Carnality, Spirituality, and Fellowship with God
1 Corinthians 3:1–3
by Bob Wilkin
In recent years the question, "What exactly is a ‘carnal Christian?’" has come under sharp debate. While some say that while Christians do sin, their lives are never dominated by sin. For instance, in a recent book one author devotes a fair amount of attention to debunk what he calls "the myth of the carnal Christian."1
Nevertheless, did not the apostle Paul make it clear that there is such a thing as a carnal Christian when he wrote:
And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ…For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere [natural] men? (1 Cor 3:1, 3)
The previously cited author inadvertently admits the existence of the carnal Christian when, commenting on these verses he writes, "Clearly Paul was accusing the Corinthians of behaving like non-Christians" (p. 126). It seems that in the author’s opinion a Christian can behave like a non- Christian; however, he can not be dominated by sin. If one follows this logic to its ultimate end, the line between a Christian and a non-Christian becomes quite blurred.
Conceptions Concerning Carnality
Whether true or false, there are many conceptions of how carnality manifests itself. The following is a sample of some of them. One might say that…
…only unbelievers can be carnal.
To this we must say no. Believers can be, and are at times, carnal as well.
…carnality is a pattern or lifestyle of sinful behavior that corresponds to the way the unsaved live.
Yes, a carnal person is one who is indeed dominated by sin.
…it takes time to move from carnality to spirituality.
"He who is spiritual" (1 Cor 2:15) is a person who is mature (1 Cor 2:6). To achieve maturity in the Christian life certainly takes time.
…all new believers are carnal.
Yes, because new Christians are "babes in Christ" and babies are immature.
…carnal believers are not committed to serving Christ.
No, some believers are indeed committed to Christ, and yet are carnal. We will discuss this in more detail in a moment.
…carnal believers are necessarily out of fellowship with God.
No, a believer can be carnal and yet still be in fellowship with God. This will be discussed in more detail later as well.
Carnality and Fellowship with God
Spiritual maturity is not simultaneous with new birth. However, four or five years after their spiritual births, the Corinthian believers were rebuked by Paul for their carnality because they were still babes in Christ.
Most would agree that new believers can be in fellowship with God. It logically follows then that carnal believers can be in fellowship with God. The alternative would be to say that only mature believers are in fellowship with God—which cannot be sustained in Scripture.
According to First John, the condition of fellowship with God is "walking in the light" (1 John 1:7). Some mistakenly characterize walking in the light as a sinless walk. Yet this concept does not square with Scripture since as we walk in the light "the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin" (1 John 1:7). According to this verse those walking in the light may sin repeatedly (note the phrase, "all sin"). As is evident from the context, walking in the light is walking openly and honestly before God. This honest walk before God includes confessing our sins as God brings them to our attention (1 John 1:9). Therefore, if a new believer is honest with God when he realizes he has sinned, then he is in fellowship with God, although he is still carnal and immature.
There is a difference between maturity in the Christian life and fellowship with God. Even immature believers can be in fellowship with God. We err if we equate fellowship with God to spirituality and maturity. Believers in fellowship with God are open and honest before Him, though they vary greatly in their maturity. Commitment to Christlikeness is not a ticket to instant maturity. Indeed, there is a great amount of room for growth for even the most mature believer. If we ever think we have arrived, "we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8).
Spiritual growth occurs as we, under the teaching of God’s Word confess our sins to the Lord and He moves us to greater and greater maturity and Christlikeness.
Spirituality and Fellowship with God
Just as it takes time to move from carnality to spirituality, so it takes time to make the return trip. For example, let’s say that John, a spiritual person, tells a lie. At that point he is then out of fellowship with God, since he sinned willfully. However, the fact that John is out of fellowship does not mean that he has suddenly started living just like the unsaved live. Now if John were to remain out of fellowship for an extended period of time, he would in fact fall into carnality.
Backsliding may indeed be a slippery slope. However, it is a slope and not a cliff. People rarely, if ever, move immediately from spirituality to carnality. The journey is filled with many bad thoughts, words, and deeds. A spiritual person has a number of opportunities to change direction before it is too late.
Peter and Barnabus, for example, did not become carnal when they withdrew from the Gentiles and were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel (Gal 2:11-14). They were corrected by Paul and continued to be spiritual men.
Practical Applications of These Truths
How can a clearer understanding of biblical carnality and spirituality help us on a practical level? Does it really matter how we actually live the Christian life? Yes, it makes a big difference in several areas.
It Encourages Growth to Maturity
New believers should be encouraged to grow to maturity. A mature Christian is one who has had "their senses exercised to discern both good and evil" (Heb 5:14). In other words maturation is a process, not an instantaneous event. It occurs over time as God transforms a believer by renewing his mind through the Scriptures (Rom 12:2, "Be transformed by the renewing of your minds; compare Eph 4:22-24). If a new believer mistakenly thinks he is already mature, it hinders him greatly since he doesn’t understand his need to grow.
It Removes a Hindrance to Our Growth
If we think that we become carnal the moment we sin, then we become like a human yo-yo, bouncing back and forth between carnality and spirituality. In fact, since we are unaware of many—if not most—of our sins (1 John 1:9), we could never be sure when we were "spiritual." Needless to say, this can cause great discouragement and hinder growth. Rather than prompting a person to holiness, it makes holiness more difficult, especially for the sensitive or perfectionistic person. His many setbacks can easily dishearten him.
It Keeps the Hope of Ruling with Christ Alive
In order to rule with Christ we must persevere in the confession of our faith in Christ: "If we endure, we will reign with Him. If we deny Him, He will deny us" (2 Tim 2:12; compare also Heb 10:23, "let us hold fast our confession of hope to the end").
This doesn’t mean that only mature Christians can reign. A babe in Christ who is walking in fellowship and confessing Christ, will reign should Christ return and find him in that state.
What it means is that only confessing Christians will rule. The Christian who stops confessing Christ (Heb 10:23) and ceases to attend church (Heb 10:23), will not reign should he die or the Rapture occur while he was in that condition.
Some believers fear that if Christ returned before they had a chance to confess a newly committed sin, they would miss out on ruling with Him. This can lead to deleterious introspection and even a doubting of God’s fairness. A proper understanding of the issues in spirituality, carnality, and fellowship with God removes these doubts and fears.
It Encourages the Mature Believers to Press on for Further Growth
Maturity is not all or nothing. Once a person has become spiritual, he has plenty of room for growth. The more a person grows, the more he distances himself from carnality. Therefore, the aim of the Christian life is to please God more and more.
Early in my Christian life I thought that I went out of fellowship with God dozens of times each day—and that continual confession was the only way to keep these times at a minimum. I didn’t realize that the Holy Spirit would reveal sin to me and that God never asked me to try to discover every sin in my life. Knowing that God merely asks me to be honest with Him has had a liberating effect on my walk. It is much more personal, and much less mechanical.
It is good to know that advancing from a babe in Christ to a mature believer is not some arduous task that only one Christian in a thousand can ever hope to achieve. It is great to know that God produces maturity in all believers who are abiding in Christ and in His Word.
1(MacArthur, Faith Works, pp. 124–27; see also pp. 94–98, 116–121, 127–38)