Does 1 Corinthians 2 Support Calvinism?

July 15, 2015

Leighton Flowers | Professor of Theology
Dallas, TX

**This article was previously posted by Leighton Flowers on his website www.soteriology101.com and is used by permission.  Leighton is: teaching pastor in his local church, an adjunct Professor of Theology, and the Youth Evangelism Director for Texas Baptists.

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I wholeheartedly agree with this statement of the notable Calvinistic author, John Piper:

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). (from the sermon titled: “How the Spirit Helps Us Understand”)

However, I disagree with Piper’s further assertion regarding the insufficiency of the inspired word of God to provide the help needed for the lost to respond willingly to its appeals and instructions. Piper goes on explain the dilemma very eloquently from the Calvinistic perspective:

“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?”

Are you following the problem as the Calvinist sees it? The Christian manual cannot be understood and accepted by the lost, but the Koran and the other lies of false religions can. False teachings are believable to the natural man but the truth of scripture is not. Why not?

According to the Calvinistic system of interpretation, all of humanity is born in such a condition (by God’s unchangeable eternal decree) where by they can read all the books offered up by the false religions of the world and accept them as truth, put their trust in their lies, and even affirm them as being divinely authored. But, mankind is born incapable of accepting or affirming the claims of Christianity unless causally determined to do so by irresistible spiritual means. And this is how God decreed it to be. As Piper puts it, “…what the natural man can’t understand is the heart of the Christian message.”

So, in Calvinism, if you are one of God’s “elect” then you will be effectually or irresistibly given a new nature at some point in your life where by you will be granted the ability and willingness to accept the claims of Christianity and place your trust in Christ (something you will be irresistibly compelled to desire as in accordance with your new nature). If you are not one of the “elect” you will remain in a condition of inability from the time you are born to the time you die so that you can not ever willingly accept the inspired and glorious truths of Christianity. The “non-elect” (reprobate) are rejected by God from before creation and have absolutely no opportunity or ability to willingly accept the truths of God’s inspired and gracious revelation. These “non-elect reprobates” will spend eternity suffering in eternal torment for reasons they had absolutely no control over and this is all decreed by God so as to bring Himself the most amount of glory.

The question for consideration is this: “Does the apostle Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians chapter 2 support this Calvinistic premise?”

Piper verbalized the problem well when he asked, What good is a manual of operation that can’t be understood by ordinary people?” This is a very good question indeed, especially given the many passages of scripture that speak directly to the power and sufficiency of God’s inspired word (Jn. 20:31, Heb. 4:12, Rm. 10:17, 2 Tim. 3:16, Rm. 1:16, Acts 20:32, 1 Pet. 1:23, Is. 55:11, Ps. 19:7-8, Heb. 1:1, Jn. 6:63).

Even if we concede the debate over the nature of man and affirm with our Calvinistic brethren that all are born completely unable to willingly come to Christ on their own, does this concession end the debate over Total Inability? No.

The question is whether or not the nature of the GOSPEL, God’s inspired Word, is sufficient to enable a fallen man to respond to its appeal. Focusing only on the nature of man ignores this question. Is the WORD of God, that which brought everything into existence, sufficiently powerful to accomplish the purpose for which it was sent?

I think we all would agree that God’s word is sufficient to accomplish its purpose, but the question is, “What is that purpose?”

Why did God have these inspired truths recorded for us and spread throughout the world? Why did He inspire the writing of this “manual of operation?” Let’s allow the inspired apostle John to answer that question for us:

“These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31)

The purpose for the “written” manual of operation is so “that you may believe.” So, do you believe that God’s purpose in having these inspired truths written have returned to Him void? I do not.

Though I disagree with his answer, Piper continues to frame the problem by asking another very good question:

“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?”

The Calvinistic response to this question was already presented above. In short, the nature of the gospel, according to the Calvinist, is not sufficient to enable a lost man to respond willingly to its appeals or instructions. Therefore, according to the Calvinistic interpretation, God has to irresistibly change the nature of man so as to give the gospel sufficiency. In other words, God has to “reconcile” [fix] the nature of the fallen man in order to enable the fallen man to even respond willingly to the appeal of God to be reconciled from that fallen condition. This most certainly is putting the proverbial cart before the horse.

What was Paul’s intention in 1 Cor. 2? Have Calvinists simply misunderstood the point of the passage? Let’s take a closer look.

It is absolutely impossible to rightly interpret Paul’s intention of 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16 without first having a firm grasp on the concept of “wisdom” in the Greek culture. Paul uses a form of the word “wisdom” twenty six times in just the first three chapters. Needless to say, the apostle’s theme is overwhelming.

The mistake of many Calvinists is to presume this passage is a contrast between the abilities of the “regenerate” and the “unregenerate,” or the “natural man” versus the “spiritual man.” In actuality, the contrast is between “human wisdom” and “divine revelation.”[1]

The Calvinist begins on the wrong footing when he reads the phrase, “the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” and assumes that man’s “unregenerate” nature determined his assessment in such a way that he could not have deemed it otherwise. God does not determine the man to deem His own word as foolish. That is the free choice of those depending on “human wisdom” versus those depending on the spiritually wrought truth of “divine revelation.”

Besides Calvinism beginning with an unfounded assumption, their interpretation places the culpability back onto their Maker. Consider the claims of Calvinism; God decreed for fallen man to be born incapable of assessing His own word as anything other than “foolish” and then are made to “perish” as a result. This is NOT the intention of Paul in this or any passage. His intention is to say that those who rely on human wisdom instead of the spiritual truths brought by the inspired apostles will see the cross as foolish and perish as a result.

Paul’s overarching concern in this passage is to make a case for true wisdom as held in contrast with the “wisdom of the wise” (1:19), the “wisdom of this world,” (1:20; 3:19), or the carnal “wisdom of men” (2:5). The Greeks boasted in their wisdom and Paul is providing them a spiritually inspired warning by teaching them what true divine wisdom looks like. That wisdom is contained in the gospel revelation (1:24, 30; 2:7). And there is nothing about that revelation that is insufficient in enabling a willing response (Rm. 1:16). Those who ignore the apostle’s warning are not to be thought of as victims of God’s unchangeable decree, as we must conclude if the claims of Calvinism are true. No, anyone who chooses to trade the clearly revealed truth in for lies stands as a fool “without excuse” (Rom. 1:20; Ps. 14:1)

Once a clear distinction is drawn between the wisdom of the world and heaven’s wisdom, Paul moves on to speak of “the deep things of God” (vs. 10). Just as you cannot know what is in my mind unless I reveal it, so too, no one can access the “deep things of God” unless these mysteries are made known by His Spirit. What does the scripture tell us is the means employed to help us understand the depth of God’s spiritual mysteries?

Paul expounds in Ephesians 3:1-10:

For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles— if indeed you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace which was given to me for you;that by revelation there was made known to me the mystery, as I wrote before in brief.By referring to this, when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christwhich in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spiritto be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel, of which I was made a minister, according to the gift of God’s grace which was given to me according to the working of His power. To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things10 so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places. 

Clearly, the means by which God assists mankind to understand the deep mysteries of spiritual truth is by inspiration of chosen messengers. As Paul writes in 1 Cor. 2:13, “…we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words.”

The Holy Spirit revealed mysteries to “His holy apostles and prophets” and in turn they write down “insight into the mystery of Christ” and “preach to the nations” so that the “wisdom of God might now be made known.” There is absolutely nothing in all of scripture that even remotely suggests that humanity is unable to willingly respond to this gracious Holy Spirit wrought truth of divine revelation! The Koran and the book of Mormon are NOT more believable than the Bible, God’s holy word!

Now, lets focus on the key passage of this debate: First Corinthians 2:14 reads as follows:

The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. 

Simply put, this can be taken in one of two ways:

Calvinistic Meaning: “The reprobate, who has not be irresistibly regenerated by the Spirit, cannot accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for God has unchangeably decreed that revealed truth (apostles teaching, scripture) will only be seen as foolish to him.” (God is ultimately responsible for man’s unbelief)

Non-Calvinistic Meaning: “The man who freely chooses not to accept the things that come from the Spirit of God (apostles teaching, scripture, etc), but freely deem them as foolish, cannot understand spiritual truth, because those are the means of spiritual revelation.” (Man is responsible for his own unbelief)

The understanding of 1 Cor. 2:14 becomes very simple when we answer the first question posed by this verse, “Why won’t the natural man accept the things that come from the Spirit of God?”

  • Because God so determined it

or

  • Because the man freely chose the wisdom of the world over the wisdom being revealed by spiritually wrought means (apostles, scriptures, etc)?

We believe Paul is saying that the “natural man” is one who will not accept the wisdom from the Spirit of God, because he himself considers these things to be foolish by HIS OWN FREE CHOICE, NOT GOD’S DETERMINATION. Therefore, he is incapable of ever understanding spiritual things unless and until he turns from human wisdom and accepts the wisdom being revealed by the spirit through His chosen means (apostles, scriptures, etc).

How can any man really understand something he has already deemed foolish in his heart? He cannot. Those who rely upon the wisdom of this age over and above the clear revelation of the Spirit cannot begin to understand the deep truths of God. This message seems to be the clear intention of the apostle.

The following verses support this line of reasoning as Paul goes on to confront the carnal brethren in Corinth as likewise being unable to receive these same “deep things of God” due to their carnality (3:1-3). The clear implication is that these believer’s choices to live carnally, just like the unbelievers choices to deem God’s word as foolish, is the root cause of their inability to accept and understand spiritual truth (the apostle’s teaching). The believer’s carnality, like the unbeliever’s rejection of God’s word, is a result of their own choosing, not of God’s determination. It is the responsibility of the believer to turn from carnality so as to receive spiritual meat of God’s word, just as it is the unbeliever’s responsibility to turn from fleshy wisdom when confronted by the Holy Spirit wrought truth of the gospel, “the power of God unto salvation” (Rm. 1:16).

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[1] https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/643-who-is-the-natural-man-in-1-corinthians-2-14

*When the term “freely” is used we mean: Contra-causal free will, which is the ability of a morally accountable agent to refrain or not refrain from any given moral action.