Illumination: the Spirit’s Lifelong Ministry

Last Friday I blogged about the role of the Holy Spirit among the Trinity, today I want to continue on the Spirit but in terms of something too often neglected – the doctrine of illumination.

But before we get into what illumination is see the connecting point between illumination and revelation. The Spirit’s inspired revelation is the grounds for the Spirit’s illumination. Without revelation illumination wouldn’t happen. We can’t have illumination apart from revelation. John Owen says it like this, “Scripture is the only external means of divine supernatural illumination because it is the only repository of all divine supernatural revelation.” So what makes the Spirit’s illumination possible? The Spirit’s revelation. Thus we have the external Word of God and in the internal testimony of the Spirit that His inspired Word is true. So what is the illumination of the Spirit? It is “when the Holy Spirit externally assures believers that the Scriptures are the Word of God, at the same time the Spirit enables them to understand the mind of God through the illumination provided the His internal testimony” (Joel Beeke). It is an internal testimony, or awakening, a giving of light to the soul that was once in the dark, that results in, not super spirituality as Eastern religions speak of, but in an understanding of the revelation of God.

To show you this truth I want to describe to you the three Biblical aspects of faith.

Notitia

‘Notitia’ refers to the ‘facts’ of Christianity or the content of our faith. When someone believes in something, it is because they know the basics or the facts of that particular something and they agree with them. For example when I say I believe Peyton Manning is an exciting football player to watch I say that because I know certain facts about him. His stats show that he’s undoubtedly one of the best quarterbacks of all time. Of course you may disagree with this statement because the excitement of watching a football player is largely a subjective experience rather than an objective fact. But when it comes to Christianity we move away from subjective experience and move toward objective fact. When someone comes to believe in the teachings of Jesus Christ it is because they first of all know Jesus’ teachings. But be careful. To know is not the same as believing in. Notitia is not saving faith, many people know the teachings of Jesus and reject Him as Lord. Notitia is a knowledge of the facts.

Assensus

Whereas ‘notitia’ refers to the basic facts or content of Jesus’ teachings ‘assensus’ refers to the conviction that the notitia of our faith is true. It’s when someone looks at the Person and Work of Jesus and believes Him to speak the truth after examining His teaching. Think of it this way: if I were to make the claim that chocolate is the best flavor of ice cream, you would immediately begin to examine my statement and think through the qualities and characteristics of other ice cream flavors in relation to chocolate. If, after seeing the facts, you decided that I was correct and chocolate really was the best ice cream flavor of all time it means that you not only knew the facts, but that you believed those facts to be true. Or to say it another way, you mentally assented to the truthfulness of my statement. This is assensus, and yet again I must say, even this is not saving faith. Many people not only know but agree with the teaching of Jesus while remaining spiritually lost and in the dark. Recall James 2:19? Even the demons know many things to be true about Jesus yet refuse to bow the knee to Him.

Fiducia

Lastly we come to ‘fiducia.’ If notitia are the basic facts, and assensus is seeing those facts as true, fiducia goes further. Fiducia refers to a trust in or reliance on those facts. Fiducia is not only knowing the teachings of Jesus, not only agreeing that those teachings are true, but banking our lives on those teachings, relying on them, and trusting in them for salvation. Many men can gain a knowledge of the notitia of faith, many men can also see that knowledge as true, but no man can of His own power and will come to trust in these facts. Only the Spirit of God can do this inside the heart and soul of man.

This brings us back to our central focus here. 1 Corinthians 2:14 says, “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.” Notice it says that the natural man does not accept the things of God, not because he simply rejects them, but because he is not able to understand them. Recall what Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3:3? “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Unless we are born again natural man is not able to ‘see’ the glories of the God’s kingdom. He is blind to them. Only the Holy Spirit can open our eyes to see the kingdom and understand the things of God.

The work of the Holy Spirit in opening our eyes to see God’s kingdom and understand God’s ways is called illumination. Illumination is not the Spirit giving man a new revelation of God, but an inward work deep within our hearts that enables us to see glory and beauty in the revelation of God in His Word that has always been before us. So in inspiration the Holy Spirit gave us the gift of Scripture, so too in illumination the Holy Spirit gives us the gift of understanding Scripture. Paul speaks of this illuminating moment in 2 Corinthians 4:6 when he states that God, just as He did back in Genesis 1, says within our hearts ‘Let there be light!’ and from this we gain “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Just as God’s spoke His Word into the dark void and created the heavens and the earth, so too God spoke His Word into the dark void of our hearts and resurrected us from death to life. J.I. Packer states, “Illumination is thus the applying of God’s revealed truth to our hearts, so that we grasp as reality for ourselves what the sacred text sets forth.”

Illumination begins before conversion with a growing grasp of the truth of God’s Word and His demands of us. The Spirit convinces us of our sin and convicts us of the same, warning us that judgment is to come if we do not repent and believe in the gospel. After conversion the illuminating process continues in our sanctification as the Spirit continues to do the work of opening our eyes and hearts to comprehend what is beyond all comprehension, the love of Christ. By doing this throughout our lives the Spirit fills us with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:18-19). Therefore, this work of illumination begun before conversion and continuing in our sanctification until our glorification, is a lifelong ministry of the Spirit toward Christians. Knowing that this is how the Holy Spirit operates within us to grow us in grace should prompt and move and lead and cause us to labor in the Scripture privately and publicly. While praying that the Spirit would incline our hearts to His testimonies (Psalm 119:36), open our eyes to behold wondrous things in His Law (119:18), unite our hearts with His to fear Him properly (Psalm 86:11), and satisfy us with Himself so that we would be glad and sing for joy all our days (Psalm 90:14).

To bring back our earlier terms of faith, allow me to end our discussion with two Puritan thoughts.

First, John Flavel makes a very valid point, in his book Method of Grace, when he wrote that the notitia and assensus is God’s preparatory or convicting illumination where man’s conscience and intellect are touched by grace while fiducia is God’s saving illumination where man’s will is transformed by grace to enjoy and taste God’s beauty and sweetness. Second, hear Jonathan Edwards, “God is glorified not only by His glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in. When those that see it delight in it, God is more glorified than if they only see it. His glory is then received by the whole soul, both by the understanding and by the heart. God made the world that He might communicate, and the creature receive, His glory; and that it might be received both by the mind and heart. He that testifies his idea of God’s glory doesn’t glorify God so much as he that testifies also his approbation of it and his delight in it.”

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