The Christian and Carnality

by Rick Shrader

 John Flavel, a fifteenth century Puritan wrote, “Carnal men rejoice carnally and spiritual men rejoice spiritually.”1 The human nature seems to have the ability to sanctify itself, whether right or wrong.  The Corinthians were especially good at it, even “glorying” in their toleration of sin (1 Cor. 5:6).  Paul was hindered in writing to them, “And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ” (1 Cor. 3:1).  To Paul the word “spiritual” means to be a believer. Pneumatikos, “spiritual,” used twice in the concluding verses of chapter two, means to have the Spirit.  He is the spiritual man as opposed to the natural man.  The spiritual man has the mind of Christ.

“Carnal” in 3:1 is a unique form of the word.  The normal word is sarkikos, from sarx, the flesh, as in 3:3.  This refers to the old nature that everyone has and which can rear its ugly head at any time.  But in 3:1 we have sarkinos, a rare form of the word which, in the only other place it occurs, refers to the “fleshly tables of the heart” (2 Cor. 3:3).  In the context in which Paul is using it, D.A. Carson says, “sarkinos means ‘made of flesh, or ‘composed of flesh,’ (and thus refers to those who are acting as if they did not have the Spirit, but are merely human, ‘fleshly’).”2 John MacArthur says, “sarkinos is literally ‘fleshly ones.’  In this context it refers to man’s fallen humanness, his Adamic self—his bodily desires that manifest rebelliousness toward God, his glorying in himself, and his proneness to sin . . . . When a Christian sins, he is being practically unspiritual, living on the same practical level as an unbeliever.  Consequently Paul is compelled to speak to the Corinthian believers as if they were unbelievers.”3 Or, as Carson concludes, They were acting like pagans!

Not that they were actually unbelievers for they were “babes in Christ” (vs. 1) and walked merely “as men” (vs. 3).  But the defining marks of the flesh were upon them, “envying, and strife, and divisions” (vs. 3).  As Vance Havner wrote, “Poor Demas is usually fired at aplenty by the evangelists, and he deserves it; but do not use up all your ammunition, my brother, on cards and dancing; save a generous portion for ‘strife, envying, and divisions,’ the Bible-certified marks of carnality.”4

When a believer lets his “flesh” control him, he is walking as one who only has the flesh and not also the Spirit.  But believers have both and often do walk in the flesh rather than in the Spirit, that is, they are sarkikos, carnal.  This should not be a pattern of the Christian life.  The Christian has the Spirit and should walk in Him because the fruit of the Spirit is much more powerful than the works of the flesh (Gal. 5:16).  We are all susceptible to carnality because we can’t rid ourselves of the flesh until resurrection day.  However, Scripture has harsh words for such believers, to the point of questioning such faith, if it continues to walk after the flesh with little or no remorse (Rom. 8:9; 1 John 4:3, Jude 19).

Interestingly, believers have a great advantage in the world.  We have lived both ways:  in the flesh (unsaved) and in the Spirit (saved).  We have known life without the Spirit and can compare it to life in the Spirit.  Unbelievers have known only life in the flesh.  So when the world tells us that we just don’t understand, it is actually they who don’t understand.  How can they?  They have only lived half of life whereas we have experienced both sides.  No true believer despises the spiritual life.  Unbelievers “do despite unto the Spirit of grace” (Heb. 10:29) but those who possess the Spirit cringe at carnality and desire a richer, fuller walk in the Spirit.


Non-Christians can pretend

Though the natural man does not have the Spirit of God, he is enough of an image bearer of God to be religious.  The false teachers in Corinth could speak about another Jesus with another spirit and create another gospel (2 Cor. 11:4).  A lost person may truly long for a heavenly life or may even be afraid of hell if there really is one.  A belief in God is not unusual for the lost though we know that there is no true understanding of God except through faith in Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 1:21).

But, of course, this natural man cannot understand the things of God.  They are foolishness to him precisely because they are spiritually discerned, or learned only by the entrance of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:14).  Therefore his interest in spiritual things is only for a season,  even while the Spirit may be drawing him to a true faith in Christ (Heb. 6:4).  He may find a way to be comfortable around true believers, especially carnal ones, and may never or seldom be asked to display any thought or action that would require the mind of Christ.

It is not unusual if this natural man stays in the church.  Either he is never convicted by anything he sees or hears and becomes calloused to the gospel, or, if he is, he will soon leave in a more hardened condition than when he came in.  His time in the church is critical.  No doubt many in this situation have mustered up a testimony of salvation and may even have been baptized and joined the church.  If the church seldom presses the lost for a decision, he may never be exposed by his conscience and the Word of God.

Sadder still is the fact that such hypocrites in the church help carnal believers to remain carnal.  A little leaven leavens the whole lump (1 Cor. 5:6).  Congregations may be full of hypocrites drawn in by worldly means who drag believers down to their level.  The carnal believer has a knack for finding the hypocritical believer and settling down to a level of spirituality that is comfortable for both of them.


Christians can live carnally

This is a sad state of affairs but true.  The church has forever tried to come up with a theology that would eliminate this category but it just doesn’t wash.  Christians sin.  And sometimes they wallow in that sin for a while.  The fornicator in 1 Cor. 5 had been in that state long enough and yet Paul admitted that he would be “saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5).  The one who loses all to wood, hay, and stubble at the Bema Seat of Christ will  still be saved “so as by fire” (1 Cor. 3:15).  But what a miserable life!  It is better (for the conscience only, that is) to not have the Spirit and live without conviction than to have Him and be under conviction.  There is no more miserable person in the world than this.

The Bible gives two outcomes for the carnal Christian.  He may be severely chastised by God.  “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?  If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy [lit. “judge”]; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are” (1 Cor. 3:16-17). This judgment could even be a premature death.  “For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep” (1 Cor. 11:30).  These measures, however, can only be known for sure by God.

A second outcome could be, and ought to be, repentance.  The New Testament gives multiple examples of spiritual Christians recovering carnal Christians and bringing them back to fellowship with God.  It may be in personal confrontation (Matt. 18:15-17); or prayer (Jas. 5:15); or preaching of the Word (2 Cor. 7:9-11).  Paul was happy when the Corinthians repented.  The sorrow of the world, of hypocrites, only works death, but godly sorrow works true repentance.  “In all things ye have approved yourselves to be clear in this matter” (2 Cor. 7:11).

In the process of these two outcomes, the church may proceed with disciplinary action.  If the man repents, the church must accept it as Christ accepts him.  To demand a pound of flesh or even vengeance at that stage would be to become “judges of the law” (James 4:11) and take upon themselves the place of condemnation where God has given grace and forgiveness.  “Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many” (2 Cor. 2:6).  If a sinning brother or sister refuses repentance, they are to be put out of the assembly so that the carnality cannot affect others.  In fact, Jesus says, he becomes “as” a lost man to us, because at that point we can no longer discern the difference between a hypocrite and a carnal Christian.

The spiritual man avoids carnality

“He that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man.  For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:15-16).  D.A. Carson writes,

This is another way of saying that we have received the Spirit of God (vv.11-12) and have therefore understood something of God’s wisdom, the wisdom of the cross.  That sets us apart from the world.  And therefore implicitly the world will not understand us either.  So Paul is using this quotation form Isaiah 40 to support his claim in the preceding verse: “The spiritual man . . . Is not subject to any man’s judgment.”  He does not mean that Christians have nothing to learn from non-Christians, or that Christians are always above correction and rebuke (even from those who are not believers).  He means rather, that the mind of Christ is alien to the unbeliever, and insofar as we have the mind of Christ we will be alien to the unbeliever as well.5

The believer has every tool necessary to avoid carnality.  He has the Holy Spirit, the Word of God, the fellowship of other believers in the local church, and the intercession of Christ as he prays for forgiveness on a daily basis.  The believer is painfully aware of his old nature.  He fights it every day, or as Paul instructed, he “mortifies” it (Col.3:5; Rom. 8:13).  He has learned to have patience with others who are struggling with the flesh because he knows his own struggles are of the same stuff even if they are a lesser degree.  Another man’s idolatry is the same kind of thing as his own covetousness (Eph. 5:5).  Another man’s murder is the same kind of thing as his own hatred (1 John 3:15).  Another man’s adultery is the same kind of thing as his own lust (Matt. 5:28).

And yet, the spiritual man can only tolerate the presence of carnality for so long.  If it cannot be sufficiently dealt with, he will have to remove himself from its presence, even if that means removing himself from carnal brothers in Christ (2 Thes. 3:14-15).  There are multiple reasons for this.  The power of the Spirit is hindered where there is ongoing carnality; a parent’s children are at risk if carnality is an influence on them; there may be temptations that are uncomely for a Christian to be around; worship is greatly hindered by unrepentant carnality; prayer is hindered where there is carnality.

The local church and carnality

Carnality can easily grow where believers become more attached to an organization than to the principles of the organization.  Believers can be more attached to the buildings or the programs or even the history of the church than to the very doctrines that the church teaches.  The mega-church movement has certainly not been exempt from carnality.  In fact, it has fed itself on carnal methodologies in order to become large.  It may only be a show with a stage and applause rather than the soul-searching work of the Holy Spirit.

Small churches may have an advantage of not offering worldly programs (but maybe not).  But small churches can fall into cliques and coteries that exclude new people or refuse to extend brotherly kindness to someone who is not just like them.

Often a group in a church of any size can demand more loyalty than even Christ.  This was the Corinthian problem of factionalism.  Sometimes a personality or officer of the church or even a pastor can be followed rather than biblical principle.

Yet in all of these, the local church is God’s perfect organization to deal with carnality and for the believer to be able to grow.  The local church, designed according to the New Testament, is the perfect size, the perfect mix of people, the perfect type of leadership, with the perfect Head and Word, to grow believers into the likeness of Christ.

When carnality demands a choice

Believers have always had to make choices about staying or leaving.  This may be in the context of a whole church tradition such as the dissenters in England leaving the state church, or the local churches of a denomination that has gone liberal, or just a family leaving a church that has become worldly and carnal.  Sometimes it is the tough choice of a single person separating from friends who pull that person down rather than build him up.  Carnality becomes a powerful deterrent for a spiritual believer.

There have been those who have offered choices in critical times.  In 1869 Charles Hodge wrote in The Princeton Review6 that a minister may only have three choices when he disagrees with the church’s ruling:  Actively concur in, passively submit to, or peaceably withdraw from.  Similarly, Kevin Bauder says there are “three wretched choices” that can be made when believers find themselves in a compromising situation: walk away, stay and submit, or stay and create trouble.7

I would offer two choices.

First choice:  accept carnality

Some believers will accept or tolerate carnality by being in open rebellion against God.  They don’t seem to care what others think or what the Scripture says.  This leaves question about their true spiritual condition.  Some begin to redefine Christianity so that it condones carnality.  MacArthur says, “It seems that most of the fads and misconceptions of the world find their way into the church.  Worldly Christians continually try to find ways to justify their worldliness, if possible on the basis of Scripture.”8

Some may become carnal or use carnal tactics to accomplish a certain task.  For them, the end justifies the means.  Others may continually tolerate carnality rather than take any action because that is easier, or resistance is said to be unloving, or they just don’t see any danger to them or their family.  They argue that we must live in the real world and that spirituality is not practically possible.

Second choice:  resist carnality

Of course, the first course of action is to deal with the carnality.  This may be corporately as in a local church, or it may be directly with an offensive person.  If this works, you have gained the good ground.  Sometimes situations and circumstances allow it and sometimes they do not.  A second course of action is to be belligerent or a co-belligerent with others.  But this is not a real option for a spiritual believer.  That generally becomes carnality itself.

The only remaining solution when all attempts at reconciliation have failed is to separate from carnality.  This remains a biblical command as well as the others.  In the end, the spiritual believer must not let carnality affect him in his walk with the Lord.

The Christian life on this earth isn’t life in heaven.  We live and deal with the old nature and yet must do all we can to honor the Lord in body and spirit which are God’s.


1. John Flavel, “A Coronation Sermon,” Orations From Homer To McKinley, vol. IV (New York:  Collier & Son, 1902) 1599.
2. D.A. Carson, The Cross and Christian Ministry .  “Leadership lessons from 1 Corinthians” (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004) 73.
3. John MacArthur, First Corinthians (Chicago:  Moody Books, 1984) 70-71.
4. Vance Havner, Rest Awhile (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1941) 48.
5. Carson, 61.
6. This work can be found online by searching for these three terms with the name Charles Hodge.  It has been quoted recently by Carl Truman in an article titled, “No Country For Old Men” on his blog “Reformation 21.”
7. Kevin Bauder, Baptist Distinctives (Schaumburg:  RBP, 2012) 179.
8. MacArthur, 253.