Word, Spirit, Gospel and Mission (Part 1)

Here is a statement that you might endorse: “The Bible is the authoritative word of God. Refusing to obey God’s word in the Bible is an act of disobedience against God.”

Personally, I believe that statement. And I’ll venture to guess that you do as well.

But now consider this one: “The Holy Spirit is fully God. Refusing to follow the leading of the Spirit is an act of disobedience against God.”

That second statement is undoubtedly true; its logic is unassailable. But if you are like me, that second one makes you more nervous than the first. It makes me nervous because I know far less about the Spirit than I do about the Word. I can open a Bible anytime I want. The words of Scripture are always visible and accessible. If I don’t understand the meaning of a passage, I can ask knowledgeable people and see what commentaries have to say. But the Holy Spirit is invisible and mysterious. I know he is there, because the Bible says so, but my experience of him is far more tenuous. Over the years, I have acquired habits and methods for interacting with the Bible. But where are my methods for interacting with the Spirit? If the Spirit was leading me to go this way or that way, how could I test it to know that it was real? How could I avoid being deceived?

In a church that strongly emphasizes Bible study, it’s common to think of biblical teachings as objective, clear truth but to see the Spirit’s leading as subjective and ambiguous. The Word seems hard, a matter of fact, but the Spirit seems soft, a matter of opinion. If that is our perception, then we may think that disobeying the Bible is very serious, but disobeying the Spirit is not too bad. After all, who among us can really say when or how the Spirit is leading? Bible teachers are everywhere in UBF, but Spirit teachers are rather difficult to find.

Yet the logic of the second statement is still incontrovertible. To refuse to follow the Holy Spirit is a act of rebellion against God. If you need some Bible references on that, check out Mark 3:29, Acts 5:3-5 and Acts 7:51.

Now allow me to pose a tricky question. Suppose that the Bible is pointing you in one direction, but the Holy Spirit is pointing you in the opposite way. The Word says “Yes,” but the Spirit says, “No.” If there is a tension or discrepancy between the two, then which one should you follow, the Word or the Spirit?

“Impossible!” you say. “This question is a false choice. The Bible is the authoritative word of God, and its words were inspired by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will never contradict the Word, because God will never oppose himself.”

Yes, that is correct. In reality, the Spirit always agrees with the Word. But one may contradict our perception of the other. The Bible may contradict our understanding of what the Spirit is doing. And the Spirit may contradict our understanding of what the Bible teaches. Discrepancies like that do. And when they do, we are faced with a difficult choice: Should we stick to our present understanding of the Bible? Or should we bend our biblical convictions and follow the apparent lead of the Spirit?

Let me guess. You are inclined to say, “If there appears to be a contradiction between the two, then I will stand by what the Bible says.” I’m guessing this because, if you are in a church or ministry like mine, you tend to think of the Scripture as hard and the Spirit as soft. This is a common understanding of the principle of sola scriptura: The Bible is our final authority in matters of faith and practice.

Yet the Bible itself sheds light on how to answer this question. And the answer that the Bible gives might surprise you. There are examples in Scripture where the Spirit speaks loudly, and he is contradicting the community’s understanding of what Scripture says. It happens in both the Old and New Testaments. In the New Testament, there is a situation where faithful, exemplary Christians were convinced that the Bible was commanding them to do something. The biblical case for their opinion was airtight, or so it appeared at that time. But the Holy Spirit was pointing them in the opposite direction. If they made the choice that looked safe, sticking with what they believed the Bible said, they would have appeared to be God-fearing and righteous. But they would have begun to lose their mission as the Church and endangered their understanding of the gospel itself.

When Word and Spirit appear to conflict, it is not a given that Word must win. Spirit will occasionally have to trump Word. This realization can make us uncomfortable. But if the Holy Spirit is fully God as we profess, then he is a creative person who may lead us in directions that we do not expect. If we never allow the creative power of the Spirit to challenge our deeply held assumptions about what the Bible says and means, then we are not showing proper reverence to the Word or to the Spirit, and sooner or later we will become… disobedient.

I’ll say more about this in Part 2. Stay tuned.


  1. My understanding of the spirit is that one couldn’t control oneself once they were filled with it, i.e. pentechost. But now that I think about it, the Galations were full of the spirit but then decided to follow the law for their salvation.   Personally, I’ve had trouble with this subject. I’m always told I have to do God’s mission, but as a sinner I cannot do it on my own, I need the help of the holy spirit. However, if the spirit isn’t working in me (either by choice or because I’m not ready) then I’m told to just do something anyway. One thing that doesn’t seem to be considered, at least in my area of UBF,  are these questions: What if the spirit isn’t leading me to do what you want me to do? and Why do you assume that if the spirit lead  YOU to give up your life for mission (or do things the  way you do)  it wants me to do the same?  

    • david bychkov

      thanks Oscar. This question is really reasonable and actual and it is deeply bound with a question of biblical pastoral authority. Once I came to UBF, one of the first messages which I heard was 1Pet. 5. And 1Pet 5:5 “Young men, in the same way be submissive to those who are older” (just forund that in English version here are used “Young men” and “older” instead of “junior” and “shepherd” like in russian) caught to my mind, and I understood that I’m really young man and I have to obey shepherds. It was one of my key verses for 5-7 years of my life and I reviewed any disobedience itself like a great sin and disobedience to God and did my best to obey wholeheartedly. Someone even said that I’m toady (I’m not sure if it is not a bad word) for olders. It was pretty helpful, I think, b/c my shepherds were good Christians and it helped me to humbly learn and grow. Though, deeply, I had the same question whick you pointed at.
      But in few last years I think I met really many issues with this “just obey and learn” theology in many aspects of my life. Some times I met contradictory orders (not sure if it is good word) from different olders. Some times to learn and obey really seemed to require give up on what I’m actually believe. Some times I saw that this obedience make me just to please people inspite of I would neve do it if I would not asked to do, so I felt like hypocrite. Some times I saw how easily this authority is used abusely. Many times my Bible students were offended by me and so on. So at the end I almost begin to neglect both – “just obedience” and “ordering” to others. Actually I’m ready to disobey almost without no doubt to my olders   and I’m afraid of use any authority in any relations. (ok, may be I’m some exaggarating here)
      But is it right position? Am I really exaggarating here? Do I became proud and bittered? Possibly I am. Possibly it is kind of flesh extreme reaction for extreme in which I was before. So I really want to know what is Biblical pastoral authority, obedience? How should I know that I have to obey or not? Or how could I be sure to reveal my own authority? I think the answer is just in limits of Scripture though I’m not sure and I would like to heard or to think of this more.
      Joe, sorry for off-topic. Your article is interesting. I will wait for next part.

    • david bychkov

      And possibly this could be one of the examples of what you talking about. Please correct me, if I’m wrong. I used to think that I in any case have to obey to olders just b/c Scripture sais so and it is the same as obedience to God, and I tought this others. But now I’m very far from this thinking. I’m still not sure how exactly to proof it Biblically. But I’m sure that it is not God will for me to think so and to do so anymore.

  2. Joe, you are as always raising interesting, mind-boggling questions.

    I agree with you that the bible mentions events, in which the guidance and the leading of the Holy Spirit clearly contradicted the understanding of Scripture of certain people. I have to think of Peter who had a deeply rooted animosity against non-Jews and thought of them as unclean people, presumably because of his understanding of OT Scripture. It was the Holy Spirit by means of a three-fold vision who corrected Peter’s attitude.

    Now, my question is: how would we know if the Holy Spirit clearly wants to correct us where we have gone amiss with our scriptural interpretation? I assume that most Christians of our time did not receive visions as Peter did. What would the practical implications be?

    • The Christians whom I associate with do not receive visions on a regular basis. But visions of Christ are common to Muslims whom God is calling to faith. I read something recently about African pastors who had been converted and discipled by non-Pentecostal western missionaries. They were asked, “How did you know that God called you to ministry?” When pressed, most of them admitted that they had some kind of voice or vision that spoke to them. But they were reluctant to talk about it, because the western missionaries who had discipled them strongly discouraged such things. I guess the Spirit works in different ways in different parts of the Church. I believe that the Holy Spirit speaks to UBF members in ways that are culturally appropriate to us (e.g., through elder-led Bible studies), but he also speaks at times in ways that make us — all of us — uncomfortable. That is my personal experience.

      My reading of Acts 2 is that the Holy Spirit is a gift to the Church. Not to some special, super-spiritual and holy believers, but to the whole Church. To interact with the Spirit, we have to be willing to look for his diverse work in all parts of the Church, within UBF and outside of it. The Spirit works powerfully when there is unity among Christians. I believe that is a main point of Acts 1-2.

  3. I  have to  take issue with the statement that the “Spirit must occasionally trump the Word.” The Word and the Spirit never contradict eachother, ever. One does not trump the other because the Word is the Spirit’s Word. Our understanding of the Word may not be correct all of the time, but our understanding of the Word is not the equivalant  to the Holy  Spirit. If the two ever seem to be in conflict, it must be because we are not “Rightly dividing the Word of Truth.” (2timothy2:15)
    And Not because the Spirit is saying something contrary to what He wrote!

    Therefore, I believe that if a “spirit” ever says something contrary to the written Word, that spirit is not from God. 1Cor4:6 says, “Now, brothers, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not take pride in one man over against another.”

    Later John wrote, ” …whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.” So from these and others, it seems apparent that the real question we should be asking ourselves is: Is my understanding of the Word, the same as the Spirit’s (and of course the author’s) intent?

    Joe, I am curious about what example in the early church you were talking about in the second to last paragraph of your article? Could you explain it a little more? Thanks

    • David, you understood well what I’m saying. The Spirit doesn’t contradict the Word. But it may contradict  our erroneous understanding of the Word.   As for the NT example, I’m glad you are curious. You want me to spill the beans early, don’t you? That will come soon, my friend…

    • Joshua Yoon

      Joe  put another important pience.  Thanks. Some examples came to my mind but I would like to wait until Joe reveals them in the second part.   I agree that the Word and the Spirit do not contracdict. If  there is contradition between the two, it is a problem with people’ understanding and interpretation. My own experience and observation of others testify that our understanding of and attitude toward the Word is often  influenced   by our own pride, close-mindness, narrow-mindness, legalism, mechanical  approach and organizational agenda and goals. When some people want to put forth their beliefs and conviction, even  quoting the Bible verses with strong voices, they sometimes do not hear  the gentle voice of the Holy Spirit and consequently disobey the Spirit. It is easy to look at the Word with fixed mind or set ideas and certain expectations. Even when we teach the  Bible to another person, we may reject the  fresh  inspiration of the Holy  Spirit if we only try to  plant in another person what we think is important if we do not carefully listen to the voice of the Spirit who guides us into all truth (Jn 16:13) and often teaches something  different or new  like fresh wind.  The Pharisees made such a mistake as Jesus pointed it out in John 5:39,40 “You diligently study (they also diligently taught..my words)   because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” We  make the same mistakes unless we empty our thoughts, set  ideas  and  listen to the voice of the Spirit even if we read, study, teach and even memorize the word diligently. Jesus wants us  be new wineskins for new wine.   I wondered why Joe added Mission at the end of the question. I am looking forward to reading the part 2 and others’ responses.

  4. Thanks, David B, for sharing your good humble attitude to “just obey” and “keep the spiritual order,” because you perceived your leaders were good Christians and Bible teachers. But I think that this should be balanced in the sense that the shepherd/senior/leader should not use this “spiritual order” to enforce his authority over subordinates, because the leader’s role is a servant (Mark 10:45; Matt 20:28), not a boss (Mark 10:42-44; Matt 20:25-27). I had somewhat addressed this sensitive problematic issue earlier in Why Do We Have Divisions? Also, the leader is not infallible, nor is he superior to his “sheep,” since both are Sinners (Rom 3:23), and both are saved by the same Grace (Eph 2:8,9).
    This is significant, I think, because when the leader exercises “excessive” authority over others, he takes the role of the Holy Spirit practically and functionally. This creates an unhealthy dependency where the younger or junior is paralyzed to depend on the Holy Spirit, until he gets the blessing and approval of his shepherd. He/she also feels guilty to decide independently by depending on the Holy Spirit, because of the fear of man, which the Bible denounces (Pro 29:25).
    Since UBF is culturally strongly hierarchical, we perhaps should pray about not continuing to use such terms as “keep the spiritual order,” and “just obey,” which really makes UBF “cultish,” and uncontextualized. Practically, it communicates that a younger person should (unquestionably) always obey his shepherd or Bible teacher or leader, or else… Of course the Bible does teach this, but… …I await part 2, as others are.

    • david bychkov

      Yes, thank you Dr. Ben. I also want to learn how to healthy balance it, not just reject any authority – but to find what is right position. I read your article, thank you.

    • david bychkov

      And If you read my comment below – my understanding of how do God fulfilled his authprity in the church make me think that all biblical authority of olders is to teach the word.

  5. david bychkov

    Will add one more comment…
    In my understanding reformed theology about the Spirit work is built on this verse:
    And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. (Ez. 36:27)
    I believe I read about it in Calvin. So the Spirit guidance is to make us to keep God word and to follow it. In another place(Jer. 31:33) there is written that the New Testament purpose is in putting God’s word in people’s hearts so they could follow it. That’s why we are studying (preaching) the word and are waiting that Spirit will put it in our hearts and will make us careful keep it and follow it.
    God is sovereign ruler of the world and of the church. But the way how he rules – is by his word. In old Testament he ruled and shepherded his people with his word. I believe it was the main purpose even of kings institutes. Hezekiah and Josiah can serve as good examples. During Jesus Christ earth life – he did the same – he preached the word. For example when he saw crowds of people being like sheep without shepherd (Mk. 6:34) he became to teach them many things – so this word should shepherd them later. So I think that it is pretty naturally for the Spirit in our days to fulfill his authority and shepherding by the word.
    And again here is how I understand the Gospel. I could read about it just in the Bible. In the Bible I read about Jesus. And Holy Spirit make me believe in him, love him, follow him.
    Regarding visions. I read in Edwards something like this. Visions could not proof both – the work of Holy Spirit and it’s absence. And many people don’t need any supernatural affects to see visions. Vision is something external for a person – that is why it couldn’t be really evidence, it could be falsified by satan. And if when it gone – there is nothing left. What is the work of Spirit which could not be falsified – just inside work – something what is born inside a person( and could be any time found in the word – this is some very rough statement) .

    • Note to our readers: David Bychkov has submitted a very nice piece to UBFriends about Jonathan Edwards and Distinguishing Marks of the Spirit. His series of articles will be published within the next couple of weeks. To maximize the impact and chance for thoughtful discussion, we intend to hold those articles in reserve until we complete the series on Word, Spirit, Gospel and Mission. The present series is going to show how the early Church received direction from the Word and Spirit and how  that direction  shaped their understanding of Gospel and Mission. After seeing what happened in the early Church, we can then begin to examine what Jonathan Edwards learned through his experience in the Great Awakening and compare it to what we saw in the Bible. The next month of UBFriends is going to be awesome. Be sure to check this website often. Tell your friends about us, and join in the discussion. The topics we are discussing are of great importance not just for UBF but for all Christians everywhere. The broader the discussion becomes, the more we will learn.

  6. The way in which God works in our lives is also contingent upon who we are before the Lord. God works in different ways for different people. I don’t expect that God will work in your life in the same way that he has worked in my life. This is biblical as well. Joseph was thrown down into a well in Dothan. He cried out and it looked like God didn’t hear him. He was sold into slavery. Only toward the end of his life did it make sense. God did not, as he did for Elisha at Dothan, send chariots of fire to wipe out his brothers. This was, for better or worse, the right thing for Israel’s family at the time. Same God is present in both stories. We may also remember Daniel and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Although they were ready to die, God spared them from the lions and the fire, and he spared many Christians from such a fate. But many Christians met their ultimate demise in the fire and in the mouths of lions. The same God is works differently in our lives. Praise God for his wisdom and power!

  7. Please excuse my typo above :)

  8. 2 Corinthians 3 is pretty interesting on this subject. I highly recommend the whole chapter, but here are a few relevant verses:

    1) “You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (3:3)

    2) “He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant – not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (3:6)

    3) “Not the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (3:17)

    This last verse is especially interesting to me, for the following reason. Jesus is Lord, and Jesus is the Spirit, and the Spirit is the Lord. The Lord is (by definition?) the one we must obey. But we cannot say that Jesus is the Bible, or that the Bible is the Lord, even if God uses the Bible to speak to us. Jesus is the Word of God (Jn 1:1), but the Word of God (eternal, one with the Father, instrument by which all things were created…) in that sense is not equivalent with Scripture, which is nevertheless also the word of God. The Bible is not itself God, a lesson the Israelites had to learn in a rather hard way (1 Sam 4:3-11). I want to be clear I’m not denying that the Bible is God’s word – I believe it is! But I think even the Bible can be an idol if we stop there instead of coming to the Lord through it.

    I think this is a huge and hugely interesting topic and am excited for more on this. One thing I’d really like to know is what does it mean to fellowship with the Holy Spirit. Let me just say that if it is possible to fellowship with the Holy Spirit (e.g. commune with the Holy Spirit as you would with another person – only this person is the living God!!) then shouldn’t we be pursuing this as much as possible? What on earth could be greater than intimate fellowship with the Spirit of the living God? Some further references: 2 Cor 13:14; Phil 2:1.