Rethinking the "Carnal Christian"
On Sunday, February 21, I preached on 1 Corinthians 3:1-4 where Paul says that the Corinthians are “carnal.” This does not mean they are not saved. Paul calls the unsaved person “natural” (1 Corinthians 2:14). But it does mean they are not “spiritual” (1 Corinthians 2:14). So there are three categories of people in 1 Corinthians 2:14-3:4. Natural, carnal and spiritual. How are we to understand them?
The Natural Person
|F = self-reliant flesh or “I”
(F) = “works of the flesh”
The natural person is an unbeliever. He is without Christ and without the Holy Spirit. He is committed to having the self-reliant flesh (= “old person”) enthroned in his life, and he is dominated by the “works of the flesh” (Galatians 5:19-20). He sees spiritual things as foolish and will not receive them (1 Corinthians 2:14). He is spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:5) and blind (2 Corinthians 4:4) and enslaved to sin (Romans 6:20).
The Carnal Christian
|† = Jesus,
HS = Holy Spirit
(HS) = “fruit of the Holy Spirit”
The Holy Spirit has opened the heart of the carnal Christian to receive the word of the Lord (Acts 16:14). God has effectually called him (1 Corinthians 1:24) and drawn him (John 6:44) to Christ. The Holy Spirit has crucified the flesh (Galatians 5:24) and put the old self to death (Romans 6:6), that is, a mortal blow to his old nature has been struck, and Christ has been enthroned in the place of the self-reliant “I”.
Therefore the carnal Christian has decisively turned to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and has penitently renounced the path of disobedience (Romans 10:9; Acts 3:19; 16:31). He deeply acknowledges Christ as Lord of his life and does not renounce him in his heart. He has begun—but only begun—to fight the sins of his life (Romans 8:13). The remaining corruption of the flesh is strong, and a battle is underway which at this time is being fought with meager success because faith is weak and the means of grace are not yet in full use. God has begun the subduing of the remaining corruption, but he suffers us in varying degrees to resist his omnipotent power and discover the depth of our depravity in the recalcitrant slowness of our sanctification.
The Spiritual Christian
The difference between the spiritual Christian and the carnal Christian is one of degree. Becoming spiritual (= mature) is a gradual process in which the enthroned Christ subdues more and more of our remaining corruption, and we become more and more in tune with his Spirit. The fruit of the Holy Spirit pervades more and more of our lives, and the old sins lose more and more of their hold. This comes to pass as we trust Christ more and more fully as the all-satisfying friend and guide of our daily lives.
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