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Entries in Carnal (1)

Tuesday
Jan152019

The Carnal Christian

1 Corinthians 3:1-4; Hebrews 5:12-14.  This sermon was preached by Pastor Marty Bonner on January 13, 2019.

Today we are going to talk about what it means to be a carnal Christian.  Suffice it to say that this is not something that the believer should aspire to be.  However, it cannot only be an appearance that we avoid.  Much like “trying to look humble,” trying to look spiritual is itself the fruit of carnality.

The word “carnal” can also be translated as fleshly, and it refers to something that is characterized by the flesh and its desires.  The believer in Jesus who is walking with Him will find that Jesus always leads us away from the desires of our flesh and towards the desires of our Father in heaven.

As we look at our passage today, let’s not drum up images of people that we think this describes, but rather let us ask the Lord to search our hearts and help us to grow in becoming like the Lord Jesus this year.

What is a carnal Christian?

There are some who teach that the phrase “carnal Christian” is an oxymoron, and that such a person is not really saved.  Yet, I do not believe that this idea completely squares with Scripture, especially the passage before us today.  In our passage Paul refers to the Corinthians as carnal and yet back in chapter one he made it clear that he saw them as true Christians.  1 Corinthians 1:2 says, “To the Church of God, which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours.”  So it seems that it is possible to be saved and yet characterized by the desires of one’s flesh.  We will explore more later.

First we should note that in this passage carnality is used in opposition to being spiritual (vs. 1).  Spiritual here does not mean having a spirit, as all humans have one.  Neither does it mean having the Holy Spirit because Paul never denies that these Christians have the Holy Spirit, but rather uses the fact that they do have the Holy Spirit in his arguments throughout the book.  Thus it is a characterization of their predominant life-choices.  They are not listening to the Wisdom of the Spirit of God in some very obvious areas, but rather listening to their flesh.  It might be good to note that it is not enough to be open to spiritual things.  There are many who avoid any sense of religion and pride themselves in being spiritual.  However the Word of God warns us that there are many deceptive spirits in this world.  We should be careful of opening ourselves up to deceiving spirits.  Believers are to be open to the Holy Spirit, but closed off to any other spirits that would work in opposition to the Father.  So we want to be spiritual, but in a biblical way.

Verse 1 also brings up another aspect of carnality.  Paul uses it to refer to those who are babes in Christ, i.e. immaturity.  This is a clear picture of a person who is newly saved.  We are not told how long a person should take to be mature.  However, it is clear from verse 2 that the Word of God is intended to help a person grow.

The milk of the word is that part of Scripture that is more easily digested.  It represents the love of God and his offer of grace towards us.  However, the solid food, or meat of the word, is such things as the call to pick up your cross and follow Jesus; it is the message of becoming like Jesus in holiness; and it is the truth about what is coming upon the world.

Thus a baby in Christ has the Holy Spirit resident in their life.  They have the Lord Jesus Christ, in a sense, sitting on the throne of their heart, yet, their work has just begun.  They have many giants that they must battle, against whom the Lord will systematically lead them and help them.  Immaturity in this sense is normal and expected.  It is not a bad thing when babies are immature.  However, a 24 year old baby, or a 60 year old baby, is a bad thing and is not healthy.  Even the baby Christian, though immature, should not be comfortable with carnality in their life.  However, they should be patient and trust the work and leading of the Holy Spirit.  If the Holy Spirit dwells in you, then Christ will help you to overcome sin and grow spiritually.

So we end up with 3 proper categories within this designation of a carnal Christian.  A carnal Christian is a believer who has just begun to follow the Spirit of Christ, or who has not developed properly in their ability to fight their fleshly lusts since salvation, or who has had proper development yet has regressed.  The first of these is normal, but the second and third are considered abnormalities in the sense that they are not God’s work.  They are also spiritually dangerous.

We should also note the things that Paul points out as proof of their carnality.  He lists envy, strife, and divisions.  They are anti-virtues, or rather vices, that are the fruit of listening to our flesh and not the Holy Spirit.  Galatians 5 gives a good list of the virtues of the Holy Spirit and the vices of the flesh.

Now let’s go to a similar passage in Hebrews 5 starting at verse 12.

What characterizes a carnal Christian?

Though our definition gives the character of carnality, this passage explores it further.  We are told that carnal Christians cannot handle the solid food of God’s Word.  In both cases, the Corinthians and the Hebrews, it is expected that they should be more mature than they are because they have the Word of God and the example of the apostles.  However, they are not.  They are in need of someone to come alongside them and assist them in “digesting” the milk of the word.  If they were properly digesting the milk, they would grow to the point that they could eat the solid food.  So how are they not able to handle the word of God?  First it can mean that they cannot “stomach” the more difficult parts of God’s Word.  They are unable to break it down and draw life from it.  It is too complex for their current level of maturity.  There is a resistance to it in their mind and heart.

However, it can also mean that they do not properly use the Word of God.  They are unskilled in its proper use.  They may have skill with the milk, but they are unskilled in the heavier things.  They may ignore clear meanings of some passages and over emphasize other passages in order to obtain what their flesh wants.  This is understandable in a new Christian.  Thus God puts us in a family of believers where there are those who are more mature and can help us to mature ourselves.

Both of these situations are not good, especially in the life of a person who has been a Christian for years.  So what is the solution, or is there one?  The solution to not being able to stomach the heavier parts of God’s Word is to go back to the milk and learn to properly draw life from it.  Then move on to more solid food.  The solution to the inability to properly use the Word of God in our life is to repent, turn away from our fleshly desires, and obey God’s Word.  We must learn to listen to the experience of those who have gone on before us from each generation.

Another danger in being a carnal Christian is that we are unable to properly discern what is good or bad (Heb. 5:14).  One’s fleshly mind and heart can manipulate reason and emotion in order to declare things of the flesh as good, thus the problem of self-justification.  We can focus on whether or not we are permitted to do something rather than if it is something that is actually good for me spiritually, or bad.  Such a state leaves us in a position to be easily manipulated by the devil.

Final Thoughts

All Christians have parts of their flesh that they must battle.  In other words, to become mature does not mean you no longer have things to fight against and places to grow.  God is always working on all of us.  However, as we mature the battle should become more of an internal battle and less and less of one that is on the outside.  This is not stated as an excuse for sin.  Rather it is recognition that every day all of us need to turn to the Holy Spirit and say, “Search me, O God!”  “What are we working on today, Lord?”

Let me close by reminding us of the passage in Romans 12:1-2, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. 2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”

May God help us to choose spiritual transformation by the Holy Spirit over the top of fleshly conformation to the things of this world that are at odds with the Lord of Heaven.

Carnal Christian audio