwilling to commit to something small.

[1] J.I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit. (Leicester, England: Intervarsity Press, 1984), 66.

What does the Holy Spirit do?

Like many people I know, I’ve committed the unpardonable, technological sin. I’m confident that my phone didn’t die from being dropped in a puddle; I think it was when I hit the “power” button to check to see if it was still working. All the rice in Panda Express couldn’t reverse the damage. My phone was fried.

The Holy Spirit doesn’t come into our lives for the purpose of improvement, but for the purpose of transformation. Like a damaged phone, there is brokenness inside us that can’t simply be repaired. We need renewal; we need a fresh work of God.


For unbelievers, the Spirit works to convict men and women of the gravity of sin. Jesus told His disciples:

8 And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment:  9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; 11 concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.(John 16:8-11)

Paul echoes something of this when he writes that faith is produced not through natural knowledge, but through supernatural intervention:

12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. (1 Corinthians 2:12-13)

The point is that conviction and faith aren’t the outworking of a great sermon or through natural persuasion; they are the products of a living, active Spirit.


The gospel tells us that through the cross, Jesus pays the debt of sin and grants us access to the Father. What is the Spirit’s role in this? Paul tells us that the Spirit unites people of diverse backgrounds together and to God:

15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace.. 8 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. (Ephesians 2:15, 18)

This connection isn’t merely a one-time, past event; we also look forward to the day when we are granted eternal life in God’s future kingdom. Paul writes:

13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:13-14)

Paul is saying that the Holy Spirit is something of a “down payment,” almost like today’s engagement rings. The Spirit’s presence in our lives serves as a reminder and a promise of future restoration in God’s new heaven and new earth.


This also means that we can allow the Spirit to work in our lives in such a way that He transforms us from inside out.

During Jesus’ earthly ministry, there were many who didn’t understand this inward transformation, instead favoring external religious performance. But after generating some attention among the religious leaders, a man named Nicodemus comes to ask Jesus who He really is. Jesus tells this religious leader that to truly know God, He must be born again:

5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:5-8)

To be “born again” implies total renewal, a complete renovation of everything inside of us. This is why Paul would later say to Titus:

5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, (Titus 3:5)

“Regeneration.” It means “renewal,” a new start.

Admittedly, many of us don’t feel all that “new” from these promises. Even Paul acknowledged that even after coming to know Jesus his life was in a state of inner turmoil (Romans 7). But learning to live in line with the gospel means allowing the Spirit to take control. In Romans Paul writes:

5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. (Romans 8:5-6)

Similarly, he writes to the Church in Galatia:

16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. (Galatians 5:16)

To live by the Spirit means allowing the Spirit to transform us, and to live out that transformation as we grow into the image of Jesus.

Is the Holy Spirit a “He” or an “It?”

“Use the force, Luke.”

Like many in my generation, I grew up with my imagination firmly planted in places like Hoth and the Dagobah system—the fictional locales of the Star Wars universe. Lucas’ films gave us a story of stark contrast between good and evil; they also gave us “the force,” a mysterious form of energy that unites everything in the universe. By manipulating the force for selfish ends, some had the power to do evil; it was up to the Jedi to use the force to do good.

For many of us, I suspect we’ve assumed that the Holy Spirit is something like “the force” from Star Wars. It’s a power source, a mysterious form of energy that we can tap into when we need it.

Because of this, one of our primary misunderstandings about the Holy Spirit is that the Spirit is something we can “use” when problems become difficult or when we feel overwhelmed.

But the Holy Spirit isn’t like this. He is God. He is a person. And this changes the way we understand Him.


On the night that Jesus was betrayed, He gathered His closest followers in the upper room to share not only His last meal, but to deliver a farewell address—a “commencement speech,” as one writer puts it, ushering in a new way of living in His absence.

There, He delivers this promise:

15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever,17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. (John 14:15-17)

Now, if you were reading this in the original Greek, you’d zero in on Jesus’ phrase allon parakleton, “another Helper.” Why would this stand out? Because Jesus is basically saying “another of the same type.” He’s saying that the Holy Spirit is fully God in every way that Jesus is fully God. The Holy Spirit, first and foremost, is God—not some force to be manipulated.


This also means that like God, the Holy Spirit is personal. Again, we use this word in a very specific way. Usually when we say “personal” we mean something like “relational” or even “intimate.” But here say that God is personal in the sense that He has a personality; He has the characteristics of being a person.

In what sense is the Spirit a “person?”  On the one hand, we never see the Spirit ascribed a specific human form. When Jesus is baptized, the Holy Spirit is said to descend “like a dove,” for which reason the Spirit has often been depicted as a dove in Christian art. On the other hand, we can find at least three characteristics about the Spirit that help us see that He is indeed a personal being:

  • The Holy Spirit has intelligence

Paul writes:

27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:27)

Here Paul emphasizes that the Spirit has a distinct “mind,” conveying a sense of intelligence and understanding.

  • The Holy Spirit has a will

When the early Church was struggling to decide how to handle the integration of Jews and Gentiles, the early council met to make a decision. They could confidently claim that their decision “has seemed good to the Holy Spirit” (Acts 15:28). The Holy Spirit seems to have a specific will and a specific purpose.

  • The Holy Spirit has emotions

Paul cautions his readers in Ephesus not to “grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Ephesians 4:30). The Holy Spirit therefore also has emotions and can experience pain over our immoral character.


One of the most immediate applications here is that we refer to the Holy Spirit not as an “it” but as a “He.” He is God. He is personal.

This changes everything. A “force” is something I can use—when I need help, when I’m feeling down, I can use a force to navigate life and get me through. But a person is someone I relate to—someone who challenges me in the context of a relationship. So if the Holy Spirit is personal just like the Father and Son, I am compelled to treat Him with the same dignity, respect, and love as I do the Father and Son.