On the opposite end of the spectrum concerning the conflict with sin that remains in the human heart are those who have devised the doctrine of the “carnal Christian,” who base their thought upon 1 Corinthians where Paul writes: “But I, brothers, I could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ” (3:1). They argue that there are two classes of Christians, the spiritual and the carnal, because when a man or woman becomes a Christian, while the guilt of their sin is removed and the assurance of eternal life is given to them, there is no change in their nature. Thus it is possible to live as an unbeliever and yet no longer be subject to the penalty of sin. Only when there is a subsequent decision to accept Jesus as Lord does the carnal Christian become the spiritual Christian. However, such teaching misses the clear point of Paul’s teaching. For the apostle is not speaking to a whole class of believers but rather to those he names as “messengers of the gospel,” whose work at planting and tending the gospel will be judged. In Corinth Paul and Apollos had faithfully proclaimed the gospel of Christ and seen the fruit of their labor as there were new converts added to the church. He knew that while these were real believers, their manner of life was not consistent with the gospel that they had embraced. So he was warning them not to abandon the gospel by mixing it with carnal and fleshly behavior, but rather to live in the world as true disciples of Christ who had made them alive.
The reality of the conflict with sin is the context of the sanctification of every believer. While it is not a struggle for unbelievers, it is a struggle for all Christians, and there is no simple or quick solution to that struggle. Instead we are given the Spirit, who encourages us in that struggle and who uses the outward means of the Scripture and the sacraments to minister the gospel to us in our pilgrimage. Christ has added us to his family the church, and our growth is encouraged and sustained by the godly discipline within the body of Christ to the end that we grow in the grace and the knowledge of the Lord.
Robert Norris has been Senior Pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Maryland since 1984. Prior to coming to Fourth he was Executive Pastor of Programs at First Presbyterian Church, Hollywood, California, Assistant Minister at The City Temple, London, Chaplain to the City of London University, and also as Chaplain to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. Originally from Wales, he holds degrees from Kings College, (BA) London, and St. Andrews, Scotland (M.Th., Ph.D) and was ordained jointly by the Presbyterian Church of Wales and United Reformed Church of England and Wales.
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