Question – According to popular teaching there is a category of people who can be called ‘carnal Christians’. Is this concept biblical? Let us see.
Many teach that there are different kinds of Christians – carnal, spiritual and natural. A carnal Christian is one who has been saved but who remains ‘carnal’, that is, his life continues much the same as before his conversion. He is nevertheless considered to be ‘all right’ in the eyes of God because he has made a ‘decision for Christ’ or a ‘commitment to Christ’.
The teaching is based on 1 Corinthians 3:1-4: ‘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?’
However, the word ‘carnal’ is used here not to designate a new category of Christians but to underscore the danger of spiritual immaturity. It was a rebuke to those engaged in strife and factions – not an exercise in anthropology defining a new ‘race’ of believers!
Since these people were ‘babes in Christ’ they must have exhibited evidence of new spiritual life. They were clearly active members of the church. They were eager enough for the milk of the word but objected when their responsibilities as Christians were spelled out.
Such warnings are necessary. But we apply the text falsely if we use the term ‘carnal Christian’ to describe those who profess conversion to Christ but exhibit no sign of new life at all.
Saveable or saved?
Closely related to the ‘carnal Christian’ concept is the idea that a person can have Jesus as Saviour without acknowledging him as Lord. That is not possible. Genuine conversion means that Jesus becomes Lord of our wholelife, worthy of the submission and daily obedience of the elect.
Those who are supposedly saved without having Jesus as Lord – whose lives remain unchanged by grace – have clearly never heard the call to repentance and faith.
In their modern manifestation, these errors can be traced to the Arminian dispensational teachings popularised in the 1970s by the notes in the Scofield Bible and, among many others, by the late Bill Bright (founder of Campus Crusade for Christ).
Their teaching is based on the idea that the death of Christ makes us saveablebut does not save anyone in particular. Therefore it is all up to man if he wants to be saved – the sinner’s ‘free will’ becomes decisive in his salvation.
This view of salvation is common in many liberal, charismatic and neo-evangelical churches. Indeed, it also lies at the heart of Roman Catholic soteriology.
But what has this to do with the ‘carnal Christian’? Simply, that this teaching is reflected in ‘altar calls’, emotional appeals and pressure to make ‘decisions’ for Christ – marketing techniques that all too often drive evangelistic work today.
The ‘carnal Christian’ concept is an attempt to explain why most people who ‘come forward’ in response to altar calls and appeals undergo no change from their so-called carnal lives – there is no evidence that they have been born again.
But wishing to headcount all who have responded in some way to their evangelistic efforts, those who view salvation as the result of a human decision have come up with this notion of ‘carnal Christians’.
They reason that such people must be saved because they have made a decision for Christ. Therefore their failure to evidence the signs of spiritual life must be due to the preponderance of ‘the flesh’ over ‘the Spirit’ – a continuing enslavement to sin.
Released from slavery
But this is not what Scripture teaches at all. According to Romans 6:1-14, the saved and forgiven believer has died to sin. There is no reason why he should continue in bondage to sin: ‘Sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace’.
Through the vicarious atonement wrought by Christ, we are ransomed, redeemed and released from spiritual bondage – freed from the slavery of sin.
Of course, Christians can and do fall into sin. ‘If we say we have no sin’, says the apostle John, ‘we deceive ourselves’ (1 John 1:8). There are many examples of this in Scripture (for example David, Solomon, Peter).
But those who are truly saved will repent of their sins in due time, will seek forgiveness and will continue to grow in holiness and obedience to God. No genuine Christians can continue to behave in a fleshly manner in the long run. As Hebrews 12:14 puts it: ‘pursue … holiness without which no one shall see the Lord’.
No halfway house
In such passages as Galatians 5:17-24 and Romans 8:1-9 the New Testament distinguishes not between carnal and spiritual Christians but between those who are Christ’s and those who are not.
The only two classesof person in view are, on one hand, the redeemed or spiritual man and, on the other hand, the unredeemed or ‘natural’ man. They are either Christians and non-Christians – there is no halfway house between them.
To introduce a district and intermediate category of men called ‘carnal Christians’ is unjustified and can encourage a false sense of security – the belief that one is saved when in fact one is not.
It can also give real Christians an excuse for sinning when there really is none. Such teaching denies God’s sovereignty, grace and justice – and devalues the finished work of Christ.
He did not die only to redeem us but also to make us holy and beloved (Ephesians 1:3-4; 1 Peter 1:16). As the Holy Spirit graciously applies Christ’s redeeming work in the lives of believers, they ‘bear fruit to holiness’ (Romans 6:22; Galatians 5:22-24).
It is not those who call Christ ‘Lord’ who will enter Christ’s kingdom but those who do the will of the Father – and that means living righteously.