What is the difference between a “carnal” and a “spiritual” Christian?
The question comes out of the King James Version of the Bible:
1Corinthians 3:1-3 – And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able. For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envy, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?
But in Pauline theology, the point is found, not in the term “carnal” but in the word “flesh” as opposed to spirit. The Amplified Bible does a great job of capturing the thought:
1Corinthains 3:1-3 – However, brethren, I could not talk to you as to spiritual [men], but as to nonspiritual [men of the flesh, in whom the carnal nature predominates], as to mere infants [in the new life] in Christ [unable to talk yet!] I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not yet strong enough [to be ready for it]; but even yet you are not strong enough [to be ready for it], For you are still [unspiritual, having the nature] of the flesh [under the control of ordinary impulses]. For as long as [there are] envying and jealousy and wrangling and factions among you, are you not unspiritual and of the flesh, behaving yourselves after a human standard and like mere (unchanged) men?
It is important to understand how Paul viewed both, to be “fleshly” and to be “spiritual” and what he meant by these terms and thoughts.
Sometimes Paul used the word “flesh” (“sarx” in the Greek, or a slight variant in form) to refer to that which all humanity has in common; that which puts us all in the same category (Rom. 1:3; Rom. 2:28; Rom. 3:20; Rom. 4:1; Rom. 7:14; Rom. 9:3, 5; 1Cor. 1:26; 1Cor. 5:5; 1Cor. 6:16; 1Cor. 15:39, 50; 2Cor. 5:16; 2Cor. 7:1; 2Cor. 10:3; Gal. 1:16; Gal. 4:29; Eph. 2:11; Eph. 5:29, 31; Php. 1:22, 24; Php. 3:4; Col. 1:24; 1Tim. 3:16; Heb. 2:14; Heb. 5:7; Heb. 9:13).
Other times he uses the same word to mean something more. Often when Paul uses the word “flesh,” (“sarx” or variant in form) he is speaking of that material which identifies us as humanity, but also that sin nature which identifies us as humanity. And he often uses the term as an antithesis to something “other than” the material and the nature of humanity. (Rom. 6:19; 7:5, 18, 25; 8:3-9, 12-13; 9:8; 13:14; 2Cor. 1:17; 2Cor. 4:11; 2Cor. 7:5; 2Cor. 10:2-4; 2Cor. 11:18; 2Cor. 12:7; Gal. 2:16, 20; Gal. 3:3; Gal. 4:23, 29; Gal. 5:13, 16-17, 19, 24; Gal. 6:8, 12-13; Eph. 2:3, 15; Eph. 6:5, 12; Php. 3:3-4; Col. 2:11, 13; 1Tim. 3:16; Phm. 1:16; Heb. 10:20).
The second use of the word is the thrust of the “carnal/spiritual” understanding in question. For Paul, when a person is living according to the flesh, that person is living under the curse of the law. Conversely, when a person is living according to the spirit, that person is living under the free gift of grace offered exclusively through Jesus Christ alone.
The dilemma to which Paul addresses in Corinth (as well as most of his other churches) is that of Christians who are, theologically, justified, but not sanctified. The question is not about salvation, for the “infants” are “infants in Christ.” The issue at hand is the very same issue, with which Paul dealt many times in his ministry, as well as the issue with which many Christians find themselves today; that is, the infatuation with combining Law with grace! Throughout the references offered above (but especially the letter to the Galatians), the people were being lead to believe that grace was not enough and that they must also adhere to the law in order to be “mature” Christians. However, for Paul, maturity (or sanctification) comes from something else altogether.
“Carnal” (or “fleshly”) Christians are those which still attempt to find satisfaction in the human nature (which places them squarely under the law and its penalty). Evidence of this fact is clearly pointed out by Paul in several of the references above, but expressly in the Corinthian account (“envy, jealousy, wrangling, and factions”). “Spiritual” Christians are those who live by the same Spirit which saved them (Gal. 3:1-3). Theologically we call this, “sanctification.” Paul called this being “in Christ.” The term for this today is “the cruciform” (I have discussed this more distinctly elsewhere). Today, this “carnality” is expressed in the ideology that, “now that we’re Christians, our flesh – our nature – will be better.” “Christ can make us better people” is the fallacy of the issue. Paul explains that we experience the killing power of the cross, we have died to the “flesh” and its evil desires and, therefore, are on “solid food” (or “meat”) that feeds the spirit rather than the flesh.
The problem with “carnal Christianity” is that it may speak for the salvation of the individual, but it is silent concerning any expression of the church as the expression of Christ. When it does speak corporately, it speaks the same language as those who do not know Christ, because it is fed the same food. The solid food that leads one in the full expression of Christ in an individual and, thereby, in the church as a whole, is found only when one “is crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in him/her” (Gal. 2:20). That “spiritual” one is a living sacrifice who is being transformed by the renewing of their mind (Rom 12:1-2).