Carnal Christians

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.

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Carnal Christians? Part 2

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

Believers struggle with sin. But disagreement arises over how this ongoing conflict ought to be engaged. Some have suggested that classifying Christians into “spiritual” and “carnal” categories helps to explain the battle so that steps can be taken to secure victory over sin. Responding to a two-part essay on the “carnal Christian” by Charles Hauser, I proposed an alternative position. I first sought to provide some historical context as a foundation for the theological and exegetical issues that will be addressed in this essay.

John Wesley was the first to teach the concept of two categories of Christians: the saved and the sanctified. Once this second blessing theology took root in many evangelical circles, the revivalist preachers and holiness teachers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries embraced and trumpeted it. Out of this ferment arose the need to provide biblical support for the carnal Christian teaching. The one passage used by all who accept the two-categories-of-Christians view is 1 Corinthians 2:14–3:3 (Ernest Reisinger, What Should We Think of The Carnal Christian?, 8). For this reason, I offer an interpretation of this passage followed by a survey of several other references which argue against the two categories doctrine and which support the assertion that all believers will bear spiritual fruit.

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Carnal Christians? Part 1

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

One of my former professors, Charles Hauser, has recently written in support of the “carnal Christian” view as a way of describing the reality of sin in the believer’s life (Part 1 and Part 2). In response, I offer this essay in respectful dissent and in support of the more historically grounded position that there is only a single category or class of Christians: the regenerate (or sanctified or spiritual or justified or any number of adjectives used to distinguish believers in Christ from non-believers).

Though not intended as a point-by-point response to Dr. Hauser’s essays, this two-part article will provide some historical context to the sanctification discussion before furnishing an interpretation of 1 Corinthians 2:14-3:3, the favorite text of “carnal Christian” advocates. In regard to historical issues, it will first help the reader to learn the context out of which the “carnal Christian” doctrine has arisen. Second, I will address the historical connection between dispensationalism and particular models of sanctification, an issue raised by Dr. Hauser.

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The Believer & Carnality, Part 2

From In the Nick of Time, Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Read Part 1.

The previous essay attempted to show that 1 Corinthians 1:14-3:3 establishes three categories of people: natural, spiritual, and carnal. The latter two are both genuine believers, but differ in their level of maturity. This contrast seems especially clear in 3:1-3.

To avoid this interpretation, Reformed theologians like Ernest Reisinger appeal back to 1 Corinthians 1:2. Reisinger argues that this verse declares the Corinthian believers to be already sanctified, so they could not possibly be in a carnal state or condition. He says, “[W]e must bear in mind the designation [Paul] gives them in chapter one. He says they are sanctified in Christ Jesus…. They are rebuked in chapter 3, not for failing to attain to privileges which some Christians attain to, but for acting, despite their privileges, like babes and like the unregenerate in one area of their lives.”

Reisinger’s mistake is to confuse the believer’s position in Christ with the believer’s experience. The New Testament teaches many truths about the believer’s position in Christ. One of those truths is that all believers are completely sanctified and seated in the heavenly places with Christ. Yet no believer is experientially seated with Christ in the heavenly places, just as no believer is completely sanctified experientially while in this life.

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The Believer & Carnality, Part 1

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

All Bible-believing interpreters of scripture agree that doctrine must be determined by the teaching of the Word of God, not by creeds or confessions. The creeds are helpful and widely respected, but doctrine must always be decided on the basis of what scripture clearly teaches.

Reformed theologians have consistently taught that the Bible names only two kinds of people: the saved and the unsaved. These, they hold, are equivalent to “spiritual” and “natural” people. On this view, the New Testament always classifies believers as “spiritual.” This system leaves no category for carnal believers. In this system, believers might be carnal in some aspects of their lives, but no believer can exist in a state of carnality.

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