I 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 godly, righteous people who are teachers of the faith without some sleazy lifestyle.
I think we have Christians all over the spectrum: babes in Christ (from that other post too), those who are maturing in Christ, those who are caught up in a sin (and then perhaps being disciplined). Christians, at any point, can be called “Carnal” when they are being driven by the flesh—but that doesn‘t mean they‘re off committing adultery. Though it might mean they applaud really stupid things when they should know better.
But how do they get there? I mean, what point does a person who is maturing in Christ start being so stupid that they prove they are carnal?
Okay, that‘s an overstatement. But something is going on with their thinking.
Paul tells the Corinthians that he couldn‘t speak to them as spiritual (which seems as if it means mature here) but he had to speak to them like babies (the opposite of spiritual which would be carnal: 1 Cor 3:1). They weren‘t capable of handling anything stronger (1 Cor 3:2). They were effectively children in their thinking though they shouldn‘t have been (1 Cor 14:20).Paul makes maturity (reaching the full stature of the head) the goal for the Christian—they are no longer to be babies (Eph 4:14).
The writer to the Hebrews points out that the believers were not capable of handling stronger teaching even though, by that point, they should have been teachers. But because they weren‘t maturing the teacher had to go back to the elementary truths (Heb 5:11-14).
There‘s a knowledge problem but not a lack of knowing.
These people are supposed to know better but because of something they don‘t know better. Indeed, they‘re not even able to handle teaching on top of their blockage. Teachers have to go back to basics.
At this point the common lay teacher would say that Christians are in a constant state of flux: that if they are not making sure to read their Bibles and pray every day they will backslide into sin and carnality. Here they‘ll happily pull a text out of context and state that we need to be feeding the inner man by which we are renewed day by day (2 Cor 4:16).
Christians, bought with a price, being molded by God Himself, seating in the heavenly places with Christ Himself, temples of the Holy Spirit Himself are so powerfully bad that they‘re constantly in a state of slipping “backwards” into gross sin by not reading the Bible? Oh those poor illiterate Christians.
But ignoring that, if what the writers are saying is true—reading the Bible (or a commentary on the Bible) will not get this person out of their stilted babyhood. They need (says both writers) someone to teach them the elementary things again.
That is, these people have done something that the Holy Spirit now has to talk to them from the outside, as it were.
The writer to the Hebrews gives us the clue of what that something is: the mature, by constant use, have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil (Heb 5:14).
Staying with the metaphor, the believer is born again and then is taught by someone the elementary principles. They are further disciplined. They learn what is right and what is wrong and what is possibly gray. Indeed, the teaching is by the Holy Spirit Himself—through the inner witness, through the Scriptures, through other believers, and through the historical Church. As issues come up, opportunities to flex those young theological legs, they put their faith to practice. As they repeatedly practice, they are able to distinguish right (teaching and practices) from evil (teaching and practices): they mature.
The Christian who faces these same opportunities without training in them doesn‘t start backsliding into sin; rather they miss out on training those theological muscles. Do it enough times and they just sit there—their thinking dull. They can‘t distinguish what is good (teaching and practice) from what is evil (teaching and practice).
Paul would call this process training in Godliness (1 Tim 4:7-8) or “feeding the inner man” or walking in the Spirit. Scripture abounds in this idea of growing in wisdom and learning discernment: The fear of the Lord leads to life (Prov 19:23); learning to fear the Lord is the path to wisdom (Proverbs1); seeking first the Kingdom of God in our thinking says the Lord (Matt :33); not thinking the way the Gentiles think in the futility of their mind (Eph 3). It‘s a real training that affects what Christians know and how they know what they know.
Carnality, on the other hand, ignores the actual hard training that is going on and tries to do things that look like what the world would think it should look like. So Paul can point out that those regulations of not eating this and not touching that have the appearance of Godliness (Col 2:23) but are rather merely investments in the flesh to battle the flesh—ultimately worthless, creates false humility, and dulls the senses so that they think all types of stupid things (1 Tim 6:5).
These people have become calloused in their thinking, having the form of godliness, but ultimately denying its power (2 Tim 3:5). They no longer can know any better because they‘ve trained themselves to not be able to discern what is better.
I said in the other post that the solution is going back to the Gospel and the ramifications thereof. Paul spends all of 1 Corinthians going back to the Gospel and the genius writer to the Hebrews pulls the believers to very deep thinking by constantly cycling back to the Gospel. Why the Gospel? Because, at the heart of it, this problem is resulting in dulled discernment and the Gospel is what empties man of his own wisdom. Regarding our knowledge, the Gospel says “as an unbeliever, you wouldn‘t have known any of this; but you‘re a believer and you know better. Grow up.”
Unfortunately, I think there might also be an eschatological problem when it comes to carnal Christians. They don‘t only have a problem with what they know and how they know it (because of failed training in discernment) but, at this stage of the game (with the wealth of knowledge we have available) God might be pushing things along to allow the dull senses. When confessing Christians applaud the aggrandizement of sin under the banner of freedom or love, and then encourage others to do the same, I can‘t but help thinking that this has something to do with people refusing to accept sound teaching by heaping up people to tickle their itching ears (2 Tim 4:3).