ESV 1 Corinthians 3:1-4 But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. (2) I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, (3) for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? (4) For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?
KJV 1 Corinthians 3:1-4 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? (4) For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal?
I include the KJV here because it uses the word “carnal,” and we are examining what is usually called the “carnal Christian” teaching. The renditions of the carnal Christian doctrine that I have read take these verses and then propose that there are two kinds of Christians: 1) spiritual, and 2) carnal. Therefore, say its adherents, an abuser can certainly be a Christian with genuine faith in Christ and forgiveness of sins, but is dominated by his sinful flesh. We reject such an idea and we believe Scripture does as well. [NOTE: In Part 3 of this series, I will provide more background in the history of this “carnal Christian” teaching by summarizing a wonderful article by Brian Borgman, published in Reformation and Revival Journal, 2002]
Where shall we begin? Let’s go back into the context, clear back to 1 Cor 1:1 –
(ESV) 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes, (2) To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: (3) Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (4) I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, (5) that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge– (6) even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you– (7) so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, (8) who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. (9) God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
See how important context is? Whatever Paul means in chapter 3 when he tells the Corinthians that he must speak to them as to “men of flesh” rather than as to “spiritual men” (NASB), he cannot mean that some of them are lacking something that others are not. He cannot mean that some were enriched by the Spirit while others were not. None of them are lacking in the grace of God. All of them have been enriched by Him in speech and knowledge. All of them are saints, the “hagioi” (holy ones) and have been “holy-ized” (sanctified) by the Spirit. No exceptions. So all through this epistle, Paul is speaking to people who are “saints.” He affirms it again in verse 30, “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption…”.
And again —
1 Corinthians 3:16-17 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? (17) If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
There is not hint of different “classes” of Christians and, in fact, Paul’s very purpose involves confronting them with their “class structure” that exalted some of them above others in accordance with what particular popular preacher they embraced! So what was the problem at Corinth? There were actually many problems, but this first one was one of division. There was a party spirit and it was fueled by pride. Arrogant haughtiness was the underlying sin:
1 Corinthians 1:10-12 I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. (11) For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. (12) What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.”
Paul then goes on to contrast the wisdom of God (the gospel) with the foolishness of the world’s wisdom (evidenced at Corinth in Grecian culture’s love of philosophy, debate, and oratory). The cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. But to those who are being saved, it is the power of God. God, in His mercy and grace, elected these Corinthians even while they were in their foolishness and by His doing alone brought the power of the cross to them in the preaching of the gospel. Thus there is no room for them to boast. Their arrogance in their divisions is foolish and without foundation. That the sin of arrogance is the fundamental issue that Paul is addressing is also affirmed by:
1 Corinthians 3:21 So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours,
1 Corinthians 4:7 For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?
1 Corinthians 5:2 And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
And there are many other such references to their arrogance as well.
Now, notice the opening of chapter 2 –
1 Corinthians 2:1-5 And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. (2) For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (3) And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, (4) and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, (5) that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
What event is Paul talking about here? “When I came to you.” When was that? Obviously it was when he came to Corinth preaching the gospel to them for the first time. He preached the word of the cross and made certain that he did not do so in some lofty oratorical way that would draw their praise to him rather than to Christ. And it worked in the case of those who were called. “…by His doing you are in Christ Jesus.” Paul goes on to explain how the wisdom of God in Christ can only be known by the ministry of the Holy Spirit illuminating one’s mind:
1 Corinthians 2:6-13 Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. (7) But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. (8) None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (9) But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”– (10) these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. (11) For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. (12) Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. (13) And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.
Who are “the spiritual”? They are those who have been called by God. All of them. They are those “saints” to whom God reveals His wisdom through the Spirit. In contrast, the “natural man” will not receive them,
1 Corinthians 2:14-16 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (15) The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. (16) “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.
Notice here very carefully that the spiritual person is the one who has been called by God and thus enabled by the Spirit to accept as true wisdom the things of God (i.e., the gospel). The only other category here besides the spiritual person is the natural person. The unsaved man who does not have the Spirit and thus who sees the gospel as foolishness and is unable to understand it. Spiritual. Natural. Christian. Non-Christian.
There is the context. Let’s look at our central text once more now:
1 Corinthians 3:1-4 But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. (2) I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, (3) for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? (4) For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?
What point in time is Paul talking about? When was it that he could not address them as “spiritual people, but as people of the flesh?” It was when he had been with them before. It was the same time he refers to in 2:1. And what is his purpose here now? It is to humble them from their arrogance. In keeping with this purpose, he reminds them that they started out as babies, on a diet of baby food. And they are still eating baby food! They are still in their spiritual diapers!
Now, in what respect are they “fleshly”? In their entire being? That is to say, is Paul telling them that in the core of who they are in Christ they are still fleshly in every way? No. What he means is this:
1 Corinthians 3:3-4 for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? (4) For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?
It is in regard to their sin of division, stemming from their sin of arrogance, that Paul tells them they are of the flesh. They are acting like mere men, but this is terrible because they are not mere men. They are saints. They are the temple of God. They are people who have been enriched in Christ in every way. THIS is who they are:
1 Corinthians 6:9-11 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, (10) nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (11) And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
Brian Borgman, whose article is introduced and linked in Part 3 of this series, concurs:
On the doctrinal level I would like to interact with the carnal Christian teaching and the Bema Seat and rewards teaching. It seems to me that a contextual and exegetical study of the passage thoroughly discredits the popular carnal Christian teaching. Fee claims, “This paragraph (3:1-4) has had its own history of unfortunate application . . . The implication is often that because these people are believers, yet ‘carnal; it is therefore permissible to be ‘carnal Christians: That, of course, is precisely the wrong application. ” Let us remember Chafer’s [whose teaching on this subject is false] definition of a carnal Christian: First, he is a different kind or class of Christian because he is carnal, acting just like the natural man; second, he is dominated by the flesh and unaffected by the Spirit, in his affections or life objectives; third, there is no observable difference between the carnal Christian and the unregenerate; fourth, the carnal Christian is indifferent to the work of the Spirit.
Let me state it clearly, what Chafer and others have described is not a carnal Christian but one who is not a Christian at all. There is no feasible way to take 1 Corinthians 3:1-4 and construct such a person! Bishop J. C. Ryle said it well, “A regeneration, which a man can have and yet live carelessly in sin or worldliness is a regeneration invented by uninspired theologians, but never mentioned in Scripture . . . . A ‘saint’, in whom nothing can be seen but worldliness or sin, is a kind of monster not recognized in the Bible.” We must note that Paul is not speaking in terms that even come close to those of Chafer. The fact is that Paul has a specific area of carnality in view, namely jealousy and rivalry. Certainly these are bad sins, and impeded the Corinthians from being able to receive truth as they should, but we must honest and say that an area of carnality is not the same thing as being a “carnal Christian.” Even Paul’s “as carnal” (3:1) and “are fleshly” (3:3) reveal that in this area they were acting like unsaved people, but Paul was not creating a class, he was observing characteristics. They did not need a change from carnal to spiritual, they needed some basic Christian maturity in how they related to God’s servants and each other. Paul is calling on them to desist in their worldly party-spirit.
Furthermore, in the carnal Christian teaching, it is possible to be in this class and stay that way for the rest of one’s miserable Christian existence. This, however, is not an option Paul gives to the Corinthians. Paul says “for you are not yet (op-ou) able” (3:2). “The addressees are simply not yet ready for Paul to address them as ‘spiritual’ people in the full sense of the term. They will grow. ” Carnality is not an absolute and universal category. No Christian is absolutely carnal or absolutely spiritual. Every Christian is on a sliding scale, possessing both to greater and lesser degrees. No Christian is universally carnal, with every area of their life under the dominion of sin. Every Christian struggles with areas of carnality, in greater and lesser degrees.
Warfield is worth quoting again:
“You may find Christians at every stage of this process (from justification to glorification), for it is a process through which all must pass. but you will find none who will not in God’s own good time and way pass through every stage of it. There are not two kinds of Christians, although there are Christians at every conceivable stage of advancement towards the one goal to which all are bound and at which all shall arrive.”
There are not two classes of Christians. Yes, the visible, local church will always consist of two kinds of people, 1) those who really are regenerate and 2) those who are not. But for those who are believers, Paul expects them to live as believers. In fact, he believes that they cannot persist in a habitual pattern of living which is dominating by the sinful flesh. They are impelled by the Spirit who indwells them, no longer slaves to the flesh. Listen to this very same kind of presentation in chapter 10 –
1 Corinthians 10:1-12 For I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, (2) and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, (3) and all ate the same spiritual food, (4) and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. (5) Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. (6) Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. (7) Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” (8) We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. (9) We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, (10) nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. (11) Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. (12) Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.
It is plain. A Christian does not have a choice of being “spiritual” or “carnal” in his fundamental being. He does not have the option of 1) being a spiritual Christian, or 2) of being a Christian who engages in sexual immorality or idolatry or some other pattern of sin, and thus of being a “carnal” Christian. Our choice is to be who we are. A Christian, or an unsaved man. There is no third “creature” presented in Scripture.
Please read Part 3 of this series on the “carnal Christian” as well [to be published next week]. It will greatly assist you even further in understanding the unbiblical nature of this pernicious teaching that has done and which continues to do great damage to the cause of Christ. These are truths that every Christian, and perhaps in some ways especially the Christian who deals with abusers in some way must be well-versed in.
Go to Part 3 of this series
Go to Part 1 of this series