Jesus said, “When he, the Spirit of truth, has come, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth. He is truth essentially in himself, and he is the one who leads the church into all truth.
But what does Jesus mean by “all truth”? He does not mean “all truth” absolutely. The Holy Spirit’s work is not to lead us into all historical, geographical, astronomical and mathematical truth. The Holy Spirit is to lead us into all truth concerning the mysteries of the kingdom of God, of the gospel, of the counsel of God about the salvation of the church by Christ (Acts 20:27). The Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth necessary for faith and obedience (Acts 20:21).
Each believer is led into all the truth necessary to his own state and condition, to enable him to do his duty and work (Eph. 4:7). Christ gives to each according to his measure and needs.
HOW THE SPIRIT LEADS INTO ALL TRUTH
The promises concerning the mission of the Holy Spirit in John’s Gospel are not all to be confined to the apostles, nor to the first age or ages of the church (John 14:16-17, 20; Matt. 28:20).
Many things in these promises did apply particularly to the apostles and had their fulfillment on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). The apostles were commanded by Christ to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit before they engaged in their work (Acts 1:4). When fully empowered they were enabled to fulfill the tasks Christ called them to. But this promise (John 16:13) is not restricted to the apostolic office.
It is not an external guidance into all truth by the objective revelation of truth that is meant, for this kind of revelation is not granted to all believers, nor are believers to look for such revelations. And the revelation of truth by the preaching of the gospel is not what is meant, since this is common to all the world and not subject to any special promise.
So it is the internal teaching of the Holy Spirit, giving an understanding of the mind of God and of all revealed sacred truths, which is intended. It is the same as the promise, “They shall all be taught of God” (John 6:45), for this is how we are taught of God, and in no other way. The Holy Spirit leads us into all truth by giving us that understanding of it which we ourselves are not able to arrive at (see Acts 8:31).
All spiritual, divine, supernatural truth is revealed in Scripture. To come to know and to rightly understand this truth in Scripture is the duty of all, according to the means which each enjoys and the duties which are required from them. To make this possible the Holy Spirit is promised to them.
Of ourselves, without his special assistance and guidance we cannot arrive at a true knowledge or a right understanding of the truth revealed in Scripture.
AN ANOINTING FROM THE HOLY ONE
There is also the teaching of 1 John 2:20, 27. By the unction and anointing which John mentions in this passage the Holy Spirit and his work is meant. That the Holy Spirit in his special work is called an unction, or is said to anoint us, is clear from many places in Scripture (see Heb. 1:9; 2 Cor 1:21-22). Spiritual unction is never ascribed to anything else in Scripture. The expression “from the Holy One” refers to Jesus Christ and is the fulfillment of Christ’s promise to send the Holy Spirit to us to teach us and to lead us into all truth (Acts 3:4; Rev. 3:7). So the Holy Spirit is called “The Spirit of the Lord,” or “of Christ” (2 Cor 3:17-18; Rom. 8:9; Phil. 1:19).
The Spirit’s “abiding in us” repeats the promise of Christ that he, the Holy Spirit, will “abide with us for ever” (John 14:16). The work attributed to this “unction” is the same work ascribed to the Holy Spirit (John 16:13). The essential truth of the Holy Spirit is also declared in verse 27, “The same anointing. . . is true, and is not a lie.”
The first thing ascribed to this “unction” is the effect of his work in believers. They “know all things.” The “all things” here mentioned are all things necessary to our being in-grafted into Christ and our abiding in Christ (1 John 2:24). Such are the fundamental, important truths of the gospel. Believers may be ignorant of the doctrine of some truths, and may have little knowledge of anything, yet they shall know the mind and will of God as revealed in Scripture, in order that they may believe to righteousness and make confession to salvation.
The special purpose of the unction then was to preserve and deliver from the antichrists and seducers of those days. In the same way we also are preserved and delivered by the assured knowledge of the truths of the gospel as they are revealed in Scripture.
Believers “do not need that anyone should teach them.” This refers only to the essential truths of salvation, of being in-grafted in Christ and abiding in Christ. Also, it refers to these essential truths absolutely, rather than to degrees of knowledge of them. A major part of the work of the ministry is to bring on believers to perfection in the things in which they have already been substantially instructed. What is chiefly meant by this statement is that believers need not depend on the light and authority of the teachings of men. None can be lords of our faith. They can only be helpers of our joy.
THE NATURE OF THIS WORK OF THE SPIRIT
The Holy Spirit does this work by teaching: “The unction teaches you.” This does not refer to his direct inspiration, that is, his bringing new sacred truths from God directly to the minds of men. This is how he taught the apostles and prophets (1 Pet. 1:11-12; 2 Pet. 1:21). Nor does God grant new revelations to preserve his people from error. God has made sufficient provision in his Word for that (Isa. 8:20; 2 Pet. 1:19).
The teaching referred to is his enabling us to discern, know and understand the mind and will of God as revealed in the Scriptures.
It is not enough simply to know the truth. We must also be assured in our minds that we do really know it (Eph. 4:14; Col. 2:2). This assurance is given by the Holy Spirit “who is truth and is not a lie.” There is no possibility of anyone being deceived in what he is taught by this “unction.” The Holy Spirit gives to believers a secret witness to what he teaches, along with his teachings (1 John 5:6). There is a special power accompanying the teaching of God by his Spirit (Job 36:22; John 6:45). So whoever is taught in this way certainly believes the things he is taught, having the evidence of the truth of them in himself (1 John 5:10).
Spiritual sense and judgment are able to discern the divine evidences in the things the Holy Spirit teaches (Heb. 5:14). This is what gives the mind the highest assurance of the truth that it is able to have in this world.
The testimonies we have considered are sufficient to establish this first general assertion: It is the Holy Spirit who teaches us to understand aright the mind and will of God in the Scripture. Without his aid we could never do this usefully and profitably to our souls.
The great promise of the New Testament is that all believers shall be “taught by God” (John 6:45; see also 1 Thess. 4:9). No man is self-taught in sacred things.
Who will the Holy Spirit teach? He will teach those who are meek and humble, those who give themselves to continual prayer, meditation and study in God’s Word day and night, and those who strive to conform their lives to the truths he instructs them in. Because these are hard conditions to flesh and blood, there are few who apply to study in the school of God, while many will apply to other teachers, especially to the church of Rome, where no cost in self-denial need be involved.
DIFFERENT KINDS OF KNOWLEDGE
Many seem to attain to great knowledge in Scripture without the inward illumination of the Spirit. However, there is a difference between the Greek “gnosis”, meaning knowledge, and “epignosis”, meaning acknowledgment. The former, on its own, affects only the speculative part of the mind. It does little good and much harm. It is the knowledge that puffs up (1 Cor 8:1).
The latter knowledge, on the other hand, gives the mind an experience of the power and force of the truth, transforming the soul and all its desires, bringing the “full assurance of understanding” to the mind itself (Phil. 1:9; Luke 1:4; Col. 1:6, 9, 10; 2:2; 3:10; Rom. 10:2; Eph. 1:17; 4:13; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Tim. 2:25; 3:7; Titus 1:1; 2 Pet. 1:2, 3, 8; 2:20). This knowledge is only attainable by the saving illumination of the Spirit of God.
Men may have a knowledge of words and the meaning of propositions in the Scripture without a knowledge of the things themselves (2 Cor. 3).
This knowledge only informs the mind but does not really illuminate and enlighten it. So theology has been turned into an art or science instead of a spiritual wisdom and understanding of divine mysteries (Rom. 12:2).
This knowledge does not bring to “all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the knowledge of the mystery of God” (Col. 2:2). Nor has it any purifying effect (1 John 3:3).
It does not enable men to trust in God and cling firmly to him by love (Psa. 9:10). To “know the name of God” in this Psalm is to know the revelation that he has made of himself, his mind and his will in Scripture. This enables us to “try the spirits.”
There are three errors to avoid:
- Some pretend to be guided by the Spirit and neglect the written Word.
- Some despise the teaching of the Spirit and trust to their own understanding of the Word.
- Others reject both the Spirit and the Word and go after another rule and guide.
To none of these is the promise of the Spirit given. They are left to their foolish, corrupt imaginations.
Scripture is the believer’s rule and the Holy Spirit is his guide!
Do we continue in prayer, and abound in prayer, as we ought, for that Spirit who alone can lead us into all truth? For that unction which teaches us all things with assurance and experience? There is no duty in this world more acceptable to God than fervent prayers for a right understanding of his mind and will in his Word. On this, everything else depends.
— John Owen from The Holy Spirit, Volume III, with modern abridgment by R. J. K. Law.