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Carnal Christians? Part One

In the Nick of Time

Jon Pratt

One of my former professors, Charles Hauser, has recently written in support of the “carnal Christian” view as a way of describing the reality of sin in the believer’s life (Nick, 3/4/16 and 3/11/16). In response, I offer this essay in respectful dissent and in support of the more historically grounded position that there is only a single category or class of Christians: the regenerate (or sanctified or spiritual or justified or any number of adjectives used to distinguish believers in Christ from non-believers).

Though not intended as a point-by-point response to Dr. Hauser’s essays, this two-part article will provide some historical context to the sanctification discussion before furnishing an interpretation of 1 Corinthians 2:14-3:3, the favorite text of “carnal Christian” advocates. In regard to historical issues, it will first help the reader to learn the context out of which the “carnal Christian” doctrine has arisen. Second, I will address the historical connection between dispensationalism and particular models of sanctification, an issue raised by Dr. Hauser.

A study of the history of interpretation with regard to the doctrine of sanctification must begin with John Wesley. Before Wesley, theologians believed that the world was comprised of two types of people: the saved and the unsaved. After Wesley and his teaching about entire sanctification, the “saved” category was divided into two groups: the saved and the sanctified. This “perfectionist” teaching of Wesley went through several permutations in the years following Wesley’s death. In America, Wesleyan teaching found a home in the Methodist church (through its founder, Francis Asbury), Oberlin College (influenced by Asa Mahan and Charles Finney), and the Holiness/Higher Life Movement (championed by Phoebe and Walter Palmer and William Boardman).

Near the end of the nineteenth century in Britain, holiness teaching influenced the founding of the annual Keswick conference held in northwest England. This conference has convened every year since 1875, though it no longer retains its distinctive “Keswick” theology. Keswick teaching never left its holiness roots, though it did not include Wesley’s teaching of entire sanctification. In his very helpful article, “The Disjunction between Justification and Sanctification in Contemporary Theology,” (DBSJ 6 [2001]: 26), William Combs notes the emphases of Keswick theology: 1) that sanctification is a crisis experience separate from justification; 2) the need for Spirit filling which produces a life of victory over conscious sin; 3) two categories of Christians: the carnal, who behave like unbelievers, and the spiritual, who are Spirit-filled; and 4) the crisis experience of sanctification, described as “letting go and letting God” or “surrendering to Christ’s Lordship.”

The second blessing theology of Keswick influenced Americans like C. I. Scofield, who taught at D. L. Moody’s Northfield Training School; and Lewis Sperry Chafer, who founded Dallas Theological Seminary. Chafer differed from Keswick in that he denied the need for a separate work of grace to initiate sanctification—at least this is what his student, Charles Ryrie, claims in a 1982 article, “Contrasting Views of Sanctification.” (Dr. Hauser concurs in his second essay: “Many who defend the possibility of carnal Christians still affirm that sanctification begins at the moment of initial salvation.”) Ryrie calls the view espoused by Dallas Seminary in those early days the “Chaferian” view of sanctification. One point of emphasis in this sanctification model is the division of Christians into two categories: the spiritual and the carnal.

This short historical survey demonstrates the origins of the carnal Christian teaching, though most who hold this view today would reject the perfectionism of Wesleyan holiness theology. One of the elements that has been retained from Wesley’s influence is the separation of justification from sanctification, resulting in the carnal Christian category.

Lest I be accused of making a guilt-by-association argument in this historical survey, please consider the point I am trying to establish. On the one hand, I am not saying that “carnal Christian” advocates are Wesleyans and should therefore be dismissed. On the other hand, I am saying that Wesley’s bifurcation of believers into two groups, the saved and sanctified, paved the way for the notion that the Scriptures support this concept. Indeed, I agree with Combs’ assessment (p 33) of such teaching: “In their quest for holiness [second blessing advocates] have taken a wrong turn into John Wesley’s laboratory.”

Finally, Dr. Hauser’s use of the Second London Confession of 1689 in support of his “carnal Christian” position deserves mention. While the confession certainly speaks to the reality of sin in the believer’s life, its authors (and those who wrote the Westminster Confession on which it is based) would not have shared any notion of two categories of believers. Most every historical theologian would agree that the two-classes-of-Christians doctrine was non-existent prior to Wesley who lived in the eighteenth century. Careful scholarship must avoid such anachronistic argumentation when seeking to gather support for the positions espoused.

A second historical issue I must address relates to the notion that the “carnal Christian” doctrine and the model of sanctification from which it comes are organically connected to dispensationalism. In an essay entitled, “Dispensational Sanctification: A Misnomer” (DBSJ 7 [2002]: 95-108) I show how some scholars like John Walvoord and John Gerstner have asserted a connection between Chaferian or Keswick sanctification teaching and dispensationalism. Next, a section on the definition of dispensationalism shows that no connection exists between dispensationalism and sanctification because a dispensationalist is someone who believes that Israel and the church are distinct entities in God’s program. While dispensationalism’s teaching certainly affects such doctrines as ecclesiology and eschatology, it has no organic connection with soteriology. Finally, a presentation of several models of sanctification helps the reader to see where “carnal Christian” teaching fits on the theological landscape. My conclusion is that students of sanctification are not accurate in labeling any of the models as “dispensational.”

An understanding of these two historical issues provides an important foundation for the theological discussion I will pursue in the next installment, as we consider the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 2:14-3:3 as well as several other texts that beg to be included when speaking about sanctification.

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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.

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So Let Our Lips and Lives Express
Isaac Watts (1674–1748)

So let our lips and lives express
The holy Gospel we profess;
So let our works and virtues shine,
To prove the doctrine all divine.

Thus shall we best proclaim abroad
The honors of our Savior God,
When the salvation reigns within,
And grace subdues the power of sin.

Our flesh and sense must be denied,
Passion and envy, lust and pride;
While justice, temperance, truth, and love,
Our inward piety approve.

Religion bears our spirits up,
While we expect that blessèd hope,
The bright appearance of the Lord,
And faith stands leaning on His Word.

About Guest Author

This guest article has been published because an editor has determined its contents to be supportive of the values of Religious Affections Ministries. Its publication does not imply full agreement between its author and RAM on other matters.