Believers struggle with sin. But disagreement arises over how this ongoing conflict ought to be engaged. Some have suggested that classifying Christians into “spiritual” and “carnal” categories helps to explain the battle so that steps can be taken to secure victory over sin. Responding to a two-part essay on the “carnal Christian” by Charles Hauser, I proposed an alternative position (Nick, April 22, 2016). I first sought to provide some historical context as a foundation for the theological and exegetical issues that will be addressed in this essay.
John Wesley was the first to teach the concept of two categories of Christians: the saved and the sanctified. Once this second blessing theology took root in many evangelical circles, the revivalist preachers and holiness teachers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries embraced and trumpeted it. Out of this ferment arose the need to provide biblical support for the carnal Christian teaching. The one passage used by all who accept the two-categories-of-Christians view is 1 Corinthians 2:14–3:3 (Ernest Reisinger, What Should We Think of The Carnal Christian?, 8). For this reason, I offer an interpretation of this passage followed by a survey of several other references which argue against the two categories doctrine and which support the assertion that all believers will bear spiritual fruit.
Most agree that Paul contrasts lost people, whom he describes as psychikos (natural) in 1 Corinthians 2:14, with saved people, called pneumatikos (spiritual) in 2:15. The unsaved (psychikos) do not accept the things of the Spirit nor are they able to understand them. On the other hand, believers (pneumatikos) are capable of discerning spiritual realities because they have the mind of Christ. This is typical of Paul to point out that all Christians have the Spirit (Rom 8:9; Titus 3:5–7) and are, therefore, spiritual. But how are we to interpret 3:1–3 which describes the pneumatikos Christians as sarkinos and sarkikos (terms translated as “carnal” or “fleshly” in English versions)?
Carnal Christian advocates use this description of believers as evidence of two classes of Christians: spiritual and fleshly. The fleshly Christian is depicted as having a “pattern of life” that is carnal and as existing in a “state or condition” of fleshliness. (Both phrases come from Hauser’s essays and reflect language typical of “carnal Christian” doctrine.) But is it possible and accurate for sarkinos and sarkikos to bear such theological weight?
I do not believe so because of the argument Paul makes in this section of 1 Corinthians. First, Paul directs his description of fleshly behavior to the entire assembly. While the “you” of 3:1 likely does include every member of the Corinthian church, each of whom was involved in divisive attitudes (1:12), is it also fair to say that every member of the church was then a carnal Christian? Was every member also involved in unnecessary lawsuits (6:1–11), sexual immorality (6:12–20), eating idol meat (8–10), and the denial of a resurrection (15)? Unless an interpreter is willing to make this claim—and Paul states that only some struggled with the resurrection (15:12)—it is not accurate to assert that the entire Corinthian assembly was carnal. They were acting in a fleshly manner with regard to divisions, but this did not mean that the whole church had a carnal pattern of life with regard to every sin discussed in the letter.
Second, Paul considers the sin of divisiveness as an example of carnality but not as a categorical description of their lives as a whole. For while he calls the congregation “fleshly” in 3:1–3, he also speaks of them as “sanctified” (1:2), “not lacking any spiritual gift” (1:7), and “spiritual” (2:15)! Furthermore, he believes that they are discerning enough to excommunicate sinners (5:4–5) and to resolve their own conflicts (6:1–8), abilities expected of pneumatikoi who “judge all things” (2:15). In 11:2, Paul praises the Corinthians, which is puzzling if he also views them as corporately “carnal.” But if carnality is descriptive of an aspect of their lives rather than an indictment of their entire pattern of life, it makes sense that Paul could call them “spiritual” and “fleshly” in the same letter.
Third, Paul uses a causal particle (hopou) in 3:3 to indicate the connection between the Corinthians’ carnality and their divisive behavior. In essence he is saying that as long as the Corinthians are acting in a jealous and strife-driven manner, they are fleshly. We can infer from this statement that they will no longer be described as carnal if they cease acting divisively. The label “fleshly” can only be applied while the Christian is committing sin or is living with that sin (failing to repent of or to confess that sin). Thus, Paul’s use of the sarkinos and sarkikos descriptors is a temporary appellation applied to Christians who are struggling with sin. Every Christian is carnal whenever he or she sins, but this does not support the idea of Christians living in a sustained pattern of ongoing sin. The Bible does have descriptions for those who live this way—spiritually dead (Jas 2:17), burned branches (John 15:6), and natural people (1 Cor 2:14) to mention a few. In short, all true believers will persevere, and this is why instances of fleshly behavior will only be temporary, not a sustained pattern of life.
Several other passages used to support “carnal Christian” teaching have been suggested (e.g. John 15; 1 and 2 John; Rom 6). I direct the reader to Andy Naselli’s Let Go and Let God: A Survey and Analysis of Keswick Theology (Lexham, 2010), 224–60, for a helpful analysis of these and other two-category favorites.
Finally, numerous verses support the idea that all Christians manifest spiritual fruit. Since this is true, drawing the line between believers who have a pattern of disobedient actions (carnal) and those who do not (spiritual) is impossible to sustain. Unfortunately, I can only provide a listing of these verses without any explanation. Jesus (Matt 13:23; Luke 6:43–45), Peter (1 Pet 1:6, 8; 2 Pet 1:5–11), John (1 John 2:3–6; 3:11–18), and James (Jas 2:17, 20, 24) all show that believers live obediently. Paul provides even more evidence. Elsewhere I have shown that there are 15 indications of spiritual fruitbearing in Rom 5-8 alone (“The Relationship between Justification and Spiritual Fruit in Romans 5–8,” Themelios 34.2 : 162–78). Further Pauline examples are found in 1 Cor 15:10; 2 Cor 3:18, 5:16, 9:8; Eph 2:10; Phil 1:6, 2:13; and Titus 2:14.
All believers are carnal…sometimes. Any time they sin, they act in a fleshly manner. But this does not require bifurcating Christians into one of two distinct categories: sinful or righteous. Rather, the emphasis in the New Testament is on the reality that all believers are bearing fruit, being sanctified, and persevering in the faith. This does not mean that holy living is completed or perfected during one’s earthly existence, but it does mean that God graciously brings to fruition the good work He begins at justification. May the Lord hasten the day when our struggle with sin is replaced by glorified perfection in holiness!
This essay is by Jon Pratt, Vice President of Academics and Professor of New Testament at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
Lord, ’Tis a Pleasant Thing to Stand (Psalm 92)
Isaac Watts (1674–1748)
Lord, ’tis a pleasant thing to stand
In gardens planted by Thine hand;
Let me within Thy courts be seen,
Like a young cedar, fresh and green.
There grow Thy saints in faith and love,
Blessed with Thine influence from above;
Not Lebanon with all its trees
Yields such a comely sight as these.
The plants of grace shall ever live;
Nature decays, but grace must thrive;
Time, that doth all things else impair,
Still makes them flourish strong and fair.
Laden with fruits of age, they show
The Lord is holy, just and true;
None that attend His gates shall find
A God unfaithful or unkind.