The Lordship Controversy and the Carnal Christian Teaching (Part 2)

The Lordship Controversy and the Carnal Christian Teaching (Part 2)

Ernest Reisinger

[Back to: Part 1]

Let me give a short review of our last study on the Carnal Christian teaching:

  • The “Carnal Christian” teaching is primarily based on an erroneous interpretation of a single passage of Scripture (1 Cor. 3:1-4).
  • The “Carnal Christian” teaching perverts many other doctrines of the Christian faith.
  • The “Carnal Christian” teaching separates the two main doctrines of the Christian faith–justification and sanctification.
  • The “Carnal Christian” teaching separates the new covenant by making the act of submission to Christ optional–what God has joined together let no man or teaching put asunder.
  • The “Carnal Christian” teaching makes holiness, obedience and discipleship optional. See John 10:26-28; 14:21-23; 15:10; 1 Pet. 1:155,16; Heb. 12:14; Titus 2:10-14.
  • The “Carnal Christian” teaching breeds antinomianism and gives a false standard of what a Christian really is.
  • The “Carnal Christian” teaching is the mother of many of the second-work-of-grace errors.
  • The “Carnal Christian” teaching actually teaches two ways to heaven: one, the carnal-Christian way and two, the spiritual-Christian way–whichever your prefer.
  • The “Carnal Christian” teachers ignore the biblical distinction between the grounds of salvation and the grounds of assurance.
  • The “Carnal Christian” teaching breeds a false spirituality and Pharisaism in the so-called “spiritual Christians” who have measured up to some man-made standard of spirituality. There ought to be no professed “spiritual Christians,” much less “super-spiritual” ones! George Whitefield, a man who lived very close to his Savior, prayed all his days, “Let me begin to be a Christian.” And another Christian has truly said, “In the life of the most perfect Christian there is every day renewed occasion for self-abhorrence, for repentance, for renewed application to the blood of Christ, for application of the rekindling of the Holy Spirit.”

Many are comfortable living sinful lives while hiding behind a teaching that is not biblical, comfortably going to hell on a false teaching.

It is one thing to speak and teach that Christians have carnal out-breaks, which is biblical, but it is another thing altogether to make a third class or category of men–“Carnal Christians.”

The Bible teaches only one church. From the human side it is the visible church made up of both professors and possessors. But from the divine side it is made up only of possessors. Since we are on the human side we should take three lessons from Matthew 3:12, “Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” John the Baptist is speaking about our Lord and the three things the text teaches are very applicable.

  1. There will be a separation between the real and the spurious–the true and the false–possessors and professors.
  2. The time of this separation is not now.
  3. The winnowing fan in not in our hands.

We do not always know who has been born again. Therefore, when speaking of a back-slider two errors must be avoided: (1) to say unequivocally he is not a Christian; (2) to say unequivocally that he is a Christian. We do not know, we cannot know. It is not a sin not to know.

This is another reason this “Carnal Christian” doctrine is so dangerous, deceiving and damning. How do you know such a person’s profession was genuine? How do you know it was not genuine? You don’t!

It is therefore very dangerous to classify people as carnal Christians who give no evidence of being born again. There are always two possibilities: they may be true Christians in a back-slidden condition, or they were never savingly united to Christ. Only God knows and it would be well if we would say, “I don’t know,” rather than squeeze out of some text of Scripture a meaning that the Holy Spirit never put there by making a category of men that the Bible knows nothing about.

1 Corinthians 2:14-4:15

Let us consider the passages that the “Carnal Christian” teaching is based on. What is the teaching of 1 Corinthians 2:14-4:15?

This is the most important point in our argument, namely, what is the interpretation and application of the single passage of Scripture on which the three categories of men is based. I think a quotation from one of the church fathers is very apropos: “If you only have one Scripture on which to base an important doctrine or teaching you are most likely to find, on close examination, that you have none.” This is precisely what we have with the three-category theory. We must remember that 1 Corinthians is not particularly a doctrinal epistle. Though, like all Scriptures, it contains doctrine it was not written to lay a doctrinal foundation. This epistle was primarily written to deal with practical problems in this young church which was not yet 100 years old. The particular position of the letter which we are considering is dealing with just one of the many problems in the church at Corinth. Specifically this issue is namely, schism over the ministers.

Consider the context of 1 Cor. 3:1-4., “For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, `I am of Paul,’ or `I am of Apollos,’ or `I am of Christ’ (1 Cor. 1:11, 12).

“For when one says, `I am of Paul,’ and another, `I am of Apollos,’ are you not carnal? Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase” (1 Cor. 3:4-6).

“Therefore let no one glory in men. For all things are yours: whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or things present or things to come – all are yours. And you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1 Cor. 3:21-23).

“Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively transferred to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that you may learn in us not to think beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up on behalf of one against the other” (1 Cor. 4:1, 6).

It is very important to see that this whole section of 1 Cor. 2:14-4:15 is dealing principally with one problem–schism. And like all the other problems in this letter, such as, defrauding one another, the disorder at the Lord’s Table, etc., it is the result of carnality, or more accurately, a result of the remaining principle of sin in all believers. These problems illustrate Paul’s teaching in Rom. 7:21-23. “I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.”

First, we must note in chapter one that the Corinthians got off to a good start. Paul says they were sanctified in Christ Jesus (v.1); they were recipients of the grace of God, (v.4); they were enriched by Christ in all utterance and knowledge (v.4); the testimony of Christ was confirmed in them (v.6); and, they came behind in no gifts (v.7).

Some of the Corinthian Christians had attached themselves to one of the great Christian teachers or preachers and some attached themselves to another, thus setting up rival leaders of opposing parties. Some would follow Paul, some admired Apollos, and others extolled Peter.

“Now I say this, that each of you says, `I am of Paul,’ or `I am of Apollos,’ or `I am of Cephas,’ or `I am of Christ’ (1 Cor. 1:12).

“For when one says, `I am of Paul,’ and another, `I am of Apollos,’ are you not carnal?” (1 Cor. 3:4). “Therefore let no one glory in men. For all things are yours: whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or things present or things to come–all are yours” (1 Cor. 3:21, 22, cf. 1:12; 3:4, 21, 22).

They were all making idols out of secondary causes and forgetting the first Cause where the glory should lie. Instead of saying, “We are Christ’s disciples” and uniting together in Christ they made parties and said, “We are Paul’s–he founded the church.” “But Apollos is more eloquent than the Apostle and he edifies us more. We have gone beyond Paul, therefore, we are of Apollos.” And a third party said, “We are of Peter.” Ah, but they were forgetting that these were men and only laborers in God’s farm and they all labored together with God. This was causing “envying, strife and division” (3:3). They were carnal, they were acting like the unregenerate; therefore, in this area of their lives they were carnal.

The carnality evidenced itself in their factions over the different servants of Christ (cf. 1:11, 12; 3:3-5, 21, 22). In 3:1-4 Paul charges them for their carnality and division. He then instructs them on how to correct that which was wrong.

  1. Their ministers were only ministers (3:5).
  2. All these ministers carried on the same design and purpose (3:6-10).
  3. The ministers were building on the same foundation (3:11-15).
  4. The great apostle exhorts them not to glory in particular ministers because they should have an equal interest in all true ministers. “All are yours and you are Christ’s” (3:22, 23).

In 1 Cor. 3, the Apostle resumes the subject of contention mentioned in 1:11-13. Chapter 3 is a transition from the defense of his mode of preaching (chapter 2) to the subject of their divisions (3:1-5). The true relationship of ministers to the church is as servants and not party leaders.

Their dissentions and divisions were in reference to their religious teachers. The Apostle tried to correct this by showing the true place of the ministerial office.

  • Ministers were servants without any authority or power of their own. One may plant, another may water BUT ONLY GOD can give the increase (3:5-7).
  • Ministers are one – they have one master, one work – just different departments in the great work – like fellow laborers on the same farm or fellow-builders building the same temple (3:8, 9).
  • In discharging their duty they have a great responsibility as to how they build and what they build (3:10-15).
  • Because the church of God is the temple of God ministers will be held accountable for the doctrine they teach and preach in executing their duties (3:16, 17).
  • No minister should deceive himself. He cannot preach a higher wisdom than the wisdom of God, and to learn that wisdom he must renounce his own (3:18-20).

The Apostle is not setting up three categories of men. He knows only two classes of men–natural and spiritual. “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness to him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14).

Under the term “natural” the great Apostle includes all those persons who are not partakers of the Spirit of God. If the Spirit of God has not given to them a new and higher nature than they ever possessed by their natural birth, he puts them in one class of natural men.

Those who are “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 little exercised; their faults may be in excess of their virtues, but if the root of the matter is in them they have passed from death unto life–passed out of the region of nature into that which is beyond nature–then Paul puts them in another class–all of them are spiritual men. In 1 Cor. 2:14-16 he does not make THREE categories. The difference is that the spiritual receive the things of the Spirit, embrace them with delight, and feed upon them with intense satisfaction.

These Christians were imperfectly sanctified, as are all Christians. Paul is not setting up a third group that is characterized by carnality in every area of their lives, who demonstrate that the bent of their lives is not Christian.

The Scripture knows only two places–heaven and hell; two ways–the narrow way that leads to life and the broad way that leads to destruction; two principles of walk–the Spirit principle and the flesh principle. 1 Cor. 3:1-4 is not expounding a general doctrine but reproving a specific out-cropping of carnality in a certain place. Therefore, we must be true to Scripture and not misinterpret and misapply certain texts to accommodate miserable human performance. “Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). This is a biblical description of a Christian: the essence of a Christian, “in Christ;” the effects of being in Christ, “a new creature;” the evidence of being in Christ, “old things pass away and all things become new.” There is no place here for two categories of Christians.

1 Corinthians 3:10-15 We will now consider 1 Cor. 3:10-15. There are a few passages of Scripture to which more numerous and more contradictory explanations have been given than this passage (1 Cor. 3:10-15). In 1 Cor. 2 the great apostle is defending his apostleship; the whole context from 1 Cor. 2:1 to 4:15, however, has to do with ministers and how they are meant to build the church. In 3:7 he makes it very clear that the real cause of gospel success is not the instruments (preachers or teachers) “but God [who] gives the increase.” In 3:10 and 4:15 he points out that he did the most important part on the human side–he laid the foundation, but he is quick to warn them not to glory in men (3:21-23).

1 Cor. 3:10-15 is one of the passages that the Roman Catholic Church uses to support their doctrine of purgatory. They make the foundation to be the orthodox doctrines of the gospel (as they understand them). They make the various builders in v.12 to be Christians and the gold, silver and precious stones to be good works, super-added to faith. The wood, hay and stubble are regarded venial sins committed by Christians, and the fire which burns up or purges these sins to be the fiery punishments of purgatory. The Christians who have added these venial sins are represented in v.15 as getting to heaven only after passing through the purgatorial fires. Thus this passage is interpreted to teach purgatory.

Now this interpretation is too bald and crude to satisfy all Catholic divines. Thus, men like Cardinal Bellarmine, who was a most learned and able Roman Catholic theologian, refute this ridiculous interpretation. He properly holds that the context of the whole chapter clearly teaches that the builders are the several ministers.

The Scripture knows only two places–heaven and hell; two ways–the narrow way that leads to life and the broad way that leads to destruction; two principles of walk; the Spirit principle and the flesh principle.

The great Cardinal’s view is more subtle but leads to the same error of purgatory. He says the foundation consists of the doctrines of Christ. The builders are legitimate ordained church teachers. The gold, silver and precious stones, which are super-added to the foundation are the correct Catholic doctrines.

The wood, hay and stubble are incorrect details of doctrine–not totally heretical, (for then they would have sent teachers straight to hell) but just partly perverted, therefore, the teachers must be chastised. If true Catholics, they shall reach heaven eventually after passing through purgatory.

Some fine and respected Protestant theologians agree with Bellarmine but disagree on what these foundational doctrines are. They do, however, believe it is the preaching of God’s ministers that will be strictly tested by the penetrating and holy judgment of God’s fire which represents the Holy Ghost as in Acts 2:3.

And by the Holy Ghost the hearts and teaching of the ministers will be searched. But if these ministers have truly embraced and preached Jesus Christ they will be saved in spite of some errors in their teaching and preaching. This explanation avoids the unbiblical and superstitious error of purgatory but is still short of Paul’s true intent and the rich instructions found in this passage.

Paul’s Teaching on 1 Cor. 3:10-15

Paul points out that he is a wise master-builder (v.10). Others coming after him would be inferior to his apostolic rank. There would be no more apostles.

The foundation on which all builders (ministers, teachers, and leaders) build is Jesus Christ, that is, the fundamental doctrines which set forth the Christ of the Scriptures–Christ crucified as our salvation (Eph. 2:20; 1 Pet. 2;6; Mt. 21:42).

The building built on this foundation by various hands is the Church of Jesus Christ (vv.5-9, 12). “Any man” refers to ministers. Paul is concerned with the work of ministers, teachers and leaders in building the church on the one foundation.

What about the material used? There are two kinds: gold, silver and precious stones–all that will stand the final test; and wood, hay and stubble–that which does not stand the test (cf. Mt. 3:12; 7:24-27; 13:24-30).

The passage itself expressly asserts that Jesus Christ is the foundation. What is He the foundation of? In Mt. 16:18; 1 Pet. 2:4-6; Eph. 2:20-22. the building that is resting on the foundation is the church and the Christians are the stones united to that sure foundation.

The context of the passage should settle the meaning. The strife and contention is over ministers (1:11,12; 3:4-6,21,22). The apostle is rebuking these divisions by showing that the foundation is one.

Paul uses two figures–husbandman and builders. In v.9 Paul is saying to the members of the church: “ye are God’s husbandry. In v.16, “ye are the temple of God.”

On this basis alone we can support the interpretation that the different constituents (gold, silver precious stones and wood, hay and stubble) are the different classes of church members. One class does not stand the test of reality and the other passes the test. We see the same principle in the parables of the wheat and the tares (Mt. 13:24-32); the two foundations–one sand, another rock (Mt. 7:24-27); the ten virgins half were real and half were spurious (Mt. 25:1-12).

Summary of 1 Cor. 3:10-15

As the “wise master builder” Paul refers to the ministers who are not apostles as those who will come and build after him. The foundation which he laid is that blessed cluster of fundamental doctrines which set forth Christ crucified as our salvation. The building reared on this foundation by various hands is the church of Jesus Christ, and the gold, silver and precious stones, are genuine and regenerate persons introduced into the church by the labors of wise and faithful ministers, while the wood, hay and stubble, represent spurious converts, and unconverted professors of religion, introduced into the church by less judicious laborers. When the day of judgment comes, this church universal, thus variously built, shall be tested by the holy, searching

“Too often modern evangelicalism has substituted a ‘decision’ in the place of repentance and saving faith. Forgiveness is preached without the equally important truth that the Spirit of God must change the heart. As a result decisions are treated as conversions even though there is no evidence of a supernatural work of God in the life.”

and penetrating inquest of God the judge, even as a material building would be by having the torch applied to it. In such a building, the living rock on which it is founded, and the imperishable stones and precious metals, would remain after the conflagration; but the perishable materials would be utterly consumed. So, nominal Christians, spurious converts, whose faith is a dead faith, however connected with a genuine and orthodox church of Christ, will be cast into hell, and forever consumed by God’s wrath; while true Christians will remain uninjured. In the judgment day, those ministers who by their soundness, prudence and fidelity have added genuine converts to Christ’s church, will receive a reward from the free, undeserved grace of their Lord. These ransomed souls, having stood the test of the judgment day, will shine as stars in their crowns. But this gracious reward will be lost by those injudicious and rash ministers who introduced unsound professors into the church. If the ministers are themselves built on the Rock Christ Jesus, they will indeed be saved; but they will see the unregenerate members whom they have brought into God’s house sink to hell under His strict judgment, and will wear in heaven a crown stripped of its jewels.

(I strongly recommend Dr. Robert L. Dabney’s comments on 1 Cor. 3:10-15; Discussions , Vol. 1, pp. 551ff.)


The effect of believing the truth set out in this study on the “Carnal Christian” theory ought to be the longing to see more true evangelism.

The “Carnal Christian” teaching is, after all, the consequence of a shallow, man-centered evangelism in which decisions are sought at any price and with any methods. When those pronounced to be converts do not act like Christians, do not love what Christians love and hate what Christians hate, and do not willingly serve Christ in his church, some explanation must be found other than calling them carnal Christians and asking them to make yet another decision. They have already done that and have already been pronounced, by the preacher or personal worker, to be “Christians.” But when they don’t act like Christians something is wrong. What is it? The teaching I have sought to expose says that the trouble is that they are just carnal Christians; they have not made Christ “Lord” of their lives; they have not let Him occupy the throne of their hearts. Once this explanation is seen to be unscriptural it will also be seen to be closely connected with an initial error of evangelism itself. Too often modern evangelism has substituted a “decision” in the place of repentance and saving faith. Forgiveness is preached without the equally important truth that the Spirit of God must change the heart. As a result decisions are treated as conversions even though there is no evidence of a supernatural work of God in the life.

Surely the best way to end this evil is to pray and labor for the restoration of New Testament evangelism! Whenever such evangelism exists it is certain that men will learn that it is not enough to profess to be a Christian, and not enough to call Jesus “Lord, Lord” (Luke 6:46). The gospel preached in awakening power will summon men not to rest without biblical evidence that they are born of God. It will disturb those who, without good reason, have believed that they are already Christians. It will arouse backsliders by telling them that as long as they remain in that condition the possibility exists that they never were genuine believers at all. And to understand this will bring new depths of compassion and urgency to the hearts of God’s people in this fallen world.

One of the greatest hindrances to the recovery of such preaching is the theory we have considered. To reject that theory is to be brought back to a new starting-point in evangelism and in the understanding of the Christian life. It is to bring God’s work into the center of our thinking. It is to see afresh that there are only two alternatives–the natural life or the spiritual life, the broad way or the narrow way, the gospel “in word only” or the gospel “in power and in the Holy Ghost” (1 Thess. 1:5), the house on the sand or the house on the rock.

There is no surer certainty than the fact that an unchanged heart and a worldly life will bring men to hell. “Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience” (Eph. 5:6).

It is not only in the world today that evangelism is needed. It is needed in the church.

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