“From what has been seen, we may now draw four conclusions.
First, there are two senses in which a Christian can be spoken of as “carnal”. (1) As new converts, all Christians are to varying degrees carnal. (2) Among long-time Christians, some may be. The former is expected. The latter is not. However, insofar as the word “carnal” has come to have such negative connotations, it would be wise for us to forego calling new Christians “carnal”, and do as Paul: refer to them as “babes” in Christ.
We are still left with the fact that Paul refers to the Corinthians, by way of rebuke, as carnal. The use to which Paul puts the word in v. 3 should not be rejected, for it is clearly biblical and appropriate as a descriptive term for those Christians who fall into a similar pattern of behavior. So I see no reason to be disturbed that someone would distinguish between “carnal” Christians and “spiritual” Christians, especially in view of the obvious distinction between “mature” and “immature” found elsewhere in the NT.
Second, I caution against referring to “carnal” and “spiritual” as rigid categories or classes of Christians. The idea of a distinctive class or category implies a strict line of demarcation between one group of believers and another. It suggests there are readily identifiable stages in the Christian life into which one may enter if certain things are done or out of which one may fall if other things are done. Sanctification, however, is far too fluid for such strict categorization. In other words, sanctification is a process which, because of its constantly dynamic and progressive nature, defies rigid classifications. There are “babes” in Christ, as Paul indicates, but no two Christians are ever at the same stage of spiritual infancy. There are “carnal” Christians, but again in varying degree. No two Christians manifest the same depth or degree of carnality. There are “spiritual” or “mature” believers, but all the marks or fruits of spirituality are not apparent in all Christians at the same time and to the same extent. No individual’s spiritual growth is wholly constant and undisturbed and you will rarely, if ever, find any two Christians at precisely the same stage of sanctification. There are countless hills and valleys, stumblings, falls, moments of victory and defeat in the process of our growth in grace.
Carnality, then, although ideally a condition to be found only in the newly saved, is such that may raise its ugly head at any and every stage of the Christian life. Thus, it may be more accurate to say that there are as many categories and classes of Christians as there are individual believers. The principle which bears repeating is this: carnality and spirituality, rather than being categories or classes into which one enters in the Christian life, are characteristics or moral tendencies which one manifests in varying degree throughout the course of the Christian life. The ideal as set forth in Scripture is, of course, a progression that is always upward – away from manifestations of carnality and toward manifestations of maturity.
Third, carnality in the Christian, whenever and in whatever way it manifests itself, is a temporary condition. There is no basis in Scripture for the teaching that genuinely born again and justified Christians can persist, without great discomfort, in their sin (a discomfort, I might add, due to the promptings of the Holy Spirit or the chastisement of the Father, such as lead to repentance). Samuel Bolton put it well:
“We still have the presence of sin, nay, the stirrings and workings of corruptions. These make us to have many a sad heart and wet eye. Yet Christ has thus far freed us from sin; it shall not have dominion. There may be the turbulence, but not the prevalence of sin. There may be the stirrings of corruption. It was said of Carthage that Rome was more troubled with it when half destroyed than when whole. So a godly man may be more troubled with sin when it is conquered than when it reigned. Sin will still work, but it is checked in its workings. They are rather workings for life than from life. They are not such uncontrolled workings as formerly. Sin is under command. Indeed, it may get advantage, and may have a tyranny in the soul, but it will never more be sovereign. I say, it may get into the throne of the heart and play the tyrant in this or that particular act of sin, but shall never more be as a king there. Its reign is over; you will never yield a voluntary obedience to sin. Sin is conquered, though it still has a being within you” (The True Bounds of Christian Freedom [Banner of Truth], p. 26).
Fourth, our consideration of this issue must never result in an unbiblical separation of sanctification from justification. Holiness and a progressively changed life are not optional. “By this we know that we have come to know him,” says John, “if we keep his commandments” (1 John 2:3). Mere profession of faith, unattended by good works, does not guarantee the reality of faith. We would do well to remember the rebuke of Jesus to those who professed their loyalty and cited their miraculous deeds: “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Mt. 7:23).