Theology Questions: #3 What does it mean to ‘keep in step with the Spirit’?

Keeping in Step with the Spirit

In Galatians 5:13-26, Paul writes the following:

13 “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

16 So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.”

According to Gordon D. Fee, a Pentecostal theologian, the command, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (v. 25), has to do with crucifying the “flesh” not by the law, but by the Holy Spirit. The particular indulgence of the flesh that Paul has in mind here is “becoming conceited, provoking and envying each other” (v. 26) or “biting and devouring each other” (v. 15), but Paul is clearly speaking against all “the acts of the flesh” (v. 19-21 cf. v. 24).

Paul contrasts “indulging the flesh” with “loving service” and “law”, aligning “biting and devouring one another” with “indulging the flesh” (v. 13-15). Paul also contrasts “living by the Spirit” with “indulging the flesh” and being “under law”. We may tabulate the above contrasts and alignments as follows:


Under Mosaic Law Freedom from Being Under Mosaic Law
Not Having the Holy Spirit Living by, Led by, Keeping in Step with the Spirit
Flesh not Crucified by Law Flesh Crucified by the Spirit
Indulging the Flesh Generally/Doing Whatever You Want Fulfilling the Law of Christ: Fruit of the Spirit Generally/Not Doing Whatever You Want
Conceited Provocation, Envy, Biting, Devouring, Destroying Others Serving One-Another in Love


All that Paul does apart from this table is unpack in more detail what “indulging in the flesh” amounts to, and what “the fruit of the Spirit” looks like. In context, then, keeping in step with the Spirit means keeping on crucifying “indulging the flesh”, and keeping on serving one-another in love, manifesting the fruit of the Spirit. Nothing is mentioned about “spontaneous impulses” to “say X” to somebody, or to act in “such and such a way” towards somebody. Galatians 5:13-26 is not that specific.

But can we appeal to other Scriptures in order to justify allowing “keeping in step with the Spirit” to embrace “following spontaneous inner impulses”? 

The first point to note is that the “following spontaneous inner impulses” notion supposedly involves an individual “following spontaneous inner impulses from God”. The only difference between this notion and the “spontaneous” notion of prophetic revelation is that the former can be for the receiver only. That is, supposedly, I receive a spontaneous revelatory impulse that I do not always pass on to others, since the focus is on me “keeping in step with the Spirit”. If the Spirit commands me, supposedly, to say something spontaneously to somebody else, then the only difference is that the revelation is for another. Thus, problems that arise for a “spontaneous revelation for others” view (spontaneous prophecy) also arise for a “spontaneous revelation for myself” view (supposedly, “keeping in step with the Spirit”).

But what are the problems with a “spontaneous revelation for others” view that might also apply to a “spontaneous revelation for myself” view?

Well, first, according to Thiselton, “spontaneous revelation”, since it bypasses the use of the mind and bypasses processes of critical comparison with Scripture, tends to fall either into ‘creative reinterpretation of Scripture’ that gets a bit too creative, or into ‘quasi-ecstatic’ ‘charismatic utterances’ “analogous” to practices in ‘Greek cults’. Overly-innovative ‘creative’ ‘free’ or ‘pneumatic interpretation’ of Scripture can amount to no more than ‘highly subjective understanding based almost entirely on past and present experience’. How would this then be ‘tested’ against ‘the bedrock’ of ‘Scripture and Christ’ ‘outside a given community’? That is, the biblical prophets ‘were reformers, rather than innovators’: reform can be tested against prior foundation texts; but how can innovation be tested if it is allowed that the prior foundation texts themselves can be interpreted with endless creative innovation? How could false prophecy or false innovative interpretation ever be exposed as such?

Second, again with Thiselton, it is a mistake to set a biblical view of prophetic revelation over and against use of the mind. Prophecy can ‘sometimes be spontaneous’, but ordinarily involves ‘human reflection or thought’. This is just like all gifts of the Spirit. Thus, for Paul, ‘“administration” constitutes a genuine gift of the Holy Spirit’, but ‘“spontaneous administration” constitutes a contradiction in terms. The Holy Spirit clearly gives administrative gifts over time and training’. That is, God does not work “supernaturally” against “nature”, but “through and sometimes beyond the created order. God reveals through the normal operations of the mind, even if he occasionally also reveals beyond the normal operations of the mind. The latter, therefore, cannot be turned into the norm for “keeping in step with the Spirit” without falling into a ‘Deus ex machina’ error according to which God has “painted himself into a corner” as far as guidance goes, and so has to act in “special” ways in order to guide us. ‘Paul, Luke, and other biblical writers’ were prophets, and yet also ‘planned and thought out their writings’. Thiselton writes: 

‘the “spontaneous” view would also wreck the attempt to defend the divine inspiration of the Bible… It would play into the hands of those who maintain that because Scripture shows all the marks of human composition, style, vocabulary, and historicity, it thereby cannot be inspired by God. But classical theism has always rejected this “Deist” and rationalist view’. 


That is, there is ‘no contradiction between intelligent, thoughtful criticism and self-criticism and openness to divine action in the origins and content of the Bible’. It is not ‘that prophecy can never operate against the will or the expectations of the prophets. Jeremiah could bear prophetic burdens which ran against his inclinations; but for the most part he thought them through’. As for Paul, he ‘usually uses rational argument, and it is pure speculation to imagine that he does not expect his converts and churches to do the same’.

Thiselton concludes that the “prophetic” today is ordinarily a matter of ‘applied pastoral preaching, in most or at least many cases’, but does ‘not deny that prophecy may sometimes be spontaneous’.

That is, the problem with “spontaneous revelation” – whether it is passed on to others (the “spontaneous prophecy” view) or used for one’s own guidance (the “spontaneous” notion of “keeping in step with the Spirit”) – is that it seems to come from a place that discourages the mature use of the biblical mind so as to test the content of what is said against a mature understanding of biblical criteria. It is not that such revelations can never happen – it is just that they cannot be seen as the normal way in which prophetic revelation happens, whether we are talking about the biblical writers, or about those who, later on, prophetically recall the church (or their own lives) to biblical reformation.

Two other points may be made. Which spirit, of all spirits, is likely to encourage a culture of spontaneous, unthinking, untested “innovative” revelation? It is Satan – for it is he who would invade and corrupt the church in ways that remained covert due to an absence of biblical testing by biblical criteria. It is also interesting that whilst the Holy Spirit causes us to wait patiently for righteousness by true law, the demons demand that we act impulsively, immediately, in order to secure “emergency obedience” to legalistic notions of “righteousness” according to a distortion of the law. And it is very interesting that this latter point emerges in Galatians 4 and 5, which rules out the “spontaneous” notion of “keeping in step with the Spirit” – with the sole caveat that there really are, occasionally, genuine emergencies. 

The second point is that it may be objected that our approach here seeks to “master” God’s voice by objectifying it “modernist” fashion. The problem with this objection is that it is the Spirit’s voice through, or according to, the Scriptures that we are primarily to submit to. To properly submit does not mean that we are not also to properly understand. Modernist objectification of the Scriptures is a way of misunderstanding the Scriptures and of not allowing them to address the present authoritatively. This is not the same as testing the spirits and seeking clarification.

Texts cited: G.D. Fee, Galatians (Dorset: Deo Publishing, 2007), pp. 200-228; A.C. Thiselton, The Holy Spirit (London: SPCK, 2013), pp. 108-114.


NOTE:  This is a new series on Gralefrit Theology, and is a collaboration between me and Dr Rob Knowles, who is an expert in the Western philosophical tradition, biblical hermeneutics and specialises in the work of Professor Anthony Thiselton.  He has been featured on this blog before.

All the questions are from the people in the pews – ordinary people asking great questions that vex them in some way.  

If you have a question that you are vexed by, please submit it via the comments box, I would be thrilled to hear from you.

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