The Doctrine of the Carnal Christian
Throughout the past decade or so, there has been a debate concerning whether such a thing as a “carnal Christian” is Biblical. On one side there are people who claim that one can live in worldliness and still be a Christian: hence the carnal Christian. Usually these people are the ones who leave repentance out of the Gospel, a crucial focal point in proclaiming the message of Christ. By doing so, they often deny Lordship salvation: the view that trusting in Christ Jesus as Savior goes hand in hand with submitting to Him.1 That, of course, would inevitably lead to putting off worldliness. Denial of this view usually follows to something called easy-believism, a formulation of the Gospel which leads to it being somewhat of a more intellectual confession, such as, “believe in Jesus and you have salvation.” Then there is the other side which usually holds to the view of Lordship salvation. This view presumes that one who is truly saved cannot walk in carnality; otherwise he would be living in direct opposition to the work of the Holy Spirit.
The doctrine of the carnal Christian is actually quite recent, being first promoted in the Scofield Reference Bible published in 1909. With this doctrine encouraging laxity, modern evangelism has eaten it up; not very surprising though since Western culture for the most part has enjoyed a rather relaxed life regarding freedom of religion. The result of this can be seen within the Church, that being, a love of comfort and lack of zeal to live out the Christian life. Though I know this doesn’t apply to all, it certainly has affected a great majority.
We have believed many lies in order to keep our worldliness. But the truth is we cannot walk in carnality, love carnality, live in carnality, and genuinely call ourselves followers of Christ; contrary to what the doctrine of the carnal Christian suggests. In all reality, the doctrine of the carnal Christian is heresy. It appeals to those who love worldliness and undermines living a life for Jesus.
What does the Bible have to say about worldliness?
“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age” (Titus 2:11-12)
Then He said to them all, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. (Luke 9:23)
With these two verses, one can make the case that the (regenerate) Christian will deny himself, put off ungodliness and worldly lusts – all to follow God, all to live the Christian life.
Before I go on, I need to elaborate on what the term ‘carnality’ means when it’s used in the context of “a carnal Christian.” If we are to understand carnality in relation to the Christian life, we must first define it, so: the word carnal means, 1. “pertaining to or characterized by the flesh or the body, its passions and appetites; sensual: carnal pleasures. 2. “not spiritual; merely human; temporal; worldly:”2
With the first definition we have carnality in the sense of worldliness, carnal desires, etc. The other definition is carnality in the temporal, worldly, human, physical sense. I think distinguishing between these two definitions will help us in understanding the “carnal Christian.”
Before we go on, let’s first go through what the Bible has to say about carnality in regard to Christians.
“And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ…for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not carnal? Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one?” (1 Corinthians 3:1–5, NKJV)
“Has then what is good become death to me? Certainly not! But sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.” (Romans 7:13-15, NKJV)
So here we have two of the most contested verses regarding this issue. In the first verse, Paul is obviously talking to the Corinthians as newborns in Christ. Newborn would imply that they were recently converted. By definition, one who has just accepted Christ would be rather inexperienced to the Christian life, hence that being the reason for Paul calling them babes in Christ. He lists envy, strife, and divisions as among the problem these Christians were facing. Now it’s interesting to note, Paul is not questioning the salvation of these people, he acknowledges them as brothers in Christ, yet still considers their actions as carnal.
So here, yes it is possible for a Christian to be engaged in carnal acts. We then in that sense would have a “carnal Christian.”
In the second verse, Paul is talking about being dead to sin. He says, the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. It’s interesting, Paul was obviously a devout Christian, (if you disagree read the book of Acts) so how could he say he was carnal, yet still be living in Christ? Paul here is describing the sinfulness of his human nature. His struggle with sin was due to carnality, his nature. So in this sense too, a Christian can be a “carnal Christian.”
Though I do not think this is an appropriate term, rather a simpler yet less confusing word would be: ‘human’. Why? Well the term ‘carnal’ seems to imply that the Christian is living in carnality! It’s categorizing the Christian with his nature.
As with everything, there is an extreme, and in this case the extreme taken by some is to say “since Christians are carnal, we can therefore live in carnality and still have salvation.” The implications of this interpretation are clearly unbiblical. One cannot live two lives –the Christian life and the carnal life. Each life involves devotion. If you are to live the Christian life you must live for God, and if you claim to live the Christian life yet are living for the world, you deceive yourself. (1 John 1:7-8) You cannot serve two masters (Matthew 6:24). It is clear that the Christian life leaves no room for a lifestyle of carnality when its concerned with “carnal passions and desires.”
If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. Colossians 3:1-3 (NKJV)
But can living in carnality also imply living in a carnal body? I suppose it can, but what I specifically mean here is a continual walk in accordance to the flesh, worldliness, and things not pleasing to God.
Now does this mean that a Christian will never stumble or occasionally be abused by sin? Certainly not! What it does mean is that a Christian is not a slave to sin, not one who is enslaved by its fruit, but rather one who overcomes sin because the spirit of God is living in him. So don’t go around yelling, “You’re not a Christian!” to people you know who have fallen into sin, because in all reality, every Christian is prone to this. Though for the regenerated in Christ, these outbreaks will be exception, not the rule.3
But what about the Christian who is constantly ensnared in sin, seems to be living in it, and doesn’t look like he’s making an effort to break free? Then the question is not whether the Christian living in carnality has lost his salvation, but whether that person was truly saved in the first place.3
In summary, a “carnal Christian” does and does not exist. It all really depends on the way you are defining it. Are you defining it as one who follows worldliness yet confesses Christ? Or are you defining it as one who can sometimes fall into temptation (carnal desires), yet still has salvation in Christ? The carnal Christian in the first sense, as Paul Washer puts it “there is no such thing”, while the other does have some validity; though may I take note again, should really be defined as ‘a saved person who occasionally falls into carnality’ or a ‘human.’ The Apostle Paul never addresses believers as “carnal Christians”, probably because of the awkwardness it presents. So generally I would avoid using such a term.
The Effects on Christianity
Knowing the invalidity of the “carnal Christian”, it’s still important to see the effects it’s had on modern evangelism. In summary, an appeal to the compatibility of carnality with the Christian life can be seen as followed,
- Talk excluding the radical difference Jesus will make in an individual once truly converted
- An entertainment centered youth within the Church
- An appeal to worldliness
- A compromise on Biblical values
- Watered down sermons
- Preaching the gospel without the Biblical call to repentance
- Church people that don’t look any different from the secular culture
These are but a few of the fruits which have arisen from the offspring of the doctrine of the carnal Christian. Though there are other reasons which may have helped in resulting these problems, carnality is certainly a root cause. How can we dismiss this? If a carnal lifestyle is contrary to the life God calls us to live, how can we justify it? If Jesus were before us all, and we presented Him a Church which solely followed this doctrine, how could he say anything but this?
I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness! (Matthew 7:23)
Now hearing this, what can you do? You can put off carnality. When you’re living for God, though you may have your occasional struggles with sin, you won’t live in it. Why? Because God has and can break the bondage of sin and death! He is faithful, so do not despair in the midst of struggles.
Though before you are to influence any change in those around you, there must be change in you. Don’t be hypocritical, but in all love, perseverance, and patience-have faith; rejecting such doctrines like the “Carnal Christian”, encouraging those in Christ, and living solely in dependence to God. Don’t believe the lies of the enemy. He wants you to live in carnality, but no, fight the good fight and when it’s over our Savior will say,
“Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.”(Matthew 25:21)
At the end of the day it’s important to not only be hearers of the word, but doers; something we should all keep in mind.