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Listening to the Spirit: John Woodhouse

Adapted from John Woodhouse, ‘How the Holy Spirit works when the Scriptures are being read or heard' (The Briefing Dec 1999 Issue 248):

Pentecostals speak of the Spirit’s work in ‘revealing’ God’s word, or giving ‘revelation’ into God’s word. More often than not this refers to a verse of Scripture ‘standing out’ or affecting us in a special way; we see a new aspect of meaning in a familiar passage; or gain ‘special insight’ into the meaning of a text; or find immediate application into a specific situation.

Theologians speak of the Spirit ‘illuminating’ the Word of God. What does this mean, and how does it happen? Are Pentecostals referring to the 'illuminating' work of the Spirit when they speak of their ‘revelations’ into the Word of God?

Do some read the Bible intellectually, while Pentecostals read spiritually? Are these two different ways of reading the Bible? Is it the work of the Spirit to enable us to discern deeper truths in the Bible that cannot be seen just by the ‘intellectual’ processes of merely ‘reading’? What is the role of the Spirit when the Bible is read or heard?

How to hear God

The proper reading of the Bible is a spiritual activity. But it is wrong to set ‘spiritual’ in opposition to ‘intellectual’ reading. Reading is an activity that always requires the use of the mind. But because Christians believe that the Bible is the very word of God the proper reading of it is always more than an intellectual activity, although it is never less than an intellectual activity.

1 Thessalonians 2:13 makes clear that the words of the Bible are only properly heard or read when the hearer or reader receives the words, not as the words of men only, but also as they actually are, the words of God. If anybody ever receives the words of Scripture merely as the words of men, then they have not understood them. It is this proper reading and hearing of the Scriptures that is only possible by the Holy Spirit. This is ‘illumination’.

Our problem

Since the fall, people are by nature incapable of hearing God’s Word. Our problem is described in the Bible as hardness of heart, eyes that fail to see, ears that fail to hear, minds that forget, minds that fail to understand, minds that misunderstand, hearts that are darkened.

This is not an intellectual problem, such as missing the logic or argument put forward by the Bible. Some of the greatest minds are spiritually blind. It’s also not a moral problem, the inability to see the difference between right and wrong. Some extremely moral people are also spiritually blind.

This inability is an expression of sin. It is the stubborn unrepentant heart, which is hard towards God (Romans 2:5). People refuse to glorify God or thank Him. Our thinking is futile and our foolish hearts are darkened (Romans 1:21). This ‘hardness’ is actually God’s punishment for our sin (Romans 1:28; 11:10; Matthew 13:13-15). He decrees the god of this world to blind the minds of unbelievers so that they cannot see the light of the gospel (2 Corinthians 4:4).

The result of this judgment is that people by nature do not believe God’s Word. There is all the difference in the world between understanding the meaning of the words, phrases and sentences themselves in the Bible and actually believing them; that is, receiving them as God’s very own words. The evidence of ‘deafness’ to the Spirit is the failure to hear God himself speaking when the Bible is read or heard. This is why the gospel appears to be foolishness to those who are ‘perishing’ (1Corinthians 1:18).

God’s work

There is nothing people can do to themselves fix our inability to hear and understand what the Spirit is saying through the pages of the Bible. Not will power or intellectual persuasion can turn a heart of stone into a heart of flesh.

Blindness to sight, deafness to hearing, is the work of God alone. The change is a God given capacity to believe God. The consequence is that the gospel is no longer foolishness to somebody. God doesn’t increase they’re IQ, or make his or her conscience more sensitive. God himself ‘breathes’ his word into their hearts to that they ‘hear’ it as his voice; they receive it as God’s Word (1 Thessalonians 2:13).

This is a work of the whole trinity, God the Father, Son and Spirit, but it is especially attributable to the Holy Spirit. As with all his work, the One God is not divided in anything he does. The work of the Holy Spirit is the work of God.

Salvation

The work of ‘illumination’ is also not detached from salvation. ‘Illumination’ is not additional to salvation; it is an aspect of God’s saving work. Our eyes are opened, not to a general religious truth like the existence of God, but specifically to the reality of God’s grace towards us personally in Christ (1 Corinthians 1:18).

Actually God’s ‘elect’ are those specifically to whom the gospel comes with the power of the Holy Spirit, bringing full assurance (1 Thessalonians 1:4-5). God chose them before time began to be saved, and when the time came his salvation comes to them by the Spirit’s work of bringing their hearts to belief in the truth about Christ Jesus as Lord (2 Thessalonians 2:13). ‘Illumination’ is therefore the experience of all Christians. It is part of being born again. We all have this work of the Spirit.

The Spirit and the Word

God’s Word accomplishes the work of God’s Spirit, which changes blind human beings into believers. The Spirit of God is God’s breath. ‘Spirit’ literally means ‘breath’ or ‘wind’ (Cf. John 3:8). When the word of Scripture come not just as human words, but with the Holy Spirit and power, then the words come with the power of God’s own breath (Compare 1Thessalonians 1:5 and 2:13) (Cf. 1 Peter 1:12). The One, who brought creation into being by his powerful word, saying ‘let there be light,’ now illumes the darkness of unbelieving hearts by speaking the word of the gospel of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:3-6). Scripture is effective only as God himself addresses hearers, to do his work in the by his Spirit (Ephesians 6:17).

Conclusion

People simply cannot believe the Bible, God’s word, unless God graciously speaks it to them himself. When God speaks, he acts; that is, his Word works – it is active and powerful by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit’s work when the Bible is read or heard is to bring the words to us in such a way that our deaf ears and our blind eyes are opened to receive them as God’s word. This is a sovereign work of God.

Pentecostals need to revisit the doctrine of ‘illumination’ and ‘revelation’. ‘Illumination’ does not amount to certain texts ‘standing out’ or new insights being gained. It is about hard hearts being made responsive to God, and unbelief turned into faith, and sinners turning toward obedience. It is not the word of God that is illumed. It is our darkness that is illumined by the God-breathed Word (the ‘Spirit’s’ Word).

The Holy Spirit is not a substitute for our minds. God’s Word must be understood by careful reading. We must always guard against misunderstanding the Bible by thinking as we read it. But the intellect alone will not make us believe God when we read the Bible. We must always pray that God himself will breathe his word into our hearts and minds, producing faith and repentance, hope and service, love and obedience.

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John Woodhouse, Matthias Media: The Briefing Dec 1999 Issue 248, ‘How the Holy Spirit works when the Scriptures are being read or heard.’ talkingpentecostalism.blogspot.com | joe towns: christian discussion on pentecost, charisma, pentecostal and charismatic beliefs, the Bible and Jesus; including the origin and history of pentecostalism, baptism in the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, gifts and miracles, divine healing and word of faith, prosperity and wealth, praise and worship, guidance and hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit.