Praise be to God for his Spirit’s supernatural work of illumination in our hearts. Without it, we would not be able to accept the things of the Spirit of God, we would not recognize them as the truthful, authoritative revelation of God that they are, and we would not willingly submit ourselves to them.
I am convinced that a charismatic theology of the Holy Spirit has infected most of evangelicalism in ways we don’t often recognize. Carl F. H. Henry was right when he observed, “The modern openness to charismatic emphases is directly traceable to the neglect by mainstream Christian denominations of an adequate doctrine of the Holy Spirit.”1
This influence can be seen in a number of ways, but one that I’d like to focus on here is with our understanding and use of the term illumination. Often we hear prayers like, “Lord, please illumine your Word so that we can understand what it says,” or other similar language. Intentional or not, many believers seem to expect that the Spirit is going to help us understand what Scripture means or that he is going to “speak” to us specific ways that the Word applies to our personal situations.
Neither of these are what the biblical doctrine of illumination means.
Biblical Teaching on Illumination
The term illumination does not appear in Scripture; rather, it describes a collection of concepts involving the Spirit’s work in relation to his Word in the believer’s life.
1 Corinthians 1:18–2:16
One of the key texts is 1 Corinthians 1:18–2:16. In this passage, Paul describes the fact that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). Though the concept of illumination or enlightening don’t really appear in this passage, it does clearly teach that a key difference between believers and unbelievers is the fact that unbelievers simply do not recognize the truthfulness, beauty, and authority of God’s Word (specifically the gospel), while a believer is one who has come to recognize Scripture as such, not because of any human persuasion, but simply through “the Spirit and of power” (2:4).
2 Corinthians 4:1–6
Second Corinthians 4 makes a similar assertion, this time using explicit language of “enlightening.” The gospel is “veiled to those who are perishing” (2 Cor 4:3), Paul argues. Believers accept and submit to the gospel only because God has enlightened their hearts:
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
2 Cor 4:6
This is illumination—a work of God’s Spirit upon a believer whereby he recognizes the beauty and glory of the gospel and therefore willingly submits himself to it.
It is important here to recognize that this concept of enlightening happens at the moment of conversion and is always true of Christians. Once our hearts are enlightened, we will always recognize and accept the Word of God as true and authoritative for us. An enlightened believer does not doubt or reject God’s Word.
1 Corinthians 2:10–16
Another text frequently cited in discussions of Spirit illumination is 1 Corinthians 2:10–16.
10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.
Two points are important to recognize in this text: First, the “us” and “we” in verses 10–13 are the apostles and other authors of Scripture. Charles Hodge notes, “The whole connection shows that the apostle is speaking of revelation and inspiration; and therefore we must mean we apostles, (or Paul himself), and not we Christians.”2 These men certainly received direct revelation from the Spirit of God to the degree that whatever they wrote can be considered “inspired” by God (2 Tim 3:16; 2 Peter 20–21). But we must remember that such inspiration was unique. The Spirit uniquely revealed the truths of Scripture to these men, and these truths are now inscripturated in the 66 canonical books of Scripture. The Spirit does not “reveal” truth to us in the same manner. These verses describe inspiration, not illumination.
This is important to remember in any discussion of illumination: the primary way the Spirit brings God’s Word to us is not illumination, rather, God’s Spirit has already brought God’s Word to us perfectly and sufficiently through inspiration.
However, second, verses 14–16 do touch on what we may describe as Spirit illumination.
14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16 “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.
The key phrase is “does not accept the things of the Spirit of God.” When the natural man reads Scripture, he does not accept it as God’s authoritative revelation. Rather, he sees it as foolishness. He does not understand its spiritual significance.
On the other hand, the spiritual person recognizes the Word of God for what it is and therefore submits himself to it. These verses do not speak of intellectual understanding but spiritual understanding. If we want to use the term illumination to describe what’s going on in these verses, it refers to the Spirit’s work to cause believers to recognize the significance and authority of the written Word of God. Furthermore, this act of the Spirit is not something that necessarily happens in separate points of time as we read the Word; rather, it is something that comes as a result of the new birth—the Spirit gives us new life and enlightens our hearts to recognize the significance of his Word.
In other words, 1 Corinthians 2 refers to two acts of the Spirit: inspiration, whereby the authors of Scripture wrote the very words of God, and illumination, whereby believers are enabled to recognize the spiritual significance of the Word of God.
A text that more specifically refers to what we may call illumination is Ephesians 1:17–22. Here Paul specifically uses the phrase “having the eyes of your heart enlightened” (v. 18). And what is the result of such illumination? Like with 1 Corinthians 2, the result of this enlightening is that the believer recognizes the value and authority of the truth of God’s revelation. No new revelation is imparted; rather, illumination causes believers to accept God’s Word for what it is—the sufficient, authoritative revelation of God.
Philippians 3:15, Colossians 1:9
In Philippians 3:15, Paul tells believers, “if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.” Here, too, “reveal” refers not to new knowledge but to a kind of spiritual maturity that rightly submits to and appropriates God’s written revelation. Likewise, in Colossians 1:9, Paul prays that believers “may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.”