THE GOSPEL WAY Articles | Videos | Invitations | Courses / Commentaries

Home > Topics

The Holy Spirit's Operation and the "Natural Man"

The Holy Spirit's Operation and the "Natural Man"1 Corinthians 2:14 says: "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." Does this mean one must receive a direct operation of the Holy Spirit to understand and obey the Bible?

Some Calvinists and others claim this passage means that no one can understand God's word until the Spirit operates directly on his heart to give him understanding. They then claim that God does this only for those who were unconditionally predestined to salvation before the world began, then the Spirit operates on their hearts in addition to the word to give them understanding and compelling them to obey. Such people are the "elect," so they must persevere and cannot be lost, etc. So, this doctrine is at the core of Calvinism.

Calvinism and the Bible

The Bible denies all these concepts of Calvinism. But here we are looking simply at the question of whether or not it is possible for an unconverted, alien sinner to understand the gospel and know what to do to please God and be saved without some direct operation of the Spirit on his heart. Clearly the passage here does not say all this. It simply says the "natural man" cannot know the things of the Spirit. 

Many other Scriptures show that men - including those who are unconverted - are capable of understanding the word of God so as to know what to do to be saved. See Mark 7:14; 2 Timothy 3:15-17; Acts 17:11; Ephesians 3:3-5; 5:17; 1 Corinthians 14:33; Isaiah 55:11; Psalm 119:104,105,130; 1 Timothy 2:4. Note that the last verse shows that God wants everyone to know His will (not just certain unconditionally predestined individuals).

Other passages show that God's "election" of men is not unconditional. Rather, the gospel of Jesus invites all men to salvation, and each person is capable of deciding for himself whether or not he will choose to meet the conditions of the gospel and be saved. See Mark 16:15,16; Luke 24:47; Titus 2:11; 1 Timothy 2:4,6; 2 Peter 3:9; Hebrews 2:9; John 3:16; Acts 10:34,35; Matthew 11:28; Luke 2:10; Genesis 2:16,17; 3:1-7; 1 Corinthians 10:13; Hebrews 4:15; 11:25; Joshua 24:15; 1 Kings 18:21; Psalm 119:30.

And still other passages also show that the Holy Spirit no longer speaks directly to men as was done with inspired men in the first century (1 Cor. 13:8-10). People today who want the truth must obtain it from the Scriptures, the sword of the Spirit (2 Tim. 3:16,17; Eph. 6:17). They can understand this message, if they study diligently with an honest heart like the Bereans in Acts 17:11.

For a detailed study of the points of Calvinism, please go to our Bible Instruction web site at /instruct/ and follow the link to our entire series of articles about Calvinism. 

The meaning of 1 Corinthians 2:14

What then is the point of 1 Cor. 2:14? Note first that the verse is no longer discussing the "we" (inspired men) of vv 10-13, but is now discussing a "he" - someone other than the inspired men. He is the "natural man."

The whole context is discussing people who trust in human wisdom, rather than in God's will revealed by the Spirit in the gospel. This is Paul's main criticism of the Corinthians in the context. His point throughout has been that mere human thoughts and powers, unguided by Divine revelation, cannot know the truth from God but will reject it (1:17-29; 2:1-5). In the immediate context he has shown that inspired men were guided by the Spirit, not by human wisdom (2:6-16). He expressly states that men, by human ability alone (apart from the message the Holy Spirit had revealed through inspired men), cannot know God's will (v11). Verse 14 is making this same point.

He continues into chap. 3 showing that the Corinthians were not being "spiritual" but "carnal" (i.e., "natural") because of their emphasis on human wisdom and ability (3:1-3). Note that these people were Christians, so the Spirit had been dwelling in them (3:16,17; 6:19,20). In fact, many of them actually were guided directly by the Spirit in that they had spiritual gifts (see chap. 12-14). Nevertheless, they were still not "spiritual" in the sense Paul is speaking in this context, but were "carnal," walking after the manner of men (3:2) - hence "natural" men. So the distinction between "natural" and "spiritual" in this context has nothing to do with whether or not one has personally been directly guided by the Holy Spirit or has received a direct operation of the Spirit, as Calvinism claims.

In this context, the "natural" man is the one who is unwilling to accept the Divine message that the Holy Spirit revealed in the gospel through inspired men, but instead continues to emphasize and trust in human ability, wisdom, and power. He persists in determining his beliefs by human reasoning and intelligence instead of by following the gospel. But the truth in religion can never be known this way, because man is not wise enough to figure it out. So such people do not accept the things revealed by the Spirit. They consider such things to be foolishness. This is what the Greeks were doing (1:18-23), and the Corinthians were being influenced by such thinking.

The "spiritual" man, however, is the one who is willing to be guided by the message of God revealed in the gospel through the Spirit. He acts with spiritual discernment. He evaluates issues on the basis of what is taught by the word of God, so he accepts the truth. But the natural man, as long as he continues to emphasize the "natural" approach, will never see things as does the spiritual man.

The message of the Spirit is now in the Scriptures, as shown above. One need not have a direct operation of the Spirit to understand the Scriptures, but he does need a willing heart, like the Bereans, to honestly consider the evidence. Such a man can understand and obey the gospel - in fact, he must do so without a direct operation of the Spirit, since the Spirit today works only through the word. If a person insists on determining truth by mere human wisdom, he will never know the truth. 

So the natural man is the person who persists in determining his beliefs by human wisdom and ability. The spiritual man is the one who determines his beliefs by a diligent and honest study of God's revealed word in the Scriptures. Nothing in this passage teaches that men need some kind of direct operation of the Spirit apart from the word in order to be saved..

For more information about Calvinism or about the Bible teaching about salvation, please visit our Bible Instruction web site at /instruct/ and study our free in-depth articles. 

(c) Copyright David E. Pratte, 7/11/2006

To study more articles like this (syndicated for reproduction) visit our Bible study topics web site. This article is freely available to be reproduced in print or on a web site under the following conditions: (1) The article must be reproduced verbatim in total without any change in content, (2) the name of the author and web site addresses must be included (as in this trailer), (3) the use must be entirely non-commercial with no fee or financial charge of any kind to the readers. Click here for more information about our copyright guidelines.  

For a complete list of Bible articles and study materials by the author please visit these web sites: and

Bible study topics: brief articles free online View our menu of brief Bible Study Topics and articles

Please bookmark our site in your favorites.


Subscribe to our free Bible study email lists. E-mail us at the Gospel Way Gospelway icon

We welcome links to us from other sites : - The Gospel Way: Free Bible Study Materials & Guides

See our Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) if you have questions about our site.

Scripture quotations are generally from the New King James Version (NKJV), copyright 1982, 1988 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. used by permission. All rights reserved.

Hit-meter: 51292007