“The Bible cannot be understood simply by study or talent; you must count only on the influence of the Holy Spirit.” – Martin Luther
When we study the Bible, we may be tempted to take pride in our knowledge, practice, or ability. But if we only had our own talent to get us through Scripture, it would not be enough. Like in the entirety of the Christian walk, we are completely dependent on the Holy Spirit in our Bible study. It is only because of the Holy Spirit that true change can take place in our hearts when we study Scripture. He not only helps us understand the Bible, but also convicts our hearts of sin and directly applies the Word to our hearts.
This doctrine is known as illumination. This doctrine reminds us that as we sit down with our coffee or tea, ready to study God’s Word, we need to have a heart of dependence upon the Holy Spirit.
Definition of Illumination
René Pache defines illumination as, “the supernatural help granted by the Spirit of God to the reader of holy Scripture, to enable him to lay hold on the divine message. A book inspired by the Spirit can be understood only by means of an intervention of the Spirit.”¹
The Bible was written by God, so who can better teach us about it? “But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him” (1 John 2:27 ESV). The Holy Spirit opens our eyes to understand the truths in Scripture.
The beauty of illumination is that it is not dependent on human ability and knowledge. Pache wrote,
“The unbeliever, even the unregenerate religious man, cannot conceive of such a thing […] He can understand Hebrew, Greek, grammar, ancient history, religions, etc.—anything having to do with the ‘letter’ of Scripture, the body. But needful above all is the Spirit, that divine life which He alone communicates. For the same reason, the essentials of Scripture can be apprehended by any spiritual man, even though, humanly speaking, he possesses only a modest education.”²
It’s amazing and humbling to think that God not only has given us His very Words to know Him, but that He would also teach us such knowledge and direct us in applying it. How gracious and merciful is our God! Not only that, but He has chosen to reveal such knowledge not just to the “great” and “wise” people, but that He has chosen to reveal it to sinners such as us.
“In that same hour he [Jesus] rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’” Luke 10:21-22 ESV
Misconceptions About Illumination
As usual, we must be wary not to twist or make incorrect assumptions on what God has said. Be careful that you do not fall into any of these lies concerning illumination.
Because of Illumination, I do not Need Teachers, Pastors, and Mentors
The Bible tells us that we need both the illumination of the Holy Spirit and the help of teachers of the Word. If all we needed were illumination, why would God bother giving so many directions for teachers of the Word (see 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus). Why would we be warned of false teachers? The Holy Spirit illuminates our minds and convicts our hearts of sin by both the Word and the faithful teaching of the Word.
Because of Illumination, I do not Need to Study God’s Word
Illumination happens only when we study God’s Word. The Holy Spirit opens our eyes so that we may understand Scripture (Psalm 119:18; Luke 24:45).
Because of Illumination, I Can Know Everything about God’s Will and God Himself
The Spirit only reveals what is taught in Scripture, and nothing else. “The Spirit, the Author of the holy books, simply shows Himself to be forever conformed to Himself. Having set forth the truth, He merely keeps on speaking it with the same meaning.”³ Furthermore, there are some things about God and His will that we will never know. Deuteronomy 29:29 says, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (ESV).
This isn’t to say that Scripture isn’t sufficient (because it provides all we need to know about God and godliness), but that illumination will not bring us to a place where we do not need to learn anymore or where we can predict the future.
Illumination Happens Through a One-Time Experience
Illumination is not some ecstatic experience by which the Holy Spirit reveals things to us. Rather, illumination is an on-going process by which the Holy Spirit reveals God’s truth to believers as they faithfully study Scripture and rely on Him. There is nothing mystical, strange, or obscure about it; as we read, we understand, we are reminded of truths we have already learned, and that is the work of the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit Will Illuminate Anyone and Everyone’s Minds
The Holy Spirit only illuminates the minds of believers. Nonbelievers are incapable of understanding spiritual things. “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Corinthians 2:14 NASB). The Holy Spirit has been given to believers only so that they may know the things of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:9-10; Romans 8:9). It is only when God opens the eyes of a nonbeliever to believe in him and trust in the gospel that a nonbeliever can understand God’s Word.
Our Duty in Illumination
All we can offer in the act of illumination is submission. We must recognize our desperate need for God to teach us His truths, just like the Psalmist who cried, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18 ESV). Our eyes must be opened by God Himself in order to understand the glorious truths of His Word (Ephesians 1:18). We cannot know it on our own.
So seek God in prayer, asking for His help in understanding His Word. Put off any pride that believes you can do it on your own or that you are fully sufficient in your knowledge and capabilities. Come humbly before God, knowing your own inadequacy.
QUESTIONS FOR HEART CHANGE
What has illumination taught you about God and the Bible?
How does the doctrine of illumination change your approach to God’s Word?
Is there any pride in your heart that rests on your own knowledge, abilities, or systems more so than the Holy Spirit?
What misconceptions about illumination did you believe? How will this adjustment to your theology change how you view God, the Holy Spirit, or the Bible?
René Pache, The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture (Chicago, Illinois: Moody Press, 1980), 199.