Carnal Christianity?

As we further consider the matter of spiritual faithfulness, two very important and interrelated theological theories surface: Positional Sanctification and Carnal Christianity. Both are widely prescribed today in order to tranquilize spiritual adulterers struggling in the throes of guilt.

Unger’s Bible Dictionary gives us an insight into the nature and implications of positional sanctification in its summary statement of the New Testament teaching on the doctrine of sanctification.

The New Testament presents the doctrine of salvation in three aspects: positional, experiential and ultimate. Positional sanctification is the possession of everyone ‘in Christ.’ It depends only upon one’s union with and position ‘in Christ.’ First Corinthians presents proof that imperfect believers are nevertheless positionally sanctified and therefore ‘saints.’ The Corinthian Christians were carnal in life but they are twice said to have been sanctified. [1]Unger‘s Bible Dictionary (Moody Press), p. 966.

In other words, the Corinthian Christians were positionally sanctified without being experientially sanctified. Or, according to Scofield’s notes, they were walking “after the flesh” but were nevertheless “renewed” by the spirit. [2]Scofield Reference Bible, pp. 1213, 1214. To help us sort out all of these positions and experiences, consider the passage in question.

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? —1 Corinthians 3:1-3

In his book, What Should We Think of the Carnal Christian?, Ernest Reisinger relates the following story:

At a church service that I attended recently, the preacher, a sincere minister, was expounding I Corinthians, chapter 3, and he said to a large congregation, ‘Now after you become a Christian you have another choice—either to grow in grace, follow the Lord and become a spiritual Christian, or to remain a babe in Christ and live like natural men.’ He used 1 Corinthians 3:1-4 to state that there were three categories of men—the natural man, the spiritual man, and the carnal man. He described the carnal man as being like the natural man who was unconverted. [3]Ernest C. Reisinger, What Should We Think of the Carnal Christian? (Banner of Truth Trust), p. 6.

This practice of categorizing men into various spiritual configurations has become extremely popular. Ministers unwilling to offend their congregations, and fearful of being called legalists, have created spiritual pigeonholes to accommodate any and all lifestyles. Reisinger continues,

One of the most common and popular presentations of this position is available in the form of a small tract which presents the teaching like this:

“After you have invited Christ into your life, it is possible for you to take control of the throne of your life again. The New Testament passage, I Corinthians 2:14-3:3, identifies three kinds of people:


There will be no dispute about the first circle which represents the non-Christian. Note the position of the Ego, indicating that self is on the throne. The natural man is a self-centered man; his interests are controlled by self. Now compare this with the second circle-the only difference is that a cross (representing Christ) appears, although not on the throne. And the same little dots are in circle two as in circle one, indicating that there has been no basic reorganization or change in the nature and character. That is to say, the bent of the life of the ‘carnal Christian’ is the same as that of the non-Christian. Circle two gives basically the same picture as circle one, the only difference being that the ‘carnal Christian’ has made a profession of receiving Jesus. But he is ‘not trusting God.’” [4]Ibid., pp. 6, 7.

What this teaching essentially propounds is this: If an individual has at some moment in time accepted Christ, he is, from that moment on, positionally sanctified “in Christ.” This position he now has in Christ has nothing to do with his day-to-day behavior or experiential sanctification. In other words, it is possible to be positionally sanctified while living carnally. We are not talking here about doing carnal things, or having difficulties in a particular area. We are talking about an individual who is walking after the flesh, whose ego or self is still on the throne of the heart.

What is the difference between a positionally sanctified, carnal Christian living for himself supremely and an unregenerate, natural man living for himself supremely? Here again we see strong evidence of theology detached from relationship. Unger’s Bible Dictionary expounds these confused categories:

The basis of experiential sanctification, or actual holiness of life, is positional sanctification or what one is ‘in Christ.’ One’s position is true whether or not he reckons or counts it as true. But it becomes experientially real only… as one reckons it to be true. [5]Unger‘s Bible Dictionary, (Moody Press), . p. 966.

In order to effectively understand any scripture, consideration must be given to the surrounding context in which it lies. When the context of the carnal Christian passage is examined, we discover that Paul is dealing with the specific problem of factionalism (unwholesome divisions).

Paul is not saying that they (the Corinthian believers) were characterized by carnality in every area of their lives. He is not expounding a general doctrine of carnality but reproving a specific outcropping of carnality in one certain respect. [6]Ernest C. Reisinger, What Should We Think of the Carnal Christian? (Banner of Truth Trust), p. 12.

If this passage in 1 Corinthians does not establish a special category for loose-living Christians, then where in scripture do we find reference to the issue? Where does the Bible state that a Christian can live carnally? Where does it say that he can be positionally sanctified without being sanctified experientially? The fact of the matter is that positional sanctification is simply being used as another term for justification, the forgiveness of sins, while experiential sanctification is defined as a nonessential change of heart which takes place in some believers after salvation. This is serious error.

When the Bible talks about the new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:24-27; Hebrews 10:15-17), it describes

…one covenant with two inseparable parts—the forgiveness of sins and a changed heart. When a sinner is reconciled to God something happens in the record of heaven, the blood of Christ covers his sins-but at the same time something happens on earth in the heart. The ‘carnal Christian’ teaching appeals to those who are supposed to be justified, as though a new heart and life are optional. Sanctification is spoken of as though it can be subsequent to the forgiveness of sins and so people are led to believe that they are justified even though they are not being sanctified! The truth is that we have no reason to believe that Christ’s blood covers our sins in the record of heaven if the Spirit has not changed our hearts on earth. These two great blessings are joined together in the one covenant. [7]Ibid., pp. 13, 14.

In other words, God can’t forgive a man without a transformation.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Unger‘s Bible Dictionary (Moody Press), p. 966.
2. Scofield Reference Bible, pp. 1213, 1214.
3. Ernest C. Reisinger, What Should We Think of the Carnal Christian? (Banner of Truth Trust), p. 6.
4. Ibid., pp. 6, 7.
5. Unger‘s Bible Dictionary, (Moody Press), . p. 966.
6. Ernest C. Reisinger, What Should We Think of the Carnal Christian? (Banner of Truth Trust), p. 12.
7. Ibid., pp. 13, 14.