1Corinthians 3:1-4 has been at the center of a theological debate over whether we can have victory of sin in our lives now. One side argues that Paul believes “carnal Christians” will be saved but not sanctified because they have not learned to appropriate the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The other side says there is no such thing as “carnal Christians.” I will attempt to you show you from context which side is right and which side is wrong.
Paul wrote this letter to Corinth in response to a letter they sent him asking questions and a verbal report from some messengers about the situation in Corinth. 1Corinthians 3 is the middle of a discussion that runs from 1Corinthians 1-4.
In 1Corinthians 1, Paul addresses the divisions in their church and encourages them to unify around the truth of the gospel. But the divisions are a symptom of a deeper issue which is the fact the Corinthians have rejected the gospel message because 1) they want a gospel that is more appealing to their sophisticated intellectual town; and 2) they have rejected Paul’s authority as an apostle because they want a more eloquent teacher like Apollos.
In 1Corinthians 2, Paul turns directly to issue of how he speaks. He argues that nonbelievers will always find the gospel foolish and changing the gospel to please them means it is no longer the gospel. He argues the gospel is in fact true wisdom because it is revelation from God, and that his job as an apostle is to teach the gospel to those who have been prepared by the Spirit of God to understand it.
As he begins 1Corinthians 3, Paul is still on the subject of how his listeners receive his message and he speaks directly to the Corinthians about their own response.
To set the stage the debate we need a very brief history of American Christianity on this question.
- John Wesley, who was very influential in early American Christianity, rejected the reformed view of election.
- Wesley believed that God has done His part and now we must: 1) choose to believe; and 2) we must choose to be sanctified. If we choose properly, we can reach sanctification or a state of perfection in this life.
- Wesley was influential in the Keswick movement which in turn influenced early American Christianity to embrace the idea that the Christian life involves learning how to avail yourself of the power of the Holy Spirit to have victory over sin now.
- This viewpoint goes by many names: “Victorious Christian Living“, “Higher Life Philosophy” and some proponents of spiritual formation or spiritual disciplines, etc. The key idea in their theology is that the power to be perfect is in my hands.
- As evidence for their theology many Keswick thinkers cite 1Corinthians 3:1-4.
- Natural people who have not received Christ and are not believers.
- Spiritual Christians who have received Christ and choose to be directed and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
- Carnal Christians who have received Christ but choose to live on their own strength, rather than the power of the Holy Spirit.
I disagree with proponents of this view.
What is the issue of this section in context?
- Victorious Christian LivingI (VCL) answers that the issue is power over sin and how you find that power. They say Paul is speaking to the issue of what I do when I am tempted.
- I would argue the issue in the context of his argument is NOT having power over sin, but having the eyes to see and understand the gospel.
- Paul has been contrasting the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of the gospel.
- Paul has been defending his decision not to spin the gospel to make it more attractive.
- Paul has been defending the fact that the gospel is not man-made but is rather true revelation from God.
- Paul has claimed that only those in whom the Spirit of God is working will see the gospel as wisdom, the rest will see the gospel as foolish.
- Up to this point, Paul has referred to the spiritual person as the who judges the gospel rightly and sees the gospel as the valuable wisdom it is. In contrast to the natural man thinks the gospel is foolish.
- The topic of discussion is how you respond to the gospel, not how you respond to temptation.
What does Paul mean by not speaking to them as spiritual people?
- In 1Corinithians 2 in his defense that the gospel is true wisdom from God, Paul described 2 different works of the Spirit: revelation and understanding.
- Revelation is when the Spirit reveals the mystery of the gospel or God’s message to the God’s chosen messengers such that they accurately understand it.
- Understanding is when the Spirit granting understanding to those who hear the gospel such that they ultimately see it as wisdom and embrace it.
- He argued: The spiritual person — the one in whom the Spirit of God is working — judges rightly the things of God; The natural person — the one in whom the spirit of God is not working — rejects the gospel when he hears it.
- In 1Corinthians 3, he is speaking directly to the Corinthians: When I Paul spoke to you Corinthians, you were nonbelievers and the new baby believers. You lack the life experience to fully understand the wisdom of the gospel because you have barely begun the life of faith. You Corinthians are judging how wise and profound I Paul am as a speaker, but you’re not mature enough to really grasp all the implications of the gospel. And you’re not going to fully grasp all the implications of what I’m saying until you gain some maturity.
Does Paul think he’s addressing genuine believers?
- Paul calls them “infants in Christ” He refers to them as “brethern” here in 3:1.
- Keswick thinkers claim that Paul believes he is talking to genuine believers but some of them are carnal.
- I would argue reading all of 1Corinthians and 2Corinthians makes it clear that Paul questions the sincerity of their faith.
- When Paul says they are infants in Christ , it’s not appropriate for us to assume that they are all genuinely part of the elect, when we have evidence to the contrary in the letter.
Is Paul suggesting there are 2 kinds of Christians: carnal and spiritual?
- Keswick thinkers argue that Paul is talking to genuine believers here and he describes two kinds: spiritual and carnal.
- Carnal Christians are genuine believers who are not appropriating the power of God and therefore still living in despair and sin.
- Spiritual Christians choose to operate on the power of the spirit. The difference between them is whether or not they choose to appropriate the power of the Spirit in their daily lives.
- I would argue that Paul is describing mature (spiritual) and immature (carnal) believers. The difference between them is their level of wisdom and maturity, which depends on the activity of the Spirit in their lives. We came to faith by the work of the Spirit in our lives and we grow by the work of the Spirit in our lives. It is all part of the gift of God.
- Paul’s saying when I was there you were new believers, just starting this journey of faith and it doesn’t look like anything has changed. I Paul couldn’t go very far with you Corinthians before because you were new believers and I still can’t go far with you because you’re still acting like new believers. You are not mature in your perspectives. The divisions among you reveal your lack of maturity. You look just as foolish now as you did when you first believed. The divisions among you show that you are still thinking and acting just like everyone else in the world.