Bruce Ware, SBTS prof.; ETS president, The Holy Spirit’s illumination of the truth of God’s Word

Communications Staff — November 18, 2009

Bruce Ware serves as professor of Christian Theology at Southern Seminary and is currently presiding as president of the 61st annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in New Orleans, La.


Scripture teaches that we can only correctly understand the truths of Scripture’s teaching when the Holy Spirit illumines God’s truth and enables us to see it for what it is:  glorious and wondrous spiritual truth.

To see this, let’s start at the most basic level and acknowledge that people who do not truly know Christ are simply unable to understand rightly some of Scripture’s teaching.  These are people whose minds and hearts are dominated by sin (Rom 8:6-8) and who do not have the Holy Spirit to illumine the Scriptures; as a result, they simply cannot understand correctly the spiritual truths Scripture teaches. Paul expresses this point in 1 Corinthians 2:14, “The natural person [i.e., the unsaved person devoid of the Spirit] 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.”

If one analyzes this verse, one can see that unbelievers face two problems simultaneously in their attempt to understand Scripture.  First, unbelievers are morally repulsed by the spiritual truths of Scripture.  As Paul puts it here, the things of the Spirit are “folly” to them.  Jesus’ description of how unbelievers respond to the light illustrates this point.  In a vivid passage, Jesus says that light has come into the world, but “people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.  For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” (John 3:19-20, emphasis mine).  So, here it is clear that the “foolishness” of the Gospel causes unsaved people to view spiritual truths as ridiculous or even outright repulsive.  Until the Spirit changes their hearts, they will not be able to accept these truths of Scripture.

But, second, unbelievers also are spiritually blind to the truth of Scripture.  Or, as Paul has put it in 1 Corinthians 2:14, unbelievers “are not able to understand” spiritual truths because they lack the Spirit who is necessary to make these truths correctly understood.  In another passage, Paul comments regarding all unsaved people that “in their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor 4:4).  Here, the stress is not that unbelievers see the truth and find it repulsive, but rather they simply cannot see it; they are spiritually blind.

Do you see a tension here in this pair of problems?  On the one hand, if unbelievers are morally repulsed by spiritual truth (1 Cor 2:14a; John 3:19-20), they must know something of that truth to elicit this hatred of the light, as Jesus describes it.  After all, you cannot hate something you don’t know at all, can you?  No, rather, you hate something when you know what it is and find it repulsive.  Yet, on the other hand, if unbelievers are spiritually blind, this seems to suggest that they cannot know the truth that is before their very eyes, because after all, they’ve been blinded to it (1 Cor 2:14b; 2 Cor 4:4).

The way to reconcile this tension, it seems to me, is by affirming that while unbelievers can understand something about spiritual truth (and so, as such, they are repulsed by it), they cannot know it for what it really is, or understand it correctly, or see this truth as truth (and so, as such, they are spiritually blind).  2 Corinthians 4:4 helps us with this problem.  Recall that here Paul said that unbelievers cannot see the glory of Christ, not that they cannot see Christ at all.  Many during Jesus’ day understood his teaching and saw his miracles and yet rejected him with hatred and scorn.  They saw something of the truth of Christ and hated it, but they didn’t see the glory of Christ.  So, unbelievers can see something about the truth and be repulsed by it, while they also, in this very same moment, are unable to see the “glory” or “beauty” of the truth.  Until, in belief, the Spirit indwells them and illumines the truth to their hearts, they will hate the light and not see in that light the beauty that can only be seen through the illumination of the Spirit.

What this shows us, then, is how deeply dependent we are on the Holy Spirit to soften our hard and rebellious hearts, and open our scaled, blind eyes, so we can see the truth for what it is and revel in its beauty and loveliness.  And the fact that we become believers by the Spirit’s gracious work in our hearts does not mean that we immediately shed all of our previous sinful inclinations and dispositions.

So, just as believers can be indwelt with the Spirit and yet continue to struggle to keep our word, tell the truth and so on, we also can be affected by sin so that some of God’s truth may still be objectionable to us.  We must submit to the Spirit and be willing for him to instruct our minds and refashion our hearts so that we will see the truth of God’s word as the glorious truth that it is, despite the fact that previously we might have objected to it and found it foolish.

Yes, believers need the Spirit’s ongoing work of illumination in our hearts, helping us to see God’s truth as beautiful and glorious.  I recall a conversation I had some years back with a committed Christian who had just recently become convinced that the Bible taught male headship.  I had been involved in a conference, and I had presented biblical teaching showing that God intended, in the created order of men and women, for men to be the heads, or leaders, both in the church and in the home.  This person confided in me and said that while this complementarian position used to be very offensive to him, he now accepted it as what the Bible in fact taught.  Even so, he continued, he wasn’t sure that he liked it!  In response, I suggested, “Well, then, it looks to me that you are half way there! God wants us not only to understand the truth of his Word; beyond that, he longs for us to see his truthful Word as glorious, beautiful, wise and best.  So, pray for the Spirit to overcome your discomfort with his truth and transform this into joyous embrace.  Ask God to enable you see the glory and beauty of God’s truth, for only then will you be seeing it for what it really is.”

So, while believers have the Spirit working in us, we need the Spirit to continue helping us overcome our sinful resistance to God’s Word.  Sometimes, what we view as hard to understand in the Bible is simply a spiritual truth that we, as of yet, cannot see correctly, and we need the Spirit’s ongoing work to open us to its inherent truthfulness, beauty and wisdom.

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