January 23, 2018

Thoroughly Human Thinking

Andrew Hudson

FrontLine • July/August 2014

The fall of mankind into sin has caused corruption to human thinking (Titus 1:15). This is evidenced by the repeated appeals in the New Testament for believers to renew their thinking (Rom. 12:2; Col. 3:10). This raises the question, “What is fallen man’s thinking like?” The answer to this question is multifaceted. Fallen man is unable to understand spiritual truth (Rom. 3:11; 1 Cor. 2:14). Fallen man is susceptible to the deception of the Devil (Rev. 13:14). Fallen man considers Biblical truth foolish and mocks those who believe it (1 Cor. 2:14; Jude 18). Fallen man elevates his own thinking over the truth of the Bible (Rom. 1:21–23; 12:3).

Even though the thinking of man is corrupt because of sin, he has not lost the ability to think altogether. He can still formulate rational thoughts. Man is created in the image of God, which includes an ability to think rationally (Isa. 1:18). This is one of the aspects of man that distinguishes mankind from animals. Man’s ability to think was marred at the Fall but not completely lost. Lost men can make airplanes that fly and decide where to fly them. They can design working computers and write code to direct them. They can organize charitable organizations and feed thousands of hungry people. They can decide when to get up, what to wear, how much to eat, whom to marry, and where to live and work.[1] What an unsaved human cannot do is understand the spiritual significance of flying, computing, helping, or marrying. As a result, his thinking is skewed in every area of life. His thinking is never Christlike.

Three Ways of Thinking

Paul addressed the nature of man’s thinking in 1 Corinthians. The first issue that Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians is the elevation of human wisdom that threatened to corrupt the gospel (1 Cor. 1:10–4:21). This was most evident in the divisions in the church (1 Cor. 1:11–17). As part of this discussion Paul contrasts human wisdom with divine wisdom. This contrast is expanded in 1 Corinthians 2:6–3:4. Paul identifies three ways man thinks. The natural man (unsaved) can think only according to human wisdom. He is not indwelt by the Holy Spirit and thus cannot think according to divine wisdom. The spiritual man (saved) is indwelt by the Holy Spirit and thus is able to think according to divine wisdom. That is why there are appeals for believers in the NT to renew their thinking (e.g., Rom. 12:2). Believers are to replace human wisdom with divine wisdom.

Paul addresses a third person in 1 Corinthians 3:1–4. The “carnal” man (saved) is a believer who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit and yet still thinks according to human wisdom. Paul literally says the carnal man is a brother (3:1) who is “not . . . spiritual but . . . carnal” (3:1) and is walking according to man (3:3). It is possible for him to walk according to the Spirit, but he chooses to walk according to human wisdom. The presence of “carnal” Christians who prized human wisdom at Corinth produced the need for Paul to clarify the gospel (which they were corrupting by their human thinking).

Paul compares the thinking of the spiritual believer with the thinking of the “carnal” believer in 1 Corinthians 4:6– 13. Apparently, the “carnal” Corinthian believers thought Paul was a weak apostle because he did not value human wisdom like they (and their so called super-apostles) did. Paul, on the other hand, taught that the Corinthian believers were poor servants of Christ because they did not follow divine wisdom like he did (1 Cor. 4:6, 7). Indeed, these carnal believers were following the thinking of unsaved philosophers who thought they were the only ones with sufficient maturity to rule rightly.[2] Paul proceeds to describe both the “carnal” Christian’s thinking (human wisdom) and his own thinking (divine wisdom) (1 Cor. 4:8–13). Through this contrast between “carnal” and spiritual thinking Paul reveals what is at the core of thoroughly human thinking.

Three Suppositions
Paul identifies three presuppositions that are at the core of thoroughly human thinking (whether that thinking comes from a natural man or a “carnal” believer). Human wisdom presupposes that man is self-satisfied (full),[3] self-sufficient (rich),[4] and self-governing (reigning)[5] (1 Cor. 4:8). These presuppositions caused some Corinthian believers to interpret their ability to speak in tongues as an indication that they had reached a state of spiritual maturity akin to glorification. Therefore, they elevated their thinking above Paul’s apostolic doctrine (and above the divine wisdom revealed in God’s Word). Paul demonstrates the falsehood of these presuppositions by sharing his personal experience (1 Cor. 4:9–13).
Human Wisdom Divine Wisdom
Self-satisfied (4:8) Growing in God (4:12b, 13)
Self-sufficient (4:8) Depending upon God (4:11, 12a)
Self-governing (4:8) Submitting to God (4:9, 10)

First, the “carnal” Corinthian believers presupposed they were “full” (i.e., “I do not need to change”). This word connotes the idea of “having enough” or “being satiated.”[6] These “carnal” believers were satisfied with where they were spiritually. When they looked at themselves they did not see a need to change. They thought they had arrived spiritually. This is exactly what natural man presupposes. We see this in lost culture today in the emphasis on selfesteem. Secular culture encourages lost men to feel good about themselves. Man does not need to change; he just needs to be satisfied with himself. In both “carnal” and lost people, self-satisfaction is accomplished by replacing God’s standard with one’s own standard. In Jesus’ day the Pharisees did this with their tradition. In Corinth the “carnal” believers chose human wisdom for their standard.

Paul rehearses his personal experience in order to demonstrate the falsehood of this presupposition (1 Cor. 4:12b, 13). Paul says that he is reviled, persecuted, and slandered. He also says that he is considered to be the scum of this world and garbage of all things. What Paul describes is certainly far short of “having enough” or “being satisfied.” Paul anticipates far more in the coming age. Certainly, Paul looked more like the description of Christ in Isaiah 53:2b, 3 which says, “He hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”[7] Paul chose divine wisdom for his standard, and it put him at odds with the world.

Second, the “carnal” Corinthian believers presupposed they were “rich” (i.e., “I do not need any help”). Their wealth was not physical but spiritual. They thought they had such spiritual wealth that they no longer needed the Lord’s help. They saw no need to depend on the Lord. They were even acting like they generated their own spiritual gifts rather than admitting they were a gift from God. They felt they could live the Christian life without any help from the Lord. Natural man also believes he has no need for God’s help. Former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura, when he was governor of Minnesota, attempted to legislate self-reliance. He stated publicly that religion was a crutch for the weak. Lost man does not feel a need for God’s help. He may momentarily realize that he is not in control (e.g., after 9/11). But that realization is short lived. He soon returns to his selfreliance (foolishly believing he is in control of his life).

Paul’s life illustrates the truth that every human is dependent upon God in all things. In 1 Corinthians 4:11, 12a Paul says that he is hungry, thirsty, poorly clothed, beaten, homeless, and working a job out of necessity. This is certainly not a description of one who is “rich.” Paul is not mandating poverty as a requirement for spiritually minded people. He is using his physical reality to illustrate his need to depend on the Lord in all matters of his life. Human wisdom sees no reason to thank God because God did nothing to help. Divine wisdom praises and thanks God because man does nothing without God’s help.

Third, the “carnal” Corinthian believers presupposed they were “reigning as kings” (i.e., “No one will tell me what to do”). They believed the lie that they were so spiritual that they did not need anyone telling them how to behave. Their knowledge and gifts were sufficient for them to govern themselves. Their presupposition led them to seriously question everything Paul taught them. They found “super-apostles” who would endorse their selfgovernance. They replaced the authority of God with the authority of self. They claimed to be their own god. Natural man also worships himself as god (Rom. 1:25). Lost man is fiercely independent. He does not want anyone to tell him what to do. He recognizes no other authority but himself.

Paul again refutes this way of thinking with his personal experience (1 Cor. 4:9, 10). He describes himself as one sentenced to die. He is not sitting in a place of honor or declaring the sentence of death. This is not the position of one ruling. He further compares himself to chained prisoners of war who are placed last in the victory processional. Soldiers would conclude the processional when they returned home by killing the prisoners in the sight of the townspeople.[8] A prisoner is certainly not the one ruling. Paul also describes himself as foolish, weak, and despised. This is obviously not an apt description of one ruling. Paul was not ruling his own life. He was a minister of Christ and a steward of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:2). And, as a result, he was despised by those who thought according to human wisdom.

These three presuppositions are as old as the sin nature from which they are sourced. They underlie every sinful human choice. They come as a package—they are interwoven in human thinking. They drive human behavior. This way of thinking was common in the philosophical schools of the first century ad. It would have permeated thinking in Corinth. The various philosophical schools provided various ethics by which people lived. But all of these ethics were driven by the same thinking. “For all the schools, self-sufficiency (autarkeia), freedom (eleutheria), and happiness (eudaimonia) were goals but they differed in the specific ways of attaining them.”[9] This should sound familiar. Happiness (self-satisfaction), self-sufficiency, and freedom (self-governing) are the same presuppositions that Paul was describing in 1 Corinthians 4. The natural man and the “carnal” Christian are driven by this human wisdom. Paul, on the other hand, was driven by divine wisdom. He was driven by the glorification of God, dependence upon God, and submission to God’s standard.

Two Applications

How does understanding thoroughly human thinking help us today? There are at least two relevant applications. First, we need to recognize human wisdom in our own lives. All believers struggle with our sin nature. Spiritual maturity does not mean the battle with our sin nature ends (Rom. 8:23). Human wisdom is still in us. We need to battle it. Wherever we see self-satisfaction, self-reliance, or selfgoverning in our life, we need to “renew” our human thinking into thinking that is consistent with divine wisdom. Are you deceived into thinking you are spiritually mature when you are not (James 1:21–27)? Do you sense any need to ask for God’s help when you drive, teach, work, interact with your spouse, or any other activity? Do you make excuses for watching that movie that violates God’s standard?

Second, we need to recognize human wisdom in lost people. In fact, we should expect it. Paul avoided human wisdom when he presented the gospel in Corinth. The gospel is not sensible to human wisdom (1 Cor. 1:18–25). The gospel is not granted because of human wisdom or strength (1 Cor. 1:26–31). Paul did not present the gospel with methods of human wisdom (1 Cor. 2:1–5). The gospel is not unwise but is the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 2:6–3:4). Paul did not want the gospel of Christ to be corrupted with human wisdom. Neither should we! We must have such confidence in the power of the gospel that we sense no need to “adorn” it with methods derived from human wisdom.

It is possible for genuine believers to think according to human wisdom or according to divine wisdom. So, how are you thinking?


Andrew Hudson serves as professor of Greek and New Testament at Maranatha Baptist Seminary.

(Originally published in FrontLine • July/August 2014. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. Claims by behaviorists such as B. F. Skinner that man never decides anything but only responds to stimuli are obviously misguided and false []
  2. Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary (Downers Grove: IVP Press, 1993), 460. []
  3. Robert G. Gromacki, Called to Be Saints: An Exposition of I Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977), 55. []
  4. Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians, Tyndale NT Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 79. []
  5. Simon J. Kistemaker, 1 Corinthians, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 137. []
  6. BDAG, 559. []
  7. Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 181. []
  8. Ibid., 174–75. Others suggest the picture is of a criminal whose execution was the “last show” of the day. Keener, 460. []
  9. Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 303. []

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