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  • Love and Liberty

Natural, Carnal, Spiritual

Many today believe that the gospel is a scheme that relieves them of the obligation to obey the Lord. They don’t believe that a person must forsake sin and follow Christ, they believe salvation is the result of a one-time decision to say a “sinner’s prayer”, which comes in many different forms. Rather than preaching that the grace of God is his divine influence upon our hearts to call us to submit to his rule over our lives, they proclaim a cheap grace, a grace that costs them nothing and allows them to continue in sin. This view of what it means to be a Christian has resulted in the teaching that there are two groups of Christians: obedient Christians and “carnal Christians.” The carnal Christian teaching of the modern church says that a person can be a murderer, an adulterer, a fornicator, or a drunkard, etc., without repentance, and still be considered a Christian. Paul made it clear that the unrighteous will not inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9). We are told that there are three types of people in the world – the natural man, the carnal man, and the spiritual man. The natural man is lost, they say, but the carnal man and the spiritual man are both saved. I reject this interpretation. The natural man and the carnal man are both lost – and the spiritual man is the only one who is destined for eternal life. The spiritual man hears and obeys the Word of God.

The carnal man is the man that is ruled by his flesh. The natural man is the humanist – the man that exalts human intellect and wisdom as opposed to God’s wisdom.

They that walk in the flesh are not Christians. “For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace” (Romans 8:6). When the Bible talks about the carnal man it is talking about a sensual man. It is someone whose life is governed by his fleshly appetites. Sinners are “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3), not because of the way they were born, but because they choose to live for the gratification of the flesh. It has become their nature to indulge in self-gratification. Paul referred to the former lifestyles of those who had been converted when he said: "Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of the flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind..." (Eph. 2:2-3) This is what it means to walk in the flesh instead of to walk in the Spirit. A carnal life is opposed to a spiritual life. Yet many think they can be “carnal Christians” and inherit the Kingdom of God. They may refer to Romans chapter seven because they think Paul is describing the inward struggle with sin that Christians face. Many Christians rightly conclude that Paul is writing about his convicted but unconverted days. Romans chapter seven gives us a description of what occurs when the mind of an unconverted, religious sinner is convicted by the law. Using a literary technique, Paul uses the present tense to tell the narrative. We know Paul is not referring to his own converted state because he already said that Christians have been made “free from sin” (Rom. 6:18, 22). But the man in Romans seven was not “free from sin” he was “carnal, sold under sin.” He was still a slave to sin therefore he was not a Christian (Romans 6:16). Paul said afterward: “There is now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Rom.8:1). He told the Galatians this: “For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.” Can a Christian behave in a carnal manner? Assuredly he can, and God will chasten him for it. The Christian can respond to God’s chastening by repenting of his carnality or he can harden his heart toward God and revert to a life of self-gratification. A person must turn from his carnality to become a Christian, and if as a Christian he backslides into carnality, he must repent or he is in danger of becoming an apostate. There is no such thing as a habitually carnal Christian.

As for the natural man, it is common to hear the view that he is the unregenerated sinner who is so enslaved in sin that he is unable to understand God’s Word and he is unable to respond to God’s call to repentance unless he is illuminated by a direct operation of the Holy Spirit. The views of many theologians and preachers have been tarnished by this Calvinistic interpretation. To understand who the “natural man” is that Paul refers to, it is important to remember that the Greek culture was the context in which Paul was writing. The Greeks were well known for their so-called wisdom and humanistic intellectual pursuits. In the first three chapters of Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, wisdom was an important theme. Paul was making the point that true wisdom is not the “wisdom of the wise,” the “wisdom of this world,” or the “wisdom of men.” While this was the kind of “wisdom” that the Greeks boasted in, genuine wisdom comes from God, and the cross was an example of the difference between the wisdom of God and the wisdom of the world. A crucified Messiah was a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the intellectual Greeks.

Paul did not rely on human wisdom when he came preaching in Corinth. Man’s wisdom was lacking, to say the least, and this was evidenced by the fact that the rulers had crucified the Lord of glory, thus leading to the conclusion that God’s wisdom through the gospel had to be revealed by God’s Spirit and was not attainable through mere human intellect. From this context, we can identify the natural man. The spiritual person is one who has received the word of the Lord and is following him. It has been suggested, and the explanation seems to have merit, that the natural man is simply the individual that operates from the perspective of man’s wisdom – the intellect apart from the truths of God. He sees man as just another aspect of nature and he relies upon the “wisdom of the world” and his god is humanism. Humanism is a system of thought that exalts the human intellect and human achievement. It is a replacement for God by those who wish to rid themselves of his rule (Psalm 2:3). The natural man cannot receive the things of God because he does not approve of them. He shuts his ears to them. They are foolishness to him. No man who is in rebellion against the Lord can receive the truths of God.

So, whether we are speaking of the carnal man (the self-indulgent) or the natural man (the humanist), he is not incapable of turning to the Lord and following him. Neither the carnal man nor the natural man needs new abilities imparted to him so he can repent and follow Christ, what he needs is to change his heart. The Lord commanded the following to the unconverted people of Israel: “…make you a new heart and a new spirit…” (Ezekiel 18:31). That is what it means to repent. This is further explained in Isaiah 55:7-8 - “Let the wicked forsake his way (self-indulgence), and the unrighteous man his thoughts (humanistic views): and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.” When a person turns to the Lord, the veil of ignorance and confusion will be taken away (2 Corinthians 3:14-16) and he will then have ears to hear what the Spirit teaches.

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