The Lordship Controversy and the Carnal Christian Teaching (Part 1)

[This is the 10th in a series of articles on the Lordship controversy.]

We continue our studies in the Lordship controversy by examining another major theological difference between the Lordship and non-lordship teachings. In this study we will consider the differences of the two views concerning the “Carnal Christian” theory. This is one of the most perverted teachings in our generation. It is not only dangerous and self-deceiving but in many cases it is damning.

As a result of this erroneous teaching many who regularly occupy our church pews on Sunday morning and fill our church rolls are strangers to true conversion. They are strangers to heart religion because they have never experienced the power of a changed life. They are not new creatures and for them old things have not passed away (2 Cor. 5:17).

This “Carnal Christian” teaching was invented to accommodate all the supposed converts of modern evangelism. The non-lordship teachers had to have some explanation for the thousands and thousands of those who are products of an evangelism that leaves out Bible repentance from their evangelistic message. I am referring to those who make “decisions,” walk aisles and make professions of being Christians, but their lives have never been changed by the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, they do not love what Christians love and hate what Christians hate. They act, think and live like non-Christians, but their teachers must have some explanation for their unchanged lives. Thus the unbiblical category “Carnal Christian” was invented by the non-lordship teachers.

The non-lordship teaching is a two-experience theory of the Christian life. Stage one is conversion, which they teach is making a decision to receive Christ as your personal Savior (this will keep you out of hell). Stage two is another decision, which is to make Christ Lord. What the non-lordship teachers seem to ignore is that no human makes Christ Lord. He is Lord regardless what sinners say, think or do. He is Lord by God Almighty’s decree: “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). This verse settles the question of who makes Christ Lord.

Between these two experiences the supposed convert may live like an unbeliever. The testimony goes something like this: “When I was 7 or 8 years old (or older perhaps), I received Christ as my personal Savior, but I did not make Him Lord until much later in life.” This kind of testimony reflects an erroneous interpretation of one’s experience. To avoid this serious error we must hold tenaciously to a fundamental principle, that is, we must always interpret our experiences by the Scripture and never interpret the Scripture by our experience.

This teaching of two kinds of Christians by the non-lordship advocates is just a new dress for the old error of the second blessing teaching. Any teaching that sends Christians on a quest for a kind of holiness that is obtained by some single, religious, crisis experience rather than by daily submission to the will of God is both erroneous and dangerous. The holiness that all Christians desire will not be complete in this world–O, that it could be!

In contrast, Lordship teachers teach that there are as many kinds of Christians as there are Christians, but they deny that there are two categories–spiritual and carnal. The Lordship teachers teach that all Christians are carnal in some area of their life at some time and that all Christians are spiritual or else they are not Christians at all (Rom. 8:5-15).

We must be mindful of that warning in Hebrews 13:9, “Be not carried away with divers and strange doctrines.” Another translation puts it like this: “So do not be swept off your course by all sorts of outlandish teaching…” Another: “So do not be attracted by strange, new ideas.” Believe me, this “Carnal Christian” teaching is a strange and outlandish teaching. I have good reason to believe that this “Carnal Christian” teaching has spawned this terrible perversion of the non-lordship salvation.

Two hundred years ago the “Carnal Christian” theory would have been considered a strange, outlandish teaching–a new idea based on erroneous interpretation of one single passage of Scripture (1 Cor. 3:1-4). We will consider the passage later.

As I take up my pen to write on this very live issue I do so with a deep feeling of sorrow and anxiety. Why? Because the teaching that I wish to expose is held by so many fine Christians and is taught by so many able and respected teachers. This fact causes me to approach the subject not only with deep concern but also with great caution. For many years I espoused and taught the carnal Christian error. The Lord had mercy on me!

While pointing out some of the errors and ignorance surrounding this carnal Christian position it must be remembered that a Christian’s experience with God can be better than his understanding of divine truth; his understanding may be tainted with error and ignorance. The opposite may also be true, that is, a man’s intellectual understanding may be good but his experience may be faulty. The Church of Sardis had the name that they were alive but in experience they were dead (Cf. Rev. 3:1).

My motive, purpose and prayer in these studies is to promote true holiness and usefulness among Christians.


Popularized by the Scofield Bible

The teaching of the two categories of Christians has been popularized by the Scofield Bible, Dallas Theological Seminary and Campus Crusade for Christ.

A quote from the Scofield Bible clearly sets out exactly what the teaching is: “Paul divides men into three classes: ‘Natural’ i.e. the Adamic Man, unrenewed through the new birth; ‘Spiritual’ i.e. the renewed man as Spirit-filled and walking in the Spirit in full communion with God; ‘Carnal,’ ‘fleshly,’ i.e. the renewed man who walking ‘after the flesh,’ remains a babe in Christ” (Scofield Reference Bible, pp. 1213, 1214, Cf. Rom. 8:5-15).

It is very important to observe the two main points in this Scofield note. First, the division of men into three classes; second, we are told that one of these classes of men comprises the “carnal,” the “fleshly,” “the babe(s) in Christ,” “who walk after the flesh.” To “walk” implies the bent of their lives; their leaning or bias is in one direction, that is, towards carnality.

One of the most common and popular presentations of this position is available in the form of a small tract which presents the teaching like this:

After you have invited Christ to come into your life, it is possible for you to take control of the throne of your life again. The New Testament passage, 1 Cor. 2:14-3:3, identified three kinds of people.


There will be no dispute about the first circle which represents the non-Christian. Note the position of the Ego, indicating that self is on the throne. The natural man is a self-centered man; his interests are controlled by self, the cross is outside the person. Now compare this with the second circle-the only difference is that a cross (representing Christ) appears inside the person although not on the throne. And the same little dots are in circle two that are in circle one, indicating that there has been no basic change in the nature and character. That is to say, the bent of the life of the carnal Christian is the same as that of the non-Christian. Circle two gives basically the same picture as circle one, the only difference being that the carnal Christian has made a profession of receiving Jesus, but he is not trusting God.

A brief examination of this diagram and its interpretation of 1 Corinthians 3:1-4 will show that it is an accurate presentation of what we have already found in the Scofield Bible notes.

We ought not to miss three very salient and important facts about the teaching. First, we note again that it divides all men into three classes or categories. With this fact none of its proponents disagree, though they may present it differently and apply it differently. Secondly, one class or category is set out as containing the “Christian” who “walks after the flesh”. The center of his life is self, and he is the same as the unrenewed man as far as the bent of his life is concerned. Thirdly, all those who accept this view use 1 Corinthians 3:1-4 to support it.

Consequently, if it can be established that the preponderance of Scripture teaches only two classes or categories of men–regenerate and unregenerate, converted and unconverted, those in Christ and those outside of Christ–the non-lordship position will be shown to be untenable.

Before I turn to some of the errors and dangers of the “‘Carnal Christian” teaching it may be wise to indicate what I am not saying. In this study of the “Carnal Christian” theory I am not overlooking the teaching of the Bible about sin in Christians, about babes in Christ, about growth in grace, about Christians who backslide grievously, and about the divine chastisement which Christians receive.

I acknowledge that there are babes in Christ. In fact there are not only babes in Christ, but there are different stages of “babyhood” in understanding divine truth and in spiritual growth.

I also recognize that there is a sense in which Christians may be said to be carnal, but I must add that there are different degrees of carnality. Every Christian is carnal in some area of his life at many times in his life–“the flesh lusteth against the Spirit” (Gal. 5:17).

All the marks of Christianity are not equally apparent in all Christians. Nor are any of these marks manifest to the same degree in every period of any Christian’s life. Love, faith, obedience, and devotion will vary in the same Christian in different periods of his Christian experience; in other words, there are many degrees of sanctification.

The Christian’s progress in growth is not constant and undisturbed. There are many hills and valleys in the process of sanctification; and there are many stumblings, falls and crooked steps in the pathway to the Celestial City. There are examples in the Bible of grievous falls and carnality in the lives of true believers. Thus we have the warnings of temporal judgment and of chastisement by our heavenly Father.

These truths are all acknowledged and are not the point of this present study. The question we have to consider is: Does the Bible divide Christians into two categories? This is the issue at the heart of the “Carnal Christian” teaching.


Errors in the Non-Lordship Teaching on the Carnal Christian

First Error. This “Carnal Christian” doctrine is erroneous because of a wrong interpretation and application of the single passage of Scripture on which it is based, namely, 1 Corinthians 3:1-4. The historical and true interpretation will be dealt with at length later.

The most doctrinal portion of the New Testament is the epistle to the Romans, and on this all reasonable Bible scholars and theologians would agree. Most scholars (if not all) would further agree that Paul’s epistle to the Galatians is the second most doctrinal portion of the New Testament. The first epistle to the church at Corinth is primarily dealing with practical problems in the church:

Chapters 1-3 Strife and contentions about the ministers (Cf. 1:12,13; 3:3-6; 3:21,22). Chapter 5 Immorality and incest (v. 1). No repentance (v. 2). Chapter 6:1-10 Lawsuits against one another (v. 7). Defrauding and wronging one another (v. 8). Chapter 7:1-17 Sexual problems between husbands and wives. Instruction to explain that sex was for more than procreation. Chapter 8:1-13 Christian liberty. Weak and strong Christians. Fighting over meat offered to idols. Chapter 9 Paying the preachers and Paul’s Apostleship. Chapter 10 Christian liberty. Chapter 11:1-16 Problems with women and their hats and hairdos. Chapter 11:17 Their public coming together did more harm than good. Chapter 11:20-23 Disorder at the Lord’s Table. Chapter 12-14 Spiritual gifts, lack of love (v. 13). Chapter 15 Doctrinal error of the worst sort. Foundational doctrine of Christianity–the resurrection. Chapter 16 Problems with the collection. All of these problems are examples of carnality in Christian behavior. Therefore, the strife, division and contentions over the ministers in 1 Corinthians, chapters 1 to 3 is just one of the problems, and in this area of their lives, the Corinthians were carnal. That is, they acted like babies and just like the unregenerate in this particular area of their lives. The passage is not teaching three categories of mankind, or two classes of Christians. Such a view is foreign to the rest of the Bible.

The following two quotations are only two of many Scriptures which clearly teach that all mankind is divided into two categories and no more

There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh; but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life-and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not his” (Romans 8:1-9).

For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of the which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in the time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:17-24).

These two passages simply set out what the rest of the Bible clearly teaches, namely, that there are only two classes or categories of men and within these two classes there may be many shades and degrees. To interpret 1 Corinthians 3:1-4, therefore, in such a way as to divide men into three classes is to violate the cardinal rule of interpretation. This rule requires us to interpret all single passages in the light of the whole, to interpret all subordinate passages in the light of the leading truth, or to interpret all obscure passages in the light of clear passages. This teaching is erroneous because it is an incorrect interpretation and application of the single portion of Scripture on which it is founded.

Second Error. The “Carnal Christian” teaching is erroneous because it contradicts and perverts the two basic blessings of the new covenant–justification and sanctification–and their relationship to each other. Justification is what Christ does for us in heaven. Specifically, He covers our record with His blood and gives us a legal right to enter in. Sanctification is what Christ does in us by His Holy Spirit on earth-this gives us some practical fitness. (See FJ 15).

The working of His Spirit in us and the cleansing of His blood for us are inseparably joined in the application of His grace. Therefore, any attempt to place the act of submission subsequent to conversion is to cut the living nerve out of the New Covenant. The “Carnal Christian” teaching does just that; it separates what God has joined together and thus perverts biblical Christianity, bringing dishonor on the blood of Christ that was shed to enact the entirety of the New Covenant which includes both justification and sanctification.

The Children’s Catechism sums it up beautifully “What did God the Father undertake in the Covenant of grace? Answer: to justify and sanctify those for whom Christ should die.” For you, is your creed; in you is your experience.

Third Error. The next major error is that this teaching does not distinguish between true, saving belief and spurious belief. This distinction is found throughout the New Testament. Many believed but Jesus did not commit Himself to them (John 2:23, 24); they believed but did not confess Him (John 12:42, 43); they believed for awhile (Luke 8:13); Simon Magus believed and was baptized but he thought he could buy the Holy Ghost (Acts 8:12-32); Peter said he would perish, (v. 20); his heart was not right (v. 21); therefore not changed, he was in the gall of bitterness and the bond of iniquity (v.23). But the strongest evidence is in his prayer–he, like the unregenerate, was only concerned with the consequence of sin and made no request to be pardoned and cleansed from sin–just, “…that none of these things come upon me.” Just like the so-called carnal Christian he wanted Jesus as a kind of hell insurance policy but does not want delivered from sin. James 2:19 says, “the devils believe…”

In all of these cases people believed, that is, they had faith but it was not saving faith. Similarly all of the carnal Christians have belief, but it is not always saving belief (see FJ 10 & 11).

Fourth Error. The “Carnal Christian” teaching excludes repentance, at least by implication, in the fact that they teach that the carnal Christian has not necessarily changed in practice but lives and acts just like the natural man. This is easily seen in the diagram where self is still on the throne. Not to teach the necessity of repentance is a very grave error, and to depart from the Apostolic example of the gospel message and its propagation (see FJ 14).

Fifth Error. The “Carnal Christian” position ignores much biblical teaching on the doctrine of assurance, namely, that Christian character and conduct have something to do with assurance. For the Lordship view of assurance see the Baptist Confession of 1689, chapter 18. I will have more on assurance in a future article.


Questions Raised by the Carnal Christian Teaching

1. Are we sanctified passively, that is, by faith without the deeds of the law? (Note: I did not say justified but sanctified.) If sanctification is passive–a kind of “let go and let God”–then where do we place the apostolic admonitions in the New Testament such as, “I fight,” “I run,” “I keep under my body,” “let us cleanse ourselves,” “let us labour,” “let us lay aside every weight”? None of these are passive expressions nor do they express some single act as the experience of victory or some single experience as the means of becoming more spiritual and mature.

2. Does not appealing to the so-called carnal Christian to become a spiritual Christian depreciate the real conversion experience by over-appreciating the second experience by whatever name it may be called (which is variously designated higher life, deeper life, spirit filled life, triumphant living, making Christ Lord not just Savior, etc.)? “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 passage is not talking about a second experience but rather about what happens in a real conversion experience.

Has the spiritual Christian finished growing in grace? If not, what is he to be called, as he continues to grow in grace? Do we make still more unbiblical categories, such as, “spiritual, spiritual Christian” or “super spiritual Christian”?

3. Who is to decide who the carnal Christians are and exactly what standard is to be used in determining this? Do the spiritual Christians decide who the carnal Christians are? Does a church or preacher decide where the line is to be drawn that divides the two classes or categories? Would you like the responsibility of dividing the members of your church into unsaved, carnal Christian, spiritual? Since all Christians have remaining sin in them and since they sin every day, how much sin, or, what particular sins classify a person as a carnal Christian?

4. Do not all Christians act like natural men at times in some area of their lives?

5. Do not the inward sins, such as, envy, malice, covetousness, lasciviousness (which included immorality on the mental level) prove that a person is carnal just as much as some outward manifestation of external sins?

6. How much sin can a spiritual Christian commit and still be in the spiritual category?

7. Does the Christian go back and forth from spiritual to carnal and carnal to spiritual? How often can this changing of categories take place?

8. When and how does a carnal Christian become a spiritual Christian?

9. Are there different degrees of carnality and different degrees of sanctification in the so-called spiritual Christians?

If some of these questions seem a bit ridiculous it is because they are raised by an unbiblical, ridiculous teaching.

If all the carnal Christian teachers would seriously study the following questions and answers found in the Larger Catechism they would stop teaching the unbiblical theory of the carnal Christian category.

Q. 75. What is sanctification?

A. Sanctification is a work of God’s grace, whereby they whom God hath, before the foundation of the world, chosen to be holy, are in time, through the powerful operation of his Spirit applying the death and resurrection of Christ unto them, renewed in their whole man after the image of God; having the seeds of repentance unto life, and all other saving graces, put into their hearts, and those graces so stirred up, increased, and strengthened, as that they more and more die unto sin, and rise unto newness of life.

Q. 77. Wherein do justification and sanctification differ?

A. Although sanctification be inseparably joined with justification, yet they differ, in that God in justification imputeth the righteousness of Christ; in sanctification his Spirit infuseth grace, and enableth to the exercise thereof; in the former, sin is pardoned; in the other, it is subdued: the one cloth equally free all believers from the revenging wrath of God, and that perfectly in this life, that they never fall into condemnation; the other is neither equal in all, nor in this life perfect in any, but growing up to perfection.

Q. 78. Whence ariseth the imperfection of sanctification in believers?

A. The imperfections of sanctification in believers ariseth from the remnants of sin abiding in every part of them, and the perpetual lustings of the flesh against the spirit, whereby they are often foiled with temptations and fall into many sins, are hindered in all their spiritual services, and their best works are imperfect and defiled in the sight of God.

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