Can a Christian ever be carnal? The category of carnal Christian has been commonly used by certain biblical counselors and was popularized by a previous generation of evangelists. Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade (now Cru), describes the carnal Christian as one who has Jesus in the heart but not on the throne.[i] Billy Graham calls them “defeated Christians” or “paralyzed members of the Body of Christ” whose lives are “incompatible with the normal Christian experience.”[ii] John Piper also identifies three categories of persons: the “natural” person who is an unbeliever (1 Cor 2:14), the “spiritual” person who is a genuine believer (3:1), and the “carnal” person who has received Jesus as Lord and Savior but struggles to live out that truth (vv. 1-3). “He has begun—but only begun—to fight the sins of his life (Rom 8:13). The remaining corruption of the flesh is strong, and a battle is underway which at this time is being fought with meager success because faith is weak and the means of grace are not yet in full use. The difference between the spiritual Christian and the carnal Christian is one of degree.”[iii] These teachers affirm that true believers enjoy victory over sin (Rom 6:14; 7:24-25; 8:2; 1 Cor 15:57), while unbelievers are still slaves to sin (Rom 6:16-23).
Yet, some have used the category of carnal Christian to identify a third group of people who are positionally saved without experiencing the evidence of life change. Such terminology follows the King James Version of 1 Corinthians 3:1-3:
“And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. 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. For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?”[iv]
Throughout his letter to the Corinthians, Paul addresses his fellow Christians as “brothers” and “infants in Christ.” Yet, in this passage, he describes them three times as “fleshy” or “of the flesh.”[v] In other words, they are not living like mature believers, but rather wallowing in “jealousy and strife” (v. 3; see Rom 13:12-14; Gal 5:20). Paul notes this difference between position and practice as they have not grown into the righteousness they received at conversion.
By position, they possess both the Holy Spirit and the resultant new spirit, yet they are living in practice like unbelievers. They are so influenced by the flesh that their divisive behavior does not match their identity in Christ (see 1 Cor 3:4). As spiritual infants, they are still eating baby food when they should be chewing on a juicy steak. Although nothing is as precious than a newborn baby in its mother’s arms, nothing is more tragic than a full-grown adult still acting like an infant.
I choose to avoid the category of carnal Christian because so many have abused the idea. They claim a person can come to faith in Christ and live the entirety of their life in a carnal manner without any evidence of being born again. Such “easy-believism” would allow a person to walk an aisle at an evangelistic meeting or pray a prayer as a child, yet demonstrate no evidence of Christ-like change for the entirety of their life. Bonhoeffer calls it “cheap grace” to suggest a Christian can have faith without works (see Jas 2:14-18).[vi] Certainly, a believer will appear to be “of the flesh” in a time of rebellion, but a true believer will never remain in a state of carnality.
It would be wiser not to identify any true believer as a carnal Christian. As John MacArthur writes, “It is essential to understand that carnality is not an absolute state in which a believer exists (Rom 8:4-14), but a behavior pattern he chooses one moment at a time. To say it another way, a Christian is not fleshly in the sense of being, but in the sense of behaving.”[vii] In other words, a Christian might act in a carnal way, but they can never be carnal by identity. Using the category of carnal Christian exposes the church to four potential dangers:
First, it does not interpret Scripture in context. 1 Corinthians 2:14-15 clearly identifies only two categories of Christians: natural and spiritual. A Christian might behave carnally and live like the world for a time but should not be identified as a carnal Christian. We must not create categories found nowhere else in Scripture.
Second, it denies the new covenant by which a Christian receives “a new heart, and a new spirit” (Ezek. 36:25-27). “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17; see 2 Pet 1:4). The language of “carnal Christian” blurs the distinction of this radical change. We must emphasize that carnality is abnormal, not a settled state.
Third, it implies that a person can trust in Christ as Savior without confessing him as Lord (see Rom 10:9, 13; 2 Pet 3:18). Those who have truly received Christ as Lord will walk in his ways (Col 2:6), for genuine faith will show itself by good works and obedience to Christ (Jas 2:17-18)—calling a Christian “carnal” excuses the person who claims faith without works (vv. 17, 26). We must exhort our fellow believers to live out the grace they have received (Eph 2:8-10).
Finally, it offers false assurance to those who were never saved in the first place (see Matt 7:21; Heb 12:14). Loving Christ means obeying his commands (John 14:15, 23) and battling against our flesh (Rom 7:13-20; Gal 5:16-24), therefore professing believers will never remain in unrepentant sin (Rom 6:1-2; 1 John 2:15-16; 5:18). We examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith (2 Cor 13:5).
For these reasons, it is best not to use the category of carnal Christian. Certainly, like Paul, we might say that a person is acting in a “fleshly” or “infantile” way, yet a carnal Christian is just as much an oxymoron as an infant adult. So let us practice our position in Christ and demonstrate the fruit of a radically changed life.
[i] See The Four Spiritual Laws and https://www.cru.org/us/en/train-and-grow/spiritual-growth/the-spirit-filled-life.html.
[ii] Billy Graham, from the article “Victorious Christian Living” in the May 2007 issue of Decision Magazine. See https://billygraham.org/story/are-you-a-carnal-christian.
[iii] John Piper, “Rethinking the ‘Carnal Christian,’” Desiring God blog (February 22, 1988), accessed at https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/rethinking-the-carnal-christian.
[iv] Unless otherwise noted, the remaining Scripture references in this article are in the English Standard Version.
[v] The Greek is sarkinos in v. 1 and sarkikos in v. 3 (2x). The -inos ending means “made of” or “fleshy,” whereas the -ikos ending means “characterized by” or “fleshly.” This is placed in contrast to the mature believer who is pneumatikos, “characterized by spirit.”
[vi] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 45-49.
[vii] John F. MacArthur Jr., 1 Corinthians, MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984), 72.