I’ve seen the signs and I’ll bet you have, too. They’re on special store shelves, tucked into sale flyers, and piled up in designated areas of Target, curtly signaling that summer is waning. The school supplies are back. It always surprises me, no matter how many summers I’m alive. “Really?” I think to myself. “It’s already time?” Once I’ve accepted the sad fact that pool season will once again come to an end, I begin to think about what comes next. For me and many women in the church, this means Bible studies.
Every fall, we crank up the machine: leaders, sign up lists, childcare, and nighttime meeting spaces. It’s a good effort and a worthy cause. We need the help of our sisters, the regular schedule and expectation of a passage studied, a book chapter finished. But in all our resolute efforts, it’s easy to forget that we are not the only participants in this endeavor. In fact, if the sum of our activity was simply a group of women regularly reading the same text, our time may have been better spent back at the Target school supply area.
The Work of the Spirit
Thanks be to God, something more than a good book club happens in these groups—something supernatural and beautiful. God himself, in the person of the Holy Spirit, works alongside the Word of God. Our Father not only reveals himself in his Word; he also illuminates our hearts so that we might understand and believe it.
In John 14:25-26 Jesus says these words: “All this I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have told you.” What does Jesus promise in these words? God himself in the person of the Spirit will write the New Testament through the apostles by reminding them of what Jesus said and did while he walked the earth. This is revelation, the objective witness, God’s whole truth. But this is only one aspect of the Holy Spirit’s work.
Jesus continues to speak of the Spirit’s work in John 16:12-13. “I still have much to tell you, but you cannot yet bear to hear it. However, when the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all truth. For He will not speak on His own, but He will speak what He hears, and He will declare to you what is to come.” Again, this promise of Jesus is first and foremost directed toward the disciples and is fulfilled first in the writing of the New Testament. However, there is a wider fulfillment of Jesus’s words in all believers. This same Holy Spirit guides us— believers living presently on the earth— into all truth. Theologians call this work the illumination of the Spirit.
The Spirit’s Testimony
The Word and the Spirit always work together in the hearts and minds of believers. The Word works externally; the Spirit illumines internally. What exactly does the Spirit do in our hearts? As John Murray writes, he works “in the hearts of the elect that in the end they react properly to the truth which is actually confronting them in the Bible.” This is a startling reminder of the natural state of our hearts as humans. Because of the fall and sin in our hearts, we do not naturally or immediately respond appropriately to God’s word. Our hearts are deceptive and proud and our self-assessments inaccurate. On our own, we see neither God, ourselves, nor our brothers and sisters correctly. This is where the internal testimony of the Spirit is so desperately needed.
What is this internal testimony of God? It is chiefly the softening of our hearts to the truths of God. It is the readying of our minds and souls for what God would teach us in his Word. The Spirit tills up the soil of our hearts that we might submit ourselves to his truth. He overcomes our natural resistance. He gently disarms us that we might hear, believe, and submit to his life-giving words. How else would we have the experience of reading a passage we’ve read hundreds of times and suddenly be overwhelmed by its profound significance for our lives right this very minute? How might a proud, dead sinner suddenly hear and understand Jesus’s convicting words and actually want to hear more? How in certain moments might we feel God’s presence and that he is speaking directly to our hearts? Only the Spirit can do this work.
What the Spirit gives is not new revelation or content. He does not reveal to us more information, or cryptic or hidden knowledge that others don’t have access to. Instead, he opens our eyes and hearts to understand what he has already revealed in the Bible. This work of illumination is his grace to us, his kindness, his overwhelming generosity to his people. He not only reveals himself in his Word; he then enables us to accept and believe it.
The Westminster Confession of Faith states, “…we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the word….” What does this mean for us as we crank up the Bible study machine this fall? First, it means that we should be encouraged. We are not alone in our endeavor to know the creator God. He will, in his great kindness, supernaturally work to help us see and understand his Word. Second, we must welcome the Holy Spirit and depend on him. Yes, we do our due diligence. We organize, read, answer questions, and offer our homes or our leadership to others as we study. But God himself, the Advocate, the Comforter, the Counselor, the Spirit of truth, will be at work in you and your sisters. Welcome him. Acknowledge him, perhaps even aloud at the beginning of your meeting time. Thank him for his presence and watch him work.
 Truths We Confess, A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, R.C. Sproul, Volume 1, P&R Publishing, Philipsburg, NJ, 2006, p. 51.
 Westminster Confession of Faith, Of the Holy Scriptures 1,6, P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, NJ, 2003, pg 10.
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