Is there such a thing as a carnal Christian? Many believe there is, and they effectively say that there are two sorts of Christians – those who are more or less spiritual and victorious, and those who are more or less carnal and defeated. That is, Christians can be living in sin and still be children of God.
So what are we to make of this? Are there indeed “carnal Christians”? Of course all this is part of a much larger discussion about lordship salvation. Does a Christian have to make Christ lord in order to be saved? I have discussed this elsewhere (here and here).
The primary passage appealed to in regard to “carnal Christians” is 1 Corinthians 3:3, as found in the KJV: “For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?” But let me offer the context of this verse, in the NIV:
Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?
A few remarks can be made about this passage. First, while the Corinthians Christians were behaving carnally or fleshly, Paul rebukes them strongly for this and expects much better of them. So in that sense – and only in that sense – can we speak of “carnal Christians”.
While they may exist, they should not. It may be a temporary condition, but an ongoing, persistent state of carnality is evidence of a person not being a true Christian. Craig Blomberg says we must resist two extreme views here: one, that there are never any carnal Christians, and two, that we let this verse become an excuse for carnality:
To remain worldly, in rebellion against God’s Spirit, for too long a period of time calls into question one’s salvation, while to claim not to have sinned for some equally long interval trivializes the amount of conscious and unconscious violations of God’s perfect standards which all humans regularly commit.
Paul insists that these Corinthians should have long ago moved on, but they are still acting as baby Christians. Ciampa and Rosner comment: “They are still spiritual infants, when they ought by now to be spiritually mature. No one blames a baby for being immature. But Paul thinks the Corinthians have had long enough to stop behaving in an infantile manner.”
Gordon Fee notes that this passage does not directly deal with the broader question of whether believers can lose their salvation:
The implication is often that because these people are believers, yet ‘carnal; it is therefore permissible to be ‘carnal Christians: That, of course, is precisely the wrong application. There is no question that Paul considers his Corinthian friends believers and that they are in fact acting otherwise. But Paul’s whole concern is to get them to change, not to allow that such behavior is permissible since not all Christians are yet mature. Paul’s language is ironical, not permissive.
And that is exactly how we should approach such a passage: not as an excuse to keep living a carnal, fleshly life, but to encourage us all to move on into spiritual maturity and a life of holiness and obedience. Too often a text like this can be used to give false assurance to those who are not even saved. That is the real worry here.
In 1970 Walter Chantry wrote an important book called Today’s Gospel: Authentic or Synthetic? In it he said that we are no longer preaching the hard words of Jesus, but are instead promoting a popularized, sentimentalized and man-pleasing gospel. And he warned against relying on a doctrine of “carnal Christians”.
His vital book is based on the story of Jesus and his encounter with the rich young ruler, as found in Mark 10:17-27 (and parallel passages). Chantry writes:
Churches are being filled with professing Christians that have never heard that Jesus demands repentance of any who seek eternal life. People flock to ‘accept Jesus as personal Saviour’ without selling all. They have never been told by the preacher that there is a condition placed on having treasures in heaven – that is, repentance. So the converts of modern evangelism are often as worldly as after their ‘decision’ as before; for they have made a wrong decision. The covetous still cling to their riches and pleasures. Wealth and ease remain as the prevailing mark of their lives.
In a panic over this phenomena, the evangelicals have invented the idea of ‘carnal Christians’. These are said to be folks that have taken the gift of eternal life without turning from sin. They have ‘allowed’ Jesus to be their Saviour; but they have not yielded their life to the Lord. Trying to patch up faulty evangelism, the church has adopted a faulty follow-up. It defends the questionable experiences of men and women as conversion and holds out the added carrot of ‘victorious life’ to those who will take a second step. Well, the rich young ruler would gladly have been a ‘carnal Christian’. Wouldn’t he delight to be assured of eternal life while serving the devil on earth? Needless to say, the Bible knows of no such grotesque creature as one who is saved but unrepentant. No illegitimate sons will enter God’s kingdom. They must have faith as their mother. But they must also have repentance as their father.
Christ knew nothing of the man-made, twentieth-century suggestion that taking Jesus as Lord is optional. For him it was no second step which is essential for great blessings but unnecessary for entering God’s kingdom. The altered message of today has deceived men and women by convincing them that Jesus will gladly be a Savior even to those who refuse to follow him as Lord.
Christians will certainly begin as infants in their spiritual journey. But they are not meant to stay that way. They are meant to grow, mature and become full-fledged disciples of Jesus Christ. If a carnal Christian does exist, this is meant to be a temporary and unwanted condition.
Those who seek to use a passage such as I Cor. 3:3 to make justification for a worldly, fleshly and carnal lifestyle are only kidding themselves. They are likely not true converts, and they need to get on their faces before almighty God and repent.
And so too should all the evangelical pastors, leaders and workers who have proclaimed a false gospel instead of the biblical gospel. We need to once again proclaim the “whole counsel of God” as Paul said (Acts 20:27). The words of Martyn Lloyd-Jones offer a fitting conclusion to this discussion:
The trouble with all false evangelism is that it does not start with doctrine, it does not start by realising man’s condition. All fleshly, carnal, man-made evangelism is the result of inadequate understanding of what the apostle teaches us in the first ten verses of this second chapter of the Epistle to the Ephesians. If you and I realised that every man who is yet a sinner is absolutely dominated by ‘the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience,’ if we only understood that he is really a child of wrath and dead in trespasses and sins, we would realise that only one power can deal with such an individual, and that is the power of God, the power of the Holy Ghost. And so we would put our confidence, not in man-made organisations, but in the power of God, in the prayer that holds on to God and asks for revival and a descent of the Spirit. We would realise that nothing else can do it. We can change men superficially, we can win men to our side and to our party, we can persuade them to join a church, but we can never raise the spiritually dead; God alone can do that. The realization of these truths would of necessity determine and control all our evangelism.
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