Dear Carnal Christian, You Don’t Exist.
We’ve all seen them, especially throughout the “Bible-belt.” There are people who claim Jesus Christ has saved them and over time, bare no observable fruit of a biblical salvation. The words of Martin Luther resoundingly answer this condition, “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.” Luther means by this that true, biblical, saving faith will produce righteous fruit springing from the righteous vine who is Christ (Jn 15).
These people see no problem with the co-existence of a worldly life and a Christian life harmoniously living together. Thus we are left with people for whom Christ is claimed as Savior, but not Lord. This has developed into an entire category of “believers” called “Carnal Christians.” Before we look more deeply into this, it will be helpful to make some distinctions so that the group we have in view become clear.
New converts are not the emphasis of this article. However, when we speak of “baby” Christians or those newly born into the faith, there is definitely a certain sense in which they are carnal (1 Cor 3). Outwardly they may do many of the same things they did before their conversion. But the one key difference is that they have a new nature that now wars with [or against] the flesh (Gal 5:17). So as time passes, their ease of sin and willingness to engage in it decreases (1 Jn 3:9). This is called sanctification. These are not the carnal “Christians” whom we have in view. None of the above descriptions would apply to them: they do not have a new nature, they do not war against their flesh, they do not wish to sin less and their joy in it does not diminish.
The word “carnal” as the Bible uses it largely stems from a Greek word sarx which is translated “physical flesh” or “meat”. When we reference the incarnation of Christ we understand His divinity taking on flesh (Carne) or sarx for his flesh. But this word is also used to describe the “fleshly nature” of man. This is what Paul has in view in passages like 1 Cor 3: 1-4 when he chides the Corinthian church for being carnal…that is they were still being heavily controlled by the carnal (fleshly) nature.
In respect to the “Carnal Christian” as a category, I believe there is a difference that would separate them from the Christians in Corinth. Namely that even though Paul sternly corrects the Corinthians for their immoral and carnal behavior, his correction is taken by them and led to their repentance (2 Cor 7: 8-11).
Carnal Christians experience no such thing. They are carnal because they have not been regenerated by the Spirit. Their flesh dominates them without struggle and without resistance. Religion is merely a facade to prop up familial, social, and cultural norms which they may passively attempt to adhere to.
A Subtle Distinction
As I said earlier, baby or struggling Christians are not the groups I want to address here. Rather I want to turn our attention to the group claiming to be Christian, but as I hope to show, are not. I acknowledge that Christians struggle, sometimes their entire lives, with sin and certain specific sins. It is in view of this struggle the Apostle Paul cries out in Romans 7:24, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Paul struggled with sin and we will too. This is the Christian way, to fight, resist, wage war, take captive the sin in us that seeks to supplant God.
The group I have in view is different. They do not struggle with sin. The reason is because they do not fight. They do not resist but freely indulge their sinful habits and desires upon impulse without much thought to conscience. They still claim to know God and be Christian and may attend church regularly. Our American church culture has not brought these under church discipline as Paul did the Corinthian church (see 1 Cor 5) but rather attempted to accommodate them by creating an entirely new category of Christian called the “Carnal Christian.” So where did this whole idea come from?
Antinomianism is a word which comes from two Greek roots anti meaning “against” and nomos meaning “law”. So antinomianism means literally to be against the Law. This belief is typified in the phrase “cheap grace” coined by the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book The Cost of Discipleship. As a theological concept, it teaches that there are no moral requirements upon Christians whatsoever. Accordingly, under antinomianism, a Christian could sin virtually without restraint and would still be covered by the grace of God. It is easy to see where Bonhoeffer came up with his famous term. Here is Bonhoeffer in his own words, “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate” 1. For Bonhoeffer and as we will see, for Christ, Paul and John, there was no such divine grace that came to a person without a requirement from them. You had to die to yourself then and the same still holds true today.
An Answer to Antinomianism
Jesus was not against the Law of God. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:17-19).
Paul recognized the problem in his day and emphatically rejected it. “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6: 1-2).
Self-Denial Not Self Indulgence
Jesus taught denial of the flesh. “When He had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, ‘Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me'” (Mk 8:34).
Paul was determined to boast in the cross, not his freedom to enjoy worldly pleasures. “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal 6:14).
Paul stressed the practical implications of belonging to Christ. “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:24).
A Quick Survey of First John
This book is short but it is loaded with pointed statements that shoot out like arrows to the hearts of those who fall into the so-called “carnal Christain” camp. Here is a sampling:
1 Jn 2: 4-6 “Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.”
1Jn 2:15, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”
1 Jn 2: 28-29, “And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him.”
1 Jn 3: 6-8a, “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil…”
1 Jn 3: 9-10a, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil…”
1 Jn 5:4, “ For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.”
So, my dear Carnal Christian, as such you do not exist. But as a lost and unbelieving person, you stand condemned before a just and righteous God. You will be cast into outer darkness because of your love of the darkness and doing evil deeds (Jn 3:19). The good news is that Jesus came for a person just like you! He would say to you today…”Repent and believe the Gospel!” (Mk 1:15).