Confusion in the Church
Does God still give special revelation to individuals? Does He speak to His church audibly? In what way does God reveal Himself and His will? These questions and many more have caused a tremendous amount of confusion in the church today. While it is commonplace to hear of someone having received “private revelation” from the Holy Spirit, we believe that the Spirit no longer gives special revelation. He does however give illumination to the written words of Scripture as part of His teaching ministry. However, the work of the Holy Spirit in illumination is not the supplying of new information or fresh revelations beyond those found in sacred Scripture.1
What is Revelation?
The term “revelation” means the disclosure of what was previously unknown.2 Revelation is divided into two broad categories, those of “general” revelation, and “special” revelation. General revelation itself can also be subdivided into two groups; “mediate” and “immediate.”
In mediate general revelation God reveals Himself, and His glory, through the medium of creation (Psalm 19:1). According to the Apostle Paul, God’s “invisible attributes, eternal power, and divine nature are clearly seen in what has been made,” so that “men are without excuse” for not honoring God or giving Him thanks (Romans 1:20-21). However, in mediate general revelation, God goes beyond simply revealing Himself through the mediation of creation. Instead, He implants an innate knowledge of Himself in human beings. The Apostle Paul made this point clear when he wrote in his letter to the Romans, “that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them” (Romans 1:19). In summary, God has revealed Himself in both the creation and within the hearts of human beings.
Special revelation is God’s redemptive revelation conveyed by wondrous acts and words.2 In the Old Testament it came to men in several different ways, the most prominent being that of the spoken word.3 This fact is demonstrated by the oft-repeated phrase “Thus says the Lord.” Other methods which the Lord used to communicate His divine will were dreams (Genesis 20:3-7; 31:10-13, 24; 37:5-20; etc.), visions (Isaiah 1:1; 6:1; Ezekiel 1:3; etc.), and trances (Ezekiel 8:3; 11:24).
Special revelation in the New Testament is unique in that God’s revelation of Himself came through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Living Word, as well as the inscripturation of His spoken word. The Scriptures of both Testaments were completed through the work of the Holy Spirit guiding human authorship (2 Peter 1:21; 2 Timothy 3:16), and are therefore incapable of erring in their conveyance of the divine will. The Spirit of God opened the minds of the Apostles so that they could remember everything from their time with Christ during His earthly ministry (Luke 24:45; John 14:26). Dreams, trances, and visions came to a conclusion at the close of the New Testament. Apart from the special revelation of the scriptures man would be left to “grope” for God as a blind man in the dark (Acts 17:27).
It should be noted that attempts to distinguish differences between general and special revelation are profitable as long as one recognizes that God’s revelation is a unified whole. The Bible contains God’s plan of redemption and His marvelous works in human history in a unity. Biblical revelation is authoritative and consistent from start to finish thus it is the only place believers can go to identify God’s will for their lives.
What is Illumination?
In contrast to revelation, illumination is the teaching work of the Holy Spirit, whereby He reveals the things of God to believers through His word. Because the Bible is a spiritual book, it can only be understood with the aid of the Spirit. It is the Spirit of God alone who searches the deepest thoughts of God, and He alone is capable of disclosing those thoughts to us (1 Corinthians 2:9-16). The means which He uses to reveal God’s thoughts to us is the written word of God. In other words, the Spirit of God, working with the word of God, is the mechanism which God uses to communicate His will to believers. He “searches” like a spotlight into the darkness of a human heart and reveals what otherwise would have remained hidden. The Holy Spirit operates in our lives to make the Scriptures clear to our understanding and to convince us of their truthfulness. The Spirit also accomplishes the work of illumination through the means of gifted men who teach the word of God. In both of these ways the work of the Spirit enables us to apply the Scriptures in our daily lives as we submit to their authority.
Illumination is more than mere intellectual assent. The Spirit’s goal in illumination is to move believers to a greater level of trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and also to train a believer’s heart to obedience, by helping us to overcome our carnal nature.
We believe that God no longer speaks audibly to His church. He has spoken to us fully and finally in His Son (Hebrews 1:2). Jesus Christ has explained God and His will to us (John 1:18).
It is also important to note that the ministry of illumination is only available to those who are regenerate. The natural man is unable to discern the things of the Spirit because they are spiritually appraised (1 Corinthians 2:14).
- Revelation is the disclosure of something which was previously unknown.
- General revelation is God’s revelation of Himself in creation, history, and within the human conscience.
- Special revelation is God’s redemptive revelation conveyed by wondrous acts and words.2
- Special revelation is contained in the Bible and is no longer given by the Holy Spirit.
- Illumination is the work of the Holy Spirit whereby He convinces us of the truthfulness of the Scriptures, helps us to understand them, and assists us in our obedience to them.
This article is copyright 2006 by Vincent Nicotra. This article may be quoted, in part or in whole, without permission.
You may contact the author through: http://www.christianfallacies.com/contact.php
1.) Sproul, R.C., Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, Tyndale House Publishers: Wheaton, Illinois, 1992, page 21.
2.) Henry, C.F.H., “Revelation, Special,” in The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, Baker Books: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1984, page 946.
3) Walvoord, John F., The Holy Spirit, Zondervan Publishing House: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1991, pages 50-52.
For further study we recommend the following:
1) The Holy Spirit – Charles Ryrie
2) The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible – B. B. Warfield
3) The Origin of the Bible – Philip Comfort, Editor
4) Thy Word is Truth – E.J. Young