Is A “Carnal Christian” Saved? (Part One)
Answering this question requires a lot of meta-explanation—about the questions and its terms. Some who read this blog will not be interested in the question; it’s a question of interest almost exclusively to evangelical Christians who believe in regeneration—being “born again”—and sanctification—becoming a “holy person” (not necessarily perfect). (And here I am using “evangelical” in a very broad sense that is not limited to any one tradition or denomination.) Evangelical Christians believe that salvation and authentic Christian existence require a supernatural work of God that Baptist theologian A. H. Strong described as “the expulsive power of a new affection.” It is known to evangelical theologians as “conversion-regeneration.” (The order of the words doesn’t matter here; the phrase could be “regeneration-conversion.”) In popular language it is usually termed “being born again.” Evangelicals disagree among themselves about when and how this inner transformation occurs, but all agree that it is a transforming work that only God the Holy Spirit can bring about and that it is by God’s grace on account of the person’s faith and possible only because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
For centuries evangelical Christians have sung hymns and songs about being born again, regenerated, such as “Born again. There’s really been a change in me. Born again, just like Jesus said. Born again. And all because of Calvary. I’m so glad that I’ve been born again.” For centuries, going back at least to the Great Awakening of the 1740s, evangelicals have touted this religious-spiritual experience as necessary for a mature person to be truly reconciled to God, “saved,” and on the path toward heaven. (Whether infants and small children need to be born again to be saved is a discussion that has gone on among evangelicals for centuries. Most evangelicals probably do not think so, but that’s an entirely different discussion for a different time.) Evangelical preaching has for centuries focused a great deal on having a “born again experience” through conversion to Christ by faith. Just think of Billy Graham’s preaching which echoes that of many evangelists throughout the centuries.
Admittedly (I must say to avoid a barrage of angry comments here), many Christians who call themselves evangelicals do not emphasize a “born again experience.” Also, admittedly, many non-evangelicals do emphasize it. Again, all that is fodder for a different discussion at a different time. Suffice it here to say that being “born again,” regenerated by the Holy Spirit, receiving a new “ruling life principle” oriented towards God and the “things of God,” has long been a focus of the evangelical Christian form of life.
A phrase often used by evangelicals, especially in the past, was “carnal Christian.” There is no standard “dictionary definition” for it. Growing up in evangelicalism I heard it used very frequently in two distinct senses. To some people who use the phrase (and equivalent phrases) a “carnal Christian” is a person who is only nominally Christian and not at all truly Christian because he or she has never experienced real regeneration. Such a person is what theologians of earlier centuries called a “mere professor of the faith”—a person who merely professes Christ but is not regenerate, never having had a real born again experience. The person may have “confessed Christ as Savior and Lord” at one time, but his or her life demonstrates that it was a mere outward profession of faith with no corresponding inner change. All evangelicals agree that there are such people and they are a field for evangelism—even if they are church members.
But there has always been a second meaning of “carnal Christian”—a person who allegedly really was born again through conversion to Christ but does not display any signs of regeneration. This is a more difficult, challenging and complicated phenomenon that the first one (described in the paragraph above). Some evangelicals argue that such a person never was truly saved. Others argue that such a person was once saved but has since “fallen away” so far as to be no longer saved (apostasy). Yet others argue that possibly the majority of saved persons, reconciled to God by grace through faith, justified but not sanctified, live in this condition and are not subjects for evangelism but for spiritual challenge, discipline and re-consecration and spiritual formation.
The underlying issue here is whether true salvation, justification, forgiveness, and reconciliation requires amendment of life—both inward and outward. Can there be persons who are merely forgiven of their sins by God’s grace on account of their faith in Christ who, over a lengthy period of time, never (or no longer) show “signs of grace” such as the fruit of the Spirit mentioned by Paul in Galatians? The issue is not whether such amendment of life is the person’s own work; the issue is whether a person can be truly saved in the manner described, such that if they died they would be in Paradise with Christ and rise in the resurrection, living eternally with Christ in heaven, and not have any inward or outward signs of Holy Spirit wrought regeneration.
Evangelicals have disagreed about this for centuries. A recent round of the disagreement was labeled the “Lordship Controversy.” Some evangelical theologians argued that all that is required for forgiveness, justification and reconciliation is conversion to Christ by faith. Anyone who believes on the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior is automatically saved in that sense—forgiven and reconciled with God. There is no divine requirement that a person become inwardly or outwardly changed. Holiness of life is optional. These evangelicals’ concern was to avoid any hint of works righteousness. Other evangelical theologians responded by arguing (often vociferously) that true conversion, including forgiveness for sin, justification and reconciliation, always also includes regeneration and at least the beginning of sanctification—inward and outward change of life with a new orientation of the heart and mind toward the “things of God.” These evangelicals’ concern was to avoid “cheap grace.” Both concerns are valid. The question is who is right about regeneration and the resulting supernatural amendment of life brought about by the Holy Spirit with signs of grace? Is that necessary or optional? Can a person be and remain throughout life a “carnal Christian”—in the second meaning of that phrase above?
Why does it matter? That will be the subject of Part Two of this series.