O ye sons of men, how long will ye turn my glory into shame? how long will ye love vanity, and seek after leasing? Selah.
~ Psalm 4:2
Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun.
~ Ecclesiastes 2:11
For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope,
~ Romans 8:20
For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.
~ Romans 8:6
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.
~ 1 Corinthians 2:14
For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.
~ 1 Corinthians 1:18
Corruption of Depravation of the Mind by Sin, by John Owen. The following contains an excerpt from Chapter Three of his work, “The Work of the Holy Spirit in Regeneration”.
And, by the way, it may not be amiss to divert here a little unto the consideration of that exposition which the whole world and all things in it give unto this text and testimony concerning the minds of natural men being under the power of vanity, for this is the spring and inexhaustible fountain of all that vanity which the world is filled with. There is, indeed, a vanity which is penal,—namely, that vexation and disappointment which men finally meet withal in the pursuit of perishing things, whereof the wise man treats at large in his Ecclesiastes; but I intend that sinful vanity which the mind itself produces, and that in all sorts of persons, ages, sexes, and conditions in the world. This some of the heathens saw, complained of, reproved, and derided, but yet could never reach to the cause of it, nor free themselves from being under the power of the same vanity, though in a way peculiar and distinct from the common sort, as might easily be demonstrated. But the thing is apparent; almost all that our eyes see or our ears hear of in the world is altogether vain. All that which makes such a noise, such a business, such an appearance and show among men, may be reduced unto two heads: —(1.) The vanity that they bring into the things that are, and that are either good in themselves and of some use, or at least indifferent. So men do variously corrupt their buildings and habitations, their trading, their conversation, their power, their wealth, their relations. They join innumerable vanities with them, which render them loathsome and contemptible, and the meanest condition to be the most suitable to rational satisfaction. (2.) Men find out, and as it were create, things to be mere supporters, countenancers, and nourishers of vanity. Such, in religion, are carnal, pompous ceremonies, like those of the church of Rome, which have no end but to bring in some kind of provision for the satisfaction of vain minds; stage-players, mimics, with innumerable other things of the same nature, which are nothing but theatres for vanity to act itself upon. It were endless but to mention the common effects of vanity in the world. And men are mightily divided about these things. Those engaged in them think it strange that others run not out into the “same compass of excess and riot with themselves, speaking evil of them,” 1 Pet. 4:4. They wonder at the perverse, stubborn, and froward humour which befalls some men, that they delight not in, that they approve not of, those things and ways wherein they find so great a suitableness unto their own minds. Others, again, are ready to admire whence it is that the world is mad on such vain and foolish things as it is almost wholly given up unto. The consideration we have insisted on gives us a satisfactory account of the grounds and reasons hereof. The mind of man by nature is wholly vain, under the power of vanity, and is an endless, fruitful womb of all monstrous births. The world is now growing towards six thousand years old, and yet is no nearer the bottom of the springs of its vanity, or the drawing out of its supplies, than it was the first day that sin entered into it. New sins, new vices, new vanities, break forth continually; and all is from hence, that the mind of man by nature is altogether vain. Nor is there any way or means for putting a stop hereunto in persons, families, cities, nations, but so far as the minds of men are cured and renewed by the Holy Ghost. The world may alter its shape and the outward appearances of things, it may change its scenes, and act its part in new habits and dresses, but it will still be altogether vain so long as natural uncured vanity is predominant in the minds of men; and this will sufficiently secure them from attaining any saving acquaintance with spiritual things.
Again: It is one of the principal duties incumbent on us, to be acquainted with, and diligently to watch over, the remainders of this vanity in our own minds. The sinful distempers of our natures are not presently cured at once, but the healing and removing of them is carried on by degrees unto the consummation of the course of our obedience in this world. And there are three effects of this natural vanity of the mind in its depraved condition to be found among believers themselves:—
(1.) An instability in holy duties, as meditation, prayer, and hearing of the word. How ready is the mind to wander in them, and to give entertainment unto vain and fond imaginations, at least unto thoughts and apprehensions of things unsuited to the duties wherein we are engaged! How difficult is it to keep it up unto an even, fixed, stable frame of acting spiritually in spiritual things! How is it ready at every breath to unbend and let down its intension! All we experience or complain of in this kind is from the uncured relics of this vanity. (2.) This is that which inclines and leads men towards a conformity with and unto a vain world, in its customs, habits, and ordinary converse; which are all vain and foolish. And so prevalent is it herein, and such arguments hath it possessed itself withal to give it countenance, that in many instances of vanity it is hard to give a distinction between them and the whole world that lies under the power of it. Professors, it may be, will not comply with the world in the things before mentioned, that have no other use nor end but merely to support, act, and nourish vanity; but from other things, which, being indifferent in themselves, are yet filled with vanity in their use, how ready are many for a compliance with the course of the world, which lieth in evil and passeth away! (3.) It acts itself in fond and foolish imaginations, whereby it secretly makes provision for the flesh and the lusts thereof; for they all generally lead unto self-exaltation and satisfaction. And these, if not carefully checked, will proceed to such an excess as greatly to taint the whole soul. And in these things lie the principal cause and occasion of all other sins and miscarriages. We have, therefore, no more important duty incumbent on us than mightily to oppose this radical distemper. It is so, also, to attend diligently unto the remedy of it; and this consists, (1.) In a holy fixedness of mind, and an habitual inclination unto things spiritual; which is communicated unto us by the Holy Ghost, as shall be afterward declared, Eph. 4:23, 24. (2.) In the due and constant improvement of that gracious principle,—(1.) By constant watchfulness against the mind’s acting itself in vain, foolish, unprofitable imaginations, so far at least (as) that vain thoughts may not lodge in us; (2.) By exercising it continually unto holy spiritual meditations, “minding always the things that are above,” Col. 3:2; (3.) By a constant, conscientious humbling of our souls, for all the vain actings of our minds that we do observe;—all which might be usefully enlarged on, but that we must return.
(SECONDLY), The minds of men unregenerate being thus depraved and corrupted, being thus affected with darkness, and thereby being brought under the power of vanity, we may yet farther consider what other effects and consequents are on the same account ascribed unto it. And the mind of man in this state may be considered, either,—1. As to its dispositions and inclinations; (or), 2. As to its power and actings, with respect unto spiritual, supernatural things:—
1. As to its dispositions, it is (from the darkness described) perverse and depraved, whereby men are “alienated from the life of God,” Eph. 4:18; for this alienation of men from the divine life is from the depravation of their minds. Hence are they said to be “alienated and enemies in their mind by wicked works,” or by their mind in wicked works, being fixed on them and under the power of them, Col. 1:21. And that we may the better understand what is intended hereby, we may consider both what is this “life of God,” and how the unregenerate mind is alienated from it:—
(1.) All life is from God. The life which we have in common with all other living creatures is from him, Acts 17:28; Ps. 104:30. And, (2.) That peculiar vital life which we have by the union of the rational soul with the body is from God also, and that in an especial manner, Gen. 2:7; Job 10:12. But neither of these is anywhere called the “life of God.” But it is an especial life unto God which is intended; and sundry things belong thereunto, or sundry things are applied unto the description of it:—
(1.) It is the life which God requireth of us, that we may please him here and come to the enjoyment of him hereafter; the life of faith and spiritual obedience by Jesus Christ, Rom. 1:17; Gal. 2:20, “I live by the faith of the Son of God;” Rom. 6., 7. (2.) It is that life which God worketh in us, not naturally by his power, but spiritually by his grace; and that both as to the principle and all the vital acts of it, Eph. 2:1, 5; Phil. 2:13. (3.) It is that life whereby God liveth in us, that is, in and by his Spirit through Jesus Christ: Gal. 2:20, “Christ liveth in me.” And where the Son is, there is the Father; whence, also, this life is said to be “hid with him in God,” Col. 3:3. (4.) It is the life whereby we live to God, Rom. 6., 7., whereof God is the supreme and absolute end, as he is the principal efficient cause of it. And two things are contained herein:—(1.) That we do all things to his glory. This is the proper end of all the acts and actings of this life, Rom. 14:7, 8. (2.) That we design in and by it to come unto the eternal enjoyment of him as our blessedness and reward, Gen. 15:1. (5.) It is the life whereof the gospel is the law and rule, John 6:68; Acts 5:20. (6.) A life all whose fruits are holiness and spiritual, evangelical obedience, Rom. 6:22; Phil. 1:11. Lastly, It is a life that dieth not, that is not obnoxious unto death, “eternal life,” John 17:3. These things contain the chief concerns of that peculiar spiritual, heavenly life, which is called the “life of God.”
The carnal mind is alienated from this life. It hath no liking of it, no inclination to it, but carrieth away the whole soul with an aversation from it. And this alienation or aversation appears in two things:—
(1.) In its unreadiness and unaptness to receive instruction in and about the concernments of it. Hence are men dull and “slow of heart to believe,” Luke 24:25; Heb. 5:11, 12, “heavy in hearing;” and slow in the apprehension of what they hear. So are all men towards what they do not like, but have an aversation from. This God complains of in his people of old: “My people are foolish, they have not known me; they are sottish children, and they have none understanding: they are wise to do evil, but to do good they have no knowledge,” Jer. 4:22. (2.) In the choice and preferring of any other life before it. The first choice a natural mind makes is of a life in sin and pleasure; which is but a death, a death to God, 1 Tim. 5:6, James 5:5,—a life without the law, and before it comes, Rom. 7:9. This is the life which is suited to the carnal mind, which it desires, delights in, and which willingly it would never depart from. Again, if, by afflictions or convictions, it be in part or wholly forced to forsake and give up this life, it will choose, magnify, and extol a moral life, a life in, by, and under the law; though at the last it will stand it in no more stead than the life of sin and pleasure which it hath been forced to forego, Rom. 9:32, 10:3. The thoughts of this spiritual life, this “life of God,” it cannot away with. The notions of it are uncouth, the description of it is unintelligible, and the practice of it either odious folly or needless superstition. This is the disposition and inclination of the mind towards spiritual things, as it is corrupt and depraved.
2. The power also of the mind with respect unto its actings towards spiritual things may be considered; and this, in short, is none at all, in the sense which shall be explained immediately, Rom. 5:6. For this is that which we shall prove concerning the mind of a natural man, or of a man in the state of nature: However it may be excited and improved under those advantages of education and parts which it may have received, yet (it) is not able, hath not a power of its own, spiritually and savingly, or in a due manner, to receive, embrace, and assent unto spiritual things, when proposed unto it in the dispensation and preaching of the gospel, unless it be renewed, enlightened, and acted by the Holy Ghost.
This the apostle plainly asserts, 1 Cor. 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, because they are spiritually discerned.”
(1.) The subject spoken of is “animalis homo,” the “natural man,” he who is a natural man. This epithet is in the Scripture opposed unto πνευματικός, “spiritual,” 1 Cor. 15:44, Jude 19, where ψυχικοί are described by such as have not the Spirit of God. The foundation of this distinction, and the distribution of men into these two sorts thereby, is laid in that of our apostle, 1 Cor. 15:45, ·—”The first Adam was made a living soul.” Hence every man who hath no more but what is traduced from him is called ψυχικός,—he is a “living soul,” as was the first Adam. And, “The last Adam was made a quickening spirit.” Hence he that is of him, partaker of his nature, that derives from him, is πνευματικός, a “spiritual man.” The person, therefore, here spoken of, or ψυχικός, is one that hath all that is or can be derived from the first Adam, one endowed with a “rational soul,” and who hath the use and exercise of all its rational faculties.
Some who look upon themselves almost so near to advancements as to countenance them in magisterial dictates and scornful reflections upon others, tell us that by this “natural man,” “a man given up to his pleasures, and guided by brutish affections,” and no other, is intended,—”one that gives himself up to the government of his inferior faculties;” but no rational man, no one that will attend unto the dictates of reason, is at all concerned in this assertion. But how is this proved? If we are not content with bare affirmations, we must at length be satisfied with railing and lying, and all sorts of reproaches. But the apostle in this chapter distributes all men living into πνευματικοί and ψυχικοί, “spiritual” and “natural.” He who is not a spiritual man, be he who and what he will, be he as rational as some either presume themselves to be or would beg of the world to believe that they are, is a natural man. The supposition of a middle state of men is absolutely destructive of the whole discourse of the apostle as to its proper design. Besides, this of ψυχικὸς ἄνθρωπος is the best and softest term that is given in the Scripture to unregenerate men, with respect unto the things of God; and there is no reason why it should be thought only to express the worst sort of them thereby. The Scripture terms not men peculiarly captivated unto brutish affections, ἀνθρώπους ψυχικούς, “natural men,” but rather ἄλογα ζῶα φυσικά, 2 Pet. 2:12, “natural brute beasts.” And Austin gives us a better account of this expression, Tractat. 98, in Johan:—”Animalis homo, i. e., qui secundum hominem sapit, animalis dictus ab anima, carnalis a carne, quia ex anima et carne constat omnis homo, non percipit ea quæ sunt Spiritus Dei, i. e., quid gratiæ credentibus conferat crux Christi.” And another: “Carnales dicimur, quando totos nos voluptatibus damus; spirituales, quando Spiritum Sanctum prævium sequimur; id est, cum ipso sapimus instruente, ipso ducimur auctore. Animales reor esse philosophos qui proprios cogitatus putant esse sapientiam, de quibus recte dicitur, animalis autem homo non recipit ea quæ sunt Spiritus, stultitia quippe est ei,” Hieronym. Comment, in Epist. ad Gal. cap. v. And another: in 1 Cor. 2:15;—”The natural man is he who ascribes all things to the power of the reasonings of the mind, and doth not think that he stands in need of aid from above: which is madness; for God hath given the soul that it should learn and receive what he bestows, what is from him, and not suppose that it is sufficient of itself or to itself. Eyes are beautiful and profitable; but if they would see without light, this beauty and power will not profit but hurt them. And the mind, if it would see” (spiritual things) “without the Spirit of God, it doth but ensnare itself.” And it is a sottish supposition, that there is a sort of unregenerate, rational men who are not under the power of corrupt affections in and about spiritual things, seeing the “carnal mind is enmity against God.” This, therefore, is the subject of the apostle’s proposition,—namely, “a natural man,” every one that is so, that is no more but so, that is, every one who is not “a spiritual man,” is one who hath not received the Spirit of God, verses 11, 12, one that hath (only) the spirit of a man, enabling him to search and know the things of a man, or to attain wisdom in things natural, civil, or political.
(2.) There is in the words a supposition of the proposal of some things unto the mind of this “natural man;” for the apostle speaks with respect unto the dispensation and preaching of the gospel, whereby that proposal is made, verses 4–7. And these things are “the things of the Spirit of God;” which are variously expressed in this chapter. Verse 2, they are called “Jesus Christ, and him crucified;” verse 7, the “wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom, which God hath ordained;” verse 12, “the things that are freely given to us of God;” verse 16, “the mind of Christ;” and sundry other ways to the same purpose. There are in the gospel, and belong to the preaching of it, precepts innumerable concerning moral duties to be observed towards God, ourselves, and other men; and all these have a coincidence with and a suitableness unto the inbred light of nature, because the principles of them all are indelibly ingrafted therein. These things being in some sense the “things of a man,” may be known by the “spirit of a man that is in him,” verse 11: howbeit they cannot be observed and practised according to the mind of God without the aid and assistance of the Holy Ghost. But these are not the things peculiarly here intended, but the mysteries, which depend on mere sovereign supernatural revelation, and that wholly; things that “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man” to conceive, verse 9; things of God’s sovereign counsel, whereof there were no impressions in the mind of man in his first creation: see Eph. 3:8–11.
(3.) That which is affirmed of the natural man with respect unto these spiritual things is doubly expressed:—(1.) By —”He receiveth them not;” (2.) By —”He cannot know them.” In this double assertion,—1st. A power of receiving spiritual things is denied: “He cannot know them; he cannot receive them;” as Rom. 8:7, “The carnal mind is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.” And the reason hereof is subjoined: “Because they are spiritually discerned;” a thing which such a person hath no power to effect. 2dly. A will of rejecting them is implied: “He receiveth them not;” and the reason hereof is, “For they are foolishness unto him.” They are represented unto him under such a notion as that he will have nothing to do with them. 3dly. Actually (and that both because he cannot and because he will not), he receives them not. The natural man neither can, nor will, nor doth, receive the things of the Spirit of God;—is altogether incapable of giving them admission in the sense to be explained.
To clear and free this assertion from objections, it must be observed, —
(1.) That it is not the mere literal sense of doctrines or propositions of truth that is intended. For instance, “That Jesus Christ was crucified,” mentioned by the apostle, 1 Cor. 2:2, is a proposition whose sense and importance any natural man may understand, and assent unto its truth, and so be said to receive it. And all the doctrines of the gospel may be taught and declared in propositions and discourses, the sense and meaning whereof a natural man may understand. And in the due investigation of this sense, and judging thereon concerning truth and falsehood, lies that use of reason in religious things which some would ignorantly confound with an ability of discerning spiritual things in themselves and their own proper nature. This, therefore, is granted; but it is denied that a natural man can receive the things themselves. There is a wide difference between the mind’s receiving doctrines nationally, and its receiving the things taught in them really. The first a natural man can do. It is done by all who, by the use of outward means, do know the doctrine of the Scripture, in distinction from ignorance, falsehood, and error. Hence, men unregenerate are said to “know the way of righteousness,” 2 Pet. 2:21,—that is, notionally and doctrinally; for really, saith our apostle, they cannot. Hereon “they profess that they know God,”—that is, the things which they are taught concerning him and his will,—whilst “in works they deny him, being abominable and disobedient,” Tit 1:16; Rom. 2:23, 24. In the latter way they only receive spiritual things in whose minds they are so implanted as to produce their real and proper effects, Rom. 12:2; Eph. 4:22–24. And there are two things required unto the receiving of spiritual things really and as they are in themselves:—
(1.) That we discern, assent unto them, and receive them, under an apprehension of their conformity and agreeableness to the wisdom, holiness, and righteousness of God, 1 Cor. 1:23, 24. The reason why men receive not Christ crucified, as preached in the gospel, is because they see not a consonancy in it unto the divine perfections of the nature of God. Neither can any receive it until they see in it an expression of divine power and wisdom. This, therefore, is required unto our receiving the things of the Spirit of God in a due manner,— namely, that we spiritually see and discern their answerableness unto the wisdom, goodness, and holiness of God; wherein lies the principal rest and satisfaction of them that really believe. This a natural man cannot do.
(2.) That we discern their suitableness unto the great ends for which they are proposed as the means of accomplishing. Unless we see this clearly and distinctly, we cannot but judge them weakness and foolishness. These ends being the glory of God in Christ, with our deliverance from a state of sin and misery, with a translation into a state of grace and glory, unless we are acquainted with these things, and the aptness, and fitness, and power of the things of the Spirit of God to effect them, we cannot receive them as we ought; and this a natural man cannot do. And from these considerations, unto which sundry others of the like nature might be added, it appears how and whence it is that a natural man is not capable of receiving the things of the Spirit of God.
(2.) It must be observed that there is, or may be, a twofold capacity or ability of receiving, knowing, or understanding spiritual things in the mind of a man:—
(1.) There is a natural power, consisting in the suitableness and proportionableness of the faculties of the soul to receive spiritual things in the way that they are proposed unto us. This is supposed in all the exhortations, promises, precepts, and threatenings of the gospel; for in vain would they be proposed unto us had we not rational minds and understandings to apprehend their sense, use, and importance, and (were we not) also meet subjects for the faith, grace, and obedience which are required of us. None pretend that men are, in their conversion to God, like stocks and stones, or brute beasts, that have no understanding; for although the work of our conversion is called a “turning of stones into children of Abraham,” because of the greatness of the change, and because of ourselves we contribute nothing thereunto, yet if we were every way as such as to the capacity of our natures, it would not become the wisdom of God to apply the means mentioned for effecting of that work. God is said, indeed, herein to “give us an understanding,” 1 John 5:20; but the natural faculty of the understanding is not thereby intended, but only the renovation of it by grace, and the actual exercise of that grace in apprehending spiritual things. There are two adjuncts of the commands of God:—1st. That they are equal; 2dly. That they are easy, or not grievous. The former they have from the nature of the things commanded, and the fitness of our minds to receive such commands, Ezek. 18:25; the latter they have from the dispensation of the Spirit and grace of Christ, which renders them not only possible unto us, but easy for us.
Some pretend that whatever is required of us or prescribed unto us in a way of duty, we have a power in and of ourselves to perform. If by this power they intend no more but that our minds, and the other rational faculties of our souls, are fit and meet, as to their natural capacity, for and unto such acts as wherein those duties do consist, it is freely granted; for God requires nothing of us but what must be acted in our minds and wills, and which they are naturally meet and suited for. But if they intend such an active power and ability as, being excited by the motives proposed unto us, can of itself answer the commands of God in a due manner, they deny the corruption of our nature by the entrance of sin, and render the grace of Christ useless, as shall be demonstrated.
(2.) There is, or may be, a power in the mind to discern spiritual things, whereby it is so able to do it as that it can immediately exercise that power in the spiritual discerning of them upon their due proposal unto it, that is, spiritually; as a man that hath the visive faculty sound and entire, upon the due proposal of visible objects unto him can discern and see them. This power must be spiritual and supernatural; for whereas to receive spiritual things spiritually is so to receive them as really to believe them with faith divine and supernatural, to love them with divine love, to conform the whole soul and affections unto them, Rom. 6:17, 2 Cor. 3:18, no natural man hath power so to do: this is that which is denied in this place by the apostle. Wherefore, between the natural capacity of the mind and the act of spiritual discerning there must be an interposition of an effectual work of the Holy Ghost enabling it thereunto, 1 John 5:20; 2 Cor. 4:6.