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.