Q & A Series: Is There Such a Thing as a Carnal Christian?

I recently heard some fellow believers claim that there is no such thing as a carnal Christian. Someone also asked me recently what I thought about this particular issue and wondered if I had blogged about it before. Well, I haven’t written about it before, but these conversations indicated to me that I should.

So is it possible for a Christian to be “carnal”? For those unfamiliar with the term, carnal is defined in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary (11th Collegiate Edition) in the following ways:

1a: relating to or given to crude bodily pleasures and appetites; 1b: marked by sexuality; 2: bodily, corporeal; 3a: temporal; 3b: worldly

In the New Testament, carnal is from the Greek root word sarx, and according to Louw-Nida’s Greek-English Lexicon, it refers to something “pertaining to behavior which is typical of human nature, but with special focus upon more base physical desires—‘worldly, base.’”

Those who claim that a Christian cannot be carnal might look at Romans 8:7, which states, “Because the carnal [sarkos] mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh [sarki] cannot please God.” The contrast between walking in the flesh (sarx) and walking in the Spirit is also made sharp in Galatians 5:16–26. These seem like strong evidences against the idea of a carnal Christian, but there are a few problems with this conclusion.

First, the first eight verses of Romans 8 clearly contrast Christians (those who walk according to the Spirit) and non-Christians (those who walk according to the flesh and set their minds on the things of the flesh). So when Paul talks about fleshly-minded people in this chapter, he is specifically referring to unbelievers, and he is not necessarily dealing with the issue of whether or not a genuine believer can be carnal.

Second, in the previous chapter (Romans 7), Paul clearly states that he himself is “carnal, sold under sin” (v. 14). He goes on to describe over the course of several verses the constant battle that he waged every day against the flesh. The things he wanted to do (spiritual) he didn’t do, and the things he didn’t want to do (carnal) he did do. He knew he was saved, but recognized that as long as he was in a non-glorified body, he was going to struggle with carnal desires. He concluded this section with a plea: “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin” (vv. 24–25).

Third, Paul wrote several passages in Scripture to deal with believers who were carnal. So much of 1 Corinthians deals with this problem. Consider the following verses:

And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ…for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not carnal? Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? (1 Corinthians 3:1–5, NKJV)

Paul specifically identified some of the Corinthian believers as carnal Christians. He called them “brethren,” thus affirming their place in the body of Christ.

Later in the same chapter Paul mentioned that each believer will one day have their works tested by fire. Many Christians believe Paul also referred to this event as the “judgment seat of Christ” in 2 Corinthians 5:10. But here’s the relevant point for our study. He mentions that those who built on the foundation of Christ with gold, silver, and precious stones would be rewarded (1 Corinthians 3:14). On the other hand, those people who built on that foundation with wood, hay, and straw would see their works burned up—they would suffer a loss of reward, “but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:13, 15). So there will be individuals whose works are not rewarded by Christ—they are burned up—but the individuals are still saved. So there are Christians whose lives do not always demonstrate their faith.

But Paul didn’t only say these kinds of things with the Corinthian believers; he said something similar to the Thessalonians who, for the most part, were a strong church:

But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us…For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat. For we hear that there are some who walk among you in a disorderly manner, not working at all, but are busybodies…But as for you, brethren, do not grow weary in doing good. And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet do not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother. (2 Thessalonians 3:6, 10–11, 13–15, NKJV)

Although Paul did not specifically use the word carnal in this passage, he described some people who were being lazy, disorderly, and disobedient, yet he told the believers to admonish such people “as a brother.” [As a side note, you rarely hear 2 Thessalonians 3:10 quoted by liberal Christians and those promoting the so-called “social gospel.”]

So the answer to the initial question is “Yes, there is such a thing as a carnal Christian.” But I do believe we need to qualify that statement a bit because of the discussion in Romans 8. It seems that Paul made a distinction between someone who was completely dedicated to the flesh without concern for spiritual matters and those who were true believers but were still struggling with carnal desires and behaviors.

In a sense, this is a matter of semantics, because I don’t think the two sides carefully define their terms (like carnal) when discussing the issue. There is a real danger in thinking that a Christian could not be carnal (at least at times). We are all saved by God’s grace alone, and this grace is received by faith alone. While it’s true, as James wrote, that faith without works is dead, it is also true that genuine believers struggle with sins and sometimes are ensnared in them.

To automatically assume that a professing Christian who is found to be involved in sinful behavior isn’t truly a believer is a terrible mistake. We’ve seen that on a few occasions, Paul called them “brethren” because he believed they were Christians. Instead, we should admonish this person as a brother, gently correcting him with the hope that he can be fully restored to fellowship with God’s people.

Thinking that a Christian cannot be engaged in carnal activity can almost lead to thinking that we are saved by our works, or at least that we keep ourselves saved by our works. We know this is absolutely false, and I know that my friends who have spoken against the idea of carnal Christians would never endorse salvation by works. But I’ve heard of people who were struggling with sin being told that they probably weren’t even Christians because of their actions. I think this is very sad. The very fact that the person admitted they were struggling to overcome a certain behavior likely shows that they are saved because the Holy Spirit is convicting them of their sin.

We need to remember that the Christian walk is a lifelong struggle against the flesh. We need to continually rely upon the Holy Spirit to help us overcome this battle with sinful desires. None of us have done this perfectly. If Paul was the chief of sinners, then I’m probably the emperor of sinners. While we never want to give the impression that we are condoning sin, we must also be sensitive toward fellow believers who are struggling with it, rather than instantly assuming they aren’t brothers. Just as God has shown us His tremendous, unfathomable grace, we need to learn to show grace to others as well—even to those carnal Christians who are out there.

Finally, I don’t want to give the impression that everyone who calls himself a Christian really is one. Polls have shown that over 70% of Americans claim to be Christians, but I think most people would be shocked if the actual number of true believers were anywhere near that percentage. God is the ultimate Judge of one’s heart, but the Bible also tells us that we can recognize true believers by the “fruit” of their lives (Luke 6:43–45; John 15:5). If someone professes Christ but his life does not give any evidence of being a new creation, and he does not respond appropriately to proper Christian discipline, then he may not be a genuine believer at all.

So while there really are some “carnal Christians” (saved individuals who are engaged in sinful behaviors), there are also false converts (people who claim to be Christians but have never truly placed their faith in Christ alone). True believers must strive to be as much like Christ as possible so that unbelievers will see a good representation of who Jesus Christ is—the only One who can save them from their sins.

About Tim Chaffey

I am the founder of Midwest Apologetics and work as the Content Manager with the Attractions Division of Answers in Genesis. I have written (or co-authored) several books, including In Defense of Easter, God and Cancer, The Sons of God and the Nephilim, and The Truth Chronicles Series (see the publications page for more details). Please note: the opinions expressed on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of Answers in Genesis.


Q & A Series: Is There Such a Thing as a Carnal Christian? — 6 Comments

  1. Good point on the 70% being Christian. Who knows? You are right, only God knows for sure. There are babes, and how long can someone REMAIN a babe? Who knows? Only God knows for sure. We have so many denominations, so many degrees of truth, degrees of light, different levels of maturity. I want to believe a lot of the so called weaker Christians are really Christians. But then, Scripture says MANY will be told: “I never knew you”.

  2. What i really want to know, does the spiritual side of a man have a carnal side, and the fact That Jacob have two wives in his life, and the wife of a married man is an expression of his spiritual side.

    • Hi Garfield,
      I’m not exactly sure what you mean. I would say that the spiritual man (meaning a Christian whose life is focused on serving the Lord) will likely still struggle with sinful desires. Romans 6 and 7 addresses this at length. But I’m not sure if this really answers your question.

  3. Thanks for these thoughts. I have to agree with your analysis; I’ve always thought it was a bit strange to insist that people I’ve known who have recurring sins and ungodly attitudes, yet genuinely have their trust in Christ must not be Christians.

  4. As I understand this question from most people I talk to, it has much to do with the Lordship/Free Grace controversy. I think the key comes in a word you closed with: strive. We only do someone a favor who is not striving after righteousness by confronting them in their sin. To not confront is to not care.

    Whether the person engaged in sin is a believer or not, or whether we think they are a believer or not, the solution to the problem is to apply the truths of the gospel and the forgiveness available in Christ to the heart, allowing the Holy Spirit to convict of sin and call them to repentance. We need not judge their heart in order to do that, but we can examine the fruit they are bearing as an indicator of what is likely happening in the heart.

  5. Thanks for your insights, Tim.

    Yes, all Christians sin, i.e. fall short of perfection, as many days as not, I’m sure. As the old saying goes, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” But if we define a “Christian” as someone who knows they are not their own but have been bought with a price (1 Cor 6:20), I don’t think it is possible for a Christian to CONTINUE sinning the same sin again and again.

    The “Christian” who lives and thinks like the non-Christian is analogous to the married man who thinks and acts like a single man; in both cases the solemn promises that were the basis of the relationship have been broken. While it is possible in both cases to repair the broken relationship, no one can honestly say that these relationships are more than nominal in their present states.

    To continue the analogy, … it is very possible for a married man who loves his wife to succumb to temptation and weakness on one or more occasions over a long married life, and still remain truly in love and committed to his wife. In this case the married man guilty of these passing infidelities will be riddled with guilt and shame for having betrayed someone he dearly loves, and these terrible feelings will so outweigh the momentary pleasures received by the infidelity(s) as to cause him to repent from the behavior at once. But the married man who thinks and acts like the single man will feel little or no guilt and shame when he commits adultery, because he loves himself more than he loves his wife, and on some level believes he has the “right” to indulge his fleshly desires. Because he believes he has the right to do as he pleases with himself, he will.

    I believe John summed it up neatly:

    “No one who abides in him [Christ] keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. 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. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.” – 1 Jn 3:6-10.

    So yes, Christians can and do sin all the time. Can a Christian CONTINUE in sin? Not according to the Beloved Disciple.

    But this is a subject that deserves 50,000, not just 1,000 words. Perhaps Tim you will get around to it someday!


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