“We are beggars, this is true.”

I’ve tried to mine the dying words of Martin Luther for all they’re worth.

He was just a man, so I can’t put too much weight into canonizing non-inspired words. But that proves his point. We’re beggars because the words of man will never fill our spiritual appetite. We need food from heaven. We need to hear from God.

Luther’s words can be taken further: we don’t just need God’s words—we are desperate for them to grip our hearts.

Without the Spirit’s work in illumination, we are beggars. Of course, this undergirds both our daily walk with the Lord and our work in local church ministry.

How are we to have knowledge of the spiritual if not through the Spirit? This is Paul’s argument in 2 Corinthians:

“these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 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. 2:10-12)

From the dawn of the church to the present day, Christians have contemplated God’s role in our understanding. We can learn from these four guides from Church history as we seek to understand the limits of our own understanding and the power of the Spirit to illuminate us to know truth. And this is why we preach the Word as the only force that is the power of God unto salvation.

Augustine (354-430)

“..if the reasonable soul itself be depraved, as it was at that time in me, who was ignorant that it must be enlightened by another light that it may be partaker of truth, seeing that itself is not that nature of truth. “For Thou wilt light my candle; the Lord my God will enlighten my darkness; and “of His fulness have all we received,” Confessions XV.25

One implication of our fallen nature is that we fail to see clearly. We fail to behold the King in his beauty (Isa. 33:17). We fail to see God because we are not pure in heart (Matt. 5:8). But when he returns, and we are made like him, we will see him as he is (1 John 3:2). Augustine grasped the cataclysmic effects of original sin. If we are truly born under Adam, we truly need a better Adam to enlighten us to truth.

Anselm (1033-1109)

“Be it mine to look up to thy light, even from afar, even from the depths. Teach me to seek thee, and reveal thyself to me, when I seek thee, for I cannot seek thee, except thou teach me, nor find thee, except thou reveal thyself.” (Proslogium I)

The Spirit’s illuminating work is the remedy for the alleged chasm between faith and reason. Empirical study, which some exclusively relate to reason, cannot give us personal knowledge of the divine. But God has said the book of nature is sufficient for knowledge of his existence.

Anselm knew God existed. He wasn’t seeking to prove what he did not know. He wanted to experience that which he did know through reason. His faith was seeking understanding. The spiritual understanding Anselm was seeking is dependent on God illuminating his revelation. Our minds are to be engaged in our pursuit of knowing him. Our reason is accompanying—but not opposed to—our faith so that we may have our minds and hearts enlightened to taste and see the good things of God. But God reveals himself to us through nature and grants us faith.

We’re beggars in need of renewed minds.

Calvin (1509-1564)

“For wherever the Spirit does not cast his light, all is darkness. . . He who attributes any more understanding to himself is all the more blind because he does not recognize his own blindness.” (Institutes II.ii.21)

I need to be humbled. This is part of the reason I wrestle so strongly with Luther’s words. If we ever find ourselves content in our wisdom we prove our ignorance. Calvin grasped our need for the light because he understood the darkness of our hearts. “The fear of the lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 9:10). If we are to have knowledge, it starts with knowledge of God in relation to our sinfulness.

As Calvin so elegantly tells us, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”

John Piper

“That is the way it is with the supernatural act of reading the Bible. In one sense, it is perfectly natural. We use our ordinary natural powers. But without God’s supernatural intervention, we would have no motivation to read the Scriptures in the hope of treasuring Christ above all things (1 Kings 8:58; Ps. 119:36). Without God’s supernatural illumination, we would not see and savor what is really there—the all-satisfying glory of all that God is for us in Christ. In one sense, the act of reading is natural—in another, supernatural. This is why I call it “the natural act of reading the Bible supernaturally.” (Reading the Bible Supernaturally, 292)

So how does the Spirit work to illuminate us? A better question may be, “How does the Spirit speak through the Bible to us?” The Bible is God’s Word. When the Bible speaks, God speaks. The Holy Spirit is God and God speaks through the Son by the Spirit. The Spirit is the terminus of God’s action in illuminating His word.

Piper reminds us that although the Bible is a window into supernatural glory, it is to be read naturally. We do the hard work of exegesis to understand what the human authors intended because their intent is exactly what God inspired them write. For the Spirit’s work to grip us, we must see that we are dependent on him for shining light into the dark. But we must also travel the roads he has directed us toward in order to know him.

Maybe we take for granted the fact that God chose to reveal himself.

But he has.

What are ministers of the gospel to make of this truth?

We let the Word fly. To follow more of Luther’s advice: “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing.”

Our job is to stay out of the way and let God speak. Let the Bible, accompanied by the Spirit, do what it was given to us to do—grant true understanding. We should preach like we believe the Word has power to open hearts.

Centuries of Christians contemplating the Scriptures have led us to this conclusion: We are beggars. Beggars in need of God’s illumination. This is true.