ne of the most serious problems in the church today is what was once called “carnal Christianity” or, more accurately, “fleshly Christianity.” If the phrase fleshly Christianity sounds like a jarring contradiction, that’s because it is. As we have seen in previous articles in Knowing & Doing, the Bible teaches that “the flesh” is one of the greatest enemies of a true Christian. “The flesh” is, of course, concerned not only with sins of sensuality but with the whole of our lives lived apart from God in this fallen world; it includes pride and greed and envy and idolatries of all sorts. Surely, one would think, a true Christian would seek to forsake the flesh and earnestly pursue a life of obedient discipleship. Sadly, however, that does not always happen.
Fleshly Christianity is widespread in the American church and well documented by researchers like the Gallup Organization and the Barna Group. Summarizing their research findings in a 2004 report, the Barna Group said, “The ultimate aim of belief in Jesus is not simply to possess divergent theological ideas but to become a transformed person. These statistics highlight the fact that millions of people who rely on Jesus Christ for their eternal destiny have problems translating their religious beliefs into action beyond Sunday mornings.”1
What is a “fleshly Christian”? First, let’s clarify what a fleshly Christian is not. A fleshly Christian is not a true believer who struggles with the flesh and is seeking to root out and forsake areas of remaining sin from his or her old life. That is normal. Rather, fleshly Christians are true believers who continue to live largely in the flesh after conversion and are not seeking to forsake their sins and move toward maturity. Significant areas of sin still dominate their lives, but they are content to continue as they are. As a result, they remain spiritual infants, whose lives show all too little of the transforming power of Christ.
Why is fleshly Christianity a serious problem? On a personal level, persisting in our former sins grieves the indwelling Holy Spirit, who alone can empower us to overcome them. By grieving the Spirit, we cause Him to withdraw the sense of His presence, and we block His empowerment until we repent. We also render ourselves spiritually dull and unable to grasp deeper teaching—teaching that could help us mature. In such a weakened state, we become much more vulnerable to other sins gaining power in our lives. Impaired fellowship with the Holy Spirit also makes our relationship with Christ seem more distant and less real. In this condition, we can begin to rationalize away our disobedience, become hardened in our hearts, and doubt our salvation. No longer sober minded and watchful, we are easy prey for the devil, who, like a roaring lion, is always prowling about seeking someone to devour (1 Pet. 5:8).
On a public level, fleshly Christianity reinforces the common perception that faith in Christ makes little or no positive difference in a person’s life. It feeds the increasingly common idea that Christians are just hypocrites. Quite naturally, this leads nonbelievers to assume that Christian faith makes little no beneficial contribution to society. Thus, instead of glorifying Christ, the fleshly Christian dishonors Him, undermines the plausibility of the gospel, and turns people away from Him. This sad spectacle is only magnified when the case is not an individual believer but an entire congregation.
The Corinithians Fall Short
Fleshly Christianity is not new. The apostle Paul had to address it in the Corinthian church. This congregation, which took pride in having an abundance of spiritual gifts, was beset by a number of serious sins, including spiritual pride, lawsuits against one another, sexual sin, lack of love, abuse of the Lord’s Supper, and division.
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