When the varying schools of theology discuss the element of the human condition as it relates to spiritual apprehension and specifically understanding the gospel, many issues emerge in the examination and debate. One such issue that arises is the depravity of man and its implications. And subsequent to that you will find popularly (and rightly) introduced in this consideration is a passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:
1 Corinthians 2:14 (ESV)
14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.
Those that refer to this passage normally do so from a position that is reflected in ARC (Augustinian/Reformed/Calvinist) doctrine which holds to a view that man’s depravity results in his inability to understand spiritual matters apart from God’s Spirit. And they are right! In fact this view is what one would consider non-proprietary or almost universal within theology. That is, many schools hold to this position which may hold to very opposing views on related matters.
However, it is not the matter of what is true in this passage that is problematic, rather how it is applied specifically when it comes to the point of regeneration. You see most ARC proponents further their use of this passage with regard to regeneration. For them because a person is born spiritually dead they need to be aided by God’s Spirit, seeing they are dead or incapacitated spiritually, in order to be able to comprehend spiritual phenomenon, namely the gospel. Again they are right and so far so good. But then classic ARC rationalism sets in and they extend this beyond its context and rationalize that “if a person is unable to understand the gospel due to their being spiritually dead and in order for one to understand the gospel they must be spiritual capacitive, then clearly they are regenerated before they can believe the gospel”.
What is missing? For one, the surrounding text is absent in their consideration of the isolated text. Let’s take a look at what precedes this passage and see if we can discover a more contextual understanding of what Paul is saying:
1 Corinthians 2:1-13 (ESV)
And I, when I came to you, brothers did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom…but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God…these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God…So also no one comprehends the thoughts 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 understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.
The point Paul was making in this passage really has nothing to do with either the necessity or timing of regeneration, rather that it is not by human genius or persuasion (or any other human mechanism) that one comes to understand that which is truly spiritual but only by the power of God’s Spirit which enlightens does this occur. In fact John 16:7-9 gives a clear description of the enlightening work of God’s Spirit:
7Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. 8 And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: 9concerning sin, because they do not believe in me;
And John MacArthur ably comments on this passage:
John 15:26 says that the Holy Spirit would testify to the world about Christ. But now we see another aspect of the Spirit's ministry: bringing conviction of sin. He reveals man's sin and that compels man to seek God's mercy through the work of Christ on the cross. Therefore, we know that no man will come to Christ until he recognizes his sinfulness.
The Holy Spirit condemns men and He convinces them that they need Jesus Christ. The convincing ministry of the Holy Spirit precedes the condemning ministry--if we do not respond to convincing we will be condemned.
We are convinced by the Holy Spirit when we have a subjective realization of guilt. But why does the Holy Spirit want us to grasp the full realization of our sinfulness? Because an awareness of our sinfulness bring us to an understanding of our need for a Savior.
As Paul wrote, “the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” and this remains true today Without the presence of God’s Spirit to illuminate the mind of the unbeliever he remains in his natural state, unable to understand what he must believe to be saved. But supernaturally God’s Spirit intervenes and enlightens the mind of those who are unregenerate that they may understand and believe the gospel.