“The Worldly Christian”
1 Cor. 3:1-23
May 26, 2002
Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
I commented on the text as we read it last Lord’s Day morning. So I will read it without comment this morning.
Now, as you may know, this text, perhaps more than any other text in the Bible, has been used to demonstrate that there are two kinds of Christians or two classes of Christians: spiritual Christians and worldly Christians. The KJV in v. 1 read “I could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal (that is, fleshly), even as unto babes in Christ.” So, for several generations, many evangelical Christians thought that there were two types of Christians: spiritual Christians and carnal Christians. I grew up hearing about “carnal Christians,” that is, people who believed in Jesus and whose sins were forgiven, people who were saved, but who were not living obedient, devout, and committed Christian lives. That term, carnal Christian, came from I Cor. 3:1 in the KJV.
This doctrine that there were these two types of Christians – spiritual Christians and carnal Christians – gained currency in the American evangelical world first through the notes of the influential Scofield Reference Bible.
In its note at 1 Cor. 2:14, the Scofield Bible taught this to generations of American evangelicals:
Paul divides men into three classes: natural, i.e. the Adamic man, unrenewed through the new birth…; spiritual, i.e. the renewed man as Spirit-filled and walking in the Spirit in full communion with God…; and carnal, i.e. the renewed man who, walking ‘after the flesh,’ remains a babe in Christ. … the carnal Christian is able to comprehend only the simplest truths of Scripture, ‘milk.’
In other words, the editors of the Scofield Reference Bible thought that Paul was, in these verses at the end of chapter two and the beginning of chapter three, laying down a tripartite division of the human race: unbelievers and two types of believers, spiritual ones and carnal ones. In all of this, the Scofield Bible was building on the teaching about the Christian life that had become common in what was called the “Higher Life” movement. The teachers of that movement often made a distinction between spiritual Christians and carnal Christians, even if they didn’t always use that terminology.
That teaching and the nomenclature of the “carnal Christian,” was further popularized in the second half of the 20th century by Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade International, in a number of books and pamphlets. This teaching of the two types of Christians became, as a result, still more controversial. When the idea of the carnal Christian was found prominently in the materials of a great evangelical organization devoted to campus evangelism, many felt the wrong signal was being sent to the unbeliever. If the unbeliever hears that he has a choice of becoming either a spiritual Christian or a carnal Christian – that is, that, if he wants to, he can secure the forgiveness of his sins and entrance into eternal life by bare belief without ever having to surrender his life to Christ or dramatically alter his behavior – many unbelievers naturally will opt for becoming carnal Christians, profess some sort of faith in Jesus, but never become his disciples. Are they not being told that they can have salvation and the world at the same time, they can have eternal life and their sins at the same time? They can have Christ as their Savior – and this is how it was often put – but not as their Lord?
But did not Jesus say that not everyone who said to him “Lord, Lord,” on the day of judgment would enter the kingdom of God, but only those who did the will of the Father in Heaven? And does not the New Testament everywhere teach that salvation comes when a man or a woman confesses Jesus Christ as Lord! As Paul wrote to the Colossians, “So, then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him.” In other words, when the “carnal Christian theory” was joined to evangelism, it was feared, false assurance would be created by the boatload. People in large numbers would be encouraged to think that they were Christians when, in fact, they were not. They had not acknowledged Jesus Christ as the Lord of their lives which true and living and saving faith always does.
This idea of the existence of a class of “carnal” or “worldly” Christians, an idea deeply fixed in American fundamentalist evangelicalism in the 20th century, lay beneath the controversy several years ago between pastor John MacArthur and some of the other leaders of the old American fundamentalist camp. It was a controversy about what was called “lordship salvation.” Pastor MacArthur had come out with a book entitled, The Gospel According to Jesus, in which he had argued, along the traditional lines of Protestant Reformation theology, that saving faith always produced a changed life, that it was impossible for anyone to have Jesus as savior who was unwilling to obey him as Lord, and that while justification (forgiveness) and sanctification (transformation of life) can be distinguished, they cannot be separated in a believer’s life. God’s grace, Christ’s death and resurrection, and the Holy Spirit’s ministry all have for their object the moral transformation of the believer’s life and what God intends he accomplishes. As Paul says in Rom. 8:29: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son…”
That seems to be an eminently biblical point of view, the Bible teaches that, but it was vigorously condemned in certain circles where it is felt not only that there are such people as “carnal Christians,” but that to argue that someone must live an obedient life or he cannot be a Christian simply reintroduces salvation by works through the back door. In this way the champions of the idea of the carnal Christian hold themselves out to be champions of salvation by grace alone. Indeed, one of the books written in opposition to Pastor MacArthur’s book, The Gospel of Jesus, had for its title, Absolutely Free: A Biblical Reply to Lordship Salvation. Salvation is so much of grace, they say, that a man can be saved who continues to live a worldly life. That’s how little our works have to do with our salvation. Even folk with no works to speak of may be saved. Salvation is so much of grace that you can take the gift, put it in your back pocket, and hardly think another thought about Jesus Christ the rest of your life. That person, of course, would be a carnal Christian.
Now, what are we to say about all of that? And, what are we to say about this language Paul uses here in 1 Cor. 3:1-2, which is, after all, the locus classicus of the carnal Christian teaching, the principle text upon which the doctrine is built.
Well, we should admit, at the outset, a certain plausibility in the interpretation of the chapter by the defenders of this division of the church into spiritual and carnal Christians. After all, Paul certainly seems to consider these people to be real Christians even though their behavior in certain ways is repugnant to him. He says they are Christians but also says that they are worldly. Does that not prove that there is such a thing as a worldly, or carnal Christian? Surely it does.
In many place in the Bible, not just here, it is perfectly obvious that Christians can be more or less faithful, that some Christians live a more obedient and fruitful life than others, and that every Christian is sometimes more faithful to the Lord and sometimes less. But here is the problem. Paul does not teach that there are two classes of Christians, or that one can be and remain a worldly person, while, nevertheless going to heaven. He would agree entirely with John who wrote that “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him…. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.” [1 John 15, 17] Let me demonstrate that to you.
I. First, Paul makes a bipartite not tripartite division of mankind.
In this he is faithful to the teaching of the entire Bible. The Bible always divides mankind in two, never in three. And so does Paul and so does Paul here. In 2:14-15 he divides the human race into two classes: those who have the Spirit and those who do not; those who are “worldly” or “carnal” or “natural” and those who are “spiritual.” (The word “worldly,” in 3:1, where the KJV was “carnal”, is the Greek word sarkinos, “fleshly,” which is a synonym of the world “natural” that Paul used in 2:14 and which the NIV paraphrased as “The man without the Spirit.” In other words, the word Paul used in 2:14, which the NIV translates as “the man without the Spirit” means the same thing as the word “worldly” in 3:1. They are synonyms and that is easy to demonstrate.) In other words, Paul continues in the opening verses of chapter 3 with the same division he introduced in 2:14-15. Paul said in 2:14, “the natural man” does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God. That “natural” man is the same thing as the “worldly” or “fleshly” man in 3:1, 3. This distinction between the natural man, the man who still lives according to the dictates of his sinful nature, and the man who has the Spirit of God is a distinction we often find in Paul’s letters. In Romans 8:4, for example, he speaks of the laws righteous requirements being met in us, “who do not live according to the sinful nature (literally “according to the flesh”), but according to the Spirit.” And then he goes on,
“Those who live according to the sinful nature (we would say “those who are carnal”) have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.” [8:5-8]
“Fleshly”, “carnal” or “worldly” people are non-Christian people. Spiritual people are Christian people. That is the way Paul always speaks. It is the meaning of this language. So, in v. 1 of chapter 3, the contrast between spiritual and worldly people is an absolute contrast. Paul is not saying that the Corinthians are behaving like second-class Christians. He is saying that they aren’t behaving like Christians at all. He is saying that they are behaving like non-Christians. Their behavior is a contradiction of their profession of faith in Jesus Christ. Indeed, when he says, in v. 3 that when they give themselves over to jealousy and quarreling they are worldly, what he literally says is that they are behaving “according to man” or “in a human way,” that is, in the way of sinful human beings who have not been renewed by the Spirit of God. And so again in v. 4 where he asks, literally, insofar as the Corinthians Christians are behaving this way, are they not “men,” that is, human beings as they are in sin, natural human beings.
He is here talking specifically about the jealousy and strife that is tearing the Corinthian church apart. In Galatians 5:20 and Romans 13:13 those same things – jealousy and strife – are listed as the deeds of the flesh that stand in unrelieved opposition to the Spirit and his fruits. [Gaffin, Perspectives on Pentecost, 35]
In other words, there are only two kinds of people in the world – Christians and non-Christians – but, it is possible, alas, from time to time, for real Christians to act as if they were non-Christians; just as, as Paul also says, it is sometimes possible for non-Christians to behave as if they were Christians. But these anomalies do not create new categories of people. A carnal Christian is not a type of Christian. In Paul’s argument, a carnal Christian is a Christian who is acting like no Christian at all and that is why he or she must repent and begin again to follow the Lord in faithfulness.
Generally speaking, if you ever hear someone divide the human race into three, what follows will be heresy not sound biblical teaching. First century Judaism had such a tripartite division of the human race. There were the very, very good, who went straight to heaven; there were the very, very bad, that went straight to hell. And then there was the large group in the middle, partly good and partly bad, who needed either refinement in a sort of purgatory after death – there were rabbis who taught that – or who needed some extra weight put on the scale so that they could go to heaven too. Roman Catholicism eventually would develop a similar three-fold division of the race. You find it in Protestant liberalism as well. Listen to Bishop J.C. Ryle make this point in his characteristically clear and memorable way.
“The Word of God always speaks of two great divisions of mankind, and two only. It speaks of the living and the dead in sin – the believer and the unbeliever – the converted and the unconverted – the travellers in the narrow way and the travellers in the broad – the wise and the foolish – the children of God and the children of the devil. Within each of these two great classes there are, doubtless, various measures of sin and of grace; but it is only the difference between the higher and lower end of an inclined plane. Between these two great classes there is an enormous gulf; they are as distinct as life and death, light and darkness, heaven and hell. But of a division into three classes the Word of God says nothing at all.” [Holiness, xv]
The great error of the carnal Christian theory is that it maintains that there are real Christians whose lives belong with the world, that it is possible to be a real Christian but to live on the world’s side of that great divide. Paul’s entire argument is a repudiation of precisely that viewpoint: these Christians are acting as if they were not Christians. That is why their behavior must stop! His point is precisely that there is as much truth and sense in being a “truthful liar” or an “honest thief” as there is in being a “worldly Christian.”
That is the first point: Paul is not saying that these people are acting like carnal Christians. He is saying that they are not acting like Christians at all!
II. Second, Paul does not permit these believers to imagine that they could safely continue in this disobedience, could remain worldly and get away with it.
Now, to be fair to those who believe that there is a “carnal Christian” class of believers, they don’t teach that it is good or right for a Christian to live a worldly life. They are quick to say that it is far better to be a spiritual Christian rather than a carnal one. Spiritual Christians will have more of the Lord’s blessing in this life and more rewards in heaven.
But, still, they say, carnal Christians go to heaven even if they don’t live lives of Christian discipleship, even if they don’t serve the Lord, even if they don’t keep his commandments. If they have ever “received” Christ as their Savior, they will go to heaven, no matter that they never begin to live the Christian life. And, they ask: is this not what Paul himself says in 3:15? A man’s work will be burned up if it isn’t any good, but he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.
Well, we must hear the Bible and pay careful attention to what it says. And, clearly, the Apostle does say, especially in the context of workers responsible for building the church, that ministries that are unfaithful in some important way, may, in fact, come to nothing. A man may build up a large congregation, very impressive in an outward way, but if he builds badly, if he places that congregation on the wrong foundation, if he builds, as Paul says, with wood, hay, and stubble, the day of judgment will reveal that many, most, or all of those people in his congregation were not really saved at all. They may have appeared to be Christians, but the judgment will reveal them not to have been. When the fire tests the quality of those ministers’ work, their work will be revealed to have been all sham, all show and appearance, not the genuine article.
That, of course, in itself, is obviously a reason not to take the carnal Christian theory seriously. Paul is clearly saying that ministries that gather together lots of people who claim to be Christians but who are not living the Christian life, when they are tested in the fire, what was built up will be destroyed. That is, in effect, another way of saying that those who supposedly belong to the class of “carnal Christians” will be destroyed. Churches full of people who do not live faithful lives will be shown in the Great Day to have been congregations of pretend Christians only. The minister himself may be saved, though as one escaping through the flames, but his people will not be. Is that not what Paul says? What irony! Paul’s argument against the notion that such “Christians” could survive the Judgment Day has become the argument that they can!
Taking Paul’s teaching together, we must say, however, that such a minister was not himself a carnal Christian. He was a poor minister and built his church very badly, but he was himself and intended to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Even devout men make serious errors that have catastrophic consequences for others. We have learned that dismal fact from church history times without number.
And the reason we can be sure that the minister who is saved though as through fire is not himself a carnal Christian is found in the next two verses. “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him.” Here is the solemn note of warning, found so often in the NT, that takes away any hint of comfort from those who imagine that they can obtain God’s salvation without acknowledging him as their Lord and Master and seeking to serve him faithfully. Live on purpose in a manner displeasing to God and not carnal Christian theory will save you on the Judgment Day. This warning is addressed to people who think they are Christians! Christians remain sinners and fail in many ways. Ministers also fail in many ways. We know that. Paul teaches that. But that is a very different thing than the notion that one be a Christian and not intend to be holy, not intend to serve the Lord, not intend to hunger and thirst after righteousness. There is no support for that idea here or anywhere else in Paul or in the Bible for that matter. Christians, real Christians are people who follow the Lord and, for all their failures, do live distinctly Christian lives.
That is why throughout the Bible we are warned times without number not to imagine that we are truly saved if we do not care to love and serve the Lord who saved us. As far back as Deuteronomy 29:19-20 we read of the man who hears the blessing of God pronounced upon God’s people, invokes a blessing upon himself and thinks, “I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way.” And then we read, “The Lord will never be willing to forgive him; his wrath and zeal will burn against that man.” The Bible saves its harshest words for those who imagine that they can use God, betray his love and grace, and make a mockery of Jesus Christ, by taking his forgiveness for themselves but snubbing him as Lord and King.
That is precisely why Paul is so determined to bring these Corinthian Christians to repentance. Real Christians cannot live the way these folk are living. Paul knows these people are Christians. He knows that they have, as he said in 1:30, received through faith in Jesus Christ “righteousness, holiness, and redemption.” And so he is confident that they will hear him and obey him as he calls them to repentance and new obedience. The happy fact is, as you know, they did hear him and they did repent and proved Paul precisely right: real Christians, however imperfectly, follow the Lord and seek to live for him.
Those whom God loved before the foundation of the world and chose to be holy in Christ; those for whom Christ’s terrible sacrifice was offered to deliver them from the power of sin and death; those for whom Christ continues his intercession at the Right Hand; those who have been born again by the power of the Spirit of God, made new creations in Jesus Christ, and in whose hearts has been planted the imperishable seed of the Word of God; those in whom the Holy Spirit dwells and by whose indwelling have become the temple of God, I say, those people cannot, will not continue to live as if Christ had never lived and never died. Salvation is, to be sure, utterly of grace. It is God’s gift to undeserving sinners. What must be done to secure it, we cannot do and God must do for us and does: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But, that gracious salvation, when given, transforms the life. It always does, for that is its purpose. That transformation is not complete in this world, it is nowhere near complete; but it is begun, really begun here.
It is precisely that fact that led Paul, at the end of Second Corinthians, when he was wrapping up his correspondence with these people, to say to them one last time:
“Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you – unless, of course, you fail the test?
Samuel Rutherford, with his unique genius, reminds us that we are all tempted, so to speak, to take the money and run. To take the gifts God gives and to ignore the summons that comes with those gifts.
“Sanctification and mortification of our lusts are the hardest part of Christianity. … But oh! How many of us would have Christ divided into two halves, that we might take half of him only! We take his office, Jesus and salvation; but ‘Lord’ is a cumbersome word; and to obey, and work out our own salvation, and to perfect holiness, is the cumbersome and stormy northside of Christ and that we [avoid] and shift.” [Letters, pb ed., 132]
Well, brothers and sisters, it is not only right that we serve faithfully the one who has done so much for us. What we learn everywhere in the Bible and also here in 1 Corinthians 3 is that the only safe place for us is on that stormy northside of Jesus Christ.