Does the Bible say that Christians can be carnal? If so, what does that mean?
The word “carnal” comes from the Greek word “sarkikos” which means “fleshly” or “carnal” and means “having the nature of flesh” or “being under control of the animal appetites.” You can picture a dog snarling while eating his meal. The dog only cares for himself and those who try to get in his way while he’s eating had better watch out! The ESV and NASB use the correct translation of the word “carnal” into what it actually is, “flesh.” That’s what the Greek word means and that’s the context in which the Apostle Paul wrote about it in 1st Corinthians chapter 3. He writes in the context of the way we used to live, in the flesh, and for the most part, living only for ourselves. We were more like that dog growling at mealtime than the owner who provided the meal. That’s what being carnal or fleshly is all about. It’s almost like the narcissist; it is all about the self, personal preferences, aspirations, and needs. Living in the flesh can put blinders on us, which means, we only see our own needs and not the needs of others. Apparently, that’s what the Corinthian’s were like; at least in the beginning.
The Apostle Paul told the church at Corinth, “I could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ” (NKJV) (1st Cor 3:1), so there seems to be a problem with pride and spiritual immaturity in this church. Paul sees them being in the flesh (as the ESV and NASB correctly state) or being carnal, as still being like babies who are yet feeding on milk, and just like babies, the whole world revolves around them, or at least, so they think. Since they are acting childish, he tells them that they only care about themselves. Paul chastises them by writing, “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, 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” (1st Cor 3:2-3)? Why were they acting like “babes?” It was because they were fighting over who was the greatest teacher or preacher. They began to boast and argue over who was the best. They were saying, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” [so Paul says] “are you not being merely human” (1st Cor 3:4)? He wanted them to understand that “neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth” (1st Cor 3:7). It wasn’t Paul, or Apollos that they should have been following. It should have been Christ. Besides, it is God alone Who gives the increase, so we can’t brag about anything (1st Cor 4:7).
Are There Carnal Christians?
There are Christians who live in a carnal way, no doubt. I am living proof of that. I still fall infinitely short of God’s glory, just like we all do (Rom 3:23), but there is a change when a person has been born again. They are a new creation in Christ (2nd Cor 5:17), and they stop living in continual patterns of sin. Yes, we all still sin (1st John 1:8, 10), but we can all be cleansed (1st John 1:9), however this doesn’t’ mean we can live in sin and still claim to be a Christian, or as I heard from one of my friends, “I’m a carnal Christian.” I think he doesn’t really understand what Paul was writing about. In fact, that phrase doesn’t even appear in Scripture. The Scriptures that do talk about people living in sin are not about Christians but about those who will not inherit the kingdom of God (1st Cor 6:9; Gal 5:21). The Apostle John warns those who think we can live in sin and still claim to be a believer; “No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother” (1st John 3:9-10), so people might claim they’re a carnal (fleshly) Christian, but “No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him” (1st John 1:6), regardless of what they claim to be.
Minds Set on the Flesh
The best diagnostic tool or single chapter that I know of in the Bible about someone claiming to be a Christian but not living like one is 1st John chapter 3, but elsewhere Paul says, “the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom 8:6). That’s “because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom 8:7-8). That’s not my counsel. That’s the Word of God. Astonishingly, many will think they are saved on the day of Jesus’ visitation, and “many” will even say to Jesus, “Lord, Lord” (Matt 7:21), but these same many are those that Jesus tells to depart from Him because He never even knew them (Matt 7:23). It’s irreconcilable to claim to be a believer and yet live in sin. I’m not saying Christians don’t sin. Of course they do, but they don’t stay in the Prodigal’s pigpen. They get up and out of that pigpen and repent of their sins. They don’t stay there, even though they go there on occasion, so Christians fall into sin, but the difference is, they don’t jump into sin and swim around in it.
It’s good to get this settled this side of the veil. If we are not sure about our salvation, we can look to Scripture to discern the thoughts, intents, and motives of our human heart (Heb 4:12). Everything is laid bare before God anyway (Heb 4:13). The Apostle John said we can know that we are the children of God because the children of God should act like the Son of God, but if they don’t, they can claim no assurance of their salvation, and that’s not a great feeling to have when you pillow your head at night. If you are “in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Gal 3:26), but “The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1st John 2:4). There are believers and make-believers. It’s time to know which one you are, before it’s too late (2nd Cor 6:2; Heb 9:27).
Article by Jack Wellman
Jack Wellman is Pastor of the Mulvane Brethren Church in Mulvane Kansas. Jack is also Host of Spiritual Fitness and Senior Writer at What Christians Want To Know whose mission is to equip, encourage, and energize Christians and to address questions about the believer’s daily walk with God and the Bible. You can follow Jack on Google Plus or check out his book Teaching Children the Gospel available on Amazon.