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The Believer and Carnality, Part Two

In the Nick of Time

Charles A. Hauser

The previous essay attempted to show that 1 Corinthians 1:14-3:3 establishes three categories of people: natural, spiritual, and carnal. The latter two are both genuine believers, but differ in their level of maturity. This contrast seems especially clear in 3:1-3.

To avoid this interpretation, Reformed theologians like Ernest Reisinger appeal back to 1 Corinthians 1:2. Reisinger argues that this verse declares the Corinthian believers to be already sanctified, so they could not possibly be in a carnal state or condition. He says, “[W]e must bear in mind the designation [Paul] gives them in chapter one. He says they are sanctified in Christ Jesus…. 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.”

Reisinger’s mistake is to confuse the believer’s position in Christ with the believer’s experience. The New Testament teaches many truths about the believer’s position in Christ. One of those truths is that all believers are completely sanctified and seated in the heavenly places with Christ. Yet no believer is experientially seated with Christ in the heavenly places, just as no believer is completely sanctified experientially while in this life.

Even Reformed interpreters recognize this contrast to some degree. For example, D. Martin Lloyd-Jones comments, “A day is coming when I shall be in the heavenly places not only in spirit but in my body also…. Departed Christians no longer have to struggle with sin in the flesh, and in the world;… but we are still in the flesh, in the body, still struggling, still groaning…. [W]e are seated together spiritually in the heavenly places with them, and with Christ, at this very moment” (God’s Ultimate Purpose, 76-77).

What is true of the heavenly places is also true of the believer’s sanctification. Positionally, all believers are fully sanctified before God, but their position does not match their earthly experience. 1 Corinthians illustrates this fact: some believers had developed so little in their practical sanctification that Paul called them “carnal” and “infants in Christ.” With all the serious problems they experienced, no one can argue that the Corinthian believers were completely practically sanctified.

Some who hold the Reformed view raise still another concern. They object that recognizing a category for carnal believers runs the risk of separating sanctification from justification, as if one could be justified without beginning the process of sanctification. This objection, however, only applies to those who actually do separate the two. Many who defend the possibility of carnal Christians still affirm that sanctification begins at the moment of initial salvation—but subject to two qualifications. First, some believers do not progress as rapidly as they ought. Second, some believers may at some point(s) temporarily regress to a lower level of maturity. When that happens, they must rectify their error or else they will receive discipline from their heavenly Father. In fact, Paul says that some within the Corinthian church were experiencing that discipline (1 Cor. 11:30).

A related issue involves the work of the Holy Spirit in the initial sanctification of believers. Adherents of both views acknowledge that all humans are sinful and guilty before a holy God. Both hold that no one has the ability to do anything to change this spiritual situation. All people are by nature unable to respond positively to the gospel. The question is how their situation changes so that some people come to see the truth of the gospel and place their faith in Jesus Christ.

Many who hold the Reformed view claim that regeneration is what accomplishes this change (see John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied). For them, regeneration is the implantation of spiritual life, which gives the individual an ability to place faith in Christ. On this view, regeneration causes faith and is logically prior to it.

Others (some of them Reformed) recognize another possibility, based partly on 2 Thessalonians 2:13. There Paul gives thanks for the salvation of his readers and says that they were “chosen from the beginning for salvation through the sanctification of the Spirit and faith in the truth.” This verse speaks of a work of the Holy Spirit that sets people apart so that they come to exercise faith in the truth, but it is sanctification and not regeneration. 1 Peter 1:2 appears to emphasize this same work of the Spirit, which can be called initial sanctification.

How is this discussion relevant to the question of carnality? Initial sanctification is the work by which the Holy Spirit enables people to recognize the truth of the gospel, but the Holy Spirit does not stop there. He also gives believers an ongoing ability to apply the benefits of the gospel and to grow spiritually. Sanctification and spiritual growth is the norm for new believers. If, however, this work of the Holy Spirit is hindered, then carnality is the result. Left unrectified, such carnality will bring believers under God’s fatherly discipline (Heb. 12:4-14).

To summarize: according to 1 Corinthians 2:14-3:3, the unsaved have no understanding of God’s wisdom. It is foolishness to them. In contrast, spiritual believers do understand God’s wisdom. The carnal believer also has a level of spiritual understanding, but it is limited. Such a person is an infant in terms of understanding God’s wisdom.

While doctrine is not established by creeds, looking at some confessions will help to illustrate that this view is not a recent invention. For example, the Baptist Confession of 1689 (Second London Confession, “On the Assurance of Grace and Salvation”) repeats the words of the Westminster Confession:

True believers may have the assurance of their salvation divers ways shaken, diminished, and intermitted; as by negligence in preserving of it, by falling into some special sin which wounds the conscience and grieves the Spirit; by some sudden or vehement temptation, by God withdrawing the light of his countenance, and suffering even such as fear him to walk in darkness and to have no light, yet are they never destitute of the seed of God and the life of faith.”

These words describe exactly what Paul means when he says that the Corinthian believers were carnal. Elsewhere (“On the Perseverance of the Saints”) the same confessions state,

And though they [believers] may, through the temptation of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins, and for a time continue therein, whereby they incur God’s displeasure and grieve the Holy Spirit, come to have their graces and comforts impaired, have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded, hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves, yet shall they renew their repentance and be preserved through faith in Christ Jesus to the end.

Again, these words describe exactly the situation of the carnal believer. This view has been held by Baptists historically. More importantly, it is the view that best interprets the Scriptures while forming a consistent theological and biblical system of interpretation.


This essay is by Charles A. Hauser, Dean Emeritus 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.


Approach, My Soul, the Mercy Seat
John Newton (1725–1807)

Approach, my soul, the mercy seat,
Where Jesus answers prayer;
There humbly fall before His feet,
For none can perish there.

Thy promise is my only plea,
With this I venture nigh;
Thou callest burdened souls to Thee,
And such, O Lord, am I.

Bowed down beneath a load of sin,
By Satan sorely pressed,
By war without and fears within,
I come to Thee for rest.

Be Thou my Shield and hiding Place,
That, sheltered by Thy side,
I may my fierce accuser face,
And tell him Thou hast died!

O wondrous love! to bleed and die,
To bear the cross and shame,
That guilty sinners, such as I,
Might plead Thy gracious name.

“Poor tempest-tossèd soul, be still;
My promised grace receive”;
’Tis Jesus speaks—I must, I will,
I can, I do believe.

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.