Why People Cannot Understand the Gospel

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3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.

The apostle Paul presented the gospel unambiguously and in the full power of God’s Holy Spirit. Thus, there was no fault in the gospel message itself that prevented people from understanding its truths or in the one who proclaimed that message. This was demonstrated clearly by the large numbers of people who heard the gospel and responded to its message, doing so as the Holy Spirit convinced and convicted them of their sin and their need for God’s redemption.

Nevertheless, the gospel remained an enigma for many others—or a message that made little or no real sense to them. This inability to comprehend the gospel correctly was because a ‘veil’ covered their minds. This ‘veil’ hid the truth from their intellect and will, blinding them to the glorious message of God’s salvation. Everyone on ‘the broad road leading to destruction’ (i.e., all those who are perishing) find themselves thus blinded to the gospel’s truths by the ‘veil’ covering their hearts and minds. This situation applies to all unregenerate men and women worldwide: That is, to all those who presently are abiding under God’s righteous and holy wrath (Rom. 1:18 – 2:16). However, by sovereign grace, God intervenes to remove the veil from the hearts and minds of all his elect people.

But who places this veil of moral darkness and spiritual insensitivity over the minds of fallen and sinful humanity? Who prevents them from seeing, understanding, and believing the truth that the gospel so clearly reveals?

Paul answers this in verse 4:


4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

Here we see the cause of this moral and spiritual blindness, or the insensitivity of men and women everywhere to understand and believe the gospel. The “god of this world” (lit., “god of this age”)—Satan—has blinded their minds to the truth (cf. John 12:31; Eph. 2:2; 6:12).

Thus, people are unable to understand the gospel message so long as this blindness prevails. Similarly, a blind person remains unable to see the light and glory of the sun and the multiple colours of the world around him unless and until his physical sight is restored. So it is with those who are lost and perishing. Satan has veiled or blinded their minds to spiritual truths. He does this by influencing their rational faculties, making them incapable of comprehending spiritual truths, even when someone explains these truths to them clearly.

Granted, people themselves may contribute toward their spiritual blindness and moral insensitivity by having resisted the truth on many previous occasions and ultimately hardened their hearts and minds against the truth. Indeed, perhaps because of a person’s wilful and repeated sin and wickedness, that person may have experienced God’s hand of judgment upon his or her life. Such people find that God hardens them in their sin and gives them up to the consequences of their sinful way of life. In this manner, God hardened the heart and mind of Pharaoh when he absolutely refused to obey God’s commands (Exodus 9:12; see also Rom. 1:21-32).

Thus, we see that, for one reason or another, unbelievers’ hearts and minds have been blinded so that they cannot understand the gospel. Nor can they see or comprehend the beauty of Christ, the Saviour of lost and sinful men and women. Nor again can they comprehend the truth that Christ himself is the very image of the eternal God (Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3).

To all these and every other spiritual truth, they remain in total darkness. Indeed, unbelievers are not only spiritually blind, but they are also spiritually dead. God’s Word tells us that—before our regeneration—we remain dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1-5). Thus, being spiritually dead, we are completely unable to respond to the gospel message or to react in any way to the challenge of the gospel.

Nevertheless, this does not provide anyone anywhere with an excuse. Nor does it mitigate their guilt, responsibility, or accountability to God. The responsibility for sin, guilt, and moral and spiritual blindness and death remains ours because—apart from any other reason—our sin and sinful nature have brought the death sentence upon us. As the Scripture declares, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).

Thus, those who remain in their sins remain in a lost and perishing condition. They are without hope and without God in the world (Eph. 2:12). They face only the certainty of final judgment before the throne of God and eternal separation from God’s loving and glorious presence. They also face eternal separation from the presence of all those whom they have loved and from everything in which they took pleasure, including the sins in which they delighted. The Lord Jesus spoke of such a situation as “outer darkness”, or a place of “fire and sulphur”—so dark would be the eternal night and so intense the sufferings perpetually endured in that place (Matt. 8:12; 13:42).

If we would see sinners saved from their sin and its dreadful penalty, we must bear in mind that they remain incapable of doing anything that would contribute toward their salvation. In their present state of spiritual blindness, death, and alienation from God on account of their sin, they remain totally helpless and incapable of responding positively to the truth, or of believing the gospel. Nor can they do anything else to contribute toward or assist in their salvation.

Thus, if those dead in sin are to experience salvation, that salvation must come from beyond themselves. Furthermore, it must come to them completely without their aid or co-operation. In their fallen and sinful condition, they cannot help themselves any more than a dead person can actively assist in their restoration to life. Clearly, then, salvation can come only through God’s free and sovereign grace and according to his own good will and pleasure.

Thus, if anyone is to be saved, God himself must initiate and effect that person’s salvation. By his Holy Spirit and by his living Word, God must restore spiritually dead sinners to life. God does this through effectual calling and regeneration. This irresistible calling is effected in the hearts and minds of individuals by the Holy Spirit. The same Holy Spirit of God must then enable that person to seek the truth, see the truth (following the veil’s removal), and grant them the opportunity to understand the truth. Thereby, the Holy Spirit leads them to repent and believe with all their hearts and souls on the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, they respond to God’s call freely and willingly—because, by his grace and mercy, God has now granted them the ability and willingness to exercise faith and love and trust his Son, bringing them to experience his full and free salvation.

All this, however, is a work of God. The sinner is dependent entirely on God’s love, grace, and mercy for his salvation—for unless the Lord intervenes in the sinner’s life, that person will remain under the just sentence of sin and death. However, to all whom God calls by his Holy Spirit, he makes his adopted children. They become heirs of God and joint heirs with his Son. At one time, these believers were sinners abiding under God’s wrath and judgment. Now, they have been forgiven and redeemed solely by the free and unmerited grace of God. Now, they are the beloved children of God.

Thus, the apostle declares elsewhere:

Romans 6:23 ESV

23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.


[Above article extracted from NT Expository Notes, 2 Corinthians (2021) by Gordon Lyons. The full text of this commentary (in PDF format) can be downloaded or read online. This recently released commentary is available now on the NT Commentaries page of this website]

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