Question: Can a Christian be a carnal Christian?

Can a Christian be a carnal Christian?

Recently, I had a discussion with a fellow-believer, who said that Christians cannot be carnal Christians. Said in another way, a Christian cannot be considered carnal or act carnal, because he is spiritual.  He said that a carnal person is really just an unbeliever.  A Christian is one who may sin, but would not live in carnality.  Is he right?

Unfortunately, while this believer knows the Scriptures well, he doesn’t interpret them well.  He imposes his theology on the Scripture and interprets it according to his theology rather than according to correct rules of interpretation.  If you approach Scripture with presuppositions (statements that imply a truth taken for granted), you will tend to read meaning into the Scripture.  For example, if I say, “I no longer drive Chevy trucks.” The presupposition is that I used to drive Chevy trucks. That is a true statement.  If I approach Scripture with presuppositions, I will work the Scriptures to mean what I want them to mean.

When someone says that a Christian cannot be carnal, they try to explain away a very easy-to-understand passage of Scripture. The passage is 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 where Paul writes,

·       And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ.
·       2 I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able;
·       3 for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? (1 Cor. 3:1-3)

Some try to explain this away by taking the culture of the church today and inserting that back into the culture of the church in Corinth. That is called eisegesis, which means to “read the interpretation into Scripture.”  Today, there are unbelievers who attend church.  In Paul’s day, those who were not believers did not identify or attend church. What does Paul say in his letter to Corinth?

·       To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours: (1 Cor. 1:2)

Paul is writing to the believers in Corinth and they were saints.  The culture in Paul’s day was far different than today.  Churches were house churches, because Christians were not welcomed.  They were hated because they did not give allegiance to Caesar.  They were used by Nero as torches for his garden parties.  They eventually hid and met in catacombs, because they were so despised.  Those who were not believers did not identify or attend church.  Christians didn’t invite friends to church to hear the gospel.  They gave the gospel to their friends and those who believed looked for a church family to identify with for nurture and growth.  Paul’s letter was intended to be delivered to those were “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” and therefore believers.

Then notice in the first passage of 1 Corinthians 3 how Paul describes them.  What does he say?  He calls them “brethren.”  In other words, they were believers.  Now in that context, what follows describes Paul’s audience of believers. 

Paul writes he could not speak to them as spiritual people.  That phrase does not define a Christian, but rather one who is filled or controlled by the Holy Spirit.  Paul uses similar phraseology in Galatians 6:1,

·       Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. (Gal. 6:1)

Paul is writing to those who are “spiritual” that is those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit, not merely Christians.  If you are not controlled by the Holy Spirit, you will create more division in your admonishment and correction, because you will not examine yourself.  In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul describes them as not “spiritual,” but rather “carnal.” Both words, “spiritual” and “carnal” are adjectives. The word for “carnal” means one who is characterized by the flesh.  He is a fleshly-like person.  At that moment, he is living according to the flesh instead of the Spirit.  He is a carnal person.

Paul continues by writing, they are babes in Christ.  This is a common expression for someone who is a new Christian and has not grown up.  A spiritual baby does not know how to fulfill God’s plan and is concerned more for self, than for others.  He is a Christian, but he acts very fleshly or carnal.  He has not learned spiritual disciplines.  He is not very concerned about others.  He is focused on himself. God doesn’t condemn spiritual babes for being fleshly.  They just need to be discipled so they can grow up to be a spiritual child, a spiritual young adult and then a spiritual parent.

Can a Christian be carnal?  Of course, he can act very fleshly.  He can and is carnal, that is, he acts according to the flesh, rather than according to the Spirit.  He is fleshly, because he has a sin nature inside of him, which he acquired at birth from his father (Rom. 5:12).  That sin nature stays with the believer until it is removed at death.  Paul says it best,

·       23 But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.
·       24 O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Rom. 7:23-24)

Paul is describing the sin nature that still can control him, if he chooses to let it.  As long as he remains filled, or controlled by the Holy Spirit, He will not be acting according to the sin nature.  The challenge is that in this lifetime, it is impossible apart from humble submission to the sovereign will of God.

Always take the natural interpretation and develop your theology from that, rather than choose a theology and then interpret Scripture.  That can easily result in spiritual pride.

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