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About Doctrines

The Carnal Christian



Paul speaks of the Corinthian church as being comprised of carnal members.

1 Corinthians 3:1-3
1 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?

We frequently take these verses and say that Paul teaches there are two classes of Christians, spiritual and carnal. Carnal Christians behave like "mere men." This means they have not separated themselves from the world and still act in the ways of the world. In Corinth, the ways of men included strife and divisions and grotesque sexual sins. Is this what Paul means in Romans?

The word translated "carnal" means fleshly, as having the nature of flesh. This means the carnal person is under the control of the animal appetites. There are two words translated as "carnal" in the New Testament. One literally means "flesh" (sarx) while the other means "flesh-like" (sarkikos) and is used more metaphorically. Both come from the same root. The word meaning "flesh" is more generally translated as "flesh" instead of "carnal." So, to be "carnal" is to act in your flesh or in your human nature as opposed to acting under the control of the Spirit.

Paul is clearly saying that the church at Corinth was acting according to human nature and standards as opposed to walking in the Spirit. But, as we read through the verses of chapter 7, the Apostle seems to be saying the same thing about himself – that he walks according to human nature, even when he does not desire or attempt to do so. This presents a true conflict unless we are careful to understand the context of the two provisions.

The church at Corinth was living as though they had not been saved and changed. They continued to practice many of the same traits as existed prior to their conversions. They had disagreements and dealt with each other in strife and anger. They committed sexual sins. And, more importantly they did not repent of their actions. This is the basis of much of Paul's discourse in the letter to the Corinthians, their failure to either repent or take steps to force the wrong doers to repentance. They "approved" of their actions. In terms of Romans 1:32, the "good" Corinthians were worse than the "bad" Corinthians because of their implicit, if not explicit, approval of the wrongful actions.

This is different from Paul's argument in Romans. In these verses we clearly see that Paul still speaks of acting like "mere men." He acts in the "flesh." In his terms acting through human nature rather than acting in the Spirit is carnal. But it is not a perpetual practice of carnality. While the Corinthian church may well have been composed of those committing the "real sins," those approving of the sinners, and those staying away, the point of Corinthians is that those who did not choose sides were effectively supporting the sinners and this was wrong.

We need to remember that what the law commands is nothing more than what the Spirit writes on our hearts. This comes from the divine nature of the Holy Spirit. Expressing opposition to God's law is a sign of an unrenewed or unrepentant heart. The Spirit is opposed to and is the opposite of all that is natural, secular, or temporal. A truly spiritual man will recognize his "carnality" and be dissatisfied with himself. He will hate himself for being this way and will offer his praise and worship to God (the spiritual action). He will thank God that he understands his yearnings toward the flesh, for the unregenerate man has no idea that he is anything but spiritual. Paul may say the law is spiritual because the law has pointed out his carnal attitude. This is the only truth the law could really tell Paul, and us.

So, one might ask with a proper note of concern, is there really such a thing as a "carnal" Christian? Can there be? Or, is it more proper to speak of a Christian who is losing the battle to the conflict with sin?

This points to the other interpretive issue with this chapter. Is the "I" of these verses saved or unsaved? Of whom does Paul speak?

Let us set the stage for our discussions by quoting the comments of Jesus to Peter, James, and John in the Garden of Olives the night of Christ's arrest.

Matthew 26:41
Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.

The Christian wants to "perform" in accordance with the dictates of God, but he is simply to weak to do so. The Christian lives between the "ages." The past is over, but the future has not yet arrived. The tension of not yet being glorified creates a constant struggle in the life of a Christian. Without quoting the verses, passages such as Romans 6:12-14 and 8:10-13, Galatians 5:17, and Philippians 3:12-16 all speak of this conflict and battle.

We sometimes lose sight of this when we look to closely at the words of these verses by themselves. To be "sold under sin" is to be under the control of sin. To be carnal points to the weakness of the flesh. The conflict truly exists, for we are not yet glorified. The unregenerate man fails to understand the depth of his sin. It is only with the conviction of the Holy Spirit that an unregenerate man may discover his sinfulness.

It is true that the discussion on these verses shows that the more recent commentators who see this section as speaking of the unregenerate or unsaved person, lean heavily upon a literary analysis, especially of the use of a single Greek word, ego, which means "I." They view "I" as being defeated at the hands of sin in 7:14-25. They fail to set the inverted pyramid on this word.

On the other hand, read the entire passage and note that vv15, 18, 19, and 21 speak of the "I" wanting to do good. vv16, 19, and 20 speak of "I" as hating the evil that he does. A trait of the unbeliever is that he hates doing the "good" of God. An unbeliever may want to do good from man's perspective, but never from God's view.

These verses form a key part of Paul's argument about the struggle of sanctification. We have been justified from the penalty of sin and made positionally holy. We will discover as a major part of the arguments of Romans 8 that we now possess the power of God to live a holy life here and now. But, we live in this in-between time and are incapable of always being spiritual. The flesh is weak. These verses continue the same perspective as the earlier part of this chapter. Paul speaks of himself, after his conversion, presenting a picture of his own struggles so that we may use this as a pattern to understand our struggles with sin.

Here, the argument is that Paul is repentant of his actions and fights against committing sinful acts – but commits them nonetheless. This is a completely different context than is found in the letter to the Corinthians. Both actions, those of the Corinthians and those of Paul, are "carnal" but the person performing the action views them differently. Paul is like the man addressed by John in his first letter –

1 John 1:9
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

This is Paul's attitude throughout this section of the letter. Unfortunately, this was not the attitude in Corinth.

 

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