At the end of 1 Corinthians 2:13 Paul uses a popular word: spiritual. It’s a popular word for us, and it was a popular word in Paul’s day. They desired spirituality just as much. They loved spiritual gurus, and so do we.  But not everything spiritual is truly spiritual.

When you hear the word “spiritual” certain images come to mind. You think of someone very quiet and contemplative. Or maybe you picture someone with hands raised in a demonstrative expression of worship. You may think of your spontaneous, free-wheeling, “Spirit-led” friend. The spiritual person in your mind may be the young woman deeply interested in miracles and mystery, or maybe the old man earnestly pursuing a relationship with a higher power. To be “spiritual” in our day is to be vaguely interested in the supernatural and loosely committed to practices like prayer and meditation.

And yet, all of these indicators are what Jonathan Edwards would call non-signs. They don’t prove anything one way or another. It’s not bad to be contemplative or demonstrative or spontaneous. There’s nothing wrong with being interested in prayer, miracles, or a higher power. These interests and practices could be good or bad, depending on other factors. But by themselves, these things are not spiritual, not according to Paul’s definition.

The spiritual person understands spiritual truths (1 Cor. 2:13). He receives what the Spirit imparts. By contrast, the natural person (the unspiritual person) does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him (v. 14). Paul is clearly distinguishing between two categories of people. On one side you have spiritual people who accept spiritual things. Opposite them you have unspiritual people who do not accept spiritual things. What makes a person spiritual, then, is the embrace of spiritual things.

And what are the spiritual things Paul has in mind?

We must let scriptural context, and not our immediate culture, answer that question. Paul has just finished explaining that the message of the cross is folly to those who are perishing (1:18). His preaching does not look like wisdom to the wise ones in the world. Nevertheless, he continues to know nothing among the Corinthians except Christ and him crucified (2:2). Paul knows that what Jews and Greeks want to condemn is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16). But you have to have ears to hear it. This message, considered foolish by many, is wisdom among the mature (1 Cor. 2:6). Though the rulers of this age did not understand it and therefore crucified the Lord of glory, the message of the cross is actually the revealed wisdom of God, once hidden from view and decreed before the ages began (2:7). The “spiritual things” refers to the gospel proclamation revealed by the Spirit and entrusted to Paul and his apostolic band.

The spiritual person, therefore, is the one who accepts the message of the cross. We are truly spiritual if, and only if, the Spirit of Christ has given us the mind of Christ to receive the good news concerning the death and resurrection of Christ.  No matter how much you like angels, or how much you pray, or how often you mediate, or how much you are into yoga, or how much you believe in miracles, if you do not understand, cherish, and embrace the cross you are not a spiritual person. The spiritual person discerns spiritual things, starting with the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ on the cross for sinners like you and me. To accept this gospel, with all its doctrinal and religious contours, is the beginning of true spirituality. For in the end, our slogans and endless searching do not count for much, neither does our interest in reading Chicken Soup for the Soul. If we reject the message of the cross, we have rejected the Spirit’s revelatory work. And when we spurn the Spirit we forfeit the right to be considered spiritual.

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23 thoughts on “You Cannot Be Spiritual Without Being Religious”

  1. Rose says:

    I think that in I Cor. 3:1-3 and in Hebrews chapters 5 to 10 we find that, although it is necessary to receive the good news concerning the death and resurrection of Christ in order to be spiritual, it is not sufficient. So the “if, and only if” in your last paragraph only goes in one direction. The “only if” works, but you can receive the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection, but still not be spiritual; so it is not true that you are necessarily spiritual if you have received that news. To be spiritual, you must also live in the ascension of Christ, looking to heaven where he is now reigning by his word and Spirit, and having received the gospel of the kingdom. Nevertheless, your thoughts about the emptiness of what is commonly viewed as spiritual are quite good.

  2. Jeff says:

    Thanks Kevin for this excellent exposition of the text. Very helpful! May God give us spiritual ears that we might hear and believe the gospel.

  3. “The spiritual person, therefore, is the one who accepts the message of the cross.” Yes! Amen! Thank you for posting this.

  4. Carlos says:

    I would say that being spiritual can only result when the sovereign Spirit of the living God has drawn you to His Son Yeshua, in transforming repentance, and genuine regeneration of the Spirit (being born again). As for being religious, any one can be religious. The Pharisees and Jewish High priests who conspired to have our Lord crucified (under God’s plan and purpose) were very religious. Most major denominations have their religious traditions which in many cases contradict the Word of God. Spirituality is a transaction between the Lord Yahweh and His children (and ONLY His children). Otherwise, it is impossible.

  5. @Carlos: No, the Pharisees and Sadducees were followers of a false religion. You might be able to have religious forms without being spiritual, but you can’t be spiritual without also being religious.

  6. Carlos says:

    @Sister Heather: My take is that the Jewish “religion” per se cannot be called a false religion since our Lord Yeshua was born into the Hebrew Faith, practiced its religious rites, lived as a Jew, and ended his earthly days crucified as a Jew (King of the Jews), according to the Jewish scriptures and prophecies. The NT clearly states we gentiles have been grafted into the Olive Tree (Israel/The Jews/Hebrews). Of course, not all Israel is Israel, as Yahweh has stated in the OT. Only His chosen ones, both in the OT and NT dispensations are His spiritual children; those chosen and elected to be His bride. Nowadays the term “religion” carries a very negative and pejorative meaning (in my book). I hold to the Gospel of Jesus Christ as expressed through classic reformed theology while rejecting “religion” as a definition of my faith. I’m not religious, I just love the Lord Yeshua because He first loved me and gave His life for me, before the foundation of the world.

  7. @Carlos: Well, it’s a false religion because the Jews are still waiting on a Messiah. If you reject Jesus (and they do) as the true Messiah, it’s not going to net you anything except the same fate that awaits unbelievers. Jesus is the commonality of true religion.

    You say that nowadays the term religion carries a very negative and pejorative meaning. This is true. It wouldn’t be true; however, if people would just look up the meaning of words. This is the definition of religion:
    The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, esp. a personal God or gods.
    Details of belief as taught or discussed.

    You love Christ Jesus because He first loved you and gave His life for you, before the foundation of the world. Great. You are now part of the Christian religion, and are also spiritual (which you couldn’t be without being a part of the Christian religion).

  8. Amen. Accepting the message of the cross is the key ingredient. “We are truly spiritual if, and only if, the Spirit of Christ has given us the mind of Christ to receive the good news concerning the death and resurrection of Christ.”

    And that mind of Christ that he gives us begins to change us from the inside out into the saint he has purchased us to be. Thanks brother for a good reminder.

  9. Accepting the message of the cross is the key ingredient. “We are truly spiritual if, and only if, the Spirit of Christ has given us the mind of Christ to receive the good news concerning the death and resurrection of Christ.” Amen

    And that mind of Christ that he gives us begins to change us from the inside out into the saint he has purchased us to be. Thanks brother for a good reminder.

  10. Lynne says:

    You hit the nail on the head again…ZING!!!

  11. Carlos Campos Rey says:

    @Sister Heather: not to belabor the point or be argumentaive, but Romans clearly outlines that The Lord God Yahweh is not yet through with His original “chosen” people, Israel. We are currently in the “times of the gentiles” (us), but soon, Israel will come back into the focus of Yahweh’s grace and mercy, for He has always kept a remnant faithful to Him and His promises to Israel have not all been fulfilled. I must say that the insistance on equating spirituality (God reaching down to us) with “religion” (man’s effort to reach up to heaven, which began at the Tower of Babel) is unsettling. When the reformed faith crosses the line into “religious” formality and ritualism, as Calvin did at Geneva (an unscriptual theocracy), it becomes “religion” and therefore, a man-centered substitute for walking in the Spirit with our Lord, as He works His purpose and pleasure in us. This was a very interesting dialogue.

  12. Jefry Lie says:

    So Kevin, what do u think about religious?
    Is it adjactive of religion?
    And what is religion? Institution?
    I think people who shout “being spiritual without religious” slogan understand religion term as an institution.
    And my study in church history told me that christianity was a spiritual community before Caesar proclaimed that christianity was the only one religion in Roman Empire. Since that time till now on, Christianity has became an institution.
    What do you think about “religion” issue, Kev?

  13. @Carlos: And I would say we ARE the remnant, but ok, we disagree.

    So, it’s only religion if it gets into civil law? I don’t think so. Religion is a worldview. You are part of the Christian religion. I am part of it too. If you are spiritual (if you have been saved by Jesus Christ and are filled with His spirit) you are a part of the Christian religion. Religion didn’t start with the tower of Babel. Religion started when God first breathed life into Adam. As did spirituality.

  14. Carlos says:

    @Heather: I’m sorry but I just couldn’t let this pass by without further comment. You did not seriously write that “religion started when God first breathed life into Adam.” With all respect sister in Christ, I must strongly and lovingly suggest that you need to study God’s Word further to “show thyself approved of God”. However, if you insist on using the Garden of Eden as an analogy for religion, I would say that anti-spiritual “religion” was invented by the serpent and succumbed to by mankind through the fall, when Satan tempted Eve by challenging God’s spoken word in Genesis 3:1 Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? 2 And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: 3 But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. 4 And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: 5 For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. 6 And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. 7 And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons. >> KJV (Cambridge). This is when our relationship and open access (spirituality) with our Lord God Yahweh was perverted into sin and the curse of death which ultimately culminated in the corporate challenge to God’s sovereignty at the Tower of Babel when men fooled themselves into believing they could reach heaven with their man-made temple (human effort at salvation and glorification). That’s how I see “religion” and that is why I refute its being defined with Christianity. To say, as you do, that Christianity is only ‘one religion’ of many in the world is to downgrade the blood-bought church of Jesus Christ from its preeminent position as the only sanctified vehicle by which The Lord Yeshua has chosen to preach His Gospel to the nations. The body of Christ is not a religion, nor a world view, nor a philosophy. It is the way, the truth and the life because the Spirit of Jesus indwells it and empowers it to perform His glorious purposes on this earth until He returns again.

  15. @Carlos: I don’t need to show myself approved of God. “It is enough that Jesus died, and that He died for me.”

    Sure, the religion of Atheism was also started in the garden. I consider Atheism is a worldview (and religion) too. Now it’s a false religion and there is nothing spiritual in this religion, but that doesn’t change the definition.

    The body of Christ is not a religion, you are correct. The body of Christ is the church, designed by God to guard the truth of the one TRUE religion (which is Christianity). All the other religions are false because they don’t end at the cross. They are however, religions according to the actual definition of what a “religion” is.

  16. Carlos says:

    Dear Heather, you keep making anti-Biblical statements that have to be refuted (in love and for correction sister). You are certainly not denying the scripture in 2 Timothy 15 Are you? 2 Tim2:14-16: 14 Of these things put them in remembrance, charging them before the Lord that they strive not about words to no profit, but to the subverting of the hearers. 15 Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. 16 But shun profane and vain babblings: for they will increase unto more ungodliness. You have an argument against the Spirit of God who inspired these verses through Paul the apostle, don’t you? I think we are done here sister. Let’s put this to rest now and get back to studying our Bibles.

  17. @Carlos: While I find it a little intellectually dishonest to ask a question or make an assumption and then say “we are done…let’s…get back to studying our Bibles,” I’ll answer you.

    I don’t need to show YOU that I am approved of God. God has approved me by the faith He has given me. Again, to quote the song “it is enough that Jesus died and that He died for me.” Which, to bring the conversation full circle makes me a part of the Christian religion.

  18. Annastacia Muli says:

    Hi there,
    I have enjoyed reading your article. To be spiritual is to live from the Spirit-Soul and then body. Our spirit is the part of us that that can connect with God. Many of us in the body of Christ are living from Body-Soul and then Spirit and that is why they look for outward manifestations of what they would term as “spiritual”. Many of christians in the west are engaging in satanic practices popularly know as spiritualism-consulting with dead spirits(familar spirits)and calling that being spiritual.The flesh can never connect with God for in the flesh lives nothing good. We have to crucify our flesh on daily basis so that our spirit can grow and connect with the spirit of God.

  19. Shaun RW Little says:

    @Carlos, In spite of all your words and seemingly intelligent responses, it seems you’ve epically failed to address the very thing Heather has taken issue with, which is the incorrect interpretation of “religion / religious” that you appear to hold to.

    The issue is, that there are a lot of Christians who have villainized the word religion into meaning something contrary to the gospel, but the truth is: true religion is a fruit of the gospel.

    Some popular pastors redefine the word ‘religion’, drag it through the mud, villainize it, and the flock understandably adheres to this new definition. It’s totally understandable considering that there is a lot of false religion within the walls of christendom, but seriously, why change the plain meaning of a perfectly good word when it can express something upright and noble?

    In the words of Indigo Montoya:
    “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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