Vol. 9, No. 3
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In Proverbs 3:5 we have some excellent advice that is applicable to every man who ever lived. It says, "Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding." It is interesting to read the comments of various commentators, almost all of whom have Calvinistic opinions. They say something like this: "The advice is especially needed because of the depraved state of mankind as a result of the sin of Adam." Even many of those who do not teach that we are totally depraved because of Adam's sin seem to think the admonition is given because of the depravity of mankind. They often quote in this connection 1 Corinthians 2:14 which says, "But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned." They assume this means that an unsaved person cannot understand what God says, for he is depraved and must be regenerated before he can understand what God wants. It is therefore assumed by most of them that there must be a direct operation of the Holy Spirit in order to regenerate a person, give him a holy disposition of mind and lead him to an understanding of what God wants, and then produce in him an obedient heart.
Let us examine some of those false assumptions. First the admonition in Proverbs applies to all mankind, saint and sinner, and was just as applicable to Adam before he sinned as it has ever been to anyone since. The statement in Jeremiah 10:23 is true with regard to all mankind. "O LORD, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps." If you have been saved by the grace of God and assume that therefore you automatically know what you should do that is pleasing to God, you are still an untaught babe. What we find in Psalm 119:105 is still true, "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path." He said in Psalm 119:130, "The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple." We presume that the reason it has not given understanding to the simple theologians who have perverted the truth is that they have not paid proper attention to it, being filled with a bloated sense of their own wisdom. When a person is more concerned with the vain philosophies of men than he is with what the Word of God says, he is leaning on his own understanding.
So we first need to understand that no matter whether we are saint or sinner, even those who have partaken of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), we are not to lean on our own understanding, or assume that we can understand how to walk in a way that pleases God without being guided by his Word.
In the second place, we need to understand that although we are not to lean on our own understanding in the sense that we trust in our own wisdom to guide us in the right path, God wants us to use our own understanding and reasoning capacity to find what he wants and do it. He says in Isaiah 1:18, "Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD." That would not make any sense if he did not want us to use our understanding. He wants us to see the difference in using our understanding to figure out by ourselves how we should think and act, and using our understanding to find out how he says we are to think and act. This is why God was so pleased with Solomon who wanted a wise and understanding heart, and God granted his wish as recorded in 1 Kings 3:9-12. It appears that one of Solomon's biggest problems was that he did not take his own advice. He had more wisdom than any other person who lived on earth except Christ, yet acted like the biggest fool one can imagine because he apparently trusted in his own wisdom and leaned on his own understanding instead of following what he knew God wanted.
In the third place, the quotation from 1 Corinthians 2:14 about the natural man is almost universally assumed to be talking about an unsaved person. If that is the case, then there would be no sense in preaching the Gospel to him, because he could not understand it anyway. Those who are ardent Calvinists assume that God must send the Holy Spirit to regenerate the man so he can have faith. The text simply means that any man, saved or unsaved, who is depending on his own natural ability to guide him will not receive the things that are spiritual. It is interesting to note that even Albert Barnes who thought it referred to unregenerate persons says, "The word is used by the Greek writers to denote that which man has in common with the brutes--to denote that they are under the influence of the senses, or the mere animal nature, in opposition to reason and conscience--Bretschneider. See 1 Thess 5:23. Here it denotes that they are under the influence of the senses, or the animal nature, in opposition to being influenced by the Spirit of God." They are persons who lean on their own understanding rather than trusting in the Word of the Lord. It matters not whether they are saved or unsaved. Any man who is trusting in his "animal senses" (as McKnight and Doddridge put it) cannot thereby understand what God wants. So "lean not on thine own understanding" does not mean "quit thinking." It means, "Listen to what God says instead of trying to figure it out by yourself."