First take a glance at the multifaceted corruptive flesh-system on its own. You have unbelievers who are more noble-minded when it comes to the Gospel (like the Bereans) then you’d have others who are outright enemies of righteousness (Saducees). You have some that are very zealous for God but not according to knowledge (like many of the Pharisaic Jews) and some that are zealously sinful but by ignorance (like Paul). Then you have others who say they can see but are blind (the group in John 9) and yet others who take a wait and see approach (like Gamaliel). All of these are rightfully merely human souls. They are acting of their own wide range of wisdom, according to God’s common grace, but all are naturally fallen and thus utterly lost in their foolishness.
Neither is more fallen than the other. Neither is more mature in their falleness than the other. Sure, some of their sins are more numerable and heinous than the other—so that some who are saved will say that there was much forgiven—but none of them, by their mere activity, pop into the Church as Christians by Self-Action.
Second, note how good the assembly at Corinth looked:
- They were all baptized (1 Cor 1)
- They regularly got together for Church: they didn’t forsake the assembling of themselves. (1 Cor 11)
- They regularly got together for small groups (1 Cor 8)
- They rejoiced in their Christian liberty (1 Cor 6)
- They continued their love-feasts in the face of division: fellowship was key.
- They had many teachers which they listened to. (1 Cor 1-4)
- They had all the spiritual gifts—and used them. (1 Cor 1)
- They eagerly waited for the revelation of the Lord (1 Cor 1)
- They were enriched with all speech and knowledge—they knew their Bibles and how to preach. (1 Cor 1)
- They prayed together. (1 Cor 11)
- They were eager about collecting money (1 Cor 16)
- They were gracious to the sinner (1 Cor 5)
- They thought of themselves as spiritual (1 Cor 1; 12)
A church today with these marks would probably be seen as a grounded, Biblical church. Now, don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying that a Biblical Church is a Carnal Church. What I am saying is that here is a very good church which took this apostle to realize that they were actually not mature but rather carnal. No silly tiered Christianity here (where you have Good Christians then Naughty Worldly Christians On the Edge of Christianiy). It’d take longer to establish than this article but a carnal Christian is NOT merely a Christian that does things the world does (like tattoos, drinking, or smoking): it goes deeper and wider than that.
Third, underscore Paul’s corrective methodology:
- Paul was capable of using persuasive words (Acts 19:8); but he couldn’t do it with the Corinthians. He had to speak in a way that the power of the message (the Gospel) worked in their lives (1 Cor 2).
- Paul often spoke about difficult things (2 Pet 3:16); with them he had to feed them with baby food (1 Cor 3) but always regarding the ramifications of the Gospel.
- Paul pointed out that due to the divisions, it would be better if they just stayed home (1 Cor 11) since what they were supposed to be doing was celebrating the Gospel.
- Paul pointed out that their small groups should stop meeting in places where their brothers and sisters would stumble (1 Cor 8; 10) which was an affront to the Gospel.
- Paul had to point out that their liberty was being abused and that real liberty is curbed (1 Cor 9): just like in the Gospel.
- Paul had to point out that their teachers were mere tools of God’s hands (1 Cor 4) for spreading and growing the Gospel.
- Paul pointed out that their rich speech and knowledge had to be focused the right way (1 Cor 14) by realizing the centrality of the Gospel
- Paul pointed out that their praying together needed restrictions (1 Cor 11) evidenced in the original creation which the Gospel was restoring.
- Paul had to tell them that their graciousness was allowing sin in their midst (1 Cor 5) which was contrary to the Gospel
- Paul had to point out that, in light of the Gospel, their spirituality was actually carnality (1 Cor 2)
- Paul had to end the entire letter by restating the things of “first importance” (1 Cor 15) namely, the Gospel.
That’s the diagnosis, a case-study and now the concluding thoughts with treatment.
In the church we’ll have a wide range of people—just like in the World. A Cloud, as it were, of witnesses. We’ll have new believers who are babes in Christ and we’ll have mature believers. We’ll have believers who are growing in maturity and we’ll note that all believers have bouts with carnality (Rom 7). It isn’t a position they are in, (as if they are then suddenly Carnal Christians) it is a struggle that they face and, by God’s grace, conquer. I’d illustrate it like a checkerboard.
In this wide range of believers we’ll have some who might look very mature (they read their Bible, they quote verses, they quote the right teachers, they pray in public, they verbally amen a song) but are actually childish, they are carnal. They have a childish (and by that I don’t mean a good thing) approach to things which refuses to mature. They draw childish divisive lines; they make big deals of things they shouldn’t and make no fuss about things they should; their pride is magnified in their efforts at being spiritual: it goes on.
The solution for these carnal Christians isn’t to overlay on them the multifaceted areas of heavier teaching that they need to comprehend. Showing them the various different models of ecclesiology or pointing out the different systems of eschatology isn’t going to do jack squat for these people except, maybe, add to the spirit of divisiveness. You need to go back to the Gospel in consistent expositional teaching: centralize Christ, emphasize the cross’s ignominy and victory, and always reflect the resurrection on their situation.
4 replies on “Diagnosing and Treating Carnal Christians”
Maybe it’s because I’m teaching Heb 10 this evening, but how do you know when a believer has gone past the point of no return (cf Heb 10.26-27, 6.4-6)? God told Jeremiah at least three times (7.16, 11.14, 14.11) not to pray for sinful Judah, indicating that there does come a time for some covenant people when repentance is no longer possible. But how do we know and, more importantly, what do we do?
The ramblings of the Young:
If I am part of the Church I can decide on what is in the Church and those who are there are either babies, or maturing, or mature, or carnal but then I realize that those carnal ones aren’t some category on the fringe but they might be front and center in the pulpit. Respected. Loved. And apparently (they think) spiritual.
But I don’t know how a person has gone to the point of no return. I don’t know when a person be it behind the pulpit has gone that far. I also don’t think any of us can know when they’ve gone that far without God interjecting.
I know that if a person is an unbeliever they need the preached Gospel. I know that a person who has been disciplined by being taken out of the Church and they refuse to come back need the preached Gospel (since I am then treating them as an unbeliever). And I know that a person who is carnal and refuses to mature needs to drink up the ramifications of God’s gospel so as to mature.
The solution seems to be the same, I think.
Except Hebrews 6 says, quite explicitly, that it is impossible to bring some of these people to repentance. Indeed, John hints that for some of them we can’t even pray for them (those who have sinned the sin leading to death).
I think I’ll have to look at that more.
I do think that the comfort causing category that some people have created (the Backsliding Carnal Christian who is a Real Christian But Looks Indistinguishable From The World) gives an undue comfort that allows some people not to wrestle with this stuff. I’m not saying you’re saying this; I’m rambling thinking about the people who immediately would answer with that.
[…] think that the usual take on carnal Christians is way off—I‘ve said that. A true believer that is indistinguishable from the world? Poppycock. Very often, they look like […]
[…] If the Scripture points to Christ and the Gospel, we should rightly ask what the preacher unveiled about the Gospel in a positive way (yes, the message clearly reflected Christ and God’s Gospel in this point here, there and the other) or negatively (no, the message laid on me a demand—something I had to do—when I know that I don’t have the power to do it. It preached “law”). If “no” was there ever a solution found in the Gospel or was it strictly demand and command? […]