It is said that many regularly occupy church pews, fill church rolls, and are intellectually acquainted with the facts of the gospel but never strike one blow for Christ. They seem to be at peace with his enemies. They have no quarrel with sin and, apart from a few sentimental expressions about Christ, there is no biblical evidence that they have experienced anything of the power of the gospel in their lives. Superficially called by the oxymoron ‘carnal christians’ but why are they called so when the bible never uses such a term? To believe in carnal christianity (sic) you have to force your self to make 9 serious errors in doctrine:
1. The misuse of I Corinthians 3
This ‘carnal Christian’ doctrine depends upon a wrong interpretation and application of 1 Corinthians 3:1-4, ‘And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ… are ye not carnal?’ To understand the true meaning of these words it should be remembered that 1 Corinthians is not primarily a doctrinal epistle…
In endeavoring to understand how Paul thinks of those he addresses in 1 Corinthians 3 we must bear in mind the designation he gives to them in chapter 1. He says they are ‘sanctified in Christ Jesus’, they are recipients of ‘the grace of God’, enriched by Christ ‘in all utterance, and in all knowledge’ (1:2-5). They are rebuked in chapter 3, not for failing to attain to privileges which some Christians attain to, but for acting, despite their privileges, like babes and like the unregenerate in one area of their lives.
This is very different from saying that the Apostle here recognizes the existence of a distinct group of Christians who can be called ‘carnal’.
The spiritual may be but babes in grace and babes in knowledge. Their faith may be weak. Their love may be in its early bud, their spiritual senses may be but little exercised, their faults may be many; but if ‘the root of the matter’ is in them and if they have passed from death unto life — passed out of the region of nature into that which is beyond nature — Paul puts them in another class. They are all spiritual men although in some aspects of their behavior they may temporarily fail to appear as such.
Certainly these Christians at Corinth were imperfectly sanctified, as indeed are all Christians to a greater or lesser degree. But Paul is not saying that they were characterized by carnality in every area of their lives…
2. New covenant blessings are separated
The ‘carnal Christian’ teaching divides the two basic blessings of the new covenant because it denies that one of them is experienced by all true Christians. Let me point out how basic the covenant is to Christianity. Jesus was the mediator of the new covenant — Hebrews 8:6-10: ‘But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises’. The New Testament preachers were ministers of the new covenant — 1 Corinthians 3:5, 6: ‘Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament (A.S.V. new covenant); not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.’
Every time we come to the Lord’s table we are reminded of the blessings of the new covenant — Luke 22: 20, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood…’
These facts are enough to establish the importance of the new covenant. But what are the two blessings of the new covenant? The answer is clearly seen in many scriptural statements…
It is important to note that this is one covenant with two inseparable parts — the forgiveness of sins and a changed heart. When a sinner is reconciled to God something happens in the record of heaven, the blood of Christ covers his sins. Thus, the first blessing is the forgiveness of sins. But at the same time something happens on earth in the heart, a new nature is given.
Well, what is the forgiveness of sins? It is an essential part of the justification of a man before God. And what is a new heart? It is nothing less than sanctification begun. But the ‘carnal Christian’ teaching appeals to those who are supposed to be justified, as though a new heart and life are optional. Sanctification is spoken of as though it can be subsequent to the forgiveness of sins and so people are led to believe that they are justified even though they are not being sanctified!
3. Saving faith and spurious faith are not distinguished
The third major error is that this teaching does not distinguish between true, saving belief and the spurious belief which is mentioned in the following Scriptures: ‘Many believed in his name … But Jesus did not commit himself to them’ John 2:23,24. ‘Many believed on him; but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him’ John 12:42,43. ‘These have no root, which for a while believe’ Luke 8:13. Simon Magus ‘believed’ and was baptized but his heart was ‘not right in the sight of God’ Acts 8:12-22. In other words, it was ‘belief’ without a changed heart and because this was Simon’s condition Peter says he would perish unless he came to true repentance: he was ‘in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity’ (vs. 23). And the evidence that Simon Magus was indeed unsaved can be seen in his prayer. He, like all unregenerate people, was only concerned with the consequence of sin and made no request to be pardoned and cleansed from the impurity of sin. ‘Pray ye,’ he says to Peter, ‘to the Lord for me, that none of these things which ye have spoken come upon me’. Like the so-called ‘carnal Christian’ he wanted Jesus as a kind of hell-insurance policy but he did not ask for deliverance from sin!
4. The omission of repentance
A fourth flaw in the ‘carnal Christian’ teaching lies in its virtual exclusion of repentance from the conversion experience. This is implied by the suggestion that the ‘carnal Christian’ has not changed in practice but lives and acts just like the natural man. This teaching is obviously set forth in the diagram given above where self is still on the throne in the case of those in the second group. But thus to suggest that repentance, including a changed attitude to sin, is not an essential part of conversion is a very grave error. It is to depart from the apostolic gospel. No one who so minimizes the necessity of repentance can say with Paul, ‘I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publicly, and from house to house, testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Acts 20: 20, 21).
5. Wrong teaching on assurance
In the fifth place the three-class theory is prone to give assurance to those who were never really converted. When a person professes to belong to Christ and yet lives like the world, how do we know that his profession is genuine? How do we know it is not genuine? We don’t! There are always two possibilities: he may be a true Christian in a condition of back-sliding, or it is quite possible he was never savingly united to Christ. Only God knows. Therefore when we speak of a back-slider two errors must be avoided: (1) Saying unequivocally that he is not a Christian; (2) Saying unequivocally that he is a Christian. The fact is that we do not know, we cannot know
The Bible certainly teaches that to make men consider they are Christians when in reality they are not is a great evil, and insofar as the ‘carnal Christian’ theory allows for a whole category of ‘Christians’ whose hearts are not surrendered in obedience to Christ, its tendency is to promote that very evil. Nothing could be more dangerous.
6. A low view of sin.
The fruits of this teaching are not new to Christianity even though the teaching appears on the present scene under a new mask. It is the old doctrine of Antinomianism. Paul attacks this in Romans 6:1, 2 when he asks, ‘What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? God forbid…’ By implication, the answer of the three-category teaching to Paul’s question is, ‘Yes, you can continue in sin and be a carnal Christian’. And that is Antinomianism!
7. A second work-of-grace made necessary
‘Carnal Christian’ teaching is the mother of many second work-of-grace errors in that it depreciates the biblical conversion experience by implying that the change in the converted sinner may amount to little or nothing. It goes on to say that the important change which affects a man’s character and conduct is the second step which makes him a ‘spiritual Christian’.
8. A wrong view of Christ
The ‘carnal Christian’ teaching is also the mother of one of the most soul-destroying teachings of our day. It suggests that you can take Jesus as your Savior and yet treat obedience to his lordship as optional. How often is the appeal made to the so-called ‘carnal Christians’ to put Jesus on the throne and ‘make him Lord’! When they accept Jesus as Lord, they are told, they will cease to be ‘carnal Christians’. But such teaching is foreign to the New Testament…The Savior and Lord are one. When the apostles preached they proclaimed Christ to be Lord. To bow to his rule was never presented in the Bible as a second step of consecration. ‘For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake’ (2 Corinthians 4:5).
When sinners truly receive him they do receive him as Lord. ‘As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him’ (Colossians 2:6).
9. False spirituality
This teaching breeds Pharisaism in the 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! George Whitefield, a man who lived very close to his Savior, prayed all his days, ‘Let me begin to be a Christian’. And another Christian has truly said: ‘In the life of the most perfect Christian there is every day renewed occasion for self-abhorrence, for repentance, for renewed application to the blood of Christ, for application of the rekindling of the Holy Spirit’.