Discern Spiritual

Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.
~ Isaiah 6:5

Then answered Amos, and said to Amaziah, I was no prophet, neither was I a prophet’s son; but I was an herdman, and a gatherer of sycomore fruit: And the LORD took me as I followed the flock, and the LORD said unto me, Go, prophesy unto my people Israel.
~ Amos 7:14-15

Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.
~ Psalm 8:2

The meek also shall increase their joy in the LORD, and the poor among men shall rejoice in the Holy One of Israel.
~ Isaiah 29:19

At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes.
~ Matthew 11:25

For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called:
~ 1 Corinthians 1:26

How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words, Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ) Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit;
~ Ephesians 4:3-5

But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.
~ Hebrews 5:14

But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man.
~ 1 Corinthians 2:14-15

How Are Spiritual Things Discerned?, by John Owen. The following contains an excerpt from Chapter Three of his work, “The Work of the Holy Spirit in Regeneration”.

Of the assertion thus laid down and explained the apostle gives a double reason: the first taken from the nature of the things to be known, with respect unto the mind and understanding of a natural man; the other from the way or manner whereby alone spiritual things may be acceptably discerned:—

(1.) The first reason, taken from the nature of the things themselves, with respect unto the mind, is, that “they are foolishness.” In themselves they are the “wisdom of God,” 1 Cor. 2:7;—effects of the wisdom of God, and those which have the impress of the wisdom of God upon them. And when the dispensation of them was said to be “foolishness,” the apostle contends not about it, but tells them, however, it is the “foolishness of God,” chap. 1:25; which he doth to cast contempt on all the wisdom of men, whereby the gospel is despised. And they are the “hidden wisdom” of God; such an effect of divine wisdom as no creature could make any discovery of, Eph. 3:9, 10; Job 28:20–22. And they are the “wisdom of God in a mystery,” or full of deep, mysterious wisdom. But to the natural man they are “foolishness,” not only although they are the wisdom of God, but peculiarly because they are so, and as they are so; for “the carnal mind is enmity against God.” Now, that is esteemed foolishness which is looked on either as weak and impertinent, or as that which contains or expresseth means and ends disproportionate, or as that which is undesirable in comparison of what may be set up in competition with it, or is on any other consideration not eligible or to be complied with on the terms whereon it is proposed. And for one or other or all of these reasons are spiritual things,—namely, those here intended, wherein the wisdom of God in the mystery of the gospel doth consist,—foolishness unto a natural man; which we shall demonstrate by some instances:—

(1.) That they were so unto the learned philosophers of old, both our apostle doth testify and the known experience of the first ages of the church makes evident, 1 Cor. 1:22, 23, 26–28. Had spiritual things been suited unto the minds or reasons of natural men, it could not be but that those who had most improved their minds, and were raised unto the highest exercise of their reasons, must much more readily have received and embraced the mysteries of the gospel than those who were poor, illiterate, and came many degrees behind them in the exercise and improvement thereof. So we see it is as to the reception of any thing in nature or morality which, being of any worth, is proposed unto the minds of men; it is embraced soonest by them that are wisest and know most. But here things fell out quite otherwise. They were the wise, the knowing, the rational, the learned men of the world, that made the greatest and longest opposition unto spiritual things, and that expressly and avowedly because they were “foolishness unto them,” and that on all the accounts before mentioned; and their opposition unto them they managed with pride, scorn, and contempt, as they thought “foolish things” ought to be handled.

The profound ignorance and confidence whence it is that some of late are not ashamed to preach and print that it was the learned, rational, wise part of mankind, as they were esteemed or professed of themselves, the philosophers, and such as under their conduct pretended unto a life according to the dictates of reason, who first embraced the gospel, as being more disposed unto its reception than others, cannot be sufficiently admired or despised. Had they once considered what is spoken unto this purpose in the New Testament, or known any thing of the entrance, growth, or progress of Christian religion in the world, they would themselves be ashamed of this folly. But every day in this matter, “prodeunt oratores novi, stulti adolescentuli,” who talk confidently, whilst they know neither what they say nor whereof they do affirm.

(2.) The principal mysteries of the gospel, or the spiritual things intended, are by many looked on and rejected as foolish, because false and untrue; though, indeed, they have no reason to think them false, but because they suppose them foolish. And they fix upon charging them with falsity to countenance themselves in judging them to be folly. Whatever concerns the incarnation of the Son of God, the satisfaction that he made for sin and sinners, the imputation of his righteousness unto them that believe, the effectual working of his grace in the conversion of the souls of men,—which, with what belongs unto them, comprise the greatest part of the spiritual things of the gospel,—are not received by many because they are false, as they judge; and that which induceth them so to determine is, because they look on them as foolish, and unsuited unto the rational principles of their minds.

(3.) Many plainly scoff at them, and despise them as the most contemptible notions that mankind can exercise their reasons about. Such were of old prophesied concerning, 2 Pet. 3:3, 4; and things at this day are come to that pass. The world swarms with scoffers at spiritual things, as those which are unfit for rational, noble, generous spirits to come under a sense or power of, because they are so foolish. But these things were we foretold of, that when they came to pass we should not be troubled or shaken in our minds; yea, the atheism of some is made a means to confirm the faith of others!

(4.) It is not much otherwise with some, who yet dare not engage into an open opposition to the gospel with them before mentioned; for they profess the faith of it, and avow a subjection to the rules and laws of it. But the things declared in the gospel may be reduced unto two heads, as was before observed:—1st. Such as consist in the confirmation, direction, and improvement of the moral principles and precepts of the law of nature. 2dly. Such as flow immediately from the sovereign will and wisdom of God, being no way communicated unto us but by supernatural revelation only. Such are all the effects of the wisdom and grace of God, as he was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself; the offices of Christ, his administration of them, and dispensation of the Spirit; with the especial, evangelical, supernatural graces and duties which are required in us with respect thereunto. The first sort of these things many will greatly praise and highly extol; and they will declare how consonant they are to reason, and what expressions suitable unto them may be found in the ancient philosophers. But it is evident that herein also they fall under a double inconvenience: for,—1st. Mostly, they visibly transgress what they boast of as their rule, and that above others; for where shall we meet with any, at least with many, of this sort of men, who in any measure comply with that modesty, humility, meekness, patience, self-denial, abstinence, temperance, contempt of the world, love of mankind, charity, and purity, which the gospel requires under this head of duties? Pride, ambition, insatiable desires after earthly advantages and promotions, scoffing, scorn and contempt of others, vanity of converse, envy, wrath, revenge, railing, are none of the moral duties required in the gospel. And,—2dly. No pretence of an esteem for any one part of the gospel will shelter men from the punishment due to the rejection of the whole by whom any essential part of it is refused. And this is the condition of many. The things which most properly belong to the mysteries of the gospel, or the unsearchable riches of the grace of God in Christ Jesus, are foolishness unto them; and the preaching of them is called “canting and folly.” And some of these, although they go not so far as the friar at Rome, who said that “St Paul fell into great excesses in these things,” yet they have dared to accuse his writings of darkness and obscurity; for no other reason, so far as I can understand, but because he insists on the declaration of these spiritual mysteries: and it is not easy to express what contempt and reproach is cast by some preachers on them. But it is not amiss that some have proclaimed their own shame herein, and have left it on record, to the abhorrency of posterity.

(5.) The event of the dispensation of the gospel manifesteth that the spiritual things of it are foolishness to the most; for as such are they rejected by them, Isa. 53:1–3. Suppose a man of good reputation for wisdom and sobriety should go unto others, and inform them, and that with earnestness, evidence of love to them, and care for them, with all kinds of motives to beget a belief of what he proposeth, that by such ways as he prescribeth they may exceedingly increase their substance in this world, until they exceed the wealth of kings,—a thing that the minds of men in their contrivances and designs are intent upon;—if in this case they follow not his advice, it can be for no other reason but because they judge the things proposed by him to be no way suited or expedient unto the ends promised,—that is, to be foolish things. And this is the state of things with respect unto the mysteries of the gospel. Men are informed, in and by the ways of God’s appointment, how great and glorious they are, and what blessed consequents there will be of a spiritual reception of them. The beauty and excellency of Christ, the inestimable privilege of divine adoption, the great and precious promises made unto them that do believe, the glory of the world to come, the necessity and excellency of holiness and gospel obedience unto the attaining of everlasting blessedness, are preached unto men, and pressed on them with arguments and motives filled with divine authority and wisdom; yet after all this, we see how few eventually do apply themselves with any industry to receive them, or at least actually do receive them: for “many are called, but few are chosen.” And the reason is, because, indeed, unto their darkened minds these things are foolishness, whatsoever they pretend unto the contrary.

(2.) As the instance foregoing compriseth the reasons why a natural man will never receive the things of the Spirit of God, so the apostle adds a reason why he cannot; and that is taken from the manner whereby alone they may be usefully and savingly received, which he cannot attain unto, “Because they are spiritually discerned.” In this whole chapter he insists on an opposition between a natural and a spiritual man, natural things and spiritual things, natural light and knowledge and spiritual. The natural man, he informs us, will, by a natural light, discern natural things: “The things of a man knoweth the spirit of a man.” And the spiritual man, by a spiritual light received from Jesus Christ, discerneth spiritual things; for “none knoweth the things of God, but the Spirit of God, and he to whom he will reveal them.” This ability the apostle denies unto a natural man; and this he proves,—(1.) Because it is the work of the Spirit of God to endow the minds of men with that ability, which there were no need of in case men had it of themselves by nature; and, (2.) (as he shows plentifully elsewhere), The light itself whereby alone spiritual things can be spiritually discerned is wrought, effected, created in us, by an almighty act of the power of God, 2 Cor. 4:6.

From these things premised, it is evident that there is a twofold impotency in the minds of men with respect unto spiritual things:— (1.) That which immediately affects the mind, a natural impotency, whence it cannot receive them for want of light in itself. (2.) That which affects the mind by the will and affections, a moral impotency, whereby it cannot receive the things of the Spirit of God, because unalterably it will not; and that because, from the unsuitableness of the objects unto its will and affections, and to the mind by them, they are foolishness unto it.

(1.) There is in unregenerate men a natural impotency, through the immediate depravation of the faculties of the mind or understanding, whereby a natural man is absolutely unable, without an especial renovation by the Holy Ghost, to discern spiritual things in a saving manner. Neither is this impotency, although absolutely and naturally insuperable, and although it have in it also the nature of a punishment, any excuse or alleviation of the sin of men when they receive not spiritual things as proposed unto them; for although it be our misery, it is our sin;—it is the misery of our persons, and the sin of our natures. As by it there is an unconformity in our minds to the mind of God, it is our sin; as it is a consequent of the corruption of our nature by the fall, it is an effect of sin; and as it exposeth us unto all the ensuing evil of sin and unbelief, it is both the punishment and cause of sin. And no man can plead his sin or fault as an excuse of another sin in any kind. This impotency is natural, because it consists in the deprivation of the light and power that were originally in the faculties of our minds or understandings, and because it can never be taken away or cured but by an immediate communication of a new spiritual power and ability unto the mind itself by the Holy Ghost in its renovation, so curing the depravation of the faculty itself. And this is consistent with what was before declared (concerning) the natural power of the mind to receive spiritual things: for that power respects the natural capacity of the faculties of our minds; this impotency, the depravation of them with respect unto spiritual things.

(2.) There is in the minds of unregenerate persons a moral impotency, which is reflected on them greatly from the will and affections, whence the mind never will receive spiritual things,—that is, it will always and unchangeably reject and refuse them,—and that because of various lusts, corruptions, and prejudices invincibly fixed in them, causing them to look on them as foolishness. Hence it will come to pass that no man shall be judged and perish at the last day merely on the account of his natural impotency. Every one to whom the gospel hath been preached, and by whom it is refused, shall be convinced of positive actings in their minds, rejecting the gospel from the love of self, sin, and the world. Thus our Saviour tells the Jews that “no man can come unto him, except the Father draw him,” John 6:44. Such is their natural impotency that they cannot. Nor is it to be cured but by an immediate divine instruction or illumination; as it is written, “They shall be all taught of God,” verse 45. But this is not all; he tells them elsewhere, “Ye will not come to me, that ye might have life,” chap. 5:40. The present thing in question was not the power or impotency of their minds, but the obstinacy of their wills and affections, which men shall principally be judged upon at the last day; for “this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil,” chap. 3:19. Hence it follows,—

That the will and affections being more corrupted than the understanding,—as is evident from their opposition unto and defeating of its manifold convictions,—no man doth actually apply his mind to the receiving of the things of the Spirit of God to the utmost of that ability which he hath; for all unregenerate men are invincibly impeded therein by the corrupt stubbornness and perverseness of their wills and affections. There is not in any of them a due improvement of the capacity of their natural faculties, in the use of means, for the discharge of their duty towards God herein. And what hath been pleaded may suffice for the vindication of this divine testimony concerning the disability of the mind of man in the state of nature to understand and receive the things of the Spirit of God in a spiritual and saving manner, however they are proposed unto it; which those who are otherwise minded may despise whilst they please, but are no way able to answer or evade.

And hence we may judge of that paraphrase and exposition of this place which one hath given of late: “But such things as these, they that are led only by the light of human reason, the learned philosophers, etc., do absolutely despise, and so hearken not after the doctrine of the gospel; for it seems folly to them. Nor can they, by any study of their own, come to the knowledge of them; for they are only to be had by understanding the prophecies of the Scripture, and other such means, which depend on divine revelation, the voice from heaven, descent of the Holy Ghost, miracles,” etc. (1.) The natural man is here allowed to be the rational man, the learned philosopher, one walking by the light of human reason; which complies not with their exception to this testimony who would have only such an one as is sensual and given up unto brutish affections to be intended. But yet neither is there any ground (though some countenance be given to it by Hierom) to fix this interpretation unto that expression. If the apostle may be allowed to declare his own mind, he tells us that he intends every one, of what sort and condition soever, “who hath not received the Spirit of Christ.” (2.) Οὐ δέχεται is paraphrased by, “Doth absolutely despise;” which neither the word here, nor elsewhere, nor its disposal in the present connection, will allow of or give countenance unto. The apostle in the whole discourse gives an account why so few received the gospel, especially of those who seemed most likely so to do, being wise and learned men, and the gospel being no less than the wisdom of God; and the reason hereof he gives from their disability to receive the things of God, and their hatred of them, or opposition to them, neither of which can be cured but by the Spirit of Christ. (3.) The apostle treats not of what men could find out by any study of their own, but of what they did and would do, and could do no otherwise, when the gospel was proposed, declared, and preached unto them. They did not, they could not, receive, give assent unto, or believe, the spiritual mysteries therein revealed. (4.) This preaching of the gospel unto them was accompanied with and managed by those evidences mentioned,— namely, the testimonies of the prophecies of Scripture, miracles, and the like,—in the same way and manner, and unto the same degree, as it was towards them by whom it was received and believed. In the outward means of revelation and its proposition there was no difference. (5.) The proper meaning of οὐ δέχεται, “receiveth not,” is given us in the ensuing reason and explanation of it: Οὐ δύναται γνῶναι, “He cannot know them,”—that is, unless he be spiritually enabled thereunto by the Holy Ghost. And this is farther confirmed in the reason subjoined, “Because they are spiritually discerned.” And to wrest this unto the outward means of revelation, which is directly designed to express the internal manner of the mind’s reception of things revealed, is to wrest the Scripture at pleasure. How much better doth the description given by Chrysostom of a natural and spiritual man give light unto and determine the sense of this place: —”The spiritual man is he who liveth by the Spirit, having his mind enlightened by him; having not only an inbred human understanding, but rather a spiritual understanding, bestowed on him graciously, which the Holy Ghost endues the minds of believers withal.” But we proceed.

3. Having cleared the impotency to discern spiritual things spiritually that is in the minds of natural men, by reason of their spiritual blindness, or that darkness which is in them, it remains that we consider what is the power and efficacy of this darkness to keep them in a constant and unconquerable aversion from God and the gospel. To this purpose, some testimonies of Scripture must be also considered; for notwithstanding all other notions and disputes in this matter, for the most part compliant with the inclinations and affections of corrupted nature, by them must our judgments be determined, and into them is our faith to be resolved. I say, then, that this spiritual darkness hath a power over the minds of men to alienate them from God; that is, this which the Scripture so calleth is not a mere privation, with an impotency in the faculty ensuing thereon, but a depraved habit, which powerfully, and, as unto them in whom it is, unavoidably, influenceth their wills and affections into an opposition unto spiritual things, the effects whereof the world is visibly filled withal at this day. And this I shall manifest, first in general, and then in particular instances. And by the whole it will be made to appear that not only the act of believing and turning unto God is the sole work and effect of grace.