Scripture and You

Can An Unbeliever Understand the Bible?

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
God's Word itself gives us the answer, and the reason.
From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

God's Word itself gives us the answer, and the reason.

Is the unbeliever who stands in a pulpit or teaches in a seminary classroom able to expound Scripture with understanding? Is your unsaved friend, neighbor, or family member truly able to understand the Word? First Corinthians 2:14 gives us the answer, and the reason:

But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

To understand this profound statement, we must examine the key words within it.

Who Is the Natural Man?

First of all, who is the "natural man"? Many Evangelical teachers will tell you that this is the "carnal Christian" who is living in sin. But that is not the point of the second chapter of First Corinthians. The Apostle Paul sets up a great contrast throughout the chapter - a great divide between the natural and the spiritual, between that which is of this world and is opposed to God, and that which is of God's Word, and of faith in Jesus Christ.

Paul speaks, on the one hand, of "human wisdom" (verse 4) - "the wisdom of men" (verse 5) - "the wisdom of this age" (verse 6) - "the things of man" (verse 11) - "the spirit of the world" (verse 12) - "man's wisdom" (verse 13). He speaks, on the other hand, of "the demonstration of the Spirit and of power" (verse 4) - "the power of God" (verse 5) - "the wisdom of God" and "hidden wisdom" (verse 7) - "the deep things of God" (verse 10) - "wisdom which the Holy Spirit teaches" (verse 13) - "things that are spiritually discerned" (verse 14) - "the mind of Christ" (verse 15).

The "natural man" is not a Christian - a man indwelled by the Holy Spirit. He is man controlled by the wisdom of other fallen men, the wisdom of this age, the things of man, and the spirit of this world. The natural man is not a Christian. He is an unbeliever.

The Natural Man's Position

Secondly, what is meant by the word "receive" in verse 14 - that "the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God"? The word in the Greek is deketai, which means to welcome, to take hold of, to grasp, and thus to accept as true. The unbeliever does not welcome the Word of God. He rejects it, denies it, and disputes it. He does not grasp God's Word, he misunderstands and misconstrues it. Therefore he does not accept it as infallible, authoritative truth that by its very nature demands his submission.

Thirdly, we are told that the natural, unsaved man views God's Word as "foolishness." The word translated "foolishness" in verse 14 is the Greek word from which we get the English word "moron". To the unbelieving mind, to the humanistic mind, the Bible is foolishness. Biblical Christianity is the talk of morons. We Christians are morons. We certainly see that attitude among unbelievers today. That is the position of the natural man, the unsaved man, in contrast with the position of the spiritual man, the saved man.

Fourthly, we are told that the natural man cannot "know" the things of the Spirit of God. The words in the Greek mean that the natural man lacks even the capability to understand these things.

Fifthly, we are told in verse 14 why this is true: "because they are spiritually discerned." The Greek is, literally, "because by the aid of the Spirit they are learned, through the process of careful study."

What is the sum of all of this? First Corinthians 2:14 tells us two important things about man in relation to Scripture.

The Prerequisites for Understanding Scripture

First, no one can truly believe that the Bible is the Word of God unless he is already a Christian. That may sound like a paradox, but it is not. The understanding of the fact that the Bible is truly the Word of God does not come first. New life comes first. The Holy Spirit comes first. He regenerates the individual. He indwells the individual. God makes you a Christian first. Then He illuminates the Bible for you.

If you really believe and understand that this is the Word of God, that understanding is the result of illumination by the Holy Spirit. You can only have it because you have believed on the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior. Otherwise, it is impossible.

To put it the opposite way: If you have not believed on the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior, you cannot possibly have come to the point where you truly believe and fully understand that the Bible is the Word of God. The non-Christian may say that he believes this is the Word of God. But the fact is that the non-Christian does not even know what it means to say that the Bible is the Word of God.

Secondly, no one can truly understand and properly interpret the Word of God unless he is a Christian. Verse 12 tells us, "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." But here is the contrast, verse 14: "But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them."

He is utterly incapable of knowing them. Why? "Because they are spiritually discerned" - they are learned by the aid of the Spirit, through the process of careful study. The natural man does not have the indwelling Spirit of God. As Jesus said to the unbelieving Jewish religious leaders, "He who is of God hears God's words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God" (John 8:47).

The non-Christian utterly lacks the power to properly understand and interpret God's Book, because he does not have the power of spiritual perception that comes only from the indwelling Holy Spirit. Unless the Author of the Book has regenerated you, unless He is dwelling in you, it is impossible for you to handle the Bible properly.

What About You?

Dear reader, in which position are you? Are you still a natural man who needs to bow the knee to the Word of God by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit? Do you need to be redeemed from your sins through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ? If that is your position, we urge you to contact us. We will be glad to explain to you how you can be saved, how you can become capable of understanding the riches of God's Word.

On the other hand, can you say that you are trusting in Christ alone for your salvation from sin, and increasing in your understanding of the Scriptures by careful study, aided by the Holy Spirit? That is an evidence of your salvation. To you God's Word says, in the inspired words of the Apostle Paul:

We give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you... that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all might, according to His glorious power, for all patience and longsuffering with joy; giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:3, 9-14)

For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience [literally, the perseverance] and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope. (Romans 15:4)

Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13)

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