“I have no notion of the Spirit dwelling in a man and not giving a clear evidence of His presence. And I believe it to be a signal evidence of the Spirit’s presence when the Word is really precious to a man’s soul.”

One of the battlegrounds of the Reformation was over the sufficiency of the written Word. Were the Scriptures alone, sola scriptura, sufficient for gaining salvation and for knowing all that God requires? Or, was something more needed to make the gospel clear, complete and effective? One of the skirmishes in this battle focused upon the question of whether the Scriptures were perspicuous, clear for all, or were they beyond the common man and in need of interpretation by the infallible witness of the Church.  

The Roman Catholic Church had taken the position that arbitrary and private judgment would lead to mass confusion. She claimed that God had appointed her to be the one authoritative and infallible interpreter. Here is how Cardinal Gibbons, the former Archbishop of Baltimore, expressed Rome’s position. 

“We must, therefore, conclude that the Scriptures alone cannot be a sufficient guide and rule of faith because they cannot, at any time, be within the reach of every inquirer; because they are not of themselves clear and intelligible even in matters of the highest importance, and because they do not contain all necessary truths for salvation.”

Erasmus and Luther were locked in a theological dispute over this very issue. Erasmus divided the scriptures into two classes: those which were clear and those which are obscure. He cited two scriptures to validate his position: “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” [Rom 11:33-34]; and, “Who has understood the mind of the LORD, or instructed him as his counselor?” [Isa 40:13]

Luther, being a master “logic chopper,” saw through the fallacy of Erasmus’s argument. He differentiated between God and His Word. Certainly, God’s thoughts and God’s ways are higher than ours. That is the point of both Paul’s and Isaiah’s words. But the reason God gave us the written Word was so that we could know His will and His ways. Deuteronomy 29:29 says it like this: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.”  

Luther argued that we had enough confusion without God purposefully giving us obscure scriptures. Why would a good God give us the Bible so that we could have more darkness? Sure there were scriptures that were hard for some to understand, but it was not the fault of God or His Book. He wrote,

“I certainly grant that many passages in the scriptures are obscure and hard to elucidate; but that is due, not to the exalted nature of their subject, but do to our linguistic and grammatical ignorance; and it does not in any way prevent our knowing all the contents of scripture. For what solemn truth can the scriptures still be concealing, now that the seals are broken, the stone rolled away from the door of the tomb, and that greatest of all mysteries brought to light- that Christ, God’s Son became man, that God is Three in one, that Christ suffered for us, and will reign forever? Take Christ from the scriptures- and what more will you find in them?”

The key had been given to the treasury house of God’s purposes. Jesus Christ is that key. With the glorious door opened, Luther concluded that there were really only two issues at stake: external clarity and internal clarity. External clarity has to do with the objective scriptures themselves. All written scriptures are clear. If there is a passage that is hard to understand in one place it will be made clear in another. Paul declared that: “All things that are written are written for our instruction” [Rom 15:4]. Therefore, “all” scriptures are useful, not for confusion but instruction. Passages like, “The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple; [Ps 119:130] and, “The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple, [Ps 19:7] seem to discredit the Roman Church’s claim. The “simple” are those who are unlearned and vulnerable to deception, but these passages declare that the Word of God can overcome their weakness. At every point the Bible affirms that “The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes.” [Ps 19:8] Nowhere will you find implicit or explicit teaching that the Scriptures are in some way deficient in their clarity and in need of a privileged class of interpreters.

I was reading in the Church Fathers the other day and one of them made the point that the reason God chose shepherds, farmers, fishermen and tax collectors to write the Bible instead of scholars, theologians and philosophers, was so that no one could say, “This is over my head.” Good point! 

The problem centers more on the internal clarity of the scriptures. That has to do with the heart. Luther said that those whose hearts are hardened are like “men who cover their eyes, or go from daylight to darkness, and hide there, and then blame the sun, or the darkness of the day for their inability to see.” Man in his rebellious state cannot understand the spiritual intent of God’s Word because he will not. Unregenerate man simply is unable to know God or His Word. Luther explains, “Scripture is a book, to which, there belongeth not only reading but also the right Expositor and revealer, to wit, the Holy Spirit. Where He openeth not Scripture, it is not understood.”

Shortly before he was to go to the cross, Jesus told his disciples, “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” [John 14:26] If we are a child of God, we have the Author of Scripture living inside to teach us and remind us and interpret for us the truth of God’s Word. We must read and study, but that is not enough. John Calvin put it like this:

“The testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than all reason. For as God alone is a fit witness of himself and his Word, the Word will not find acceptance in men’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. The same Spirit therefore who has spoken through the mouths of the prophets must penetrate into our hearts to persuade us that they faithfully proclaimed what had been divinely commanded…because until he illumines their minds, they ever waver among many doubts.”

Here is why this issue is important to us. Whenever we pick up the Word of God we can hear and understand what Christ is saying to us. The Holy Spirit will respond to our prayer for illumination. He knows both what God intends for us to hear and what we need to hear. He not only enlightens our mind so that we understand what God is saying, but he softens our hearts so that we want what He is saying. John Wesley wrote: “The Spirit of God not only once inspired those who wrote the Bible, but continually inspires those who read it with earnest prayer.”

It is the Spirit that convinces us that what we have in our hands is God’s Word [1 John 2:27]. It is the Spirit that opens our ears so that what we hear is not dead words but the voice of our Living Lord.  It is the Spirit that opens our eyes to see the majesty and beauty of Jesus. It is the Spirit that takes the promise and applies it to the problem we are facing. It is the Spirit that takes the truth of God’s Word and gives us a place to stand in battle. It is the Spirit that gives us joy in the midst of terrible times.  

So, when surrounded by a world of enemies, Luther could say, “You can expect from me everything save fear and recantation. I shall not flee, much less recant;” and, “Not go to Worms! I shall go to Worms though there were as many devils as tiles on the roofs;” and, “Here I stand; I can do no other;” and, “I was afraid of nothing; God can make one so desperately bold. I know not whether I could be so cheerful now.” Are you in battle? Pick up the Word and pray. If you are a child of God, the Spirit will make God’s truth to be a mighty weapon in your hand for gaining victory over the devil, attaining deep joy for your soul, and for proclaiming the greatness of our Lord, Jesus Christ.