Iain Boyd, Associate Rector for Christian Ed. at Trinity Church, Myrtle Beach, contributes to our “Help Me Read the Bible” series. He is a fine preacher, wonderful pastor, and gifted theologian. He’s also my best friend! Check out his blog here.
How would Jonathan Edwards tell us to read our Bibles? Beyond telling us to read, pray, and journal, I’m not exactly sure. But what I am sure of is what he might say the Holy Spirit does when we read our Bibles. Jonathan Edwards understood that there is Common Grace and Special Grace. That is, there are graces given to all of humanity, whether they have believed in Christ or not. All of humanity can know, to some degree, what is right and what is wrong. All of humanity can know that there is a God. All of humanity can know that hard work pays off. There are other truths, however, that God must give specially to believers which are uncommon amongst men. Jonathan Edwards discussed these graces in his sermon, A Divine and Supernatural Light Immediately Imparted to the Soul by the Spirit of God. In this sermon, Edwards was not dealing directly with how to have a devotional life, but rather, how to tell true conversion, true revival, from mere emotionalism. What is helpful from his exposition is that Edwards’ evidence for true work of the Holy Spirit is centered on God’s revelation of Himself from Holy Scripture. In other words, true revival, true conversion, and true sanctification have always to do with the Holy Spirit’s work in illuminating Scripture. So, what might Edwards say the Holy Spirit does for us when we read our Bibles?
Before we get about that work though, one word. This does not imply a completely passive role for us in Bible reading. On the contrary, “The natural faculties are the subject of this light: and they are the subject in such a manner, that they are not merely passive, but active in it; the acts and exercises of man’s understanding are concerned and made use of in it.” So, we must understand that as we read our Bibles, we struggle to understand and make sense of what the text says and we work to apply it to our lives and our situations, knowing that God is a God of means and He will use our broken and feeble faculties to do what He wills.
So, what does the Holy Spirit do? First this: “A true sense of the divine and superlative excellency of the things of religion; a real sense of the excellency of God and Jesus Christ, and of the work of redemption, and the ways and works of God revealed in the gospel.” What he’s saying is that when we read our Bibles, God not only reveals truth to our minds, but to our hearts as well. So, when we see the truths in Scripture we see them as beautiful and precious. We see them as worth living and dieing for. We see sin, even that sin which we treasure most, as utterly abominable. We see righteousness as a treasure worth giving up all of our lives, possessions, family, and everything we hold dear. We see this world as a shadow and eternity becomes reality. So, what happens when you read your Bible is that you see the truths of Scripture, and the Holy Spirit gives you the ability to see these truths not just with your eyes and your mind, but with your heart and your will. Edwards puts it this way, “Thus there is a difference between having an opinion, that God is holy and gracious, and having a sense of the loveliness and beauty of that holiness and grace. There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness.” It is the difference between evaluating the chemical composition of honey and tasting its sweetness. Thus, Spirit inspired Bible reading will always lead to changed hearts. And so, as we read our Bibles, we must be praying to the Holy Spirit constantly to work in our hearts so that the truths we see might change our lives.
Secondly, once we see the incredibly and divine beauty of the things of Scriptures, Edwards says that we become convinced of their truth in two ways. First, the Holy Spirit removes our own impediments for acknowledging the truths of God’s word. According to Edwards, our minds are so hostile to God that we cannot set aside our own prejudices and accept his truth aside from a miraculous work of God. So, “when a person has discovered to him the divine excellency of Christian doctrines, this destroys the enmity, removes those prejudices, and sanctifies the reason, and causes it to lie open to the force of arguments for their truth.” Not only does the Spirit illumine our hearts to lay aside our own rational impediments, but He also aids our reason so that we can see the truthfulness of the Scriptures. Our dull, slow, sin soaked minds cannot comprehend the truth of the Scriptures without God’s Holy Spirit. I can say that in my own experience, many of my objections to the Christian Faith resulted from me not understanding that faith very well. Now, the reason I did not understand it was not simply because no one had explained it to me, but because my natural faculties could not understand it without God’s aid. So, again, as we read our Bibles, we must be praying that God would overcome our own sinful stubbornness in refusing to acknowledge His truth. We must come to the Word of God knowing ourselves to be a stupid mass of prejudices in need of the illuminating power of God’s Spirit and His Word. If there are things in the Scriptures that are difficult for you to accept (the doctrines of predestination and election are like this for many people), you should be praying that God would work in your heart so that you can not only accept these things, but find them precious.
The second way we become convinced of the truth of God’s Word is by Him showing us what Edwards describes in this way: “A true sense of the divine excellency of the things of God’s word doth more directly and immediately convince of the truth of them; and that because the excellency of these things is so superlative. There is a beauty in them that is so divine and godlike, that is greatly and evidently distinguishing of them from things merely human, or that men are the inventors and authors of; a glory that is so high and great, that when clearly seen, commands assent to their divinity and reality.” That is, that once you have made sense of God’s Word, what it communicates to you will be so beautiful that you cannot see how they could be anything but divine! In other words, a man could tell you something which is true, “the sky is blue,” or “E=MC2,” or even “last night’s sunset was beautiful”. They might be true, they might be beautiful, but when God speaks truth, His voice is so beautiful that we know what He says to be of Him and not of man! So, how might Edwards tell you to read your Bible? I don’t know. But when I hear what he has to say about God revealing Himself in the Bible, it makes me want to do one thing, pray! Pray that God would dispel the darkness of my weak human understanding and give me a sense of the superlative excellencies of His Word so that not simply my behavior, but my heart would be changed!
 Edwards, A Divine and Supernatural Light.