But Spiritual Discernment is Wholly Lost Until we are Regenerated
This simplified version of the original writing is a contemporary adaptation that makes the theological concepts and principles of Calvin's thought more accessible and engaging for high school students.
by John Calvin
Understanding our own limits
We will now explore the power of human reason when it comes to the realm of God and spiritual understanding, which mainly consists of three things: knowledge of God, knowledge of His loving kindness towards us (which is the foundation of our salvation), and the way to live our lives according to God's law. However, when it comes to the first two aspects, and especially the second, even the most intelligent people can be as blind as moles.
It is true that in the writings of philosophers, we sometimes find clever and relevant observations about the nature of God, but these often seem to be based on wild imagination. As mentioned earlier, God has given them a small glimpse of His divine nature so that they cannot use ignorance as an excuse for their ungodliness. Sometimes, God has even inspired them to express some truths, which, ironically, condemn them. However, even though they may see some aspects of the truth, they are not able to fully grasp it or be guided by it. Their understanding is like that of a lost traveller who sees a flash of lightning in the night, but the light disappears before they can take a single step in the right direction. Such knowledge does not help them find the correct path. Moreover, their writings contain numerous errors mixed with the small fragments of truth that are scattered throughout their works as if by chance.
In summary, none of them come close to having the assurance of God's favour, without which the human mind remains in chaos and confusion. Human reason fails to comprehend the essential truths about the nature of God and His relationship with us.
Man's spiritual blindness shown from John 1:4-5
Since we often have an inflated opinion of our own understanding and find it difficult to accept that we are completely blind when it comes to divine matters, the most effective way to prove this point is not through arguments but by referring to the Scripture. The passage from the Gospel of John, which I mentioned earlier, is particularly relevant here: "In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not," (John 1:4-5). John suggests that the human soul is indeed illuminated by a ray of divine light, but it is not left entirely without a small flame or a spark. However, this light is not enough for us to understand God fully. Why is that? Because when it comes to knowing God, our sharpness of mind is actually blindness.
By describing people as "darkness," the Spirit tells us that they lack any spiritual understanding. This is why it is said that believers, when they accept Christ, are "born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God," (John 1:13). In other words, human nature does not have the capacity for such profound wisdom as to grasp God and divine matters unless it is enlightened by God's Spirit. Similarly, when Jesus was acknowledged by Peter, He declared that this recognition was due to a special revelation from the Father (Matthew 16:17).
Understanding God is a result of God's work
If we could accept a fact that should be indisputable—that human nature has none of the gifts that the chosen receive from their Heavenly Father through the regenerating Spirit—there would be no reason to doubt. The assembly of believers speaks through the words of the prophet: "With thee is the fountain of life: in thy light shall we see light," (Psalm 36:9). Similarly, the Apostle Paul says, "no one can say, 'Jesus is Lord,' except by the Holy Spirit," (1 Corinthians 12:3). And when John the Baptist noticed his disciples' lack of understanding, he exclaimed, "A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven," (John 3:27). It is clear that he was referring not to ordinary natural gifts but to special spiritual enlightenment, as he was expressing his frustration about how little his disciples had learned from his teachings about Christ. He realized that his words couldn't convey divine truths to people's minds unless the Lord illuminated their understanding with His Spirit.
Moses also pointed out that people couldn't become wise in God's mysteries without His help, even though they had witnessed His miracles in Egypt. He stated, "Yet the Lord has not given you a heart to perceive, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, to this day," (Deuteronomy 29:2-4). This statement couldn't be stronger, as it implies that we are incapable of understanding divine matters without God's intervention. The Lord promises, through the prophet Jeremiah, to give His people a special gift: "I will give them a heart to know me," (Jeremiah 24:7), indicating that human wisdom in spiritual matters only goes as far as He allows it.
Our Saviour Jesus confirmed this when he said, "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him," (John 6:44). Isn't Jesus Himself the living image of the Father, revealing the full splendour of His glory to us? Thus, our ability to know God is best demonstrated when it is declared that we cannot perceive His image, despite it being so clearly displayed. Jesus came into the world to make the Father's will known to humanity and fulfilled this mission. However, His preaching is only effective when the Spirit, the inner teacher, opens our minds. Consequently, only those who have heard and learned from the Father can come to Jesus. This hearing and learning occur when the Spirit uniquely and powerfully shapes our ears to hear and our minds to understand. Jesus refers to the prophecy of Isaiah, which promises the renewal of the Church: "For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion, I will bring you back," (Isaiah 54:7). If the Lord is promising a special blessing to His chosen, it means that the teaching He refers to is not the same as what is shared with the ungodly and profane.
It becomes clear that only those whose minds have been renewed by the Holy Spirit's enlightenment can enter the kingdom of God. Paul provides the most transparent explanation of this idea. After denouncing worldly wisdom as foolishness and vanity, thereby highlighting humanity's total lack of spiritual understanding, he concludes, "The natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he understand them, because they are spiritually appraised," (1 Corinthians 2:14). Who is this "natural man" that Paul refers to? It's the person who relies on the light of nature. Such a person cannot grasp the spiritual mysteries of God. Is it due to laziness or neglect? No, even with effort, it's useless, because these mysteries are "spiritually appraised."
So, what does this mean? Spiritual mysteries are hidden from human understanding and can only be revealed through the Holy Spirit. As a result, they seem like foolishness wherever the Spirit does not provide illumination. Paul had previously stated, "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for those who love him;" he also noted that the wisdom of the world acts like a veil, preventing the mind from seeing God (1 Corinthians 2:9). What more do we need? The Apostle asserts that God has "made foolish the wisdom of this world" (1 Corinthians 1:20). Should we then presume that worldly wisdom has the ability to penetrate the mysteries of God and His kingdom? Let us not entertain such arrogance!
The necessity of the Spirit's light in our understanding
What the Apostle denies to humanity in this regard, he attributes to God alone in another passage when he prays, "May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation" (Ephesians 1:17). You now hear that all wisdom and revelation are gifts from God. What follows? "The eyes of your understanding being enlightened." Surely, if our understanding needs to be newly enlightened, it must be blind on its own. The next words are, "that you may know the hope to which he has called you" (Ephesians 1:18). In other words, the human mind doesn't have the capacity to know its calling without God's help.
No one should claim that God simply overcomes our lack of understanding by providing us with the guidance of His word, which we wouldn't have found without Him. David had the law, which included all the wisdom one could desire. However, he wasn't satisfied with just having the law; he prayed, "Open my eyes, that I may see the wonderful truths in your law" (Psalm 119:18). By saying this, David implies that it's like sunrise on Earth when God's word shines forth. Yet, people don't benefit much from it unless God Himself, the Father of lights (James 1:17), either gives them eyes or opens their eyes; because without the illumination of His Spirit, everything remains in darkness.
The Apostles had been thoroughly and adequately taught by the best of teachers, Jesus. Nevertheless, since they still needed the Spirit of truth to complete their understanding of the very teachings they had previously received, they were instructed to wait for the Spirit (John 14:26). If we admit that what we ask of God is lacking in us, and God, by promising it, indicates our deficiency, no one can deny that we can only understand God's mysteries when we are illuminated by His grace. Those who claim to have more understanding than this are even more blind, as they fail to recognize their own blindness.
This selection by John Calvin was adapted from book 2, chapter 2 parts 18-21 of The Institutes of The Christian Religion,