The Carnal Christian

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?” (v. 3).  

- 1 Corinthians 3:1-4

Continuing our discussion of perseverance, we will today focus on the issue of the “carnal” Christian. Advocates of carnal Christianity teach that people can receive Jesus as Savior without necessarily submitting to Him as Lord. Essentially, this means that a person is saved if he confesses Christ, even if he never tries to live according to Jesus’ commandments.

Such an understanding marks a significant innovation in the history of theology. We who are heirs of the Reformation affirm the necessity of good works in the Christian life, even though these deeds can never merit God’s favor. Advocates of carnal Christianity say that to affirm that good works are required of the believer is to deny that justification is by faith alone.

This claim reveals how seriously the proponents of carnal Christianity misunderstand the doctrine of justification. Scripture clearly teaches that we are justified not by works, but by faith alone (Gal. 2:16). Yet it also tells us justifying faith is living faith, revealing itself in good works of obedience to Christ (James 2:17–18). We cannot be saved and utterly fail to follow the way of Jesus. To love Christ is to obey Him (John 14:15) even though our obedience will be imperfect until we are glorified. Many who claim to be Christians lack saving faith (Matt. 7:21), and proponents of carnal Christianity provide false assurance when they say we can trust in Jesus as Savior without following Him as Lord.

A war within between the Holy Spirit and the flesh (our old sin nature) characterizes the life of the true Christian (Rom. 7:13–20; Gal. 5:16–24). Sometimes the flesh seems to be winning more battles than the Spirit (1 Cor. 3:1–4), especially when we are spiritual infants. This does not mean we are not saved; that we desire to serve Jesus and have some good works proves otherwise. This desire and its attendant praiseworthy deeds do not justify us, but they are fruits of the change of life that ensues when God declares us righteous in His sight by faith alone. And as we grow into maturity, the victory over sin Christ won for us on the cross will be increasingly manifest in our lives as by the Spirit we put to death the desires of the flesh (Rom. 6:1–14).  

Coram Deo

We must always be clear that our good works can never make us righteous before God. Yet we must be equally clear that justifying faith immediately and inevitably evidences itself through good works such as our confession of faith and acts of charity towards our neighbors. Can people tell by your life that you trust in Christ, or is your profession of faith empty? What is one good work you can do today out of a desire to demonstrate your love for Jesus?

Passages for Further Study

2 Chronicles 30:6–8
Jeremiah 13:1–11
Ephesians 2:8–10
Hebrews 10:24–25

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