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The Growth of Spiritual Knowledge,
by Scott Sperling (after Thomas Chalmers)
10Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, 11trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when He predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. 12It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things (1 Peter 1:10-12).
In total darkness, perfect eyesight has no value. Likewise, to a completely blind man, the brightest light serves no purpose. Sight needs light; light has no value without sight.
Let us imagine that there is a blind man who, through some medical procedure or mechanism, is about receive the gift of sight. He has never experienced sight before; his brain is not accustomed to processing the signals generated by light hitting the retina. We can probably all agree that it would be foolish to introduce light with bright and vivid splashes of color to this newly-seeing man. No, we would naturally introduce light gradually, beginning possibly with a very plain dimly lit room. As the faculties of the eye and brain of the man improve, we would brighten the room, introduce colors, show the man various objects while explaining what they are, etc. In this way, the man’s ability to see would improve, and he would gradually become accustom to interpreting the visual information presented to him.
In his Introductory Lecture of the “Lectures on Romans”, Thomas Chalmers – a noted Scottish minister, theologian, mathematician and economist – presents the above process (the blind receiving sight) as an analogy to the way that God has chosen to reveal Himself to man. The fall of Adam brought a complete spiritual darkness to mankind. “Whatever discernment Adam had of the things of God in Paradise, the fall which he experienced was a fall into the very depths of the obscurity of midnight” [Chalmers, 9]. To bring mankind out of this darkness, God has chosen to act in two ways: one external, one internal. God gradually, over history, has increased the amount of spiritual light that He has shone. And at the same time, God gradually has improved the spiritual discernment within man, improved his spiritual eyesight, one might say. As we are given more light, we are also given more discernment to understand the light we are given. And so by two ways, one external and one internal, we grow spiritually. The external light slowly gets brighter; our internal discernment, which interprets the signals that the light is triggering on our spiritual retinas (so to speak), improves so that we can properly see what the light reveals.
Now I suppose God, in His power, could have chosen to re-enlighten Adam and Eve in one grand act of spiritual enlightenment. “[B]y one fiat of Omnipotence, such a perfection of spiritual discernment may have been conferred on our first parents, …[and] a single moment would have ushered them into all the splendors of a full and finished revelation. But this has not been God’s method in His dealings with a sinful world. Spiritual light and spiritual discernment, were not called forth to meet each other in all the plenitude of an unclouded brilliancy, at the bidding of His immediate voice. The outward truth has been dealt out by a gradual process of revelation – and the inward perception of it has been made to maintain a corresponding pace through a process equally gradual. A greater number of spiritual objects has been introduced, from one time to another, into the field of visibility – and the power of spiritual vision has from one age to another been made to vary and to increase along with them” [Chalmers, 11-12]. In this God was wise and just. For if God had re-enlightened Adam immediately, mankind would not have appreciated the seriousness and consequences of disobedience to God. It was just, and educational, to plunge Adam, and mankind, into a prolonged darkness, as a consequence of his sin.
Fascinatingly, this method of gradual spiritual enlightenment and slowly increasing spiritual discernment has worked on a macro level, and a micro level. On a macro level, mankind as a whole has been slowly enlightened spiritually, as God, over the course of history, has chosen to reveal more about His ways and His plan; while at the same time, God has chosen prophets, on which He confers spiritual discernment to understand the spiritual revelations, and communicate them to His people. On a micro level, each of us individually grows spiritually in this same way: by responding to the spiritual light that God, in His grace, shines on us, and by being open to the increasing spiritual discernment that the Holy Spirit imparts to us.
Let’s first look at the macro level, how mankind has been spiritually enlightened in this way. Chalmers gives a nice outline of this process over the course of history: “The dawn of this eternal revelation was marked by the solitary announcement, given to our outcast progenitors [Adam and Eve], that the seed of the woman should bruise the head of the serpent (Gen. 3:15)… The promise given to Adam, brightened into a more cheering and intelligible hope, when renewed to Abraham, in the shape of an assurance, that, through one of his descendants, all the families of the earth were to be blessed (Gen. 12:2, 15:5); and to Jacob that Shiloh was to be born, and that to Him the gathering of the people should be (Gen. 49:10); and to Moses, that a great Prophet was to arise like unto himself (Deut. 18:15); and to David, that one of his house was to sit upon his throne forever (II Sam. 7:15); and to Isaiah, that one was to appear, who should be a light unto the Gentiles, and the salvation of all the ends of the earth (Isa. 49:6); and to Daniel, that the Messiah was to be cut off, but not for Himself and that through Him reconciliation was to be made for iniquity, and an everlasting righteousness was to be brought in (Dan. 9:24-27); and to John the Baptist, that the kingdom of Heaven was at hand, and the Prince of that kingdom was immediately to follow in the train of his own ministrations (Mark 1:4-7); and to the apostles in the days of our Savior upon earth, that He with whom they companied was soon to be lifted up for the healing of the nations, and that all who looked to Him should live (John 6:40); and finally, to the apostles after the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), when, fraught with the full and explicit tidings of a world’s atonement and a world’s regeneration, they went forth with the doctrine of Christianity in its entire copiousness, and have transmitted it to future ages in a book, of which it has been said, that no man shall add thereto, and that no man shall take away from it” [Chalmers, 12-13].
Chalmers continues: “This forms but a faint and a feeble outline of that march, by which God’s external revelation has passed magnificently onwards, from the first days of our world, through the twilight of the patriarchal ages – and the brightening of the Jewish dispensation, aided as it was by the secondary luster of types and of ceremonies – and the constant accumulation of Prophecy, with its visions every century becoming more distinct, and its veil becoming more transparent – and the personal communications of God manifest in the flesh, who opened His mouth amongst us, but still opened it in parables – insomuch that when He ascended from His disciples, He still left them in wonder and dimness and mystery – Till, by the pouring forth of the Holy Spirit from the place which He had gone to occupy, the evidence of inspiration received its last and its mightiest enlargement, which is now open to all for the purpose of augmentation” [Chalmers, 13-14].
One might ask, wasn’t there an exception made to this rule of gradual revelation with respect to the prophets? Weren’t they given full spiritual enlightenment in order to write their prophecies? Surprisingly, the answer to this question is, “No”: the prophets were not given full spiritual enlightenment. In fact, we are told that, at times, they did not even understand the full ramifications of things that they themselves were prophesying about. Peter teaches us: “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when He predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things” (I Pet. 1:10-12). Chalmers expounds on the meaning of this passage in Peter’s epistle: “This passage sets the old prophets before us in a very striking attitude. They positively did not know the meaning of their own prophecies. They were like men of dim and imperfect sight, whose hand was guided by some foreign power to the execution of a picture – and who, after it was finished, vainly attempted, by straining their eyes, to explain and to ascertain the subject of it. They were transmitters of a light, which, at the same time, did not illuminate themselves. They uttered the word, or they put down in writing, as it was given to them – and then they searched by their own power, but searched in vain for the signification of it. They enquired diligently what the meaning of the Spirit could be, when it testified of the sufferings of Christ and the glory of Christ. But until that Spirit gave the power of discernment, as well as set before them the objects of discernment – their attempts were nugatory. And indeed they were sensible of this, and acquiesced in it. It was told them by revelation, that the subject matter of their prophecy was not for themselves, but for others – even for those to whom the gospel should be preached in future days, and who, along with the ministration of the external word, were to receive the ministration of the Holy Spirit – whose office it is to put into the mouths of prophets the things which are to be looked to and believed, and whose office also it is to put into the hearts of others the power of seeing and believing these things” [Chalmers, 15-16].
And so, while the prophets were advancing spiritual knowledge to all mankind at a macro level, on the micro level, their personal knowledge of spiritual things was advancing at the rate determined by the grace of the Holy Spirit, within the confines of the restrictions of God’s ultimate plan. The prophets did not have complete spiritual enlightenment and discernment. They did not have all the answers. Likewise, we ourselves should not feel that we need to have all the answers concerning Biblical and spiritual matters. There is much that we do not understand. There are plenty of passages in the Bible that are difficult, and puzzling. We ask, “What is this saying?” or “Why would God do this?” Many times, we come across a spiritual issue, or Biblical passage, that we have not yet been given the spiritual discernment to figure out, or to understand.
For we ourselves, on a micro level, are advancing in our spiritual knowledge gradually, in a similar manner that mankind as a whole advanced in spiritual knowledge. We began in spiritual darkness, not understanding anything about the Christian religion, and the way of salvation, perhaps even mocking it. Then at some point, we were introduced to the Gospel message – through a sermon, or the words of a friend, etc. – and it resonated in a way which before it had not resonated. The Holy Spirit opened our mind and heart to the Gospel message, and we responded to it. Notice that, just as was the case for the increasing of spiritual knowledge at the macro level, there was an external stimulus (a sermon, the words of a friend, a passage in a book or in the Bible, etc.), accompanied by an internal response, in the form of increased spiritual discernment, as given to us by the Holy Spirit. In this same way, our spiritual growth continues. There are many passages in the Bible that we did not understand at all when we first read them, or heard them spoken about. But then at some point, “Boom!”, something clicked, and now we do understand them. And as we read the Bible more, and open ourselves to spiritual instruction, we understand more and more about what God is doing, and how He is doing it. Peter, in a different passage, alludes to this method of spiritual enlightenment: “We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19-20). Pay attention to the words in the Bible, and at some point (the Holy Spirit willing), “the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts”.
By way of application, we must realize, again, that we do not have all the answers, and we are continually on the road to spiritual growth. Complete spiritual enlightenment, complete knowledge of the ways and workings of God, will not happen in this life. We must also realize that each of us are at different points in our spiritual growth; we each are at different milestones on the path to spiritual enlightenment. Knowing this should influence us to have a bit of tolerance for those who might disagree with us on the less critical aspects of Christian faith. It seems to me that there is a lot energy spent on trying to convince fellow Christians on issues for which there are not established answers. We cannot “argue” someone into understanding some fine point of Christian Theology. It is the office of the Holy Spirit to impart spiritual discernment, as He sees fit. Though we may have the privilege of providing external stimuli to the gradually improving spiritual eyesight of others – by preaching the Gospel, by teaching the Word of God – it is the office of the Holy Spirit to improve the hearer’s spiritual eyesight so that the ways and workings of God can be more fully understood.
Chalmers, Thomas. Lectures on the Epistle to the Romans. Originally published in 1848. Can be found at: http://classicchristianlibrary.com/library/chalmers_thomas/Lectures_on_Romans_by_T_Chalmers.pdf