by T. Austin-Sparks

Chapter 2 - The Natural and the Spiritual

Reading: Psalm 11:1-4; 1 Cor. 3:9-17.

As we proceed with our consideration of foundations there is a third thing. In the first letter to the Corinthians we have another way in which foundations are virtually destroyed, at least in a very real measure. It is by what is put on them; the building that is placed upon them. Not utterly and altogether and finally are they destroyed by this means, but they are robbed of their supreme value, and thus they are in their main virtue destroyed. You will see what I mean by the apostle’s words: “I laid a foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let each man take heed how he buildeth thereon.” And then Paul proposes that some build with certain materials and others build with other materials. Then a testing fire from God comes to try out that superstructure; and the wood, hay and stubble material goes up in smoke, and when it has all gone the question is: Well, what was the value of that foundation if when all is said and done nothing is on it? In that way the foundation is in its supreme significance and value destroyed. The apostle tells us that those who do that sort of thing may be saved people, and, because they have Christ the foundation is there; they themselves may not lose their salvation, but then they were not saved just to be saved. Christ did not come into them just to be there. He was not the foundation just to remain the foundation. A foundation presupposes a superstructure, it points to it, implies it, necessitates it. There is no justification in having a foundation if you have no superstructure. The superstructure is the justification of the foundation. What would you think of a builder who went round everywhere putting down foundations, and then you went round the earth seeing a lot of foundations and that is all you saw; foundations put in year after year and as you passed on, you saw nothing but foundations. You would say: Well, that fellow did not justify his existence, he did not justify his labour. The only justification for putting those foundations in is that he put something on them.

The justification of our salvation is that there is a superstructure; for our salvation involves that, and we are not justified as saved ones until God’s building is up. God is justified in saving us when He has His building. That is the justification of the grace of God. So the apostle goes on with the language about God’s temple: “Ye are God’s building.” God’s building. Now what we are putting upon our salvation, what we are building is either going to justify the foundation, or to, virtually, for all divine intents and purposes, destroy the foundation; that is, render it vain in the full purpose of God. That is plain. Do you see what I mean? There is a way of rendering even the divine foundation well nigh valueless, and robbing it of its real virtue by putting up something not according to Christ. Now that is very simple and very elementary, but it will help us on a little.

The superstructure has to be in keeping with the foundation. It has to be spiritually and morally of a piece, it has to be alike. What the foundation is, the superstructure has to be. The building has to take character from the foundation. The foundation is said to be Jesus Christ and the whole building has to take its character and nature from its foundation. Think of de-rooted foundations after an excavation down to the bottommost depths of hell; for that is where Christ laid the foundation. He excavated down to the very bottommost depths of sin; He touched rock-bottom to lay the foundation of our salvation. Deeper He could not go. He ploughed through hell to lay the foundations of our eternal redemption. Now think of putting up a flimsy wood, hay, stubble building upon that. Does that justify those foundations? Something worthy of Christ is required, something worthy of the work that He has accomplished, something which will speak of the greatness of His grace and His glory. That is God’s building.

When we have said that, and seen that, we can come to this letter to the Corinthians and let the letter itself explain that to us. You remember that we are thinking of destroying the foundations in this sense, that something not worthy of Christ is put upon them.

Now take up your letter to the Corinthians and we will cover some familiar ground. Remember this whole letter represents the problem which confronted the apostle as he contemplated visiting Corinth. There was a situation there with many sides which represented for him a problem calculated to break the heart and destroy the faith of anyone whose foundations were not well laid in themselves. I am quite sure before we are through you will see that to face a situation like that, you will need to have foundations well laid in yourselves.

The Wisdom of the World and the Things of the Spirit

The first chapter introduces you to the first phase of his problem. Before you are through that chapter you discover that in that assembly of believers at Corinth the spirit of the world outside, the Corinthian spirit, had gained access and taken hold. The spirit of the world at Corinth was the spirit of worldly wisdom; it was a centre and citadel of philosophy. They had no better entertainment than to discuss the latest phase of philosophy, the new thing in thought. And Corinth was a place where human reason had full play and everything was determined in its value by the reasoning powers of the mind; argument, debate, discussion. It was a world-centre of rationalism, and that had crept into the assembly of the Lord’s people. And what we find is that the Lord’s people in that spirit, in that mind, had taken hold of spiritual things, heavenly things, things of God, and brought them down to the level of mere human argument, debate, discussion, and reason; applying all the time the test of human reason to them and seeking so to handle them by the intellectual faculty as to bring them within the limited compass of man’s own power of mind. Thus they were discussing what the apostle calls the things of the Spirit of God, and bringing heavenly, eternal, spiritual things down there; dragging the things of eternity into the school of worldly rationalistic discussion, debate, argument. Of course, that was not exclusively the way of the Corinthians of Paul’s day. There is plenty of that today. Again and again we have come up against people whose one great obstacle to the things of the Spirit of God is their own head. They will get their head in the way; and what they cannot reduce to their own intellectual comprehension, they reject. And when you say: Look here, you will have to stop arguing, discussing, give God a chance along the line of faith, they will answer: Why have we got brains? That means our brains are the capacity of eternal things. If that is so, God help the eternal things! Well, that was the first phase of Paul’s problem, no little one. Those of us who have met it even in a little way know what a big difficulty it is.

Human Predilections, Sympathies and Antipathies

Pass into chapter two and we find the same thing carried on for a bit, and then as we move on and begin the next chapter we find we come into the realm of human preferences, human likes and dislikes in the direction of teaching and teachers, preaching and preachers, the messengers of God and their messages. One school says: Now Paul is the man we like, and Paul’s line of things is the line we like. You may like Apollos or Peter, but as for us, well, Paul is our man. Within the same assembly another company are saying: We prefer Apollos and his line of things. You may have Paul, and you have Peter, but we like Apollos. The third company were saying: All right, if you like Paul and if you like Apollos you may have them, we will stick to Peter. There was a fourth class who said in a superior way: Well, if you like to have Paul, you Apollos, and you Peter, you may, but we belong to Christ (something quite different from the other, of course). That is the implication, you see, making Christ a party. You know when human preferences run riot they are awfully difficult things to handle. That was there; their sympathies and antipathies; and these are deeply rooted things in human nature. It takes a lot of grace to get over them. Of course, that was their condemnation. If it does take a lot of grace to get over these things, and you have not got over them, you have not got a lot of grace. That was Paul’s problem, the thing which Paul had to face and deal with and for which he had a responsibility before God.

The Tragedy of Arrested Growth

In chapter three again you find a state which is perhaps more difficult, that of unduly delayed maturity. After some considerable time of being God’s people and having the things of God in their midst, Paul says that he could not speak to them as unto spiritual but as unto carnal, as unto babes. That is a tragedy. There are perhaps few more pathetic tragedies in human life than to see arrested growth in infancy while years go on. That is how things were at Corinth. Paul says it was carnality which had caused the arrest, and carnality always does cause arrest, and when they ought to have been mature they were still helpless, dependent, spiritual infants, without understanding, perception, capacity to take spiritual responsibility. A very difficult thing to deal with that. Beloved, that was not peculiar to Corinth or Paul’s day. Multitudes of the Lord’s people are like that today. Oh, yes, it is a pathetic situation to find people who have known the Lord for years, decades, who are still without their spiritual faculties developed to a state where they can take spiritual responsibility, where they know and have not to be told! There are multitudes like that. The reasons are not always the same. It is true that carnality is the cause of that very often, but I am afraid poor teaching is also responsible for that in many cases. They have not been fed and nourished. It is a tragic situation with which we are met today; but there it is, whatever the cause. In this case it was their own responsibility, their own fault, their carnality.

The Shame of Spiritual Pride

You pass to chapter four and find the apostle speaking with language which indicates spiritual pride. It takes this form. The Lord had blessed them with spiritual gifts and done very gracious things for them, put them in possession of His spiritual riches, and they were boasting of those possessions, boasting of these things as though they had acquired them by their own ability, had achieved them by their own efforts; and the apostle says: “...if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory as if thou hadst not received it?” In other words: Why are you trying to make people think that your possessions spiritually are the result of your own spiritual ability, that you have by your own effort attained unto this? Why don’t you recognise that it is all the grace of God, and that you are the humble dependants upon the Lord? They were boasting of their spiritual gifts as though they were their spiritual attainments and not gifts. Spiritual pride is a terrible thing. Ordinary pride is bad enough, always the hallmark of ignorance, but spiritual pride is a far worse thing.

Then there is the next phase of the problem confronting Paul. That alone would dishearten a good many, but put them all together! Chapter five. Here we dare not tarry. “It is actually reported that there is fornication among you...” Amongst believers? In an assembly of the Lord’s people? Yes, a tragic story which has been repeated again and again through the ages. But oh, the heartbreak to any man who had any real sense of spiritual responsibility for souls, to come up against that.

Chapter six. Believers, members of the Body of Christ dragging one another into the courts of earthly judgment, having writs issued against one another, summoning one another before the magistrate, charging one another, lawsuits before the ungodly. Fellow members of the Body of Christ! Oh, what a misapprehension of the Body of Christ. That is, they were standing up and fighting for their own rights.

He goes on. You come soon upon some terrible disorders at the Lord’s Table. One was that they were turning the Lord’s Table into a revelry, a feast. People better off in this world’s goods were bringing to the feast luxuries, and people who were poorly off could only just bring their little, and there was the class distinction, and all that sort of thing. The apostle says: Have you not homes? If you want to glut yourselves at least have the decency to do it in your own home in private, do not do it as an assembly of the Lord’s people. You see they often turned their common meal into a sacrament. They met together, ate and drank together and then as spontaneously as if it were the natural thing they made of their meal a testimony, but this thing had so degenerated as to make it a commonplace, as we have mentioned, and all the glory, beauty, sacredness of the Body of Christ and Blood of Christ had been dragged down to this. No small problem that in itself to have to deal with. There were other aspects of this matter which we will not deal with.

You pass on still further and you come to disorders in the assembly in general. People usurping authority, and you know what the apostle has to say about disorder in the House of God. The place of men is under the sovereign headship of Christ in a spirit of subjection, fulfilling their ministry in the House of God. But here men were taking authority themselves and not having their authority in subjection to Christ. And then women, out of their divinely appointed place, upsetting the whole order of the assembly. The apostle tells them what this means: “You get out of your divine covering and get into touch with the evil spirits who deceived Eve. The Devil is out to disintegrate this assembly along the same line, and you are giving him the chance he wants by this disorder.” The whole matter was one of order. The Lord has an order for His House, and all may fulfil their ministry—women and men—if they keep to His order.

I think any one who had not the foundations in himself well established would give up this situation, abandon it, run away, do what the counsellors advised David to do, flee to the mountain. “If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?” Surely with a situation like that the foundations are destroyed? Not a bit of it! I come back and see that after all Paul does not run away, he does not accept that the foundations are destroyed, but he does see that those foundations are being robbed of their value by all this. This is the thing which destroys the foundations in their real virtue.

The Natural and the Spiritual

Now do you want an exposition of what Paul means by wood, hay, stubble? That is it! The Word interprets itself. What did he mean by putting upon the foundation a superstructure of wood, hay, stubble? He meant all that. Divisions, schisms, worldly wisdom, intellectual glorying, and all the rest. This is something which will be destroyed by the fire. What will you have left? When you are building with that material you cannot be building with the other at the same time, therefore you will have nothing left. Do you want an exposition of what Paul means in the second chapter by the spiritual and the natural? “Now the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him; and he cannot know them, because they are spiritually judged (discerned).” Natural and spiritual. We know that word natural, in the Greek, is the word soulical, or soulish man, and he is set over against the spiritual man. What is the soulish man? One Corinthians tells you all that. The man who is handling spiritual things with natural wisdom, he is the soulish man. The man who is influenced and actuated by his own natural likes and dislikes, preferences, sympathies and antipathies—Paul, Apollos, Peter—that is the soulish man. But over against him is set the spiritual man. The man who is not actuated primarily by his own worldly reason, but looks to the Lord the Spirit for his understanding in the things of the Lord. The spiritual man is never influenced or governed by his own likes or dislikes for people or teaching or anything else. He is actuated by what the Lord likes. He does not say: I prefer this man to that, this line of teaching to that. He says: Has Paul got something of Christ? Well, I will have all, it is Christ I am after. Never mind what kind of a vessel, it is Christ I am after. There are no divisions in the spiritual man, no preferences in the spiritual man. He may know secretly what naturally he would like, but he does not allow those things to come to prejudice his mind or in any way affect his relationship. The spiritual man does not go to law with a believer to fight for his own rights. The spiritual man is not guilty of fornication. The spiritual man does not bring disorder into the House of God; it is the man of soul who does that. You see you have got a clear exposition with the whole letter of the meaning of the natural or psychical and spiritual.

How Paul Won at Corinth

Do you see what I am getting at? It brings me right back to my beginning. What kind of a building is to be suitable to the divine foundation? Well, we have seen how Paul faced his problem. Oh, magnificent example of how to face a spiritual problem! I am not coveting to face a problem like that in one assembly. God forbid that it ever should be, but I do see here the most magnificent example of how a humanly impossible situation is faced, met, dealt with, and triumphed over. I am so glad Paul won through. Read the second letter and you see he has won, he is on top, and they are out with him. Everything was in a state of suspense so far as ministry was concerned in his first letter. The second letter is the letter of ministry. “Therefore seeing we have received this ministry, even as we obtained mercy, we faint not; but we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by the manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” Then a wonderful chapter on godly sorrow leading to repentance, and what the fruit of that repentance is. But he has won, that is the point; solved the problem from every standpoint. How did he do it? Open at chapter one again. I see Paul away there with this whole problem spread out before him. Yes, bowed, concerned, praying, saying: Lord, this is a terrible thing, only You can meet it, but something must be done, this does not glorify You. Give me the key to the situation, put into my hand the key to the whole thing. And as he sought the Lord, it flashed into him, and perhaps he shouted: I have found it, and sat down to write. Chapter one, put your pencil under every reference to the Lord Jesus and you will have seventeen blue pencil marks in thirty-one verses, an average of more than one to every two verses. Gather that all up into the grand statement: “For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” “For other foundation can no man lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” What is the solution? Giving the Lord Jesus His full and right place! Put the Lord Jesus into His place as absolute Lord in the heart, in the life, in the assembly, and all these foul birds will go out before the light. If the Lord Jesus is dominant in our hearts, divisions will go. You will not have to clear them up, they will go. What we need for all our divisions, our lack of love, our schisms, our likes and dislikes, is a fulness of Christ. Christ as Lord, Christ as Master, Christ reigning. And like evil creatures in a dark cellar scuttle away when the light comes on, so will divisions and schisms, and all that makes for them, go, when Christ comes into His place. It is the cure for everything.

If the foundation is to be justified it must be justified in a superstructure after its own kind. Christ at the root, and Christ the stem, branches, and fruit. It is all Christ. We have something to think about. “If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?” Destroyed in this sense, that they are made void by what is being put on them. What can the righteous do? Well, there is nothing to be done but one thing, but that one thing will do all the rest: that is, bring the Lord into His place. Oh, Paul must have had a wonderful faith in Christ; facing a situation like that, beloved. Sit down with any one phase of it and see how you would like to tackle it; and then taking the whole thing—more than I have given you—and realising you have a spiritual responsibility for that situation, you want a mighty faith to believe that whole situation will yield if only the Lord Jesus can be brought into His place. It will do it, and it will again. There is no problem, no difficulty which cannot be solved by the enthroning of Christ. All the problems in this world, and of all the nations, are going to be solved by the enthronement of Christ. There is no other solution, but this is the sure solution. God has bound up everything to that, that all things are going to be settled when His Son has His place. But judgment must begin at the House of God; it must start with us.

I have used all this by way of illustration. It may have an application to us in some way or other. Whether that be so or not is for us to determine before the Lord. Whether we are guilty of any of these things in spirit, in principle, if not in act. If it does not come home to us in any specific application, surely the grand truth should help our hearts. How are we going to face our problem, either within ourselves, or without, in others? Only in one way. Seek to have the Lord Jesus exalted in your own heart, and in the hearts of others. Bring Him first into view and then with Him in view all the other things can be dealt with.

I have only touched one aspect of this chapter. I will not go further with it. Paul said: “Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” You will see what the foundation is composed of. Jesus Christ as the foundation in this letter includes Christ crucified, the meaning of His death for us: Christ Risen, Christ exalted in the place of sovereign head. Those three things comprise the foundation. When we know what the death of Christ means so far as we are concerned, Christ crucified; we died when Christ died, how can we have the natural man then, the carnal man then? He has gone. When we know what it is to be risen with Christ, that is, alive unto God, only unto God; unto no other being or interest, and certainly not unto ourselves, only unto God; when we know what the absolute lordship of the Lord Jesus means to bring us into His government, how can it ever be: I am of Paul, I of Apollos, I of Peter? They cannot come in there if Christ is all. You find these threads running right through this letter. The Spirit tells you of the Christ crucified, risen, exalted. That is the foundation and the superstructure must be according to that.

Let the word lead us to glory in Christ, for that is where chapter one ends: “He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.”

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