The “Natural Man” of 1 Corinthians 2:14

By Robert F. Turner

In John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (Bk. 2, Par. 20), we read, “It thus appears that none can enter the kingdom of God save those whose minds have been renewed by the enlightening of the Holy Spirit.” He cites 1 Corinthians 2:14, “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, for they are spiritually discerned. ” He defines “natural man” as one who trusts to the light of nature; and says, as respects understanding spiritual mysteries, “though he exert himself, it is of no avail: they are . . . hidden from human discernment . . . made known only by the revelation of the Spirit. ” A few sentences later: “The mind of men have not capacity enough to know their calling.” He calls us “prating Pelagians” who say God, by the teaching of his word, directs man to truths he could not otherwise have known.

1 Corinthians 2:11 makes it clear that things of God must be revealed by God – man cannot take them by his own wisdom. But the context here says God has revealed his truths to chosen witnesses, who make his truths known by inspired teaching. Calvin is saying each hearer or reader must have some indwelling, enabling power in order to understand the message of the inspired speaker or writer. Calvin’s “natural man” is the unregenerate – any one who has not been miraculously changed by a direct operation of the Holy Spirit. With such a view there is no point in preaching the gospel message to alien sinners. One must wait until God has miraculously saved them before they can understand it.

This is consistent with Calvin’s TULIP: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Preservation of the elect. But it runs counter to free will and a gospel message that is seed of the kingdom, sown in honest and good hearts and producing fruit in those who hear, believe and obey (Lk. 8:1 If). The natural man of I Corinthians 2 is one who rejects the miraculously confirmed message of the inspired apostles and prophets in favor of his own human wisdom. This is a far cry from saying the Bible cannot be understood except by one who has some personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Paul had said, “My speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom (appealing to the “natural man,” rt) but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (2:4-5). The self-crucifying message of the cross (1:18f) calls for faith in a power higher than man; for humble people who welcome the confirmed words of God even though they reveal matters that could never have been known by human wisdom alone. “We speak the wisdom of God in a mystery. . . ” (v. 6); and the “we” and “us” right on through the chapter refer to those who spoke (or wrote) by inspiration. Paul is not saying no alien sinner can understand his message. He is saying they must trust the confirmed word rather than their own wisdom.

Consider Ephesians 3:1-5, where Paul says he (and other apostles and prophets) received information by revelation, but he “wrote” so that “when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ” (vv. 3-4). Calvin is dead right in saying man cannot know the things of God apart from the revelation of God by His Spirit. He is dead wrong in assuming the recipients of the message by the Spirit were incapable of passing it on to “every creature” in all the world. Man is taught by the Holy Spirit when he receives their message.

Despite these truths, I see things in “our” bulletins that disturb me. After setting forth a truth concerning material possessions, “. . . natural man cannot comprehend such things, God gave us his Spirit to enable us to discern them ” (1 Cor. 2:11). Again, “How does each new babe grow? He must study (2 Tim. 2:15), but God must give him discerning power” (1 Cor. 2:14). And, “God give us the wisdom to understand his commands (Jas. 1:5) (check that passage – rft), and the power to accomplish each and everything he commands (Eph. 1:19) (check that one too, in its context – rft). 2 Timothy 3:17 does not limit that which God had “throughly furnished” to the written word. ” Would you call the writer of these statements, and more like them, a Calvinist?

Sometimes we are hasty to label – especially to apply a general system label to someone who may only be in error on a point or two – and it is my hope that error is limited in this case. However, such statements as these spring from a misconception of Spirit operation today, and can only encourage further error. It seems apparent that the writer believes in the “personal indwelling” of the Holy Spirit. But most of our brethren who so believe are hard put to say what the Spirit, apart from the word, does for us. Not the writer of these statements. He indicates the indwelling Spirit (1) gives us the ability to understand the word; (2) leads us apart from the word; (3) “enables” us to walk in the light; and various other things.

It seems once a person accepts the concept of miraculous indwelling, he sees that in every passage on the Holy Spirit and his effect upon us. Those who differ with him are “not spiritual” or have never been “born again.” I remember a man telling me I could not understand the plan of salvation because I did not “have the Spirit.” I asked where he got such an idea, and he cited 1 Corinthians 2:14, saying, “Read it, just read it!” Of course I replied, “Why should I read it? According to you, I cannot understand it.” I tried to help him read it in its context, but apparently he could not understand that.

Man’s “flesh” is not, of itself, sinful; but one who puts appetites of the flesh above the service of God is “fleshly” in a sinful sense. And the God who gave us “flesh” also gave this “natural” man the capacity to examine, reason, and draw conclusions. “Human reasoning” is not, of itself, bad. It is, in fact, one of the characteristics that sets man above the beast. We must use this capacity in reading and studying God’s word – a message compatible with the man to whom it is given. We read first, then believe (Jn. 20:31; Rom. 10:17), not the other way around. The unsaved man can understand the word, and “come” of his own free will in obedient faith. But if he refuses to accept God’s word because it does not conform to conclusions of his own experience and learning, apart from the revealed message, he is a “natural man” in the sinful sense of the word (1 Cor. 1:21).

Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 16, pp. 485-486
August 20, 1992