Carnal is as carnal does

What is meant by a “carnal” Christian?

This language (“carnal” Christian) comes from the old King Jimmie Version of the Bible. We find it places like 1 Corinthians 3, where Paul says,

And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal (1 Cor. 3:1-4)
This word, “carnal”, comes from a Latin word that means “meat” or “flesh.” You might recognize it from the Spanish in chili con carne—chili with meat; or carne asada—roasted meat.

The word carnal is used in the King Jimmie several times, mostly in Romans and First and Second Corinthians (i.e., Rom. 7:14; 8:7; 15:27; 1 Cor. 3:1-4; 9:11; 2 Cor. 10:4; Heb. 7:6; 9:10). Most modern translations use some variant of the word “flesh,” which is the meaning of the underlying Greek word.

The concept of “the flesh” is a very important one in the Bible, and stands in contrast to “the Spirit.” “The flesh” refers to that which is natural, earthly, and human, as opposed to that which is supernatural, heavenly, and divine. The word is sometimes used to describe a natural, unregenerate man who does not know God (Rom. 8:6-9).

Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
At other times the word is used to describe, not a natural or unregenerate man, but an immature Christian. And this is the sense in which Paul uses the word in 1 Corinthians 3, where he writes (according to the ESV), “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh [i.e., carnal].”

And then he explains precisely what he means when he says, “…as infants in Christ.” In other words, for a Christian to be carnal or fleshly, is for a Christian to be immature. Paul continues, “I fed you with milk [that is, food appropriate for a baby], not solid food [which is appropriate for a man]; for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh.”

We see here how he again equates being carnal (fleshly) with being immature. And then he explains why he formed this negative judgment of their maturity.

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 Cor. 3:1-4)

There was jealousy and strife among them, due in part to different factions in the church favoring one apostle or minister over another (v. 4f; cf. 1:11-12). But jealousy and strife of this sort are characteristics of those who are immature (Gal. 5:20).

Now, when he says, “are you not being merely human?” he is asking, “Are you not walking like mere men, who are devoid of the Holy Spirit?”

The carnal Christian, then, is a Christian who is immature. He is truly numbered among God’s people, but he is only a “babe in Christ.” In some respects his life may be hardly distinguishable from that of an unregenerate man. It is a sad thing to remain such a babe in Christ. There are few things more pitiful in life than a grown man who acts like a child. Likewise, it’s pitiful to see a man who for many years has been a Christian, but has not grown to maturity and still has many things in common with a natural man.

In another place, Paul said something very similar

For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. (Heb. 5:12-14)

Let us never be content with the level of spiritual growth we have attained. Instead, let us always press on to greater and greater maturity.


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