How the Spirit Helps Us Understand

The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. "For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?" But we have the mind of Christ.

The manual of operation for the Christian wartime mentality is the Bible. It was inspired and authorized by the Commander, and contains all the truth needed to win people over from the enemy camp, deprogram their old thought patterns, train them in strategies of righteousness, and equip them with armor and weapons to defeat Satan and liberate his captives (2 Timothy 3:16–17; Ephesians 6:10–19).

God's Manual and Our Inability to Understand It

The manual is one of a kind. The Communists had their Manifesto. The Maoists had their Little Red Books. The Muslims have their Koran. But only the Bible contains the writings taught not by human wisdom but by the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 2:13). Only the Bible reveals "what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Corinthians 2:9). The Christian manual of operation is unique because it reveals "the things of the Spirit of God"—things from God that man can't find out on his own, things that are often very foreign to our way of thinking. And therein lies a great problem.

I want to talk about that problem today and how God works by his Holy Spirit to overcome it. The problem is described in 1 Corinthians 2:14. "The unspiritual man does not receive (i.e., welcome) the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned." The NASB gives a more literal rendering when it says, "A natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God." The problem is: what good is a manual of operation that can't be understood by ordinary people? If the Bible reveals the "things of God" and the natural man is not able to understand them because they are spiritually appraised, then how will this book ever be able to win anyone over to God's side?

Let's begin by making sure we understand the situation described in verse 14. We need to understand first what Paul means by "natural man" and by "the things of the Spirit of God."

What Is a "Natural Man"?

The word for "natural man" is used one other time in the New Testament to refer to people, namely, in Jude 19, which says, "It is these who set up divisions, worldly people (i.e., natural people), devoid of the Spirit." Natural people are defined here as people who do not have God's Spirit. They are simply ordinary people whose hearts and minds are not touched with the renewing work of the Holy Spirit. The opposite of "natural man" is "spiritual man"—a person whose mind and heart are renewed by the Spirit. 1 Corinthians 2:12 confirms this. "Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God." In verse 14 the "natural man" cannot understand the "things of the Spirit of God" because they are "spiritually discerned." In verse 12 Paul is able to understand them because he has received the Spirit. Therefore, a "natural person" is a person who has not received the Spirit. That's why he can't understand "the things of the Spirit of God."

What Are "the Things of the Spirit"?

But now what are these "things of the Spirit of God" which people can't grasp without the Spirit? The context makes this pretty clear. Notice the word "folly" or "foolishness" in verse 14. Whatever "the things of the Spirit of God" are, they are folly to the natural man. Chapter 1, verse 18 shows us what this is: "The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." The same thing in verses 23–24: "We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God." In other words, what the natural man can't understand is the heart of the Christian message—the word of the cross. But the word of the cross is not just a simple statement that Christ died on the cross for our sins. The word of the cross is a radical indictment of human pride. It describes a way of salvation which according to 1 Corinthians 1:29 has this purpose: "that no human being might boast in the presence of God" (cf. 3:21).

The word of the cross is a message about my crucifixion, not just Christ's. Paul said in Galatians 6:14, "Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." Therefore, when Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:14 that "the things of the Spirit of God" are folly to the natural man, he means that the gospel of Christ crucified and all its devastating implications for natural human pride are simply foolishness to the natural man. A view of reality which aims to take away every ground of boasting from in man and put it all in Christ crucified is foolishness to humans in their natural state apart from the Holy Spirit. So the natural man is a person without the Holy Spirit, and "the things of the Spirit of God" refers to the word of the cross and its devastating implications for human pride.

The Problem Is Not Intellectual Inability

Now with these definitions let's see if we can restate the situation described in verse 14. The reason this is important is that if we misunderstand the problem Paul raises in verse 14, we will almost certainly misunderstand the work of the Spirit in solving the problem and may well look to the Spirit for a work he was never intended to perform. You'll see what I mean as we dig into verse 14. Take the phrase, "He is not able to understand them," that is, the natural man is not able to understand the things of the Spirit of God. What does this mean? Does it mean that the natural man does not have access to sufficient information? Does it mean that he lacks the mental powers to construe the meaning of Paul's sermons? If it means either of these, how shall the man be held accountable to receive the things of the Spirit?

In Romans 1:20 Paul talks about the basis of accountability and says, "Ever since the foundation of the world God's invisible nature . . . has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. Therefore they are without excuse." In other words, the availability of knowledge is necessary for accountability. If you had never heard the gospel, and a Chinese evangelist stood up here and preached the word of the cross to you and you didn't receive it because you didn't understand a word of what he said, would you be an illustration of the natural man in verse 14? I don't think so. Romans 1:20 would imply that you are not accountable to believe a message whose meaning was not available to you because its language was unintelligible. So when Paul says that the natural man cannot understand the things of the Spirit, I don't think he means, the natural man can't construe the meaning of the gospel.

It Is the Moral Inability to Judge Value Rightly

On the contrary, Paul implies that the natural man can construe the meaning of the gospel because when he does, he calls it foolishness. The things of the Spirit are foolishness to the natural man not because he can't see their meaning but because he sees it and regards what he sees as a waste of time. The problem in verse 14 is not a lack of clear speech nor a lack of intellectual power to interpret. The problem is that when the word of the cross is clear and the intellect of the natural man has interpreted it adequately, he regards it as foolishness.

The last phrase in the verse confirms that this is the problem. The RSV says, "They are spiritually discerned." The word for "discern" here is the same one translated twice in verse 15 as "judge"—"the spiritual man judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one." It's a shame that the RSV and NIV and KJV did not use the same meaning for this word in verse 14 that they did in verse 15. The NASB is excellent here. It says, "He cannot understand [the things of the Spirit] because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no man." The word means to assess or appraise or make value judgments about something.

So when Paul says in verse 14 that the reason the natural man does not understand the things of the Spirit is that they are spiritually assessed or appraised or judged, it becomes clear that the basic problem is not an intellectual inability to construe the meaning of Paul's message; the problem is the moral inability to assign the right value to it. There is a big difference between saying that the things of the Spirit are gibberish and saying that they are foolish. "Foolish" is an assessment you make of something you have understood but regard as ridiculous. Gibberish is a description of sounds that are unintelligible. The problem with the natural man is not that he describes the gospel as gibberish but that he assesses it as foolishness. So what Paul means in verse 14 when he says that the natural man "is not able to understand" is that he is not able to understand the things of the Spirit as valuable. He can see their meaning, but he cannot see the meaning as precious. He can restate Paul's argument and comment about its implications; but then he simply rejects it out of hand as religious rubbish.

The Word of the Cross and the Pride of Man

What this text teaches, then, is that all of us by nature recoil from the truth of God; we recoil from the truth of the Bible and from the word of the cross. We hear the call of the gospel to submit to a crucified Christ and we defend ourselves against it by saying it is foolish. What the natural man means when he says the gospel is foolish is that he cherishes something which the gospel demands that he give up. We call advice foolish when it asks us a higher value for a lower one. If you advise me to jump off a bridge, I'll say that's foolish because I value my life. If you advise me not to spank my sons when they disobey me, I say (perhaps to myself) that's foolish because I value the wisdom of Proverbs and the good effects of loving discipline. And if you advise a natural man to follow Christ crucified, he will say that's foolish because he values the self-reliance and self-exaltation he would have to give up.

The main point of 1 Corinthians 1–4 is to show that God has accomplished our redemption in such a way that every prop of human pride is knocked out from under us. "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God . . . Let him who boasts boast in the Lord" (1 Corinthians 1:27–31; cf. 2:5; 3:7, 21; 4:6).

When the natural man hears that, he says that's foolish. Why? Not because he doesn't understand its meaning, but because he loves the praise of men. He loves the exhilaration of accomplishing great things in reliance on himself. He loves the autonomy of pulling his own strings. He loves the sense of esteem that he can get through the use of his intelligence or skill or talent or strength. The suggestion that all this should be left on the bridge while he jumps off into the arms of Christ is to him simply ridiculous. In our natural condition we cannot prefer Christ over self-glorying. The desire for credit is too great. Jesus said, "How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?" (John 5:44). Faith in Christ is foolishness to the natural man because the essence of the natural man is his love of self-determination and the sense of power and pride that come from it, while the essence of faith in Christ is to say, "God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of Christ."

How Can We Understand the Things of the Spirit?

What hope is there, then, that anyone will welcome the things of the Spirit? How can Christ crucified come to be valued as the power of God and the wisdom of God and the source of infinite joy? 1 Corinthians 2:14–15 says, "They are spiritually appraised. The spiritual man appraises all things, but is himself appraised by no one." The spiritual person is the opposite of the natural person. The spiritual person has the Spirit of God. Verse 12 says, "We have received . . . the Spirit which is from God that we might know the things given to us by God." When the Spirit of God is at work in your life, then you will appraise things the way God does. You will not regard the Word of God as folly but as the most precious word imaginable. The first and most fundamental work of God's Spirit in the life of the natural man is to shatter pride. The Spirit enables us to see on the one hand our desperate helplessness and on the other hand the all-sufficiency and beauty of Christ crucified. We begin to see and appraise things with the eyes of Christ.

This is what verses 15 and 16 are getting at. The Spirit enables us to appraise things with their true value, but when natural men appraise us, they will always go wrong. Why? Verse 16: Because apart from the Spirit no one thinks or appraises like the Lord, but we who possess the Spirit have the mind of Christ. We have begun to view and assess things the way Christ does. Therefore we do not reject but receive the things of the Spirit, even when they mean death to self; because now we know what is really valuable.

What the Work of the Spirit Is and Is Not

Now let's go back to where we began. The manual of operation for the Christian wartime mentality is the Bible. It contains the truth needed to win us over from the enemy to Christ, to deprogram our old thought patterns, to train us in strategies of righteousness, and to equip us with armor and weapons to defeat Satan and liberate his captives. But we have a natural aversion to this truth. Therefore, the work of the Holy Spirit is utterly indispensable as we make use of this manual. But now we can see more clearly what this work of the Spirit is and what it isn't.

The work of the Spirit is not to tell us what the manual of operation means. That we must determine by a disciplined study of the text. The Spirit inspired these writings and he does not short-circuit them by whispering in our ear what they mean. When we pray for his help, we do not pray that he will spare us the hard work of rigorous reading and reflection. What we pray is that he would make us humble enough to welcome the truth. The work of the Spirit in helping us grasp the meaning of Christ's manual of operation is not to make study unnecessary but to make us radically open to receive what our study turns up, instead of twisting the text to justify our unwillingness to accept it.

The lessons are plain for those who long to fight the fight of faith and be an integral part of the war effort. We must be diligent students of the Commander's manual. And we must soak all of our study in prayer that his Spirit would humble us to submit to every truth and commandment in it. The work of the Holy Spirit is to make us say from the heart as we take up the manual, "Far be it from me that I should glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world was crucified to me, and I to the world." If our pride has not been crucified by the Holy Spirit, the Bible will be a wax nose and we will call it foolish or mold it to fit our own natural desires. In either case, the word of the Commander will not be obeyed and the war effort will languish and the cause of the enemy will go unchecked.

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