The “Carnal” Christian” Theory


            The “carnal Christian” idea was popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible and the teachings of Lewis Sperry Chafer who both made an interpretive decision regarding 1 Corinthians 3:1-4 to divide people up into three categories—the natural man, the spiritual man, and the carnal man.[1]  The natural man represents the unregenerate person enslaved to sin and dead in transgressions.  For our discussion of Keswick theology, we will not focus on lost people, but will see how they differentiate between two types of Christians—the spiritual man and the carnal man. The spiritual man represents the victorious Spirit-filled believer, while the carnal man represents an immature believer who has not yet learned to walk in the Spirit and who lives basically like an unsaved person. J. Robertson McQuilkin states, “Scripture recognizes a basic difference among Christians. It distinguishes between carnal Christians, who behave like unconverted people, and spiritual Christians, whose life is dominated by the Spirit of God. All Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, but some Christians are “filled with the Spirit.”[2]  Does 1 Corinthians 3:1-4 teach this tri-fold view of humanity?


            Paul writes, “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?” (1 Corinthians 3:1-4)  


            In the context of 1 Corinthians, Paul addresses the issue of factions in the church and their propensity to elevate their favorite preacher to super-apostle status.   Some in the church were following Peter as their chief leader, while others where following Apollos, and others Paul.  Through their immaturity, these various groups were causing divisions in the church in Corinth.  When addressing this, does Paul make two categories of Christians or does he simply address their sinful behavior as babes in Christ? As we have seen in Chapters 2 and 3, sin presents itself as a tricky foe that deceives and defrauds us in the ongoing battle for our souls. We still retain the vestiges of sin deep in our hearts even after we have been born again by God’s Spirit.  Paul does not make up a category called the “carnal Christian” but addresses one specific area of immaturity in the life of these believers—namely, factions and divisions.


            How does Paul address them earlier in this epistle? In 1 Corinthians 1:2 he writes, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ both their Lord and ours.” Clearly from the outset Paul views these believers as saints who have been set apart by God’s grace through the gospel. He does not address them as “carnal Christians” but as believers.  Every single person who has placed his or her trust in Jesus Christ for salvation becomes a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17) and has passed from death to life. This does not mean that every single Christian is as fully sanctified as he or she could be, but that we are all on a journey of progressive growth. Sometimes saints act like sinners because of indwelling sin, but that is not our true nature as recipients of the new birth.


            In his treatment of this subject Ernest Reisinger writes, “The spiritual may be but babes in grace and babes in knowledge. Their faith may be weak. Their love may be in its early bud, their spiritual senses may be but little exercised, their faults may be many; but if ‘the root of the matter’ is in them and if they have passed from death unto life—passed out of the region of nature into that which is beyond nature—they are all spiritual men although in some aspects of their behavior they may temporarily fail to appear as such.”[3]  In other words, he makes two key observations about immature believers. First of all, what truly counts is the “root of the matter” which I believe means that these have been genuinely converted as authentic Christians although their faith is relatively new. Secondly, this sinful behavior will only be temporary as they continue to grow in sanctification, not a permanent lifestyle of disobedience.   Paul knows nothing of this third class of “carnal Christians” who still walk perpetually in the flesh and have not achieved a higher plane of spiritual growth. 


Radical “Sold Out” Disciples vs. Ordinary “Average Joe” Christians?


            Another deficient aspect of the Keswick demarcation between classes of believers manifests itself in a misunderstanding of the nature of a disciple. In this view, a “disciple” is an advanced believer who has fully surrendered his or her life to Christ, walks in the Spirit, and stands above the average Christian.  For example, when I often teach on the Great Commission’s charge to make disciples of all nations, many will come to me and alert me that I have lumped “disciples” and “converts” together as one group. They will say that a Christian or convert is a person who has first trusted Christ for salvation, but then they move beyond being just a Christian and advance to being a disciple. They will often argue that a disciple is one who is truly serious about Jesus, while a Christian is just an average believer who does not show a zeal and obedience to Christ in the same way a true disciple would. Again, we see this two-tiered system of believers—the seriously committed victorious disciples versus the average, mediocre Christian.  What the Keswick view fails to see is that every Christian is indeed a disciple and that every Christian/disciple is on his or her own path of growth in progressive sanctification. Some disciples have matured more quickly, while others have not, but yet every person who claims the name of Christ as Savior and Lord is a disciple. B.B. Warfield writes, “There are not two kinds of Christians, although there are Christians at every conceivable stage of advancement toward the one goal to which all are bound and at which all shall arrive.”[4]


            In John 8:31-32, we find these words: “So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  Jesus is addressing Jews who had initially placed their faith in Him as their Messiah. Those who had believed in Him Jesus calls true disciples.  Evidence that a person is a believer shows itself in their abiding in His Word. But nowhere in this passage, does Jesus create a second stage of super spiritual Christians who start out as ordinary believers and then advance to the level of true disciples. John Piper comments on this by saying, “Let’s be really clear here: For Jesus ‘true disciple’ is the same as ‘true Christian’ or ‘true believer.’ Jesus is not saying that a ‘true disciple’ is a second stage in the Christian life. First believer, and then later you attain the level of disciple. There have been ministries who talk that way. First, you’re an unbeliever, then you are a believer, then you grow into a disciple, and then you are a disciplemaker. That is not the way Jesus thought.”[5]


Potential Pitfalls


            What are the potential pitfalls of dividing up believers into a two-tiered class of super advanced victorious Spirit-filled believers over and against average ordinary Christians who struggle with sin? First of all, it gives a false assurance to those who have been labeled a “carnal Christian”, but in fact may have never been soundly saved in the first place.  If people have been told that they don’t need to worry about examining themselves or making their calling and election sure, but that they are just “carnal” Christians who have not reached this victorious stage in their life, they become deluded into a false sense of security. They have been told repeatedly that they are safe from God’s judgment because of the “once saved always saved” slogan although they can continue to live like a non-believer and never submit to Christ as Lord.  I wholeheartedly embrace the doctrine of perseverance of the saints, but a person has to be a saint in the first place in order for God to ensure he or she endures to the end.  Unregenerate people who have been labeled “carnal Christians” living in total rebellion to Christ, have been told that Christ is their Savior and that they have received “fire insurance” from hell, but that later on they can make that life changing decision to make Jesus Lord.  Nowhere in Scripture do we ever find a person trusting Christ simply as Savior and at a later point in time, surrendering to Him as Lord. The “carnal Christian” fallacy allows a person to enjoy all the sinful benefits of being lost while at the same time being told he or she is simply “carnal” and not victorious. In the end, this sends the person to an eternity in hell.


            Genuine saving faith produces a new creation in Christ evidenced by ongoing repentance (Matthew 3:8).  The “carnal Christian” teaching cuts the guts out of the doctrine of regeneration because it basically argues that a sinner can be saved by grace through the power of the gospel, but shows no transformational change in behavior. Again, there are not two categories of Christians, but instead, there are only two categories of people overall—those who have life in Christ and those who do not.  The venerable J. Gresham Machen makes this excellent statement in regards to the true nature of saving faith: “Faith…involves a change of the whole nature of man; it involves a new hatred of sin and a new hunger and thirst after righteousness. Such a wonderful change is not the work of man; faith itself is given us by the Spirit of God…it is quite inconceivable that a man should be given this faith in Christ, that he should accept this gift which Christ offers, and still go on contentedly in sin.”[6]  In other words, all sinners whom God makes a saint through salvation will hate sin and not continue in habitual patterns of disobedience. We may fall into gross sin for a temporary period of time or experience a season of backsliding, but in the end, God’s discipline will bring us back to a place where He ensures that we continue to pursue Him.


            John MacArthur comments on the weakness of the “carnal Christian” myth by saying, “Note also that Paul did not urge the Corinthians to seek some second-level experience. He did not counsel them to ‘make Christ Lord” or dedicate themselves once and for all. On the contrary, he told them, ‘You are not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who shall also confirm you to the end, blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Corinthians 1:7-8)”[7]  Instead of urging supposed “carnal Christian” to seek a second-level experience of victory, truly lost sinners need to repent of their sins and place their faith in Christ alone for the very first time so that they can experience a genuine saving faith.  The Keswick teaching leads to a false sense of assurance whereby countless non-believers are coddled into thinking their eternal destiny is safely intact when in fact they are facing the imminent dangers of hell itself.  Again, Andy Naselli writes, “A major problem with Keswick theology is that rather than causing professing believers to examine themselves to see whether they are genuine believers persevering in the faith, it exhorts them to move from category 1(carnal) to category 2 (spiritual). An unintentional result of dividing Christians into two distinct categories (e.g., making “carnal Christians” a permanent category) is that it may have a comforting, soothing effect on professing believers who are not actually genuine believers by giving them a false assurance of salvation.”[8]


            In addition to giving sinners a false sense of assurance, this two-tiered classification of believers can also lead to elitism among the “haves” or super apostles who have somehow achieved this victorious experience. Those who have supposedly risen to this new level of spiritual blessedness can often look down on those who have not and thereby condescendingly urge the “lower level” believers to seek a deeper experience. J.I. Packer brings up the question that Keswick teaching can possibly breed pietistic elitism by saying it developed “the sense of superiority that comes of thinking one knows esoteric spiritual secrets; the inward-looking, anti-intellectual prickliness; the smug complacency that uses peace, joy, rest, and blessing at its buzzwords.”[9]


In our next post we will explore another aspect called quietism….

[1] B.B. Warfield wrote a critical review of Lewis Sperry Chafer’s “He That is Spiritual” in the Princeton Theological Review in April of 1919.  He quotes Chafer’s view: “There are two great spiritual changes which are possible to human experience—the change from the natural man to the saved man and the change from the carnal man to the spiritual man. The former is divinely accomplished when there is a real faith in Christ; the latter is accomplished when there is a real adjustment to the Spirit. The spiritual man is the divine ideal in life and ministry, in power with God and man, in unbroken fellowship and blessing.”

[2] “Five Views of Sanctification”, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1987), 160

[3] Ernest C. Reisinger “What Should We Think about ‘The Carnal Christian’”, (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth Trust, 1978) 11-12

[4] B.B. Warfield, “A Review of Lewis Sperry Chafer’s ‘He that is Spiritual’, (Princeton Theological Review, Vol. XVII, No. 2, April, 1919) retrieved from

[6] J. Gresham Machen, What is Faith? (New York: Macmillan, 1925) 203-4

[7] John MacArthur, The Gospel According to the Apostles, (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000), 107

[8] Andrew Naselli, “Let go and Let God? A Survey and Analysis of Keswick Theology”, 286

[9] J.I. Packer, “Keep in Step with the Spirit”, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Revell Books, 1984), 152



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