Carnal Christians: A Pastoral Perspective

From In the Nick of Time, Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Read the series.

I have read with interest the recent exchange in this newsletter on the validity of two-category Christianity. Dr. Hauser argues that Paul’s letter to the Corinthians supports the recognition of two different classes of Christians: the spiritual and the carnal. Dr. Pratt contends that Christians must bear fruit, and that while all Christians sin, there is no biblical reason to think that a Christian can exist in a perpetual state of carnality.

In this essay, I will use the term Keswick as shorthand for the two-category view of sanctification, and Reformed to refer to the position that all Christians are essentially of one type, despite differing in spiritual maturity. Each of these terms normally suggests further theological commitments, but these are not implied in my restricted usage here. And just to play with an open hand, my allegiance lies with the Reformed position.

What I want to consider here are the pastoral implications of this debate. Ideas have consequences, and theological ideas have particularly sharp pastoral consequences. While it is invalid to determine the truth of a theological claim based solely on its practical implications, I actually think there is some common ground in practice between the Reformed and Keswick positions that might help clarify where the debate between them really lies.

To illustrate the problem, consider the parable of the soils (Matt 13:1–9, 18–23). Interpreters differ over the significance of the various soils. Typically, all involved concede that the first soil represents an unregenerate soul and the fourth a regenerate soul. The meaning of the middle soils is more of a challenge. Some would argue that these exemplify loss of salvation, though I suspect that is a minority position among readers of this essay.

The Keswick theologian might argue that the middle soils represent carnal Christians: the plants that spring up have life but not fruit. The Reformed position would typically be that the middle soils represent some kind of superficial profession of faith that is later demonstrated to have been spurious.

It is hermeneutically suspect to universalize biblical metaphors, insisting that each time a given metaphor is employed it must be read in precisely the same manner. Even conceding that point, it seems that when agricultural metaphors are used for spiritual life, fruit-bearing—and not the mere existence of a plant—indicates the existence of regeneration. Plants that do not bear fruit are repeatedly subject to destruction (Isa 5:6–7; Eze 18:10–14; Matt 3:10, 13:40, 21:19; Luke 13:6–9; John 15:6), a point so pervasive in these texts that it is unlikely to be merely coincidental. If the fruitless plant is doomed to destruction, it should not be taken as representing a person with genuine spiritual life.

This is my Reformed reading of Jesus’s parable. But even given a Reformed view, there are particular situations in which a middle-soils-person might be recognized (in hindsight) as having been truly converted. We have all known professing believers whose lives were substantially and lastingly characterized by carnality. But we have also known folks like this who eventually repented and were restored to good standing with Christ and his church. Both Reformed and Keswick theologians tend to insist that this repentance indicates that such a person, even during his time of rebellion, was a believer.

So the point at issue between the Reformed and Keswick theologians is not whether Christians sin (which only the most self-deluded deny), or even whether Christians can go through extended periods of extensive sin. If the situation I have described happens (and it does), even the most ardent Reformed theologian admits that genuine Christians can have prolonged seasons of robust carnality. From the perspective of the Reformed theologian, though, the genuineness of such a person’s Christianity is known only in hindsight.

And so the point at issue between the Reformed and Keswick theologians is whether a person currently characterized by carnality should be identified as a Christian. The Keswick view of sanctification, by making carnal Christianity a standing category of Christian experience, seems to allow (and possibly demand) that anyone making a profession of faith be accepted as a Christian, regardless of the actual fruit produced in his life. The Reformed view, by contrast, contends that while a person living in sin might be converted, there are no biblical reasons to think that he is.

Here, I speak of two pastoral and practical questions: how should the church identify such a person, and how should such a person identify himself?  The basic idea of church discipline is that a person who persists in unrepentant sin is to be regarded by the church as an outsider, one who does not belong to the household of faith. However, given Keswick theology, how could a church make such a declaration? The person who might otherwise be subject to removal from fellowship can always claim status as a carnal, non-fruit-bearing Christian.

This scenario raises the second pastoral concern: that of self-identification. Biblically, if a person wants to find assurance of salvation, he should look first to the objective promises of the Word. The security of our salvation is found in Christ and him alone. To say anything else would be to undermine assurance and imperil justification by faith alone. As John MacArthur has said, “If we could lose our salvation, we would.”

Even so, however, biblical authors never hesitate to make fruit-bearing a ground of assurance of salvation. No book does this more than 1 John: “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected” (1 John 2:3–5). Parallel texts can be multiplied.

Both Reformed and Keswick theologians acknowledge that Christians sin. Both Reformed and Keswick theologians acknowledge that Christians can live in sin for extended periods of time. My pastoral concern with the Keswick view of sanctification is that it creates an utterly unsustainable practical paradox. If we teach the existence of carnal Christians, we ought not be surprised when folks in our church learn to identify themselves as carnal Christians. But if a person is allowed to identify himself as a carnal Christian, he is simultaneously saying two incompatible things: 1) I am confident that I am regenerate and 2) I have biblical reasons to be very skeptical that I am regenerate.

Again, practical consequences of beliefs do not, in themselves, determine whether a belief is true. But they should not be ignored, either.


This essay is by Michael P. Riley, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church of Wakefield, Michigan. Since 2011, he has served Central Seminary as managing editor of In the Nick of Time. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.

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Ed Vasicek's picture

Good. But did Paul recognize some believers as believers and yet carnal? I think Paul presumed all his readers were believers, but then challenged them to see whether they were in the faith.

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