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Are You a Carnal Christian? (I Corinthians 3:1-4)

I am a Christian pastor who wishes to bring glory to God in all that I do, and to help people through my writing to know Him better.


Introduction: Carnal Christianity- A Misunderstood Term

If you had to define life, how would you do it? Well, the dictionary definition of the word life is this:

The condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death.

Similarly, Wikipedia has this to say about the subject:

"Life is a characteristic that distinguishes physical entities that have biological processes, such as signaling and self-sustaining processes, from those that do not, either because such functions have ceased (they have died) or because they never had such functions and are classified as inanimate."

You know, it's interesting that today we can buy all sorts of plants that look exactly like the real thing. However, they don't grow, they don't reproduce, and they will never die because they never had life in the first place. The bottom line is that if something is alive, there will always be evidence that life exists.

The same is true in the spiritual realm. Scripture teaches us that those who haven't accepted Christ as Savior are dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1). Our sin has caused us to be spiritually dead. Spiritual death is a separation from a relationship with the God who created us and an inability to please Him because of it. God, who is holy, righteous, pure and just, cannot allow sin or rebellion in His universe to go unjudged and unchallenged. For He is the only rightful sovereign and Lord of all that He has created. If this spiritual rebellion continues past this life on earth, it will end in a final judgment and an eternal separation from God in hell.

On the other hand, we who have admitted that we are sinners and have taken Jesus as our Savior and as our substitute for sin, have been given new life in Christ. Ephesians 2:1-5 tells us:

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins,

in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.

Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us,

even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)."

We look further at Scripture and see that those who are Christians have the Spirit of God in them. Paul says that our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit in I Corinthians 6:19. And he tells us in Galatians 5:22,23 that this indwelling will produce spiritual fruit including love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

So, we can conclude that, if there is spiritual life, it should be noticeable. That isn't to say that we reach sinless perfection in this present life. As long as we live in these physical bodies there will be a struggle with sin in some way. We can see this in Romans 6-7. However, as we grow in the Lord, we should be able to see some spiritual progress as we are being conformed into the image of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29).

Unfortunately, there are some misunderstood verses in Paul's writings that many take to mean that there are people who profess to be Christians but, nonetheless, live a life totally as if they were still unsaved. The term that they use for these people is 'carnal Christians.'

The word 'carnal' is the Greek word 'sarkikos' which means 'fleshly'. Some of the newer versions actually use the term 'fleshly' in place of carnal. The word was defined quite well by Charles Ryrie in his book So Great Salvation. He writes this:

"What is carnality? According to the Greek dictionary, it means to have the nature and characteristics of the flesh (or more simply, it means "fleshly"). What, then, is the flesh? Sometimes it refers to the whole material part of man (1 Corinthians 15:39; Hebrews 5:7), and based on this meaning, carnal sometimes relates to material things like money (Romans 15:27) or to the opposite of our weapons of spiritual warfare (2 Corinthians 10:4). But the word flesh also has a metaphorical sense when it refers to our disposition to sin and to oppose or omit God in our lives. The flesh is characterized by works that include lusts and passions (Galatians 5:19-24; I John 2:16); it can enslave (Romans 7:25); and in it is nothing good (Romans 7:18). Based on this meaning of the word flesh, to be carnal means to be characterized by things that belong to the unsaved life (Ephesians 2:3)."

The Apostle Paul uses the word carnal or 'sarkikos' when talking with the Corinthian church because of their immoral way of life. In this chapter it was the problem of sectarianism. Sectarianism is an attachment to a particular party. As you remember, the Corinthians were fighting over who they were going to follow. They forgot that they were all following Christ, who is the head of the church, and not any mere man. And they were thinking that their group was superior because they happened to be following their specific favorite leader.

Here is what Paul says to them:

"And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. 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; 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?" (I Corinthians 3:1-4 NKJV).

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If these people were following the leading of the Holy Spirit, this division would not be happening. The Spirit of God brings unity. These Christians, in this area of life, were acting like the world acts with all of its division.

One of the things that we learn from Scripture is that a Christian is still capable of sinning while in their sin-cursed body, as witnessed by these believers at Corinth. This doesn't mean, however, that there can be a Christian who continually goes on, in their saved life, as if they never met Christ or were changed by Him. A so-called believer who continues in a sinful lifestyle and is completely comfortable in it, is foreign to Scripture, and it is not a normal alternative lifestyle. In Romans 6:1,2 Paul tells us:

"What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?"

The fact is that those who claim to be Christians and don't desire to change but continue to desire to live like they want to live are probably not Christians at all.

In order to completely understand what Paul was getting at when he called the Corinthians 'carnal' we have to realize some facts concerning the Christian life. Let us look at these facts as we seek to explain I Corinthian 3:1-4.

Fact 1: Carnal Christians Still Show Signs of being a Believer.

First, we must see that, though the Corinthians were having problems with carnal areas of their lives, they still had some fruit that made it obvious that they were followers of Christ. And that is fact 1. Carnal Christians still show signs of being believers.

For instance, Paul, just by comparing the Corinthians with babies who needed spiritual milk instead of solid food in 3:1,2 shows us that they had indeed experienced the new birth in Christ.

He was telling them that they should be farther along in their walk with Christ than they were. They should be more conformed to Jesus' image. But obviously they still showed the characteristics that all spiritual babies display. Thus, demonstrating an actual salvation experience.

We can see this in the very first verses of the book as Paul tells them:

"Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, to the church of God, which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God always concerning you, for the grace of God, which was given you in Christ Jesus, that in everything you were enriched in Him, in all speech and all knowledge, even as the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in you, so that you are not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who shall confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord." (I Corinthians 1:1-9).

Not only were they said to be in Christ and called brothers, but they also had spiritual gifts to prove it, though we will find out later that some were abusing them.

They had made a profession of faith and Paul saw it as genuine. And they were faithful members of the local assembly who didn't give up on their faith and leave their profession of Christ behind. Whereas we see that according to I John 2:19 that those who abandon the faith are not real believers in the first place.

Finally, there were at least some in the Corinthian Church who had a great zeal for the ministry. Paul says:

“You know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints” (1 Cor. 16:15).

All of this shows that, although the Corinthians had their problems, they were indeed converted Christians that loved the Lord and followed the Savior.

Fact 2: The Christian Life is a Struggle While on this Earth

The second fact that we must realize is that this Christian life that we are leading is not a walk in the park. It is characterized by struggle while on this present earth. The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross has rescued us from sins death penalty. And it gives us the strength on a daily basis to be rescued from the power of sin as we submit to Christ as Lord. Further, thankfully, one day, when Jesus Christ returns, and takes us to heaven where we will have glorified bodies, we will be freed from the very presence of sin forever (Titus 2:11-13).

Until then, however, we wrestle with at least 2 things. The first is Satan and his demons. In Romans 6:12 Paul tells us this:

"For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places."

Satan hates God and anyone who follows Him and wants to destroy us. He is said to be like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour (I Peter 5:8). So, the struggle to live our lives for the glory of God is real because of that fact.

But it is also real because of our battle with our old fleshly nature. The Apostle Paul indeed speaks of his personal struggles with the fleshly nature in Romans 7:18-25 where he states:

"For I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I do the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin that dwells in me.

I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully agree with the law of God in the inner person, but I see a different law in the parts of my body waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin, the law which is in my body’s parts. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin."

The good news about this struggle is that, unlike those who have not turned to Christ, we can live a victorious life. The struggle can be victorious, and we can live a consistently godly life because of Christ's victory on the cross and the Holy Spirit's indwelling. This brings us to fact 3.

Fact 3: Walking According to the Spirit Will Make the Struggle Successful

The third fact that we must know is that we cannot overcome Satan and the flesh by ourselves. The same God who saved us is the one who gives us the power that we need to overcome the struggles of sin. Specifically, the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, living in us, gives us His power. Paul in Galatians tells us:

" I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law." (Galatians 5:17-18)

And just like we developed the habits of the flesh which are automatic after years of practicing them, so doing the things of the Spirit become habits over time as well. That is why we need to consciously begin to allow the Spirit to talk with us through God's Word, we must speak with God through prayer and consciously make time for assembly with God's people on a regular basis.

This is indeed how we walk in the Spirit, and it is how we overcome the struggle with Satan and sin.

Fact 4: The Lord Disciplines the Carnal Christian

Further, as we consider all of the other facts regarding the Christian life, we must also add a fourth and final one. That is that the Lord disciplines the carnal Christian. If we are sinning, we need to realize that, like any good Father, the Lord loves us even when we may stray, but He also loves us too much to leave us in our sinning condition if we are truly His child. The writer of Hebrews makes that abundantly clear in Hebrews 12:6 when he says:

" For whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He punishes every son whom he accepts."

God's ultimate goal is to make us holy like the Lord Jesus Christ. And, as Paul says:

" For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work among you will complete it by the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:6).

A carnal Christian can expect that a loving Father will not allow him to go on sinning indefinitely without some consequences for His actions. God loves us the way we are but cares enough to confront us in our sin. We can be sure that, in the end, He will use even the sins in our lives to make us into all that He wants us to be as we learn from our mistakes and failures in life.


There is a story which comes from the magazine entitled 'Our Daily Bread' which might serve to summarize our study on the carnal Christian. It tells us this:

The story is told of a young girl who accepted Christ as her Saviour and applied for membership in a local church. “Were you a sinner before you received the Lord Jesus into your life?” inquired an old deacon. “Yes, sir,” she replied.

“Well, are you still a sinner?”

“To tell you the truth, I feel I’m a greater sinner than ever.”

“Then what real change have you experienced?”

“I don’t quite know how to explain it,” she said, “except I used to be a sinner running after sin, but now that I am saved, I’m a sinner running from sin!” She was then received into the fellowship of the church, and she proved by her consistent life that she was truly converted."

All of us struggle with sin in our lives. But the question we should ask ourselves is: "Are we doing our best to run away from it, like the young woman in the story? Or is it becoming something that we just learn to live with?

Those who simply don't care about sin in their lives and have no fruit of the Spirit in them probably have never been converted in the first place. Sin is an offence to a holy God and was that which made Jesus have to go to the cross in the first place. It should bother us if we allow it in our lives.

Also, the idea of a carnal Christian is as big a contradiction as an adult who still needs to be fed milk instead of eating solid food. Sin shouldn't be a constant way of life but has to be something that is dealt with in order for us to become what we were designed to be in Christ.

May we take these warnings of the apostle Paul seriously and let us, with the Spirit's help, get rid of all known sin and seek to please our Lord on a daily basis. The ultimate fact is that the true Christian will never be truly content and fulfilled in life while committing sin. And the quicker we learn this lesson, the better off we will be. Let us all get to the point in our Christian maturity that it can never be said of us again:

"I could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as carnal, as mere babes in Christ."

May the Lord make us mature members of His family, who completely radiate the love and purity of our Lord Jesus as we go through life. For that should be the goal of every Christian who names the name of Christ.

© 2022 Jeff Shirley

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