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What Can You Say to the Carnal Christian?

June 9th, 2017

Be on guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous. Be strong.  And do everything with love. You know that Stephanas and his household were the first of the harvest of believers in Greece, and they are spending their lives in service to God’s people. I urge you, dear brothers and sisters, to submit to them and others like them who serve with such devotion. I am very glad that Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus have come here. They have been providing the help you weren’t here to give me. They have been a wonderful encouragement to me, as they have been to you. You must show your appreciation to all who serve so well. (1 Corinthians 16:13-18 NLT)

As I wrote yesterday, 1 Corinthians was written to a church filled with carnal Christians. It was spiritual milk that they needed to grow and to prepare them for the deeper things of God. 2 Corinthians, however, is the deeper truths, so to understand 2 Corinthians we have to first understand 1 Corinthians.

So the question is, “What can you say to a carnal Christian?” What truths will help him to realize his condition and repent and surrender his life to God? The Spirit led Paul with exactly the right solution to their problem. And this should serve as a guide for all of us who serve the Lord, whether as a pastor or as a layman, on how to motivate the unmotivated to grow closer to Christ.

Spiritual immaturity and spiritual carnality are not identical. Immaturity can exist simply because someone is a new believer, a young child, or even a relatively young person. John described believers in three main categories: little children, young men, and fathers (1 John 2:12-14), or it could also be understood as children, young people, and parents. The “little children” were new converts. The “young men” were those believers who had had opportunity to grow in their faith, and they were on the right track spiritually, however, they were still young and had just not experienced all the difficulties and challenges of life yet. The “fathers” were those who had matured in knowledge and in experience.  No fault is implied in the lives of the “children” and “young men.”

However, in 1 Corinthians 3:1, Paul described the church members as “carnal” or “fleshly.” He said they were “babes in Christ” but not for the simple reason that they were newly converted, but because they had remained in spiritual infanthood willingly. They had followed the desires of the flesh, had compromised their Christian witness, and had not surrendered to Christ as Lord. As in life, so it is in spiritual matters - some immaturity is understandable and even justifiable, and it is due to just being young in the Lord, or young in years. But other types of immaturity are due to spiritual rebellion against the Holy Spirit in the life of a Christian.

What can you say to carnal Christians? They are not ready for the meat. They need milk. They are marked by:

  • Jealousies, strife, division (1 Cor. 3:3),
  • Neglect of the Word of God, disobedience to the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 4:1-21)
  • Sin and moral compromise (1 Cor. 5:1-13),
  • Pride and a lack of compassion (1 Cor. 8:1-13),
  • Selfishness and ungiving hearts, an absence of servant hearts (1 Cor. 9:1-27)
  • Lethargic spiritual lives, immorality, giving into temptation (1 Cor. 10:1-33)
  • Disorderliness in worship, arrogance, hard-heartedness (1 Cor. 11:1-14:40)
  • Neglect of the fundamentals of the faith (1 Cor. 15:1-58)
  • Neglect of giving to the Lord or financial support to the church (1 Cor. 16:1-4)

So Paul addressed them as best he could, led and enabled by the Spirit of God. The topics he spoke of were essential for their Christian life - indeed, they still speak to us today - and they remain the “milk of the Word” that strengthens our faith throughout our Christian life. Though foundational and basic they are also relevant for every believer at every stage of his or her pilgrimage. The difference is that for some of us they are reminders - precious reminders but reminders all the same. But for carnal Christians they are reproofs or perhaps even teachings that they had neglected.

Paul said to them:

  • God is faithful - a truth never to be forgotten (1 Cor. 1:1-9)
  • Divisions in the church, in their case, were signs of spiritual disobedience (1 Cor. 1:10-17)
  • Christ is to be the center of the church, not people or leaders (1 Cor. 1:18-2:5)
  • God has a plan for each Christian that His Spirit reveals to us (1 Cor. 2:6-3:23)
  • God’s true servants are true to His Word and endure rejection and hardship (1 Cor. 4:1-21)
  • The Christian is to glorify Christ and live for Him, not for himself (1 Cor. 8:1-9:27)
  • Christians are called to holiness and we cannot sin and expect Christ to be honored, or to expect God to remain silent (1 Cor. 5:1-7:40: 10:1-11:34)
  • Spiritual gifts are all given by the Spirit for the glory of God and the effective functioning of the church, and not for the personal boasting of the recipients (1 Cor. 12:1-31)
  • Love is the greatest gift of the Spirit, and a trait that all Christians receive (1 Cor. 13:1-13)
  • Worship should be orderly - God is not the Author of chaos or uncontrollable utterings (1 Cor. 14:1-40)
  • The gospel proclaims also the resurrection of Christ and our resurrection as His people (1 Cor. 15:1-58)
  • They should give to the work of the Lord (1 Cor. 16:1-4)

Even a general review of the book reveals that the carnal Christian must be rebuked, but he also must first be assured of God’s love. Paul began writing about the centrality of Christ, the wonderful plans of God for them, the Christian’s experience with the Holy Spirit - three things that had been neglected in their lives. And only then, after making these points, did he begin to rebuke them for their sin.

He also could not say very much to them about giving money. He only mentioned the matter briefly. In 2 Corinthians he dedicated two chapters to the subject of giving, but the carnal Christian is not ready to hear this message. He still worships his money.

Spiritual gifts are interesting to carnal Christians - not to them only, but to them for the wrong reason. They want a spiritual gift so they will look good, not so that Christ will look good. They want a gift so they can be elevated in position and respect, not so that Christ may be elevated.

Everybody wants to be loved, and to have orderliness in the church worship. Everyone wants eternal life and is interested in knowing about our eternal resurrected bodies. So these also are popular topics among carnal Christians.

The final words, quoted at the beginning of this page - “Be on guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous. Be strong.  And do everything with love.” - let them know that the victory that they desired must come by God’s Spirit within them. They would have to stand firm. They could not always depend on others to stand firm. The strong personalities in the church had built their own followers and the people leaned upon these divisive and proud leaders, rather than on Christ. That could not continue. Each believer rather was to learn the Word of God, to lean upon the promises of the Word and the fellowship of the Spirit, and support one another as they do.

The final point was about the leaders that they were to trust - people who had served sacrificially and unselfishly. If God has called you to reach carnal Christians - and He does that to some degree for all of us - be prepared to sacrifice, for that is all that they will listen to. They are greedy and stingy and selfish, so they will complain about money. But love can reach them, and unselfishness and sacrifice.

Rebukes are built on the positive message of God’s love and on the positive example of a believer who sacrificially loves others. These truths cannot be forgotten.

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