Text: 1 Corinthians 2:10-16
But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God.
These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one. For “who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct Him?” But we have the mind of Christ.
This Friday I had the opportunity to go along with a family from our church to Orlando in order to meet a man named John Barros who conducts a pro-life sidewalk ministry outside of an abortion clinic. Mr. Barros has been there every day for over five years. He preaches and pleads with the mothers to spare the lives of their children. And he’s had remarkable success. One news article stated that he saved 1,000 lives in the past three years. But as we also learned, that’s only a very small number compared to all of those women who don’t listen. Tragically the overwhelming majority of women who walk past, as many as thirty a day, hear the words of God, understand the ramifications of their decision, and yet choose to take the life of their child anyway.
Some of the folks who were there to support Mr. Barros asked him how this could be. How could people hear the truth and yet make such an evil decision? Was there something else we could do? He, quite correctly, said no. Once the heart has determined to sin, there is no strategy which can overcome it. There are no “better arguments” which will work. There is no charismatic personality which will defeat sin. Only the Lord, working through His Spirit, can change hard hearts. All we can do is be faithful with His commission and place our trust in Him.
Thinking about this, it occurred to me that the “extreme” scenario of an abortion clinic isn’t really all that different from the rest of life. It is certainly a very tense and high-stakes part of life, and what might normally be low-key and inconspicuous is thrown into high relief. But the basic truth is the same. The sinful heart resists God’s truth in “normal” times as well. This is a direct effect of the Fall. As the Apostle puts it in our text from 1 Corinthians this morning, “the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). This is a doctrine which is sometimes called “total depravity,” and while it certainly challenges and even offends us, it is one of the plainest truths in all of the Scriptures and the most basic reason for our spiritual helplessness. In order to know the things of God, we must have our eyes opened by the working of the Holy Spirit. And this cannot be done by any power of man. It can only be by the grace of God.
The Spirit is the Only Way to Know God
To understand this teaching, Paul first states that the only way that anyone can ever know God in the first place is through His Spirit.
But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God. (1 Cor. 2:10-12)
Paul makes his point in this section by using an interesting parallel. “For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God.” The “spirit of the man which is in him” is like the “Spirit of God.” That’s a striking statement. What does it mean?
While you might be tempted to think about the relationship between the spirit of the man and the body of man (and if you did that, then you might find yourself getting into a bit of heresy), that’s not really the right direction. Paul’s appeal to the spirit of the man is in direct reference to the man’s self-knowledge. We only know ourselves when we truly examine our hearts, the deepest parts of ourselves which possess our thoughts, desires, loves, and allegiances. And this “spirit” or “heart” is not accessible to other people. We might choose to share some of these thoughts and feelings, but even then, they cannot really “know” them in the way that we do. The same thing is true of God. The truest and deepest knowledge of Him is only available in His Spirit. His Spirit communicates what we might call (imprecisely) His heart, mind, and soul. And astoundingly, God gives us this Spirit. In the act of converting men and drawing them to Himself, God gives them His own Spirit. And this is how we can know Him.
The Natural Man Cannot Know God
This leads immediately to Paul’s second point. The natural man “cannot” know the things of God. This is very strong language, and Paul means every word of it. He doesn’t say that the natural man could know God but fails to because of lack of effort. It isn’t a possibility. Maybe the natural man will know God, if… No! Paul says that the natural man cannot know God. (1 Cor. 2:14)
The definition of “natural” is a little tricky. The Greek doesn’t actually use that same term here. It uses the term psuchikos, a term which would otherwise mean “of the mind” or “of the soul.” It refers rather simply to “being alive,” but it can also suggest something similar to what we mean when we talk about psychology. It’s the state of the mind, as it is. Paul contrasts this “soulish” or “mindish” life with the “spiritual” life, and what he’s doing is showing the difference between unbelieving humans, who are alive and have use of their mental capabilities, and believing humans who have those same capabilities but have been transformed by God’s Holy Spirit. And so the translators use the expressions “natural” and “spiritual” to illustrate this. The difference is between mere human life and the new spiritual life that God gives to believers. The natural man is the man who has not been converted and has not been endowed with God’s Spirit.
At this point we need to make one important qualification. When we talk about the natural man “not knowing God,” we are talking about knowledge unto salvation. We do not mean that the natural is ignorant of God’s existence. Quite the contrary, the natural man knows that God exists, and he also knows that he should be worshipping this God. Listen to what Paul says about this in Romans:
[Men] suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Romans 1:18-21)
Notice that he says men “suppress the truth.” The verb there is an active verb and it refers to actively holding down. Man knows God’s “invisible attributes… even His eternal power and Godhead,” and so this leaves man without excuse. This is true of us all because we are all created by God and we all bear God’s image. We constantly reflect God’s existence, and we know that He is God. Because of this we feel His displeasure. We know that we have sinned, and like Adam in the Garden, we try to hide from God (Gen. 3:8). Not only do we know God, but we know that we are His enemies. “Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be” (Rom. 8:7).
We should make no mistakes about it. All men know God. They know Him as their creator, they know Him as their judge, and they know Him as their enemy.
Yes the natural man knows God in many ways. But He does not and cannot know God as his savior, his father, or his friend. That knowledge is closed to him. Indeed, even when others try to tell him about that knowledge, he rejects it. And he rejects because he is still carnal. He is still natural. He has not yet been given the Spirit of God.
This is why something radical must happen to change the natural man. He cannot simply “accept” the things of God because he has hardened himself against them for years. Every good gift from God, the natural man sees as an affliction. He subverts and perverts the truth, turning it into a lie. This is why no one is ever argued into the kingdom of Christ. No one comes to salvation because of an effective marketing strategy. No one will choose to come to Christ without God first taking action to change their heart.
The Spirit Reveals God to Believers
This all leaves us with quite the dilemma. We must know God in order to be saved, and yet we cannot know God because we do not wish to know God. This suppression goes to the core of our being as fallen sinners, and so it would seem that we are trapped. And we are trapped if it depends upon us. We are trapped unless God does something on His end.
Brothers and sisters, this is precisely where the gospel comes in. God did choose to do something on His end. God crossed the gap. God came to us, and He revealed Himself to us. More than that, He transformed us so that we would and could receive Him. He did this in Christ and in the working of His Holy Spirit. John’s gospel explains this point precisely:
He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:10-13)
Notice that “as many as received Him” were “those who believe in His name.” Notice also that the text explains how this was possible, “who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” This ought to make you think of John 3 as well, where Nicodemus asks “How can these things be?” The answer is the new birth, the working of the Holy Spirit in uniting us to Christ so that we can be made new people. Paul also makes this point in many places, but hear what he says in Ephesians:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Eph. 2:8-10)
This is how we know God—through His Spirit. This is how we have wisdom—through His Spirit. “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God” (1 Cor. 2:12). This is why our wisdom is different from the world’s, and this is why the world does not see our wisdom as wise. It is also why we do not judge our wisdom by the standard of the world. We must teach spiritual things, and we must do so spiritually.
This is also what Paul means when he says that the spiritual man is “judged by no one.” He certainly doesn’t mean that the spiritual man is not morally accountable to others. That interpretation would contradict the rest of the book! It means that the spiritual man’s “spiritual knowledge” is not judged by the world. The world cannot judge it because the world cannot even know it. “For ‘who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct Him?’” (1 Cor. 2:16).
That hypothetical question is interesting though. “Who has known the mind of the LORD?” The implication is “no one.” And yet Paul doesn’t say that. No, he goes on to say, “But we have the mind of Christ” (vs. 16). We know the mind of the LORD precisely by having the mind of Christ, and this is given to us by the Holy Spirit through faith. This is how we are spiritually wise. This is what makes us mature. This is how we are wiser than the world. We have the mind of Christ.
This message is both discouraging and encouraging. It is discouraging precisely to the natural man because it says that our situation is indeed hopeless. No act of the flesh can save us, and no act of the flesh can bring us into the saving knowledge of God. This means that there is no works righteousness. There is no self salvation. It means that no flesh can glory in God’s sight (1 Cor. 1:29).
But this is encouraging because it assures us that we cannot save ourselves and that we do not save ourselves. Instead, God does. What is impossible with us, He makes happen, and He sends His Spirit to enlighten our minds so that we can receive the things of Him. God begins to grant us knowledge, and in doing so, He gives us new minds that not only grow in knowing Him but also in truly knowing ourselves. He makes us new people who are whole people. He makes us His people. And in this knowledge, we are saved.
Let us pray.