Part 1: Thinking Biblically
"Every person has an image of himself or herself. The question is, does your image of who you are line up correctly with who God says you are?"
I found those words in a best-selling religious book, in a chapter entitled "Who Do You Think You Are?" The author, who is also the pastor of a very large church, made no attempt to distinguish between Christians and unbelievers before saying, to every reader, "God sees you as a champion. He believes in you even more than you believe in yourself! . . . He regards you as a strong, courageous, successful, overcoming person. . . . God sees you as a victor. . . . as a man or woman of great honor and valor."1
In the minds of unbelievers (including those who are "Christian" in name only) those words do indeed create a certain self-image. People who believe those words begin to see themselves, not as guilty and condemned because of sin, not as hopeless and helpless apart from the mercy and grace of God, but rather as valuable assets to God and improvements to His kingdom. They are led to believe that they naturally possess the moral attributes and spiritual strength to please Him. But is that a biblical self-image? Does God really see every person in that way? A better question would perhaps be this: Does the Bible give us reason to believe that anyone naturally possesses those qualities and abilities?
A Corrupt Inheritance
God’s original creation was without defect. During the six days of creation, God looked six times upon what He had made and saw "that it was good" (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). After completing His creation, after making man in His own image, "God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good" (Genesis 1:31).2 There was no sin or death in the original creation, but rather perfect holiness and peace.
Adam and Eve were created without sin and without any overriding proneness toward evil. They had the ability, by nature, to reflect God’s holiness. But Adam and Eve were unique in that sense—different from the rest of mankind. With all the talk about "free will" these days, many people fail to realize that aside from Jesus, Adam and Eve were the only two human beings who have ever entered into life with a will that was truly free. Every person is free to choose what he wants. But no one since Adam and Eve has been born with the natural capacity to want or choose what is right in God’s sight. In that sense, no one naturally possesses a free will.
My purpose in the following pages is to examine what the Bible says about two aspects of the natural condition of man: (1) his inherited legal standing in relation to the demands of God’s law—in other words, his natural guilt and condemnation, and (2) his inherited spiritual affections, inclinations, and abilities—in other words, his natural will.
Despite Eve’s leading role in the commission of the first sin, whenever this important event is mentioned in the New Testament, Adam is always depicted as the one responsible. For example, consider Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:22: "For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive." It is largely from this text, as well as Romans 5:12-19 which I will discuss later, that Christians learn about Adam’s representative relationship to the rest of mankind—the doctrine commonly known as "original sin." Original sin does not refer to the first act of sin, but rather to the universal results of that act.
Adam’s representation may first be understood in a physical sense. All people everywhere descended from him through the normal process of procreation. God "made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth" (Acts 17:26). Just as every person descends physically from Adam, they also inherit the physical consequences of His sin. Adam did not die physically the moment he sinned, but God subjected his body to physical corruption which meant he would gradually deteriorate and eventually die. And because of Adam’s sin, the mortality rate among humans today stands at a consistent 100%. We all die (cf. Romans 5:12).
Adam is not only our biological father. God also appointed him as the moral and spiritual representative for every human being. Adam did not die physically the moment he sinned. But he did experience another kind of death immediately: spiritual death. The formerly clear image of God in him was suddenly and terribly marred. He had been created a morally blameless being with the ability to reflect God’s holiness. But now, having sinned, he became unholy, guilty, and unavoidably prone to doing evil.
All who descend physically from Adam are born spiritually dead. Every person is a sinner by nature from the moment of conception (cf. Romans 5:19; Ephesians 2:1). It is as if Adam’s spiritual DNA, distorted because of sin, passes from one generation to the next, causing all people to bear this sad resemblance to their first father. Though Adam’s act of representation in this sense is not fully explained in the book of Genesis (that is, we are not told exactly how sin is passed from Adam to the rest of mankind, or from generation to generation), the universal inheritance of sinful corruption is seen quite clearly in the Bible’s consistent descriptions of every one of his descendants:
Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. . . . The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. So God looked upon the earth, and indeed it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth (Genesis 6:5, 11-12).
As it is written, "There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no, not one" (Romans 3:10-12).
. . . for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others (Ephesians 2:1-3).
This universal wickedness is not something that is learned. No one comes into this life with a "clean slate," only becoming a sinner through experience. David tells us that he possessed a sinful nature at birth (Psalm 51:5). And according to Paul, all Christians, prior to their regeneration, were sinfully depraved "by nature," just as the rest of humanity (Ephesians 2:3). People do not become sinners when they sin; they sin because they are sinners by nature. Just as a baby rattlesnake possesses lethal poison and instinctively knows how to coil and strike, human beings naturally behave according to the sinful nature they inherited from Adam.
Every society in the history of the world has gravitated over time toward evil, not toward good. This alone should dispel the false notion that people are basically good. If they were, it would stand to reason that there would have been at least a few examples where the good overwhelmed the evil, and a society steadily progressed toward perfection. There are certainly fluctuations in this downward moral spiral—periods of time when good prevails and universal depravity seems to go undercover. True biblical revivals have often resulted in dramatic improvements in the moral character of particular societies. Nevertheless, the claim that men are basically good, or even neutral, is debunked by the fact that apart from the grace of God through the influence of genuine Christianity, societies do not naturally upgrade, they degrade.
A sinful nature is not all we inherited from Adam. We also inherited his guilt. Paul demonstrates this in Romans 5 where he teaches about imputation, which is to have something credited to your account. As Christians, our sin was imputed to Jesus Christ as He paid our debt on the cross. When we are justified before God, it is because God imputes the righteousness of Christ to us. Just as God saw Jesus Christ according to our sinfulness and punished Him accordingly, He sees us according to Christ’s righteousness and rewards us accordingly.
In Romans 5:12-19, Paul’s was teaching Christians about the beauty of Christ’s representative act on their behalf and the imputation of His righteousness. In doing so he used Adam’s representative act of sin as a sort of inverse but parallel truth. In verses 18 and 19 this becomes particularly clear. There we see what we inherit, both from Christ and from Adam:
Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men resulting in justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous.
As the result of Adam’s sin, guilt is imputed to all men resulting in condemnation. It was the one man’s offense, the one man’s disobedience, that resulted in all men being made sinners, subjected to judgment, and condemned. In verse 16, Paul writes that "the judgment that came from one offense resulted in condemnation." One offense Paul says—one single sin—resulted in the condemnation of the entire human race. And since only guilty people are condemned by a just God, it becomes clear that one single sin resulted in the guilt of the entire human race.
All true Christians love the idea of imputation as it concerns Christ’s righteousness being credited to their account. Ironically, many chafe at the idea of imputed guilt because of Adam’s sin. "Unfair!" they protest. "I didn’t eat the fruit!" Many have tried to soften the impact of this difficult truth by saying that God only does this because He saw that we would have done the same as Adam and Eve, had we been in their place. Though it is undoubtedly true that we would have sinned like Adam and Eve, such is not the focus of Romans 5, nor does it do justice to the true understanding of imputation.
The emphasis in this passage is on the fact that in the wisdom of God, one man’s act resulted in consequences for others. Christ’s perfect obedience in righteousness is imputed to all whom God sees as being in Him —that is, all believers. On the other hand, Adam’s sinful disobedience and guilt is imputed to all whom God sees as being in him—that is, all of humanity. Interestingly, the verse which may explain this most clearly is also the most controversial. It is Romans 5:12:
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned . . . (emphasis added).
Notice that the words in italics—" because all sinned"—are written in the past tense. Many will say that it was Paul’s intent here to refer to the inevitable acts of sin personally committed by all people during their own lives. But Paul did not write, "because all sin, " (indicating a present and ongoing reality). Nor did he write, "because all will sin" (indicating something in the future). He wrote, "because all sinned," referring to something that occurred in the past.
Paul is saying in verse 12 what the rest of the passage affirms: When Adam sinned, God saw him as the representative of all of humanity. We were all, in a sense, in Adam when he sinned, and therefore we all actually sinned. So if a person were to contend that imputed guilt is unfair, saying "I didn’t eat the fruit," we could respond, based on Romans 5:12 and the overall meaning of the passage, by saying, "Yes, you did." Just as "in Adam all die" (1 Corinthians 15:22), so in Adam, "all sinned" (Romans 5:12).
Most importantly, we need to understand that if we fight to deny the doctrine of imputed guilt, we are unknowingly fighting at the same time against the greatest benefit of true Christianity—the imputed righteousness of Christ. If Paul were saying that our condemnation is based solely on our own sin, then his parallel between Adam and Christ makes no sense unless our justification is based solely on our own righteousness. If God cannot justly condemn based on the imputed guilt of our sinful representative, namely Adam, neither can He justly reward based on the imputed righteousness of our perfect representative, namely Christ.
The Natural Man
As I have said, people do not become sinners when they sin; they sin because they are sinners by nature. But several questions remain: How sinful are people by nature? How deeply does sinful corruption permeate the human being? How seriously does inherited corruption affect the ability to relate rightly to God? And what can a person do to alter or improve his natural state?
The "natural man" is the unregenerate person. In 1 Corinthians 2:14, the term describes those who remain in their natural condition of inherited depravity. It refers to every person who has not been born again by the Spirit of God (cf. John 3:3, 5; James 1:18). In other words, it describes every non-Christian, including many who profess to be Christians.
All people, in their natural state, are equally and utterly depraved. I will explain the meaning of "utter depravity" more fully in a moment, but for now it seems right to say that even if all people are equally bad in one sense, some sin in more obvious ways than others. For example, no one would equate the sins of a peace-loving Hindu or Buddhist with those of murderous tyrants like Adolf Hitler or Saddam Hussein. No one would say that all people sin in the same ways, or with the same horrendous effects on others. Nevertheless, as I said before, all people in their natural state are equally and utterly depraved.
"Utter depravity" (often referred to as "radical corruption") does not indicate the number or type of sins committed by a particular individual. It refers to the fact that every dimension of every natural person is corrupted by sin. The natural will, the natural affections, the natural intellect, the natural emotions, the natural view of self, the natural view of others, the natural view of God, and the natural view of sin—all of these are distorted in the natural person.
The term "total depravity" is often used to describe what I am calling "utter depravity" or "radical corruption." But the term "total depravity" can leave the impression that every human being is as bad as a person could possibly be. The inherent depravity of genocidal monsters like Hitler and Hussein is no greater than the inherent depravity of Gandhi or Mother Theresa. But it is much easier to see because of the disturbing nature and devastating effect of publicly visible sins. Hitler and Hussein sinned in such shocking ways as to draw the hatred of the entire world. But even they were not as sinful as a person could be. In that sense, no one is totally depraved. The term "total depravity," when rightly understood, refers to sin’s total permeation of every person by nature, not the total expression of sin by every person in actual practice.
Though no one wants to admit any similarity between himself and Adolf Hitler or Saddam Hussein, we all came from the same father, Adam. We all inherited the same nature and the same proneness toward sin. Though actual sins vary greatly in nature and in their effect on others, the potential for sin is just as great in the heart of every natural person. Thankfully, God in His mercy restrains most people, even in their natural state, from going to devastating extremes. He does this through their conscience, through exposure to the Bible, through civil laws, through fear of consequences, through the influence of parents, through the church, and sometimes by bringing about their death. But without God’s providential restraint, we would all sin with utter abandon. To quote from an old prayer:
O God. It is amazing that men can talk so much
about man’s creaturely power and goodness, when,
if Thou didst not hold us back every moment,
we should be devils incarnate.3
Probing the Depths of Depravity
Just how depraved is the natural man? That’s a little like asking, after a funeral, "How dead was Uncle Joe when they buried him?" No one is only a little dead at his own funeral. And in the same way that dead is dead, depraved is depraved. As I probe the depths of human depravity in the following pages, remember that there is no difference between persons here. Everyone will be judged according to his own sinful deeds (Matthew 16:27; Revelation 20:12-13). But all sin proceeds from the same sinful nature (Jeremiah 17:9; Mark 7:20-23; Romans 3:10-18).
The following depictions of the natural man describe the universal human condition without distinction:
The Natural Man is a Slave to Sin
In 1 John 5:19 we are told that with the exception of true Christians, "the whole world lies in the power of the evil one" (NASB). To be under the power of another is to be obligated to behave according to a foreign will, as a slave is compelled to obey his master. Who, or what, holds that authority and power over the natural man? According to this verse it is Satan ("the evil one"). In another place, Paul was hopeful that through gentle, patient instruction, some unbelievers would, by God’s grace, "escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will" (2 Timothy 2:26). So in one sense, Satan is the master of the natural man.
The natural man’s slavery, however, is not merely to Satan. The natural man is in bondage to the desires of his own heart. As Paul wrote to Titus, "we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures . . . " (Titus 3:3, emphasis added, cf. Ephesians 2:1-3)). James confirms this when he tells us that "each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed" (James 1:13-14, emphasis added). The responsibility for the natural man’s slavery to sin cannot be laid at the feet of another. It is a willful, voluntary enslavement. This is explained nowhere more clearly than in Romans 6. Note the italicized words emphasizing responsibility in the following passage:
Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? . . . For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness (Romans 6:16, 19).
The natural man does not serve sin out of begrudging obligation when he would rather be holy. He is inclined by nature to love sin and hate true holiness. He obeys the master of his choice. For Satan to tempt a natural man to sin is as easy as tempting a hungry dog to eat meat. All he needs to do is set before the man the things he loves best: "the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life . . . " (1 John 2:16). Unless restrained in some way by the grace of God, the natural man, when tempted, will run headlong into sin, satisfying the cravings of his depraved heart the same way a dog, without thinking, satisfies the cravings of its stomach.
The Natural Man Treats God as an Enemy
Consider the following passage from Romans 1:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things (vv. 18-23).
It is no wonder that God is angry with the natural man. He is a suppresser of truth and a God-rejecter. He has chosen foolish idols over the worship of the glorious God, and he has exalted his own wisdom over the wisdom of his Creator. It should be no surprise to find that God considers the natural man His enemy (cf. Romans 5:10). What is less often understood is the fact that the natural man treats God as his enemy. Contrary to popular opinion, the natural man is not eagerly searching for the God he loves. He is studiously (though not always consciously) avoiding the God he hates. Again, notice the italicized words as Paul continues to describe mankind:
And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things that were not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; they are whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful; who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same, but also approve of those who practice them (vv. 28-32).
Clearly, the natural man is not a God-seeker (also consider Romans 3:11, "There is none who seeks after God."). On the contrary, he does not like to think about God at all (also consider Psalm 10:4, "God is in none of his thoughts."). Even if he is a moral or religious person, the natural man hates the true God and everything He represents. He demonstrates his utter contempt for the righteous judgment of God, not only by scorning God’s truth himself, but also by approving of others who do the same. And we must remember that the evil practiced and approved of by the natural man does not always appear in forms that are socially unacceptable or morally shocking. His evil often appears in ways that seem very moral and/or religious (cf. Matthew 23:1-33, specifically vv. 25-28). In fact, one of the greatest forms of evil seen in the natural man is his vain and prideful effort to please God apart from the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ (cf. Isaiah 64:6; Romans 10:1-4; Galatians 2:21).
The natural man further proves himself an enemy of God by his affection for the world. As James asks, "Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God" (James 4:4). "The world," here and in other places, refers to the mindset of fallen humanity more than to worldly goods and possessions. In fact, John distinguishes between the two in 1 John 2:15 when he writes, "Do not love the world or the things of the world." As Jesus said to His disciples regarding "the world:"
If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you (John 15:18-19).
The person who is "of the world," may covet worldly goods. Even more self-condemning, however, is that fact that he is a friend of the world. Even if he protests outwardly against evil, even if he avoids every appearance of evil himself, the lurking depravity of his own heart and the hostility of his mind are quite evident to God. The natural man, even in his own moral self-righteousness, stands in rejection of God’s righteousness and grace. In doing so, he stands in approval of the whole corrupt system of fallen humanity which, at its core, is a God-rejecting, self-approving system.
Every natural man, no matter how religious, stands in direct and hostile opposition to God Himself. We find it easy to understand why Paul reminded the Colossians of their former natural state of paganism when they were "enemies in [their] mind by wicked works" (Colossians 1:21). But we must also remember that Jesus condemned the outwardly moral religious leaders of Jerusalem, men who never would have thought of themselves as "natural" men, saying:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness (Matthew 23:27-28).
If we could know the heart of man as God does, we would see that the natural man, if he could, would eliminate God from existence. Far from any desire to find God or be rescued by Him, the earnest desire of the natural man is like that of the fool who says in his heart, hopefully and hatefully, "There is no God" (Psalm 14:1). It may seem redundant to say this again, but it is important to understand that the natural man’s enmity toward God is not always obvious. It is commonly obscured by outward morality and various forms of religious expression, sometimes even by a seemingly sincere profession of faith in Christ.
The Natural Man Always Rejects the Gospel of God’s Grace
No natural person has ever truly loved God, trusted in Christ, repented of sin, or understood the gospel. That is a strong statement to make. But look with me at three important passages of Scripture that prove it to be true:
Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God (John 3:3).
For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God (Romans 8:6-8).
But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised (1 Corinthians 2:14 NASB).
Those three passages have one critical word in common: the word "cannot." The word describes inability. If someone will not do something, it may or may not be because he cannot do it. He may possess the ability while he simply remains unwilling. If properly persuaded, he may change his mind and do the thing requested of him. But if a person cannot do something, we can be absolutely certain that unless he is given new abilities, he will not do it, no matter how strong the persuasion or how great the incentive. His failure to perform as required is rooted in his inability.
This is a good place to further explain what I mean by "inability." The natural man’s inability is moral and spiritual, not physical or intellectual. He cannot make himself want what he does not desire by nature, and he cannot make himself hate what he loves by nature. He has the physical and intellectual ability, as well as the opportunity and freedom, to choose what he wants. But he lacks the moral and spiritual ability to change his own nature—to create in himself a new heart and thus reorient his affections. As Jeremiah asks, "Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? [referring to things which are clearly impossible]. Then you also can do good who are accustomed to doing evil [something that is just as impossible]" (Jeremiah 13:23 NASB).
Though different terms are employed in the three passages quoted earlier (i.e. John 3:3, Romans 8:6-8, and 1 Corinthians 2:14), they all refer to the same kind of person—the "natural man." Paul calls him by this name in 1 Corinthians 2:14. In John 3:3, he is the one who is not "born again." And in Romans 8:6-8 he is the one who possesses "the carnal mind" or the one who is "in the flesh." These different terms all describe one and the same kind of person: the unregenerate person. And according to these three verses, there are four things that the unregenerate person cannot do:
1. He cannot see the kingdom of God (cf. John 3:3)
The word "see" in John 3:3 refers to spiritual perception of God’s kingdom, not entrance into it or visual sight of it. The Greek word for see (eido) can refer to visual sight. But nowhere in the Bible are we given the idea that the kingdom of God, as spoken of by Christ during His earthly ministry, is something visible to human eyesight. It is an invisible, spiritual kingdom. We would not expect anyone, even a regenerate person, to be able to "see" it in the physical sense (at least not until Christ returns).
We are helped in our interpretation of this statement when we see that the same Greek word is used in Mark 4:11-12. There Jesus is clearly referring to spiritual blindness—the inability to perceive spiritual truth. He explains to his disciples that His reason for speaking in parables is not to make the truth simple and clear to everyone, but rather to restrain some from perceiving it. In that regard, he says to His disciples:
To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables, so that "Seeing they may see [ blepo: to see with their eyes] and not perceive [eido: to perceive spiritually], and hearing they may hear [with their physical ears] and not understand [spiritually]; lest they should turn and their sins be forgiven them."
According to Jesus, His parables were a sort of code-language that only some had been given the spiritual ability to decipher. And it would seem evident that those who were not given that ability were in the same natural condition as the one who has not been born again. Such people cannot see (or perceive spiritually) the kingdom of God, as Jesus said in John 3:3. That ability was not theirs naturally, and it had not been granted to them. This seems all the more evident when we note that in Mark 4:11, Jesus referred to the truths He was teaching through parables as "the mystery of the kingdom of God."
The natural man may have certain ideas about heaven and hell, but the only reality he perceives with any depth or accuracy is the fallen world around him. Just as you cannot hear the tone of a dog whistle because it is beyond the range of your physical ears, the natural man cannot see the realities of the kingdom of heaven because they are beyond the range of his spiritual perception. This is why Jesus often ended His teaching with the mysterious statement, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear" (Matthew 11:15; 13:9; Mark 4:9; Luke 8:8; cf. Revelation 2:7).
2. He cannot be subject to the law of God (cf. Romans 8:7)
The natural man does not and will not submit to God’s law because he cannot submit to God’s law. He cannot submit himself to Christ as Lord and Master, meaning he cannot meaningfully confess Jesus as "Lord" (a necessary aspect of salvation, cf. Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians 12:3). Jesus assures us that those who love Him will also obey Him—they will become subject to Him (John 14:15, cf. 1 John 2:3-4). But since the natural man cannot submit himself to Christ, he cannot be a true disciple of Christ (i.e. a Christian).
Remember that the natural man’s inability is moral and spiritual, not physical or intellectual. He is always free to choose according to his own desires. In fact, he always does choose according to his desires. No one prohibits him from obeying Christ. No one says "You may not submit your will to God’s." It is only the depraved affections of his own heart that invariably cause him to reject God’s authority and righteousness and choose evil. As Jesus said of the natural man in John 3:20, "everyone practicing evil hates the light [i.e. truth and righteousness] and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed."
3. He cannot please God (cf. Romans 8:8)
The natural man is often preoccupied with morality and religious activity in his attempt to please either false gods, or a wrong perception of the true God. But as Paul writes of the natural man in Romans 8:8, "those who are in the flesh cannot please God" (emphasis added). When we realize what truly pleases God, we will be able to see more clearly what the natural man cannot do.
We know that faith pleases God, because "without faith it is impossible to please Him" (Hebrews 11:6). These words were offered by the writer of Hebrews as conclusive proof that Enoch’s faith pleased God (cf. v. 5). We also know that when Abraham believed God, his faith pleased God (cf. Genesis 15:6). But since Paul assures us that the natural man cannot please God, we know just as certainly that he cannot believe God. The natural man does not have, within himself, even the ability to exercise saving faith. This is why Paul told the Philippians that it had been granted to them to believe (Philippians 1:29). Prior to God’s grace, they did not have the ability to believe. Saving faith, far from being an inherent ability in the natural man, is a gift from God, given to those He has chosen for salvation (cf. Ephesians 2:8-9; 2 Thessalonians 2:13).
Secondly, we know that repentance pleases God. In Luke 15:7 Jesus said there will be "joy in heaven" when even one sinner repents. But the natural man cannot please God. And since we know that repentance pleases God, we know that the natural man cannot truly repent. This explains why Paul hoped that God would "grant" repentance to those in opposition to the truth, enabling them to "know the truth" (2 Timothy 2:25). Repentance, like faith, is God’s gracious gift. Even though God commands everyone to repent (cf. Mark 1:15; Acts 17:30), even though He holds everyone responsible if they do not repent, no one is naturally able to repent.
To illustrate this further, consider a number of pigs that have become trapped in the bottom of a deep and barren pit with vertical walls. No one put them there; they fell in because pigs are greedy and foolish by nature and there was food in the bottom of the pit. The pit is rapidly filling with water so that soon the pigs will drown. There are no ledges to cling to, no trees to climb, and no objects on which to float. The pit is far too deep to allow for the possibility that any of the pigs could jump or climb to safety. Lastly, there is no hope that the water will recede in time for even the strongest swimmers to survive. These pigs are certainly doomed. The only possible way of escape, apart from outside assistance, would be for these pigs to have the ability to fly. But pigs cannot fly. The same nature that got them into trouble renders them unable to get out of it. Additionally, because of their greedy nature, they are so focused on gorging themselves that they are quite oblivious to their dilemma. And if someone were to try to rescue them, they would undoubtedly see the rescuer as a threat—as someone who was trying to take them away from the one thing they love most.
If we were to see some of these pigs escaping, flying out of the pit on their own power while the rest drowned, we could say with all certainty that they were no ordinary pigs. We would be right to conclude that they had been given new abilities as well as a new awareness of the danger, both of which ordinary (natural) pigs do not possess. Likewise, when we see people pleasing God through genuine repentance and saving faith in Christ, we know God has granted them new abilities and a measure of awareness that natural men do not possess.
4. He cannot understand the things of the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 2:14)
In order to understand the meaning of this verse, we must know what Paul meant by, "the things of the Spirit of God." Those "things" are foolishness to the natural man, and they are what he cannot understand in his natural state. What are they?
Paul is speaking throughout this passage of the gospel. He has referred to it as "the message of the cross" (1:18), "Christ crucified" (1:23), "the testimony of God" (2:1), and "the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory (2:7; cf. Mark 4:11). There is no break in thought or change of topic before Paul mentions "the things of the Spirit of God." In fact, in verse 12 he tells us one reason why the Spirit of God is given: "Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God" (emphasis added).
Before the gift of the Holy Spirit, Paul was a natural, though extremely religious man. But in his natural state, not even he could have known "the things of the Spirit of God." Clearly, Paul is speaking throughout this passage about understanding the gospel. And just as clearly, he tells us that the natural man cannot understand the gospel (v. 14).
A natural man may understand the gospel in a superficial, intellectual sense. To be sure, intellectual understanding of the gospel is essential for salvation. Acknowledging the mystery of God’s dealings with infants or others who have no intellectual capacity for understanding, no one will be saved apart from a clear and accurate intellectual grasp of essential biblical truth. What I mean by "a superficial, intellectual sense," is this: A natural man may be able to recite Christian creeds, or properly state the basics of Christian doctrine. He may even appreciate the teachings of Jesus for their moral value and their effect on society. He may be an intelligent, thoughtful, sincere person who feels comfortable in church. He may even stand behind a pulpit or teach in a seminary classroom. But in His spirit, there is no desperate conviction or true hatred of sin, no true fear of a holy and just God, no true sense of his need to be saved, no genuine perception of an eternal kingdom or an eternal hell, no willingness to unreservedly lay down his life for Christ, and no true love for God.
I have known unregenerate people to say they understand the gospel. They say they understand that there is a heaven and a hell. They seem to have a certain fear of hell and a desire to go to heaven. They may even acknowledge the fact that Jesus is man’s only hope for salvation. Yet they prove themselves to be unregenerate because they do not repent of their sin or become followers of Christ, trusting in His promises, obeying His voice, and loving His people. Despite their claims, I can say with all certainty that these people do not understand.
Another illustration will help us to think rightly here: Imagine waking a man in the middle of the night and telling him that his house is on fire. Your warning is true. His house really is on fire. You urge him to get out of bed and rescue his wife and young children, all of whom will perish if he does not act quickly. The man responds by verbally acknowledging that he has heard your warning and that he understands the danger, but he takes no action.
Did this man truly understand? Your words of warning obviously entered his ears and evoked a coherent verbal response. He clearly heard and understood you in that sense. But nothing registered deeply enough to cause him to take action. He told you plainly that he understood that soon the fire would consume both him and his family. But the absence of any urgent and proper response proved that his "understanding" was not true or meaningful in any way.
It is inconceivable to think that a man who truly understood that his wife and children were going to burn to death made no move to save them. Even more inconceivable is that he truly understood that he was going to burn to death, yet made no move toward a readily available avenue of escape. Likewise, it is utterly inconceivable that anyone could truly understand his own guilt and continuing sinfulness, the holiness, power, justice, and wrath of God toward sinners, the eternal horrors of hell, or the unimaginable pleasures of eternal communion with God in heaven, and yet refuse the free offer of salvation in Christ. No matter what such a person says, he does not understand. This becomes even more certainly true when we realize that according to Jesus, everyone who truly understands will be saved. As He said:
No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the prophets, "And they shall all be taught by God." Therefore everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me (John 6:44-45, emphasis added).
No one who truly understands stays away from Christ through unbelief or unrepentance. Everyone who truly understands, everyone who has "heard and learned from the Father," comes to Christ in humble submission and trust. They are, in fact, drawn irresistibly to Him. In John 17:2-3, Jesus affirms this when He says that He will give eternal life to as many as the Father has given Him. And He goes on to say, "And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent." True understanding is eternal life.
Some of the Jews thought they understood and believed (cf. John 8:30). They saw themselves as perfectly able to grasp essential truth, and were certain that they, of all people, had done so. That is why they argued with Jesus when He said, "If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:31-32). Although they thought they had complete understanding, they had not yet come to realize their own bondage to sin. Therefore, they were offended when Jesus implied that they still needed to be set free from sin (v. 33). Jesus said to these supposed believers, "My word has no place in you" (v. 37). Then He shocked them with these words:
Why do you not understand My speech? Because you are not able to listen to My word. . . . because I tell the truth, you do not believe Me. . . . He who is of God hears God’s words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God" (John 8:43, 45, 47, emphasis added).
Jesus did not tell these men that they were unwilling to believe, although in a secondary sense that was certainly true. He told them they were unable to believe. These men, though highly intelligent and well educated in the Old Testament, had not been given "a heart to perceive and eyes to see and ears to hear" (Deuteronomy 29:4, cf. Matthew 13:9). To use the analogy of radio waves, their hearts, eyes, and ears (spiritually speaking) were not tuned to God’s frequency. Therefore they perceived the Son of God as a fraud and His words of truth as lies.
All men are born spiritually dead. Only those who are regenerated by God (i.e. born again) are able to understand. Only then are they able to repent and believe. Only then are they able to submit their wills to God and become pleasing to Him. Of necessity, then, regeneration precedes true understanding, genuine repentance, saving faith, and submission to Christ. In other words, the first move in making a Christian is God’s move. He is the only one who can adjust a person’s spiritual radio antenna to perceive truth as truth, thereby causing him to desire and seek salvation. He graciously makes that adjustment, when and in whom He pleases, through regeneration. And as Ezekiel said when He recorded God’s words of promise to His chosen people, it is a replacement more than an adjustment:
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them (Ezekiel 36:26-27).
Regenerate people are the ones spoken of in John 1:12, where John writes, "But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name." What kind of people are these who receive Christ through faith? Are they natural people? Or have they been changed by God? John goes on in the next verse to describe them as those "who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." People who believe were first created anew. They were born again, enabling them to believe. And it was not a decision of their will that prompted their new birth.
James tells us that it is God’s sovereign prerogative alone that prompts regeneration. " Of His own will He brought us forth [lit. "gave birth to us "] by the word of truth" (James 1:18, emphasis added). And Jesus compared the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit to the wind which "blows where it wishes." "So," He said," is everyone who is born of the Spirit" (John 3:8). Just as the path of the wind cannot be directed by men, so the time and place of the Spirit’s regenerating work cannot be controlled by the human will. "So then," as Paul writes, "it does not depend on the man who wills [i.e. the man who exercises faith], or the man who runs [i.e. the one who exerts religious effort], but on God who has mercy" (Romans 9:16, NASB ).
Only One Hope for the Natural Man
The natural man is in a terrible situation. He is sinful in every dimension of his being, enslaved to his own lusts and pleasures, defenseless against the temptations of the devil, and guilty by imputation. Even worse, he is so deceived about his own condition, so blinded to his desperate need, that he runs away from the light of truth. As Jesus said of the natural man:
And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed (John 3:19-20, emphasis added).
Natural man responds to God’s saving truth the way rats or roaches scatter when the lights are turned on. Just as these vermin hate to be exposed by physical light, the natural man hates for his sin to be exposed by the light of truth. This may not always be the outward appearance. Many will seem outwardly interested, receptive, and morally upright, though they remain in a natural state of depravity. But Jesus understood the deceitfulness of the human heart and was never fooled by outward appearances as we often are (cf. Jeremiah 17:9-10; John 2:23-25). As the prophet Samuel said, "God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7 NASB).
Apart from the grace of God in regeneration, the natural man has no hope of salvation. He possesses neither the desire nor the ability to love God, to keep His laws, to repent of sin, to trust in Christ, or to understand the gospel. Unless God mercifully intervenes, the natural man will suffer justly and eternally in hell. Humanly speaking, no natural person could ever be saved. No matter how many opportunities he is given, no matter how wide a gate is opened before him, no matter how winsomely Christ is presented, he simply cannot and will not see his need. He is dead in sin, having committed spiritual suicide in Adam. And as he continues to sin against God and reject His truth, he only hardens himself in his deadness.
The natural man’s hope of salvation is certainly not to be found in his own "free will." In fact, it is the depraved will of the natural man that is hopelessly loyal to sin, and therefore, causing him to treasure up wrath in the day of wrath (cf. Romans 2:5). If the natural man is to be saved, he must be saved not only from the wrath of God, but also from himself.
Part 2 of this article will be a discussion of the words, phrases, illustrations, and analogies we use in preaching to the unconverted.
1 Osteen, Joel, Your Best Life Now (New York: Warner Faith, 2004), 57-59.
2 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version Bible (NKJV).
3 The Valley of Vision, Arthur Bennett, ed. (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1975), 5.