Does Romans allow for the “Carnal Christian”?

TL/DR: The theology concerning the existence of a “carnal Christian” holds that a person can realistically come to true saving faith in Christ and continue to live free of repentance and sanctification for the full remainder of his or her life.  This paper examines Romans 7:14 and 8:1–14 to demonstrate that Romans knows no such concept.  In Romans 7:14, Paul identifies even himself as one who struggles with the flesh.  In Romans 8:1–14, there are only two kinds of people in view: the natural and the spiritual.  It makes no mention of a middle category.

For a more broad-based overview of “carnal Christian” theology, see GotQuestions.org, which explains that “The key thing to understand is that while a Christian can be, for a time, carnal, a true Christian will not remain carnal for a lifetime.”

This is adapted from a paper I submitted in a Romans exegesis class.  I have gone through here to make sure anything appearing in Greek script gets transliterated or translated appropriately, but it is still very technical.  Feel free to leave a comment!


Dallas Seminary founder Lewis Sperry Chafer in his interpretation of 1 Corinthians classifies all humans into three classes.

namely,

(a) the natural man—the ψυχικός (psuchikos) man who is unregenerate,
(b) the spiritual man—the πνευματικός (pneumatikos) man who is saved and empowered by the Holy Spirit, and
(c) the carnal man—the σαρκικός (sarkikos) man who is regenerated as being in Christ, but who is living in the sphere of the flesh.[1]

[Don’t miss these three terms above. The last two are constantly referred to throughout this paper! —GPO]

While Chafer is certainly not alone, the predominant Reformed viewpoint essentially denies the middle category and instead argues only in favor of the natural and spiritual man.  By way of illustration, R.C. Sproul writes concerning Romans 8 the following:

We noted earlier…a serious distortion of theology that is rampant in the evangelical world today, namely, that there are two types of regenerate Christians—the spiritual Christians and the carnal Christians. Notice that Paul knows nothing of this: you are either controlled by the sinful nature or by the Spirit. The ultimate test of whether you are saved or not is this: is the Spirit of God dwelling in you?[2]

This paper will examine “carnal man” in light of Paul’s epistle to the Romans in order to shed any light it might have on this particular aspect of sanctification theology. Romans alone has been selected for examination in order to allow greater depth of insight within the allotted space, not out of any false perception that Romans conflicts with 1 Corinthians 3.  The first portion of this paper will focus on Romans 7:14 and its implications for Chafer’s interpretation of 1 Cor 3:1.  The second portion will focus on Romans 8:1–9, concerning those who live according to the flesh versus according to the Spirit, and the implications this has for Chafer’s interpretation of 1 Cor 3:1–4.

Romans 7:14 and the Sarkinos Man

Romans 7:14 reads, “For we know the law is spiritual, but I am human, sold under sin.”[3]  The word translated here as human here is σάρκινος (sarkinos), the same lemma being used in 1 Cor 3:1, earlier quoted by Chafer to establish carnal man as a separate categorization.  To assume automatically that these verses are speaking concerning the same concept without further exploration would be erroneous, so whether Romans 7:14 speaks of the same concept warrants investigation.

Two comparative observations are necessary.  First, the use of σάρκινος (sarkinos) in both passages is extremely similar.  Louw and Nida list either “pertaining to behavior which is typical of human nature, but with special focus upon more base physical desires”[4] or “pertaining to the natural, physical characteristics of persons and often including their characteristic behavior”[5] as valid classifications for 1 Cor 3:1’s use of σάρκινος (sarkinos).  Both classifications are fairly close to each other, though the former is preferred for both 1 Cor 3:1 and Rom 7:14 in that they deal with issues of behavior more than they do physical characteristics of humans with behavior as a byproduct.

Secondly, both passages also contrast σάρκινος (sarkinos) directly with πνευματικός (pneumatikos).  In 1 Cor 3:1, Paul states that he could not speak to his audience as “spiritual (πνευματικός) (pneumatikos) people” but as “fleshly (σάρκινος) (sarkinos) people.” In Rom 7:14, Paul contrasts the σάρκινος (sarkinos) man with the law being spiritual.

Certain difficulties arise in this comparison however.  While the sense of σάρκινος (sarkinos)in both passages is likely to be the same[6], having the same referent is less certain.  Is the first-person σάρκινος (sarkinos) man of Romans 7:14 –  one who is “sold under sin” –  a believer who struggles with sin or an unbeliever?  Is the σάρκινος (sarkinos) man of 1 Cor 3:1 under a separate classification than a πνευματικός man, or is this verse to be understood that Paul has to speak to people who are actually πνευματικός (pneumatikos) but simply not acting and understanding in a manner consistent with being believers?  While the second question is outside the scope of this paper, the first question bears worth examination.

The context of Romans 7:14 argues strongly that Paul at a minimum is talking about himself in the first-person.  It is difficult to see otherwise given the vast repeats of the first-person singular across the pericope and the lack of any solid “break” at which it is clear Paul has ceased to make himself the referent.  Cranfield rightly finds two options among a longer list to be valid, the first being “Paul’s present experience as a Christian” and the second being “the experience of a Christian…still trying to fight the battle in his own strength.”[7]  Moo holds the first person to be representative of both Paul as an individual and Israel as a whole, the latter given the context of the Mosaic Law.[8]

Going to the statement in Romans 7:14, if the first person singular subject is Paul – and the student believes this to be the case – Paul therefore identifies himself as σάρκινος (sarkinos).  If σάρκινος (sarkinos) is to be understood in Romans 7:14 in the same sense that Chafer contends for 1 Cor 3:1, certain logical implications arise.

(1) Paul is identifying himself as a carnal man.[9]

(2) Paul identifies all Christians who struggle with sin (i.e. all Christians!) as carnal men.

It is important to note that Chafer does not argue for either of these points, but the logical connection therein is important to examine in light of Paul’s use of σάρκινος (sarkinos) in 1 Cor 3:1.  If we are to reject either of these deductions, either (1) our understanding of the sense and referent of σάρκινος (sarkinos) between Romans 7:14 and 1 Cor 3:1 requires revision or (2) the categorization of carnal man in 1 Cor 3:1 is inconsistent with the use of σάρκινος (sarkinos) in Rom 7:14 and requires revision.

Taking these implications further, the student opines that Rom 7:14 is best understood not as Paul categorizing himself (and all Christians) as Chafer’s carnal man but rather as his identification with the struggle with the flesh that all Christians—as those who are simultaneously indwelt by the Holy Spirit and their own sinful flesh—face.  Moreover, Paul’s use of this terminology in Romans 7:14 presents risk to Chafer’s carnal man theology in 1 Cor 3:1–4 where further exploration of the latter passage would prove fruitful.

Categorization of people in Romans 8:1–14

As noted earlier, Sproul argues against “carnal Christian” theology and instead limits the categories to those indwelt by the Spirit and those who are not.  He states this in the context of commenting on Romans 8:8.

We noted earlier…a serious distortion of theology that is rampant in the evangelical world today, namely, that there are two types of regenerate Christians—the spiritual Christians and the carnal Christians. Notice that Paul knows nothing of this: you are either controlled by the sinful nature or by the Spirit. The ultimate test of whether you are saved or not is this: is the Spirit of God dwelling in you?[10]

But Boa and Kruidenier comment here that “Paul is not defining two categories of people here: Christians versus non-Christians, or Spirit-filled Christians versus ‘carnal’ Christians.  Rather, he is using the opposite extremes of the spectrum to illustrate two ways of living life in God’s world.”[11]

Concerning the flesh in Romans 8, Chafer writes:

A different description is found in Rom. 8:5–7: There the one referred to is “in the flesh,” and so is unsaved; while a “carnal” Christian is not “in the flesh,” but he has the flesh in him. “But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.”[12]

Immediately following, Chafer goes straight back to 1 Corinthians 3 to derive the theology of the carnal man.  So we must emphasize for the sake of charity and accuracy that Chafer is not arguing that Romans 8:5–7 argues for the carnal man, but rather that one who is “in the flesh” (Chafer’s words) in Romans 8:1–9 is one who “is unsaved.” [13]  The student agrees with Chafer on both points: carnal man has no direct mention in Romans 8:1–9 and the person “in the flesh” in this passage is an unsaved person.  This will be further developed shortly.

But given the citation by Sproul and others of Romans 8:1–9 to counter Chafer’s carnal man theology, a further examination of the passage is necessary to determine whether in fact it might invalidate the theological classification of carnal man.  This burden may be met in one of two ways.  First, if Paul does mean to classify all human beings into two categories and no others[14], then the additional classification of carnal man based on 1 Corinthians 3 is invalidated.  This is most easily met if Paul divides human beings based upon whether they are indwelt by the Holy Spirit.  Second – to a lesser degree – if Boa and Kruidenier are correct, then it may be deduced that the divide between carnal man and spiritual man is not so sharp as to justify separate theological categories but rather simply to illustrate the Romans 7 back-and-forth struggle of flesh and spirit which all true believers – not split into carnal and spiritual categories – fight.

The student finds that Sproul’s view – that a dichotomy between the justified and the unjustified is in view – is superior for a few reasons.  First, the pericope’s literary subject “those who are in Christ Jesus” (τοῖς ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ) is best understood as carrying over into verse 5 in describing οἱ…κατὰ πνεῦμα [περιπατοῦντες] (“those who walk according to the Spirit”).[15] The very fact that for such people there is “no condemnation” (v. 1) indicates that this refers to their justified state.  Second, Paul carries this meaning through to the first-person plural ἡμῖν (“us”) in v. 4, essentially saying that “those who are in Christ Jesus” from v. 1 – the justified – are the same people – “us” in v. 4 – who walk κατὰ πνεῦμα (“according to the Spirit”).  Third, this gets carried again to v. 5, where οἱ…κατὰ πνεῦμα [περιπατοῦντες] (“those who walk according the Spirit”) – the justified – are juxtaposed against οἱ…κατὰ σάρκα [περιπατοῦντες] (“those who walk according to the flesh”) – logically defined as the unjustified.

The verb φρονοῦσιν (phronousin) (lemma: φρονέω (phroneo)) presents an area where English-only readers can easily become confused given its wide-ranging translations.  Less ambiguously as a present tense verb, it likely “focuses on its development or progress”[16] while its indicative mood is a “presentation of certainty.”[17]  What is more ambiguous however is its lexical definition.  BDAG lists this use under the second definition “to give careful consideration to someth., set one’s mind on, be intent on.[18]  But Cranfield takes BDAG’s third definition, this as people’s “allow[ing] of the direction of their lives to be determined”[19] by either the flesh or spirit.  Moo holds that φρόνημα (phronema) (v. 6) and φρονοῦσιν (phronousin) (v. 5) “denote the mind-set or attitude that characterizes those who belong to these two respective realms,” referring to flesh and Spirit.[20]  MacArthur’s position is nearly indistinguishable from that of Moo, that “the verb…refers to the basic orientation, bent, and thought patterns of the mind, rather than to the mind or intellect itself.”[21]  The NET notes comment that “What is in view here is not primarily preoccupation, however, but worldview. Translations like ‘set their mind on’ could be misunderstood by the typical English reader to refer exclusively to preoccupation.”[22]  The student finds that in terms of what justification is most likely to lead to, a predisposition of attitude influenced by the Holy Spirit (the third BDAG definition) is more likely than the human’s setting of his or her own preoccupation or side/cause (the second BDAG definition).

An even clearer sign that a dichotomy of justification is in view here appears in v. 9.  Paul addresses his audience in the second-person plural and identifies all of them as “in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you.” (NET)  Chafer even quotes this verse in the portion of He That Is Spiritual cited on page 5.[23]  It is not that Chafer holds that the Holy Spirit does not indwell the carnal man.[24]  However, Chafer’s logic disconnects from the justification view of Romans 8:1–9 because it views οἱ…κατὰ πνεῦμα [περιπατοῦντες] (“those who walk according to the Spirit”) (v. 5) as those under the narrower category of spiritual man rather than all believers.  Moreover, the justification view of Romans 8:1–9 logically limits the “kinds of people in the world” to two, leaving no room for Chafer’s carnal man category.  Thus, the student finds that Romans 8:1–9 risks invalidating Chafer’s carnal man theology.

Conclusion and Further Implications

It would be a far logical stretch to conclude with certainty that Chafer is outright wrong concerning his exegesis of 1 Cor 3:1–4 and his carnal man theology without making our own reasonable effort to exegete the 1 Corinthians passage.  However, in light of the principle of scripture interpreting scripture, we find that a fair look at Romans 7:14 and Romans 8:1–9 presents significant risk of invalidating Chafer’s carnal man theology derived from the 1 Corinthians passage.

[1] Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, Kregel/Accordance ed. (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1948), 6:168.  Line breaks added.

[2] R. C. Sproul, The Gospel of God: Expositions of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Logos ed. (Fearn, Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus, 1999), 134.

[3] All Greek-to-English translations are those of the student unless otherwise noted.

[4] L&N §41.42

[5] L&N §79.4

[6] The student contends that both fall under L&N §41.42.

[7] C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Logos ed., vol. 1, International Critical Commentary (New York: T&T Clark International, 2004), 344.

[8] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, Logos ed., The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), 425–426.

[9] “There is a distinction, common throughout evangelical Christianity, that there are three types of people: those who are not Christians; and then two kinds of Christians—spiritual Christians and carnal Christians. This has created quite a bit of confusion and, because of that confusion, we must examine carefully what Paul says, ‘But I am unspiritual (carnal, KJV), sold as a slave to sin.’ Remember that the apostle is writing after his conversion and yet he is using the present tense. So if we ever have any absolute authority to call someone a carnal Christian it would have to be the apostle Paul, because he declares under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that he is (in the present tense) carnal.” Sproul, The Gospel of God, 124.

[10] Ibid., 134.

[11] Kenneth Boa and William Kruidenier, Romans, ed. Max Anders, Logos ed., Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2000), 251.

[12] Lewis Sperry Chafer, He That Is Spiritual, Logos ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1918), 7.  Emphasis original.

[13] Ibid.

[14] This emphasized condition is important for addressing Chafer’s theology, as he himself holds that Romans 8 is not talking about carnal man.

[15] So added to indicate that while the Greek omits repeating the dative participle περιπατοῦσιν from verse 4, its force may apply to the repeated instances of κατὰ σάρκα and κατὰ πνεῦμα in verse 5.  The student has converted the original word to the nominative case for clarity and agreement with the nominative article οἱ.  Says Cranfield, “Though it might seem rather tempting to press the use of the verb εἶναι in this verse as referring to being rather than conduct, on the ground that this would afford a somewhat bigger difference of meaning between of οἱ κατὰ σάρκα ὅντες and τὰ τῆς σαρκὸς φρονοῦσιν, it is more probable that Paul simply used οἱ κατὰ σάρκα ὄντες as synonymous with οἱ κατὰ σάρκα περιπατοῦντες.”  The alternative—an implied copular verb εἶναι in v. 5—argues more strongly for the student’s position, but it is not an essential element for making the case.  Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 1:385.

[16] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, Accordance ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 514.

[17] Ibid., 448.

[18] BDAG, 1065–1066.

[19] Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 1:386.

[20] Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 486.

[21] John MacArthur, Romans 1–8, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1991), 416.

[22] Notes on Romans 8:5 in The NET Bible, 1st ed. (Biblical Studies Press, 2009).

[23] Chafer, He That Is Spiritual, 7.

[24] Says Chafer, “The Spirit of God is given to every saved person as an indwelling Paraclete [emphasis original], thus providing a limitless resource both for understanding and teachableness.”  Chafer, Systematic Theology, 1:9.

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