the myth of the carnal christian

The Myth of the “Carnal Christian”

In my last post dealing with self-examination, I gave a third reason why this discipline is so necessary, that is, to see if we are truly manifesting the characteristics of a new nature. In this post, I want to expand on this idea and provide a fourth reason for self-examination.

Beginning a little over a hundred years ago a new breed of Christian began populating the church pews of North America. This new class of Christian was, and continues to be, propagated by teachers who promote the erroneous assertion that there are three classes of men, — the unconverted man, the “carnal Christian,” and the “spiritual Christian.”

Before undertaking the discussion of the carnal Christian theory, it must be understood what is not being said in this article. It is not being denied that Christians can and do act and think in a carnal manner. In fact, just the opposite is true.

Every Christian acts and thinks in a carnal way to one degree or another in some area(s) of his/her life. Not all are at the same level of spiritual maturity, and there are many degrees of sanctification (2 Pet.1:8). However, whether or not a Christian behaves in a carnal fashion at various times in his/her life is not the question under consideration. The issue is, does the Bible separate men into three categories? Or, to be more specific, does the Bible provide for two classes of Christians?

The Origin of the Myth

The pervasiveness of the carnal Christian teaching can be traced to three major influences. For many years the teaching of three classes of man has been popularized in the notes of the Scofield Reference Bible. Then, in 1918, Lewis Sperry Chafer published He That Is Spiritual in which he promoted the concept that 1 Cor 2:15-3:3 describes two classes of Christians, carnal and spiritual. Finally, for many years Campus Crusade for Christ utilized a tract depicting three circles, each representing a different class of man, with the last two being the carnal Christian and the spiritual Christian respectively.

As is evident from the Scofield Bible notes and Chafer’s book, this doctrine is built on a misinterpretation and wrong application of 1 Cor 3:1-3. This passage is set in the context of petty squabbling and one-up-man-ship within the Corinthian church. The problems of this church flowed from one source, the carnality of its members. It is important to remember how Paul first addresses the Corinthians. In chapter one he refers to them as “sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling” (v.2), they were the recipients of God’s grace (v.4), they were enriched in everything (v.5), and they were “not lacking any gift” (v.6).

The confusion rests on the interpretation of the adjective “fleshly” in 1 Cor. 3:3.  The Greek term sarkikoi and its Hebrew counterpart basar often refers to man’s frailty, fallibility, and fallen nature (Rm.7:14), and such is its use in this passage. Never is it used to distinguish one class of Christian from another. The old fleshly nature is not eradicated when God brings us to salvation (Rm.7:16-20), this is why we eagerly anticipate the redemption of our bodies (Rm.8:23). Paul is rebuking the Corinthians for their spiritual immaturity and carnal behavior in one area of their lives, not for failing to live up to a higher form of Christianity. Later on in his letter the apostle praised the Corinthians for holding firmly to the traditions which he had taught them (1 Cor 11:2). Clearly, their lives were not characterized by a form of carnality that made them indistinguishable from an unbeliever.

The Apostle Paul only knew two classes of men which he delineates in 1 Cor. 2:14-15. The natural man is a person who is devoid of the Spirit of God and incapable of understanding or obeying biblical truth (Rm 8:6, 7), whereas the spiritual man understands “the things of the Spirit of God” (v.14). The “things of the Spirit” far exceed the reason of natural man. It is possible that a person’s mind may be improved by the gospel and have a great grasp of the literal knowledge of Scripture. Such were the Scribes and Pharisees, yet Jesus calls them blind guides. Until Christ opens the heart, we can know nothing of Him or His will as we ought to know. That is why spiritual truths are foolishness to the natural man.

True from False

Another major error of this teaching is that it fails to distinguish between true saving faith and false, spurious faith. False faith is belief, a mental assent to the facts of the gospel, without a changed heart. This type of specious faith is illustrated throughout the Bible; from the nation of Israel, who honored God with their lips, but their heart was far from Him (Isaiah 29:13), to the hypocritical Pharisees (Mt. 23), to the people who sought Jesus only for the temporal benefits (John 6:26; 8:31).

The “carnal Christian” theology assumes that all who make a profession of faith are genuine believers, regardless of any evidence to the contrary. Those who fail to live and act like Christians are relegated to the second class rank of “carnal Christian” when in fact they may not be true believers at all. Indeed, the true believer will struggle with sin and experience growing pains in the process of sanctification. If one does not experience these growing pains, it is unlikely that one possess a genuine faith.

And this is the real tragedy of this teaching; it provides many people who are not truly Christians with a false sense of security that they are actually true believers. To delude people into thinking they are Christians when they are not must rank among the most heartless, evil, and unloving actions perpetrated by man. As long as those who have been misled by this teaching continue to believe it, they will never seek a true salvation.

The short epistle of 1 John was composed by the apostle to give his readers the assurance that they were genuine Christians (1 John 5:13). Contrary to the teaching of carnal Christianity, the apostle John stresses that a true believer does not live a lifestyle of habitual sin (1 John 3:7-10). The writer of the book of Hebrews equates saving faith with obedience to Jesus (Hebrews 5:9), and affirms that for the true believer in Jesus, holiness is not an option (Hebrews 12:14). Anyone who does not have a genuine heartfelt desire to be obedient and pleasing to God forfeits any right to an assurance of their salvation and seriously calls into question the validity of their faith (2 Cor. 5:9).

A third fault in the ‘carnal Christian’ teaching is that it virtually excludes the necessity of repentance in the conversion experience. This is implied by the inference that demonstrable change in the life of the convert is not a requirement of conversion and that one can continue to live in the same state of sin as before his conversion.

In other words, no new birth is necessary for conversion. This runs contrary to all sound apostolic teaching. The apostle Paul pointed to the radical change in the lives of the Corinthians as evidence of their new nature (1 Cor. 6:9-11). The call to genuine repentance was an integral part of the ministries of John the Baptist (Mt.3:2), Jesus Christ (Mt.4:17; Lk.24:47), and the early church (Acts 2:38, 20:20-21). When repentance is presented as optional, or the mark of a higher, more spiritual class of believer, the consequence of sin (i.e. separation from God) is no longer seen as an obstacle to a saving relationship with God.

This low view of sin is not new in the history of Christianity.  Paul dealt with this misuse of grace when he asked the rhetorical question, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may increase” (Rm.6:1)? For the teachers of carnal Christianity, Paul’s emphatic, “May it never be” (Rm 6:2) has been replaced with, “Yes, you can. You’re just a carnal Christian.” A low view of sin is the result of a contempt for God. False teaching always appeals to the flesh in one way or another (2 Peter 2:18,19).

The most serious error of the ‘carnal Christian’ teaching is that it minimizes the efficacy of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, along with the demands of discipleship. Carnal Christianity also divorces sanctification from justification, something the Bible emphatically contradicts (Phil.1:6; Jude 24;), and it implicitly denies the Bible’s warnings of living for the flesh (Rm. 8:12-14; Gal. 6:7-8).

Through the cross of Christ, the believer has been set free from the power of sin and death (Rm. 6:20-22, 8:2). The old leaven is purged (1 Cor 5:7). The power and love of sin is taken away. The false gospel of carnal Christianity completely misses the import of the cross; it is a different gospel which places it and those who propagate it under the anathema pronounced by Paul (Gal 1:8, 9).

The gospel which Jesus preached calls for the necessity of a new birth (Jn 3:3), a complete denial of self, succeeded by a habitual pattern of following after Christ (Lk 14:27), something that is completely outside the ability of the natural man (Rm 8:6, 7). This doctrine teaches that one can accept Jesus as Savior, yet treat submission to His lordship as optional. Often the appeal is made to the ‘carnal Christian’ to “make Jesus the Lord of your life.” What these teachers fail to realize is that Jesus is Lord.

The only question is if one will submit to His lordship or not. Jesus cannot be divided. He is both Lord and Savior (Acts 2:36). One cannot have Jesus as Savior and refuse to submit to Him as Lord. The Bible has strong warnings for those who would attempt to undermine the lordship of Jesus and turn God’s grace into a license to sin (2 Pet.2:1-3; Jude 4).

The Tragic Consequences

The ‘carnal Christian’ gospel is the consequence of a faulty, shallow, numbers driven, man-centered evangelism which seeks to gain converts at any cost, even at the expense of men’s eternal souls. This modern model of evangelism has replaced genuine repentance and saving faith, manifested in a changed life and followed up with consistent discipleship, with a “decision for Christ” (a term which in itself is wholly unbiblical).

As a result, “decisions” are treated as if they are real conversions, despite any evidence of a work of the Holy Spirit in the person’s life, resulting in countless numbers of people who are left with the false assurance they are genuine Christians. The only cure for the false gospel of carnal Christianity is a return to the biblical model of evangelism that emphasizes a person’s guilt before the Law, genuine repentance, and the necessity of the new birth.

Only then will people learn that it is not enough to merely profess belief in Jesus (Mt.7:21; Jm. 2:19-20), but will realize that any profession of faith must be backed up with biblical evidence that one has received a changed heart. Have you been given a new nature? The false gospel of carnal Christianity has swept modern Christendom, creating one of the largest mission fields today: the local church.

The Glory of God changes everything


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