Corinth was a city in Greece, and the Hellenistic error committed there has afflicted a good portion of the church ever since. We tend to think of spirituality in terms of that gnostic inner spark—ethereal reason if we are rationalists, the inner light if we are mystics, a personal relationship with Jesus if we are modern evangelicals, or the baptism of the Holy Spirit if we are charismatics. Of course, none of this is directed against a biblically defined approach to reason, light, covenant relationship, or the baptism of the Holy Spirit. It just means that in the down-to-earthiness of the faith, all such experiences are to be considered as vaporous hoo-hah unless they result in dirt under the fingernails through glad service to my neighbor. Faith without works is dead. Religious experience, understanding, or giftedness don’t mean a thing if they ain’t got that swing.
The Corinthians were making this mistake with genuine gifts of the Spirit. In my view, we are making the same mistake with spurious gifts. But ultimately what matters is the mistake—not the genuineness of the gifts. We debate whether the gifts are genuine because we do not really know what the gifts are for. Imagine a dinner table surrounded with small first-graders, who, if left unattended, will put the beans in their ears. It does not matter, for the purposes of our thought experiment, whether or not the beans are real. In either case, the ear is not where they go. When we are doing the right thing with the gifts we have been given, the spuriousness of a purported gift can be detected right away. The reason it frequently is not detected in our day is that we abuse the false as the Corinthians abused the true. But the ear cannot tell the difference between a plastic bean and a real one. The “inner subjective spark,” our exultation in an “experience,” cannot tell the difference either.
A contrast is frequently made between the gifts of the Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit, and sometimes this contrast is made in order to establish the point being argued here. An unspiritual man might prophesy like Balaam, but an unspiritual man cannot have love, joy, and peace as biblically defined. But there is still a Hellenistic way to internalize what is called the fruit of the Spirit—this is called pietism. True piety exults in the fruit of the Spirit biblically understood, which is to say, fruit produced in the presence of particular people, places, and things: love of Suzanne, joy in suffering under Mr. Jacobs at work, peace with Smith across the alley, patience with the loud children, and so on. By contrast, impious pietism hauls the divine fire down into the inward parts and then warms itself around the fires of self-congratulation.
Obedience involves the entire man. And so a man who divides spirit from body in any way, however much he praises this spirit now detached, is an unspiritual man. He is still carnal, a babe.