What does 1 Corinthians 3:1-4 really teach?
From a single passage of Scripture, proponents of the “Carnal Christian” theory conjured up three classes of humanity, the natural man, the spiritual Christian man, and the carnal Christian man. This passage is found in 1 Corinthians 3:1-4:
“1And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. 2I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able. 3For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men? 4For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal?”Unlike the epistles to the Romans and the Galatians, 1 Corinthians is not primarily a doctrinal epistle. Although all Scripture contains doctrine (2 Timothy 3:16), 1 Corinthians was not written to lay doctrinal foundations. Paul’s immediate concern in writing this epistle was to deal with practical problems in the young Corinthian church.
Due to schisms within the church at Corinth, the apostle was obliged to treat the Corinthians as children or babes in the knowledge of sacred truths (1 Corinthians 3:1-3). Some preferred Paul as their teacher, others Apollos (1 Corinthians 3:4). The apostle, however, clarified that Apollos, his fellow apostles, and himself were only God’s instruments for bringing them to the knowledge of the truth. All their sowing and watering of the seeds were useless unless God gave the increase (1 Corinthians 3:5-8). From the first to the fourth chapters of 1 Corinthians, Paul was dealing with the danger of schisms and divisions arising out of a wrong esteem for preachers from whom they had heard the gospel. Instead of recognizing their unity in Christ, they were forming factions and opposing parties within the church.
As with all the other problems within the Corinthian church - for example, the disorder at the Lord’s Supper, immorality and lawsuits - such divisions were the result of carnality, the outcropping of that remaining principle of sin in all believers which Paul described in Romans 7:21-23. We understand that the Corinthian Christians were imperfectly sanctified, as are all Christians to a lesser or greater degree.
Paul is not teaching that the Corinthians were characterized by carnality in all areas of their lives. He is not expounding a separate, lower class of “Carnal Christians”, but reproving a specific act of carnality in just one aspect of those factious Christians. Paul’s foundational epistles - the epistles to the Romans and the Galatians - had clearly laid out a bipartite division of all humanity. To read a new class of “Carnal Christian” into the text of 1 Corinthians 3:1-4 is to violate a cardinal principle of basic hermeneutics: a single passage of Scripture must be interpreted in the light of the whole.
A Christian may be fleshly in one or more areas of his life, and also at various periods of his pilgrimage on Earth. But it is inconceivable that a born-again child of God, who is sanctified by the Holy Spirit, can remain carnal in all areas of his life for all his life!
The “Carnal Christian” theory intimates that sanctification and submission to the Kingship of Christ is an option. Thus, this aberrant teaching makes it possible for unregenerate, sybaritic “professors” to claim a saving attachment to Christ when they are really on the broad way to hell. “Redemption would be a mockery without sanctification; for sin itself, and not the external wrath of God, is the cause of misery here, and eternal death hereafter. Hence, to deliver the fallen son of Adam from his guilt, and leave him under the power of corruption would be no salvation.” (R. L. Dabney, Systematic Theology (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1985 ), 664.)
This hedonistic culture will not hesitate to embrace the “Carnal Christian” theory, for the theory assures a materialistic, profligate generation that they can remain in their carnality, and yet acquire a “fire-insurance policy.” The unregenerate person is thereby misled into believing that he can proclaim the name of Christ (Matthew 7:21-23), and yet continue to enjoy “the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 John 2:16).” But the Bible proclaims that God is able to take away our stony hearts, and to give us new hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26).
Is it, then, possible for a true Christian to have no desire in obeying the thrice-Holy God (1 John 2:3-5, John 14:15)?
Ernest Reisinger exclaimed, “How in God’s name did we come to huckstering off Jesus as some kind of hell-insurance policy, when the Bible announced Him as Lord and exalted Him to a throne? The New Testament preachers preached His lordship, and sinners received Him as Lord. There is not one example of Christ being offered any other way . . . God-centered evangelism proclaims the biblical message of the lordship of Christ at the outset, not as a second work of grace, or an act of optional consecration later.” Ernest C. Reisinger, Today’s Evangelism: Its Message and Methods (Phillipsburg, NJ: Craig Press, 1982), pp. 25, 27.
Ultimately, the “Carnal Christian” heresy denigrates all the three persons of the Godhead: it scorns the atonement of Christ by implying that His death does not liberate the sinner from the power of sin; it demeans the regenerating work of the Spirit by teaching that the Holy Ghost cannot lead the child of God in victorious, holy living; it ultimately ridicules the Father by calling Him a liar and an impotent God (1 Peter 1:2).
This post concludes my brief discourse in this subject matter.