By Ernest C. Resinger
Many who regularly occupy church pews, fill church rolls, and are intellectually acquainted with the facts of the gospel never strike one blow for Christ. They seem to be at peace with his enemies. They have no quarrel with sin and, apart from a few sentimental expressions about Christ, there is no biblical evidence that they have experienced anything of the power of the gospel in their lives. Yet in spite of the evidence against them, they consider themselves to be just what their teachers teach them — that they are ‘Carnal Christians’. And as carnal Christians they believe they will go to heaven, though perhaps not first-class, and with few rewards.
That something is seriously wrong in lives which reveal such features will readily be admitted by most readers of these pages; no argument is needed to prove it. But the most serious aspect of this situation is too often not recognized at all. The chief mistake is not the carelessness of these church-goers, it is the error of their teachers who, by preaching the theory of ‘the carnal Christian’, have led them to believe that there are three groups of men, — the unconverted man, the ‘carnal Christian’ and the ‘spiritual Christian’.
My purpose in this essay is to argue that this classification is wrong and to set out the positive, historic, and biblical answer to this ‘carnal Christian’ teaching. The argument from Church history is not unimportant, for it is a fact that less than two-hundred years ago this teaching was unknown in the churches of North America, but I am concerned to rest my case on an honest statement of the teaching of the Bible. I have written after study, private meditation and prayer, and after using many of the old respected commentaries of another day, but my appeal is to the Word of God and it is in the light of that authority that I ask the reader to consider all that follows.
I must also confess that I am writing as one who, for many years, held and taught the teaching which I am now convinced is erroneous and which has many dangerous implications. As one who has deep respect for many who hold this position, I am not going to attack personalities, but to deal with principles, and with the interpretation of the particular passages of Scripture on which the teaching is built.
In matters of controversy it must ever be kept in mind that a Christian’s experience may be genuine even though his understanding of divine truth is tainted with error or ignorance. The opposite is also possible — a man’s intellectual understanding may be good and his experience poor. I pray that if I am in error on this or any other doctrine I shall be corrected before I leave this world. I trust I am willing ever to be a learner of divine truth.
I know that one of my motives is the same as that of many who hold this erroneous view, namely, to advance biblical holiness and to seek to ‘adorn the doctrine of God our Savior’.
To accomplish my purpose it is of the greatest importance that the whole subject should be set on a proper foundation. I do not want to make a caricature of the view of others and then demonstrate success by tearing it apart. I shall also seek to avoid disproportionate and one-sided statements. The danger that we may ‘darken counsel by words without knowledge’ is still with us. I pray that this effort will elicit truth and that the existence of varied opinions will lead us all to search the Scriptures more, to pray more, and to be diligent in our endeavors to learn what is ‘the mind of the Spirit’.
My greatest difficulty will be to achieve brevity because this subject is so closely related to, and interwoven with the main doctrine of the Bible, particularly with justification and sanctification, the chief blessings of the new covenant. The subject therefore involves a right understanding of what the gospel really is and what it does to a person when applied efficaciously by the Spirit. Our view of this matter will also affect our judgment of the relationship of the Ten Commandments to the Christian in the area of sanctification, and of the biblical doctrine of assurance.
Some of the fundamental questions which need to be faced are these:
1. Are we sanctified passively, that is, ‘by faith’ only, without obedience to the law of God and Christ? If sanctification is passive — a view represented by the slogan ‘Let go and let God’ — then how do we understand such apostolic statements as ‘I fight’, ‘I run’, ‘I keep under my body’, ‘let us cleanse ourselves’, ‘let us labor’, ‘let us lay aside every weight’? Surely these statements do not express a passive condition, nor do they indicate that by one single act we may possess the experience of ‘victory’ and thus become spiritual and mature Christians.
2. Does an appeal to the so-called ‘carnal Christian’ to become a ‘spiritual Christian’ minimize the real conversion experience by magnifying a supposed second experience, by whatever name it may be called — ‘higher life’, ‘deeper life’, ‘Spirit-filled life’, ‘triumphant living’, ‘receiving Christ as Lord, and not merely as Savior’, and so on? The words we read in 2 Corinthians 5:17, ‘Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new’, do not refer to a second experience but rather to what happens when any real conversion occurs.
3. Has the ‘spiritual Christian’ finished growing in grace? If not, what is he to be called as he continues to grow in grace? Do we need to make yet another class whose members are the ‘super-spiritual Christians’?
4. Who is to decide who the carnal Christians are, and exactly what standard is to be used in determining this? Do the ‘spiritual Christians’ decide who the ‘carnal Christians’ are? Does a church or preacher decide where the line is to be drawn that divides the two classes or categories? Since all Christians have sin remaining in them, and since they sin every day, what degree of sin or what particular sins classify a person as a ‘carnal Christian’?
5. Do not all Christians sometimes act like natural men in some area of their lives?
6. Do not the inward sins, such as envy, malice, covetousness, lasciviousness (which includes immorality on the mental level) demonstrate carnality as much as do the outward and visible manifestations of certain other sins?
In Romans 8:1-9 there is a division stated, but it is not between carnal and spiritual Christians. It is a division between those who walk after the flesh (the unregenerate) and those who walk after the Spirit (they that are Christ’s). There is no third category.
Again, in Galatians 5:17-24 we have only two classes or categories — those that do the works of the flesh and those that are led by the Spirit. There is no third or fourth class or group.
My purpose, then, in these pages is to contend that the division of Christians into two groups or classes is unbiblical. I want also to show the dangerous implications and present-day results of this teaching.
The interpretation that I will seek to establish is a result of studying the proven and respected commentators of former days, such as, Matthew Henry, Matthew Poole, John Gill, and John Calvin; and theologians such as Charles Hodge (of the old Princeton Seminary), James P. Boyce (founder of the first Southern Baptist Seminary), Robert L. Dabney (the great theologian of old Union Seminary, Virginia) and James H. Thornwell (distinguished Southern theologian who was Professor of Theology at Columbia, South Carolina). I have also examined the writings of John Bunyan and searched the old Confessions and Catechisms, such as The Heidelberg Catechism, and Westminster Confession (that mother of all Confessions), the Baptist Confession of 1689 (The London Confession, later known as the Philadelphia Confession), and the Declaration of Faith of the Southern Baptist Church.
In all these sources there is not one trace of the belief that there are three classes of men. All of them have much to say about carnality in Christians, and about the biblical doctrine of sanctification and its relationship to justification, but there is no hint of the possibility of dividing men into ‘unregenerate’, ‘carnal’ and ‘spiritual’ categories. If the sources I have named had come across the ‘carnal Christian’ theory, I believe that with one voice they would have warned their readers, ‘Be not carried away with divers and strange doctrines’ (Hebrews 13: 9).
I confess that I take up my pen in this controversy with deep sorrow. Although the teaching that I wish to expose is so relatively new in the church, it is held by so many fine Christians, and taught by so many able and respected schools of the present day, that I can only approach my present undertaking with caution and anxiety.
We live in a day when there are so many books and such a variety of teaching on the subject of the Christian life that Christians are ‘tossed to and fro’, and liable to be ‘carried about by every wind of doctrine’ (Ephesians 4:14). There is also the Athenian love of novelty and a distaste for the old, well-tested, and beaten paths of our forefathers. This excessive love of the new leads to an insatiable craving after any teaching which is sensational and exciting, especially to the feelings. But the old paths lead to a ‘meek and quiet spirit’ which the apostle Peter commends: ‘But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price’ (I Peter 3: 4).
The Issue in Controversy
At a church service that I attended recently, the preacher, a sincere minister, was expounding 1 Corinthians chapter 3, and he said to a large congregation, ‘Now after you become a Christian you have another choice — either to grow in grace, follow the Lord and become a spiritual Christian, or to remain a babe in Christ and live like natural men.’ He used 1 Corinthians 3: 1 — 4 to state that there were three categories of men — the natural man, the spiritual man, and the carnal man. He described the carnal man as being like the natural man who was unconverted.
This is the essence of the ‘carnal Christian’ teaching. One reason why it is so widespread is that it has been popularized for many years in the notes of the Scofield Reference Bible. A statement from these notes will indicate the precise nature of the teaching: ‘Paul divides men into three classes: “Natural” i.e. the Adamic Man, unrenewed through the new birth; “Spiritual” i.e. the renewed man as Spirit-filled and walking in the Spirit in full communion with God; “Carnal”, “fleshly”, i.e. the renewed man who, walking “after the flesh”, remains a babe in Christ.” (Scofield Reference Bible, pp. 1213, 1214.)
It is very important to observe the two main things in this Scofield note. First, the division of men into three classes; second, we are told that one of these classes of men comprises the ‘carnal’, the ‘fleshly’, ‘the babe(s) in Christ’, ‘who walk after the flesh’. To ‘walk’ implies the bent of their lives; their leaning or bias is in one direction, that is, towards carnality.
We ought not to miss three very salient and important facts about the teaching:
First, we note again that it divides all men into three classes or categories. With this fact none of its proponents disagree, though they may present it differently and apply it differently.
Second, one class or category is set out as containing the ‘Christian’ who ‘walks after the flesh’. The centre of his life is self, and he is the same as the unrenewed man as far as the bent of his life is concerned.
Third, all those who accept this view use 1 Corinthians 3: 1-4 to support it. Consequently, if it can be established that the preponderance of Scripture teaches only two classes or categories of men — regenerate and unregenerate, converted and unconverted, those in Christ and those outside of Christ — the ‘carnal Christian’ teaching would be confronted with an insurmountable objection. It would be in conflict with the whole emphasis of Scripture and of the New Testament in particular.
Before I turn to some of the errors and dangers of the ‘carnal Christian’ teaching it may be wise to indicate what I am not saying.
In this discussion of the ‘carnal Christian’ theory I am not overlooking the teaching of the Bible about sin in Christians, about babes in Christ, about growth in grace, about Christians who back-slide grievously, and about the divine chastisement which all Christians receive.
I acknowledge that there are babes in Christ. In fact there are not only babes in Christ, but there are different stages of ‘babyhood’ in understanding divine truth and in spiritual growth.
I also recognize that there is a sense in which Christians may be said to be carnal but I must add that there are different degrees of carnality. Every Christian is carnal in some area of his life at many times in his life. And in every Christian ‘the flesh lusteth against the Spirit’ (Gal. 5:17).
All the marks of Christianity are not equally apparent in all Christians. Nor are any of these marks manifest to the same degree in every period of any Christian’s life. Love, faith, obedience, and devotion will vary in the same Christian in different periods of his Christian experience; in other words, there are many degrees of sanctification.
The Christian’s progress in growth is not constant and undisturbed. There are many hills and valleys in the process of sanctification; and there are many stumblings, falls and crooked steps in the process of growth in grace.
There are examples in the Bible of grievous falls and carnality in the lives of true believers. Thus we have the warnings and the promises of temporal judgment and of chastisement by our heavenly Father.
These truths are all acknowledged and are not the point of this present discussion. The question we have to consider is: Does the Bible divide men into three categories? This is the issue at the heart of the ‘carnal Christian’ teaching.
The teaching that I am opposing involves nine serious errors: