I love the movie A Beautiful Mind. The acting, story, and music are all superb. The first time I saw the movie, I was caught by surprise by the twist at the end – the revelation of what was really going on in the life and mind of the main character. With this new insight, A Beautiful Mind became one of my favorite movies. Having knowledge of the ending and understanding the truth in no way lessened my enjoyment of the movie, but rather excited me as I was able to watch the movie numerous times to see evidences of the truth that I had previously missed. Similarly, the doctrine of illumination is not only initial, but ongoing – a continuous work of the Holy Spirit giving believers insight and wisdom through Scripture.
While initial illumination is involved in regeneration, ongoing illumination is involved in sanctification. Sanctification is the process of being made holy and set apart for holy use. Millard Erickson explains,
Although regeneration is instantaneously complete, it is not an end in itself. As a change of spiritual impulses, regeneration is the beginning of a process of growth that continues throughout one’s lifetime. This process of spiritual maturation is sanctification. Sanctification is the ongoing transformation of character so that the believer’s life actually comes to mirror the standing he or she already has in God’s sight.
Sanctification is the work of God’s Holy Spirit dwelling in us (John Murray, Redemption: Accomplished and Applied). The Word is the primary means of the work of the Holy Spirit. Sanctification, therefore, is the work of the Spirit with the Word. Sanctification is a work of the Holy Spirit that has both happened and continues to happen. As a completed event, Scripture teaches definitive sanctification in that believers have been “sanctified through the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:16), “were washed” and “were sanctified” (1 Cor. 6:11), and “were sealed for the day of redemption” (Eph. 4:30). Likewise, sanctification is a continual process as believers live in holiness (1 Thess. 4:7-8) as the word of God “is at work in you” (2 Thess. 2:13), for obedience to Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:2). Sanctification is both an event and a process of the Holy Spirit whose principle means is Scripture.
The Holy Spirit enlightens the mind of the believer enabling him to see “all the great doctrines of the Bible concerning God, Christ, and things spiritual and eternal . . . revealed by this inward teaching of the Spirit” (Charles Hodge). The Holy Spirit operates through the Scriptures, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). This active work through the Word grows our understanding of Scripture through interpretation and obedience, both personally and corporately.
“Longview made dookie go gold.” This statement may sound nonsensical, ridiculous, or even profane out of context. However, this is a quote from the punk rock documentary One Nine Nine Four referring to the album “Dookie” by the band Green Day whose single “Longview” launched the band to international fame and gave the album gold status. Context is important, not only for this musical quote, but more so for our understanding and application of Scripture. Apart from the Holy Spirit working in our hearts and minds, Scripture will not make sense and achieve within us the author’s intent.
The work of the Holy Spirit through Scripture in illumination, both in initial regeneration and ongoing sanctification, has both personal and community implications. How believers understand these implications involves interpretation. The text has one meaning that the interpreter must understand and apply. That meaning is whatever the author intended the meaning to be (Walter Kaiser, Toward an Exegetical Theology). Theology cannot be separated from the text.
Illumination involves the work of the Holy Spirit “assisting the reader to achieve clarity in understanding the content of the Word.” (R.C. Sproul, The Internal Testimony of the Holy Spirit). This assistance happens personally to the individual as well as to the community. This conviction is not against reason, but beyond reason.
The Holy Spirit illumines the mind and inwardly teaches so that the Word renders faith “superior to all opinion.” Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit will “guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). We therefore act in obedience with faith; we are to trust and obey. While we have “faith seeking understanding,” our understanding is not a prerequisite for obedience. Often in and through obedience we grow in greater understanding as the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination brings forth our sanctification and empowered obedience.
The Holy Spirit’s inward work happens to individual hearts and minds. Working simultaneously through the Word and in the heart and mind of the hearer, the Spirit does not operate independently from the Word in illumination. To dismiss personal illumination is to neglect the Holy Spirit’s work through the Word.
Both the Means and the Result
Sanctification is characterized by ongoing understanding of and application of the Scriptures. Paul writes, “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” (1 Cor. 2:12). John writes, “But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge” (1 John 2:20). Jesus states, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:13-14). We see, therefore, that regeneration is the motivation for obedience. Indeed regeneration is necessary for fruitful application of Scripture.
Scripture is the root for both faith and practice. When God speaks, man is required to obey. Authority implies obedience. The authority of Christ and Scripture is both bestowed and inherent, therefore we submit to God’s authority. We are to obey even if we do not understand because the authority of Scripture rests not in our minds or perceptions, but in God’s Word. Scripture is God’s authoritative and revelatory Word, inspired by the Holy Spirit who also illumines the believer so that the truth of God can be applied.
Application of Scripture is for both personal and corporate sanctification. Colossians 3:16 instructs, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Likewise Paul writes in Ephesians 5:19, “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.” Growing in holiness is both a personal and community occurrence.
Paul writes in Titus 2:14 how Jesus Christ “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” As people for Christ’s own possession, redeemed and purified, we are increasingly given opportunities for good works. As disciples, we experience personal redemption in the context of community on mission. In this we grow as disciples as well as forward the gospel in making disciples.
Obedience gives evidence to both personal and corporate sanctification. Paul writes in Philippians 2:12-13, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” This admonition follows the promise, “that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). This is understood in the context of the Philippian believers’ “partnership” as “saints” in gospel mission.
Illumination, both in regeneration and sanctification, shows us that it is the believer and the community of believers who are changed, not Scripture. The Christian life, therefore, is not only doing transformative things, but being a transformed people. Paul writes to Titus,
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. – Titus 2:11-14
Transformed identity, both personally and corporately, results in obedience. Murray writes that Scripture confirms “this great truth that regeneration is such a radical, pervasive, and efficacious transformation that it immediately registers itself in the conscious activity of the person concerned in the exercises of faith and repentance and new obedience.”
The application of Scripture to the believer’s life is the work of the Holy Spirit. Like sanctification, this is an ongoing process. This ongoing application of the Word by the Holy Spirit affects the intellect as well as the will. The result is obedient action rooted in faith. Scott Hafemann connects faith and obedience with God’s Word: “Faith is trusting God to do what he has promised because we are convinced by his provisions that God is willing and able to keep his word.”
As Scripture reveals the nature and character of God our rightful response is to obey. Hafemann continues,
Faith in God is an active dependence on his word that always expresses itself in action. The reason for this unity of faith and obedience as two aspects of our one response to God is the promises of God are always organically linked to corresponding commands. Every command of God is built on a promise from God. Therefore every divine call to action (obedience) is, at the same time, a divine summons to trust in God’s promises (faith) . . . trust in God’s promise would mean obedience to his commands.
The Holy Spirit works in and through Scripture to actualize our faith and empower obedience, therefore we must depend on the Holy Spirit. Scripture testifies to both initial and ongoing illumination, both of which are closely tied to the Word. Faith and obedience depend on the continued work of the Holy Spirit with and through Scripture.
The mission to “make disciples” is an act of empowered obedience. Jesus states in Acts 1:8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” The disciples, empowered by the Holy Spirit, were on mission locally, regionally, and globally to “make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). The mission is under the authority of Christ, empowered by the Spirit, and saturated with Scripture. This is consistent with God’s instruction in Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (which Jesus quotes as the greatest commandment):
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
In this passage, Israel is instructed in missional discipleship. Reminded of their identity as God’s people and His authority as their God, they are instructed to “teach” what God has “commanded.” They do so in all areas of life: personally (“you”), family (“children”), community (“house”), and culture (“gates”). This missional rhythm is as they go about life: “when you sit,” “when you walk,” “when you lie down,” “when you rise.” Likewise, a missional rhythm is included in the great commission. The imperative to “make disciples” is by “going, teaching, and baptizing.” As this mission continues for us today, D.A. Carson writes, “The Kingdom of God advances by the power of the Spirit through the ministry of the Word.”
We must ask ourselves: Are we growing in holiness personally? Are we growing in holiness in community? As we increase in information and application, are we growing in transformation?
Sanctification is not just knowing about holiness and doing holy things. Sanctification is about being and becoming holy people. Illumination is both the means and result of transformation and missional obedience gives evidence to this transformation. We return to 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for rebuke, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” We must not overlook the truth that this equipping is a work of the Holy Spirit who, through “the sacred writings . . . make[s] you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15) which then identifies one as a “man of God.” We see that this is not about making oneself good, but about being redeemed. Redemption is an identity change, not just behavior modification. 2 Timothy 3:16 is about righteous faith and character that manifests in obedience.
Since the Holy Spirit works through and with the Bible, we have a permanent need for His work.
We do so with confidence in Scripture as the written promises of God.
Scripture is a generous gift from the generous Father revealing the generous Son by the generous Holy Spirit to people transformed to be His generous church: saints in partnership in the gospel. The new community of disciples relates in the gospel and grows in understanding and interpretation of Scripture. Likewise, we grow together in obedience and application of Scripture as a community on mission with the gospel.
Jeremy Carr (ThM, MDiv) is lead teaching pastor and co-founding elder of Redemption Church in Augusta, GA. He has been a member of the Acts 29 network since 2007 and has written for the Resurgence. Jeremy is husband to Melody and father to Emaline, Jude, Sadie, and Nora. His book on Scripture will be published by GCD Books this spring. Twitter @pastorjcarr.
Read more in the e-book, Gospel Amnesia: Forgetting the Goodness of the News by Luma Simms