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4. Substandard Saints (1 Cor. 3:1-4)


I probably read the automobile section of the Want Ads more often than most. In addition to the year, make, and model of the car, certain bits of information determine whether I call the owner32 to ask for more information. Normally, good automobiles are identified by labels such as, “cream puff,” “immaculate,” “like new,” “showroom condition,” “pristine” or “spotless.” The losers’ category, from which I usually buy, are labeled “basic transportation,” “cheap,” “rough,” “good work vehicle,” “mechanics special,” “needs TLC,” or even “ugly.” A friend once owned a Vega (so did I, but I repented), and I offered to write the newspaper ad when she decided it was time to sell. Since it was Thanksgiving, I suggested the ad read: “Here’s a real turkey! Only 39 cents a pound.”

Other labels are not clear about the quality of the car for sale. Recently a Honda was advertised as, “One very old owner.” I know what “one owner” means, but I could not grasp what the seller meant by “very old.” Were they elderly and no longer driving very much or very fast, or had the car been driven by someone whose driving skills had deteriorated so much the car had reached a premature demise?

Labels are also a part of the Christian’s vocabulary, and not all are biblical. As we approach the third chapter of Paul’s first recorded Epistle to the Corinthians, we find several labels, and one is the source of fairly intense debate among evangelicals. The label, “carnal Christian,” is based upon the rendering of our text in 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 by the King James Version:

1 And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. 2 I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able. 3 For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men? (1 Corinthians 3:1-3, KJV, emphasis mine).

The King James’ rendering of “carnal” comes from the influence of the Latin Vulgate translation. The Latin word chosen to translate the Greek word, sarkinos, is equivalent to the English rendering, “carnal.” This is probably not the best rendering because of the nuances of the term, which the translators of the NASB changed to fleshly, and the NIV version to worldly. J. B. Phillips focuses on the contrast Paul makes with those who are spiritual and renders the term unspiritual.

There are several good reasons for restricting our study to only the first four verses of chapter 3 and the topic of the “carnal Christian.” First, the debate over the category of the “carnal Christian” is heated, with broad implications for good or evil. Second, the label, “carnal Christian”—whatever it means—is one Paul uses to describe the condition of many of the Corinthian Christians. This is a most important point. The first and second Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians are about “True Spirituality,” the title I have chosen for this series. Paul defines true spirituality, contrasted with the “carnality” of the Corinthians, and with their understanding of spirituality. Understanding what Paul means by “carnal” becomes crucial to our grasp of his two Epistles to the Corinthians. With this in view, let us carefully and prayerfully consider the “carnal Christian” summarized in our text.

The Context of Our Text

Paul lays the foundation for this Epistle in the first nine verses of chapter 1. He indicates his letter is not only written to the saints at Corinth but to all the saints (verse 2). He assumes that his readers are true saints, and, therefore, he gives thanks to God because he knows God has abundantly provided for their salvation, sanctification, and future glorification. Paul’s confidence is not in the Corinthians, but in the God who saved them and who will perfect them (verses 4-9).

At verse 10, Paul begins to deal with the problem of divisions within the saints. He first exhorts them to live in unity (verse 10), and then indicates he is aware of factions emerging in Corinth which seem to focus on following a particular leader (verses 11-12). Paul strongly rejects such divisions as contrary to the gospel (verse 13). He then speaks of his own ministry, and the fact that preaching the gospel takes priority over such secondary matters as baptism, important though they may be (verses 14-17).

Verse 17 serves as Paul’s transition to his next line of argument. He says his preaching is not done in “cleverness of speech,” because this is detrimental to the proclamation of the cross of Christ. (If the cross is the good news that, in Christ, God has enabled men to die to all they were as unbelievers, how can Paul preach in a way that seeks to capitalize on human skill and ability?)

Men and women who boast that they are followers of a certain prominent leader (“I am of…”), or of Christ Himself, are exhibiting pride. Paul reminds his readers in verses 18-31 that the preaching of Christ crucified is diametrically opposed to worldly pride. He therefore encourages his readers in verses 18-25 to look around the church and remind themselves that the culturally elite, in whom the world takes pride, are strangely absent. This is because the gospel is an offense to them, appearing to them as foolish and weak. Conversely, they are attracted to worldly wisdom and power.

In verses 26-31, Paul tells his readers to look about them to see whom God has chosen to save. As they look to their left and to their right, and in the mirror, with few exceptions, they must note that God has chosen those whom the world’s elite despise and reject. God chooses to save the weak, the foolish, and those who are “nobodies.” Through them, He accomplishes His purposes so that God’s power is revealed, and He receives the praise and the glory, rather than men.

In the first five verses of chapter 2, Paul reminds his Corinthian readers that they were saved through weakness and foolishness. When Paul first came to them in Corinth, his mentality, his message, and his method were those the world’s elite disdain. He came in “weakness and in fear and in much trembling,” (verse 3), having purposed to know nothing the world regards as wisdom, but only Christ, and Christ crucified (verse 2). He came preaching simply, with no secular techniques of human persuasion (verse 4). He did so because God’s power is demonstrated through human weakness, and men’s faith then rests in God rather than men (verse 5).

Just because the world regards the gospel as foolish does not mean Paul and the other apostles have no wisdom to teach. Paul does teach wisdom, but only to those who are mature in Christ (2:6). Paul’s kind of wisdom cannot be grasped by those who are “wise” in this present age. Paul drives his point home by reminding us that God’s wisdom has been revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. What did the rulers of His day do with Him? They crucified Him (verse 8). If the culturally elite (the “wise” of this age) had been able to grasp divine wisdom, they could not have missed it in Christ. But if they crucified our Lord, the Lord of glory, we must not deceive ourselves into thinking they can be won through worldly wisdom and worldly methods. Paul further drives home his point by turning our attention in verse 9 to the words of Isaiah. These words buttress Paul’s argument, informing us that the natural senses cannot discern the things of God, the eternal wisdom pertaining to things yet to be revealed.

If men are not capable of knowing God by their own efforts, how can God ever be known by men? Paul answers this dilemma in verses 10-16. Of His initiative, God chose to reveal Himself to men through His Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God alone knows the “depths of God” and has revealed them through the human authors of the New Testament, so that in these Scriptures the “wisdom of God” is revealed, which men cannot otherwise know (verses 10-13). The same Spirit who converted the “spiritual thoughts” of God into “spiritual words” (i.e., the New Testament Scriptures) also enables believers to understand the wisdom of God. The natural, unconverted man, does not have the Spirit within, and thus he cannot understand the Scriptures. The Spirit indwells the Christian, the “spiritual man,” and thus he is able to understand this current age and the mysteries of God revealed in Scripture concerning the coming age (verses 14-16).

The Corinthian saints have begun to look down upon Paul (and the other apostles) and the gospel message he preaches because it is simplistic (Christ crucified). And it is proclaimed in a way which does not stimulate or appeal to the flesh. The Corinthians have turned from Paul and his kind of preaching to others, whose “wisdom” and “power” are of this world. Their excuse for turning from Paul to other men and another “wisdom” is that Paul fails to measure up to the new standard set by the cultural elite, whose message and methods appeal to the lost.

Paul has a big surprise for the Corinthians in chapter 3. Do they think Paul is the problem? They are wrong! Paul has already hinted at the real problem. In chapter 2, verse 6, Paul writes, “Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature.” Now Paul tells the Corinthians they are not mature. The reason he cannot speak words of wisdom to them is because they are “carnal.” We are back once again to the word “carnal” (or “fleshly,” or “worldly”). If we are to understand this text and the message of Paul’s Epistles to the Corinthians, we must deal with this term.

The Great Debate Over Carnality

C. I. Scofield’s note in the Scofield Bible articulates a definition of the “carnal man,” which some embrace and others eschew:

Paul divides men into three classes: psuchikos, ‘of the senses’ (Jas. 3:15; Jude 19), or ‘natural,’ i.e. the Adamic man, unrenewed through the new birth (John 3:3, 5); pneumatikos, ‘spiritual,’ i.e. the renewed man as Spirit-filled and walking in the Spirit in full communion with God (Eph. 5:18-20); and sarkikos, ‘carnal,’ ‘fleshly,’ i.e. the renewed man who, walking ‘after the flesh,’ remains a babe in Christ (1 Cor. 3:1-4). The natural man may be learned, gentle, eloquent, fascinating, but the spiritual content of Scripture is absolutely hidden from him; and the fleshly, or carnal, Christian is able to comprehend only its simplest truths, ‘milk’ (1 Cor. 3:2).33

A strong rebuttal to Scofield’s interpretation comes from a pamphlet by Ernest C. Reisinger:

Many who regularly occupy church pews, fill church rolls, and are intellectually acquainted with the facts of the gospel never strike one blow for Christ. They seem to be at peace with his enemies. They have no quarrel with sin and, apart from a few sentimental expressions about Christ, there is no biblical evidence that they have experienced anything of the power of the gospel in their lives. Yet in spite of the evidence against them, they consider themselves to be just what their teachers teach them—that they are ‘carnal Christians’. And as carnal Christians they believe they will go to heaven, though perhaps not first-class, and with few rewards.

That something is seriously wrong in lives which reveal such features will readily be admitted by most readers of these pages; no argument is needed to prove it. But the most serious aspect of this situation is too often not recognized at all. The chief mistake is not the carelessness of these church-goers; it is the error of their teachers who, by preaching the theory of ‘the carnal Christian’, have led them to believe that there are three groups of men,—the unconverted man, the ‘carnal Christian’ and the ‘spiritual Christian’… all those who accept this [‘carnal Christian’] view use 1 Corinthians 3:1-4 to support it. Consequently, if it can be established that the preponderance of Scripture teaches only two classes or categories of men—regenerate and unregenerate, converted and unconverted, those in Christ and those outside of Christ—the ‘carnal Christian’ teaching would be confronted with an insurmountable objection. It would be in conflict with the whole emphasis of Scripture and of the New Testament in particular.34

Is Carnality a Legitimate Category?

Virtually all admit that while Paul has just (2:14-16) divided the world into two groups—those who are “spiritual” (saved, who possess the Spirit) and those who are “natural” (unsaved, and thus who do not have Spirit)—he now speaks of three categories in chapter 3, verses 1-4:

Certainly there is such a thing as a carnal or worldly Christian, but the ‘carnal Christian’ theory has in recent years taken on some fairly weird extremes that bear little relation to what this chapter actually says. When we remember that this is the only place where the New Testament uses this language, we are forced to recognize that it is important to get the interpretation of the passage right.35

I also recognize that there is a sense in which Christians may be said to be carnal but I must add that there are different degrees of carnality. Every Christian is carnal in some area of his life at many times in his life. And in every Christian ‘the flesh lusteth against the Spirit’ (Gal. 5:17).36

First Corinthians 3 is not the only place in the Bible where Christians are referred to as those who fall short of the goal of being “spiritual”:

11 Of whom we have many things to say, and hard to be uttered, seeing ye are dull of hearing. 12 For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. 13 For every one that useth milk is unskillful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. 14 But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil (Hebrews 5:11-14).

1 Brethren, even if a man is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, lest you too be tempted (Galatians 6:1).

The writer to the Hebrews uses very similar terms to Paul’s as he speaks of those to whom he is writing as not able to handle the spiritual “meat” of his teaching on Melchizedek. Their immaturity causes them to still be dependent on others and to continue to require “milk.” In Galatians 6, Paul instructs “spiritual” Christians that they are to come to the aid of those “caught” in a particular sin. Such a saint is not spiritual. There must be some category into which he or she can be placed, since the category of “spiritual” simply does not fit.

To those of the “either/or” school, I have a few things to say. The “either/or” school is that group of people who think—yea, who insist—that things must be either one way, or they must be another. Ernest Reisinger seems to say that we must have either a two-fold division of mankind (saved and unsaved, “spiritual” and “natural”), or we must have a three-fold classification.37 But one thing is for sure: in Reisinger’s mind, we cannot have both.

Life simply is not this way, and neither are the Scriptures. The Pharisees pressed Jesus with this question: “Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?” (Matthew 22:17). Do we pay taxes to Caesar, or do we give to God? Jesus answered that men should do both. We are to give to Caesar what is his and to God what is His. Is God sovereign, or is man responsible to do certain things? Is man a two-fold or three-fold person? Was the promised Messiah of the Old Testament to be God or man? Some questions cannot be answered in an either/or fashion. Are there two categories of men, saved and lost? Yes. Are there three categories of men, saved and spiritual, saved and carnal, and unsaved? Yes.

Perhaps the best analogy is how Jesus dealt with divorce. In Matthew 19, the Pharisees ask Jesus what grounds for divorce are acceptable to Him. Their question is not sincere, and the Pharisees, as conservative as they were, hold a much more liberal view on this issue than did our Lord. I understand the New Testament to teach that our Lord did allow for divorce, but for very few reasons. Our Lord’s response is very instructive. Paraphrased, Jesus’ answered: “I refuse to talk about exceptions, because for you, divorce has become the rule, and keeping your marriage vows the exception. There are exceptions, but you have so abused these that one can divorce for the most casual and insignificant of reasons. I want to emphasize the rule; I want to speak about the ideal, and the ideal is that one man and one woman remain husband and wife until one of them dies” (see Matthew 19:4-6).

The ideal is that all Christians should be “spiritual.” Every Christian is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and every Christian should walk in the Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 2:14-16, Paul speaks of but two categories of men, those with the Spirit and those without. Now, in chapter 3, Paul introduces a sub-category of those who are saved and indwelt by the Spirit: those who are saved, but who do not live in accordance with who they are and what God has adequately provided for them to be. Whether this category is called “sub-standard saints,” “carnal” or “fleshly” or “unspiritual” does not matter that much. We simply must recognize that Paul must deal realistically with unspiritual saints, and yet he does not want to set aside the broader division of men into simply two categories.

The “carnal” issue is not just an academic matter to be debated only by theologians, which has little or no relevance to the daily life of the saint. The “carnal Christian” is not that far removed from the experience of the “spiritual Christian,” whose daily life manifests the constant battle we face between the flesh and the Spirit (Romans 7:14, 18-19, 24-25; 8:1-4; Galatians 5:13-24). The “spiritual” Christian and the “carnal” Christian both struggle with the pull of the flesh and its opposition to the Spirit. The difference between the “carnal” saint and the “spiritual” saint is that the “carnal Christian” is losing the battle, and the “spiritual Christian” is, by the grace of God, holding his or her ground.

A few concluding remarks may be helpful about the “great debate” raging over this matter. First, the issue is not whether there is a legitimate category which can be labeled “the carnal Christian.” The issue is broader, encompassing matters of “lordship salvation” and “eternal security.” While all grant that there may be a person who could be called a “carnal Christian,” the debate is over what implications and applications are drawn from this. Reisinger speaks for many of his colleagues when he objects to those who use the concept of the carnal Christian to justify, or inadvertently encourage, professing Christians to live a life of minimal commitment and obedience to Christ, all the while confident that they will get to heaven (though perhaps not “first class”) because they at one time made a profession of faith.

I agree with Reisinger and others that this abuse of the doctrines of the grace of God is deplorable. Nevertheless, abuse of a particular doctrine does not prove that doctrine to be wrong. In Romans 5, Paul concludes by saying that “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). Some had concluded this meant one could, and even should, sin that grace might abound (6:1). Paul is horrified at this thought and strongly rejects it. But the perversion of this doctrine in its application by some does not prove that the doctrine itself is wrong. We must beware of rejecting the category of the carnal Christian just because some abuse it.

Characteristics of the Carnal Christian—Part I

1 And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to babes in Christ. 2 I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, 3 for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men? 4 For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not mere men?

In college, I took education classes to prepare to be a school teacher, and we always snickered about the professors who taught elementary education, which was my specialty. They had become so accustomed to dealing with little children that they treated their college students like elementary school students. They even had us file out of class like we were still in kindergarten, and often talked to us as if we were children.

That is the way the Corinthians feel about Paul. He is too elementary and too simplistic. They are insulted by his message and his methods. In these first four verses of chapter 3, Paul exposes the reason for his content and method of preaching. It is not that Paul is incapable of going deeper or grasping secular wisdom. Neither is the problem that apostolic preaching has gone as far as it can go. The problem is that his readers are carnal, fleshly. Paul must deal with them in an elementary fashion because, figuratively speaking, they are still elementary school students. These “kindergarten Christians” want to boast that they are taking graduate level courses.

In some sense, all could agree that the Corinthian Christian falls short of the mark. By whatever label, the Corinthian Christians are childish and immature, incapable of in-depth teaching. Granting the term “carnal” for the moment, what does Paul mean by it? What picture should come to mind when we hear the term “carnal Christian”? These first verses tell us a great deal about the characteristics of a carnal Christian. The rest of the book (and 2 Corinthians) has much to add to the topic. For now, let us make some initial observations about the carnal Christian.

(1) In general terms, the carnal Christian is the Christian whose thinking and actions are prompted by the flesh. Conversely, the spiritual Christian is the saint whose attitudes, thinking, and actions are due to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. The spiritual Christian’s life indicates that he or she is walking in the Spirit, in accordance with the promptings (leading) and the power of the Holy Spirit. The carnal Christian possesses the Spirit, but he or she chooses to follow the promptings of the flesh and to walk in the power of the flesh.

(2) Because the carnal Christian lives in accordance with the flesh, at times it may be hard to distinguish him from the unsaved, “natural,” man, who also thinks and walks according to the flesh. The difference between the carnal (Christian) man and the natural man is that the former has the means to live a godly life, while the latter does not. The difference between the carnal man and the natural man is that the former is saved and going to heaven, while the latter is lost and doomed for an eternity apart from God.

(3) Carnal Christians are babes. When Paul first came to Corinth, he had to speak to these pagans as to “natural men,” that is, as unbelievers, who did not possess the Spirit. Spiritually speaking, he proclaimed the gospel at an elementary level. Even after they were saved, Paul still had to speak to the Corinthians as babes, as brand new believers. Paul soon begins to spell out some of the specifics of babyhood, and other characteristics of immaturity emerge throughout the epistle. But first, let us ponder what babies are like, and then compare this to the spiritual realm.

Babies are little; they are immature and must begin to grow up quickly. The Corinthian newborn saints are immature babies who need to grow up. Babies are weak and vulnerable. They are completely dependent upon others for their food, cleaning, clothing, protection. Being weak, vulnerable and dependent, babies take a great deal from others, but they do not give to others. There is no “give and take” with babies; we give, and they take. As babies begin to grow up, they become more independent. Every parent knows about the “terrible two’s”! Children have trouble getting along with other children because they are self-centered and selfish, and so they fight and squabble over toys and attention.

(4) Carnal Christians are little babies who stay babies; they never grow up. We must be careful when we think about “carnal Christians” as babies, because newborn saints may have their weaknesses, but they also have their capacities. You and I know that new Christians, baby Christians, often put us to shame. They have a zeal for the lost, and they share boldly about their new-found faith. They have a deep sense of that from which they have been saved. They have a hunger for the Word, often devouring it as they discover its riches for the first time.

Paul is not critical of the Corinthians for being immature after their conversion at the time he first came. Paul’s criticism stems from their having remained children. They have not grown up and matured into adult, serving saints. Growth is normal and natural, and when children do not grow up, it is considered a tragedy. Spiritual growth is expected also, and when it does not happen, it is abnormal:

11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ. 14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; 15 but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love (Ephesians 4:11-16).

1 Therefore, putting aside all malice and all guile and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, 2 like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, 3 if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord (1 Peter 2:1-3, see Hebrews 5:11-14).

Paul simply states that the Corinthian believers have never grown up. It is not wrong for them to digest only simple truths as newborn babes, but it is wrong for them to fail to grow up and not to take solid food. To stay immature is sin. The Corinthians are guilty of this malady.

(5) Carnal Christians are “Wimps in the Word.” The Corinthian Christians are only able to handle “milk” when Paul is with them. Their condition has not changed because there is no growth toward maturity, no movement from “milk” to “meat.” What is “milk,” and what is “meat”? Paul does not spell this out for us in our text, but the writer to the Hebrews does:

13 For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil. 6:1 Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 of instruction about washings, and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment (Hebrews 5:13–6:2).38

According to these words, “milk” would be those elementary truths necessary for salvation, and the taking of one’s first steps in his or her walk in the Spirit. When the Christian moves from “milk” to “meat,” he is not moving from “Christ crucified” to “deeper truths.” He is moving from a basic grasp of the meaning of Christ crucified to a deeper understanding of Christ, and thus of the gospel and the implications for godly living. Gordon Fee puts it this way in his commentary on 1 Corinthians:

The argument of 2:6-16 implies that for Paul the gospel of the crucified one is both ‘milk’ and ‘solid food.’ As milk it is the good news of salvation; as solid food it is understanding that the entire Christian life is predicated on the same reality—and those who have the Spirit should so understand the ‘mystery.’ Thus the Corinthians do not need a change in diet but a change in perspective. As Morna Hooker nicely puts it: ‘Yet while he uses their language, the fundamental contrast in Paul’s mind is not between two quite different diets which he has to offer, but between the true food of the Gospel with which he has fed them (whether milk or meat) and the synthetic substitutes which the Corinthians have preferred.’39

Put simply, both the “milk” and the solid food, the “meat” of the Christian’s diet is the Word of God, centered in Christ crucified. The Corinthian Christians are feeding on “junk food” at best. As I understand Paul’s words, it is not that the Corinthian saints are still trying to digest the “milk” of the Word. They have turned up their noses at “milk” and are seeking truth (“wisdom”) from those teachers who give them “food” that appeals to their fleshly natures.

The carnal Christians of Paul’s day disdain doctrine, as they do in our day. They do not want any diet which requires study, hard work, and thought. D. A. Carson describes them this way:

They are infants still and display their wretched immaturity even in the way that they complain if you give them more than milk. Not for them solid knowledge of Scripture; not for them mature theological reflection; not for them growing and perceptive Christian thought. They want nothing more than another round of choruses and a ‘simple message’—something that won’t challenge them to think, to examine their lives, to make choices, and to grow in their knowledge and adoration of the living God.40

A very substantial “market” exists in the Christian community for sermons, tapes, radio and television talk shows, and Christian gurus who predigest truth for us and then tell us exactly how to do everything. The books on Christian marriage, child-rearing, facing life’s problems, and handling money are endless. It is not that all of these books are wrong (though some are); it is that we must everything predigested for us. We seem incapable of thinking for ourselves.

What is the goal of education? What is maturity? Our goal is not to teach people in a way which causes them to come back again and again with every new question, every new wrinkle to their problems. Our goal in education is to provide people with the tools, the methods, and the motivation to learn for themselves. We are never completely independent of others, nor should we be, but as we grow up in the Word, we should become less dependent. We should not have to be told every “answer,” because we should begin to find the answers for ourselves. In this sense, “milk” is the product which has been produced by someone else, the nourishment we get “second hand.” A mother’s (breast) milk is the result of her proper diet, and the baby lives from what the mother has produced. Solid food is the food we will eventually have to get for ourselves. We have too many “pablum solutions” available upon purchase and too few people able or willing to search out the truth for themselves. The plethora of books, tapes, and materials can be either a blessing or a curse to us, depending on whether they help us learn to find the truth in the Scriptures, or whether they give us an excuse not to search out the truth for ourselves from the Scriptures. There is little doubt as to which is the best:

1 My son, if you will receive my sayings, And treasure my commandments within you, 2 Make your ear attentive to wisdom, Incline your heart to understanding; 3 For if you cry for discernment, Lift your voice for understanding; 4 If you seek her as silver, And search for her as for hidden treasures; 5 Then you will discern the fear of the Lord, And discover the knowledge of God. 6 For the Lord gives wisdom; From His mouth come knowledge and understanding. 7 He stores up sound wisdom for the upright; He is a shield to those who walk in integrity, 8 Guarding the paths of justice, And He preserves the way of His godly ones. 9 Then you will discern righteousness and justice and equity and every good course (Proverbs 2:1-9).

(6) Carnal Christians are not those who think of themselves as carnal, but those who think of themselves as spiritual. The “carnal Christian” Paul speaks of is not the stereotypical “carnal Christian.” Neither is that person the one described earlier by Reisinger:

Many who regularly occupy church pews, fill church rolls, and are intellectually acquainted with the facts of the gospel never strike one blow for Christ. They seem to be at peace with his enemies. They have no quarrel with sin and, apart from a few sentimental expressions about Christ, there is no biblical evidence that they have experienced anything of the power of the gospel in their lives. Yet in spite of the evidence against them, they consider themselves to be just what their teachers teach them—that they are ‘carnal Christians’. And as carnal Christians they believe they will go to heaven, though perhaps not first-class, and with few rewards.41

I must be fair to Reisinger and say that he refuses to accept this characterization as a legitimate example of the “carnal Christian.” To him, the “carnal Christian” is one who struggles over one particular sin:

In endeavouring to understand how Paul thinks of those he addresses in 1 Corinthians 3 we must bear in mind the designation he gives to them in chapter 1. He says they are ‘sanctified in Christ Jesus’, they are recipients of ‘the grace of God’, enriched by Christ ‘in all utterance, and in all knowledge’ (1:2-5). They are rebuked in chapter 3, not for failing to attain to privileges which some Christians attain to, but for acting, despite their privileges, like babes and like the unregenerate in one area of their lives.42

I agree with Reisinger that the Scriptures do not give comfort or encouragement to professing Christians who manifest no evidence of spiritual life. I further agree that the typical description of the “carnal Christian” is flawed. More strongly than Reisinger, it appears, I feel there is a legitimate category we can designate with the label, the “carnal” Christian.

In my study of the “carnal Christian” in Corinthians, I have reached the surprising conclusion that Paul has a completely different kind of person in mind than we do when he refers to those who are “carnal” or “fleshly” in his epistles. The carnal Christian is not the person who once made a profession of faith, who has done nothing since. The carnal Christian is the person we think of as spiritual—the kind of person who thinks of himself (or herself) as spiritual:

So this is what Paul means by a ‘worldly’ Christian, by a ‘carnal’ Christian (if we adopt older English). Paul does not have in mind someone who has made a profession of faith, carried on in the Christian way for a short while, and then reverted to a lifestyle indistinguishable in every respect from that of the world. After all, these Corinthian believers are meeting together for worship (1 Cor. 14), they call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (1:2), they are extraordinarily endowed with spiritual gifts (1:5, 7; 12-14), they are wrestling with theological and ethical issues (1 Cor. 8-10), and they are in contact with the apostle whose ministry brought them to the Lord. Far from being sold out to the world, the flesh, and the devil, they pursue spiritual experience, if sometimes unwisely. 43

The “carnal Christian” is one who may well be regarded as “spiritual” by others:

1 “Write this to the angel of the Church in Sardis: These are the words of him who holds in his hand the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars: I know what you have done, that you have a reputation for being alive, but that in fact you are dead” (Revelation 3:1, Phillips).

Notice what is said to the “carnal” saints at Sardis. They are not rebuked for having done no works. God indicates that He is aware of their deeds. It seems the saints in Sardis have a reputation for being “alive” (I think we could say “spiritual” and not miss the point) on the basis of their works. But in spite of this apparent evidence, God exposes them as being “dead,” not “alive.”

In the same chapter, we see that the saints in Laodicea also thought they were “spiritual,” but God informed them that they were not:

14 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God, says this: 15 ‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I would that you were cold or hot. 16 So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth. 17 Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, 18 I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire, that you may become rich, and white garments, that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see. 19 ‘Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; be zealous therefore, and repent” (Revelation 3:14-19).

How can this be? How can the ones who consider themselves as “spiritual,” and whom others consider as “spiritual,” be the very ones God designates as “carnal”? The answer: we have the wrong criteria for judging spirituality. Our judgment is based upon outward acts, upon appearances of spirituality. But Jesus warned about making judgments on the basis of externals: “And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15). The “false prophets” of whom Jesus warned are those who performed very impressive works, and yet Jesus calls them those “who practice lawlessness”:

15 “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 “You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles, are they? 17 “Even so, every good tree bears good fruit; but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 “A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. 19 “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 “So then, you will know them by their fruits. 21 “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. 22 “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ 23 “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:15-23).

Immediately after this, Jesus goes on to emphasize that those who are “wise” (an interesting word in relationship to the Corinthians) are those who do what He has taught:

24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine, and acts upon them, may be compared to a wise man, who built his house upon the rock. 25 “And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and burst against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded upon the rock. 26 “And everyone who hears these words of Mine, and does not act upon them, will be like a foolish man, who built his house upon the sand. 27 “And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and burst against that house; and it fell, and great was its fall” (Matthew 7:24-27).

Addressing the “carnal” Hebrew Christians, the writer to the Hebrews indicates that their immaturity is due to their lack of use of the Word, while the mature are those who are wise concerning good and evil because they have put their biblical knowledge to use. “But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil” (Hebrews 5:14 emphasis mine).

What is the difference between the “works” of those who are unspiritual (even unsaved), and the “works” of those who are “spiritual”? The answer is amazingly simple. The works of those who are “fleshly” or “carnal” are those prompted and empowered by the flesh. The works of those who are spiritual are prompted and empowered by the Spirit. Seemingly spiritual people may hustle and bustle around the church, doing so much they appear to put others to shame, while in reality their works are fleshly. The “fleshly” Christian may even prostitute his or her spiritual gifts, employing them in self-serving and self-promoting ways. There is no question but what the Corinthian church is well-endowed with spiritual gifts, and yet Paul’s description of the meeting of the church implies that the gifts are being misused. Prophets, teachers and tongues-speakers, seem to be pushing and shoving to get a hearing when the church gathers. People are grandstanding their gifts.

We are amazed that God may choose to use the ministry of “carnal” Christians in spite of their sin. I am reminded of the Philippian church and those who used Paul’s imprisonment as an opportunity to undermine his ministry and authority, while at the same time promoting themselves. Even so, Paul rejoiced because some seem to have been saved by the gospel proclaimed to them by self-serving “preachers”:

12 Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, 13 so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, 14 and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear. 15 Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife, but some also from good will; 16 the latter do it out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; 17 the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice, yes, and I will rejoice (Philippians 1:12-18).

Being carnal is not indicated by the absence of what might be called “good works,” but the absence of the Spirit in these “good works.” Can you imagine the shock wave that hits the church at Corinth as the saints read and reflect upon Paul’s letter? Paul is not only calling many of the Corinthian saints carnal, he is calling those carnal who are most highly regarded (and followed?) as those who are spiritual. We must brace ourselves for one more surprise concerning the carnal Corinthians. The carnal Corinthians are not only those who are regarded as spiritual, who think themselves to be spiritual; they are also those who have the audacity to claim that Paul and his fellow-apostles are “carnal”:

1 Now I, Paul, myself urge you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ—I who am meek when face to face with you, but bold toward you when absent! 2 I ask that when I am present I may not be bold with the confidence with which I propose to be courageous against some, who regard us as if we walked according to the flesh. 3 For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh (2 Corinthians 10:1-3, emphasis mine).


Some can be called “carnal Christians.” Carnal Christians are “fleshly Christians,” believers in Jesus Christ whose thinking and actions are rooted in the flesh rather than in the Spirit. “Spiritual Christians” are those who mortify the flesh, and walk (albeit imperfectly) in accordance with the promptings and power of the Holy Spirit. Carnal Christians are not proficient in the Scriptures because the wisdom of God is not known through fleshly wisdom but through the Spirit (see 2:14-16). Spiritual Christians seek to plummet the depths of the wisdom of God revealed in His Word through the enablement of the Holy Spirit. Further, they seek to apply the teachings of the Scriptures through the power of the Spirit.

The two Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians deal with the fruits of carnality. Paul seeks to point his readers to “true spirituality.” As we continue on in our study, we will gain insight into why “spiritual saints” are often considered “carnal” and why “carnal Christians” are thought to be “spiritual.” We will become increasingly aware that times have changed, but people have not. The pages of Paul’s epistles read like the pages of our daily newspaper.

Salvation is a radical change. It is not merely adding Christ to our life; it is not just “inviting Christ into our life.” Salvation is the change from death to life, from darkness to light. Salvation is accompanied by repentance, the turning away from all that we once depended upon for eternal life, from all that we once held precious as non-believers. Salvation turns one’s life, one’s values and thinking, upside-down and inside-out. Certain instant changes do occur at conversion, but many of the changes take place in the life-long process of sanctification, that process by which we are being transformed into the image and likeness of Christ. The “carnal Christian” resists this change. While he or she is more than adequately endowed with all that is necessary for growth in godliness, they fail to appropriate these resources and, in so doing, become carnal. Over time, they lose not only their appetite for the “milk of the Word,” but they begin to seek their spiritual nourishment from the well of “worldly wisdom,” which is no wonder since this wisdom is amiable to the flesh. The cross of Christ requires the mortification, not the indulging, of the flesh.

Two of the Christian’s greatest resources are the Word of God and the Spirit of God, as Paul emphasized in chapter 2. We must saturate our minds with the Word of God, so that our thinking is transformed (Romans 12:1-2; Ephesians 4:17-24). We must also apply the truth of God’s Word so that our senses are, by application of the truth, trained to discern between good and evil (Hebrews 5:12). To comprehend the Word of God, and then apply it, we must rely upon the enablement of the Holy Spirit. We are to “walk in the Spirit,” to avoid succumbing to the magnetic pull of the flesh (Galatians 5:13-24). We are to “sow to the Spirit” so that we shall “from the Spirit reap eternal life.” Spiritual growth is possible only by the grace of God, but this does not mean we must be passive in the process, or—worse yet—we should seek to pervert God’s grace into an excuse for sin (Romans 5:20—6:2, 15-23; Jude 4).

If there is any “key” to the spiritual life, surely it is summed up in terms of the Word of God and the Spirit of God. How great is our need to grow up as Christians and to become increasingly dependent upon God’s Word and His Spirit.

I wonder into what category the apostle Paul would put our church and each of us. If Paul calls those “carnal” who are thought to be “spiritual,” what of those whom we would call “carnal”? I think we must turn to Paul for his own words: “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you— unless indeed you fail the test?” (2 Corinthians 13:5). This passage is not meant to encourage Christians who fall short of the mark, some who may be called “carnal.” Paul is not trying here to assure us that we will get to heaven no matter how sinful our lives may be. He is trying to convince us that we may be “carnal,” no matter how “spiritual” we or others may think we are. The proper application of this text is repentance, not relief.

21 Therefore putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. 22 But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; 24 for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. 25 But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man shall be blessed in what he does (James 1:21-25).

The danger of dispensationalists is to make unfruitful, fleshly Christians comfortable in their carnality (or even in their unbelief), confident that a one-time profession secures them a place in heaven. The danger of the reformed theologian is legalism. Those who strongly hold that “fruits of repentance” must be evident in the lives of those who profess faith in Christ also tend at times to equate these “fruits” with external acts of “righteousness.” Spirituality must not be judged on the basis of externals, but on the basis of the work of the Spirit in the life of the individual. As Paul will say shortly, spirituality is not really something we can judge at all, but something we must leave to God. Let us not concern ourselves so much with the “carnality” of others, as with the carnality in our own lives.

May we not fail the test, but from our study of this epistle and from the rest of God’s Word, may we continue to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen” (2 Peter 3:18).

32 One of the first things I try to determine is whether this car is being sold by the owner. My first statement is, “Hi, I’m calling about the car you have advertised in the paper.” If they respond, “Which one?”, I know I am dealing with a “wheeler-dealer” of some sort, which almost always ends the conversation.

33 Scofield’s note at 1 Corinthians 2:14.

34 Ernest C. Reisinger, “What should we think of ‘THE CARNAL CHRISTIAN’?” (Printed by Hazell Watson & Viney Ltd, Great Britain, n.d.), pp.1, 8.

35 D. A. Carson, The Cross & Christian Ministry: An Exposition of Passages From 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993), p. 69.

36 Reisinger, p. 8.

37 “Consequently, if it can be established that the preponderance of Scripture teaches only two classes or categories of men—regenerate and unregenerate, converted and unconverted, those in Christ and those outside of Christ—the ‘carnal Christian’ teaching would be confronted with an insurmountable objection. It would be in conflict with the whole emphasis of Scripture and of the New Testament in particular.” Ernest C. Reisinger, p. 8.

38 Verses 1 and 2 of Hebrews 6 spell out the curriculum for the elementary grades of our spiritual instruction. This seems to be done in related pairs. “Dead works” are to be repented of for us to have “faith toward God.” The Old Testament ceremonial “washings” did not sanctify, but rather the Holy Spirit, who was (at least initially on some occasions) received by the “laying on of hands.” The “resurrection of the dead” is a truth foundational to the gospel and to the certainty of the “eternal judgment” of the wicked.

39 Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987 [reprinted, 1993]), p. 125.

40 Carson, p. 72.

41 Reisinger, p. 1.

42 Reisinger, p. 11. It is perplexing that Reisinger can suppose that a “carnal Christian” is losing on but one front in his or her life. In my understanding, a “carnal Christian” will be losing the war with the flesh on most fronts. In fact, there may be hardly any war going on at all.

43 Bibliographic information unavailable.

Related Topics: Soteriology (Salvation), Sanctification

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