How We Know What We Know

I Corinthians 2:10-13

November 16, 2003 | Ray Pritchard

“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” (I Corinthians 2:10-13).

This passage teaches us four important truths about the Holy Spirit and the believer:

1) The Holy Spirit reveals the truth of God to us. That’s verse 10. To “reveal” means to make clear that which was previously hidden or unknown. The Holy Spirit “turns on the lights” for us so that we can see the truth of God. And if the Holy Spirit did not “turn on the lights” for us, we would still be in the darkness.

2) The Holy Spirit can reveal the truth of God to us because he knows the mind of God infallibly. That’s verse 11. Paul argues by analogy from the lesser to the greater. Even among people who know each other very well, communication is difficult at best. For instance, when my wife and I have a conversation, there is always the challenge of communicating to each other what we really mean. On my side of the equation, you have what I am thinking, what I meant to say, what I said, and what I thought I said. On her side, there is what she hears, what she thought she heard, what she wanted to hear, and what she wishes she had heard. When she speaks, the process works in reverse. So with just two people, you might have a dozen different messages and intentions flying back and forth. No wonder communication is difficult. I know what I’m thinking but it’s often hard to put my thoughts into words. You only know what you hear me say. My “spirit” knows what I intend even though my words may fall short of my intentions. Now take that truth over to the divine realm. The Holy Spirit knows the mind of God because the Holy Spirit is God. He searches out the “deep things” of God. Nothing is hidden from him. Because he knows the mind of God, he can communicate the truth about God to us. Nothing is lost in translation.

3) The Holy Spirit enables us to understand the message of the gospel. That’s verse 12. Note the phrase, “what God has freely given us.” That refers to all that Jesus Christ accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection from the dead. Because of the Holy Spirit, we can understand the true meaning of the cross. Apart from the Spirit, the message of the cross will be lost to us. That’s why some people can come to church, hear the gospel over and over again, and the truth washes over them like water off a duck’s back. They never “get it” even though they hear the message many times. A lost person may know the facts of the gospel—e.g., that Jesus Christ died and rose again. But it is the Holy Spirit who enables us to know why Jesus had to die, how our sins sent him to the cross, and what his death means to us personally. Apart from the Spirit, I may know the facts of the gospel, but I will never grasp their meaning for my life.

4) The Holy Spirit teaches us what to say when we witness to others. That’s verse 13. When Paul says, “This is what we speak,” he is probably referring not just to himself or the other apostles, but to all Christians. We do not follow the world’s wisdom in the way we proclaim the gospel. That is, we reject manipulation, dishonesty, flattery, intimidation, and all other worldly methods. Instead we plainly speak the truth of the gospel to anyone who will listen. Our goal is clarity, charity, honesty and humility. The Holy Spirit helps us as we depend on him. He enables us to speak spiritual truth in spiritual words.

Two Vital Questions

This passage answers two questions that we often think about but rarely discuss openly. First, why do some people not believe? Anyone who has ever shared Christ has wondered about the mystery of unbelief. Why is it that some people hear the gospel over and over again and still do not believe it? Why do some people listen to Billy Graham preach a dozen times but still never come to Christ? Or to bring it closer to home, why do some of our loved ones—friends and family members—resist our efforts to bring them to saving faith in Jesus? The second question is the flip side of the first: Why did we believe the gospel? In some ways this is just as mysterious as the first question. What was it in us that caused us to believe in Jesus? It’s easier to answer that question in the negative. It’s not as if we are smart and lost people are dumb. There are plenty of brilliant lost people all around us. And it’s not that we are educated and they aren’t. You can find plenty of Ph.D.s who don’t want anything to do with Jesus. It’s not that we’re rich and they’re poor, and it’s obviously not that we’re so good-looking and they are ugly. I submit that there is nothing in our environment that caused us to come to Christ. And it’s not that we had a genetic predisposition to believe the gospel.

What is the true difference between those who believe and those who don’t? According to this passage, the difference is God. The Holy Spirit came to us and revealed the truth to us, and if he had not come to us, we never would have found the truth on our own. To say that is not to deny the reality of the human will and the necessity of believing in Christ. It does not downplay the choice we all must make to “seek the Lord while he may be found.” We don’t have to choose between human initiative and God’s grace in salvation. Our text simply tells us that the first move belongs to God.

A Letter from Prison

Not along ago I got a letter from a friend named Paul. I know Paul is my friend because he writes me all the time, even though we’ve never met. Paul is an inmate in a prison in Charlotte, North Carolina. A few months ago he read my book An Anchor for the Soul and wrote to say how much it had helped him. I wrote back and sent him a printed copy of one of my sermons. The book and the sermon touched him so much that he started a Bible study for the men on his cell block. They started with four men but it grew quickly to six, then eight, then ten, and now 15-20 men from his cell block get together to study the Bible. A few weeks ago Paul sent me a greeting card signed by all the men in the Bible study. They wrote all over the card so I had to turn it upside down to read all their notes. In the center Paul wrote this message:

Dr. Ray, we just wanted to show you our gratitude and thank you for all your support. We were the worst of the worst at one time but ministries like yours have given us hope when we thought all was lost. We just want you to know that the Holy Spirit is alive and well in jail. And we thank you. God bless you.

Paul enclosed a personal letter with the card. He wanted to make sure that I got the message:

The people that signed this card range from misdemeanor crimes to drugs and even murder, but we have all figured out that God is the only way. We just wanted you and your congregation to know that the Holy Spirit is alive and well in jails and prisons and that if any member of your congregation has somebody in that situation to keep on preaching the Word and stand on it. Never doubt that God can handle it. One word from God can change everything. If God can forgive a group of men like us, he can save anybody. We are living proof that God is in the miracle business. We give all the praise to the Almighty God who sent his Son to the cross to bear the burden of our sins. He showed us just how much he loved us. … Tell your congregation about the miracle happening. The Holy Spirit is upon us. God bless you.

Note what he said: “Never doubt that God can handle it. One word from God can change everything.” I like that—it sounds like something the Apostle Paul would write. My friend Paul and the Apostle Paul would agree—one word from God can change everything.

Totally Dead

Behind this truth stands the great biblical doctrine of total human inability. Apart from God’s grace, we are all lost, dead, blind, deaf, and so far gone in sin that if someone doesn’t rescue us we will be lost for all eternity. As Paul puts it in Ephesians 2:1-3, we are all truly dead apart from God’s grace. We aren’t “partly dead” or “mostly dead.” We are truly dead and utterly separated from the God who created us. And that’s why unbelief is the natural human condition. Paul was never surprised by unbelief, and we should not be surprised either. None of us starts in a “neutral” position relative to God. We’re all born on the “negative” side and that’s where we stay until we are rescued by grace. And that’s why Paul emphasizes the work of the Holy Spirit in this passage. It is the Holy Spirit who reveals the things of God to us.

That’s true even after we become believers. This week a friend stopped by to see me for a few minutes. She brought the good news that after decades of various trials, things were going well for her at last. Three different times during our meeting she thanked me for my sermons over the years. And she repeatedly said that when I preach, it’s as if she’s the only one in the room. Often she wonders, “How did Pastor Ray know that about me?” Every pastor hears comments like that from time to time. To those who may hear me preach every week, let me put your mind at ease. I’m not tapping your telephone or reading your e-mail. And I don’t follow anyone around during the week. I have enough trouble taking care of myself, much less anyone else. If when I preach, you feel as if I’m speaking directly to you, that’s the Holy Spirit at work. It’s not me and it’s not my sermon or my preparation. That’s the Lord taking the Word and bringing it home to your heart.

No Room for Boasting

What should we learn from this passage? Here are four implications for us to consider:

1) There is no room for boasting. Why boast in what we’ve done? Our only “contribution” to our salvation was the sin that made salvation necessary. We are not saved by our works—it is Christ who saves us by faith. If we boast in anything, let’s boast in the Lord. Don’t take any credit for your salvation. Give it all to Jesus.

2) There is no need for anger. At this point I’m thinking about those occasions when we witness to someone and they reject not only our witness—but they seem to reject us as well. Perhaps they ridicule us or patronize us or do something that makes us want to smack them in the face. I recommend that you not do that. Few people come to Christ after being smacked in the face. If we get angry when we witness, it means that we don’t understand how God works to bring people to faith. Our anger testifies to our lack of faith in God. Far better to walk away without getting into an argument. It is better yet to pray as we walk away—for ourselves and for the other person, that God will reveal himself to them through the Holy Spirit.

3) Our greatest weapon is prayer. This follows from all that I have said so far. If we believe that salvation is a supernatural miracle wrought by the Holy Spirit in the heart of the unbeliever, then before we witness, and while we witness, and after we witness, our greatest act of kindness will be to pray for those who do not know the Lord. Prayer frees us from anger because it brings God into the equation. When we pray, we recognize that unless God works in the heart, our words will be ineffective.

4) This truth should lead to profound gratitude. Once we understand that everything depends on God and not on us, we will bow in wonder before the Lord, praising him for giving us eyes to see and ears to hear and a heart to believe and obey.

God’s Judgment on Humanity

Romans 3:10-12 reveals the true condition of the human heart apart from God’s grace: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.” Please understand. This is God’s judgment on the whole human race.

No one righteous.

No one who understands.

No one who seeks God.

This is God’s evaluation as he looks down from heaven. He doesn’t see a single righteous person—not even one. But how can this be? How can God look down at six billion people and not see even one righteous man? Is this not an overly-harsh judgment? The answer is that God judges according to a different standard than the one we use. Most of us grade on the curve. That is, we look to our neighbor and say, “Well, I’m not as bad as he is.” Or we compare ourselves with someone we know at work who makes us look good by comparison. But God doesn’t judge that way. When he looks down from heaven, the standard he uses is his own sinless perfection. He compares us to his own perfect holiness, his own perfect love, his own perfect wisdom, his own perfect justice. And compared with God’s own perfection, there is no one—not even one person—who comes close to being righteous in his eyes.

Where, then, will you find a righteous man on the earth? In Brazil? No. In Cambodia? No. In Japan? No. In Malaysia? No. In Turkey? No. In Israel? No. In America? No. Will you find a righteous man in Congress? You must be kidding! How about Hollywood? Forget it! Oak Park? Sorry. River Forest? Not a one. Forest Park? Nope. Is there anywhere in all the earth where we could find a truly righteous man? The answer is no. From God’s point of view there isn’t a single righteous person in the entire human race.

Not only are we sinful in our natures, but there is no one among us who truly seeks God.

1. We do not understand the truth about God.

2. We do not seek God on our own.

The word for “seek” means to “seek with determination.” While there are many who claim to seek God, there is no one who by nature seeks God with wholehearted determination. Many people—even many Christians—doubt this is true. We secretly think that millions of people are seeking God the best way they can. Paul says no. Man left to himself never seeks God. He always turns to idolatry. To put matters in a broader perspective, if any man truly seeks God, it is only because the Holy Spirit is working in his heart. Without that inner wooing of the Spirit, no one would ever come to Christ.

This helps explain why the world is so messed up. The politician who is confused about God will ultimately be confused about the world God has made. Because he is confused about the world God made, the solutions he proposes will always be less than ideal. Because his solutions are based on a faulty world view, they will come to failure again and again. A warped view of God leads to a warped view of the world that leads to warped thinking that produces wrong ideas, empty solutions, and bad decisions. But it all starts in the mind—”There is no one who understands.”

The Seal and the Wax

Here are two things God has done for our salvation:

1) He sent his Son to accomplish the work of redemption.

2) He sent his Spirit so that we could understand what the Son has done.

Without Christ, salvation would not be possible. Without the Spirit, we would never receive the benefits of what Christ has done for us. That is why we must both preach the gospel and pray for softened hearts. Charles Simeon of Cambridge illustrated the truth this way. Imagine that you have some sort of legal seal in your right hand and a ball of wax in your left hand. When the seal is pressed into the wax, it leaves an impression that will harden as the wax hardens. Now suppose that the wax is already hard. What happens when you press the seal against it? Nothing. You might as well hit the seal against wood or metal. The seal leaves no impression when the wax is hard. Something must soften the wax or the seal will be useless. The seal is like the message of the gospel, and the wax is the human heart. By nature all men have hard hearts because of sin. When the message of the gospel is preached to men with hard hearts, they pay no attention to it. It makes no impression on them. They laugh it off, they ridicule it, or they simply ignore it. What can melt the hard wax of the human heart? Simeon points out that the Bible often likens the Holy Spirit to fire. When the fire of the Holy Spirit works upon a hardened heart, the “wax” is melted and the heart becomes soft. And when the heart is soft, the “seal” of the gospel message leaves a permanent impression on the heart. That is why, as we preach the gospel, we must pray that the Holy Spirit will soften hearts in the process. Until that happens, our preaching will produce no lasting impression.

“You must be born again”

As I come to the end of this message, let me ask you, where do you stand with the Lord? Are you on the outside or the inside? Perhaps it is now clear to you that you need the salvation Christ offers. This is God’s message: “You must be born again.” But you protest, “I’m a good person.” God says, “You must be born again.” But you say, “I’ve got a good education.” “You must be born again.” “I’m rich.” “You must be born again.” Perhaps you will say, “You don’t understand. I’m rich and educated and good-looking.” We’re happy for you. God still says, “You must be born again.” “But I’m religious,” you say. That might be the most dangerous condition of all. To every religious person, God says, “You must be born again.”

Do you see your need for salvation?

Do you now see that Jesus is the Son of God who died for you?

Do you believe that he rose from the dead on the third day?

Do you understand your true condition apart from God’s grace?

You are blind and only God can give you sight.

You are sick and only God can make you well.

You are dead and only God can give you life.

You are lost and only God can rescue you.

If this is what you need, cast yourself on the mercy of God. Do it now. Cry out, “Open my eyes and let me see Jesus.” God will not turn you away if you call out to him in Jesus’ name.

And for the rest of us, this great truth should fill us with nothing less than total gratitude to our gracious God. Write over you salvation, Soli Deo Gloria! To God alone be the Glory! Let each person say, “I never would have seen the truth if God had not given me sight. I never would have found it on my own. I didn’t find Christ, he found me!” But for the grace of God, you might still be lost and far gone in sin. Give thanks to the Lord and bless his name.

One final word. Let this truth be an incentive to evangelism and prayer. Only God can save the lost, and he has ordained that our preaching and our prayers are his plan to reach those without Jesus. Many of us have loved ones who today are far from the Lord. Let us resolve that we will never give up, we will never stop praying, we will never stop witnessing, we will never stop believing that our friends and loved ones will come to Christ. We serve an Almighty God who holds every heart in his hands. Keep believing. Those who are far away may soon be drawn near by the sovereign grace of God. May it be so, and may it be soon. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?