The making and breaking of secret codes. Kids love it. Think of the invisible spy pen that writes messages in disappearing ink that can only be read with that nifty ultraviolet light gadget. Or the ever-popular coded messages. Only those with the special code key can decipher the otherwise meaningless combination of letters, digits, symbols, and emojis.
It turns out that children are not the only ones fascinated by the making and breaking of secret codes. A surprising number of adult Christians approach God’s word in the same manner. To them, the Bible is a book of secret codes. Its words have some meaning at face value, but true meaning is hidden beneath the surface. The decoder is the Holy Spirit. When he mysteriously imparts his special code to the reader or shines his special light on the text, the letters on the page rearrange to communicate new meaning. This new meaning remains intensely personal—known only by the Spirit and the one to whom he has provided the code.
Such an approach is just one illustration of the many misunderstandings that exist among Christians with respect to the Holy Spirit’s role in Bible study. In fact, this role—called illumination—is one of the most misunderstood aspects of Bible interpretation. This confusion exists for several reasons.
For one, there is a vacuum of solid biblical teaching on the topic. Many contemporary textbooks on hermeneutics simply neglect the issue. The trend in scholarly circles is to discuss Bible interpretation from an academic or philosophical perspective rather than from a theological one. This leaves little room for discussion about the operations of the Spirit.
Secondly, anything related to the person and work of the Holy Spirit is usually treated with a high degree of mysticism in today’s evangelical church. Consequently, a biblical teaching like illumination—simply because it is connected to the Holy Spirit—is subjected to all kinds of abuse. Half a century ago J. I. Packer observed that “pitfalls and perplexities regarding the ministry of the Spirit abound among Christians today.” This has only intensified in recent years. The Holy Spirit is the most maligned person of the triune Godhead today, treated by many popular speakers and ordinary readers as an impersonal, magical power rather than as God Almighty. This shows itself particularly in the confusion over illumination.
What Illumination Is Not
How then must we define the Spirit’s work of illumination? It is helpful to begin by contrasting it with what it is not.
1. The Spirit’s ministry of illumination is not his ministry of revelation.
Revelation refers to the Spirit’s act of revealing that which was previously hidden from human understanding. Since God’s will for us in the church age is now perfectly revealed in the Scriptures (e.g., Eph 3:3-7; 2 Tim 3:16-17; 2 Pet 1:2-3; Rev 22:18-19), there is no on-going revelation of new, divine knowledge. The Spirit’s work in revelation has been completed. So, unless the Christian is going to quote Scripture verbatim, he must put away the inaccurate and deceptive language reflected in the popular refrain, “God revealed to me today . . . .” Such statements are often clever attempts to canonize one’s own opinions about God and his own self-importance.
2. The Spirit’s ministry of illumination is not his ministry of inspiration.
Inspiration pertains to the manner by which the Holy Spirit superintended the biblical writers in their recording of divine revelation (e.g., 2 Pet 1:19-20). It pertains to the Spirit’s role of ensuring that the original words recorded in human language—even to the level of “the smallest letter or stroke” (Matt 5:18)—were exactly those intended by God. Only the biblical writers experienced inspiration in this theological sense.
3. The Spirit’s ministry of illumination does not occur apart from the Bible.
The Spirit’s ministry of illumination is inseparable from his ministry of sanctification, and according to the prayer of Jesus, sanctification does not occur apart from God’s word (“Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth”—John 17:17). In other words, the Spirit works with the word and through the word, but never apart from the word.
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4. The Spirit’s ministry of illumination does not change the nature or message of the biblical text.
It is important to recognize that it is not the word of God that needs improvement, but the reader. From its very inscripturation, the word of God possessed all the qualities necessary for it to be read and comprehended. Consequently, when the Spirit “illumines,” he is not shining a light on a dark and mysterious text. Instead, he is shining a light on the believing reader, removing the cataracts from his spiritual eyes. As Luther stated to Erasmus, “Let miserable men, therefore, stop imputing with blasphemous perversity the darkness and obscurity of their own hearts to the wholly clear Scriptures of God.”
5. The Spirit’s ministry of illumination does not ensure inerrant interpretation.
As Peter indicates in 2 Peter 3:14-16, the correct understanding of a biblical text is not always easy to achieve. There are “things hard to understand” (v. 16), especially for those of us who are far removed from the original recipients of Scripture’s writings. Just as spiritual perfection is unattainable in this life (see Paul’s admission in Phil 3:12-14), so is absolute understanding of God’s word. Illumination is needed precisely because of this. It does not impart perfect knowledge, but it does empower us in the pursuit of constant improvement (2 Pet 3:18). In fact, recipients of this special ministry still remain under the need for reproof and correction (2 Tim 3:16-17).
6. The Spirit’s ministry of illumination is not limited to certain members of the church.
The Bible was withheld from ordinary church members for many centuries of church history because of the conviction that the “code” of the Bible was too obscure and that the Holy Spirit only “decoded” it for the pope. The Reformers delivered a fatal blow against this premise, asserting that the Bible was clear enough for all believers to study and understand (the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture), and that the Holy Spirit was given equally to all who are born of God (the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers).
7. The Spirit’s ministry of illumination does not negate the need for pastor-teachers.
The same Scriptures that teach the doctrine of illumination also teach the necessity of pastor-teachers for the equipping of believers (cf. 1 Cor 12:28-29; Eph 4:11-12; 1 Tim 3:2). The two doctrines need not be pitted against one another. In fact, they are closely intertwined. The Spirit’s ministry of illumination works hand-in-glove with the pastor’s expository ministry of the word. Of this relationship Robert Thomas writes,
Undoubtedly the Holy Spirit does illuminate believers by a direct ministry to them. But to say that He does not use means to do so is also anti-scriptural. First Corinthians 12:28, 29 and Ephesians 4:11, 12 are extremely specific in showing that teaching is a prominent gift of the Spirit to the body of Christ and that teachers have a major role in promoting the growth of this body. These teachers teach through an oral ministry, but they also teach through a written ministry. A rich storehouse of Spirit-given teaching based on the Bible is available in the writings of these teachers whom Christ has given to His church, and it should not be ignored. . . . It should not be viewed as data that excludes what the Spirit teaches directly, but should be used alongside it as a supplement to it.
As Paul states in 2 Timothy 2:15, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.” Certainly, any reader of Scripture can grieve the Spirit through disobedience (Eph 4:30). But for the reader who walks by the Spirit (Gal 5:16), prays diligently (Ps 119:18, 33, 144), and seeks to be a doer of the word (Jas 1:22-25), his diligent efforts to study must never be construed as competition to the Spirit’s work.
What Illumination Is
Having described what illumination is not, we now are in a better position to understand what it is. John MacArthur and Richard Mayhue provide a simple yet helpful definition, describing illumination as “the work of the Holy Spirit giving understanding when the Scripture is heard or read.” A more detailed definition can be stated as follows:
Illumination is that ministry of the Holy Spirit whereby He develops
in the believer a clearer understanding of, a stronger certainty in,
a deeper love for, and a greater obedience to the meaning
of the text of Scripture
When pulled apart this definition yields several important ingredients:
- Illumination is a ministry of the Holy Spirit;
- It applies only to those who are regenerate;
- It occurs only in conjunction with the word of God—whether spoken or read;
- It improves the believer’s cognitive understanding of the objective, unchanging meaning of the text;
- It testifies within the believer that the text he is reading is indeed the word of God, nurturing a fullness of conviction that this word is ultimately authoritative and necessary for life;
- It nurtures the believer’s appreciation and hunger for the truth communicated by the text; and
- It motivates the believer to apply what he has come to understand, and in turn serves as the means of sanctification—the transformation of the believing reader into the image of Jesus Christ, the Word of God.
How is this definition established from Scripture? The best place to look are to the prayers of two key biblical characters—the writer of Psalm 119 and the Apostle Paul. Their prayers reverberate with the ingredients just listed.
Psalm 119 is filled with petitions for illumination and with testimony to its effects. The psalmist recognizes that even though the text of the Law is set before him, its understanding comes from God alone (v. 18, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from Your law”). He asserts that faithful obedience is possible only through this word-centered spiritual enlightenment (v. 34, “Give me understanding, that I may observe Your law and keep it with all my heart”). As he learns about this word, his love for it grows (v. 97, “O how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day”)—as does his hatred for everything contrary (v. 104, “From Your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way”). By understanding this word he can make sense of his circumstances (v. 105, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path”). It revives and sustains his life (v. 116, “Sustain me according to your word, that I may live; and do not let me be ashamed of my hope”). This illumination provides what no other form of education can offer (v. 130, “The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple”). It is the object of his most passionate pleas (vv. 145-46, “I cried with all my heart; answer me, O LORD! I will observe Your statutes. I cried to You; save me and I shall keep Your testimonies”).
Even more detailed are the prayers of the Apostle Paul recorded in his letters. More than anything else, these prayers are for illumination—that the Holy Spirit would grant believers a clearer understanding of, a stronger certainty in, a deeper love for, and a greater obedience to the word of God communicated through the apostolic preaching. For example,
- Ephesians 1:17-19a – “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe.”
- Ephesians 3:14-19 – “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.”
- Philippians 1:9-10 – “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ.”
- Colossians 1:9-12 – “For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light.”
So, what is the Spirit’s role in your study of the Bible? Does he give you secret codes to unlock personalized messages? Does he shine special light so you can see the invisible ink in the white spaces of your Bible? Does he speak new words just to you in still, small voices? No. Those things have much more to do with the fun and games of children than with the work of Almighty God.
Then what is the Spirit’s role? His role is to develop in you a clearer understanding of, a stronger certainty in, a deeper love for, and a greater obedience to the once-for-all meaning of the biblical text set before you. Now that is an amazing work!
To learn more about everything from hermeneutics to homiletics, see our free guide: Handling Scripture.
 J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers’ Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 219.
 Martin Luther, “On the Bondage of the Will,” in Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation, ed. and trans. E. Gordon Rupp and Philip S. Watson, LCC (reprint; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 111.
 Robert L. Thomas, Introduction to Exegesis (Hurst, TX: Tyndale Seminary Press, 2014), 28.
 For a helpful treatment of the relationship between study and spiritual devotion, see Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Religious Life of Theological Students,” MSJ 6, no. 2 (Fall 1995): 181-95.
 John MacArthur and Richard Mayhue, eds, Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Biblical Truth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 931.