what may the lost know

In a recent discussion, 1 Cor 2.14 was thrown up to me as a proof-text of the doctrine of inability such that:

The natural man can’t benefit from the preached Word apart from the intervening ministry of the Spirit. So we’re back to the inability of the lost to respond to God apart from divine initiative.

The challenge led me to consider what it is that the lost person may know. In thinking about this, I found a sermon by Jonathan Edwards on the passage in question. His comments are quite interesting. [Note: the document is in bad need of editing, the Yale Edwards center has scanned it, put it up for use in its present form, but it has many deficiencies. Enough can be read to get the sense.]

He begins by saying that the lost may know doctrine better than Christians do, and may be able to “out argue” them on theology, and may know the Scriptural teachings concerning sin well enough that their conscience is informed and they are ‘moral’ men (my term).

Then this about the difference:

men may have a Great deal of Notio- nal Knowledge About things and Yet not have a lively and sensible idea of them. some things are Concieved of as a kind of dream A meer Chimera and imagination. and Others Concieved of as we Real Certain, there is a vast difference between our Concep- tions. of what we Read Of in a story or Romance And Our Conceptions of things that we dayly Converse. tho Perhaps we have heard this Romance so Often that we have as Great a Notional knowledge of the several Parts of it as we have of those things that we Our selves. are knowing to by Our senses. when3we Read an hystery . of a thing. that was Acted many Centuries of Years ago. and at many thousands of Miles Distance. and perhaps. we we have not at all think it may be Probably true; Yet the same kind of Conceptions of the matter. as one that was present upon the spot. and saw and heard all that was done. altho perhaps we have Read and studied the history so Much that we Can tell the story better than he that was Present,. the thing is we hant so lively and appre- hension of the things that were done as those that were Present. and therefore the things dont affect at all the same manner as it did in the time the Persons that were actually Concernd in the Matter. the matter dont seem so Real to us. the appre hension is nothing near so lively.   so the difference of the knowledge of the spiritual man from the knowledge of the natural man is Of the same kind.

Can you make out what Edwards is saying? He is saying the first point of difference is that between someone who reads history and someone who lives history. It is the difference between my children reading about Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” and my recollection of it.

Edwards goes on to say that the spiritual knowledge of the believer has the effect first of all of transforming his heart. Secondly, it purifies his life. Third, it raises a ‘holy Joy in the mind’. And fourth and most important, Edwards says, spiritual knowledge makes one humble (whereas carnal knowledge puffs up).

The reason for this difference is that the lost man is by nature unable to know these things. He says:

we Are not Easily made to have a Clear Apprehension of those things which we have no manner of Natural inclination to Children will never be made thorough ly to learn that which they have no inclination to. they never, will be ex pert at that . kind of learning which is Quite Contrary to their Natural disposition . we Can never be made to beat it into them. Much less Can the Apprehension of the truth, Reality and excellency of the things of God be beat in to, the Natural man, who is not only destitute of all . inclinations to spiri- tual things, but is as full as he Can hold of an Antipathy Against them  [emphasis mine]

Why is this?

God will never Never Give his spirit and spiritual knowledge to natural men while they Yet Remain loathsom and filthy.

The difference, Edwards says, is the work of Christ and the Spirit in regenerating the heart. This is obvious! Of course my neo-Calvinist friends want to say regeneration must happen before faith begins, but that is another issue. It is interesting to read Edwards’ conclusion, as he urges upon lost men that they get this knowledge. How? Here is one way:

we must be Much in Reading the scrip- tures if we would Get spiritual and saving kn. they Are the means by which as we have said God Communicates this knowledge Except we diligently and frequently Read the scriptures therefore we Can not Reasonably expect to be enlightend Except we Can Expect that God will work without means which is most un- reasonable seeing in a Land where such Plenty of means are Enjoyed . The scriptures were Given for this End to instruct us .

It seems that we are back to Romans 10, “how shall they hear without a preacher”. Or Philip to the Ethiopian eunuch: “Do you understand what you are reading?” To which the eunuch replies: “Well, how could I, unless someone guides me?”


The means God uses to enlighten darkened minds is two-fold. The Word and the preachers of the Word, however humble they might be. “A little child shall lead them.”

Edwards closes by addressing wills in this way:

Let us be exhorted to hearken to these directions knowledge in General is sweet but above all spiritual knowledge Proverbs 16 17, 18 Length of days is in her Right hand and in her left hand Riches and honour. her ways are ways of Pleasantness and all her Paths are Peace. she is a tree of life to them that Lay hold upon her and happy is Every one of them yt retaineth her conj. for ms. dam.

[My apologies for the condition of the text! But a very profitable sermon for us all today, I think.]



  1. “A little child shall lead them.”

    What does the leading of wild animals during the Millenium have to do with the preaching of the Gospel and the state of a lost man?

  2. actually, nothing, but a good phrase used as a rhetorical device here! I didn’t look it up, in other words. But it seems to me that God uses His Word and His Workers, no matter how simple or unsophisticated they might be, to enlighten dark hearts and bring them to Christ.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  3. But it seems to me that God uses His Word and His Workers, no matter how simple or unsophisticated they might be, to enlighten dark hearts and bring them to Christ.

    No doubt. God can even use a spiritual babe to be a positive influence on others. Of course – as you know ;) – we have to be careful in what Scriptures we use to say something.

    Matthew 11:25-26 At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in thy sight.

    God bless.