Is There a Difference Between a Carnal and Spirit-Filled Christian?

As a young Christian in my college years, I wrestled a lot with what it meant to be a “spirit-filled” Christian. I had a lot of trouble trying to figure out why I was not always living a more “sanctified” life. (SPOILER ALERT: I still struggle with sin and temptation, of course, all these years later. But hopefully now, I have a more theologically sound way of approaching this!)

I read a number of books written by Christian authors who sought to address this topic of living a “spirit-filled” life. Yet the most memorable thing I read was a small tract put out by Campus Crusade for Christ (now CRU), “Have you made the wonderful discovery of the Spirit-filled life?You can still find it, in a more contemporary form, at CRU’s website.

It had something very much like the above diagram on it, showing the difference between a natural man (a non-believer, essentially, who puts the finite self/ego on the throne of their life, and leaves Christ outside), a spiritual man (a “Spirit-filled” Christian who put Christ on the throne, and has everything in order, in their life), and a carnal man (a Christian, who still has the finite self/ego on the throne, with Christ set off to the side, and disorder in their life).

It was a very gripping image. As a Christian, I knew that I was not a natural man, but I really was not sure if I was a spiritual man. I struggled with sinful impulses all of the time. Based on that illustration, I concluded that I must have been a carnal man.

Well, I was not entirely sure, but that seemed like what the tract was teaching.

Nevertheless, I can say that the idea behind it encouraged me to take my walk with Jesus more seriously. God certainly used that little tract in my life, to get my attention, and spur me on towards a greater depth of spiritual maturity. I know of countless other believers who have benefited from this type of teaching, albeit to varying degrees.

However, after reading this several times over, at various times, I was always left with the nagging question: Have I really crossed the threshold from being a carnal Christian to becoming a spirit-filled Christian, from a carnal man to a spiritual man? How would I know when I had successfully made that jump to that next level, in my spiritual journey?

For some reason, that crucial moment, whereby I could have this life-changing experience, that would give ultimate victory over persistent sin in my Christian life, remained elusive. What was wrong? Was it my lack of faith? My failure to properly surrender everything in my life, and hand it over to God? What was the problem?

Well, it turns out that there was a fundamental error in how I was reading my Bible. While this idea of a “carnal vs. spirit-filled” Christian was well-intended, it failed to accurately interpret the Bible passages that address this issue.

The key passage to look at is 1 Corinthians 2:6-3:4. Drilling down on 1 Corinthians 2:14-15, Paul is describing people as being either “natural” or “spiritual.” The “natural” are the non-believers, whereas the “spiritual” are the believers in Christ.

Paul then chastises the Corinthians for not acting like who they are, as taught in 1 Corinthians 3:1-4. As Christians, the Corinthians were supposed to be “spiritual.” Yet Paul finds the Corinthian Christians to be “people of the flesh” or “carnal.” But was Paul really teaching that the “carnal” were of some third category; that is, “carnal Christians?”

In his exceedingly helpful and short book on the topic, No Quick Fix: Where Higher Life Theology Came From, What It Is, and Why It’s Harmful, Andrew Naselli explains what Paul is getting at:

“Based on the way the Corinthians were acting, Paul could not address them as who they actually were. Although they were people who had the Spirit, they were acting ‘as’ … or ‘like’ people not having the Spirit because people having the Spirit characteristically live a certain way. That is why Paul addresses them this way. He is not laying out three categories into which all people fall: natural, carnal, and spiritual.” (Naselli, Kindle location 1031)

Paul is perfectly aware that Christians can sometimes drift back into old ways of thinking, and fall back into lifestyle choices that discredit their Christian witness.  Naselli continues:

“Believers may temporarily live in a fleshly way but believers by definition live in a characteristically righteous way” (Naselli, Kindle location 1031)

Rather, Paul is calling out the Corinthians to remember who they really are, bought with a price, by the Savior’s blood. If someone who calls themself a “Christian” persists in thinking and living carnally, then there is a strong possibility that such a person is no “Christian” at all. There is no room in Paul’s mind for someone to be in some awkward third category, a “carnal” Christian who is somehow “saved,” but who really is not following after God.

All Christians, at various times in their lives, temporarily lose their focus on Christ. This is not unusual. But the answer to this is to recall what it truly means to be Christian, and not settle for some halfway spot as a “carnal” Christian, convincing themselves that they can somehow squeeze their way into God’s heaven, despite a persistent rebellion against the things of God.

Many people who are drawn to call themselves “carnal Christians” may feel a certain anxiety as to whether or not they really are Christians. The convenient label of “carnal Christian” could be a way to avoid such anxiety.

But perhaps that experience of anxiety is the very thing we need: Am I truly a Christian?

Many have called themselves “Christians” for years, only to spiritually wake up years down the road to realize that they knew nothing about what it meant to truly trust in the Lord, for His saving work in our lives. We can be “religious” for a very long time, with all of the outer trappings to convince others of our spiritual acceptability, and still not not truly know Jesus.

Likewise, there are many who are, in fact, genuine Christians, but who have convinced themselves that they have not yet crossed that threshold from being a “carnal” to a “spirit-filled” Christian. God can surely give us remarkable experiences, where we can give testimony to particular “fillings of the Holy Spirit,” that move us towards greater depths in our walk with Jesus. We can indeed be thankful for such gracious interventions in our lives by God, to spur us onward.

However, at the same time, there are both ups and downs to the Christian life. This is to be expected. Paul’s experience with the Corinthians shows that believers can sometimes take two-steps forward, only to then take three-steps back. But if we truly know that the Holy Spirit is within the believer, sanctifying the believer, slowly and gradually, but nevertheless towards that ultimate goal of being glorified, then we can be comforted that temporary lapses in our spiritual walk do not signal ultimate defeat. Rather, these moments are to give us the opportunity to realize that God has not given up on us. We can turn from our sin, accepting God’s forgiveness, and move on. He will give us the Victory, but it will be according to His timing and His purposes.

Leaning upon God, step-by-step, day-by-day, spending time in God’s Word, over the long haul, brings greater long term fruit than always seeking after some crisis-moment experience, when one can fully “surrender unto God,” that always seems somehow elusive.

As Paul wrote to the Colossians:

To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:27-28 ESV)

May we all trust that the Holy Spirit is working in the life of every true believer, that we may all be presented as mature in Christ, as we walk with Him. AMEN!

This tract, published by the then Campus Crusade for Christ, made the rounds in Christian circles for decades, since the mid-1960s. Many have benefited from its simple message. Others have been confused by it. I was one of those in the latter category.

So, Where Did This Idea of a “Carnal vs. Spirit-Filled” Christian Come From?

My purpose for highlighting this problem over a “carnal vs. spirit-filled” Christian is not to throw anyone else under the bus. This type of teaching has been well-intended over the years, but upon closer scrutiny, it does not deliver what is ultimately promised. This type of teaching was a staple of the Holiness movement, that captivated thousands and thousands of Christians, beginning in the late 19th century, and was prominently featured at the then well-known Keswick conferences, large Christian gatherings held at a beautiful lake district in England, beginning in 1875. Over time, the Keswick Convention began to eventually de-emphasize these teachings, and it is no longer associated with such “early Keswick” ideas today. But some ideas do linger on, in the minds of many Christians. While a variety of these insights may still be of benefit for some, they can be debilitating to others.

This teaching that originally came out of those early Keswick conferences emphasized the importance of being “spirit-filled” as the key to living the so-called “higher life,” or “victorious” Christian living. But the Apostle Paul only mentions being “spirit-filled” once in all of his New Testament letters, Ephesians 5:18. So it seems really out-of-balance to make “spirit-filled” THE crucial factor for “Victorious Living,” as a Christian, when other more common themes of the Apostle Paul are minimized by “Higher Life” teachers. As Andrew Naselli points out, before the 19th century Holiness movement, Christians never placed that much emphasis on being “spirit-filled” (Naselli, Kindle location 1086). For example, many Puritan Bible teachers of the 17th and 18th century, such as the English Puritan, John Owen, commonly understood being “spirit-filled” as a life-long process, and not as a result of some definitive, post-conversion crisis experience.

Thankfully, most modern Bible translations have moved away from the language of a carnal Christian. For example, just look at 1 Corinthians 3:1.  The venerable King James Version has:

“And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ.” 

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this, but it could be confusing. On the other hand, the NIV takes some of the confusion away:

“Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ.” 

That is, the problem with the Corinthians is that they are still thinking in the manner of being non-believers. They have not matured enough in their faith, to fully understand the impact of what it means to be truly spiritual. There is no special category of a carnal Christian, as taught by late 19th century Keswick theology. Rather, this is simply Paul’s way of saying that the Corinthians are still worldly in their thinking, having not fully grasped yet the depths of their faith.

Sometimes, novel ways of reading the Bible are indeed superior to older ways of understanding Scripture. Christians in the past were surely not perfect, and they did get the Bible wrong at times, on certain matters. But the burden of proof should be on those with such novel interpretations, who might challenge the wealth of tried-and-true interpretations of the Bible, that have stood the test of time.

No Quick Fix: Where Higher Life Theology Came From, What It Is, and Why It’s Harmful, by Andy Naselli, examines why the “carnal vs. spirit-filled” Christian idea fails to adequately reflect the teaching of Scripture.

For a helpful, deeper exploration of this topic, particularly for those who might be still confused about this whole “carnal vs. spirit-filled” Christianity stuff, I would highly recommend Andy Naselli’s No Quick Fix. Andy Naselli blogs at his own website. He also wrote a great book on the Christian conscience, another book I highly recommend and that I reviewed last year.


About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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