I received an email today from a person who asked a very good question. The question is so pertinent to what we see in Christianity today that I thought it best to answer it via my blog so everyone would have the benefit of reading the answer. The question concerns what it means to be a carnal Christian. What does carnality mean and how might we see or experience it in the Christian life? Let’s go to the Bible for the answers to these questions.
The apostle Paul referred to all people as being in one of two major groups. The first group contains all those who are lost in their sin, those who have never been born again spiritually by saving faith in Jesus Christ. Paul referred to this group by the term “natural” man. For example, we read in 1 Cor. 2.14, “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” The Greek word for “natural” in this verse is psuchikos. The word means breath as in the life of animals or the physical animation of the body. This term is descriptive of the one who has no spiritual life, meaning they have never been born again by faith in Jesus. A natural man in Paul’s vernacular is a lost man.
The second major group Paul places people in contains those who are saved. Salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, completely apart from human merit or effort (See Eph. 2.8-9). Those who confess their sin to God and by faith ask Jesus to forgive their sin and be Lord of their lives are spiritually renewed or born again. For example, we read in Eph. 5.18, “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit.” The word “Spirit” in this verse is pneuma which refers to God the Holy Spirit. Paul was urging those of us who are saved to be filled or led by the Holy Spirit. Those Christians who are being led by the Spirit are called pneumatikos. A Christian who is living out the Christian life in victory over sin is a pneumatikos.
To this point we have seen Paul’s term for lost people and we have seen the term used to describe saved people. We have those who are the natural man, psuchikos, and we have those who are filled with and being led by the Holy Spirit, pneumatikos. There is, however, a third group, a subset of those who are saved, which Paul refers to as carnal Christians. The word carnal comes from the word sarkikos which means of the flesh or fleshly. For example, we read in 1 Cor. 3.1-3, “And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. 2 I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able. 3 For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?” Notice Paul said he could not speak to them as “spiritual” pneumatikos, as those being led by the Spirit, but rather he had to speak to them as “carnal” sarkikos, those who were being led by the flesh. He even described some of their carnal behavior in verse 3. We find then that it is possible for a person to be genuinely saved and yet allow the flesh to have dominion in their life. How can this be? Then answer is simply this, even after we are saved we still have a fallen Adamic nature in our flesh. At the moment of saving faith we are given victory over sin and the flesh. That means we no longer have to obey or be under sin, however, the weakness of the flesh is still in us. The truth is, there remains the seed of every sin known to man in our fallen humanity, even after we are saved. The only thing that keeps us from indulging the flesh is a Spirit filled walk with our Lord. It is the power of the Holy Spirit that keeps us from sin, not some religious determination on our part. There is no power to serve or obey God in the flesh. Paul said, “For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: 4 That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Romans 8.3-4). The key to victorious Christian living is in God the Holy Spirit, not the flesh.
The answer to the question of carnality is this, Paul always referred to lost people as the natural man, psuchikos. He always referred to the Christian life, a person walking in the power of the Holy Spirit, as pneumatikos. Paul referred to Christians who were being overcome by the weakness of the flesh as carnal, sarkikos. The natural man, the lost man, cannot understand anything spiritual because sin and Satan has him blinded. The saved man who is walking in the power of the Holy Spirit is the growing Christian who is bringing forth much fruit for Jesus. The carnal Christian who is wallowing around in the weakness of the flesh will never grasp more than the rudimentary truths of the Christian life, i.e., they will be perpetual babes in Christ.
Here is where the difficulty lies from our perspective. We cannot see the heart of man, only God can. A carnal Christian can look so much like a lost man that we cannot tell the difference. I believe the biblical test is this, if a person can continue in sin perpetually, with no conviction, then they are most likely not saved, they were never saved in the first place. I do not believe a true born again child of God can live perpetually in rebellion against God, the sinful lifestyle is far too contrary to our new nature in Christ. A carnal Christian is therefore a saved man who is being overcome by the sin and weakness of his flesh. A carnal Christian is saved, but he is not being led by the power of the Holy Spirit. It was Paul who told us not to grieve the Holy Spirit with our sin for He is the one who has saved and sealed us unto the day of redemption (Eph. 4.30). May we who are saved present our bodies as living sacrifices every day. May we prayerfully walk in the power of the Holy Spirit so we do not sin against our Holy God.