Previous article in this series: February 1, 2019, p. 208.
The Holy Spirit and the Scriptures
Scripture is the Word of God—the Word of God in the words of men. Because Scripture is the Word of God, it partakes of the attributes of God. In the last several articles, we have considered together the outstanding attributes of Scripture. Included in the attributes of Scripture are its authority, necessity, perspicuity, sufficiency, and trustworthiness.
There is one important subject to which we must yet give our attention before concluding this series on “Revelation, Inspiration, and Infallibility.” That is the subject of illumination—an important work of the Holy Spirit in connection with the written Word of God.
The Spirit is the bridge, if you will, between the Bible and the Christian’s understanding, believing, and bowing before Scripture as the infallibly inspired, inerrant, and authoritative Word of God. No one will and no one can understand the Scriptures except the Holy Spirit opens his eyes, enlightens his mind, and softens his heart. Scripture may very well be the Word of God, but apart from the Spirit’s work of illumination, Scripture remains a dead letter—merely words on paper—to those who do not enjoy this work of the Holy Spirit.
There are a number of works of the Holy Spirit in connection with Holy Scripture. We should expect this inasmuch as the Holy Spirit is the breath of God and Scripture is God-breathed. The Spirit moved men to write down the Holy Scriptures, so that what they wrote as not their own words but the very Word of God. Peter says that “holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (II Pet. 1:21). Sometimes we think only of this work of the Holy Spirit in giving us the sacred Scriptures. Important though the work of inspiration was, if this is the only work of the Holy Spirit in connection with the Scriptures of which we think, we do not do justice to the work of the Holy Spirit. There is more, so much more.
That more includes the Spirit’s preparation of the men whom He moved to write the Holy Scriptures. He caused them to be born into the families in which they were—where they were born, when they were born, to whom they were born. He guided their upbringing and education, molding each man to become one whom the Holy Spirit would use in the writing of the Scriptures. Their background and personal life experiences were all used by the Holy Spirit to prepare them individually to be the instruments of inspiration.
The Holy Spirit worked to compile the various writings of the Old Testament, the gospel accounts, the epistles of the apostles, and the writings of the other human writers of the New Testament. The Spirit also worked in the church recognition of the canonical books of the Bible. There were other books and epistles written by leaders in the church, like Paul’s epistle to the Laodiceans (Col. 4:16) and his epistle to the Corinthians, besides the two that are part of the canon of the New Testament (I Cor. 5:9). But over time, the Holy Spirit made known to the church the books that were to be included in the Holy Scriptures. Throughout history the Holy Spirit has worked to preserve the sacred Scriptures, also through the process of translation, so that the church throughout the world and to the end of time would have and have access to the Word of God.
Included with all these other works of the Holy Spirit, there is also the work of the Spirit that we refer to as illumination. This is a necessary, even an indispensable work of the Holy Spirit. If there is no illuminating work of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit’s work in inspiration is in vain. Scripture is the Word of God objectively; but Scripture must be the Word of God to me and to you personally. It must be the Word of God to every member of the church, from the minister and theologian to the youngest child in our covenant families. Apart from this work of the Spirit, the Scriptures remain forever a closed book. Our understanding of Scripture and belief of Scripture is the direct fruit of the illumination of the Holy Spirit.
John Calvin makes reference to this work of the Holy Spirit early in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, in the section in which he treats the doctrine of Holy Scripture. Says Calvin:
The testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than all reason. For as God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word, so also the Word will not find acceptance in men’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. The same Spirit, therefore, who has spoken through the mouths of the prophets must penetrate into our hearts to persuade us that they faithfully proclaimed what had been divinely commanded (Institutes, 1.7.4; 1:79).
The necessity of the Spirit’s work of illumination
The necessity of the illuminating work of the Spirit is the depravity of the natural man. Our total depravity—the extent of our sinfulness—requires the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit. The effect of the Fall is that our nature has become corrupt. Our nature is entirely corrupt. The Canons of Dordt, Heads III/IV, Article 1, describes the condition of fallen man. As a result of the Fall, man has forfeited all the excellent gifts of God with which he was endowed at his creation, “and on the contrary entailed on himself blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity and perverseness of judgment, became wicked, rebellious, and obdurate in heart and will, and impure in all his affections.”
Although the Scriptures are the Word of God in Jesus Christ, and although God’s revelation is clear, we cannot understand the Scriptures nor believe them as we are in ourselves. Our condition is analogous to that of a blind man. Put a flashlight (“torch,” for the sake of our British friends) into the hands of a blind man, and no matter how strong the beam of light that is emitted by the flashlight, the blind man cannot see. The problem is not with the flashlight, but the problem is with the man holding the flashlight. He cannot see; he is blind. Something must happen to correct the man’s blindness, or the flashlight will do him no good. His eyes must first be opened. First he must be delivered from his blindness, and then the flashlight will be of use to him. So it is also with the spiritual condition of the natural man. Something is required in us and upon us if we are going to receive God’s revelation in Scripture. If the Scriptures are to be of any saving benefit to us, God must deliver us from our spiritual blindness.
God does this by the Holy Spirit. What is required is the illuminating or enlightening work of the Holy Spirit. This belongs to regeneration. The regenerating work of the Holy Spirit includes illumination. Whom the Holy Spirit regenerates, He also enlightens. When He makes us alive again, raising us up from our spiritual death, He gives sight to our eyes and understanding to our minds. Ultimately, our blindness is due to the fact that we are by nature dead, spiritually dead. When the Holy Spirit gives us new life, He also causes our eyes to see. Now we behold what before we could not see—behold it in all its splendor and glory. Now the truth of God is made clear to us, and God’s Word becomes an open book. Apart from this work of the Holy Spirit we are like the members of the church of the Laodiceans, about whom the apostle writes in Revelation 3:17 that thou “knowest not that thou are wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.” And here the saying applies that they are never so blind as those who will not see. That is man’s natural condition. That is the extent of our sinfulness. And this is the need that we have of the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit.
Illumination in Scripture
The Scriptures speak often of the Spirit’s work of illumination. In Psalm 119:18 the prayer of the psalmist is, “Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.” His prayer arises out of the deep awareness that apart from God’s opening of his eyes, he will not understand the Scriptures. God must open his eyes. And with his eyes opened by God, he will behold “wondrous things” out of God’s Word. God will answer his prayer for illumination; of this he is confident.
Jesus speaks of this work of the Holy Spirit when He teaches His disciples that after His departure from them, He will send forth His Spirit. The Spirit “shall testify of me” and “shall receive of mine, and shall show you things to come” (John 15:26, 27; 16:13-15). The Spirit would guide Jesus’ disciples into all truth. Jesus is speaking of His disciples’ enjoyment of the illumination of the Holy Spirit.
The apostle makes reference to this work of the Holy Spirit in I Corinthians 2:9-16. The apostle declares that “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him,” (v. 9). He goes on to say, “But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God” (v. 10). The Spirit works in us “that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God” (v. 12) and teaches us “comparing spiritual things with spiritual” (v. 13). This work of the Spirit is absolutely necessary, for “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them because they are spiritually discerned” (v. 14). And he concludes this glorious section of his epistle on the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit with these words, “But we have the mind of Christ” (v. 16).
In his epistle to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul speaks of the enlightening power of the Holy Spirit. It is his prayer to God that the Ephesians might enjoy this work of the Holy Spirit. He says in Ephesians 1:16 that he does not “cease…to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers.” And what is his prayer to God on behalf of the members of the church as Ephesus? The answer is found in verses 17 and 18, “That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of all glory, may give unto you the spirit [should be a capital “S” on “spirit”] of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him: the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints.” The Spirit is the Spirit of wisdom and revelation. He is the one who opens the eyes of our understanding so that we are enlightened. By opening the eyes of our understanding, He causes us to understand the wisdom contained in revelation, that is, the revelation of God in Holy Scripture. Thus we know the hope of our calling and the riches of the glory of His inheritance. Such is the meaning of the apostle.
In I John 2, the apostle writes of the unction (anointing) of the Holy Spirit that God’s regenerated people receive, whereby “ye know all things” (v. 20). He goes so far as to say in verse 27, “But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him.” Such is the anointing of the Spirit that they who have this anointing—and every regenerated child of God does—need not that any man should teach them. That is not to deny the teaching ministry of the church, or the need of covenant parents to instruct their children in the fear of the Lord. Not at all. John is himself instructing the church here and gives the members of the church further instruction throughout this first epistle, as also in his other epistles. But it is to do justice to the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit in the child of God. By the Spirit, the eyes of our understanding are opened so that we understand the things of the Word of God.
This illuminating work of the Holy Spirit is illustrated in the case of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. He read the Holy Scripture in Isaiah 53, but he did not understand. It was only when the Spirit opened his eyes, through the ministry of Philip the evangelist, that he understood what he read. It is very significant that this episode begins with the notice that “the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot” (v. 26). Clearly, the Spirit used the ministry of Philip, but He used the ministry of Philip as a means. It was the Spirit Himself who opened the eyes of the Ethiopian eunuch’s understanding so that he grasped what he was reading in sacred Scripture.
Our Reformed confessions make reference to the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination. That is where we will begin next time.