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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.


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.


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.

2 Responses to Carnal Christians? Part One

  1. Thank you for this article. I agree with practically everything in it. However, I would point out that Wesleyan/Oberlin sanctification actually was quite influential in the early Keswick movement. I believe the two excerpts from the study here:

    make this clear:

    Barabas also recognizes Asa Mahan, leader of the Oberlin perfectionism, as a Keswick antecedent.[18] The Oberlin perfectionism of Asa Mahan and his mentor Charles Finney were indeed important to the rise of the Keswick system,[19] and were recognized by Keswick as essential historical background for the genesis of their doctrine. “In 1872, [Mahan] moved to England and directly influenced the Keswick movement by his leadership in the Oxford and Brighton Conferences that immediately preceded the first Keswick Convention.”[20] Mahan’s books were widely propogated in Higher Life circles, so that “Keswick writers . . . often mention or quote Asa Mahan . . . and Charles G. Finney.”[21] Indeed, “none . . . of . . . the ‘conversational meetings’ at Oxford . . . . was of more interest than that . . . under the guidance of Asa Mahan,” who strongly taught orally the necessity of Christians receiving Spirit baptism, as he had already proclaimed in his book The Baptism of the Holy Ghost.[22] As a consequence of Mahan’s “pressing upon” people, “[d]ay after day,” the necessity of Christians receiving Spirit baptism, “a[n] . . . experience we should not and must not be without,” “many . . . realised in his conversational meetings the baptism” and entered into Mahan’s experience.[23] Likewise, at “the Brighton Convention (of which he was one of the conveners) Mahan directed a series of sectional meetings . . . crowded to overflowing . . . [e]ach afternoon,”[24] proclaiming post-conversion Spirit baptism. “Mahan carried the message” of the necessity of a post-conversion “Baptism of the Holy Ghost . . . to the Oxford (1874) and Brighton (1875) meetings from which the Keswick movements emerged . . . he spoke and led very popular seminars on the subject,”[25] leading many into his second blessing Baptism experience,[26] as Robert P. Smith and others led many to adopt the doctrine of the “physical thrills” of a post-conversion erotic Spirit baptism through the propogation of this doctrine at Oxford and elsewhere. Indeed, as Mahan and Robert P. Smith explained, the “object of the . . . Meeting at Oxford . . . was to lead Christians to . . . [be] baptised with the Holy Ghost.”[27] William “Boardman . . . link[ed] up with Mahan to conduct revivals in both America and Britain, and both were to have a direct influence on the spiritual and theological direction of the Keswick Conferences.”[28] . . .

    While Pierson was generally correct that the distinctive perfectionism of Hannah W. and Robert P. Smith was dominant at the early Keswick convention, he was not correct in his affirmation that other forms of perfectionism were not also acceptable at the Convention. Asa Mahan’s early influence makes it clear that Oberlin Perfectionism was acceptable from the beginning. Moule was converted to the Keswick theology at a convention which included both Evan Hopkins and “an ardent Salvation Army captain,” an advocate of the Army’s standard Wesleyan perfectionism (pg. 42, Transforming Keswick: The Keswick Convention, Past, Present, and Future, Price & Randall). Likewise, the “Japan Evangelistic Band . . . formed at the Convention of 1893 . . . looked to Wesleyan holiness speakers” (pg. 115, Transforming Keswick: The Keswick Convention, Past, Present, and Future, Price & Randall; cf. pg. 81, The Keswick Story: The Authorized History of the Keswick Convention, Polluck; the Band was founded by Webb-Peploe’s curate Barclay Buxton). “Another vital link between Keswick and the Wesleyan holiness tradition was through Charles Inwood,” who spoke at twenty-one Keswick conventions and represented Keswick internationally while receving prophetic impressions through which he predicted the future (pg. 112, Transforming Keswick: The Keswick Convention, Past, Present, and Future, Price & Randall). “As a Wesleyan Methodist himself, Inwood actively sought to influence Keswick thinking from within the movement . . . Inwood was deeply indebted to the Wesleyan revivalist tradition” (pg. 50, ibid). The Methodist perfectionist, continuationist, and woman preacher Amanda Smith, who preached at Keswick and was then invited to and preached at Broadlands by invitation of Evan Hopkins and Lord Mount-Temple in the 1880s, is another example of Methodist perfectionism being propogated at Keswick (pg. 116, The Keswick Story: The Authorized History of the Keswick Convention, Polluck; The Christian’s Secret of a Holy Life: The Unpublished Personal Writings of Hannah Whitall Smith, ed. Dieter, entry for December 30; Chapter 20-21, An Autobiograpy: The Story of the Lord’s Dealings with Mrs. Amanda Smith, The Colored Evangelist, Containing an Account of her Life Work of Faith, and her Travels in America, England, Ireland, Scotland, India, and Africa, as an Independent Missionary, Amanda Smith. Chicago, IL: Meyer & Brother, 1893; pgs. 71-73, 114, The Life that is Life Indeed: Reminiscences of the Broadlands Conferences, Edna V. Jackson. London: James Nisbet & Co, 1910). The ecumenicalism of the Keswick Convention embraced a variety of conflicting perfectionisms, predominently the type taught by Hannah W. and Robert P. Smith, but also that of the Oberlin and Wesleyan theologies, in its seeking for a Higher Life spirituality.

    Thanks again for the article.

  2. Finney and Mahan divided in their views of perfection precisely because Finney located the moment of perfection purely in the faculty of volition, whereas Mahan located it in the faculty which by then had come to be known as emotion or desire.

    The Oberlin Perfectionism was an uneasy truce between highly opinionated figures. Finney’s insistence that the notions of natural ability and moral ability collapsed simply into “ability” led to his consistent rejection of the notion of prevenient grace.

    No matter what terms Finney may at various times have chosen to employ in reference to God’s working, they never under any circumstances refer to anything other than forms of moral suasion. That is key to understanding Finney.

    Although Finney certainly read Wesley and Wesleyan perfectionists, Finney could never have been a Methodist. Finney feared that the emphasis upon desire rather than volition might result in a false Christianity, or—in Finney’s terms—a do-nothingness. As Finney had anticipated, Mahan’s sympathies worked themselves out in his departure from Oberlin and association with those of like mind. Eventually Keswick emerged.

    Although Keswick theologians may leverage Finney’s terminology, such as “baptism of the Holy Spirit,” it is not understood in precisely the same sense as Finney understood it. Whatever the baptism of the Spirit did in Finney, it did not “enable” in the sense of infusing power or ability or even desire. Although Finney is at the root of many theological developments in various streams, Mahan’s version of the Oberlin perfectionism is much more tightly bound to Keswick than Finney’s.

    I suppose we are a bit off topic by now. My apologies. But so far as Dr. Pratt’s article goes, Finney does not fall neatly into the category of “two-step” theologians; nor does post-Mahanian Oberlin perfectionism qualify as a two-step theology of sanctification. This is not to nit-pick at Dr. Pratt, for the discussions within the Oberlin faculty were woven with many a fine thread. Further, Finney is complex and enigmatic. Finney believed in the possibility of one or many baptisms of the Holy Spirit. Also, Finney consistently interpreted the latter portion of Romans chapter seven as a description of the unbeliever. Further, in Finney, lack of entire consecration implied lack of salvation, not membership in a lesser category of Christians. Similarly, consciousness of any sin accompanied by an unwillingness to repent of it implied lack of salvation, not membership in a lesser category of Christians. Hence, Finney called for repentance and “reconversion” under those conditions. For Finney, the mass of “believers” in mid-to-late nineteenth-century American Evangelicalism were merely professing Christians of whom it was quite likely true that they were not really Christians at all. Finney’s “higher life” IS the Christian life; other forms are no life at all.


    N.B. So far as I can discern, desire or emotion is one of the fragments into which what had formerly been known as the affections was torn in the early 1800s; cf. Burton circa 1824. Finney came away with one piece of Edwards (quasi-volition); Mahan and the Wesleyans with another (quasi-affection). But no one can put Edwards together again until affection is first reconstituted so that it once again refers to what it did in Edwards. Then it must be rejoined to will in the same relation. Nor can Wesley be put together again except as Edwards, for neither conceived mind as three faculties. ——— By implication the phrase “desiring God” is virtually meaningless as sloganized in early twenty-first century American Evangelicalism. The original referent of the term “affection” has been lost for nigh unto two centuries. What does it really mean?

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