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Are there Carnal Christians?

Category Articles
Date May 13, 2002


Exclusive Principles

by James R. Graham

The expression “carnal Christian” is not a New Testament term. In fact it is a complete contradiction in terms. A “Christian” is a “Christ-One” – joined in vital relationship to Christ as Lord and Head, and by virtue of this union, indwelt of the Spirit of God, Who was given to Christ in immeasurable Supply (John 3:34). To be a Christian is to be the possessor of a heavenly, supernatural life.

All that is connoted by the adjective “carnal” is the very reverse, and savors of that which is “earthly, sensual, devilish.” The New Testament is at great pains to set forth the tests of true believerhood and discipleship, and if these many scriptures were taken seriously, the glib, superficial and wishful talk of this one or that one being a Christian or “born again” when there are glaring indications to the contrary, would have to cease. If those who talk so loudly of “believing the Bible from cover to cover” would really meditate upon the tests of what constitutes a Christian, and the quality of fruit that will inevitably be produced by one who is a partaker of the Divine nature, a lot of the loose talk and careless teaching that is abroad today, would be recognized as highly subversive and deeply pernicious.

The Christian walk and the flesh-walk are mutually exclusive spheres, conflicting principles, hostile concepts. “Walk in the Spirit and ye shall not fulfil the lusts of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16) saith the Apostle. These two types of walk are in perpetually opposite directions, and the principles governing them are irreconcilable.

Spurious “Grace” Teaching

Our contention is that the modern school of self-styled “grace teachers” have in reality “turned the grace of God into lasciviousness” (Jude 4). It is all a part of the age-end apostasy. It genders the antinomianism which is going to cause a large part of professing Christendom as well as the world, to take the mark of the Beast when he appears.

It is difficult to account for the attitude of these ministers who claim themselves to be teaching that the Divine justification is “by grace through faith” aside and distinct from any work or merit of man. The fathers of the reformation did a very thorough work of rediscovering and setting forth this magnificent doctrine, yet without disparaging the principle of law, or reducing grace to a kind of divine sentimentality, or faith to an empty babble of “taking Jesus as personal Savior.” In their zeal to displace the dead works of human righteousness as a cause of salvation, have they not, consciously or unconsciously, discounted the God-wrought righteousness which is its inevitable effect and its immutable objective.

“For we (Christians) are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before prepared that we should walk in them.” It is this class of teachers that have been the proponents of the “carnal Christian” doctrine. They have misused one passage of scripture to divert the whole course of New Testament teaching.

The use of the term “carnal Christian” unavoidably implies a habitual state of carnality, and it is from any such constant state that regeneration is represented as being the alternative, the antithesis. For carnality to be a habitual characteristic is a sure indication of the dominion of sin. But we are plainly told by the Apostle:

“For sin shall not have dominion over you. Know ye not that to whom ye yield yourselves as servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey: whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness? . . . Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness” (Rom. 6:14, 16, 18).

It is a serious thing for any Christian teacher to water down the implications of regeneration. For in so doing he conveys a false hope: he comforts the self-deluded individual who thinks he is saved and is not: he condones sin and lowers the standards of discipleship: he does despite to the Spirit of Grace and even to the divine character, because he asserts (in effect) that one can be “a partaker of the Divine nature” and continue in a course of fleshliness: he implies that one can “eat his cake and have it too,” or that he can successfully serve both God and Mammon. He sets forth the spiritual walk as preferable but the carnal as passable. Say they; that there are three classes of men, the natural man, the carnal man and the spiritual man. The natural man is, of course, the unsaved child of the world. The carnal man is a saved man who, however, still walks in the flesh. The spiritual man is the higher quality of saved man, who walks in the Spirit and in the course of obedience. (A book by Lewis Sperry Chafer called “He that is Spiritual” and the notes in the Scofield Bible on pages 1213-14 have been two great contributors to this widespread error. – ED.)

The Eighth Chapter of Romans

Much of this is directly contrary to the teaching of the 8th Chapter of Romans. In the first verse of that chapter those in Christ Jesus” are declared to be the ones who “walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” This great chapter is dealing with the believer’s walk, and repeatedly that which is “after the flesh” is shown to be distinct from that which is of the Spirit or “after the Spirit.” The Greek preposition kata is defined in Thayer: “according to anything as a standard, agreeably to.” Then, “For they that are after the flesh (do according to the flesh as a standard) do mind the things of the flesh, but they that are after the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.” Thayer gives an alternate translation of “they that are after the flesh,” “they that bear, reflect, the nature of the flesh.” “For the mind of the flesh is death, but the mind of the spirit is life and peace.”

Let us note that they that bear the nature of the flesh, mind the flesh, while they that bear the nature of the Spirit mind the things of the Spirit. The verb “mind” then changes to it’s cognate noun, and we are told that “the mind of the flesh is death, and the mind of the Spirit is, life.” Nothing could be plainer. Things equal to the same thing are equal to each other. Those that bear the nature of the flesh are in a state of death, while those that bear the nature of the Spirit are in a state of life. Being “after the flesh”, is equated with the “mind of the flesh,” and the “mind of the flesh” is equated with DEATH. How then can there be such a thing as a “carnal Christian” or a “Christian” who operates according to the flesh-principle as a habitual thing, as the use of the adjective inevitably implies? A Christian is a Christ-one, a person in whom the Divine “Zoe” (life) has been wrought by reason of union with the Only One since the fall of Adam who possessed this precious Life. The carnal principle is related inseparably to Death, while the Christian is inseparably related to Life.

Verse nine of Romans eight emphasizes the same truth: “But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His.” We are told here so clearly that in whomsoever the Spirit of God dwells, that one is “in the Spirit” as regards the principle of his walk, and has ceased to be “in the flesh” as regards the principle of his walk. This is its obvious meaning in the light of the context. Here “in the flesh” speaks of a Spiritual condition while in II Cor. 10:3 the expression “in the flesh” refers to a physical condition. In the latter passage the same apostle is showing that though we still go around in a physical body our spiritual warfare is not “according to the flesh.” The latter expression always is used in a spiritual sense, while the former (“in the flesh”) is used in both a physical and a spiritual sense.

In Romans 8:9 we are told that to belong to Christ, or to be a Christian, one must possess the Indwelling Spirit, and that one possessing the Indwelling Spirit, is not “in the flesh” but “in the Spirit,” speaking of the principle or law of one’s living. Where then does a “carnal Christian” come in? It is a ghastly contradiction of terms, and a direct contradiction of scripture.

The Fifth Chapter of Galatians

In Galatians 5:16-25 we have another discourse in which the flesh-walk and Spirit-walk are sharply contrasted. The two principles are shown to be at war with each other.

Let it be noted, before we proceed further, that in this discussion we are not arguing the eradication of the sin or flesh-nature. As long as we inhabit a body of flesh there will never be complete elimination of the flesh-nature, but the upsurges of its unholy desires and urges are progressively reduced and quelled in the process of sanctification. We are contending, moreover, that in regeneration the principle of government is changed and the Spirit is the dominating force and not flesh-and-sin.

So in Galatians five, the flesh nature lusts against the Spirit and would fain vitiate and neutralize His work, and the Spirit is against the flesh. The verb “lusts” is not repeated with ”the Spirit.” ”The Spirit does not “lust.” But He is against the flesh and prevents it from being a dominating force.

The “works of the flesh” are set forth as manifest, and are plainly listed. It is declared that “those doing (or committing) such things shall not inherit the Kingdom of God.” Here as in I John 3:9 where it is said: “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin . . .” the present tense indicates habitual action. The most lenient interpretation of these and other passages, is that though sin and its urges are not eliminated in the child of God, indwelt of the Holy Spirit, it is not a deliberate, habitual, premeditated, dominating principle. This inescapable truth the doctrine of ”carnal Christians” flatly denies.

The last clause of Gal. 5:17 is deeply significant. We have been told “The Spirit is against the flesh” and then comes the explanatory parenthesis, “For these are opposed to one another” and then the clause “In order that ye may not do the things which ye will.” So, read without the parenthetical clause it would be “The Spirit is against the flesh, lest ye do the things which ye will.”

After the apostle has set forth the works of the flesh and the fruits of the Spirit there comes verse 24 which deals another death-blow to the “carnal Christian” heresy. “And they that are of Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with the passions and lusts.” He does not say “The Spiritual Christian has crucified the flesh, etc.” But “they that are of Jesus Christ,” the genitive of possession, of relationship. Those who possess Jesus Christ and He them, “have crucified the flash”, etc. It is an aorist, a completed act, that the flesh with its lusts and passions has been crucified as a dominating principle in the life of those belonging to Jesus Christ. This is one of the many verses that the propounders of the doctrine of “carnal Christians” have overlooked.

We have repeatedly emphasized the drastic implications of regeneration and discipleship as set forth all the way through the New Testament. One who will honestly search out the matter will find that there is vastly greater bulk of material upon the walk and performance of a Christian than there is even upon the great doctrine of justification by faith. Any “handling aright the word of truth” (II Tim. 2:15 R.V.) should keep such standards right in the forefront of teaching emphasis. The N.T. knows nothing of a grace that does not “reign through righteousness.” If the writings of the Apostle Paul are full of these rigid tests, which he set forth under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, it is reasonable to suppose that one passage cannot be used to refute or invalidate the whole course of his emphasis and that of other N.T. writers. God cannot deny Himself.

First Corinthians Chapter Three

But the propounders of the doctrine of “carnal Christians” have done just this with I Cor. 3:1-3. If this passage is to be interpreted as they interpret it then large sections of the New Testament would have to be thrown out. But they have seized upon threads of scripture here or there to buttress their case, though it demands the blinding of men’s eyes to a multitude of scriptures that do not support this thinking.

Christians have always found that where there is an apparent discrepancy or contradiction in one or two portions from the prevailing course of Scripture, a careful examination will disclose the fact that no contradiction really exists, and that a reconciliation is easy. Certainly it is easier to reconcile the one to the many, than the many to the one.

“And I brethren could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, as unto babes in Christ.” Three times the comparative adverb “hos”
– “as”, is used in this verse. He is not setting forth the theology of the walk of the believer or the principle that governs that walk, as in Romans 8 and Galatians 5. We have previously declared the fact that though the principle of government is changed from the natural-carnal to the spiritual at regeneration, there is not a complete elimination of carnal tendencies and outbreaking carnal acts. The process of sanctification reduces both such tendencies and such acts, until in the mature state of growth both can be so checked as to be scarcely discernible to the eye of man. The apostle is deploring here the arrested process of sanctification rather than dealing with the governing principle of the believer’s walk. The New Testament does not teach “carnal Christians,” but is full of the tragedy of Christians reverting to carnality. There is a great difference. A person walking along an ice-covered side-walk may slip and slide and frequently fall, but the principle that governs, is a forward movement in an upright position, not a backward slide in a prone position.

The Corinthian Christians from various causes had not gone forward in sanctification as they should and their growth in spiritual understanding was so stunted that he had to speak unto them “as unto carnal,” with almost the same degree of simplicity as he would declare God’s truth to the unsaved. The Greek word translated “carnal” used in verse one is significantly different from the one used twice in verse 3 also translated “carnal.” The first is sarkinos and the second and third are sarkikos. There is little difference, but Thayer tells us that the first is the more emphatic. We believe the first refers to the unsaved. Their position and the principle governing may still be “spiritual” but he must speak to them as though to the carnal (sarkinos). “I fed you with milk, not with meat: for ye were not yet able: nay, not even now are ye able.” Obviously it is a matter of growth, which has been unduly arrested. Babies have life, but weak digestion. Then he goes on to say: “For ye are yet carnal (sarkikos) for whereas there is among you jealousy and strife, are you not carnal
(sarkikos) and walk according to man?” This carnal (sarkikos) is not speaking of a principle, or of a state that is irremediable, but of an outcropping of a special manifestation of the flesh – jealousy and strife resulting in sectarian cliquishness. In using the interrogative form, he calls on them to judge the evil themselves. It could be paraphrased
positively: “You are acting in a carnal manner, in that you are allowing this spirit of jealousy and strife to spring up, which is shown by one saying, ‘I am Paul’s man’ and another ‘I am of Apollos’ etc. All such acts are nothing but carnality, and like the men of the world.”

Do not Base Any Teaching on a Single Verse

Benjamin Whichcote made the remark that if one only has a single scripture on which to base an important teaching, he will probably find on close examination that he has none. This is terribly so when the one portion cited cuts directly athwart the unmistakable teaching of other portions of scripture. We have shown that Romans eight and Galatians five are setting forth the general doctrine concerning the distinction between the Spirit and flesh principles, while the first Epistle of John gives the tests of regeneration, which unmistakably exclude habitual sinning. The term “carnal Christian” implies one who continues in sin as a habitual, constant and settled practice, and is therefore a false and misleading term. We repeat that owing to the old nature that yet abides, there are more or less frequent outcroppings of carnal acts, but the government is changed, the conscience is tender and these occasional reversions to carnality cause a true Christian deep sorrow and penitence of heart. They are sporadic and not constant.

The teaching then of the three classes, natural man, carnal man, and spiritual man is pernicious and is deluding many who are continuing in sin into thinking they are saved. If the spiritual walk is set forth as preferable but the carnal walk possible for a Christian, the evil heart of unbelief will say to itself: “I can sin and yet be saved. If I can be carnal and yet enter heaven, I am content, I will do without rewards.” This is all false and the teachers who give such an impression are guilty of false teaching. It is the worst kind of antinomianism and is part of the base alloy of fundamentalist instruction that is abroad today.

The scripture knows of two places – heaven and hell; two beings – God and Satan; two ways -the narrow that leadeth to life, and the broad that leadeth to destruction; two principles of walk – the Spirit principle and the flesh principle. There is no half-way point in any of these. First Corinthians 3:1-3 is not expounding a general doctrine but reproving a specific outcropping of carnality in a certain place. May the Lord keep us true and faithful, and from whittling down divine principles to suit a miserable human performance, or of watering down God’s standards to include the inordinate affections of man.

“If any man be in Christ, he is a new creation, old things are passed away: behold all things are become new.”


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