The Troubling Marks of Disdain
An Investigation of the Doctrine of Carnal Christianity
"For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof (II Tim. 3:2-5a)".
Immorality, indifference, divisions, factions, heresies, and a mere semblance of love sordidly mark evangelicalism in our day. We find ourselves in a day of peril, in which it has become incumbent upon the bride of Christ to turn her attention to this debilitating infirmity. Left upon its present course, evangelicalism will soon eclipse all eras as the darkest of all ages.
R. Albert Mohler writes, "Evangelicalism is not healthy in conviction or spiritual discipline." He writes regarding what he calls a ‘megashift’ amongst evangelicalism in our day, where
"Arminius’s self-declared heirs are now ready to finish his project to break with the traditional theism that was shared by the Fathers and the Reformers and to replace it with a more relational theology. Thus, some evangelicals now embrace the notion of a more user-friendly deity who waits passionately but impotently to see what His creatures will do."
In regard to the affliction of modern evangelicalism, Mohler has pinpointed the core issue of our lingering ailment: we have replaced the sovereign God of heaven and earth with a deified humanity. Men have become their own saviors; their need for Jesus Christ the Lord has all but dissolved. American religion now declares that men, by their own sovereign choice, elect themselves, save themselves, justify themselves, and accordingly, sanctify themselves. The Reformer’s maxim soli deo gloria has become in our day, to man alone the glory.
One component of evangelicalism’s decline, and subsequent megashift away from the biblical doctrines of grace, has been the rise of the Carnal Christian doctrine. In evangelicalism, universalism and free will have replaced the doctrines of Limited Atonement and Irresistible Grace. Subsequently, Carnal Christianity is evangelicalism’s replacement for the biblical doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints. Consider how this is evidenced in the statements of Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., as he writes, the "Carnal Christian doctrine teaches that it is both theoretically possible and experientially common for a person to be a born-again Christian and never give any long-term evidence of that fact in one’s life." This is a complete remonstrance of the assertions of the doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints. Gentry further states.
L.S. Chafer writes that the Christian has a limitless liberty to do precisely as he chooses. Ryrie says the believer has an option: as long as he is in a human body he may also choose to leave God out and live according to the old nature. Those who exercise this liberty or option become carnal Christians. Indeed there is a great mass of carnal Christians.
Where once the church championed our liberty in Christ to live obediently as the children of God, now it revels in its ability to take or leave Christian maturity upon a whim. Children of God, have you ever heard such an assault upon the very name of our Lord Jesus Christ? Have men ever disdained His throne with such a vehement hatred than they have in this folly? Take up the mantle of Ezra, as a prophet viewing the evil of our day, and declare,
"O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift up my face to thee, my God: for our iniquities are increased over our head, and our trespass is grown up unto the heavens. Since the days of our fathers have we been in a great trespass unto this day; and for our iniquities have we, our kings, and our priests, been delivered into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, and to a spoil, and to confusion of face, as it is this day (Ezra 9: 6, 7)".
If one were to choose an appropriate response to evangelicalism’s prostitution of our sacred doctrine with this ungodly false doctrine, what manner of letter would he write? Interestingly, the first epistle to the Corinthians, used by the evangelical of our day to purport their sordid doctrine of the Carnal Christian, is the very letter that can turn them from their error. In First Corinthians Paul shows that it is wholly irregular and contrary to the true Christian faith to assert, as Chafer, "that the Christian has a limitless liberty to do precisely as he chooses." This statement does not square with the tone of the letter itself, and it also slanders the very gospel it seeks to embrace. For we learn from First Corinthians how the church must respond to the Christian who has lingered in immaturity. What should be our response amongst Christendom to the doctrine of the Carnal Christian? Should we applaud the coach who brings to the race a runner weighted down with every encumbrance and hindrance, who is ill trained, unprepared, and often falling by the wayside along the course? Should we be comforted in his results of countless professions and seemingly endless conversions? Or do we learn from the epistolary author a contrary method?
This article shall establish three fundamental premises of the Christian faith from the First letter to the Corinthians:
1. The Biblical necessity of admonishing the immature Christian.
2. The proper manner of exhorting the immature Christian.
3. The potentially dangerous course for the ill-admonished professor.
In the establishment of these truths, the condemnable practice of the church in its acceptance of this doctrine of Carnal Christianity shall be exposed. In turn there shall be a call to all who name the name of Christ to turn from this error and return to the sound and biblical practices of exhortations, admonition, and rebuke, lest many perish by the wayside. For surely our Lord, who held the shepherds and elders of Israel accountable for their broken rods, will hold those under-shepherds of His flock in our day accountable for their ill practice. God forbid that we, the elders of Christ’s church, ever hear Him say, "behold, I am against the shepherds; and I will require my flock at their hand (Ezekiel 34:10)." For the church that fails to admonish, exhort, and rebuke the person living in sin, fails to love the Lord. Let us begin then in demonstrating this fact by first establishing,
I. The Biblical Necessity of Ecclesiastical Admonition
Evangelicalism, in formulating its doctrine of Carnal Christianity from the text of I Corinthians 3, has failed to properly understand the purpose of the text. The third chapter of I Corinthians was not written to provide assurance for the life-long carnal Christian; rather it was written to extricate the imperiled church from her error. This fact is demonstrated first by Paul’s initial indication for the writing of his letter:
"Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you (1 Cor. 1:10, 11)."
In these two verses Paul establishes his purpose for writing, the occasion for his concern, and the expectant results of his letter.
First, his purpose in writing is to exhort and admonish his readers. He begins the body of his letter with his common admonition; "I beseech or call you alongside." The reader, accustomed to Paul’s writings, finds this initial word common to the author but wholly unlike his style to place it at the onset of an epistle. Paul is uniform in his manner of epistolary writing, ever following the common course of doctrine and then application. To begin a letter with such a word immediately forces the reader to undertake the reading and understanding of this letter in a particular manner. The letter is predominately hortatory and is not to be used for the establishment of existing or new doctrine. While doctrine underlies all biblical exhortation and admonitory practice, still it is improper for any reader to seek to construct or hinge a biblical doctrine upon hortatory literature. It is as indecorous as seeking to establish a biblical doctrine from historical narrative. Bryan Chapell writes,
The reason ‘every heretic has his verse’ is because Scripture can be twisted to confirm almost anything if interpreters ignore contexts. Study of a passage’s context also requires preachers to identify the genre, or type of literature, in which a biblical statement occurs. Many an error has been made by interpreting proverbs as promises, prophecy as history, parables as facts, and poetry as science.
Equally as condemnable a practice is evangelicalism’s attempt to establish a doctrine upon a hortatory genre. First Corinthians is written for the established purpose of extricating the immature church from her perilous immature condition.
Next, the purpose of Paul’s letter is bound up in the occasion for his writing and as well restrains the reader from too broad or general an application of this letter. The occasion for writing is initially stated by the apostle in the words of 1 Cor. 1:11, "for it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you." Factions and divisions amongst the body of Christ in Corinth were the primary cause for the writing of Pauls’ epistle.
The occasion for his letter was to address the factions, resolve the contentions, and to restore the church in unity. The very foundation of the Corinthian letter then is this problem of division. Every verse, every chapter, and every situational concern raised by the apostle is to be read in light of this occasion. Such an occasion judiciously warrants the intended expectations of the author. The Holy Spirit did not inspire the apostle to write a letter to a troubled church to simply teach the lazier-faire doctrine of Carnal Christianity; rather He inspired the apostle to pen the words that the readers might be disentangled from their perilous course and settle their disputes. Any other conclusion is contrary to the very intent of Scripture itself, as taught by Paul in II Timothy 3:16-17,
"All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works."
We are to profit from the reading of God’s word. For any writer to declare, as Ryrie does (see earlier footnote), that Scripture teaches ‘the believer has the option; as long as he is in a human body he may also choose to leave God out and live according to the old nature,’ is to undermine the very purpose for which the word of God is written: to address our fallenness. "God intends for every portion of His word (i.e., "all Scripture") to make us more like himself."
One can further support this assertion by viewing the subset of this epistle that runs from 3:1; 4:21, including the passage in question. The doctrine of Carnal Christianity is built almost exclusively upon the first four verses of I Corinthians 3, where Paul writes,
"And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able. For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men? For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal?"
Where the well-intentioned reader, who hears Paul defining a class of Christians as perpetually carnal, goes wrong is when he fails to continue reading the logical flow of Paul’s address. Paul does not write these verses to ease our consciences in knowing that many amongst us live a perpetual carnal existence; rather he writes to correct the error of a sluggish acceleration by the Corinthian reader in sanctification. He does not write to teach us to accept such professors or to build such a faulty doctrine; rather he writes to admonish those factional readers to press on in Christ. This is seen in the manner in which Paul himself uses these verses, as he later concludes in 4:14:16,
"I write not these things to shame you, but as my beloved sons I warn you. For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me."
One need simply reason within himself and ask honestly, "What would Paul say to the teaching, ‘that it is both theoretically possible and experientially common for a person to be a born-again Christian and never give any long-term evidence of that fact in one’s life’?" Surely the apostle would be provoked to ire by such a gross misrepresentation of his words.
In summary to this first point then, let us establish the certainty of the biblical necessity of ecclesiastical admonition, for the Word of God is given as a tool to raise up the child of God from infancy to maturity. The church then, which wields the sword, is tasked with this ordained role:
"the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love (Ephesians 4: 12:16)."
The Word of God leaves no room for indifference toward godliness and would contend with itself to purport a teaching that asserts any child of God may "be a born again Christian and never give any long-term evidence of that fact in one’s life." To make this assertion is to pit the Holy Spirit against Himself. Do we dare commit such a crime? Let us move on now to declare,
II. The Proper Manner of Exhorting the Immature Christian
The doctrine of Carnal Christianity, whether intentionally or not, divests the church of its necessitated admonitory role, for if a soul’s eternal salvation does not include a need to grow, in some degree, in grace, there is no compelling task given the church other than to make converts. Christ’s words in Matthew, "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age," are as irrelevant as this nation’s speed limit. The doctrine of Carnal Christianity makes the Great Commission "the great suggestion," a valedictorian option for the elite spiritual few. This though is not the framework of the Word of God, nor does it find agreement with the apostle in I Corinthians. How does Paul use the third chapter of I Corinthians? Is it his intention to console the Carnal Christian of Corinth? Is his purpose to cease factioning between the super-spiritual and the carnal? Is it to put an end to the discriminatory practices of the elite few who will not leave the carnal man alone? Hopefully the reader sees the utter foolishness of such thoughts, for Paul does not write as do the Carnal Christian teachers of our day. He rather writes as a man who takes no comfort in knowing simply that his readers have made a profession of faith.
How does Paul deal with the group in Corinth that he describes as ‘having carnal tendencies’? [A footnote: it is interesting to observe the subtle shift by Paul in the use of the word ‘carnal’ from verse 1 to 3. There, Paul modifies the word to demonstrate that the readers he refers to are not carnal but spiritual people behaving like carnal sorts. W. Harold Mare notes, "whereas in v.1 sarkinois means belonging to the flesh, having the characteristics of the flesh, sakikou, used in v. 3, means composed of flesh and stresses that the Corinthian Christians were full of fleshly activities."] Paul, in dealing with such improper behavior, neither consoles nor encourages his readers to exercise their liberty in such a state; instead, he exhorts them to leave such a menacing place. One may search the text with all diligence but he will find no permission afforded the readers to remain in their present condition. Again, to assert the notion that Paul is writing to teach that Christians behaving carnally may either leave or stay in such a state is to argue against the basic premise of the text itself. Never once does Paul declare it is acceptable, reasonable, or safe for a Christian to continue to behave in such a carnal fashion. Not only would such a notion waste Paul’s words and make his bondage for the gospel meaningless, but it also robs the Holy Spirit of His sanctifying role within the church and declares His work optional. The Holy Scriptures would be but a maxim of optional suggestions. Paul never declares it viable that a Christian may remain steeped in carnal tendencies. This in turn leads to the third point,
III. The Potentially Dangerous Course for the Ill-admonished Professor
The fundamental fallacy of the Carnal Christian doctrine is that it fails to find support for its assertions in Paul’s words. If Paul agreed with the notion that a Christian has ‘a limitless liberty to do precisely as he chooses,’ then he would have no cause to alarm his readers. Perhaps one might argue that he simply wants the best for them and seeks to steep them in some fancy of rewards. Why then does he say, "I write not these things to shame you, but as my beloved sons I warn you" (I Cor. 4:14)? The Greek word for warn is the word, nouqetw. Interestingly, it means, "to impart understanding," "to set right," "to lay on the heart." The stress is on influencing not merely the intellect but the will and disposition. The word thus acquires such senses as "to admonish," "to warn," "to remind," and "to correct." It describes a basic means of education." Bound up in this word is the manner in which the church must exhort the immature Christian. She fails to shepherd the flock of God when she does not undertake the manner of the apostle in this letter. The greatest defense against the carnal Christian doctrine is the very text they use to build their feeble house, for context, grammar, syntax, literary genre, and prolegomena do nothing but discredit their every word. If their assertions were true, Paul would be rightfully content to leave his children fatherless, for they need no correction of fatherly care if it is acceptable and understandable that some shall not grow up. In fact, if such were the case, Paul would be performing a great discriminatory disservice to the carnal reader by speaking with such exhortatory and harsh words. He would be trampling underfoot their liberty in Christ. Yet this is not the case, for the love of the apostle, yea the love of Christ their Lord, and the love of their Father above is demonstrated in Paul’s encouraging them on in grace. Perhaps the Carnal Christian proponents have forgotten the text,
"My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; For whom the Lord loves He chastens, And scourges every son whom He receives. If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten(Hebrews 12: 5?7)"
When they say there remains a liberty of carnality amongst the saints of God, they inadvertently declare that some are not beloved of the Father. This is a potentially dangerous course for the carnally behaving man, not that he might exercise his fancied liberty of carnality, but rather, that he may not be beloved of the Father. No child of God shall remain an infant, but is reared by the Lord, yielding " (Hebrews 12: 11) ".
Further, bound up in this word warn is a lesson to be taught to the church that does not recognize this extreme error of the Carnal Christian doctrine. In their zeal to silence this error, some have sought to bind up the true liberty the saints of God possess. The church, in response to this error, is neither to raise the tablets of stone as the corrective means of exhorting the immature Christian nor to condemn the immature, but she is to feed the infant with the pure milk of grace. For the grace of God and our Lord Jesus Christ is the impetus for all the actions and obedience of the saints of God. Again, Paul carefully chooses his word to draw the immature from their perilous course and, at the same time, to guard our liberty in Christ. The issue at stake is not to drive the reader from his error but to place upon his heart the arresting of his affections and will through the presentation of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Consider the rod that Paul raises to shepherd this flock, when he writes,
"For this cause have I sent unto you Timotheus, who is my beloved son, and faithful in the Lord, who shall bring you into remembrance of my ways which be in Christ, as I teach every where in every church. Now some are puffed up, as though I would not come to you. But I will come to you shortly, if the Lord will, and will know, not the speech of them which are puffed up, but the power. For the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power. What will ye? Shall I come unto you with a rod, or in love, and in the spirit of meekness (I Cor. 4: 17?20)"
We, the church, will do well to learn how to warn and admonish the saints of our Lord. We are not to assume the role of Moses, but of the servant of Christ, who seeks to stir up the lowly saints’ affections through the presentation of the glorious cross of Christ.
American evangelicalism is marked by a sundry decline in both godliness and doctrinal soundness. At the heart of such decline is the doctrine of Carnal Christianity. The visible church in our land has shown perhaps the greatest apathy and indifference to the Lord Jesus Christ in her failure to properly tend the flock of God. As a result, many remain malnourished, while apostasy and heresy abound, and, all along, the church is proclaiming peace. Liberty is now defined as a person’s right ‘to do precisely as he chooses’ and ‘to be a born-again Christian and never give any long-term evidence of that fact in one’s life.’ No such contrived liberty is found asserted in the Word of God. Rather, against such antinomianism, every word of the Scriptures centers around this warning:
"in this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is he who does not love his brother. And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, as He gave us commandment. Now he who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us (I John 3:1, 23, 24)."
Those who would contend with this commandment and assert a doctrine of Carnal Christianity reveal true lawlessness. They destroy Christian liberty by removing the right of every one who believes on the Lord Jesus Christ to be called the children of God. Our liberty is freedom to godliness, not from it.
In turn, there must be a call to all who name the name of Christ to turn from this error and return to the sound and biblical practices of exhortations, admonition, and rebuke, lest many perish by the wayside, and we, who shepherd the flock of God, meet with the displeasure of the Son of God. We will err if we leave the infant bloodied and lying in the open field, unloved, unsalted by grace, and untended, for Christ does not leave any child of His Father in such a state. Hear the love of the Lord God declared to every child of grace, as He declares,
"When I passed by you and saw you struggling in your own blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ Yes, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ I made you thrive like a plant in the field; and you grew, matured, and became very beautiful. Your breasts were formed, your hair grew, but you were naked and bare. When I passed by you again and looked upon you, indeed your time was the time of love; so I spread My wing over you and covered your nakedness. Yes, I swore an oath to you and entered into a covenant with you, and you became Mine, says the Lord God. Then I washed you in water; yes, I thoroughly washed off your blood, and I anointed you with oil. I clothed you in embroidered cloth and gave you sandals of badger skin; I clothed you with fine linen and covered you with silk. I adorned you with ornaments, put bracelets on your wrists, and a chain on your neck. And I put a jewel in your nose, earrings in your ears, and a beautiful crown on your head. Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your clothing was of fine linen, silk, and embroidered cloth. You ate pastry of fine flour, honey, and oil. You were exceedingly beautiful, and succeeded to royalty. Your fame went out among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through My splendor which I had bestowed on you, says the Lord God (Ezek. 16:6-14)."
While these words were first spoken to apostate Israel, understand how much more we, who are this day in Christ, are beloved of the Father. His church is washed, clothed, raised up, and adorned with righteousness. Away then with those who pass by the stumbling fool in carnality, saying ‘peace, peace.’ Let the church of Christ our Lord again set her hands to the plow of admonition. For in such love is our Lord greatly pleased. If John Bunyan were a proponent of the Carnal Christian doctrine of our day, his ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ would become a treatise on the exercise of one’s Christian liberty. All those turned away, entrapped, embittered, or ensnared on the way to the celestial city, would simply be carnal Christians exercising their sovereign liberty and right to choose. A final question; how does our Lord shepherd the flock of God; surely it is with the rod of care and love.
Raise the standard Christians.