One of the most useful modern inventions is the flashlight or, as the British call it, the “torch.” When the power goes off and the house is plunged into darkness, the flashlight is a lifesaver. Its function is to shine light into darkness in order that we may see what is there. It works to illumine the scene.
Not every part of Scripture is equally clear to our understanding. Certain passages are difficult to grasp. We struggle at certain points to gain insight into the meaning of the text. The effect of sin upon us is to shroud our mind in darkness. In our fallen nature we are creatures of darkness who are in desperate need of light.
Though the Scriptures themselves are light for us, there is need for additional illumination so that we may clearly perceive the light. The same Holy Spirit who inspires the Scripture, works to illumine the Scriptures for our benefit. He sheds more light on the original light. Illumination is the work of the Holy Spirit. He helps us to hear, receive, and properly understand the message of God’s Word. As the apostle Paul writes,
But as it is written: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.” But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. (1 Corinthians 2:9–11)
Here Paul draws an analogy from human experience. You may learn many things about me from observing me or from hearsay, but you cannot know what is going on inside my mind or my spirit unless I choose to reveal it. Only I know what I am thinking. (Though at times I’m sure my wife can read my mind!)
Likewise, it is the Holy Spirit who knows the innermost thoughts of God. Paul says that the Spirit “searches” the deep things of God. This does not mean that the Holy Spirit must investigate and inquire into the mind of God in order to be instructed. He is not seeking for information He otherwise lacks. He “searches” as a searchlight scans the night to bring into the light what otherwise would remain hidden.
Illumination is not to be confused with revelation. It is commonplace today to hear people speak about private revelations they claim to have received from the Holy Spirit. The work of the Holy Spirit in illumination is not the supplying of new information or fresh revelations beyond those found in sacred Scripture.
Reformed Christianity emphatically denies that God is giving new normative revelation today. The Spirit is still working to illumine what is revealed in Scripture. The Spirit helps us to understand the Bible, to convict us of the truth of the Bible, and to apply that truth to our lives. He works with the Word and through the Word. His task is never to teach against the Word. It is therefore always necessary to test what we hear by the teaching of Scripture. The Scripture is the Spirit’s book.
- Illumination refers to the Holy Spirit’s assistance in helping us understand and apply Scripture.
- Illumination is not to be confused with revelation.