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Gordon Clark

Bibliotheca Sacra Volume 114 (The Bible as Truth)
Philosophy and Christian EthicsTHE BIBLE AS TRUTHBy Gordon H. Clark, Ph.D.In a game of chess a player can become so engrossed in a complicated situation that, after examining several possibilities and projecting each one as far ahead as he is able, he finally sees a brilliant combination by which he may possibly win a pawn in five moves, only to discover that it would lose his queen. So, too, when theological investigations have been pursued through considerable time and in great detail, it is possible to overlook the obvious. In the present state of the discussions on revelation, it is my opinion that what needs most to be said is something obvious and elementary. This paper, therefore, is a defense of the simple thesis that the Bible is true.This thesis, however, does not derive its main motivation from any attack on the historicity of the Biblical narratives. The destructive criticism of the nineteenth century still has wide influence, but it has received a mortal wound at the hand of twentieth-century archeology. A new form of unbelief, though it may be forced to accept the Bible as an exceptionally accurate account of ancient events, now denies on philosophical grounds that it is or could be a verbal revelation from God. So persuasive are the new arguments, not only supported by impressive reasoning but even making appeals to Scriptural principles which every orthodox believer would admit, that professedly conservative theologians have accepted more or less and have thus betrayed or vitiated the thesis that the Bible is true.THE THESIS OF BIBLICAL EPISTEMOLOGYBecause the discussion is philosophical rather than archeological, and hence could be pursued to interminable lengths, some limits and some omissions must be accepted. Theories of truth are notoriously intricate, and yet to avoid considering the nature of truth altogether is impossible if we wish to know our meaning when we say that the Bible is true. For a start, let it be said that the truth of statements in the Bible is the same type of truth as is claimed for ordinary statements, such as: Columbus discovered America, two plus two are four, and a falling body accelerates at thirty two feet per second. So far as the meaning of truth is concerned, the statement “Christ died for our sins” is on the same level as any ordinary, everyday assertion that happens to be true. These are examples, of course, and do not constitute a definition of truth. But embedded in the examples is the assumption that truth is a characteristic of propositions only. Nothing can be called true in the literal sense of the term except the attribution of a predicate to a subject. There are undoubtedly figurative uses, and one may legitimately speak of a man as a true gentleman or a true scholar. There has also been discussion as to which is the true church. But these uses, though legitimate, are derivative and figurative. Now, the simple thesis of this paper is that the Bible is true in the literal sense of true. After a thorough understanding of the literal meaning is acquired, the various figurative meanings may be investigated; but it would be foolish to begin with figures of speech before the literal meaning is known.This thesis that the Bible is literally true does not imply that the Bible is true literally. Figures of speech occur in the Bible and they are not true literally. They are true figuratively. But they are literally true. The statements may be in figurative language, but when they are called true the term true is to be understood literally. This simple elementary thesis, however, would be practically meaningless without a companion thesis. If the true statements of the Bible could not be known by human minds, the idea of a verbal revelation would be worthless. If God should speak a truth, but speak so that no one could possibly hear, that truth would not be a revelation. Hence the double thesis of this paper, double but still elementary, is that the Bible, aside from questions and commands, consists of true statements that men can know. In fact, this is so elementary that it might appear incredible that any conservative theologian would deny it. Yet there are some professed conservatives who deny it explicitly and others who, without denying it explicitly, undermine and vitiate it by other assertions. The first thing to be considered, then, will be the reasons, supposedly derived from the Bible, for denying or vitiating human knowledge of its truths.THE EFFECT OF SIN ON MAN’S KNOWLEDGEThe doctrine of total depravity teaches that no part of human nature escapes the devastation of sin, and among the passages on which this doctrine is based are some which describe the effects of sin on human knowledge. For example, when Paul in 1 Timothy 4:2 says that certain apostates have their consciences seared with a hot iron, he must mean not only that they commit wicked acts but also that they think wicked thoughts. Their ability to distinguish right from wrong is impaired, and thus they give heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils. Therefore, without in the least denying that sin has affected their volition, it must be asserted that sin has also affected their intellect. And though Paul has in mind a particular class of people, no doubt more wicked than others, yet the similarity of human nature and the nature of sin force the conclusion that the minds of all men, though perhaps not to the same degree, are impaired. Again, Romans 1:21, 28 speaks of Gentiles who became vain in their imaginations and whose foolish heart was darkened; when they no longer wanted to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind. In Ephesians 4:17 Paul again refers to the vanity of mind and the darkened understanding of the Gentiles, who are alienated from the life of God through ignorance and blindness. That ignorance and blindness are not Gentile traits only but characterize the Jews also, and therefore the human race as a whole, can be seen in the summary condemnation of all men in Romans 3:10–18, where Paul says that there is none that understands. And, of course, there are general statements in the Old Testament: the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked (Jer. 17:9).These noetic effects of sin have been used to support the conclusion that an unregenerate man cannot understand the meaning of any sentence in the Bible. From the assertion “there is none that understandeth,” it might seem to follow that when the Bible says “David took a stone … and smote the Philistine in his forehead,” an unbeliever could not know what the words mean. The first representatives of this type of view, to be discussed here, are centered in the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Cornelius Van Til and some of his colleagues prepared and signed a document in which they repudiate a particular statement of the unregenerate man’s epistemological ability. A certain professor, they complain, “makes no absolute qualitative distinction between the knowledge of the unregenerate man and the knowledge of the regenerate man” (The Text of a Complaint, p. 10, col. 2). This statement not only implies that an unbeliever finds it less easy to understand that David smote the Philistine, but in asserting an absolute qualitative distinction between whatever knowledge he derives from that statement and the knowledge a regenerate man derives, the quotation also suggests that the unregenerate man simply cannot understand propositions revealed to man.In another paper two of Van Til’s associates declare that it is “erroneous” to hold that “regeneration … is not a change in the understanding of these words” (A. R. Kuschke, Jr., and Bradford, A Reply to Mr. Hamilton, p. 4). According to them, it is also erroneous to say “when he is regenerated, his understanding of the proposition may undergo no change at all (but) that an unregenerate man may put exactly the same meaning on the words … as the regenerate man” (ibid., p. 6). Since these are the positions they repudiate, their view must be precisely the contradictory, namely, an unregenerate man can never put exactly the same meaning on the words as a regenerate man; that regeneration necessarily and always changes the meaning of the words a man knows, and that the unregenerate and regenerate cannot possibly understand a sentence in the same sense. These gentlemen appeal to 2 Corinthians 4:3–6, where it is said that the gospel is hidden to them that are lost, and to Matthew 13:3–23, where the multitudes hear the parable but do not understand it. These two passages from Scripture are supposed to prove that a Christian’s “understanding is never the same as that of the unregenerate man.”As a brief reply, it may be noted that though the gospel be hidden from the lost, the passage does not state that the lost are completely ignorant and know nothing at all. Similarly, the multitudes understood the literal meaning of the parable, though neither they nor the disciples understood what Christ was illustrating. Let us grant that the Holy Spirit by regeneration enlightens the mind and leads us gradually into more truth; but the Scripture surely does not teach that the Philistines could not understand that David had killed Goliath. Such a view has not been common among Reformed writers; just one, however, will be cited as an example. Abraham Kuyper, in his Encyclopedia of Sacred Theology (pp. 110–11), after specifying eight points at which we are subjected to error because of sin, adds that “the darkening of the understanding … does not mean that we have lost the capacity of thinking logically, for so far as the impulse of its law of life is concerned, the logica has [sic] not [italics his] been impaired by sin. When this takes place, a condition of insanity ensues … sin has weakened the energy of thought … [but] the universal human consciousness is always able to overcome this sluggishness and to correct these mistakes in reasoning.” In thus defending the epistemological ability of sinful man, Kuyper may have even underestimated the noetic effects of sin. Perhaps the human consciousness is not always able to overcome sluggishness and correct mistakes in reasoning. The point I wish to insist on is that this is sometimes possible. An unregenerate man can know some true propositions and can sometimes reason correctly.To avoid doing an injustice to Van Til and his associates, it must be stated that sometimes they seem to make contradictory assertions. In the course of their papers, one can find a paragraph in which they seem to accept the position they are attacking, and then they proceed with the attack. What can the explanation be except that they are confused and are attempting to combine two incompatible positions? The objectionable one is in substantial harmony with existentialism or neo-orthodoxy. But the discussion of the noetic effects of sin in the unregenerate mind need not further be continued because a more serious matter usurps attention. The neo-orthodox influence seems to produce the result that even the regenerate man cannot know the truth.MAN’S EPISTEMOLOGICAL LIMITATIONSThat the regenerate man as well as the unregenerate is subject to certain epistemological limitations, that these limitations are not altogether the result of sin but are inherent in the fact that man is a creature, and that even in glory these limitations will not be removed, is either stated or implied in a number of Scriptural passages. What these limitations are bears directly on any theory of revelation, for they may be so insignificant that man is almost divine, or they may be so extensive that man can understand nothing about God. First, a few but not all of the Scriptural passages used in this debate will be listed: “Canst thou by searching find out God? Canst thou find out the Almighty to perfection?” (Job 11:7); “Behold God is great and we know him not, neither can the number of his years be searched out” (Job 36:26); “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it” (Ps. 139:6); “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Isa. 55:8–9); “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out? For who hath known the mind of the Lord, or who hath been his counsellor?” (Rom. 11:33–34); “Even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 2:11).These verses are simply samples and many similar verses are easily remembered. Several of them seem to say that it is impossible for man to know God. We cannot search Him out; we know Him not; I cannot attain this knowledge; God’s thoughts are not ours; no one knows the mind of the Lord, and no one knows the things of God. It could easily be concluded that man is totally ignorant and that no matter how diligently he searches the Scripture, he will never get the least glimmering of God’s thought. Of course, in the very passage which says that no man knoweth the things of God, there is the strongest assertion that what the eye of man has not seen and what the heart of man has never grasped has been revealed to us by God’s Spirit “that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God.” It will not be surprising therefore if some attempts to expound the Biblical position are as confused actually as the Biblical material seems to be. With many statements of such theologians we all ought to agree; but other statements, misinterpreting the Scripture in the interest of some esoteric view of truth, ought to be rejected.MAN’S KNOWLEDGE IN RELATION TO GOD’SThe professors above referred to assert that “there is a qualitative difference between the contents of the knowledge of God and the contents of the knowledge possible to man” (The Text, p. 5, col. 1). That there is a most important qualitative difference between the knowledge situation in the case of God and the knowledge situation for man cannot possibly be denied without repudiating all Christian theism. God is omniscient, His knowledge is not acquired, and His knowledge according to common terminology is intuitive while man’s is discursive. These are some of the differences and doubtless the list could be extended. But if both God and man know, there must with the differences be at least one point of similarity; for if there were no point of similarity, it would be inappropriate to use the one term knowledge in both cases. Whether this point of similarity is to be found in the contents of knowledge or whether the contents differ, depends on what is meant by the term contents. Therefore, more specifically worded statements are needed. The theory under discussion goes on to say: “We dare not maintain that his knowledge and our knowledge coincide at any single point” (ibid., p. 5, col. 3); and the authors repudiate another view on the grounds that “a proposition would have to have the same meaning for God as for man” (ibid., p. 7, col. 3). These statements are by no means vague. The last one identifies content and meaning so that the content of God’s knowledge is not its intuitive character, for example, but the meaning of the propositions, such as David killed Goliath. Twice it is denied that a proposition can mean the same thing for God and man; and to make it unmistakable they say that God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge do not coincide at any single point. Here it will stand repetition to say that if there is not a single point of coincidence it is meaningless to use the single term knowledge for both God and man. Spinoza in attacking Christianity argued that the term intellect as applied to God and as applied to man was completely equivocal, just as the term dog is applied to a four-legged animal that barks and to the star in the sky. In such a case, therefore, if knowledge be defined, either God knows and man cannot or man knows and God cannot. If there is not a single point of coincidence, God and man cannot have the same thing, viz., knowledge.After these five professors had signed this co-operative pronouncement, some of them published an explanation of it in which they said: “Man may and does know the same truth that is in the divine mind … [yet] when man says that God is eternal he cannot possibly have in mind a conception of eternity that is identical or that coincides with God’s own thought of eternity” (A Committee for the Complainants, The Incomprehensibility of God, p. 3). In this explanatory statement it is asserted that the same truth may and does occur in man’s mind and in God’s. This of course means that there is at least one point of coincidence between God’s knowledge and ours. But while they seem to retract their former position in one line, they reassert it in what follows. It seems that when man says God is eternal he cannot possibly have in mind what God means when God asserts His own eternity. Presumably the concept eternity is an example standing for all concepts, so that the general position would be that no concept can be predicated of a subject by man in the same sense in which it is predicated by God. But if a predicate does not mean the same thing to man as it does to God, then, if God’s meaning is the correct one, it follows that man’s meaning is incorrect and he is therefore ignorant of the truth that is in God’s mind.This denial of univocal predication is not peculiar to the professors quoted, nor need it be considered particularly neo-orthodox. Although the approach is different, the same result is found in Thomas Aquinas. This medieval scholar, whose philosophy has received the papal sanction, taught that no predicate can univocally be applied to God and created beings. Even the copula is cannot be used univocally in these two references. When therefore a man thinks that God is good or eternal or almighty, he not only means something different from what God means by good, eternal, or almighty, but, worse, if anything can be worse, he means something different by saying that God is. Since as temporal creatures we cannot know the eternal essence of God, we cannot know what God means when He affirms His own existence. Between God’s meaning of existence and man’s meaning there is not a single point of coincidence. The Scholastics and Neoscholastics try to disguise the skepticism of this position by arguing that although the predicates are not univocal, neither are they equivocal, but they are analogical. The five professors also assert that man’s “knowledge must be analogical to the knowledge God possesses” (The Text, p. 5, col. 3). However, an appeal to analogy, though it may disguise, does not remove the skepticism. Ordinary analogies are legitimate and useful, but they are so only because there is a univocal point of coincident meaning in the two parts. A paddle for a canoe may be said to be analogical to the paddles of a paddle-wheel steamer; the canoe paddle may be said to be analogous even to the screw propeller of an ocean liner; but it is so because of a univocal element. These three things, the canoe paddle, the paddle wheel, and the screw propeller, are univocally devices for applying force to move boats through the water. Without a univocal element an alleged analogy is pure equivocation, and analogical knowledge is complete ignorance. But if there is a univocal element, even a primitive savage, when told that a screw propeller is analogous to his canoe paddle, will have learned something. He may not have learned much about screw propellers and, compared with an engineer, he is almost completely ignorant—almost but not quite. He has some idea about propellers, and his idea may be, literally true. The engineer and the savage have one small item of knowledge in common. But without even one item in common, they could not both be said to know. For both persons to know, the proposition must have the same meaning for both. And this holds equally between God and man. If God has the truth and if man has only an analogy, it follows that he does not have the truth. An analogy of the truth is not the truth; and even if man’s knowledge is not called an analogy of the truth but an analogical truth, the situation is no better. An analogical truth, except it contain a univocal point of coincident meaning, simply is not the truth at all. In particular, and the most crushing reply of all, if the human mind were limited to analogical truths, it could never know the univocal truth that it was limited to analogies. Even if it were true that the contents of human knowledge are analogies, a man could never know that such was the case: he could only have the analogy that his knowledge was analogical. This theory, therefore, whether found in Thomas Aquinas, Emil Brunner, or professed conservatives, is unrelieved skepticism and is incompatible with the acceptance of a divine revelation of truth. This unrelieved skepticism is clearly indicated in a statement made in a public gathering and reported in a letter dated March 1, 1948, to the Directors of Covenant House. The statement was made, questioned, and reaffirmed by one of the writers mentioned above that the human mind is incapable of receiving any truth, the mind of man never gets any truth at all. Such skepticism must be completely repudiated if we wish to safeguard a doctrine of verbal revelation.TRUTH IS PROPOSITIONALVerbal revelation with the idea that revelation means the communication of truths, information, propositions, brings to light another factor in the discussion. The Bible is composed of words and sentences. Its declarative statements are propositions in the logical sense of the term. Furthermore, the knowledge that the Gentiles possess of an original revelation can be stated in words: “They that practice these things are worthy of death.” The work of the law written on the hearts of the Gentiles results in thoughts, accusations, and excuses which can be and are expressed in words. The Bible nowhere suggests that there are any inexpressible truths. To be sure, there are truths which God has not expressed to man, for “the secret things belong unto God”; but this is not to say that God is ignorant of the subjects, predicates, copulas, and logical concatenations of these secret things. Once again we face the problem of equivocation. If there could be a truth inexpressible in logical, grammatical form, the word truth as applied to it would have no more in common with the usual meaning of truth than the Dog Star has in common with Fido. It would be another case of one word without a single point of coincidence between its two meanings. The five professors, on the contrary, assert that “we may not safely conclude that God’s knowledge is propositional in character.” And a doctoral dissertation of one of their students says: “It appears a tremendous assumption without warrant from Scripture and therefore fraught with dangerous speculation impinging upon the doctrine of God to aver that all truth in the mind of God is capable of being expressed in propositions.” To me the tremendous assumption without warrant from Scripture is that God is incapable of expressing the truth He knows. And that His knowledge is a logical system seems required by three indisputable evidences: first, the information He has revealed is grammatical, propositional, and logical; second, the Old Testament talks about the wisdom of God and in the New Testament Christ is designated as the Logos in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge; and, third, we are made in the image of God, Christ being the light that lighteth every man.Certainly, the burden of proof lies on those who deny the propositional construction of truth. Their burden is twofold. Not only must they give evidence for the existence of such truth, but first of all they must make clear what they mean by their words. It may be that the phrase nonpropositional truth is a phrase without meaning.What I apprehend to be this confusion as to the nature of truth has spread beyond the group criticized above. The thought of Edward J. Carnell would presumably not find favor with them, and yet on this point he seems to have adopted much the same position. Consider his argument in A Philosophy of the Christian Religion (pp. 450–53). He begins by distinguishing two species of truth: first, “the sum total of reality itself,” and second, “the systematic consistency or propositional correspondence to reality.” It is not irrelevant to the argument to consider the correspondence theory of truth; but it might lead to a discussion too extended for the immediate purpose. Suffice it to say that if the mind has something which only corresponds to reality, it does not have reality; and if it knows reality there is no need for an extra something which corresponds to it. The correspondence theory, in brief, has all the disadvantages of analogy. Carnell illustrates the first species of truth by saying, “The trees in the yard are truly trees.” No doubt they are, but this does not convince one that a tree is a truth. To say that the trees are truly trees is merely to put literary emphasis on the proposition, the trees are trees. If one said the trees are not truly trees, or, the trees are falsely trees, the meaning would simply be, the trees are not trees. In such illustrations no truth is found that is not propositional and no evidence for two species of truth is provided. Carnell then describes a student taking an examination in ethics. The student may know the answers, even though he himself is not moral. But the student’s mother wants him not so much to know the truth as to be the truth. Carnell insists that the student can be the truth. Now, obviously the mother wants her son to be moral, but what meaning can be attached to the phrase that the mother wants the son to be the truth? Let it be that thinking is only preparatory to being moral, as Carnell says, but what can be meant by being the truth, i.e., what more can be meant than being moral? The student could not be a tree. It seems therefore that Carnell is using figurative language rather than speaking literally. He then refers to Christ’s words, “I am the truth.” Now, it would be ungenerous to conclude that when Christ says “I am the truth,” and then the student may be said to be the truth, that Christ and the student are identified. But to avoid this identification it is necessary to see what Christ means by His statement. As was said before, the Bible is literally true, but not every sentence in it is true literally. Christ said, “I am the door”; but He did not mean that He was made of wood. Christ also said, “This is my body.” Romanists think He spoke literally; Presbyterians take the sentence figuratively. Similarly the statement, “I am the truth,” must be taken to mean, I am the source of truth; I am the wisdom and Logos of God; truths are established by my authority. But this could not be said of the student, so that to call a student the truth is either extremely figurative or altogether devoid of meaning. Carnell also says: “Since their systems [the systems of thought of finite minds] are never complete, however, propositional truth can never pass beyond probability.” But if this is true, it itself is not true but only probable. And if this is true, the propositions in the Bible, such as David killed Goliath and Christ died for our sins, are only probable—they may be false. And to hold that the Bible may be false is obviously inconsistent with verbal revelation. Conversely, therefore, it must be maintained that whatever great ignorance may characterize the systems of human thought, such ignorance of many truths does not alter the few truths the mind possesses. There are many truths of mathematics, astronomy, Greek grammar, and Biblical theology that I do not know; but if I know anything at all, and especially if God has given me just one item of information, my extensive ignorance will have no effect on that one truth. Otherwise, we are all engulfed in a skepticism that makes argumentation a waste of time.In the twentieth century it is not Thomas Aquinas but Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, the neo-orthodox, and existentialists who are the source of this skepticism to the detriment of revelation. Brunner writes: “Here it becomes unmistakably clear that what God wills to give us cannot be truly (eigentlich) given in words, but only by way of a hint (hinweisend).… Therefore because he (Jesus) is the Word of God, all words have a merely instrumental significance. Not only the linguistic vessel of words, but also the conceptual content is not the thing itself, but only its form, vessel, and means.” The utter skepticism of this position, in which not only verbal symbols but the conceptual content itself is not what God really wills to give us, is disguised in pious phrases about a personal truth, or Du-Wahrheit, distinct from the subject-predicate relation called Es-Wahrheit. God cannot be an object of thought, He cannot be a Gegenstand for the human mind. Truth, instead of being a matter of propositions, is a personal encounter. Whatever words God might speak, Brunner not only reduces to hints or pointers, but he also holds that God’s words may be false. “God can, if he wishes, speak his Word to man even through false doctrine.” This is the culmination, and comment should be superfluous.In conclusion, I wish to affirm that a satisfactory theory of revelation must involve a realistic epistemology. By realism in this connection I mean a theory that the human mind possesses some truth—not an analogy of the truth, not a representation of or correspondence to the truth, not a mere hint of the truth, not a meaningless verbalism about a new species of truth, but the truth itself. God has spoken His Word in words, and these words are adequate symbols of the conceptual content. The conceptual content is literally true, and it is the univocal, identical point of coincidence in the knowledge of God and man.Indianapolis, Indiana
Epistemology follows ontology. In other words, our theory of how we know anything depends on what we think there is to be known.
Michael Horton
Biblical counseling fully acknowledges that its epistemology grows out of a theistic presupposition of a self-revelatory Creator who “has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence” (2 Pet. 1:3)
John F. MacArthur
This book deals with one of the most fundamental of all questions: how we know, and how we know we know. Unless our epistemology is right, everything is going to be wrong.
Francis Schaeffer
What are the universals which give these particulars meaning, and bind them into a unity? This is the heart of the problem of epistemology and the problem of knowing.
Francis Schaeffer
Because of remarkable shifts in the West’s epistemology, more and more people believe the only heresy left is the view that there is such a thing as heresy.
D. A. Carson
Reformed epistemology maintains that belief in God is justified and warranted on its own terms.
Michael F. Bird
Faith in faith is faith astray.
A. W. Tozer
Get the queen bee of faith and all the other virtues will attend her.
Charles Spurgeon
Bibliotheca Sacra Volume 128 He Is There and He Is Not Silent: Part III: Modern Man’s Epistemological Problem

Christianity has no epistemological problem because it begins with a God who is there, an infinite-personal God who has made man in His own image. What we find is that in the Bible the answer rests upon language—the language of revelation. We will explore this in the next article. The amazing thing is that Heidegger and Wittgenstein, the two big names in the area of modern epistemology, both see that the answer is going to be in the area of language, but they have no one there to speak. Only Christianity has the solution to the problem of epistemology which modern man so desperately needs.

Bibliotheca Sacra Volume 128 He Is There and He Is Not Silent: Part III: Modern Man’s Epistemological Problem


This is what has happened to those who have been raised in the last couple of decades. The really great problem is not, for example, just drugs or amorality. The problem is knowing. This is a generation of antiphilosophy, people caught in a live form of uncertainty of knowing. The problem of modern man is this: In the downstairs area he ascribes to rationality and talks with meaningful language. Still, here he can only see himself as a machine, a totally determined machine, and has no way to be sure of knowing even the natural world. But in the area of the upstairs nonrationality, modern man is completely without categories, for categories are always related to reason and antithesis.

Four groups of categories are lost or involved here: moral categories, human categories, the categories which separate reality and fantasy, and the categories necessary to really know other people. In the area of morals, man has no way to say this is right as opposed to this being non-right in the upstairs. But notice, it is more profound and more horrible, a very special kind of modern hell, living upstairs he has no way to say this is true as opposed to that which is non-true. Don’t you feel the desperation? This means that he has no control (and I use the word control with the French meaning—control as the possibility of checking something). It is impossible to have controls outside the area of reason.

Antonioni’s film “Blow Up” is an example of this. The posters advertising Antonioni’s film announced “Murder without guilt; love without meaning.” In other words, there are no categories in the area of morals—murder is without guilt; but equally there are no categories in the area of the human realm—love is without meaning. So Antonioni pictured the death of categories.

In this area of morality, there is no universal above; we are left only with particulars. That is all rationalistic man can do for himself. And all the way back to the Greeks, we have for two thousand years the brainiest men who ever lived trying to find a way to put meaning and certainty of knowledge into the area of rationalistic man. But man beginning with himself and with no other knowledge outside of himself is a total failure.

The modern cinema and other art forms go beyond the loss of human and moral categories. They point out quite properly that if you have no place for categories, you also lose any categories which would distinguish between reality and fantasy. Now we are really in the world of your children. There are no categories in this upper area, so eventually there is no category to distinguish the difference between reality and fantasy.

The drug culture enters into this, too. In the very heart of the drug culture is the loss of distinction between reality and fantasy by the taking of drugs. But even if modern man does not take drugs, modern man has no categories once he has moved out of the lower area. Downstairs he is already dead, he is only a machine, and none of these things have any meaning. But as soon as he moves upstairs into the mystical, all that is left is a place with no categories with which to distinguish the inner world from the outer world with any certainty whatsoever.

Modern man’s uncertainty about knowing has also left him with a problem in terms of knowing another person. How can two people meeting each other know each other, and how can they know that they know each other? How are there any categories to enable a person to move into another person’s thought world? This is modern man’s alienation—the feeling of total alienation. They can sleep together for ten years, fifteen years, it makes no difference. It is easy to know a language machine, but how can you get behind the language and know the other person? This is a very special form of lostness.

Modern man is left either downstairs as a machine with words that do not lead either to values or facts but only to words, or upstairs in a world without categories in regard to human values, moral values, or the difference between reality and fantasy. Cry for our generation. Man made in the image of God was meant to be in vertical communication with the One who is there and who is not silent, and to have horizontal communication with his own kind. Modern man because of his proud rationalism, making himself autonomous, has come to this place of horrible silence.

Christianity has no epistemological problem because it begins with a God who is there, an infinite-personal God who has made man in His own image. What we find is that in the Bible the answer rests upon language—the language of revelation. We will explore this in the next article. The amazing thing is that Heidegger and Wittgenstein, the two big names in the area of modern epistemology, both see that the answer is going to be in the area of language, but they have no one there to speak. Only Christianity has the solution to the problem of epistemology which modern man so desperately needs.

Faith cannot stand unless it be founded on the promises of God.
John Calvin
Protestant faith claims to be “reasonable” because only on the presupposition of God’s speaking to man in Scripture can human “reason” function properly.
Cornelius Van Til
To say “I believe that I might understand” makes our faith to be the basis, the presupposition, of rational inquiry. Anselm is quite explicit that his slogan is opposed to the idea of “understanding that I might believe.” Faith is the foundation of knowledge, not a conclusion of it.
John Frame
Then second, an epistemology based on agreed foundations. Of course, if the foundations crumble, if people start disagreeing on the foundations, then modernism is in trouble.
D. A. Carson
Faith is only as valid as its object. You could have tremendous faith in very thin ice and drown.… You could have very little faith in very thick ice and be perfectly secure.
—Stuart Briscoe
Stuart Briscoe
2226We believe that men are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith which is alone. They are saved by faith without works, but not by a faith which is without works.—21.25, 26
Charles Spurgeon
Introductory Volume to Systematic Theology 3. Correct View of the Testimonium Spiritus Sancti

The testimony of the Holy Spirit is therefore, strictly speaking, not so much the final ground of faith, but rather the means of faith. The final ground of faith is Scripture only, or better still, the authority of God which is impressed upon the believer in the testimony of Scripture. The ground of faith is identical with its contents, and cannot be separated from it. But the testimony of the Holy Spirit is the moving cause of faith. We believe Scripture, not because of, but through the testimony of the Holy Spirit.

Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society Volume 3 III. The Relation between the Holy Spirit and Scripture


It is the conclusion of recent Reformation scholarship that in the Churches of the Reformation the Holy Spirit is associated pre-eminently with the means of grace, of which the first and foremost is the Word. Both Luther and Calvin stressed the role of the Spirit with reference to the Scriptures. Luther affirmed:

I believe that it is not of my own reason or by my own strength that I believe in Jesus Christ my Lord; it is the Holy Ghost that by the Gospel has called me, with His gifts has enlightened me, through genuine faith has sanctified and sustained me, just as He calls, gathers together, enlightens, sanctifies, and sustains by Jesus Christ, in true faith, all Christendom. (Cat. Min., Art. III).

Calvin spoke of the Holy Spirit as the “bond by which Christ efficaciously binds us to Himself,” creating faith “by which the believer receives Christ; where the Spirit illumines to faith, Christ inserts us within His body and we become partakers of all goods.” (Institutes, Bk. III; Chapt. 1, #1, 4, Chapt. 2, #35). The internal testimony of the Holy Spirit (testimonium spiritus sancti interna) confines His persuasion to the truth of Scripture.

Thus, being illumined by His power, we believe, not on the strength of our own judgment or that of others, that Scripture is from God; we establish it with a certainty superior to human judgment (just as if we actually beheld the presence of God Himself in it) that Scripture came to us, by the ministry of men, from the very mouth of God. (Institutes, Bk. I, Chapt. 7, #4).

Traditionally this was taken to mean that the Reformers were saying that the Holy Spirit confirms to the reader that the words of Scripture are the very words of God, at least this is what Protestant orthodoxy of the seventeenth century understood Luther and Calvin to mean. Numerous modern theologians are saying that all the Reformers were doing was insisting that the official interpretation the church had placed on Scripture could be wrong and that the same Spirit who inspired the writings was free to interpret them afresh in their day. Thus Hendry writes:

For the Reformers … the testimony of the Holy Spirit was related primarily to the efficacy of the Word, i.e., to the power of its content to communicate itself as living reality to the hearer or reader. They were not interested in the form in which this content was to be found in Scripture because its power to communicate itself proved it to be essentially incommensurable with form. (pp. 90–91).

The Scriptures, he goes on to say, were not written to draw attention to themselves but their appeal is the testimony to Jesus Christ and the Gospel of God, which is the finished work of His Incarnate Life, which is also the appeal of the Holy Spirit. He objects to the view that the Scripture is the only means through which the Gospel is conveyed, as if it existed in a vacuum.

The testimony of the Spirit in the Word is registered, not in any properties of the Scriptural record, but where the Church receives the testimony of the Word and repeats it in the testimony of its own faith.… This point is the presence of the living Lord in the power of His finished work. The testimony of Scripture and the testimony of the Church are instrumental to it; but they cannot effect it—least of all by the advancement of exalted claims on behalf of either of them. The doctrine of the testimony of the Holy Spirit makes all such claims redundant; for it means that, despite the frailty and fallibility of the Church, despite the errancy of Scripture, nevertheless the living Lord makes Himself known to us through their testimony. They are means of grace but the grace is that of the Lord Jesus Christ, which proceeds from the love of God and is imparted to us in the communion of the Holy Spirit, p. 95).

Recognizing the centrality of the testimony of the Spirit, but seeing it as a witness to the divinity of the Scripture, thus following the precedent set by the Reformers, Bernard Ramm speaks of a pattern of authority—a blend of objective (Scripture) and subjective (Holy Spirit) factors.

Christ is the supreme object of the witness of the Spirit, and Christ is the supreme content of the Scriptures. The Spirit who bears His chief witness to Christ also inspired the Scriptures. The Scriptures are inspired of the Spirit and they witness supremely to Christ, the personal Word of God. Such is the pattern of authority, and the three elements of it must be held in proper relationship. (The Pattern of Authority, p 37, italics mine.)

In his latest book, The Witness of the Holy Spirit, Prof. Ramm, after discussing Luther and Calvin on this point, demonstrates that the work of the Holy Spirit cannot, be discussed in isolation from the total area of Christian theology but must be related to the doctrine of the Trinity, revelation, redemption, Scripture, Christian fellowship and the spiritual life.


In these modern approaches to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit we have seen attempts to correlate human questions and experiences with theological or religious answers. While this is certainly a commendable and significant endeavor, not without considerable Biblical precedent and example, bringing meaning and understanding through analogy, metaphor, parable, etc., it has the weakness of truncating and limiting the scope and breadth of that to which it points while perhaps increasing the depth of one facet of it. In other words, there is always more richness, complexity, and dimension to the Holy Spirit than is suggested by any particular avenue, significant as it may be, which leads us to consider Him. Another way of putting this might be to say that Revelation not only answers the questions man’s existential, situation poses but it also carries with it some questions of its own, questions man needs to raise but cannot, and to these as well it supplies theological or religious answers.

The Internal Testimony

The thesis maintained above in our examination of the objective witness is that Scripture is authoritative by reason of the character it possesses as the infallible Word of God and that this divine quality belongs to Scripture because it is the product of God’s creative breath through the mode of plenary inspiration by the Holy Spirit. The rejection of such a position has appeared to many to involve no impairment of the divine authority of the Bible because, even though the infallibility of Scripture has to be abandoned, there still remains the ever abiding and active witness of the Holy Spirit, and so infallible authority is fully conserved in the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. Scripture is authoritative, it is said, because it is borne home to the man of faith by the internal testimony of the Spirit.

That there is such an activity of the Holy Spirit as the internal testimony is beyond dispute, and that there is no true faith in Scripture as the Word of God apart from such inward testimony is likewise fully granted. It might seem, therefore, that it belongs to the very situation in which we are placed, relative to the Holy Spirit, to say that the divine authority that confronts us is not that emanating from a past and finished activity of the Spirit but rather the influence of the Spirit which is now operative with reference to and in us. Does not the positing of divine authority in an activity of the Spirit that to us is impersonal and external, as well as far distant and now inactive, do prejudice to the real meaning of that directly personal and presently operative address of the Holy Spirit to us and in us?

This question is that which defines what is the most important cleavage within Protestantism today. It is the cleavage between what is called Barthianism and the historic Protestant position. The Barthian view is that Scripture is authoritative because it witnesses to the Word of God; it is the vessel or vehicle of the Word of God to us. In that respect Scripture is said to be unique, and in that sense it is called the Word of God. But what makes Scripture really authoritative, on this view, is the ever-recurring act of God, the divine decision, whereby, through the mediacy of Scripture, the witness of Scripture to the Word of God is borne home to us with ruling and compelling power. The Scripture is not authoritative antecedently and objectively. It is only authoritative as here and now, to this man and to no other, in a concrete crisis and confrontation, God reveals himself through the medium of Scripture. Only as there is the ever-recurring human crisis and divine decision does the Bible become the Word of God.

It is apparent, therefore, that for the Barthian the authority-imparting factor is not Scripture as an existing corpus of truth given by God to man by a process of revelation and inspiration in past history, not the divine quality and character which Scripture inherently possesses, but something else that must be distinguished from any past action and from any resident quality. The issue must not be obscured. Barth does not hold and cannot hold that Scripture possesses binding and ruling authority by reason of what it is objectively, inherently, and qualitatively.

An objection to this way of stating the matter is easily anticipated. It is that this sharp antithesis is indefensible. For, after all, it will be said, Scripture is unique. It is the Word of God because it bears witness to God’s Word. It occupies a unique category because there was something unique and distinctive about that past activity by which it came to be. It differs radically from other books written at the time of its production and also from all other books. It can, therefore, have no authority in abstraction from that quality that belongs to it as the human witness to the revelation given by God in the past. So, it may be argued, the factor arising from past events and activities enters into the whole complex of factors that combine and converge to invest Scripture with that unique character which makes it the fit medium for the ever-recurring act of divine revelation. It is not then an either or but a both and.

The objection is appreciated and welcomed. But it does not eliminate the issue. After making allowance for all that is argued in support of the objection, there still remains the fact that, on Barthian presuppositions, it is not the divine quality inherent in Scripture nor the divine activity by which that quality has been imparted to it that makes Scripture authoritative. That past activity and the resultant quality may constitute the prerequisites for the authority by which it becomes ever and anon invested, but they do not constitute that authority. It is rather the ever-recurring act of God that is the authority-constituting fact. This ever-recurring activity of God may be conceived of as the internal testimony of the Spirit, and so it is this testimony that constitutes Scripture authoritative.13

It is sometimes supposed that this Barthian construction of the authority of Scripture represents the classic Protestant or indeed Reformed position. Even the Westminster Confession has been appealed to as enunciating this position when it says that “our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts” (I:V). A little examination of chapter I of the Confession will expose the fallacy of this appeal. Indeed, the Westminster Confession was framed with a logic and comprehension exactly adapted not only to obviate but also to meet the Barthian conception. Section V, from which the above quotation was given, does not deal with the nature or ground of the authority of Scripture. The preceding section deals with that logically prior question. It states clearly that the authority of Scripture resides in the fact that it is the Word of God. “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received because it is the Word of God.” In one word, Scripture is authoritative because God is its author, and he is its author because, as is stated in Section II, it was given by inspiration of God. Nothing could be plainer than this: that the Confession represents the authority of Scripture as resting not upon the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit but upon the inspiration of the Spirit, a finished activity by which, it is clearly stated, the sixty-six books enumerated were produced and in virtue of which they are the Word of God written.

It is, however, by “the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts” that we become convinced of that authority. The authority of Scripture is an objective and permanent fact residing in the quality of inspiration; the conviction on our part has to wait for that inward testimony by which the antecedent facts of divinity and authority are borne in upon our minds and consciences. It is to confuse the most important and eloquent of distinctions to represent the former as consisting in the latter. The Confession has left no room for doubt as to what its position is, and in formulating the matter with such clarity it has expressed the classic Reformed conception.

What then is the nature of this internal testimony, and what is the scriptural basis upon which the doctrine rests?

If, as has been shown in the earlier part of this discussion, Scripture is divine in its origin, character, and authority, it must bear the marks or evidences of that divinity. If the heavens declare the glory of God and therefore bear witness to their divine Creator, the Scripture as God’s handiwork must also bear the imprints of his authorship. This is just saying that Scripture evidences itself to be the Word of God; its divinity is self-evidencing and self-authenticating. The ground of faith in Scripture as the Word of God is therefore the evidence it inherently contains of its divine authorship and quality. External evidence, witness to its divinity derived from other sources extraneous to itself, may corroborate and confirm the witness it inherently contains, but such external evidence cannot be in the category of evidence sufficient to ground and constrain faith. If the faith is faith in the Bible as God’s Word, obviously the evidence upon which such faith rests must itself have the quality of divinity. For only evidence with the quality of divinity would be sufficient to ground a faith in divinity. Faith in Scripture as God’s Word, then, rests upon the perfections inherent in Scripture and is elicited by the perception of these perfections. These perfections constitute its incomparable excellence, and such excellence when apprehended constrains the overwhelming conviction that is the only appropriate kind of response.

If Scripture thus manifests itself to be divine, why is not faith the result in the case of everyone confronted with it? The answer is that not all men have the requisite perceptive faculty. Evidence is one thing; the ability to perceive and understand is another. “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). It is here that the necessity for the internal testimony of the Spirit enters. The darkness and depravity of man’s mind by reason of sin make man blind to the divine excellence of Scripture. And the effect of sin is not only that it blinds the mind of man and makes it impervious to the evidence but also that it renders the heart of man utterly hostile to the evidence. The carnal mind is enmity against God and therefore resists every claim of the divine perfection. If the appropriate response of faith is to be yielded to the divine excellence inherent in Scripture, nothing less than radical regeneration by the Holy Spirit can produce the requisite susceptibility. “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 2:14). It is here that the internal testimony of the Spirit enters, and it is in the inward work of the Holy Spirit upon the heart and mind of man that the internal testimony consists. The witness of Scripture to the depravity of man’s mind and to the reality, nature, and effect of the inward work of the Holy Spirit is the basis upon which the doctrine of the internal testimony rests.

When Paul institutes the contrast between the natural man and the spiritual and says with respect to the latter, “But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no one” (1 Cor. 2:15), he means that the “spiritual” person is the person endowed with and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. It is only such a one who has the faculty to discern the things revealed by the Spirit. By way of contrast with the natural man, he receives, knows, and discerns the truth.

Earlier in this same chapter Paul tells us in terms that even more pointedly deal with our present subject that the faith of the Corinthians in the gospel was induced by the demonstration of the Spirit and of power. “And my speech and my preaching was not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, in order that your faith might not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:4–5). No doubt Paul here is reflecting upon the manner of his preaching. It was not with the embellishments of human oratory that he preached the gospel but with that demonstration or manifestation that is produced by the Spirit and power of God. He is saying, in effect, that the Spirit of God so wrought in him and in his preaching that the response on the part of the Corinthians was the solid faith which rests upon the power of God and not that evanescent faith which depends upon the appeal of rhetorical art and worldly wisdom. It is in the demonstration of which the Holy Spirit is the author that the faith of the Corinthians finds its source. It is, indeed, faith terminating upon the Word of God preached by Paul. But it is faith produced by the accompanying demonstration of the Spirit and manifestation of divine power.

In the first epistle to the Thessalonians Paul again refers to the power and confidence with which he and his colleagues preached the gospel at Thessalonica. “For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and much assurance” (1 Thess. 1:5). In this text the reference to power and assurance appears to apply to the power and confidence with which Paul and Silvanus and Timothy proclaimed the Word rather than to the conviction with which it was received by the Thessalonians. The gospel came in the Holy Spirit and therefore with power and assurance. But we must not dissociate the reception of the Word on the part of the Thessalonians from this power and confidence wrought by the Spirit. For Paul proceeds, “And ye became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction with joy of the Holy Spirit” (v. 6). The resulting faith on the part of the Thessalonians must be regarded as proceeding from this activity of the Holy Spirit in virtue of which the gospel was proclaimed “in power and in the Holy Spirit and much assurance.” That the Thessalonians became imitators of the Lord and received the Word with joy is due to the fact that the gospel came not in word only, and it came not in word only because it came in the power of the Holy Spirit. Their faith therefore finds its source in this demonstration of the Spirit, just as the joy with which they received the Word is the joy wrought by the Spirit.

When the apostle John writes, “And ye have an anointing from the Holy One and ye know all things. I have not written to you because ye do not know the truth, but because ye know it, and that no lie is of the truth” (1 John 2:20–21; cf. v. 27), he is surely alluding to that same indwelling of the Spirit with which Paul deals in 1 Corinthians 2:15. This anointing is an abiding possession and invests believers with discernment of the truth and steadfastness in it.

Summing up the conclusions drawn from these few relevant passages, we may say that the reception of the truth of God in intelligent, discriminating, joyful, and abiding faith is the effect of divine demonstration and power through the efficiency of the Holy Spirit, and that this faith consists in the confident assurance that, though the Word of God is brought through the instrumentality of men, it is not the word of man but in very truth the Word of God. We again see how even in connection with the internal testimony of the Spirit, the ministry of men in no way militates against the reception of their message as the Word of God.

This witness of the Holy Spirit has been called the internal “testimony” of the Spirit. The question arises, why is the inward work of the Spirit called testimony? There does not appear, indeed, to be any compelling reason why it should be thus called. There is, however, an appropriateness in the word. The faith induced by this work of the Spirit rests upon the testimony the Scripture inherently contains of its divine origin and character. It is the function of the Holy Spirit to open the minds of men to perceive that testimony and cause the Word of God to be borne home to the mind of man with ruling power and conviction. Thereby the Holy Spirit may be said to bear perpetual witness to the divine character of that which is his own handiwork.

The internal testimony of the Spirit has frequently been construed as consisting in illumination or in regeneration on its noëtic side. It is illumination because it consists in the opening of our minds to behold the excellence that inheres in Scripture as the Word of God. It is regeneration on the noëtic side because it is regeneration coming to its expression in our understanding in the response of the renewed mind to the evidence Scripture contains of its divine character. Anything less than illumination in the sense defined above, the internal testimony cannot be.

The question may properly be raised, however, whether or not the notion of illumination is fully adequate as an interpretation of the nature of this testimony. On the view that it consists merely in illumination, the testimony, most strictly considered, resides entirely in the Scripture itself and not at all in the ever-present activity of the Spirit. And the question is, may we not properly regard the present work of the Spirit as not only imparting to us an understanding to perceive the evidence inhering in the Scripture but also as imparting what is of the nature of positive testimony? If we answer in the affirmative, then we should have to say that the power and demonstration with which the Holy Spirit accompanies the Word and by which it is carried home to our hearts and minds with irresistible conviction is the ever-continuing positive testimony of the Spirit. In other words, the seal of the Spirit belongs to the category of testimony strictly considered. If this construction should be placed upon the power and seal of the Spirit, there is a very obvious reason why this doctrine should be called, not only appropriately but necessarily, the internal “testimony” of the Spirit. We must, however, be content to leave this question undetermined. It should not perplex us to do so. There remains in this matter as in the other manifold activities of the Holy Spirit much of mystery that surpasses our understanding.

Whether we view the internal testimony as merely illumination or as illumination plus a positive supplementation construed as testimony in the stricter sense of the word, there is one principle which it is necessary to stress, namely, that the internal testimony does not convey to us new truth content. The whole truth content that comes within the scope of the internal testimony is contained in the Scripture. This testimony terminates upon the end of constraining belief in the divine character and authority of the Word of God and upon that end alone. It gives no ground whatsoever for new revelations of the Spirit.

When Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “Our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and much assurance,” he is surely making a distinction between the actual content of the gospel and the attendant power with which it was conveyed to them and in virtue of which it was carried home with conviction to the hearts of the Thessalonians. In like manner, in 1 Corinthians 2:4–5 the content of Paul’s word and preaching will surely have to be distinguished from the demonstration of the Spirit and of power by which Paul’s message was effectual in the begetting of faith in the Corinthian believers. And we are likewise justified in recognising a distinction between the truth which John says his readers already knew and the abiding anointing of the Spirit which provided them with the proper knowledge and discernment to the end of bringing to clearer consciousness and consistent application the truth which they had already received (1 John 2:20–27). In each case the illumining and sealing function of the Spirit has respect to truth which had been received from another source than that of his confirming and sealing operations.

The internal testimony of the Spirit is the necessary complement to the witness Scripture inherently bears to its plenary inspiration. The two pillars of true faith in Scripture as God’s Word are the objective witness and the internal testimony. The objective witness furnishes us with a conception of Scripture that provides the proper basis for the ever-active sealing operation of the Spirit of truth. The internal testimony insures that this objective witness elicits the proper response in the human consciousness. The sealing function of the Spirit finds its complete explanation and validation in the pervasive witness that Scripture bears to its own divine origin and authority. And the witness to plenary inspiration receives its constant confirmation in the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in the hearts of believers.

Bibliotheca Sacra Volume 98 The Holy Spirit in Relation to the Unsaved World



(Continued from the January–March Number, 1941)


The doctrines of providence and of the sovereignty of God demand that the power of God be effective not only in the saved but also in the unsaved world. While the ministry of the Holy Spirit is ever primarily directed toward the Christian, it is evident that He is working in the world as well, bringing to pass the will of the Father and the Son. The Scriptures reveal that it is characteristic of the Holy Spirit to minister in scenes of disorder and sin. The chaos of the primeval earth as described in Genesis 1:2 was not without His presence. The wicked generation of Noah’s day was opposed in its mad course by the striving of the Spirit (Gen. 6:3). The degeneracy of the period of the Judges had its Samson who was empowered by the Holy Spirit. The prophets of the period of Israel’s decadence before the captivities were living examples of the power of the Holy Spirit to minister in the midst of sin and unbelief. We are reminded in the New Testament that God is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). It should therefore be expected that the Holy Spirit should have a special ministry to the unsaved world in every age, particularly in the age of grace during which the Holy Spirit is resident in the world in the Church.

The ministry of the Holy Spirit in relation to the unsaved world falls into two categories which are not necessarily independent. The Holy Spirit is given the ministry of resisting evil and restraining the world in its manifestation. To the Holy Spirit, also, is committed the task of making known the way of salvation to a race which has no natural capacity to receive it with understanding. Most of the attention of theologians during the Christian centuries has been directed to the latter ministry, that of revealing the message of salvation to the lost and providing enablement for saving faith. The ministry of the Holy Spirit in restraining sin in the world is most important, however, though few direct references are found in Scripture.

The work of the Holy Spirit in relation to the unsaved world is most important for a number of reasons. In view of the power of Satan and his evident hatred of Christians and the truth, the work of the Holy Spirit in restraining sin is required to explain the relative freedom allowed the Christian in the world and the preservation of those conditions which make possible the preaching of the Gospel and the maintenance of some order in the sinful world. The work of the Holy Spirit in revealing the Gospel to the lost is essential to the whole program of completing the purpose of God to call out the Church in this age. It provides for the inability of man and makes possible the salvation of souls. The doctrine is, therefore, important in its significance and necessary to a full appreciation of proper Gospel preaching.


1. The Restraining Work of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament

The work of the Holy Spirit in restraining the world from sin is found in every age, except during the period of unprecedented sinfulness during the great tribulation, when it is God’s purpose to demonstrate for the first time what unrestrained sin is. The character of this work of restraining sin varies slightly in different ages, however. In the previous discussion of this work of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament,1 it was shown that the Holy Spirit undertook to restrain sin throughout the Old Testament period. The striving of the Holy Spirit against sin in Noah’s period is definitely stated (Gen. 6:3). While Isaiah 59:19 is not as clear a reference, it infers a similar ministry of the Holy Spirit. The many other ministries of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament tended to restrain sin. His work in revealing truth through the prophets, particularly the warnings of judgment to come, and the work of inspiration of the Scriptures with their power helped to restrain sin. The judgments which followed rejection of His striving against sin (Isa. 63:10–11) had their effect. The presence and power of the Holy Spirit by virtue of His holy character was conducive to restraint of sin. Throughout the Old Testament, then, the power of the Holy Spirit guided human events into the path of divine providence.

2. The Restraining Work of the Holy Spirit in the Present Age

The work of the Holy Spirit in restraining sin as found in the Old Testament continues in the present age. Further confirmation of His ministry is found in 2 Thessalonians 2:7, “For the mystery of lawlessness doth already work: only there is one that restraineth now, until he be taken out of the way” (American Standard Version). The subject of the passage is the coming day of the Lord in which the man of sin will be revealed (2 Thess. 2:3). According to the passage, the man of sin will not be revealed until the one who restrains is removed. The present age enjoys the ministry of this restrainer whose presence and ministry make impossible the manifestation of the man of sin. The question concerning the identity of this one who restrains sin, in the light of the Old Testament, is easily settled by referring it to the Holy Spirit.

Interpreters of Scripture have not all agreed on the identity of the one restraining lawlessness. A popular view of this passage is that human government is this restraining force. Human government, however, continues during the period of tribulation in which the man of sin is revealed. While all forces of law and order tend to restrain sin, they are not such in their own character, but rather as they are used and empowered to accomplish this end by God. It would seem a preferable interpretation to view all restraint of sin, regardless of means, as proceeding from God as a ministry of the Holy Spirit. As Dr. Thiessen writes: “But who is the one that restraineth? Denney, Findlay, Alford, Moffatt, hold that this refers to law and order, especially as embodied in the Roman Empire. But while human governments may be agencies in the restraining work of the Spirit, we believe that they in turn are influenced by the Church. And again, back of human government is God Who instituted it (Gen. 9:5, 6; Rom. 13:1–7) and controls it (Ps. 75:5–7). So it is God by His Spirit that restrains the development of lawlessness.”2

Some have advanced another view which contends that Satan himself is restraining sin lest it manifest its true character. This idea is hardly compatible with the revelation of Satan found in the Scriptures. Satan is nowhere given universal power over the world, though his influence is inestimable. A study of 2 Thessalonians 2:3–10 indicates that the one who restrains is removed from the scene before the man of sin is revealed. This could hardly be said of Satan. The period of tribulation on the contrary is one in which Satan’s work is most evident. The Scriptures represent him as being cast into the earth and venting his fury during those tragic days (Rev. 12:9). The theory that Satan is the great restrainer of lawlessness is, accordingly, untenable.

If it be conceded that the Holy Spirit undertook to strive with men to restrain sin in the Old Testament, it is even more evident that a similar ministry will be found in the present age in which the Spirit is present in the Church. While it is not in the purpose of God to deal finally with the world while the Church is in the world, the sovereignty of God overrules the wickedness of men and the power of Satan to make possible the accomplishment of His purpose to call out a people to His name. While the restraining hand of the Holy Spirit is little realized by the church at large, His protection and power shield the Christian from the impossible task of living in a world in which sin is unrestrained.

3. Contributing Factors in the Work of Restraining Sin

The Scriptures do not enlarge upon the ministry of the Holy Spirit in restraining sin. Reason would point, however, to a number of contributing factors all of which are used of God to check the course of sin. The presence of the individual Christian, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, constitutes a force to hinder the world in its sin. The church corporately has done much to influence the world, even though it has failed to measure up to Biblical standards itself. The Bible, wherever it has gone, has produced its attendant effect not only on those who believed it but also indirectly has influenced the thought and action of the unsaved world. Human governments, ordained of God, are a means to divine ends. While these many factors in themselves are not the work of the Holy Spirit in restraining, they are means used by the Holy Spirit in accomplishing His purpose. The work of the Holy Spirit in restraining sin is seen, therefore, to be an important work of God, essential to divine providence, and a part of the work of God for His own.



The entire work of the Holy Spirit on behalf of the unsaved world is sometimes given the terminology common grace, including in its scope the restraining work of the Holy Spirit in addition to the work of revealing the Gospel. Charles Hodge, for instance, states in reference to common grace, “The Bible therefore teaches that the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of truth, of holiness, and of life in all its forms, is present with every human mind, enforcing truth, restraining from evil, exciting to good, and imparting wisdom or strength, when, where, and in what measure seemeth good.… This is what in theology is called common grace.”3 The work of the Holy Spirit revealing the Gospel to the unsaved is, therefore, an important aspect of a larger program of God in dealing with the need of a lost world. It is founded on a desperate need for enablement to understand the Gospel. It is designed to articulate the preaching of the Gospel and the plan of God to give a universal call to faith in Christ. It is antecedent to the effectual call of God to the elect. The doctrine of the work of the Holy Spirit in revealing the Gospel to the world is most important not only in its relation to the plan of God but also in carrying out effectively the preaching of the Gospel. The Christian desiring to win souls for Christ should study this subject carefully, for in it lie the principles which God has revealed concerning His methods of dealing with the lost.

1. Man’s Need of Grace

The fall of Adam was full of tremendous consequences. Because of it, sin was imputed to the race; men are spiritually dead apart from Christ; men possess a fallen nature which issues in manifestation; and, important to our present study, men are unable to comprehend the truth of God. The Scriptures bear constant witness to the inability of man. It is stated flatly in 1 Corinthians 2:14, “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him.” Again in 1 Corinthians 1:18, the Gospel is declared to be foolishness to the lost, “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” The unsaved Gentiles are declared to walk in spiritual darkness, “Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart” (Eph. 4:18). According to Romans 8:7, the natural mind is not capable of being subject to the law of God: “because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.” Christ bore witness to the inability of natural man to come to God when He said, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him” (John 6:44). In addition to natural inability is the work of Satan blinding the hearts of the lost to the light of the Gospel (2 Cor. 4:4). The condition of man is hopeless apart from divine intervention.

Inability on the part of man has its rise in ignorance of God and His grace due to corruption of man’s whole being, perversion of his sensations, feelings, and tastes, and blinding of his understanding. In the fall, man did not lose his moral determination. He is still accountable and relatively remains a free agent. He retains ability to understand natural things and may rise in this realm to unusual heights. Even his aversion to the good and inclination to the evil, while springing from his fallen nature, has its origin in his utter inability to appreciate the Person of God and the inherent loveliness of righteousness. The real reason for man’s hatred of God is his ignorance of what God is. The will of man, however, in itself has no power to transcend its natural ability as found after the fall any more than it had power to transcend its natural ability before the fall. Man in himself is utterly unable to understand the truth of God. The answer to the problem, therefore, is not found in any development of the natural man or cultivation of latent abilities, but is disclosed in the power of God as manifested in the work of the Holy Spirit. Apart from this work of the Holy Spirit, God would continue to be unrevealed to a lost race; the death of Christ would be inapplicable to men; and the purpose of God to save the elect would be impossible of fulfillment. The importance of this doctrine, therefore, justifies a careful study.

2. The Nature of Common Grace

The term common grace is a general one, as previously indicated, and has reference to the influence of the Holy Spirit upon the world. It has a special application, however, to the problem of the inability of man to receive the things of God. In this sense, common grace is a ministry of the Holy Spirit which reveals the truth of God to man whenever given in any form. Arminian theologians use a similar term, sufficient grace, by which they mean common grace of such character and extent as is sufficient to give adequate revelation for intelligent saving faith. Another term, efficacious grace, is in the same field of truth, but it is quite distinct in its character and operation. Efficacious grace is the ministry of the Holy Spirit which is certainly effectual in revealing the Gospel and in leading to saving faith. This aspect of grace will be considered under the work of the Holy Spirit in salvation.

a. Relation to the Word of God

The Scriptures affirm constantly the necessity of preaching the Word of God in reaching the lost. It is the Gospel which is “the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16), and men are urged to preach the Gospel to every creature. Accordingly, Paul raises the question, “How shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?” (Rom. 10:14), and comes to the conclusion, “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). The Word of God is the divine means used to reveal God and His grace to the world, and it is the Word of God which is the sword of the Spirit. While God could, if He desired, reveal Himself through other channels, the way of salvation is made known to us through the Bible. Where the Scriptures have not been made known in one form or another, salvation is not found. It is significant, then, that those who desire to lead men to Christ must preach the Word of God.

The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper have their place in bearing witness to the Gospel. While the importance of this means of revelation has undoubtedly been overemphasized by the church, these sacraments do reveal in symbol the Gospel message, and the Lord’s Supper in particular is to be observed because it shows “the Lord’s death till he come” (1 Cor. 11:26).

In relating the Word of God to the doctrine of common grace, two extremes in doctrine may be observed. Lutheran theologians have overemphasized the living character of the Word of God (Heb. 4:12) to the point where it is claimed that the Bible has power in itself, and no attendant work of the Holy Spirit is necessary to make it effective. While the Lutheran church has fully supported the immanence and power of the Holy Spirit, they regard His work as being limited in some sense to the Word itself. As Charles Hodge summarizes the Lutheran position, “This divine efficacy is inherent in, and inseparable from the Word.”4 The chief difficulty with this view is the obvious fact that many unsaved men are completely unaffected by hearing or reading the Bible. Lutherans explain this by conditioning its power on their faith, but it is difficult to see how they can believe what they do not know and understand. If an unsaved man cannot understand before he believes, and is unable to believe what he does not understand, how can he ever be brought to saving faith? The fact remains that the Spirit of God brings conviction and understanding to many who never believe, who turn from the Gospel even after the way of salvation is made plain to them. The work of the Holy Spirit in revealing the Gospel to the unsaved is rather a sovereign operation of God, not conditioned upon the receptivity of man. The experience of many Christians bears witness to the possibility of understanding the issues of saving faith and at the same time being rebellious against God and unwilling to accept Christ for some time before the decision for Christ is finally made.

Another extreme in the doctrine of common grace is found in the viewpoint that the Word of God is unnecessary. While the Word of God is not necessarily related to the general works of God in restraining sin, in providence, and in acts of sovereignty, the revelation of the truth of the Gospel comes only through the Word of God. The extreme position which makes the Word of God unnecessary to common grace is supported by two opposite schools of theology, the rational and the mystic. Rationalism approaches the problem from many angles. The deists, of course, assume that God is not immanent in the world, and trace all spiritual experience to a normal process of human mind. To them the realm of common grace is purely a discovery of the human intelligence proceeding from natural causes. Less extreme than the deists is the Pelagian viewpoint, holding that man is inherently able to understand the truth and make his own decisions in relation to it. The rationalistic approach to the subject is diametrically opposed to the Scriptural revelation, and is not seriously considered by Reformed theologians.

The view of the mystics, of course, is quite the opposite of the rationalist. The mystic assumes that God gives direct revelation to all who will receive it, and that truth so given can be understood properly by the recipient. The view partakes of all the errors of false mysticism, going far beyond the relation of false mysticism to the Christian, and attributes even to the unsaved the power to receive special revelation and understand it. Genuine salvation is never found except among those who have heard the Word of God. Missionaries entering unevangelized fields never come upon a Christian community, or even an individual Christian. The view of the mystics is based on speculation rather than Scripture or experience, and must therefore be dismissed.

The work of the Holy Spirit in revealing the Gospel to the unsaved is peculiarly a ministry of enablement to understand the way of salvation. As the Word is preached, the Holy Spirit attends with power to make it known to those who naturally are blind to the truth and unable to comprehend it. The importance of this ministry of the Spirit must be recognized before the necessity of prayer for the lost can be realized.

b. The Extent of Revelation to the World

The work of the Holy Spirit in revealing truth to the world is specified as one of the primary reasons why the Holy Spirit is making His residence in the world in this age. According to the words of Christ, “And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment” (John 16:8). This threefold work of the Spirit is further defined in the passage which follows. The work of reproving or convincing the world of sin is given the specific character of revealing the one sin of unbelief as being the issue between the unsaved and God, as verse nine indicates, “Of sin, because they believe not on me.” Because of the death of Christ it is no longer a question of being condemned simply because of sin. The death of Christ is seen to satisfy all the righteous demands of God. To the unsaved, the determining factor in his destiny is whether he believes in Christ. Far removed from a character building program, or merely an encouragement to live more righteously, the Holy Spirit reveals that it is necessary to believe in Christ to be saved.

A second revelation of the Holy Spirit to the world is that of making known the righteousness of God. According to verse ten, this revelation is necessary because Christ is no longer bodily present in the earth, “Of righteousness, because I go to my Father, and ye see me no more.” While Christ was on earth, His presence and His teaching were a demonstration of the righteousness of God. When Christ ascended into heaven, it was necessary for the Holy Spirit to undertake this ministry. As a work for the unsaved, the Holy Spirit reveals the righteousness of God in two distinct aspects. First, the Holy Spirit reveals that we are dealing with a righteous God. It is not a question of conformity to any earthly standard or comparison. Our life is seen measured by the righteousness of the Person of God. Second, the Holy Spirit reveals to the unsaved that there is available through Christ an imputed righteousness which God gives the believer. It is no doubt true that many come to Christ in faith and are saved who comprehend very imperfectly the nature of this imputed righteousness. It is possible that many only understand vaguely that God through Christ cares for their unrighteousness without realizing all the wonders of justification. It is essential to intelligent faith, however, that the unsaved understand that through Christ it is possible for God to deal with them as those who are righteous. This revelation is inseparable from the Gospel.

A third revelation is given the unsaved by the Holy Spirit concerning the relation of the cross to judgment and Satan. Christ said the Holy Spirit would convict the world “Of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged” (John 16:11). The Holy Spirit presses upon the heart of the unsaved the fact of God’s judgment. Everyone will stand before God in judgment. The unsaved need to know that sin was judged in the cross, and for those who trust in Christ there is deliverance from judgment upon sin and deliverance from condemnation. The unsaved must see Christ as judged and executed for them, and their judgment for sin as already past. As a token of this, Satan, as the “prince of this world,” is mentioned as already condemned. In the cross Satan met his defeat. The cross is the power of God over Satan. Satan stands already convicted, doomed, and waiting the execution of the sentence. While in the providence of God, Satan is allowed great freedom and power in this age, his end is sure, and those who reject Christ will share his destiny.

The ministry of the Holy Spirit to the unsaved follows three specific lines, then. First, the unsaved must understand that salvation depends upon faith in Christ. Second, the unsaved must understand the righteousness of God as belonging to the Person of God and as made available for the sinner through Christ. Third, the unsaved must face the fact of judgment and find in Christ One who was judged and executed as their substitute. While these elements may not be always seen clearly, they form the principles which combine to bring the unsaved into the knowledge necessary to place saving faith in Christ. Needless to say, the subjects included in the ministry of the Holy Spirit to the unsaved should constitute an important part of effective Gospel preaching.

3. The Limitations of Common Grace

From preceding discussion it is evident that common grace falls far short of efficacious grace. While the unsaved may be led to understand the Gospel sufficiently to act intelligently upon it, common grace does not have any certain effect upon the will and does not issue certainly into salvation. Two unsaved men may understand the Gospel equally, and yet one never comes to the point of saving faith while the other trusts in Christ and is saved. Common grace must be sharply distinguished from any work of God which is efficacious in bringing the unsaved to salvation.

Common grace also falls far short of the Christian’s experience of illumination. The indwelling Holy Spirit opens to the yielded Christian the storehouses of truth in the Word of God. Common grace is related almost entirely to revelation on the one subject of salvation with a view to providing an intelligent basis for faith. The revelation of common grace can never rise higher than the plane of the natural man even in the realm of salvation truth. It is closely parallel to the idea of moral and intellectual persuasion, constituting an influence, but in itself not resulting in decision.

Common grace provides none of the normal experiences of the Christian such as are produced by the unhindered indwelling Holy Spirit. The love, joy, peace, and other fruit of the Spirit are never found in those who have merely experienced common grace. While unsaved men may be able to imitate some of the outward manifestations of Christian conduct, there is never the reality of inward experience, though in some cases it may be difficult to determine whether some individuals are unsaved or saved.

While common grace is greatly limited in its character and its results, it cannot be said to be without certain phenomena. Religious instinct and fear of God are no doubt related to common grace, though they may not be connected definitely with the Scriptures. This phase of common grace is never sufficient to provide understanding of the issues of the Gospel. Common grace in its broader sense may have the effect of restraining sin, and it is often regarded as including this aspect. Outward profession of faith in Christ and conformity to moral standards without being saved may be a result of common grace. Charles Hodge writes, for instance, “Unrenewed men in the Bible are said to repent, to believe, to be partakers of the Holy Ghost, and to taste the good Word of God, and the powers of the world to come.”5 There are no doubt stages in the work of common grace from religious instinct and a fear of God which is almost universal to the experience of those who understand clearly the condition of salvation. In it all the Holy Spirit is working, striving to bring men to the knowledge of Christ. Without this preliminary ministry, the work of efficacious grace would be impossible.

The work of the Holy Spirit for the unsaved world constitutes another proof that God is a God of infinite grace and condescension, working in those who are the objects of His righteous judgment, striving to bring them to the knowledge of Christ as Savior. Without this ministry, the world would be an impossible situation for the Christian, and Gospel preaching would be fruitless. The trophies of the grace of God which some day will stand complete before God in glory will bear witness to the power of the Spirit in effectively accomplishing the task given to Him by Christ.

Dallas, Texas.

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