With a statement that looks both backward and forward, Paul turns from the contrast between life in the flesh and life in the Spirit to a theme that will dominate the discussion ahead—adoption and sonship. The Holy Spirit continues to occupy center stage as Paul moves from one ministry of the Spirit to another.
We saw in verse 13 that the Holy Spirit empowers our slaying of the flesh so that we will live. Now the Spirit leads us, and for the first time in this epistle we are called “sons of God.” He leads us away from any residual attraction to things of the flesh and leads us to our destiny, to the fulfillment of God’s purpose for us, which is to be conformed to the image of God’s unique Son (verses 28 and 29).The meaning of “led”
We Christians occasionally speak of feeling “led” or “impressed” by the Spirit” to say or do something. This kind of guidance by the Spirit may be a small part of what Paul means here, but the primary idea is that the Spirit sets the direction for our lives toward the goal set by the Father as I just noted. Through trials and triumphs, pains and joys, the Holy Spirit’s leading of us is always purposeful and strategic as he satisfies the Father’s desire for holy and blameless children (see Ephesians 1:4—6).
Although the Spirit takes the commanding role in our moral development, we actively participate, as verse 13 makes clear. And even the passive verb “led” in verse 14 implies our willingness to be led. The Spirit’s leading is sovereign, to be sure, but there are also commands to obey, along with whispers to hear and heed. We had best cooperate, because one way or another he will carry out the Father’s plan.The Galatians parallel
The phrase “led by the Spirit” also appears in one of Paul’s earliest letters, and there as well the goal is godly living. He told the Galatian believers to walk by the Spirit so they will not gratify the desires of the flesh, adding, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Galatians 5:18).
There is a parallel warning as well. Just as Paul cautioned the Roman believers in verse 13 against living according to the flesh, he told the Galatians that those who make a practice of doing the works of the flesh “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (5:21). John said that to make a practice of sinning is to practice lawlessness (1 John 3:4), something no one born of God can do (3:6, 9).The sons of God
This phrase and the equivalent “children of God” in verse 16 specifically designate believers. If you are a child of God you are led by the Spirit. You are also by faith in Christ a son of Abraham (Galatians 3:7). Believers are the firstborn Son’s “many brothers” (verse 29), a status enjoyed by those who are called and justified according to God’s purpose.
Dispelling a commonly held belief, R. C. Sproul says, “The Bible does not teach either the universal fatherhood of God or the universal brotherhood of man.” Paul did speak of all people being “the offspring” of God (Acts 17:29), but only believers enjoy the kind of intimacy with the Father we encounter in the next verse.