No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” – but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.
The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us.
This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgment: “For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:7-16)
Verse 9 is often taken to mean that the things of God are so exceedingly profound and transcendent that they remain beyond our ability to imagine or to understand: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.” Christians use it to express praise and wonder toward God, and to affirm the incomprehensibility of the Christian faith. However, the verse is rarely cited in context, and when cited in context, the context is often ignored.
Earlier in 1:18, Paul says that the message of the cross appears foolish to those who are perishing, but those who are being saved perceive that it is the power of God. This is not because the gospel is indeed foolish, but the reprobates falsely perceive it as foolish. As he explains in 1:21, this is by God’s design: “God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom” (NLT).
The non-Christians consider themselves intelligent and that they have no need for God to teach them. They think that they are intellectually self-sufficient, so that by their own wisdom and power they could discover and understand all that there is to discover and understand. Thus God has decided to frustrate their efforts, and to see to it that they will never know him by human wisdom. Instead, he will reveal himself and the way of salvation by the message of the cross, the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Then, in 2:1-5, Paul writes that when he preached to the Corinthians, his message was not filled with rhetorical fireworks and sophisticated arguments, nor did he overwhelm them with stage presence or his knowledge of science and philosophy. Rather, his materials consisted of only what was in the Christian faith, and he depended on the Holy Spirit to convince and to convert. Verses 6 and 7 state that he nevertheless speaks a message of wisdom, only that this is not the wisdom of non-Christians, which God has determined to humiliate and destroy. Instead, he speaks God’s wisdom, which “God destined for our glory before time began.”
The non-Christian rulers did not understand God’s wisdom, he continues in verse 8, for if they had understood it, they would not have murdered Jesus Christ. It is in this context that Paul cites Isaiah 64:4 in verse 9: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him,” and then he adds, “but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit” (v. 10). So Paul contrasts human wisdom and divine wisdom, human sophistry and divine power, and those who cannot understand God’s wisdom (v. 8) and those who do understand it (v. 10).
The point of verse 9 is not that the human mind cannot understand the things of God – it is not referring to intellectual profundity or difficulty. Rather, it is referring to method of discovery. Again, “God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom,” and this is why no eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has conceived the things of God. Man cannot know God by his sensation, intuition, or imagination. He cannot discover and know God by his own human abilities. Both empiricism and rationalism are unable to grasp reality. “But God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.” Man can know God only by revelation, by God disclosing his own thoughts and knowledge. This means that when Christians apply verse 9 to themselves, they are putting themselves in the position of non-Christians, even in the position of those who would murder Jesus Christ. When they assert that the things of God are so exceedingly great that they are beyond their ability to understand, they proclaim themselves to be reprobates, as those who would betray Christ and nail him to the cross.
Verse 11 says, “No one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” Does this mean that we cannot know the thoughts of God? But Paul continues, “We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us.” Either you have the spirit of the world or the Spirit of God. If you have the spirit of the world, then you are a non-Christian, and it is no wonder that you do not understand the things of God. But if you are a Christian, then you have the Spirit of God, and if you have the Spirit of God, then you can understand the things of God, even the very “thoughts of God.” If you can understand “what God has freely given us,” then you can understand creation, providence, the covenants, divine election, the incarnation, justification, sanctification, the promises and glories of the life to come, and hundreds of other doctrinal points and thousands of other biblical passages.
What about Herman Bavinck’s statement, which reflects the view of many believers and church leaders? “In truth, the knowledge that God has revealed of himself in nature and Scripture far surpasses human imagination and understanding.” If we have any respect for Paul at all, this must mean that Bavinck was a non-Christian, and that he would have killed Jesus Christ. If we are permitted to show leniency, we could say that Bavinck was a misguided and confused Christian who had no idea what he was saying, and unknowingly taught false doctrine and deceived the sheep. Leniency is one thing, but it is impossible to avoid the implication of Paul’s teaching – reprobates cannot understand God, but as believers we can understand God because he has revealed himself and given us his Spirit, so that if you say you cannot understand his revelation, it must mean that you lack the Spirit of God and that you declare yourself a reprobate. The irony is that Christians use this declaration as a slogan for praise and worship.
Or, consider this from D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: “But I want to underline this and even to emphasize it still further. I must submit myself entirely to the Bible, and that will mean certain things. First, I start by telling myself that when I come to read the Bible and its doctrines, I am entering into a realm that is beyond the reach of my understanding.” Where does this come from? Where does the Bible teach this?
He continues, “By definition, I shall be dealing with things that are beyond my power to grasp.” By definition? Whose definition? Paul says that God gives us revelation (v. 10) so that we may understand (v. 12). Thus according to the apostle, revelation is something that, by definition, we can understand, that is, if we have received the Spirit of God (v. 12, 14). On the other hand, Paul indicates that revelation is beyond the grasp of reprobates, of those without the Spirit of God, and of those who would kill Jesus Christ. Does Lloyd-Jones think that he is one of these people? He says, “The very idea of revelation, in and of itself, I suggest to you, must carry that implication.” But our passage asserts the opposite, except for the reprobates. Rather, the very idea of revelation, when referring to Christians, denotes explicit knowledge and understanding.
Then, “If I could understand God, I would be equal with Him. If my mind were able to apprehend and to span the truth about God, then it would mean that my mind is equal to the mind of God, and that, of course, is altogether wrong.” If by “understand” he means an exhaustive knowledge of God, then this is admittedly impossible, if for no other reason than that God has not revealed everything about himself. But this would be a strange use of the word. But if by “understand” he means that we cannot even grasp what has been revealed, and indeed he has just said this above, then he is saying that our passage, the Bible itself, is “altogether wrong.” To put this another way, Lloyd-Jones is saying, “Who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?” Paul has an answer to that: “But we have the mind of Christ.”
This way of thinking, whether expressed by Bavinck or Lloyd-Jones, or by lesser figures, represents a hostile stance toward Scripture, and if they knew what they were saying, it amounts to a renunciation of the faith and of their salvation. By this doctrine of incomprehensibility they portray themselves as reprobates, as without the Spirit of God, and as those who would kill Jesus Christ. Lloyd-Jones says that he must submit “entirely to the Bible,” and the first step is to affirm that he cannot understand revelation. But he lies and fails his own standard, because he does not submit to 1 Corinthians 2. Paul teaches the opposite. He writes that the Spirit of God searches even “the deep things of God” and the “thoughts of God,” and we have received “the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand.” Yet the reprobate mentality seems to dominate in the church; it must be vehemently opposed by all who know the truth.
“The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them.” When a non-Christian tells you that the Christian faith seems foolish to him, what does he mean? He means that it seems wrong to him, or more specifically, that it is contrary to facts, to logic, to experience, or some such thing. What is the difference between this opinion and the view, held by many Christians, that God’s revelation is filled with mysteries, paradoxes, and contradictions, or the view that something like the existence of evil is both a logically and experientially difficult issue for the Christian faith? There is no essential difference. Any difference is only in the response: the non-Christians regard the gospel as foolish, and therefore they refuse to believe it; the Christians who think the same way also regard the gospel as foolish, but they claim to believe it, and they say that this is the way it should be, even the way it must be. But this is not the way that it should be for Christians. A man who thinks that the things of God are foolishness, and who cannot understand them, is a man “without the Spirit.” The Bible says that he is a carnal man, an unspiritual man.
It is as if the preachers and theologians say to themselves, “If I say that God is so great that he cannot be understood, that I cannot understand, I will be extolling his greatness without having to strive for understanding or conformity to his teachings. I will be showing how humble I am, and if I tell people about this, then they will know how humble I am too.” But this is not humility. Essentially, it is idolatry. A person who thinks that to magnify God and to diminish self means that no comprehension of the divine can remain is really one who constructs in his mind a God that is not the revealed God, a God who in fact does not exist as this man conceives him. But he tells the people: “This is the God who took you out of Egypt!” And then he worships, and tells others to worship. The God of the Bible is a God who has revealed himself and who has given his Spirit to men so that they can understand him.
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?” The preachers and theologians answer, “No one!” Yet Paul says, “But we have the mind of Christ.” Verse 13 properly describes the Spirit’s inspiration: “This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words.” This refutes the notion, also popular in Christian circles, that the things of God cannot be expressed in words. Paul says that they can, and these words were given by the Holy Spirit. And it is in this context that he says, “We have the mind of Christ.”
Someone said that we must always maintain the Creator-creature distinction. Of course, but this is why when the Creator tells you that you can understand something, you better agree that you can understand it! This theologian meant to defend our inability to understand or his idea of God’s incomprehensibility, but he was the one who failed to maintain the Creator-creature distinction. He spoke as if he was equal with God, and able to contradict God concerning the possibilities of the human mind. God says that men who have the Spirit of God can understand the things of God, even such an explicit and precise understanding as teachings expressed in words. This theologian said that we could at best understand only in some analogical rather than univocal sense – utter nonsense. This invention was an excuse to subvert the truth, and the Bible never teaches it. It was an attempt to claim to be a Christian but to be a non-Christian. He spoke as if he was equal to or even greater than the Creator. This is the essence of arrogance and the root of heresy.
There is only one truth but many aberrations. Paul clearly sets forth the matter: “We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us.” Those who cannot understand are reprobates, non-Christians, and do not have the Spirit of God. But Christians have the Spirit of God, and are able to understand. This understanding refers to more than a general sense or feeling, but to an intellectual comprehension of the words that God has revealed to the prophets and apostles. It is not some analogical understanding, which amounts to no understanding at all, but it is an intellectual comprehension of, and one that is identical to, the very “thoughts of God,” the thoughts that the Spirit of God has grasped and revealed to us in words, so it is even said that we have the mind of Christ. This is the biblical teaching. Anything less or different is false doctrine.