The idea of a “carnal Christian” has gained popularity in the church today. Whereas “spiritual Christians” are expected to live pious, sin-free lives, carnal Christians go on living as they did before their conversion. Unlike the lost, however, they get the free perk of getting into heaven. As comforting as this might be to some, it has no foundation in Scripture, and lures many into a false sense of security.
Where in Scripture is a distinction made between the Christians on fire and the ones content to sit on the back pew once a month? While there is freedom in Christ, can those who continually walk in selfish, sinful ways be called saved? Galatians 5:22-23 summarizes the mark of a true believer:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
Christians are no longer under the law of Moses, but this does not mean we can do whatever we like and still be right with God. Paul has this to say about abusing our freedom in Christ:
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. Galatians 5:13
This freedom allows us to do whatever we want, but it comes with the expectation that — if our hearts have truly been transformed by allowing the Holy Spirit to enter our lives — there will be a drastic change in our behavior.
This is not to be mistaken for legalism, which professes that there is some outward action you can perform to earn God’s favor. Legalism is fueled by fear of God’s disapproval; obedience is motivated by love.
Legalism is fueled by fear of God’s disapproval; obedience is motivated by love.
Christ exposed our sinful hearts, from which our sinful actions stem. Not everything can be easily classified as sinful or acceptable, but this largely has to do with our motivations for performing an action. If we are seeking our own gain or pleasure by what we are doing, it is evidence of a sinful heart. A heart saturated by the gospel will look for ways to serve others and bring glory to God.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. Ephesians 2:8-9
I am not advocating a works-based salvation. Neither do I expect even the most pious Christians to live a sinless life. We have all fallen short of His glory, and will do so the rest of our lives. However, a Christian will not continue to walk in lusts of the flesh on the basis of freedom in Christ. Christians may stumble and make mistakes, or even struggle with a particular sin, but their desire will be to avoid it and seek repentance when they are convicted.
Carnal Christians, on the other hand, try to maintain lifestyles that center around serving themselves, while outwardly professing salvation. They lack the fruit of the Spirit, and the qualities of a servant of Christ.
They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work. Titus 1:16
Carnal Christians are like centaurs. The mythical half-breed, in theory, should work out just fine. Horse + human = centaur. Simple, right? In the same way, carnal Christians want the best of both worlds; they want to live life their own way without giving up their ticket to a comfy retirement high in the sky. Unfortunately, like the centaur, in reality the concept falls apart. Both the centaur and carnal Christian have this in common: they don’t exist.
The idea is to ask how close we can get to sin without becoming totally lost. The question itself reveals the sin in our hearts. Often this is the mentality that drives carnal Christians. “How much of what I enjoyed before I was saved can I still participate in before I’m not considered a Christian?” This is the wrong attitude to adopt, because it demonstrates a selfishness that contradicts the gospel. Christ didn’t come to give us a comfortable existence, He told us if we wanted to follow Him, we’d have our own cross to carry.
The concept of the carnal Christian is undoubtedly well-intended, but has the effect of creating an attitude of apathy towards sin. If there are no real consequences to sin, why persuade someone to stop sinning? This does not align with the God of Scripture, who abhors sin. While perhaps trying simply to get someone to come to church and trust in Christ first, the actual result may be someone more deceived and lost than before. Now they feel they are already saved, they don’t feel any real change needs to take place, or that any additional information needs to be received.
Ultimately the difference between a Christian and a carnal Christian is that one has fully given every aspect of his life to Christ, while the other wants to write his own story. Unlike our favorite fiction authors, we can’t whip up a centaur or other creature to fit into our own version of reality. We don’t get to write our fairy tale just as we please, but if we hand the pen over to the Original Author, He will create a masterpiece better than we could ever have imagined.