Carnal and Spiritual Christians
by Glenn Conjurske
There are two errors abroad concerning carnal Christians. On the one side, many virtually deny that there is any such thing as a carnal Christian. This they do with a worthy motive, and in a worthy cause. They see the grace of God turned to lasciviousness by ungodly men who claim to be Christians. They see such men confirmed in their ungodliness by a false gospel which requires no repentance or holiness in order to salvation. To counteract such delusions they affirm that if a man is carnal, he is no Christian. There is no such thing as a carnal Christian.
The all-sufficient answer to such assertions is a simple quotation of the words of Paul: “And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ.” (I Cor. 3:1.) Again, “For ye are yet carnal,” and “Are ye not carnal?” (Verse 3.) Paul here plainly refers to a state in which they are. The fact that some men improperly define that state is no excuse for others to deny its existence.
The men who for all practical purposes deny that there is such a thing as a carnal Christian object to dividing Christians into two classes, carnal and spiritual. This they say will lead to pride in the spiritual class. But Paul plainly does thus divide them. Moreover, he speaks to the spiritual as a class in Gal. 6:1
—-“ye which are spiritual” —-plainly assuming that they which are spiritual know who they are, and what they are. He is aware that they may be in danger of pride, but he does not guard against it by denying that they are spiritual, or by placing them in the same class as those whom he calls carnal. He rather exhorts them (in the same passage) to “the spirit of meekness, considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.” The real danger of pride lies in another direction. It lies in treating the novice, the babe in Christ, as though he were spiritual. When Paul lays down the qualifications for an office which only the spiritual are fit to fill, he expressly excludes the “novice,” for the precise reason that he is in danger of being “lifted up with pride” (I Tim. 3:6). This plainly indicates that the danger of pride lies peculiarly in the “novice” —-in the “babe in Christ” —-and not in the “spiritual,” that is, not in the mature and experienced saint (for that that is what Paul means by the term, I intend to prove in this article). Thus to prevent pride in the spiritual, where the danger of it is least, this doctrine actually encourages pride in the novice, where the danger of it is greatest, by treating him as though he were spiritual.
As for dividing Christians into two classes, it is just about as plain as language can make it that that is what Paul actually does in I Cor. 3:1, as well as Gal. 6:1, and it is foolish to deny the plain teaching of these passages in order to combat the abuse which some men make of it. The apostle John does not hesitate to divide Christians into three classes, and upon exactly the same basis upon which Paul divides them, namely, their experience and maturity in Christ. This is evident from the very terms which John uses to distinguish them, namely, little children, young men, and fathers (I John 2:12-14).
But on the other side is a more serious error. Carnal Christians, the contention is, are real Christians who are living in sin
—-men who know God, but are “out of fellowship” with him —-true children of the Father, who are “out of the will of God.” While we may grant that such teaching springs from a worthy motive —-from a desire to uphold the grace of God, and protect it from the presumption of dead works and human merit which would frustrate and make it void —-still it is an unhallowed touch to the ark of God, and the doctrine contained in it is false and destructive.
A true child of God is one who is in fellowship with God. All others “lie and do not the truth,” nor does the blood of Christ cleanse away their sins (I John 1:6-7). Nor is it possible for a true saint of God, as a general, habitual, or characteristic thing, to be “out of the will of God.” For, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matt. 7:21.) And again, “He that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.” (I John 2:17.)
As for a true Christian “living in sin,” certainly neither Paul nor any other New Testament writer ever entertained any thought of the possibility of such a thing. Paul addressed the Corinthians as carnal Christians, but he never supposed that they were (as a general or habitual thing) living in sin
—-nor that they could be Christians at all if they were. “Know ye not,” he writes to them, “that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.” (I Cor. 6:9-10.) As for any even of those Christians whom he addresses as carnal bearing such a character, clearly he never contemplated that, for he says, “And such were some of you, but ye are washed, ye are sanctified, ye are justified, in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.” (Verse 11.) And elsewhere the same apostle writes, “But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was deliverd to you. Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness.” (Rom. 6:17-18.) Yet again, “And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.” (Gal. 5:24.) And another apostle adds, “Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him. Little children, let no man deceive you: He that doeth righteousness is righteous. He that doeth sin is of the devil. … Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him, and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” (I Jn. 3:6-9.)
Clearly, then, he that is “living in sin” is no Christian at all, carnal or otherwise. Paul calls a carnal Christian a “babe in Christ,” but “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature; old things are passed away; all things are become new.” (II Cor. 5:l7.) The Corinthians did indeed have a fornicator among them, but can anyone suppose, in the light of the above scriptures, that Paul could regard him as a Christian? No way. Paul calls him a “wicked person,” and instructs the saints to put him away from among them, and deliver him to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit might be saved (I Cor. 5:5, l3).
Whatever a carnal Christian may be, then, it is not one who is living in sin. “He that doeth sin is of the devil”
—-and is no Christian.
What, then, is a carnal Christian? The scripture already quoted makes this so clear that it is really a wonder that there is any confusion about it. “I could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ.” A carnal Christian is a babe in Christ. He is “in Christ,” and therefore he is a new creature, from whom the old things have passed away, and in whom all things have become new. He is Christ’s, and therefore he has crucified the flesh in general, and its affections and lusts in particular. But he is a babe in Christ. He is one who has only just entered upon that course of scourging which every son whom God receives must endure (Heb. 12:6), and so obviously has not attained that state of spirituality to which that scourging is designed to bring him. He is a “babe,” and therefore liable to be tossed about by every wind of doctrine (Eph. 4:14
—-where “babe” is the same word in the Greek as in I Cor. 3:1), whereas “he that is spiritual discerns all things” (I Cor. 2:l5).
He has but just entered upon that course of the renewing of his mind, by which he is to be gradually transformed into the image of Christ (Rom. 12:2), and is therefore largely ignorant of “that good and perfect and acceptable will of God,” while many worldly thoughts and ways cleave to him unawares.
He is a “babe,” standing in need of milk, and not of strong meat (Heb. 5:13, where “babe” is again the same word in the original), for he is “unskillful in the word of righteousness,” his senses having been but little “exercised to discern both good and evil” (verse 14)
—-and this, through his own lack of diligence, may remain the case when for the time he ought to be a teacher (verse 12). He has only just entered upon that course of “beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord,” by which he is to be little by little “changed into the same image, from glory to glory.” (II Cor. 3:18.)
He is a “novice” (I Tim. 3:6), and therefore likely to be “lifted up with pride” (as the carnal saints in fact were at Corinth, I Cor. 5:2)
—-unfit, therefore, for a place of leadership. Nay —-he is unfit also for certain private ministry, for Paul says, “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual restore such an one, in the spirit of meekness, considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.” (Gal. 6:l.) In so saying he excludes the carnal Christians from such ministry, for the spiritual and the carnal are explicitly contrasted in I Cor. 3:l: “I could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal.” The carnal are likely to do a poor job of restoring the erring. They lack the discernment, the understanding, the patience, the humility, the meekness, the gentleness —-all of those things which a long course of scourging and renewing of the mind is designed to give to them.
But this brings me to another popular error of our day. Many hold and teach that the same Christian may be carnal one day (or one minute), spiritual the next, and perhaps carnal again the next, and so on, depending upon whether he has been “emptied of self, and filled with the Spirit.” But such teaching is nothing more than a proof of the extreme shallowness of the theology of those who hold it, for it is directly against all that the Scriptures have to say on the subject. Paul says, “Are ye not carnal, and walk as men?” (I Cor. 3:3.) This obviously refers to a habitual state, an ongoing condition, not to a momentary lapse. He further states in the same epistle, “He that is spiritual judgeth [margin, discerneth] all things, but he himself is judged [discerned] of no man.” (I Cor. 2:15.) Can a babe in Christ, who stands in need of milk and not meat, and who is in danger of being carried about by every wind of doctrine, jump immediately into the state of one who discerns all things? And if he can, why does Paul write in Galatians 6:1, “Ye that are spiritual, restore such an one”? They might all be spiritual at any moment. Why does he not command them to become so, and then proceed to restore the erring?
There is no possibility of such a thing. A “babe in Christ” is carnal, and cannot become spiritual except only as he is scourged and renewed in his mind, and so little by little transformed into the image of Christ. He is “in Christ,” and so is a new creature. He is “born of God,” and so doth not commit sin. But he has only just begun that process of growth by which he will “grow up into him in all things,” (Eph. 4:15), and so become “a perfect man” (vs. 13), “of full age” (Heb. 5:l4), feeding upon strong meat, discerning all things, and filled with all the fruits of love and holiness. Now all of this takes time. “When for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again”
—-and this for their own lack of diligence. Paul writes to the Corinthian saints, “Ye are yet carnal.” He labors with the Ephesians that they might be “no more babes.” Thus the man who feeds upon the sincere milk of the word, exercises himself to discern both good and evil, holding faith and a good conscience, will in time leave the carnal state behind him for ever, growing up into Christ in all things.
This is the true doctrine of the Bible, which maintains both the holiness of the gospel and those who profess it, and the humility of the babe and the novice, by keeping him from those places for which only the spiritual are fit, and from those notions which lead him to suppose that he may pop into spirituality in a day or a minute, and so stand upon a level with the full-grown saint. A carnal Christian is a babe in Christ. A spiritual Christian is a mature saint. Both of them have renounced all known and deliberate sin, or they are no Christians at all. Both are committed to the narrow path of righteousness and holiness. But there is a great difference between them in strength, in depth, in understanding, and in their degree of attainment in faith, in love, in humility, and in all holy emotions and virtues.