The apostle Paul declares that “the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14). So unlike the spiritual person (1 Cor 2:13), the natural person does not accept nor is able to understand spiritual truths.
So that’s what Paul says. But what does he mean? Surely, natural people have something to say when it comes to grammar, maths, sciences, or even giving directions to the local market! So what is it that natural people do not accept or understand?
Signs and Things Signified
One way to answer this question is to use the language of signs and things. Now, a thing is anything on heaven or earth. A sign may be a thing, but it also signifies something else. So a red octagon that says “stop” constitutes a sign but it points to the reality that drivers ought to stop.
Practically, biologists study things like flowers, animals, or brains to define the characteristics and function of these things. They may vaguely understand that the orderliness and splendour of nature signify or point to something beyond what is in front of them. Often this “something” means a cloudy notion of Mother Nature or evolutionary processes.
They do not accept the notion that God created the world and by his providence flowers, animals, or brains work like they do. They study things and signs but do not accept the thing signified by this study, namely, God.
Nor Can They
Nor can they accept them because natural people “suppress the truth” (Rom 1:18). Paul explains:
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Paul claims that natural people “knew God” but became “futile in their thinking.” They knew God because creation proclaims the glory of God: “what can be known about God is plain to them.” Anyone can discern God’s invisible attributes by studying visible nature since they “have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”
So this explains why natural people are not able to know God. It is not about their intellectual ability but about their will. People naturally do not want to know God truly. Instead, they search for God and find him in creation. They exchange “the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.”
Naturalism has taken over the Western the world. Naturalism posits that we can understand the world through what we see, touch, smell, hear, and taste. We can test theories by repeatable patterns in nature, and we can come to firm conclusions. And everyone should affirm this part of naturalism
And yet by setting aside the spiritual realm as a possible object of study, many have exchanged the glory of the invisible God for what nature can reveal. Spiritual realities cannot be perceived or studied by naturalistic methods. But spiritual realities are just as real if not more real than natural phenomena. Yet these realities are precisely what naturalism remains agnostic about.
Consequently, natural people (who embrace naturalism) have defined how the world works in such a way as to exclude the possibility of the real presence of God in the cosmos. This illustrates how natural people work hard to avoid the conclusion that God exists and acts in our world.
Why Do They not Accept God?
If natural persons are not able to know God, why does Paul say they do not accept him? One answer is because being unable to know God is a question of will not intellectual ability. Paul means something like this: apart from the Holy Spirit who empowers and indwells believers, a natural person cannot will to accept the things of the Spirit nor can this person will to know God.
So here it is. A natural person can expertly understand things in creation and even discern visible signs of the invisible God. But he or she cannot discern their ultimate reality (God) or accept spiritual things without the Spirit. Hence, Christians can and should learn from natural people about science, maths, and other matters; but spiritual people will know that these things fit together by God’s ordered mind and providence and therefore point back to the invisible God and resound to his glory.
A natural person simply cannot do that.