In the Action/Reaction teaching series on Mark, I surfaced questions flowing from Mark 4:1-20 – The Preeminent Parable, Part 3. Having already explained the backstory of the passage along with answering the first question, Can We Know What is in Someone’s Heart? Now, let’s dive into the next question.
Ques. #2: What About “Carnal” Christians?
Maybe you have noticed that Christians are sometimes referred to as “carnal” when living without regard for Jesus in their life. Is this true? Can a Christian (when “carnal”) live like a pagan and still be considered a Christian? Are we to believe that they are simply in the condition of being carnal — an expression that effectively means “worldly?” Let’s first consider the backstory on where this understanding came from and then (in part 2) consider the Biblical basis for this belief.
For well over the last 90 years, the evangelical church in America (and then in the world) has fostered the notion that a Christian can legitimately be identified as fitting into either the category of being “carnal” or as being “spiritual” –living in unbroken fellowship with God due to walking in obedience. While there are many things that precipitated this understanding; I will offer three primary reasons for why this occurred. Along the way, we will uncover a massive amount of confusion including what it means to actually be a “Christian.”
The occasion for the start of categorizing Christians as being either carnal or spiritual can be traced back to evangelistic “revivals” or “tent meetings.” These occasions were concentrated periods of time in which a visiting evangelist would give a stirring message followed by an invitation to trust in Christ. The first rumblings of there being two classes of Christian were born in the shadow of these revivals, specifically during what became known as the “Second Great Awakening” (1790’s to 1830’s). It was during this time period that thousands upon thousands of people professed trust in Christ to save them from their sin. Yet, there were gnawing questions beginning to form in the minds of many during the later part of this movement due to the “new measures” being employed: “What about people who turn back to their old way of life after the revival ends?” “Are they truly saved?” “How can we know for sure?” These questions were by no means new to the Church, but the way these questions were to be addressed would be different than in previous evangelistic initiatives given the rise of broad-based Christian education that I will address shortly.
Can I Trust Jesus as My Savior Yet Reject Jesus as My Lord?
It was difficult to challenge the legitimacy of a person’s profession that stemmed from a revival meeting, especially when accompanied by the powerful emotions along with a Church community rejoicing in the work of God. Just consider the parents or relatives of the person who had professed accepted Jesus as Savior. The emotions of the moment (rightly so) would be incredibly powerful — the feeling of joy mixed with relief of what might have happened if their loved one would have died without Jesus would be palpable. Furthermore, to assuage the “craftiness of the Enemy” the evangelist would often and excitingly explain to the newly minted believers that they could be assured that “once saved, always saved!” In making this declaration, the evangelist would give no thought of being the agent by which the groundwork for two classes of Christian was being laid. How so? If the newly converted was not legitimately a true believer but simply a sincere yet momentary “make-believer” they would soon grow cold in living for Jesus. Yet, those attending the revival had been resolutely told that “once saved, always saved!” It was this conflicting message that would necessarily confirm that there must be a type of Christian in which faith is just too weak to be visible, too immature to be effective in producing good works. Any questioning of the legitimacy of that individual’s faith at this point, any notion that the person may not truly be “saved” was not only unloving, it would be downright un-Christian.
What to Do?
There needed to be a category in which these non-active believers were to be placed. The logic went like this — since no one can lose their salvation, it must be that the “believer” had a type of faith that was dormant. Faith in this regard was more like a virus in the body of an unsuspecting host – real yet no visible sign of infection. The faith of the individual must be real given that everyone had seen their “faith” when they came forward to accept Christ during the alter call at the revival meeting. Therefore, it must be that this type of “faith” was just not visible so as to be seen in the everyday stuff-of-life. The implication was that a person can be saved from hell but might not be effectively saved from sin in their life. Professing faith and authentic faith that resulted in obedience to Christ became disconnected from each other, both were real but only one was able to be seen in the lifestyle of the believer. Essentially, obedience to God as a manifestation of true saving faith became optional at best and the promotion of one’s assurance of faith was then connected not with the fruit of their life but with the act of “coming forward” or the “raised hand” or the moment of “accepting Christ as Savior.” The result was that a person could now, effectively, live in utter rejection of Jesus’ Lordship and yet claim to be “saved.” Anyone who dared question the salvation of this person who had “accepted Jesus” would be guilty of rejecting the doctrine of eternal security — questioning the very power of God in salvation.
How Can a Person Simultaneously Confess Christ and yet not Follow Christ?
There were deeper influences that allowed for the acceptance of this confusing teaching. As I stated previously, I believe there are three primary strains of influence powerful enough to sway church leaders to espouse this two-types of Christian viewpoint in order for it to become rooted in the broader evangelical culture. The first influence is the aforementioned Second Great Awakening and the blending of Arminian theology coupled with American pragmatism through the use of the (previously cited) new measures. Second, there was the publishing of, The Scofield Reference Bible in 1909. In the notes, Scofield supported the idea of Christians into two classifications, the already mentioned “spiritual” and “carnal.” The popularity of the Scofield Reference Bible cannot be underestimated. Thousands upon thousands of families would glean through the notes that served as a personal tutor in understanding the Scriptures. Thirdly, as the understanding of Scofield’s notes were pulsing through the collective psyche of evangelical churches, Lewis Sperry Chafer published, He That is Spiritual in 1918. Chafer was the first president of Dallas Theological Seminary and thereby obtained a growing influence in the education of men entering the pastorate. Chafer’s book further popularized the notion that a Christian can legitimately belong in one of two classes of Christian, “spiritual” and/or “carnal” at any given time. While there were some in academia who sought to dismantle the thesis of the book; the notion of two classes of believers had already taken root due to the theology of (primarily) the later half of the Second Great Awakening and was now being nurtured in Christian culture through the Scofield Reference Bible. With the advent of Chafer’s book along with the influence of pastors streaming from institutions of higher education like Dallas Theological Seminary, it is easier to see how this classification of two types of Christians became embedded in the modern church. Given Dallas Theological Seminary would soon be the largest evangelical seminary in the world, the impact it had on the greater evangelical church would be far-reaching.
By the 1940’s through 1980’s various revivals both local and national would crisscross America’s rural communities as well as the big cities in urging (rightly so) people trust Christ for salvation from sin. The most famous of crusades would feature Billy Graham who would also hold international crusades.
It was during this time period that Bill and Vonette Bright founded Campus Crusade for Christ (now simply known as Cru) in 1951 on the UCLA campus. Campus Crusade for Christ along with many other parachurch ministries faced the same dilemma as the churches of the Second Great Awakening, how do you explain those people who accept Christ and then eventually fall away and refuse to live for Christ? It was Campus Crusade for Christ that took up the mantra for categorizing Christians as being either “Carnal” or “Spiritual” when it published the booklet entitled: Have You Made the Wonderful Discovery of the Spirit-Filled Life. In this booklet, the classification was slightly expanded with all of humanity fitting into three categories: the “Natural Man” – the unsaved with self on the throne, the “Spiritual Man” – the Christian who has put Christ on the throne of his or her life and receives the benefits associated with the being filled by the Holy Spirit and finally the “Carnal Man” – a person who has “invited” or “accepted” Christ into their heart but “Ego or Self” is still on the throne and, therefore, a person in this condition is identical to the “Natural Man” in lifestyle. While the “carnal man” is saved, none of the fruit of the Spirit is evidenced in their life and it is this category of Christian that suffers from the effects of sin that are identical to that of the Natural Man. The only difference, then, between a “Natural” person and a “Carnal” Christian is a point in time in which an action (the raising of a hand or walking an aisle, etc.) took place that professed to turn from sin and trust in Jesus as Lord given what He has done for them.
When comparing this with Mark 4:1-20 and the Parable of the Soils, there is an overwhelming support that this “Carnal Christian” is of the first three soils cited by Jesus and certainly NOT the fourth and final soil that produced a harvest. A soil (i.e. “Heart”) that does not produce a harvest (doing the will of God, see Mark 3:35), should not be given assurance that they are truly born again. The teaching of this three-prong classification is woven into the ministry of “CRU” today as well as many other ministries.
In the next post, I will outline how the segmenting of Christians into two classes is not only confusing, it is also without basis from the Scripture cited to justify it – I Corinthians 2:14-3:9.