Monday, November 21, 2016

The Carnal Christian

Perhaps you've heard of "anecdotal evidence". Anecdotal evidence is evidence from anecdotes. ("Thanks, Capt. Obvious.") It is informal evidence based on personal testimony. Generally speaking, due to its limited nature, its subjective nature (we all remember things and understand things through our own lenses, not necessarily with accuracy), and its casual nature, anecdotal evidence is viewed as limited in value. Then there's Scripture. This is God's "exhaled" Word. It is truth -- God's truth. Taken as a whole, it is generally quite clear, understandable, and useful. Given these two forms of evidence, I'd like to examine the concept of the carnal Christian.

The source of the "carnal Christian" term is primarily from the King James where Paul writes, "And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ." (1 Cor 3:1) Of course, this is simply an older English version of today's "flesh". Paul writes to the church at Corinth that they were still suffering from "the flesh", a term referring to the "old self", the worldly ways. He lists things like "jealousy and strife" (1 Cor 3:3). In Galatians he explains,
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Gal 5:19-21)
That's "the flesh" -- carnal.

So what do people mean by "carnal Christian"? Well, typically, they mean that the Spirit of God does not dwell in them. They are saved, but they have no outworking of the Spirit ... because they don't have the inworking of the Spirit. He's not there. They are spiritually alive, but with nothing to show for it.

We arrive here primarily by anecdotal evidence. We all know people who claim to be Christians but exhibit no signs of it or people who once seemed to be Christians but have since ceased. Therefore, we all know that the "carnal Christian" -- a saved-but-bereft-of-the-Spirit Christian -- is a real thing. We've seen it. But, just as both science and the courts would prefer not to rely solely on anecdotal evidence, I would urge us not to come to a position based purely on our observation. What does the Bible say?

According to Scripture, at the point of repentance, "you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." (Acts 2:38) This is the "indwelling". He comes to take residence in the believer. There is no suggestion that this is a "come and go" condition like it was in the Old Testament (e.g., 1 Sam 16:14). In fact, the Spirit is described for Christians as the "seal" of our inheritance (Eph 1:13). Paul says it is by the Holy Spirit that we "were sealed for the day of redemption." (Eph 4:30) Now, we can grieve the Spirit (Eph 4:30) and resist the Spirit (Acts 7:51) and quench the Spirit (1 Thess 5:19), but Scripture argues that His indwelling is permanent. Scripture speaks of being filled with the Spirit (literally, "be being filled with the Spirit", an ongoing thing) (Eph 5:18), but there is no hint anywhere that one who is born anew can be without the Holy Spirit entirely. He may be more or less under the influence of the Spirit, but not without Him. It isn't the difference between a growing Christian and a not-growing Christian. It is the difference between a genuine Christian and one who is not.

One text where this is unavoidable is in 1 John. There we read,
No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. (1 John 3:9)
Now, the Bible has many uses of the word "seed" in reference to God's Word or the Gospel. It's in the Parable of the Sower (Matt 13:3-8; Matt 13:19). In Peter's first epistle he refers to an imperishable seed by which we are born again, "the living and abiding word of God" (1 Peter 1:23). But the Word as seed is not the exclusive use for "seed". Paul refers to the believer's body as a seed (1 Cor 15:38) from which the glorified body is derived. As it turns out, scholars are not agreed on just what that "seed" is. But here is what we can clearly and unavoidably see. First, the reference is to those who are "born of God". The object of this verse is those people. Second, the one who is born of God does not make a practice of sinning. Not "might not" or "should not" -- does not. Third, regardless of what God's seed actually is, the verse clearly states that it is outside the power of the one born of God to "keep on sinning". "He cannot."

From Scripture, then, we know that the Holy Spirit is given at the new birth. We know that, unlike the Old Testament, there is no biblical argument that the Holy Spirit ever leaves again. There may be more influence or less, but there will be no absence. And we know that one who is born of God does not make a practice of sinning because he cannot make a practice of sinning. As such, it can only be concluded that the concept of the "carnal Christian" is a mistaken concept. Surely there are individuals who claim to be Christians but are not (1 John 2:18-20). Certainly there are genuine Christians who fall into sin (1 John 2:1), even grievous sin. But the idea of a genuine believer, born again, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who simply fails to change at all ever -- while passing the anecdotal evidence test -- fails to pass the biblical test. It would suggest we need to reconsider our "carnal Christian" concept and, more to the point, our understanding of those we think are carnal Christians.

9 comments:

Bob said...

21 So, I find the law that when I want to do good, evil is present with me. 22 For I delight in the law of God in my inner being. 23 But I see a different law in my members waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that is in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
Quite the conundrum for this Carnal Christian. perhaps it is not so much the degree to which we sin not, that determines our state, but rather the heat of the battle with-in us.
i agree that the Spirit will ultimately prevail, but until then, the battle rages.

Stan said...

Yes, indeed, all believers suffer with the flesh (as Paul indicated so vividly in Romans 7). By "Carnal Christian" I only refer to the term that suggests that it is entirely possible to go your entire Christian life without any sanctifying work of the Spirit.

Bob said...

I also recall how some present arguments in this way: if you tell people that they cannot lose their salvation, they will just go on sinning. in other words it is best to let them live in fear of losing their salvation so as to encourage better performance. but they have left out the fact that the child of God has the Holy spirit to guild and discipline. as you have mentioned, the Spirit never leaves the child of God.

Stan said...

Yes. That's one of the arguments they use.

Another motivation is, "Just because there has been absolutely no evidence that this person has changed at all is no reason to think that they're 'sinner's prayer' wasn't real. You should never question someone's salvation."

Bob said...

Stan you are such a sinner.... lucky for you i am a bigger sinner than you. that way i make you look good. oh and by the way since we are on the subject; i must ask the question, how can someone who has the spirit in them, continue their whole lives in sin? it's as though the Spirit is impotent to bring about change. my view is that the Spirit may be grieved by my behavior, but at some point he is going to kick butt and take names. also i wonder how someone could go thru life in a carnal state and not feel the conviction? see once you introduce the Spirit into the argument, the man diminishes, and the Spirit of God is exalted.

Stan said...

Since, of course, I DENY that someone who has the Spirit in them can live their whole lives without changing (primarily because Scripture denies it), I can't tell you how they could. However, those who do say that the Spirit resides in their spirits, but not in their souls. Talk about compartmentalized.

David said...

Huh, that's not something I've ever thought of as being a thing for us tri-partite types. It's not backed by Scripture, which is probably why I never considered it, but a sadly interesting dodge.

Stan said...

David, that is the primary reason that R.C. Sproul holds to dualism ... the abuse of the concept of tri-partite by those folk.

David said...

Not really sure that the abuse of an idea is a good reason to discount it.