Instead of trying to stem the tide or oppose the wickedness of our culture, the Church has simply adopted a theology that allows sinners to feel very comfortable in our midst. Many today are like those in the Corinthian church who profess to be Christians, but are indeed carnal. All kinds of sin and wickedness in the church as well as the actual denial of the faith is being excused under the name of "carnal Christian."
Geoffrey Thomas wrote that it was the 1909 Scofield Reference Bible which popularized "an antithesis between law and grace so that the believer was alleged to be no longer under the constraints of the moral law. Those Bible footnotes made respectable the 'carnal Christian' hypothesis which has been so detrimental to godliness amongst those who profess the faith."
When Lewis Sperry Chafer wrote He That Is Spiritual (1918) it was extremely controversial. He wrote that a believer could be a new creation and yet remain a carnal Christian without any change in character. He stated that the carnal Christian is characterized by a walk that is on the same plane as that of the natural man. Today that teaching is commonly accepted.
Dan Corner wrote in The Believer's Conditional Security, "This carnal Christian question is a watershed issue, since it really affects the definition of a Christian and, therefore, who will ultimately be saved."
Carnal actually means unregenerate; unsaved. How can we have unsaved Christians? Paul states in the second letter to the Corinthians that he was afraid when he came to them he would be embarrassed and find many which had sinned and not repented of the uncleanness, fornication, and lasciviousness which they had committed. He feared there would be quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder (2 Cor 12:20-13:5). These were in the visible church, but not considered saved. In fact, Paul states real Christians should not fellowship these "carnal Christians" (1 Cor 5:11-13).
Some seem to think the only one in the Corinthian church who was unsaved was the one who was living immoral with his mother or maybe step-mother, but from the verses quoted above it seems there were many in an unconverted state. Yet there were no doubt saved, regenerate, upright Christians in that church as well, but Paul feared many who had sinned would not have repented when he arrived (2 Cor 12:20).
The classic passage in defense of the "carnal Christian" position is found in 1 Corinthians 3:1-4. First, I see no necessity of saying all in a particular local church are in the same spiritual condition. John describes antichrists as going out from [the church]. "They were not [really] of us; for if they had been of us, they would not doubt have continued with us" (1 John 2:19). Obviously all professing Christians are not in the same state or degree of grace. To refer to a church collectively as Christians does not mean all in that church are saved.
Second, the key words brethren, babes in Christ, and carnal must be properly understood. Brethren does not always mean Christian in the true sense. Sometimes it is used of mankind in general or of those in a community relationship which are united by common interests or members of the same congregation, but does not mean all such are regenerated.
Babes in Christ does not necessarily mean all in the church were actually born again, but babes in the sense of just beginning to understand the teachings of Christianity, or as Adam Clarke states, "Just beginning to acquire some notion of the Christian religion." These babes in Christ were not the same as the newborn babes of 1 Peter 1:2. Paul uses strong language in v 3, "For you are yet carnal. They always were and still are carnal, which in a strict sense means they are still unregenerate.
Then Paul cites the inconsistences of their lives. Religious, yes, but sinful in their actions. Can you be religious and lost? Yes! Paul points to the inconsistences of every strife and division. Since you have all this among you, are you not yet carnal (unregenerate) and live like or act the same as unregenerate man? In 2 Corinthians 12:20-1 Paul reveals their sexual sin and debauchery, anger, slander, gossip, envying, strife. Paul, in Galatians 5:19-21 tell us they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
Let's look more carefully at the word carnal. The word is a noun, but it is always used as an adjective to refer to persons, behavior, or dispositions. Sarx, which is used 17 times in Romans 7-8, basically means flesh or fleshly. Although some speak of carnality as if it were an entity all of its own, the term carnality is never used in the Scripture.
In theological terms carnal means the natural man, sinful man, or the unregenerate nature. John McClintock and James Strong defined carnal by saying that "wicked or unconverted men are represented as under the dominion of a carnal mind, which is enmity against God." In a strict sense there is no such thing as a carnal Christian any more than an unregenerate Christian!
"They that are in the flesh (sarx) cannot please God" (Rom 8:8). "The mind of the flesh (sarx) is death" (Rom 8:6; neither adjective is used here). This does not mean that a true believer does not have a sinful nature yet remaining in him, but it does mean that while the sinful nature remains it does not reign. A true Christian is not under the control of the carnal mind.
However, there is a difference between being carnal and being influenced by the carnal mind just as there is a difference between being evil and being influenced by evil. The Christian may be influenced by it from time to time, but the carnal mind is crucified; nailed on a cross. "They that are Christ's have crucified the flesh (sarx) with the affections and lusts" (Gal 5:24).
The term "the flesh nature" here has the same meaning as "the body of sin" in Romans 6:6. He will get weaker and weaker until he dies. Yes, you can revive him if you please. You can get a ladder and administer first aid by what you read, watch, and where you go. You can leave off the means of grace and he will revive. You can let him down after the Holy Spirit has nailed him there.
In 1 Corinthians 3:1 the adjective sarkinos is used and it means "fleshly." According to W. E. Vine this word is far less grave than sarkikos, which is used twice in vv 3-4. Sarkikos has clear ethical overtones. Gordon Fee said "they are living like the devil." They are living like natural men (v 4).
Sarkikos is also used once by Paul in Romans 7:14 where he speaks of being unspiritual or sold under sin and in 2 Corinthians 1:12 to refer to worldly wisdom which is based on the viewpoint of the sinful nature. Many in our churches are undoubtedly unregenerate and not truly born of the Spirit, as was also true at Corinth.
John Wesley has been misunderstood on this point. In his sermon "On Sin in Believers," Wesley makes a distinction between being controlled by the carnal mind and having the carnal mind remaining. He is making the point that there are degrees of faith prior to conversion as well as degrees of faith after justification, but is he right in his assessment that those who are described as carnal in 1 Corinthians 3 are actually "babes in Christ" in the true sense?
Elsewhere, in his comments about the "carnal" Christians at Corinth, Wesley said they were "in a great measure carnal." I think he used this phrase "in a great measure" to distinguish them from being altogether carnal, as some teach today. In at least three other locations Wesley qualifies this description: "still in a measure carnal," "still (in part) carnal," "which is in some measure 'carnal.'" It is obvious he did not think they were altogether carnal, but those who were described in 1 Corinthians 5:11-13 were!
J. Agar Beet takes the phrase "ye are yet carnal" as a rebuke, not as delineating states of grace. He wrote that Paul does not "look at them as altogether destitute of the Spirit, but as men whose spiritual life is as yet undeveloped.... Paul is compelled to speak to them as though still unsaved."
The problem here is simply that you cannot be regenerate and unregenerate at the same time. Daniel Whedon commented that "were they wholly carnal they would not even be babes, but be unregenerate."
Adam Clarke interprets the same passage to mean that some who were associated with the Corinthian congregation were not actually part of the universal Church. They were "just beginning to acquire some notion of the Christian religion." He concluded that 1 Corinthians 3:3 meant, "Ye act just as the people of the world, and have no more of the spirit of religion than they."
Regardless of which of these Methodist interpretations is preferred, the point is that the term carnal is never used in an unqualified sense to describe Christians, as it later came to be used in the holiness movement and by dispensationalists. Their use of the categories "carnal Christian" and "Spirit-filled Christian" are not biblical. They teach a "carnal Christian" is still in bondage to sin and may not live any differently from the unsaved until he receives the Spirit. This is heresy.
The expression "carnal Christian" is a misnomer. Over a hundred names are given for Christians, but "carnal" is never mentioned. Neither is "a sinner saved by grace." Let us be Scriptural in our doctrine, in our faith, and in our practice.