Is This from the Holy Spirit?
by Lora A. Copley
A Short, Helpful Guide to Discerning the Spirit in Synodical Deliberations (and everywhere else)
We all want to be led by the Holy Spirit. All One Body, Better Together, the Hesed Project, the Abide Project and everyone in between believe the Spirit can and should lead this fraught denomination and the deliberations of Synod 2023. We are all praying He does.
But how will we know if the Holy Spirit is answering that prayer? How do we determine the Spirit’s leading – whether a motion or an argument at Synod 2023 is “of the Spirit” or not?
What are the unmistakable marks of His fingerprints?
Jonathan Edwards asked this question1 in his commencement address to Yale students in 1741. His sermon text was all of 1 John 4, especially verse 1: “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.”
After giving uncertain signs (in which nothing conclusive can be drawn whether something is genuinely of the Spirit), Edwards then lays out five sure and certain2 indicators for determining if the Holy Spirit is behind something or not.
Here are Edwards’ marks, put as simply as possible.
Five Certain Marks to Discerning the Spirit’s Work
Is this from the Holy Spirit? Yes, if it increases…
Esteem for Jesus
Opposition to Satan/sin
Trust in the Bible
Regard for the truth
Love for God and for people
Note: these go together. The Spirit isn’t divided. His leading accomplishes these five in symmetry.
Need more details? Check out the footnote 3 below or better yet, check out the whole sermon, “Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God.” (At 27,000 words, it’s on the lengthy side. But what it lacks in brevity, it makes up for in excellence.)
These five marks are helpful for discerning not only moves and movements in Edwards’ New England, but also for “testing the spirits” of new ideas and powerful desires of our heart.
And more to the point, these five marks, like five fingers on the hand, will help us for clearly discerning the Spirit’s fingerprints and His leading in Synod 2023 too.
1 Although Edwards primarily applies these marks to the revival of his day, he (and 1 John 4) makes clear these are reliable indicators of the Holy Spirit’s work in “any operation we find ourselves in, or see among a people.”
2. Why aren’t the “fruit of the Holy Spirit” listed here? Because it’s very easy to confuse them for their counterfeits. For example, we can confuse the Spirit’s joy with a natural bubbliness or an outgoing temperament, we can confuse His meekness with inborn sweetness, His peace with fatalism, His faithfulness with inflexibility, His kindness with niceness, His self-control with over-control, etc. (Edwards goes into this at length in his Religious Affections. Tim Keller has a whole series to check out too.) Edwards is looking for things that can’t be confused.
3. Here are Jonathan Edward’s points written out more fully, with Scripture reference to his text of 1 John 4. I was helped with the below wording here. Emphasis mine.
I. When the operation is such as to raise the esteem for Jesus and confirm and establishes minds in the truth of what the gospel declares to us of his being the Son of God, and the Saviour of men; is a sure sign that it is from the Spirit of God.
1 John 4:2-3 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in
the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.
II. When the spirit that is at work operates against the interests of Satan’s kingdom, which lies in encouraging and establishing sin, and cherishing men’s worldly lusts; this too is a sure sign that it is a true, and not a false spirit.
1 John 4: 4-5 Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater
than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world
listens to them. Also 1 John 2:15-16; John 16:8-11
III. When this spirit causes in men a greater regard to the Holy Scriptures, and establishes them more in their truth and divine origin, this is certainly the Spirit of God.
1Jn 4:6a We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us
Note: Edwards first connect the “we”/”us” in reference to the apostles, and then extends it out.
Also Isaiah 8:19-20, Eph 6:17
IV. When that spirit operates as a “spirit of truth,” leading people to the truth, convincing them of things that are true and those of “the spirit of error.”
1 John 4:6b By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. Also John 16:13
V. When that spirit operates as a spirit of love to God and man, it is a sure sign that it is the Spirit of God.
1 John 4:7-13 - Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of
God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. … 13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.
Final Summary from Edwards: “The devil would not do [these things] if he could:
· he would not awaken the conscience, and make men sensible of their miserable state by reason of sin, and sensible of their great need of a Saviour;
· he would not confirm men in the belief that Jesus is the Son of God, and the Saviour of sinners, or raise men’s value and esteem of him:
· he would not beget in men’s minds an opinion of the necessity, usefulness, and truth of the Holy Scriptures, or incline them to make much use of them;
· he would not show men the truth, in things that concern their souls’ interest; to undeceive them, and lead them out of darkness into light, and give them a view of things as they really are.
· And there are other things that the devil neither can nor will do; he will not give men a spirit of divine love, or Christian humility and poverty of spirit; nor could he if he would.
Satan cannot give those things he has not himself: these things are as contrary as possible to his nature…
These marks, then, …plainly show the finger of God.”