The Reign of the Servant Kings
By Joseph C. Dillow
Chapter 14—The Carnal Christian
The Bible teaches the possible existence of the “carnal Christian.” It accepts the fact of the feasibility of failure in the Christian life. By “carnal Christian” the writer means a Christian who is knowingly disobedient to Christ for a period of time. He is a Christian who walks as if he were a “mere man,” that is, an unregenerate person (1 Corinthians 3:4). Occasional lapses of sin are not the subject of this chapter. The focus is the apparent persistence in sin by regenerate people. In remote cases it is even possible that such people will publicly renounce Christ and persist in either sin or unbelief to the point of physical death. However, if they were truly born again in Christ, they will go to heaven when they die.
Such people, of course, may theoretically enjoy a “carnal assurance.” But they cannot enjoy biblical assurance. They may or may not be saved. Since faith includes assurance, such people can have no biblical assurance of their final destiny.
Because Experimental Predestinarians ground assurance in observation of works in the life, their churches are prone to have people who have a false assurance. The subjective nature of such a personal examination leads many in their assemblies to believe they are Christians when in fact they are not. Since the precise amount of work necessary to verify the presence of saving faith is impossible to define, many who are not regenerate at all believe, on the basis of some imagined work in their life, that they are saved. No doubt this is why Experimental Predestinarians are so exercised about the carnal Christian. This danger, of course, is not present in those who, like the Partakers, ground their assurance in looking to the cross and to Christ. Such a looking is incompatible with a life of sin and the resultant carnal security that Experimental Predestinarians seem to observe in their circles.
The argument for the Reformed doctrine of perseverance has been disputed in the previous chapters. Their claim that a regenerate man will necessarily and inevitably persevere in a life of good works is refuted on all counts—by the following:
We are sinful. There is a continuum of sin from the sin in the heart of the sincere saint to the sin in the heart of the Christian who lives inconsistently and persists in it. Indeed, who of us does not “persist” to the final hour in mixed motives, in pride, in hypocrisy, in greed?! The only difference between the most sincere saint and the most carnal one is a matter of degree. To deny this is teach sinless perfection or the eradication of the sin nature. But listen to the apostle Paul:
For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. (Romans 7:15-19)
The apostle is certainly not a carnal Christian, but he recognizes that in his life there is sin and a mixture of good and evil, and that this persists to the end of life. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. . . If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:8, 10).
The evident impossibility of drawing a line across this continuum to divide those who are saved from those who only claim to be is, no doubt, what has caused the more consistent advocates of the Experimental Predestinarian tradition to push assurance of salvation to the final hour—a consistency that is invalidated by the fact that the bible offers assurance now.
The preoccupation with where to draw the line has historically resulted in the need for external objective standards. This explains the legalism present in both Reformed and Arminian circles. Whatever they disagree on, on this one point they are united: a man who is not living the life is not a Christian. This requires an objective definition of “the life” that must be lived.
Another common error is to confuse the idea of lordship as a condition of salvation with perseverance in holiness. Some seem to think they will solve the problem of carnality in our churches by teaching (1) that obedience is part of saving faith; and (2) that, in order to be saved, we must turn from all known sin and submit ourselves to the lordship of Christ.
But it should be obvious, even if this is granted, which it is not, that the act of submitting to the lordship of Christ at the point of saving faith in no way guarantees that a person will continue to submit to the lordship of Christ throughout the rest of his life. Thus, books that are written to eliminate the problem of dead Christianity by front loading the gospel with lordship salvation are not only wrong biblically, but logically they provide no answer at all. It is perseverance in godliness that will solve the problem and not a decision at a point in time. If their meaning is that, when a man is truly saved, he will necessarily persevere in holiness, then whatever saving faith is, even if it does not include lordship, it will guarantee the life of works. Therefore, the issue of lordship salvation is logically irrelevant to the whole discussion.
The theory of the saints’ perseverance in holiness is, in principle, falsifiable. If the Bible offers illustrations of individuals who have persisted in sin for a lengthy period of time, the theory is simply wrong. No amount of special pleading that these are simply “descriptions of the failure of one man” rather than the “teaching” of Scripture will do. If one man who is born again fails to persevere in holiness, then the Scriptures cannot teach that all who are born again will persevere in holiness. They will be in error.
In fact, there are not just one or two passages that seem to describe such failing believers but scores of them covering the entire range of biblical revelation, Old Testament and New. Only one such illustration would be sufficient to falsify the Reformed doctrine of perseverance, but the existence of many of them leaves the theory in shreds.
A central passage in the New Testament on the subject of the carnal Christian is Hebrews 5:11-14. The writer has just referred to the Melchizedekian priesthood of Jesus Christ when he realizes that the spiritual state of his hearers prevents him from explaining it in detail:
Of whom [Christ] we have much to say, and hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. (Hebrews 5:11)
They had “become” dull. They were not always so. They had fallen from a former state. There are two Greek words for “dull.” The first is bradus, which simply means “slow.” It is a person who is not to blame for his dullness, and so he has no moral fault. But the word used here is nothros, which means slowness of perception due to moral laxness or irresponsibility. It goes much deeper and reflects a moral deficiency.
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.
Here one of the chief characteristics of the “carnal” (nothros) Christian is mentioned, persistence in sin for a period of time, the very thing that many Calvinists say cannot happen in the life of a true Christian. The contrast in these verses is not between Christians and non-Christians but between the “babes” in Christ and the “mature” (5:13-14). The focus is for them to move from infancy to maturity.
The problem with these Christians has apparently been a willful refusal to grow. They have had time to mature but have chosen not to. The carnal Christian is characterized by:
These four things would aptly describe a person whose faith is “dead” (James 2:17). The Bible abounds with illustrations of genuine believers who have become nothroi, dull of hearing, carnal Christians.
Biblical Illustrations Contradicting Perseverance
There appear to be numerous biblical illustrations of regenerate people who seem to have lived lives of “total and constant” carnality. In some cases they lived this way to the “final hour.” In others the Bible characterizes their behavior as over an extended period of time. In the discussion below several examples will suffice.
Reviewer’s comment: The author of the book brings out several examples of believers who have failed to persevere in holiness along with an extensive discussion on some of them. For purpose of this review, several will only be listed in order and only brief excerpts will be listed on a few of them. The reader is advised to acquire the author’s book for his complete treatment of these models.
Jacob’s Sons (Genesis 39-42)
The founders of the nation of Israel were in a state of willful sin for over eleven years.
Saul (1 Samuel 10-22)
Saul was a regenerate man who became carnal, and his carnality persisted to the point of his physical death.
Solomon (1 Kings 1-12)
Here was a man of God who was a well-known spiritual leader for years, who manifested incredible divine wisdom, and who published numerous writings of a high spiritual caliber; yet, who later rejected the Lord and began to worship idols and adhered to witchcraft.
Lot (Genesis 13, 19)
According to 2 Peter 2:7, Lot was a “just” (righteous) person. He willingly entered a corrupt city (Sodom) where the men were “wicked and were sinning greatly against the Lord.” He offered his own daughters for the sexual pleasures of it inhabitants. The last mention of him in the Bible is in old age, drunk with wine and permitting his decadent daughters to sleep with him.
Amaziah (2 Chronicles 25)
Amaziah did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, but he did not follow the Lord wholeheartedly. He turned away from following the Lord and persisted in it unto (until his) death.
Uzziah (2 Chronicles 26)
King Uzziah did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, but when he became powerful, because of his pride, he fell into sin and became unfaithful to the Lord. He had leprosy until he died, lived in a separate house, and was excluded from the temple of the Lord.
Fall of a Righteous Man
But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and does according to all the abominations that the wicked man does, shall he live? All the righteousness which he has done shall not be remembered; because of the unfaithfulness of which he is guilty and the sin which he has committed, because of them he shall die. (Ezekiel 18:24)
It is stated here that it is possible for a “righteous man,” a justified man, to do “the same detestable things that a wicked man does.” The death in view here is a temporal calamity; eternal destiny is not in question at all.
1 Corinthians 5
Here is an extreme case of the “consistently carnal Christian.” A member of the church was involved in an incestuous relationship with his mother-in-law. Paul hands this carnal Christian over to physical death, but he notes that he will be saved at the day of the Lord Jesus.
In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.
(vss. 4, 5)
1 Corinthians 8
Here two categories of Christians are in focus, the weak and the carnal.
Here a true Christian can:
1. Lose his joy (4:5).
2. Count an apostle as his enemy (4:16).
3. Place himself under the law (4:21).
4. Use his freedom in Christ to “indulge the sinful nature” (5:13).
5. Destroy other Christians by biting and devouring them (5:15).
Many people saw the miraculous signs and episteusan eis to onoma autou (“believed on His name”). Yet Jesus would not episteuen auton autois (“entrust Himself to them”) because He “knew all men.” This phrase, “believe on His name” is used throughout John for saving faith. In fact, the first usages of the phrase (1:12, 13; 3:18) in the book contradicts the view that here it refers to a spurious faith.
Many of the leaders among the Pharisees episteusan eis auto, “believed on Him,” and yet they refused to confess their faith for fear of being put out of the synagogue (John 12:42). They hardly had submitted to the lordship of Christ or persevered in a life of good works. In fact, “they loved the praise of men more than praise from God” (12:43). Yet this technical term for saving faith characterizes their state of mind; they believed on Him! If one did not “know” before he came to the text that regenerate people could not be characterized by this, he would assume this applies to true Christians. Only a theological system can negate the consistent usage of this phrase in John. Could not those hypocritical Pharisees, these secret Christians, be called “carnal Christians”? Similarly, it is written of Joseph of Arimathea at the time of Christ’s burial that he “was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews” (John 19:38-42).
Christians Who Have No Part with Christ
Two kinds of Christians are referred to by the Lord in John 13:8:
Peter said to Him, "You shall never wash my feet!" Jesus answered him, "If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me."
Jesus said to him, "He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you." (John 13:10)
Jesus refers to Christians who are “bathed” (Gk. louo), who are “completely clean,” i.e., regenerate. But a bathed, regenerate person sometimes needs washing (Gk. nipto). In fact, if he does not go through this washing (nipto) he has no part with Christ. To wash (nipto) means to wash in part, but to bathe (louo) means “to wash all over.” The former refers to regeneration. Christ teaches here that, if a person who has been bathed refuses daily washing, he will have no part with Him. This is what is meant by a carnal Christian.
Simon Magus (Acts 8)
Christians Who Sleep
Paul rebukes the Corinthians because many of them were coming to the Lord’s Table drunk. He says that because of this many were ill and some were asleep (1 Corinthians 11:29-32). To “sleep” (Gk. koimao) was the Christian term for death. The passage speaks of rebellious believers who were drunks, who apparently failed to respond to other forms of divine discipline (“illness”), and whom God eventually took to be with Him. Here was a group of Christians who failed and persisted in their failure up to physical death.
It seems evident that something is amiss with a doctrine seemingly unable to account for what appear to be so many contradictions to its main tenet, the impossibility of perseverance in carnality. But the problem becomes even more acute when one considers the numerous passages that describe not only persistent moral carnality by regenerate people but final apostasy and rejection of the faith altogether—a subject of the next chapter.