Previous article in this series: April 1, 2019, p. 303.
In our last article, we introduced the final important truth with regard to Holy Scripture that we intend to consider in this series: the Spirit’s work of illumination. Among all the other works of the Holy Spirit in connection with Scripture is the Spirit’s work of illumination. This is the Spirit’s work in the believer that results in the opening of his eyes and enlightening his understanding. The fruit of this work of the Spirit is that the child of God receives Holy Scripture as the Word of God. It is also the fruit of the work of illumination that the believer understands the content of God’s Word, understands it not only intellectually, but spiritually. He understands its many parts—books, chapters, verses, and parts of verses. And he understands its central message—the gospel of God’s grace in His Son, Jesus Christ, which is the golden thread that runs through Scripture. All this belongs to the Spirit’s work of illumination.
It does not take the Holy Spirit or the grace of God to understand the Scriptures intellectually. Even the devil and wicked men are able to understand the Scriptures in this way. They are able to discern Scripture’s meaning. The devil made this plain when he tempted Jesus in the wilderness. He quoted Scripture to the Lord, though he misinterpreted and misapplied what he quoted. That is inevitably the outcome. But the point is that he knew Scripture and “believed” Scripture (James 2:19). But he did not really know Scripture nor really believe the
Word of God. His deliberate twisting of God’s Word is the evidence of the fact that he was not illuminated by the Spirit. He did not understand Scripture with the spiritual understanding of true faith, which is the fruit of the Spirit’s work of illumination.
Last time, we ended by considering the necessity of the Spirit’s work of illumination, which necessity is the total depravity of the natural man. We also took note of certain Scripture passages that speak of the Spirit’s work of illumination. In this article, we begin by calling attention to the teaching of the Reformed confessions and Reformed theologians regarding illumination.
The Reformed confessions on illumination
Although illumination is not a truth that is developed to a great extent in the Reformed confessions, it is a truth clearly taught.
In the first section of the Belgic Confession, the first seven articles deal with the truth of the inspiration and authority of Holy Scripture. In Article 5, entitled “From Whence the Holy Scriptures Derive their Dignity and Authority,” reference is made to the Spirit’s work of illumination. The article teaches that the dignity and authority of Scripture does not rest on the reception and approval of the church, but is due to the fact that “the Holy Ghost witnesseth in our hearts that they are from God, whereof they carry the evidence in themselves.”
The article concludes with this statement: “For the very blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in them are fulfilling.” The “very blind” are able to perceive and receive the Holy Scriptures, because the Holy Ghost witnesses in their hearts. That is what is meant by the Spirit’s work of illumination.
Mention is also made of the Spirit’s work of illumination in the Canons of Dordt. Though implied in other articles, specific reference is made to this work of the Holy Spirit in Canons III/IV, Article 11. The Holy Spirit does not only direct the progress of the preaching of the gospel, “causing the gospel to be externally preached,” but He “powerfully illuminates their minds,” that is, the minds of the elect, so that “they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God.” This is a very clear reference to the work of the Spirit in connection with Holy Scripture. The Spirit “powerfully illuminates” the minds of the people of God—only of the people of God. This work of the Spirit is clearly a work of the Spirit in and upon the elect people of God. It is not a general work of the Spirit in all who read or have the Scriptures authoritatively preached to them—a common-grace work of the Holy Spirit. Absolutely not. This is a work of grace, the only kind of grace there is, saving grace. It is the Spirit’s work of illumination in those whom God has chosen.
The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1, paragraph 6 makes reference to this gracious work of the Holy Spirit. The paragraph begins by establishing the sufficiency of Holy Scripture:
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.
But immediately the Westminster divines added: “Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word….” The “saving understanding” of Holy Scripture, in distinction from a purely intellectual understanding, depends on “the inward illumination of the Spirit of God.” Apart from the Spirit’s inward illumination, there cannot be any “saving understanding” of the Word of God.
Calvin on illumination
In his writings the Reformer John Calvin refers frequently to the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination as, for example, in the Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.7.4. He begins this section by insisting that “the highest proof of Scripture derives in general from the fact that God in person speaks in it.” Addressing specifically the necessity of the witness of the Holy Spirit,” he says that
[i]f we desire to provide in the best way for our consciences—that they may not be perpetually beset by the instability of doubt or vacillation, and that they may not also boggle at the smallest quibbles—we ought to seek our conviction in a higher place than human reasons, judgment, or conjectures, that is, in the secret testimony of the Spirit.
A bit later, Calvin says:
Since for unbelieving men religion seems to stand by opinion alone, they, in order not to believe anything foolishly or lightly, both wish and demand rational proof that Moses and the prophets spoke divinely. But I reply: 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. Isaiah very aptly expresses this connection in these words: “My Spirit which is in you, and the words that I have put in your mouth, and the mouths of your offspring, shall never fail” (Is. 59:21).
In the next section of the Institutes, 1.7.5, Calvin once again underscores the necessity of illumination. He teaches the necessity of illumination in connection with Scripture’s self-authentication—another of the important principles of the Reformation. Says Calvin:
Let this point therefore stand: that those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture, and that Scripture indeed is self-authenticated; hence, it is not right to subject it to proof and reasoning. And the certainty it deserves with us, it attains by the testimony of the Spirit. For even if it wins reverence for itself by its own majesty, it seriously affects us only when it is sealed upon our hearts through the Spirit. Therefore, illumined by his power, we believe neither by our own nor by anyone else’s judgment that Scripture is from God; but above human judgment we affirm with utter certainty (just as if we were gazing upon the majesty of God himself) that it has flowed to us from the very mouth of God by the ministry of men.
That which Calvin taught in the Institutes concerning the Spirit’s work of illumination, he also taught in other of his writings. Commenting on one of the classic passages on Scripture’s inspiration, II Timothy 3:16, Calvin says:
Moses and the prophets did not utter rashly and at random what we have received from them, but, speaking by God’s impulse, they boldly and fearlessly testified the truth that it was the mouth of the Lord that spoke through them. The same Spirit who made Moses and the prophets so sure of their vocation now also bears witness to our hearts that He has made use of them as ministers by whom to teach us. Thus it is not surprising that many should doubt the authority of Scripture. For although the majesty of God is displayed in it, only those who have been enlightened by the Holy Spirit have eyes to see what should have been obvious to all, but is in fact visible only to the elect.. [W]e owe to the Scripture the same reverence as we owe to God, since it has its only source in Him and has nothing of human origin mixed in it.
Implications of the doctrine of illumination
Several important implications are to be derived from the biblical truth of illumination and ought to be noted.
First, the Spirit’s work of illumination is an aspect of the Spirit’s work of regeneration. Regeneration precedes illumination; a man must be made alive before he is able to see and to understand. A dead man does not see and cannot know. What is true naturally is also true spiritually. First a person must receive new life, spiritual life, the life of Christ. Then, with his spiritual eyes and mind, he is able to see and to understand.
This underscores that the Spirit’s work of illumination, like all His work in the child of God, is a gracious work. No man deserves this work of the Spirit. No man does anything to merit this work of the Spirit. No man by nature desires this work of the Spirit. The Spirit’s work of illumination is a free and gracious work of the Spirit in the dead sinner. Jesus had this work of the Spirit in mind when He said to Nicodemus in John 3:3, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Second, the Spirit’s work of illumination belongs to the broader work of the Spirit in sanctification. Sanctification is that work of the Spirit according to which He breaks in us the power of sin and works holiness in us. Included in the sanctifying work of the Spirit is His work of illumination. Sanctification is the broader work of the Spirit; illumination is His narrower work. At the same time, all whom the Spirit sanctifies, He does also illuminate. None who are sanctified are devoid of the illuminating work of the Spirit. Although one person may have a broader and deeper understanding of the
Word of God than another, all do share an understanding of the fundamental truths of the gospel, as they are set forth in sacred Scripture.
In the third place, the Spirit’s work of illumination is an ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. This is true of sanctification generally, in distinction from justification, that it is an ongoing work of God in the elect believer. What is true of sanctification in general, is true of illumination specifically. The child of God must have his mind and eyes opened not just once but all his life-long. As we continue to read, study, meditate on, teach and apply the Word of God, we stand in need of the illuminating grace of the Holy Spirit. That is implied, for example, in the prayer of the psalmist in Psalm 119:18, “Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.” The psalmist was a believer, a child of God, one whose mind and eyes have already been opened. His prayer to God is not that for the first time his eyes may be opened so that he may behold wonderful things out of God’s Word. The earlier verses of the psalm make plain that the psalmist is a believing child of God already, a believer who has been living out of his faith and enduring persecution for doing so. His prayer to God is that the Holy Spirit will continue to open his eyes so that he may continue to behold wonderful things out of God’s Word. The very fact that he refers to God’s Word as “wondrous” implies that he has already read and knows the Word of God. Having read and known God’s Word, he declares that it is wondrous.
What this also points out is the important truth that the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit takes place by means of prayer. The psalmist in Psalm 119 is praying for the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit. And since the teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 45, Q&A 116 is true, that God is pleased to give His grace and Holy Spirit only to those who ask them of Him and are thankful for them, God hears the prayer of the psalmist, and hears our prayers as well. He answered the psalmist’s prayer for illumination by continuing to work by His Spirit in the psalmist so that he continued to “behold wondrous things” out of God’s holy Word. And so God does for all His children.
This makes clear how closely prayer and the understanding of God’s Word are related. This is practical— very practical. If we desire to understand God’s Word and to understand it properly, we must beseech God in prayer for the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit. And if we do not, God will not continue to open our eyes so that we behold wondrous things out of His Word. Especially is there a warning here for ministers of the gospel, who handle the Word of God in an especially intimate way. This indicates what may be the cause at times of our not understanding, our struggles to understand, and even our misunderstanding of the Word of God: We have not been praying as we should be praying for the illumination of the Holy Spirit. We have ignored the Holy Spirit and failed to beseech God for His grace and Holy Spirit. And the result is that we misunderstand or even corrupt the teaching of God’s Word. There is a warning here for pastors, for elders, for parents, for Christian school teachers—for us all.
It is significant that in the prayer of the Reverend Balthasar Lydius, in the worship service preceding the Synod of Dordt, Lydius made special supplication for the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit in the delegates to the synod.
The Holy Scripture must be interpreted by that same Spirit by which it was inspired, and cannot be understood except by pure minds. Therefore, we pray that Thou wilt first cleanse our intentions, then illumine us so that we may indeed understand Thy holy Word and handle it diligently. Grant, O God, that through the Scripture we may mislead no one, nor be misled, but that in it we may seek and find truth. Having discovered the truth, may we defend it with steadfast faith.
Lydius was only repeating in his own words the prayer of the psalmist in Psalm 119:18: “Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.” May we make the psalmist’s prayer for illumination our own, as well. And may we pray it sincerely and fervently.