The Holy Spirit’s Role in Revealing Truth Part II

by | Mar 1, 2017

If I pray for illumination, does the Spirit always illumine me?

Is there some evidence of the Holy Spirit’s illuminating a passage?

When can I say the Holy Spirit has illumined something to me? —Brandon

Dear Brandon,

Praying for illumination does not guarantee the reception of illumination (James 4:3). It does make it more likely. I know of no sure-fire evidence that the Holy Spirit has illumined a person. The Holy Spirit never contradicts Himself, so any claim to illumination that contradicts Scripture is a false claim.

The fact that many Christians hold contradictory understandings of Scripture also indicates that the Holy Spirit has not illumined all of them. Scripture does not tell us exactly how the Spirit illumines us. Very rarely, the Spirit directly reveals the meaning of a text to a person apart from any particular thinking or study on their part, e.g., by sending an angel to explain it (Dan. 10).

Most often, the Spirit provides opportunities for people to learn skills in language, logic, and literature, and then aids them in the application of those skills (Acts 8:31-35). This is one reason why the careful study of Scripture, usually in a formal educational setting, is necessary preparation for faithful preaching and teaching of God’s word (2 Tim. 2:2, 15). When God’s word is rightly preached and taught, God’s people are illumined.

Psalm 119:18 teaches us to pray that our eyes would be opened to see wondrous things in God’s word (cf. 2 Tim. 2:7). Precisely what needs to be illumined has often been discussed. The Spirit illumines us to at least the following four aspects of Scripture: explicit meaning, implicit meaning, personal relevance, and practical implementation.

First, explicit meaning is the meaning intended by the words the Holy Spirit inspired. Peter tells us that there are things in Scripture that are hard to understand (2 Pet. 3:16), and the Hebrew writer says one must be spiritually mature to benefit from some aspects (“meat”) of Scripture (Heb. 5:10-14). Peter says it is the “ignorant and unstable” who distort difficult texts to their own and others’ hurt (2 Pet. 3:16). We need the Spirit’s help to understand its hard parts.

Second, implicit meaning is the unstated meaning intended by the words the Holy Spirit inspired. There is a great deal that Scripture doesn’t say in black and white. Nonetheless, God expects us to infer its implicit meaning. Examples include the continued existence of dead saints (Matt. 22:31-32), other non-listed works of the flesh (Gal. 5:21), and the necessity of suffering for the Messiah (Luke 24:25-27).

As we seek to understand Scripture’s implicit meaning, we must distinguish between necessary and potential conclusions. A necessary conclusion is one required by the data. For example, if

  1. All Scripture is God speaking, and
  2. God always speaks truth, then necessarily
  3. All Scripture is truth.

Necessary conclusions from Scripture are part of its divinely intended meaning. A potential conclusion is one permitted by the data but not required.

For example, the biblical data about baptism permits the conclusion that it should be by immersion but does not require that conclusion. We must never treat potential conclusions as if they have the same level of importance or certainty that necessary conclusions have.

Third, by personal relevance, I mean seeing how Scripture relates to my life (Rom. 15:4). It is a common experience among believers to have read and understood a passage of Scripture many times, but then, for the first time, to see how it relates to them.

Finally, by practical implementation, I mean understanding the steps we need to take to obey God’s word. Sometimes we know what to do (e.g., pray), but need help knowing how to do it (Luke 11:1).

I pray for illumination daily (Psa. 86:11; 90:14; 119:18, 36), read all of Scripture yearly, seek to use the tools of language and logic responsibly, regularly check my thinking against the Church’s historical consensus, both ancient and modern, and trust that the Holy Spirit is illumining me.

As you do these things, you can expect to be taught by the Spirit.

Blessings, Philip