skip to main content

Clinging to a Counterfeit Cross

Clinging to a Counterfeit Cross

by James P. Shelly


What is a "Carnal Christian"?

Since the Apostle Paul addressed the Corinthians as brethren, "those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus," it is argued that whatever sins the Corinthians were involved in can be characteristic of true Christians in general and in all ages. Paul addresses them as "carnal" in chapter 3 which lays the foundation for the teaching that says a Christian can live a "self-directed life" rather than a "Christ directed life." One can reject the lordship of Christ, continue to practice sin, walk "according to the course of this world" while remaining confident that their salvation is secure. However, as we propose to show, this is in direct opposition, not only to what Paul was intending to communicate to the Corinthian Church, but to all of Scripture. The truth is, when it is said that, "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16), it presupposes discipleship and a Christ directed life. For what would be the purpose of Paul to write a letter to instruct, correct, and direct the Corinthians in regards to their being in error in the ways of Christ without first assuming that the recipients, in general, were committed to walk in the ways of Christ, under His lordship and direction, with a heartfelt desire to live a life pleasing to God. If it were not so it would be an exercise in futility. Ernest C. Reisinger writes:

The Carnal Christian teaching was invented to accommodate all the supposed converts of modern evangelism, which has left biblical repentance out of its message. I am referring to those who make 'decisions,' walk aisles, and profess to be Christians while their lives remain unchanged by the power of the Holy Spirit. They are people who do not love what Christians love or hate what Christians hate. Because these supposed converts think and behave like non-Christians, their teachers have devised an explanation for their unchanged lives; they have invented the unbiblical category of 'carnal Christian.' The 'carnal Christian' idea is part of the nonlordship two-experience theory of the Christian life. Stage one is conversion, the decision to receive Christ as one's personal Savior (and escape hell). Stage two, a later decision, makes Christ Lord...Between these two stages or experiences, the supposed convert may live like a non-Christian. A testimony would be something like this: 'when I was seven or eight years old, I received Christ as my personal Savior, but I did not make Him my Lord until much later in life. ...The notion of two kinds of Christians is just the old 'second blessing' teaching in new garb—a teaching that sends Christians on a quest for an instantaneous holiness that does not exist....There is reason to believe that this theory has spawned the terrible perversion of the gospel known as 'nolordship' salvation....To interpret 1 Cor. 3:1-4 in such a way as to divide humanity into three classes is, therefore, to violate the cardinal rules of biblical interpretation: interpret single passages in the light of the whole of Scripture; interpret all subordinate passages in the light of the leading truths; interpret all obscure passages in the light of clear passages. The 'carnal Christian' teaching fails to do that. It is an incorrect interpretation and application of the one portion of Scripture on which it is founded....It separates the two main doctrines of the Christian faith—justification and sanctification and thereby separates the blessings of the new covenant. It makes holiness, obedience, discipleship, and submission to Christ optional (compare John 10:26-28; John 14:21-23; John 15:10; Titus 2:10-14; Heb. 12:14; 1 Pet. 1:15, 16)....It teaches two ways to heaven: the 'Carnal Christian' way and the spiritual Christian way—which ever you prefer. It also ignores the biblical distinction between the grounds of salvation and the grounds of assurance. And it breeds a false spirituality or Phariseeism in so-called 'spiritual Christians' who have measured up to some man-made standard of spirituality. There ought to be no professed 'spiritual Christians' much less 'super-spiritual ones'....The words of one of the early church fathers are very appropriate to our examination of this text: 'If you only have one Scripture on which to base an important doctrine or teaching, you are most likely to find, on close examination, that you have none'1 (italics added).

The error of the "carnal Christian" teaching is intimately connected with the no-Lordship view of salvation ( see Chap. 3, The Lordship of Christ in Salvation). In 1909, Cyrus I. Scofield in his notes in The Scofield Reference Bible, introduced the notion of three classes of human beings; natural, carnal, and spiritual. The natural man being the unbeliever, the carnal and spiritual man being that of believers. This view was advanced in 1918 by Lewis Sperry Chafer, the founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, when he wrote "He That Is Spiritual" in which he interpreted 1 Cor. 3 as teaching the concept of two classes of Christians; the carnal and the spiritual; which was a novel view up to that time in church history. It is a teaching that allows one to "enter the narrow gate" then proceed to walk in the "broad way." Chafer writes:

By various terms the Bible teaches that there are two classes of Christians: those who 'abide in Christ,' and those who 'abide not'; those who are 'walking in the light,' and those who 'walk in darkness'; those who 'walk by the Spirit,' and those who 'walk as men'; those who 'walk in newness of life,' and those who 'walk after the flesh'; those who have the Spirit 'in' and 'upon' them, and those who have the Spirit 'in' them, but not 'upon' them; those who are 'spiritual' and those who are 'carnal'; those who are 'filled with the Spirit,' and those who are not. All this has to do with the quality of daily life of saved people, and is in no way a contrast between the saved and the unsaved. Where there is such an emphasis in the Bible as is indicated by these distinctions there is a corresponding reality. There is, then, the possibility of a great transition for those who are carnal into the reality of true spiritual living. The revelation concerning this possible transition, with all of its experiences and blessings, is taken seriously only by earnest believers who are faithfully seeking a God-honoring daily life. To such there is boundless joy and consolation in this gospel of deliverance, power and victory.2

Most everything taught in this statement is foreign to the orthodox teachings of the Church and, as far as we are aware, contrary to all its various commentaries, creeds and confessions throughout her prior history. More importantly, however, it is foreign to Scripture. It is a teaching that is not only perilous to the individual soul but undermines any possibility of unity within the body of Christ. For what fellowship can there possibly be between Christians walking in two entirely different directions? One directed by Christ and the other directed by self—One who abides in Christ and one who does not—One walking in the Spirit and the other in the flesh—One walking in the light and the other in darkness? This is the Gospel of Christ! Whose own prayer to the Father was that they "all may be one"? (Jn. 17:20, 21). Paul says to the Corinthians, "Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness?" (2 Cor. 6:14) Paul states here that believers represent light and righteousness as opposed to unbelievers who represent unrighteousness and darkness. The contrast is between believers and unbelievers, not believers and "carnal Christians." The gospel is a cause of division between Christians and the world (1 Cor. 6:17, Luke 12:51), not Christians and their brethren. Chafer teaches that a carnal Christian walks in darkness, whereas Scripture teaches that believers walk in the light. Jesus said, "I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life" (Jn. 8:12) "He has delivered us from the power of darkness" (Col. 1:13) . Christ says to Paul that He was sending him to Jews and Gentiles "to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God" (Acts 26:18). John says, "But he who hates his brother is in darkness and walks in darkness" (1 Jn. 2:11). He then states, "Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him" (1 John 3:15). If he who hates his brother is one who walks in darkness then clearly he who walks in darkness, according to John, is not a Christian. He further states that "He who does not love , i.e. hates, his brother" is a child of the devil (1 Jn. 3:10). In other words, anyone who does not love his brother walks in darkness, and is therefore not a carnal Christian but a child of the devil. 1 John 1:7 says, "If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin." The antithesis would be equally true—those who walk in darkness do not have fellowship with one another and are therefore not cleansed from their sin by the blood of Christ. To teach that a Christian can walk in darkness is simply contrary to Scripture. Moreover, the "carnal Christian" teaching would clearly not serve as an aid in restraining the contentions, strife, and divisions among the brethren, the very conduct Paul is seeking to eradicate in the Corinthian Church (1 Cor. 3), but would tend to provoke and promote them even further, exacerbating the problem. In other words, the carnal Christian teaching is a doctrine that would undermine the intended purpose of the very passage from which the teaching itself is derived. The truth is, every Christian walks in the light, abides in Christ (1 Jn. 4:15, Jn. 6:56, Jn. 15:6), walks in the Spirit and in newness of life as we have endeavored to show elsewhere. Ironically, those who teach otherwise are even as those false apostles and deceitful workers Paul warns them about in 2 Cor. 11:13. When he says in 1 Cor. 6:9, "Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived" it is apparent that there were deceitful workers teaching this deception—that living a life characterized by righteousness in obedience to Christ was optional rather than imperative. Tragically, this is precisely what the "carnal Christian" teaching does. Paul says in 2 Cor. 11:3,

But I fear that somehow your pure and undivided devotion to Christ will be corrupted, just as Eve was deceived by the cunning ways of the serpent. You happily put up with whatever anyone tells you, even if they preach a different Jesus than the one we preach, or a different kind of Spirit than the one you received, or a different kind of gospel than the one you believed (NLT).

Lamentably, it is simply not possible to reconcile these teachings with the Gospel as taught by Christ and His Apostles and therefore it must necessarily fall under the charge of preaching "a different gospel" (Gal. 1:9). Chafer further states;

There are two great spiritual changes which are possible to human experience—the change from the 'natural' man to the saved man, and the change from the 'carnal' man to the 'spiritual' man. The former is divinely accomplished when there is a real faith in Christ; the latter is accomplished when there is a real adjustment to the Spirit. Experimentally the one who is saved through faith in Christ, may at the same time wholly yield to God and enter at once a life of true surrender. Doubtless this is often the case. It was thus in the experience of Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9:4-6). Having recognized Jesus as his Lord and Saviour, he also said, 'Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?' There is no evidence that he ever turned from this attitude of yieldedness to Christ. However, it must be remembered that many Christians are carnal. To these the word of God gives clear directions as to the steps to be taken that they may become spiritual. There is then a possible change from the carnal to the spiritual state.... Though saved, the carnal Christians are walking 'according to the course of this world.' They are 'carnal' because the flesh is dominating them (See Rom. 7:14).3

Chafer quotes from Eph. 2 describing carnal Christians as those who walk "according to the course of this world." However, when we look at that passage we find that those who so walk are synonymous with the "dead in trespasses and sins," "the sons of disobedience," and "children of wrath," which is, categorically, a description of those prior to becoming Christian. Paul says,

And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others (italics added).

Paul is clearly describing their past course of life when they were yet children of wrath. It is difficult to envision how one could find a "carnal" Christian in this passage without twisting the text to fit one's own theological scheme. Chafer then references Romans 7:14, which is so often the case when arguing for the allowance of sin in the Christian life and is one of the reasons why it is so critical that we interpret that text in its historical context and how costly indeed when misinterpreted (see chapter 14, Sin and the Misinterpretation of Romans 7).

This "carnal Christian" view has been further popularized by ministries such as "Campus Crusade for Christ" which teaches that the "carnal person" is described in Scripture as a Christian who "does not fully trust God" and can be "characterized by unbelief, disobedience, poor prayer life, no desire for Bible study." "The Carnal Christian is a self-directed life. Jesus is in the life but not on the throne [of one's heart]. Self is on the throne directing decisions and actions often resulting in frustration."4 Interestingly, following these declarations it is then noted that, "The individual who professes to be a Christian but who continues to practice sin should realize that he may not be a Christian at all, according to 1 John 2:3; 3:6, 9; Ephesians 5:5" (italics added). The truth is, if self is on the throne of our hearts it is self-evident that we are , without question, practicing sin and if so, as the passages referenced explicitly state, are not Christians; "No one who is born of God practices sin" (1 Jn. 3:9, NASB). The subtlety of the error of this statement is what makes it so perilous. The simple words "may not be" as opposed to "is not," can make the difference between the life and death of the eternal soul.

In order for a "carnal Christian" to become a "spiritual Christian," according to this view, one must be filled with the Spirit which is the "Christ-directed life by which Christ lives His life in and through us in the power of the Holy Spirit (John 15)." This is accomplished, 1. by sincerely desiring to be directed and empowered by the Holy Spirit. 2. by confessing our sins. 3. by presenting every area of your life to God and 4. by faith claim the fullness of the Holy Spirit. This is then appropriated in the following prayer:

Dear Father, I need You. I acknowledge that I have been directing my own life and that, as a result, I have sinned against You. I thank You that You have forgiven my sins through Christ's death on the cross for me. I now invite Christ to again take His place on the throne of my life. Fill me with the Holy Spirit as You commanded me to be filled, and as You promised in Your Word that You would do if I asked in faith. I now thank You for directing my life and for filling me with the Holy Spirit.5

If in this prayer is found all that is necessary for the "carnal Christian" to become a "spiritual Christian" then what possible reason or justification would there be for not becoming a spiritual Christian at the outset of salvation? Furthermore, salvation is predicated on the fact that we are condemned as the "sons of disobedience" because we have sinned against God by rejecting His Lordship, directing our own life as do sheep who have gone stray from their Shepherd. To teach that the Savior saves us while allowing us to live a "self-directed life" can be likened to a shepherd that is said to have found his sheep while they continue to stray and remain lost. Although this obviously contradicts reason and common logic this is in essence what the "carnal Christian" teaching implies. A lost sheep is not found simply by receiving forgiveness for going astray, but rather it is considered found only when it is restored to the "flock," coming under and following after the direction of the shepherd. Chafer, however, sees lost sheep as those previously saved. He says of the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son;

In turning to an interpretation of the parable, some consideration must be given to the well-nigh universal impression that this parable is a picture of salvation. While it is a blessed picture of the heart of God, it most evidently had to do with restoration rather than regeneration....This is not a picture of ninety-nine sheep and one goat: it is of one hundred sheep, and 'sheep,' according to the Scriptures, are always covenant people. The sheep, the piece of silver and the son were 'lost'; but they were lost in such a way as that they needed to be 'found.' This is hardly the same as being lost in such a way as needing to be saved.6

Chafer admits that this view is contrary to the "universal" consensus that these parables are speaking of the lost in need of salvation. However, he rejects the consensus based on his view that in Scripture sheep "are always covenant people." Covenant people yes, but these were sheep who walked away from their covenant with God and are therefore appropriately called lost sheep—The scattered sheep among God's people who had apostatized by going after other gods. Jesus says in Matthew 15:24, "I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." Was Christ sent to find lost sheep that were already saved? No! "For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost" (Luke 19:10). "For thus says the Lord God: 'Indeed I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out'" (Ezek. 34:11). The sheep that return to the Shepherd, strictly speaking, are the lost sheep of Israel, the Old Testament people of God who forsook their Shepherd and needed to return, whereas the Gentiles, excluding proselytes, never had a covenantal relationship with God, and were—"without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world" (Eph. 2:12). Gentiles being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel are not called to return to God but to come into a covenantal relationship with Him Whom they had no prior relationship. The parable of the "lost sheep" the "lost coin" and the "lost or prodigal son," although having implications pertaining to all, are primarily speaking in reference to apostate and backslidden Israel. These have nothing whatever to do with a Christian going back to a life of sin. God promises in the New Covenant, "And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from doing them good; but I will put My fear in their hearts so that they will not depart from Me ( Jer. 32:39-40)(emphasis added). The lost sheep who is found is referred to as a "sinner who repents." Jesus listeners would understand the term sinner in no other way than that which would be descriptive of those outside of the covenant of God. Moreover, the term is never used of a believer anywhere in Scripture (see Chapter 10, "Saint or Sinner?"). The prodigal son was dead and lost and could be restored only by regeneration, "for your brother was dead and is alive again" (Luke 15:32). In other words, He was born again. Peter Pet in his commentary writes,

The story is partly based on Old Testament ideas where God said, 'Sons have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against Me' (Isaiah 1:2). And the consequence was, 'A voice on the bare heights is heard, the weeping and pleading of Israel's sons, because they have perverted their way, they have forgotten the Lord their God. Return O faithless sons, I will heal your faithlessness' (Jeremiah 3:21-22 a). And the reply then comes, 'Behold we come to you, for you are the Lord our God' (Jeremiah 3:22 b). And who can fail to see the yearning of the father for his lost son in Jeremiah 31:20, 'Is Ephraim (Israel) My dear son? Is he My darling child? For as often as I speak against him, I remember him still, therefore My heart yearns for him. I will surely have mercy on him, says the Lord'. So the Old Testament is firm in its teaching concerning the Father Who yearns for His sons to return to Him, and is ready to receive them with mercy.7

To teach that the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son are "carnal Christians" is simply contrary to the plain teachings of Scripture and therefore explains the "well-nigh universal impression" that these parables are a picture of salvation."

It is critical to our understanding of Paul's letter to the Corinthians to identify the context and culture of the city in which they lived;

[Corinth had a ] long-standing reputation for immorality and licentiousness. The Greeks—who had a name for everything—coined the term corinthiazesthai to mean 'immorality'; literally, the word means 'to live a Corinthian life.' To call a girl a 'Corinthian lass' was to cast aspersions on her virtue. Corinth's reputation was as notorious in Paul's day as it had been in the Classical Age five centuries before....This is the reality that lay behind Paul's reference, in his second letter to the Corinthians, to the 'impurity, immorality, and licentiousness' that characterized the behavior of some church members before their conversions (2 Cor. 12:21). Paul knew what he was talking about when he referred to the 'immoral,' the 'idolaters,' the 'adulterers,' the 'homosexuals,' the 'thieves,' the 'greedy,' the 'drunkards,' the 'revilers' and the 'robbers' of Corinth. 'Such,' he writes to the church at Corinth, 'were some of you' (1 Cor. 6)....Corinth also had strong associations with 'pagan' religions. We have already referred to the worship of Asclepius, Poseidon, and Aphrodite. The city also had a venerable connection with Apollo. A Roman-period shrine to Apollo was located prominently on the main street leading from the forum to Corinth's western port....Altars and temples to other traditional Greek gods—Athena, Hera, Hermes—lined the edges of the forum. One temple was even dedicated to 'all the gods.'...Some of the newest 'mystery' religions also flourished in Corinth; these offered their special kinds of personal salvation and communion with savior gods.8

G. Campbell Morgan writes;

One must read with great carefulness the Corinthian letters in order to see Corinth as Paul saw it, not merely to see the church, not merely to see the apostolic method of dealing with the church, but to see Corinth itself. Everything which he denounced within the church was a reflection of the corruption of the city. In his first letter, he first corrected their attempt to form societies around emphases of Christian truth. That was a reflection of what was going on in Corinth. Men were splitting hairs, even in the realm of their own philosophies, and forming schools around different emphases or views....In the great dramatic entertainments, Corinthians were almost always introduced as drunk....It is significant that it was from this city that Paul wrote his Roman letter; and when one reads his description of Gentile corruption in that Roman letter, one has almost certainly a mirror of what he found in Corinth;

'Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God for the likeness of an image of corruptible man....God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts unto uncleanness, that their bodies should be dishonoured among themselves....God gave them up unto vile passions: for their women changed the natural use into that which is against nature....God gave them up unto a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness: full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, whisperers, backbiters, hateful to God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, without understanding, covenant breakers, without natural affection, unmerciful.'9

The context of the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians is carnal verses spiritual wisdom as the word "wise" or "wisdom" is used 26 times. They were indeed professing themselves to be wise while behaving foolishly. The Corinthians misguided regard for philosophical prowess and the inordinate esteem they were placing in the "wisdom of men" was resulting in sectarianism, having an elitist attitude claiming, "I am of Paul," or "I am of Apollos," etc. They were looking to the wisdom of mere men at the expense of the power and wisdom that comes from above which naturally led to divisions, contentions, and strife among the congregation. Paul seeks to make it clear that the preaching of the gospel is not with wisdom of words, the eloquent and sophisticated philosophical verbiage so highly valued and prevalent in Corinth, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect, v. 17. Then in verses 18, 19, "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: 'I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent'" and in v. 26 "For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called." In other words, not many of those the world esteems as wise are receiving the Gospel because these often perceive themselves too wise and sophisticated to accept the foolishness of the message of the cross. However wise the world may think them to be they are fools in the sight of God. "Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?" (1 Cor. 1:21). "Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise" (1 Cor. 3:18). For,

God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of this world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence (1 Cor. 1:27-29) (italics added).

And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. However we speak wisdom among those who are [spiritually] mature, yet not the wisdom of this age [carnal], nor of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. But we speak the wisdom of God [spiritual] in a mystery, the hidden wisdom of God ordained before the ages for our glory, (1 Cor. 2:1-7) [words in brackets added].

Paul then says in chapter 3, v. 1,

And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? For when one says, "I am of Paul," and another, "I am of Apollos," are you not carnal?

Paul is saying in essence, "You think yourself so wise in your depth of knowledge and boast in the so-called wisdom of men when, in reality, you are so shallow and dull in spiritual understanding that I cannot even speak to you the solid food of the true wisdom that comes from God. I have to feed you with milk as you are like infants not yet weaned from their mother's breasts." "The figure of 'milk,' common in Rabbinical phraseology for instruction to beginners, who are called 'sucklings.'"10 Calvin writes;

Milk then means an elementary doctrine suitable to the ignorant....They then who are so tender that they cannot receive the higher doctrine, are by way of reproach called children. For the right application of doctrines is to join us together, so that we may grow to a perfect manhood, to the measure of full age, and that we should not be like children, tossed here and there, and carried about by every wind of doctrine. (Ephesians 4:14.) We must indeed show some indulgence to those who have not yet known much of Christ, if they are not capable as yet of receiving solid food, but he who has had time to grow, if he still continues a child, is not entitled to any excuse.... The doctrine of Christ does indeed minister milk to babes as well as strong meat to adults; but as the babe is nourished by the milk of its nurse, not that it may ever depend on the breast, but that it may by degrees grow and take stronger food; so also at first we must suck milk from Scripture, so that we may afterwards feed on its bread. The Apostle yet so distinguishes between milk and strong food, that he still understands sound doctrine by both, but the ignorant begin with the one, and they who are well-taught are strengthened by the other. 11

This is the only place in the whole of the epistle wherein the term "carnal" is used and Paul plainly defines what he means by the term; "where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men." He argues that these carnal traits of envy (Grk. zelos), strife (eris) divisions or dissentions (dichostasia), are those found in "mere men," the unregenerate, and are entirely unacceptable in the character of a Christian. He states in Galatians 5:19 that those who continue to practice sins such as these would ultimately be excluded from any inheritance in the kingdom of God;

Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: ... contentions (eris), jealousies (zelos), outbursts of wrath (thumos), selfish ambitions (eritheia), dissensions (dichostasia), ...and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

In other words, if these Corinthians would continue their carnal behavior—contentions (eris), jealousies (zelos) etc., they would not be partakers of the inheritance. Apparently, such was the case with some in Corinth as Paul states in His second letter, 2 Cor 12:20;

For I fear lest, when I come, I shall not find you such as I wish, and that I shall be found by you such as you do not wish; lest there be contentions (eris), jealousies (zelos), outbursts of wrath (thumos), selfish ambitions (eritheia), backbitings, whisperings, conceits, tumults; lest, when I come again, my God will humble me among you, and I shall mourn for many who have sinned before and have not repented of the uncleanness (akatharsia), fornication (porneia), and lewdness (aselgeia), which they have practiced.

These are precisely the same sins he says if "practiced" would exclude one from the kingdom of God. We come to understand in these passages, that although Paul initially addresses the Corinthians as "those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus," he makes no assumption as to the final state of their souls. While in their ignorance, Paul was very patient with them, but once they were enlightened to the truth that their behavior was unacceptable, it was expected of them to repent or they would reveal themselves as unregenerate. "He is on the path of life who heeds instruction, but he who ignores reproof goes astray" (Prov. 10:17). Therefore, to use this as a proof text to argue that a Christian can live in sin, in actuality, directly opposes the message Paul was attempting to impart to the Corinthians.

As stated, many of those in Corinth were converted from paganism steeped in corrupt and sexually immoral practices performed in their worship of the Greek gods. The majority, it would seem, were not intentionally rebelling against God but were simply ignorant of the ways of the God of Scripture, immature in their spiritual understanding, while being influenced by "false apostles" and "deceitful workers" (2 Cor. 11:13) and had to be instructed in how they were to conduct themselves in truth. It is not that they had gone backward, but in fact, being ignorant of the truth, they had not yet come to that place from which they might fall. The intended impact of Paul's exhortations were not presented as options—giving believers the choice as to whether or not they would comply with his rebukes in repentance and obedience, but to the contrary, he expected those walking in the light (John 8:12), seeking to do those things that are well pleasing to God (2 Cor. 5:9), hungering and thirsting after righteousness (Matt. 5:6), to obey them with all their heart and soul. One cannot be said to be a believer, who when once enlightened by the truth does not intend to obey it. Therefore it is said that the word of God effectively works in the heart of the believer (1 Thess. 2:13). It is as Paul says, "And we have confidence in the Lord concerning you, both that you do and will do the things we command you" (2 Thess. 3:4). Paul had confidence in that if Christ were truly in them He would be effectually working in them both to will and to do for His good pleasure (Phil. 2:13). We cannot, as Christians, perform what we are ignorant of, but once we are made aware of the Father's will, we receive it, not as something optional, but rather as an imperative which we are determined to perform. We find in the Corinthian church that when Paul brought their sin to the light, those walking in the light responded to Paul's words with a heart of repentance. He says in 2 Cor. 7:8-11,

I am not sorry that I sent that severe letter to you, though I was sorry at first, for I know it was painful to you for a little while. Now I am glad I sent it, not because it hurt you, but because the pain caused you to repent and change your ways. It was the kind of sorrow God wants his people to have, so you were not harmed by us in any way. For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There's no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death. Just see what this godly sorrow produced in you! Such earnestness, such concern to clear yourselves, such indignation, such alarm, such longing to see me, such zeal, and such a readiness to punish wrong. You showed that you have done everything necessary to make things right. My purpose, then, was not to write about who did the wrong or who was wronged. I wrote to you so that in the sight of God you could see for yourselves how loyal you are to us. We have been greatly encouraged by this. In addition to our own encouragement, we were especially delighted to see how happy Titus was about the way all of you welcomed him and set his mind at ease. I had told him how proud I was of you—and you didn't disappoint me. I have always told you the truth, and now my boasting to Titus has also proved true! Now he cares for you more than ever when he remembers the way all of you obeyed him and welcomed him with such fear and deep respect. I am very happy now because I have complete confidence in you.

Charles Hodge writes:

In all ages the Greeks were distinguished by their fondness for speculation, their vanity and love of pleasure, and their party spirit. A church composed of people of these characteristics, with a large infusion of Jewish converts, educated in the midst of refined heathenism, surrounded by all the incentives to indulgence, taught to consider pleasure, if not the chief good, yet in any form a good, plied on every hand by philosophers and false teachers, might be expected to exhibit the very characteristics which in this epistle are brought so clearly into view.12

The Apostle begins, in chapter 5, to deal with sexual immorality. Again, it is imperative that we understand the religious background and culture out of which many of these Corinthians came particularly when confronting the issue of sexual immorality. Charles Hodge comments:

Another great evil in the Corinthian church was the violation of the seventh commandment in various forms. Educated as we are under the light of the gospel, in which the turpitude of such sins is clearly revealed, it is impossible for us to appreciate correctly the state of feeling in Corinth on this subject. Even by heathen philosophers' offenses of this kind were regarded as scarcely deserving of censure, and by the public sentiment of the community they were considered altogether indifferent. They were in fact so associated with their religious rites and festivals as to lose their character as immoralities.13

Calvin, referring to the general sentiment regarding fornication in Corinth states:

For it was an evil that was so prevalent at that time, that it seemed in a manner as though it had been permitted; as we may see also from the decree of the Apostles, (Acts 15:20, ) where, in prohibiting the Gentiles from fornication, they place it among things indifferent; for there can be no doubt that this was done, because it was very generally looked upon as a lawful thing.14

When Paul says that there was sexual immorality among the Corinthians, chap. 5 v.1, he was referring to the sexual immorality as exhibited in one man—a man having his Father's wife. In other words, there is sexual immorality among you in that among you is a sexually immoral man. Furthermore, he does not handle the situation with the attitude of, "Well, he is just a carnal Christian, after all we are just sinners saved by grace." No, he severally reprimands them for not disciplining the guilty person and tells them to put such a one out of the Church, not pamper him with comforting words. "Deliver such a one over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?" (1 Cor. 5:5, 6). "If this leaven - the incestuous person, be permitted to remain among you; if his conduct be not exposed by the most formidable censure; the flood-gates of impurity will be opened on the Church, and the whole state of Christianity ruined in Corinth."15 Ellicott writes,

The appointed preparation for the Jews, on the point of keeping their Passover, was putting away leaven out of their houses. For seven whole days they were to eat only unleavened bread. In the first instance this was meant to remind them of the haste with which God brought them out of Egypt, when they took their dough before it was leavened. But it had also this other meaning, that men should labour and strive and pray to cleanse themselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit. For that is the old leaven of which the Apostle here makes mention; the corrupt nature and bad habits of men, filling them full of malice and wickedness....In consequence of the command that they should purge out the leaven at the Passover, the head of the household among the Jews, especially when they grew more strict in their ritual, would go through the whole of the house on a certain day to search for every particle of leavened bread. It was generally done in the evening with a candle, and the servants and others would accompany the goodman of the house to search for every crumb. Clothes were shaken, cupboards were emptied, drawers were opened, and if a mouse ran across the room and might be supposed to carry a crumb of bread into its hole, they trembled lest a curse should rest on the home. So strict did they become that our Saviour might have rebuked them as straining at a gnat while swallowing a camel. We, however, have no need to fear excessive strictness in getting rid of sin. With as scrupulous a care as the Israelite purged out the leaven from his house we are to purge out all sin from ourselves, our conduct, and our conversation...And St. Paul taught the same lesson when he wrote to the Corinthians: 'Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, even as ye are unleavened.'16

Paul says in 5:11, "But I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person." If a "carnal Christian" was one who was living in sins such as these, which is often argued in this day, his words would result in having to separate the "spiritual" Christians from the "carnal" Christians and that they not keep company with or eat with one another. Paul himself, at this point, would be promoting the very sectarianism, contentions, strife, and division he so urgently warns must cease. Paul is only dealing with one sexually immoral person and says, "put away from yourselves the evil person." If there were others known to Paul to be involved in sexual immorality would he not have included them in his exhortation after just telling them not to keep company with such? These are the same "carnal" Corinthians to which he says, "Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God." (1 Cor. 6:9, 10) and in verse 11, "And such were some of you [past tense]. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God." Calvin states;

The simple meaning, therefore, is this, that prior to their being regenerated by grace, some of the Corinthians were covetous, others adulterers, others extortioners, others effeminate, others revilers, but now, being made free by Christ, they were such no longer.17

In light of this, when Paul says in 2 Cor. 12:20, "I shall mourn for many who have sinned before and have not repented of the uncleanness, fornication, and lewdness, which they have practiced" he is likely speaking of continuing in their previous behavior which they practiced prior to their coming into the Church without genuinely repenting. The amplified translation makes this more apparent, "That I may have to sorrow over many of those who sinned before and have not repented of the impurity, sexual vice, and sensuality which they formerly practiced." (emphasis added). Ellicott writes;

That I shall bewail many which have sinned already.—Literally, who have sinned beforehand; leaving it uncertain what time is referred to. He may refer to sins before admission into the Church...He has in his thoughts such persons as those described in 1 Corinthians 6:9, and suspects that some of them have not really renounced the sins which he there names....Probably he had in view the party of license, who maintained the indifference of "eating things sacrificed to idols," and of "fornication," just as, in the previous verse, he had chiefly in view the party of his Judaising opponents.18

"What Paul feared, was, that when he got to Corinth he should find that many of those who had sinned, had not joined in the repentance for which he commended the congregation as a whole." 19Having previously stated in his earlier letter that those who practice such sins would not inherit the Kingdom of God it should come as no shock that he says to those whom he fears have not responded as one would expect from a Christian, "Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you are disqualified"(2 Cor. 13:5). The word disqualified here, is the Greek word "adokimos." meaning, "worthless, rejected, not in the sense of that which is seen from the first to be unsuitable (not even in Heb. 6:8), but meaning that which has not stood the test, that which has shown to be a sham, and has therefore been rejected."20 Paul is warning as he did in Rom. 8:9, "If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His." Those who have the Spirit of Christ, will predominately walk in the Spirit of Christ. Charles Hodge states,

The tendency to divorce religion from morality has manifested itself in all ages of the world, and under all forms of religion. The pagan, the Jew, the Mohammedan, the nominal Christian, have all been exact in the performance of religious services, and zealous in the assertion and defense of what they regarded as religious truth, while unrestrained in the indulgence of every evil passion. This arises from looking upon religion as an outward service, and God as a being to be feared and propitiated, but not to be loved and obeyed. According to the gospel, all moral duties are religious services; and piety is the conformity of the soul to the image and will of God. So that to be religious and yet immoral is, according to the Christian system, as palpable a contradiction as to be good and wicked. It is evident that among the members of the Corinthian church, there were some who retained their pagan notion of religion, and who professed Christianity as a system of doctrine and as a form of worship, but not as a rule of life. All such persons the apostle warned of their fatal mistake. He assures them that no immoral man,—no man who allows himself the indulgence of any known sin, can be saved. This is one of the first principles of the gospel, and therefore the apostle asks, Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Are ye Christians at all, and yet ignorant of this first principle of the religion you profess? The unrighteous in this immediate connection, means the unjust; those who violate the principles of justice in their dealings with their fellow men. It is not the unjust alone, however, who are to be thus debarred from the Redeemer's kingdom—but also those who break any of the commandments of God, as this and other passages of Scripture distinctly teach. Believers are, in the Bible, often called heirs. Their inheritance is a kingdom; that kingdom which God has established, and which is to be consummated in heaven, Luke 12:32, Matt. 24:34, etc. From this inheritance all the immoral, no matter how zealous they may be in the profession of the truth, or how assiduous in the performance of religious services, shall be excluded. Let it also be remembered that immorality, according to the Bible, does not consist exclusively in outward sins, but also in sins of the heart; as covetousness, malice, envy, pride, and such like, Galatians 5:21. No wonder that the disciples, on a certain occasion, asked their master, Lord, are there few that be saved? or that the Lord answered them by saying, 'Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way that leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it,' Luke 13:24.21

Apparently, there were some in the Corinthian Church that were profaning the Lord's Table by drunkenness (1 Cor. 11:21). What then? Do we conclude that a so-called brother who lives in drunkenness is simply a "carnal Christian"? No! Paul had just stated earlier that those who practice drunkenness are excluded from the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:10). Paul says not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is...a drunkard—not even to eat with such a person (1 Cor. 5:12). Clearly, if they were not to eat with or keep company with drunkards, then those profaning the Lord's table in this manner would have to cease such behavior without delay and if they persisted they would necessarily have to be excommunicated from the Church if they were to comply with Paul's words. Albert Barnes writes;

This refers to the contact of common life, and not particularly to the communion. The true Christian was wholly to disown such a person, and not to do anything that would seem to imply that he regarded him as a Christian brother.22

In each of these cases where Paul deals with their sin, it is plain that once they come to the knowledge that their behavior is unacceptable, if they continue in it and remain impenitent, they would show themselves unregenerate. God's seed is not in them (1 John 3:9). They have not truly been baptized into the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 6:3). Their hearts are yet to be circumcised.

There is sin in every Christian that he is not yet fully cognizant of. The Spirit does not sanctify us instantaneously but rather by process. We progressively grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord. The Spirit uses God's Word to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart, exhorting us to overcome those things which we discover are contrary to His will. The believer is not looking for options but is rather seeking his Father's pleasure. His word has the effect of bringing to light that hidden darkness, exposing the sin rooted deep in our heart, that we might uproot it and put it to death.

Reisinger writes:

Those who are spiritual may be but babes in grace and in knowledge. Their faith may be weak. Their love may be in its early bud. Their spiritual senses may be but little exercised....But if the root of the matter is in them, they have passed from death unto life, passed out of the region of nature into what is beyond nature—the state of Grace. Paul puts them in another class—all of them. They are spiritual men. The difference is that the spiritual receive the things of the Spirit, embrace them with delight and feed on them with intense satisfaction...First Corinthians is not expounding a general truth about categories of men but reproving a specific outbreak of carnal behavior. If we want to be true to Scripture, we must not misinterpret this text by accommodating it to the miserable performance or inordinate affections of men....The 'carnal Christian' teaching is after all, the consequence of a shallow, man-centered evangelism in which decisions are sought at any price and with any methods...The teaching I have sought to expose says that the trouble is that they are just 'carnal Christians'; they have not made Christ 'Lord' of their lives; they have not let Him occupy the throne of their hearts. This unscriptural explanation is closely connected with faulty methods of evangelism. Too often modern evangelism has substituted an empty 'decision' in the place of repentance and saving faith. Forgiveness is preached without an equal emphasis on a change of heart. As a result, decisions are mistaken as conversions even though there is no evidence of a supernatural work of God in a person's life. Surely the best way to end this evil is to pray and labor for the restoration of New Testament evangelism! In such evangelism people will learn that it is not enough to profess faith, not enough to call Jesus 'Lord, Lord' (Luke 6:46). The gospel preached in awakening power will summon men not to rest without biblical evidence that they are born of God. It will disturb those who, without good reason, have believed that they are already Christians....One of the greatest hindrances to this recovery of such preaching is the theory we have considered. To reject that theory is to be brought back to a new starting point in evangelism and in the understanding of the Christian life. It is to bring back God's work into the center of our thinking. It is to see afresh that there are only two alternatives—the natural life or the spiritual life, the broad way or the narrow way, the gospel 'in word only' or the gospel 'in power, and in the Holy Spirit' (1 Thess. 1:5), the house on the sand or the house on the rock. There is no greater certainty than that an unchanged heart and worldly life will bring a man to hell. 'Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience' (Eph. 5:6). Not only in the world is evangelism needed. It is also needed in the Church.23

B. B. Warfield wrote:

It is a grievous error to teach that a true believer in Christ can stop short in 'Carnality,'....the remainders of the flesh in the Christian do not constitute his characteristic. He is in the Spirit and is walking, with however halting steps, by the Spirit; and is to all Christians, not to some, that the great promise is given, 'Sin shall not have dominion over you,' and the great assurance is added, 'Because ye are not under the law but under grace.' He who believes in Jesus Christ is under grace, and his whole course, in its process and its issues alike, is determined by grace, and therefore, having been predestined to be conformed to the image of God's Son, he is surely being conformed to that image, God Himself seeing to it that he is not only called and justified but also glorified....There are not two kinds of Christians, although there are Christians at every conceivable stage of advancement towards the one goal to which all are bound and at which all shall arrive.24

We must keep in mind that this was a first century Church wherein the doctrines of Christ were initially being established. Many of the books of the New Testament had not yet been written at this time which would place them at a disadvantage as compared to us in this modern age wherein there is a vast amount of material readily available to instruct us. In other words, we can easily understand and even expect that in the Corinthian Church, considering the historical context along with the relatively limited material available to guide and educate them in the ways of the Lord, that their we would the type of situations Paul was addressing. We, however, in this day, have no excuse to plead such ignorance when so much light as been made available to us, "For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more" (Luke 12:48). The fact that there remains, after two thousand years, so much confusion about the fundamental truths of the Gospel is a testimony to the depths of the depravity of the unbelieving heart, its aversion to God's truth, and its insatiable appetite for sin. The "carnal Christian" teaching that has permeated the Church is a prime example of the leaven Paul mentions in that it has slowly spread like a cancer throughout the body of Christ, negatively affecting even the healthy parts of the body. If left unchecked it will continue to "steal, kill, and destroy" the souls of its unsuspecting victims. The Truth of God's Word, as a scalpel in the hands of a skillful surgeon, must cut out this malignancy from the body of Christ. The Spirit of God will then administer and apply the "balm of Gilead" to the wound that it might be healed and not until this operation be performed will the visible Church ever be restored from its sickly state.

Bear or Burn: The Fruit of Obedience in the Parables of Christ


Back to Top

Comments (1)

Topic: What is a Carnal Christian?
0/5 (0)
Jim says...
Thank you for articulating my interpretation of scripture. Being 'saved' a sinners prayer and leading a carnal life seemed wrong while not roundly condemned. Blessings
26th December 2017 1:19pm
Page 1 of 1

Add Comment

* Required information
(never displayed)
Bold Italic Underline Strike Superscript Subscript Code PHP Quote Line Bullet Numeric Link Email Image Video
Enter code:
Powered by Commentics


1. Ernest C. Reisinger, Lord and Christ, (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing), p.79

2. Lewis Sperry Chafer, He That Is Spiritual; Zondervan (October 20, 1983)

3. Lewis Sperry Chafer, He That Is Spiritual; Zondervan (October 20, 1983) p. 22

4. Bill Bright, Have You Made the Wonderful Discovery of the Spirit-Filled Life?

5. Bill Bright, Have You Made the Wonderful Discovery of the Spirit-Filled Life?

6. Lewis Sperry Chafer, He That Is Spiritual; Zondervan (October 20, 1983)


8. Into the Heart of Paganism, Dan Cole, Christian History Magazine originally published in 1995

9. G. Campbell Morgan, The Acts of the Apostles, Acts 18:1-22; Fleming H. Revell (1924)

10. The Epistles of St. Paul to the Corinthians: second edition, Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, 1858 .p91

11. Calvins Commentary, Hebrews 5:12 (Baker Books, October 1, 1974)

12. Charles Hodge, 1 Corinthians (Crossway Books & Bibles, 1995)

13. Charles Hodge, 1 Corinthians (Crossway Books & Bibles, 1995)

14. Calvins Commentary, 1 Cor. 6:13 (Baker Books, October 1, 1974)

15. Clarke's Commentary: The Holy Bible Containing the Old and New Testaments, 1 Cor. 5:6 (Abingdon Press 1977)

16. Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible, Charles John Ellicott, 1 Cor. 5:7,8; (Zondervan, 1982)

17. Calvin's Commentaries, 1 Corinthians 6:11 (Baker Books; 500 edition, 2009)

18. Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible, Charles John Ellicott, 2 Cor. 12:20, 21; (Zondervan, 1982)

19. Charles Hodge, 2 Corinthians, 2 Cor 12:21 (Crossway Books & Bibles, 1995)

20. New International Dictionary of N.T. Theology, Edited by Colin Brown (Zondervan: 1986)

21. Charles Hodge, 1 Corinthians (Crossway Books & Bibles, 1995)

22. Barnes Notes on the Old and New Testaments, Albert Barnes, 1 Cor. 5:12 (Baker Books; 19th edition 1983)

23. Ernest C. Reisinger, Lord and Christ, (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing) p.99

24. B.B. Warfield, Bibliotheca Sacra, (Critique of Lewis Sperry Chafer's book "He that is Spiritual"), 1918

Back to Top