By David Bester
This article aims to briefly discuss the Carnal Christian teaching and describe the false assurance of salvation it provides. It will then explore biblical assurance and explain Paul’s usage of the term “carnal” (fleshly) in 1 Corinthians 3:1-4.
THE CARNAL MAN
In Chafer’s work entitled “He that is spiritual”, he put forward the natural man, the carnal man and the spiritual man as three planes of human existence. He maintains that Paul created this classification in 1 Corinthians 2:9-3:4 (Chafer, 2016, p. 299). In this teaching, the natural man is unregenerate, while the carnal and spiritual men are categories of a regenerate believer. It goes further than saying a true believer might temporarily act carnally (or according to the flesh), but rather it suggests that he could exist on a plain of carnality indefinitely. In that case there is no evident difference between a carnal Christian’s manner of life and that of a natural man. The argument has its roots in Wesleyan Perfectionism which holds to instant sanctification taking place in a second work of grace (Combs, 2001, p. 27). Ryrie also argues for the existence of such carnal Christians who are genuinely saved, but their lives will merit no reward (Ryrie, 1972, p. 135). The result of this teaching is alarming.
THE FALSE ASSURANCE
The practical result of this theology is a false assurance of salvation. Assurance of being a true Christian then rests solely on a man’s profession of faith since it is the only evidence of salvation in his life. Furthermore, obedience becomes a non-issue. Habitual sin, unrepentance, lack of growth and lack of fellowship (with God, Christ, and other believers) should cause no alarm for him, since these have no bearing on his assurance of being a true Christian. Paul counters this strange notion with his exhortation to the Philippians to “work out” their salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12-13). They already possess salvation, but they are to work it out “just as [they] have always obeyed” while God works in them to will and to work for His good pleasure. James also counters false assurance by proving that the kind of faith which is not accompanied by works is a useless faith and it cannot save anyone (Jas 2:14, 20, 24, 26). Believers are to pursue a biblical assurance of salvation (2 Pet 1:10).
THE BIBLICAL ASSURANCE
Biblical assurance is obviously desirable since the epistle of first John was written for the explicit purpose of assuring true Christians of their eternal life (1 Jn 5:13). Based on this epistle, MacArthur has drawn up a list of eleven evidences that the true Christian is marked by (MacArthur, 2017, pp. 650-653). A true Christian is marked by fellowship with the Triune God (1 Jn 1:3), the internal ministry of the Holy Spirit (1 Jn 4:13), answered prayer (1 Jn 5:14) and a longing for Christs return (1 Jn 3:1-3). He has spiritual discernment (1 Jn 4:1-3); an awareness of God’s holiness and his own sinfulness (1 Jn 1:8-10); decreasing patterns of sinfulness (1 Jn 3:9); and increasing patterns of holiness (1 Jn 2:3). He has a growing rejection of worldliness (1 Jn 2:15), a rejection by the world (1 Jn 3:13) and a love for fellow Christians (1 Jn 3:10). Hence, biblical assurance of salvation is evidence-based and the evidence is more than a profession of faith. As Christ said: “every tree is known by its own fruit” (Lk 6:43-45).
THE SPIRITUAL MAN ACTING FLESHLY
A closer look at First Corinthians 2 reveals that Paul only really compares two categories of man i.e. the natural man and the spiritual man (Combs, 2001, p. 40). In the immediate context, Paul was defending his message and his preaching style which was not according to worldly wisdom (1 Cor 1:17; 2:1, 4) (Thistleton, 2000, pp. 287-291). However, to the mature, his message was indeed wisdom (1 Cor 2:6). Hence, the Corinthian saints, although they were spiritual men, were acting fleshly in the areas of jealousy and strife over human teachers (1 Cor 3:3-4). Paul was not setting up a new category of believer, rather rebuking those who were spiritual for acting unspiritual or fleshly. Christians might be temporarily carnal in their behaviour, but not permanently in their nature (MacArthur, 2008, p. 279).
Paul did not create a second category of Christian in 1 Corinthians 3:1-4 called “the carnal man”, but he was rebuking spiritual believers for acting carnally. To provide for the existence of carnal believers is to provide false assurance of salvation to the unregenerate.