How do I know if I am being led by the Holy Spirit? Counsel from Wilhelmus á Brakel

At the conclusion of volume 2 of The Christian’s Reasonable Service Wilhelmus á Brakel appends a lengthy treatment entitled “A Warning Against a Natural and Spiritless Religion.” á Brakel confronts the reader with the hard truth that men can live morally and rightly yet still be cut off from eternal life. In the midst of that discussion he offers six indications of the Spirit’s work in the life of a believer:

1)      Man has his own spirit; there are many seducing spirits, and the evil spirit can transform himself into an angel of light. He, with the intent to deceive, can give thoughts which are essentially good, but stir man up to use them in an erroneous manner. We must therefore give heed and know by which spirit we are being moved.[1]

2)      The Holy Spirit convinces man of sin and causes him to grieve, be perplexed, and in many ways be troubled about his sin.[2]

3)      The man who is conquered by the Holy Spirit will be regenerated and translated from darkness to light, from death to life, and from being earthly minded to being heavenly minded.[3]

4)      The Holy Spirit is a Spirit of faith who brings God’s children to Christ, causing them to receive Jesus by a true faith as their ransom and righteousness.[4]

5)      The Holy Spirit unites His children and keeps them united to the church, for by one Spirit we are all baptized into one body (1 Cor. 12:13).[5]

6)      The Holy Spirit leads believers in all things according to the Word of God; He leads them into all truth. The Word of God is truth, however, and the only rule by which we shall not err. By that Word he regenerates, sanctifies, leads, and comforts them.[6]

Know then with certainty that where these matters are not found, there God’s Spirit is not present. Be assured that whatever is deemed to be spiritual but which does not harmonize with the above, is nothing but illusory and are seductions of a man’s own spirit.

As you consider these words you will hopefully come to realize one thing a person being led by the Holy Spirit will not speak much about: the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit gets the credit for many a foolish and sinful act. Who is to argue against, “I just felt led by the Spirit….”? You are to argue against, for the very reasons listed above.

There are powerful and mysterious forces at work in all men, but this is not necessarily the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit makes your sin large in your eyes. If you do not have a growing awareness of your own sin, the Spirit is not at work. The Spirit reveals sin to you in order to show Christ as even greater. If your love for Christ and his work is not increasing, the Spirit is not at work. By making Christ great in your eyes you will be led to a greater desire for fellowship with Christ’s body: the church. If you are not seeking increasing fellowship and participation in a local church, the Spirit is not at work. The Spirit does all this work with, through, and toward the Word of God. He is the Spirit of truth, not the Spirit of hunch. If you are not growing in your study, knowledge, and application of Scripture, the Spirit is not at work.

[1] [Note: all footnoted Scripture references are added by me] Prov. 16:25; Ps. 36:1-2; Jer. 17:9; Luke 18:9-11; 1 John 4:1; 2 Cor. 11:14

[2] John 16:8-11; 2 Cor. 7:10

[3] 1 Cor. 6:11; Titus 3:4-7

[4] John 16:13-15; 2 Cor. 3:17-18; 1 John 5:6

[5] Eph. 2:18-22; 4:1-6

[6] John 14:26; 16:13; 17:17; 1 Cor. 2:9-12; Eph. 5:26; 1 John 2:22-27

Wilhelmus á Brakel on the vehement love of God

Oh wondrous love! God, who is love, sets his infinite love in motion to cherish with love such persons who in themselves are hateful, despicable, and condemnable. This love is not generated by the desirability of the object, but it originates within Himself, being desirous to love and to love specific individuals. Observe the following concerning this love: “Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee” (Jer. 31:3); “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us” (Eph. 2:4). This love is so great, vehement, and incomprehensible that the Lord Himself exclaimed in amazement, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16).

Love was the origin of eternal election;
love sent Jesus into the world to be their Surety;
love drew them out of the world to Him, translating them into the kingdom His love;
love radiates continually upon them;
love preserves them;
love brings them to glory;
and love engenders a perfect union with, and love for, Him.

This would not be credible if God Himself had not said this. Since God does say this, however, we now wish to believe and acknowledge this, rejoice in this, and be engaged in adoration. We wish to give Him glory, and being ignited by His love, to love Him in return. “We love Him, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

Wilhelmus a Brakel Commentary on James 3:1

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers,
for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

How dreadful will this investigation and interrogation be for many overseers! How pitiful and dreadful will be the sentence that will be pronounced upon them! If only they had never been born and had never been an overseer! What will it be to perish due to one’s own sins, and then also to be burdened by so many souls! They will see you in the last judgment and rise up against you, saying, “You knew very well that I was ignorant, and that I lived in sin. If you had looked after me—had warned, rebuked, instructed, and led me in the way of salvation—I would have been saved. Look, however, you unfaithful minister, you unfaithful elder, I am now going lost! Let God require my blood from your hand, and deal with you as a wicked and lazy servant!”

Wilhelmus á Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service II, 155.

Wilhelmus á Brakel on the Benefits of Christ’s Three-Fold Office

Jesus is “the Christ.” Jesus is anointed by God to carry out all those Old Testament offices for which men were anointed for: prophet, priest, and king. What does this mean for the believer?

He removes blindness by His prophetic office,
enmity with God by His priestly office,
and inability by His kingly office.[1]

[1] Willhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, vol. 1, (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 1992), 518.

Wilhelmus á Brakel on The Image of God and Dominion of Man

I appreciated Wilhelmus á Brakel’s discussion of the image of God and the creation of man. The discussion is broken down into three elements: basis, form, and consequence. Brakel begins to illustrate these aspects with the following example:

If a painter wishes to make a good picture, he must first have a proper and well-prepared canvas. He cannot paint a picture in water, in air, or in dry sand. He either needs a piece of wood, canvas, or some other solid material, which in turn must have been properly prepared, Having all these, he then must have a suitable model for that which he wishes to express.

The soul is the basis for the image of God. The soul is the “part” of man which carries, or displays the image of God. Just as the canvas is not the picture, the soul is not the image. But just as a picture could not exists without a canvas (or other similar medium), the image of God would not exist without the soul.

Some thoughts: Genesis 1:27 states, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” What is the role of male and female in the image of God? Is it that male and female both are in the image of God- i.e. as individuals- or that male and female together-i.e. so that the image of God cannot be understood without male and female together- are in the image of God? The first option would support á Brakel’s position, the second would oppose it.

If the soul is the medium of the image, the basis, what is the substance-or form- of the image? “The essential form, the true essence of the image of God, consists in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, they being the qualities that regulate the faculties of the soul: intellect, will, and affections.” There is solid biblical ground for considering knowledge, righteousness, and holiness as the attributes of God’s image. We do not see these qualities described at man’s creation, but each one is used to describe aspects of man’s re-creation:

Col. 3:10: and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.

Eph. 4:24: and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

What I appreciated most was how á Brakel connected the image of God and the dominion of man. This is an important area of debate as some teach that the image of God is the dominion of man. But á Brakel correctly describes man’s dominion as the result of God’s image in man: “The consequence of the image of God is the exercise of dominion over the entire earth.” Because man had pristine knowledge, righteousness, and holiness he was immanently capable of exercising dominion over God’s creation.

This does provoke some other questions. First, we notice that dominion, like the image of God, is something that the man and woman share in equally. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28). Does this do anything to answer the previous question about the role of male and female and the image of God? I don’t think so. Whether man and woman individually or collectively portray the image of God, man and woman would exercise dominion. Does the joint exercise of dominion offer any support to the feminist argument that the submission of wives to their husbands is a result of the fall? Not necessarily. The sphere of dominion is God’s physical creation. The dominion mandate says nothing about human institutions- even God-ordained ones.

The language of Genesis one should not be ignored. The image of God was something Adam and Eve had. The dominion over earth was something Adam and Eve did. Therefore, I consider á Brakel’s distinction of the basis, form, and consequence of the image of God helpful.

Wilhelmus á Brakel on Election and Assurance Part 4- Sanctification

The third characteristic of the truly elect and, therefore, of those who should have assurance of their eternal salvation is sanctification.

If you then perceive within yourself a hatred, repulsion, and sorrow concerning both the secret sins of your heart, as well as your sinful deeds, and if you find an inner delight and love for a godly spiritual frame and the practice of all virtues in the fear, love, and the obedience of God, as being His will; if you perceive within yourself the warfare between flesh and spirit so that sin does not have dominion over you, that is, that you are not governed by your evil will; if sin meets with an internal resistance of your will, being restrained and often driven away by the fear of God; if you perceive within yourself the inclination to pray, wrestle for peace of conscience, and experience the nearness of the Lord; if, either privately or in the presence of men, you desire to let your heart, thoughts, words, and deeds be governed by the will of God; if, I say, these things be in you, then you are a partaker of the spiritual life and the principle of sanctification is in you. This is not the result of your natural disposition, but a gracious gift of God issuing forth from election. Thus, you may conclude your election from this spiritual condition.

Perhaps á Brakel could have done better by expositing 2 Peter 1:5-10, his point is nevertheless made. Hearkening back to the previous two marks, it should be recognized that the force of this argument is only fully appreciated by one who has accepted the biblical teaching regarding total depravity and the spiritual death of the sinner.

The soul that is saved seeks a greater experience of that salvation.

The thought that guides á Brakel’s entire discussion of assurance is that that election is personal.

Why is the gospel proclaimed to you? Why are you called, drawn, and quickened? Why do you know Jesus and receive Him by faith? Wherefore may you have some delight in communion with God and are desirous to fear His name? Does not all of this issue forth from his eternal counsel to save you? Lose yourself in holy amazement and confess with Hagar, “Have I also here looked after Him that seeth me?” (Gen. 16:13), and with the Psalmist, “What is man, that Thou art mindful of Him?” (Psa. 8:4).

Wilhelmus á Brakel on Election and Assurance Part 1

It is thus the duty of every Christian to strive for assurance according to the exhortation of the apostle in 2 Peter 1:10, as this assurance is the fountain of much joy in God and results in much growth in sanctification. One does not obtain this assurance by ascending into heaven to examine the book of life for the purpose of ascertaining whether one’s name is to be found in it (Rom. 10:6-7). Neither is this assurance obtained by imagining oneself to be one of the elect, so that by the duration of this imagination one could consistently maintain this assurance, being of the opinion that it is a sin to be doubtful about it even though one lacks the least foundation for this assurance. Rather, one obtains this assurance from the Word of God wherein is found a clear description of those who are elect. If these characteristics are discerned within, he may draw the conclusion that he is one of the elect. (Christian’s Reasonable Service (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 1992), 247.)

Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. 2 Peter 1:10

Assurance of salvation is something that I have had past struggles with. I know I am not alone in this. As I examine my life it is interesting to me that embracing God’s sovereignty has only increased my assurance. What is the place of assurance on the life of the Christian? Can a person be saved and not know it?

á Brakel begins with the assertion that assurance is indeed something that a believer should seek and have. What I appreciate about the Apostle Peter’s exhortation and á Brakel’s treatment is the recognition, however, that assurance is something the believers do struggle with. At places in the New Testament, we see the biblical authors more certain of the readers’ salvation than the readers themselves (cf. Luke 22:32; Heb. 6:9). We should not miss the fact that Peter’s encouragement demands that some of his readers were indeed unsure of their “calling and election.”

But if God’s election is eternal and sovereign, how can anyone be sure of it? Brakel gives two important ways not to gain assurance. We cannot wish to know God’s hidden decrees. One day the books will be opened. But God is not like Amazon. He does not offer a look inside. In any event, such a vision would be disastrous. Do we live by faith or by sight? Seeing God’s list would only serve to destroy our faith…the very instrument of our salvation.

Secondly, we are not to talk ourselves into assurance. Having the wrong faith is just as damning as having no faith. As the saying goes we are not justified by faith by believing in justification by faith. So we are not assured of being God’s elect by our declaration that we are elect.

So how can I know for certain I am one of God’s elect?

Wilhelmus à Brakel on Reprobation and Election and Reprobation explained as simply as I know how

 God will never damn anyone but for his sins. God does not prevent anyone from repentance, believing in Christ, and salvation. Man and his own free will are to be blamed for the fact that he lives and ungodly life, and it is therefore just when God punishes and damns him for his sins.
Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service vol. 1 “Eternal Predestination: Election and Reprobation”)

I really appreciated this chapter and Brakel’s treatment of the very difficult subject of reprobation. He seemed to try to keep the tension of the Biblical testimony. Like election to salvation, reprobation to condemnation is presented as an aspect of God’s eternally certain, absolutely free decision. Yet Brakel consistently maintains that man has only himself to blame for suffering eternal judgment.

Obviously election, reprobation, predestination, foreknowledge, etc. is an impossible sphere of study. There has never really been an agreed upon understanding and- this side of the end- there likely never will be. While I certainly have no delusion of being able to please everyone with a “solution;” I have nevertheless started to explain the dilemma with two statements:

 There is one thing that the saved will never say to God in eternity: “We did it!”

All praise for salvation will always go to God and to the Lamb eternally.

 There is one thing the damned will never say to God in eternity: “I wanted to be saved but you just wouldn’t let me.”

God loves His Son too much to not give to him even one soul that desires salvation.

I am aware that these two statements do not really do anything to explain the decrees of election or reprobation in the past, but merely address the result of those decrees in the future. But we often do not understand the present until we can look back on it in retrospect. These two statements attempt to do the same thing with election and reprobation.

How to Read the Bible Adapted from Wilhelmus à Brakel The Christian’s Reasonable Service Guidelines for the Profitable Reading of Scripture

For the reading of Scripture to be profitable, there must be preparation, practice, and reflection.


            You must, with mental concentration, place yourself in the presence of God. You must promote a reverent, spiritual frame of mind, being conscious that the Lord shall speak to him. To promote such reverence, reflect upon Isaiah 1:2, “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the LORD has spoken.”

            You must lift up your heart to the Lord asking him to cause you to perceive the truth expressed in God’s Word and apply it to your heart. Your prayer ought to be with Psalm 119:18, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.”

            You must attentively aim your heart toward obedience in order to exercise faith, be receptive to comfort, and comply with all that the Lord proclaims, promises, and commands. With Samuel your prayer is, “Speak, for your servant hears.” (1 Sam. 3:10).


            As you read it is essential to do so calmly and attentively rather than hastily with the only objective being to complete the reading. If there is a lack of time it is better to read less with concentration than to read more with distraction.

            You should observe the context before and after the text  you are reading and notice the manner of speech and the object of the text. The text must be compared with other text where the issue is explained more comprehensively, and with texts which are similar in content.

            You should not merely cleave to the literal meaning. This is being satisfied with the rind of the fruit which provides neither strength nor nourishment. One must penetrate to the kernel itself, seeking to perceive the internal essence of the matter.

            Avoid assigning every allowable meaning to a given word. The meaning of Scripture is clear, straightforward, and concise, expressing matters in a more organized manner than any man would ever be capable of doing. This obligates us to search out carefully what the specific intent and objective of the Spirit is in every text.

            Avoid the similar errors of relegating everything to the past or to the future. You cannot read the Old Testament and say, “This is all in the past there is nothing here for me.” You cannot read prophecy and say, “This is all for some time in the future it is not for me.” Such an attitude takes away the true meaning, spirituality, and the power from the Word.

            Avoid thinking that no text of Scripture can be correctly understood unless it is viewed in its context. There are thousands of expressions in God’s Word which, when heard or read individually, have a precise meaning, give full expression to their doctrinal content, and are sufficiently penetrating to stimulate faith, render comfort, and be exhort to obedience.

            If you encounter something which is not immediately understood, put it aside for the time being and continue reading. When you encounter a remarkable text, mark it, meditate on it, memorize it.


            Joyfully give thanks that the Lord has allowed His Word to be recorded and preserved and that you have the privilege of reading and applying it. 

            Strive to preserve the spiritual state of mind which is obtained by reading God’s Word.

            Share with others what was read, discussing it whenever possible.

            Strive to obey what has been read by bringing it into practice.

Wilhelmus à Brakel…You’re no Herman Bavinck

In 2011 I read through Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics. For this year I had fleeting thoughts of trying to venture through Barth’s Church Dogmatics. Or perhaps I should just go through several single-volume works. In the end I decided to tackle another 4-volume Dutch work: Wilhelmus à Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service. I had picked it up a few years ago at a conference in Greenville, SC and it is sat largely undisturbed on my shelf since then. It was highly recommended at the conference I was attending, and in the past few weeks I have again seen it recommended by several others. I’m about 70 pages in and not quite sure what to think.

 I know you cannot accurately judge a 2,500 page work after only 70 pages…but I am not too thrilled. The works of Bavinck and à Brakel are certainly very different. I recognize that there is a place for less rigorous expositions of theology, but à Brakel seems quite sloppy in his assertions.

 For instance:

 “One can therefore state this in reverse: every human being is conscious of a deity, and a being which is conscious of a deity is necessarily a human being.” (p. 18)

 Really? Are angels human beings? Is the Father a human being? Is the Holy Spirit a human being?

 “One book or several together—for example, the books of Moses or the Gospels—perfectly contain the complete rule for faith and practice.” (p. 34)

 Really? I could know everything I need to know from a few or even just one book of Scripture? They why are there 66? But since à Brakel thinks we could get by with just a few books of the Bible I guess it is not too surprising that he thinks we have lost some of the inspired writings:

 “Furthermore, we believe that the apostles have written many letters to the congregations, also by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Such particular congregations were obliged to receive these letters as being of divine origin. These were not in the possession of other congregations, however, and after the apostolic period were not preserved for the church of God.” (p. 37)

 Earlier on the same page à Brakel asserts: “Never does Christ or an apostle direct us to unwritten traditions, but always to the Word.” I am not sure this squares up with 2 Thess. 2:2, 15.

 And I will not comment on à Brakel’s strong assertions that the sun and moon rotate around a stationary earth (pgs. 64-65). Except to wonder if he might have been the last theologian to ever assert such.

 It is said that you can tell how long a missionary has served by what they do when a bug lands in their soup. A new missionary stops eating and asks for something else. A more experienced missionary takes out the bug and keeps on eating. A seasoned missionary just eats the bug. I realize that there are going to “bugs” in any work composed by man. A critical reader has to get past this. I just hope the bugs do not start overwhelming the soup.