The Holy Spirit’s Role in Revealing Truth (Part 1)


Question: I have been taught that the Holy Spirit’s illumination is necessary to understand Scripture, but I am rather uncertain about how this works. Does the Spirit arbitrarily choose to reveal things? Is His revelation contingent upon something I do? 

Let’s begin by distinguishing revelation and illumination. There are two types of revelation: general and special.

General revelation refers to information about God that we learn from creation (Rom. 1:20-21) and from our consciences (Rom. 2:14-15).

Special revelation refers to information given by God through His Spirit to us about God and His will which is authoritative for all people at all times (1 Cor. 2:6-10). Scripture is special revelation. Revelation illumines (Psa. 119:105), but the Spirit’s work of revelation is not the same as His work of illumination. As far as we know, the Spirit ceased giving revelation when the apostles died. Illumination, on the other hand, is the term we use to refer to the Spirit’s role in helping people see truth and its implications.

The Spirit’s work of illumination has at least three aspects.

First, the Spirit illumines sinners to spiritual reality. In 1 Corinthians 2:13-14, Paul talks about the necessity of the Spirit’s help for sinners to see and know the wisdom of the gospel.

The Spirit illumines sinners to spiritual reality.

Imagine that you were invited to a celebration. At the door, you’re given a note which reads, “Welcome! Please come in and join the feast.” When you walk in, a banquet table is set, places are available, people appear to be eating, but you can’t see any food. None. Not on people’s plates, nor anywhere on the table. Did you misunderstand the note? You reread it. It says, “Join the feast.” That’s a fairly common expression for eating. But how do you eat if there isn’t any food?! At that point, you show your note to someone at the table and ask, “Is this a joke?” But the person says, “Sit down and dig in! The food is amazing!” Now you’re thinking, either they’re nuts or I’m nuts. I’m pretty sure I was in my right mind when I walked in here. It must be them.

This is the way the gospel sounds to the unsaved without the Spirit’s illumination. It isn’t that they don’t understand the meaning. It just sounds like foolishness (1 Cor. 1:18, 23). Talk about crucifixion or blood atonement or living for an unseen Savior is judged to be absurd (1 Cor. 2:14). Why? Because they can’t see the spiritual reality that is being talked about (2 Cor. 4:4). Without their spiritual eyes illumined (Heb. 6:4; 10:32), the wisdom of God seems foolish.

Second, the Spirit illumines all believers to certain foundational truths. First John 2:18-27 speaks of an “anointing” which abides in us and teaches us the essential truths of the gospel. That anointing is the Holy Spirit. Some have misread 1 John 2:27 and concluded they don’t need to be taught by anyone other than the Holy Spirit, but that contradicts both the purpose of John’s letter (1 John 5:13) and what Scripture says elsewhere (Eph. 4:11-12; 1 Tim. 6:2).

In context, the “all things” which the Spirit teaches believers includes that Jesus is the Messiah (1 John 2:22), that the Father and the Son are distinct persons (1 John 2:23-24), and that we should abide in the message we have heard from the beginning (1 John 2:24), i.e., that we should love one another (1 John 2:10-11; 3:11).

Third, the Spirit illumines believers to the meaning and significance of God’s Word. When God spoke His Word through the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:19-21), He used human languages. Jesus actually chided people for not using logic to understand Scripture (Matt. 12:5; Mark 12:10, 26).

From these two facts, I conclude that God expects believers to use the normal tools of language (context, grammar, word meaning) and logic (laws of non-contradiction, excluded middle, identity) to understand His Word. In fact, Paul encourages careful, diligent study of Scripture as the proper path to truth (2 Tim. 2:15; cf. Acts 17:11).

God expects believers to use the normal tools of language and logic to understand His Word.

To learn how the Holy Spirit interfaces with the tools of language and logic, and whether we can identify specific instances of illumination, read Part 2.

Originally published in God’s Revivalist. Used by permission.

Philip Brown
Philip Brown
Dr. Philip Brown is Graduate Program Director and Professor at God's Bible School & College. He holds a PhD in Old Testament Interpretation from Bob Jones University and is the author of A Reader's Hebrew Bible (Zondervan Academic, 2008).