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Contradictory or Compatible Terms?

by Dr. Fred Wittman

Frequently, professing believers who continually live in sin are referred to as ‘carnal Christians’! Some have asked “Is this a legitimate term?” Is it proper, accurate, and in keeping with Scripture to use such terminology? Does this convey the true spiritual condition of a person out of fellowship with Christ and God? Is there a contradiction of terms in the phrase ‘carnal Christian,’ or are ‘carnal’ and ‘Christian’ compatible terms? Is it doctrinally correct to use the adjective ‘carnal’ to describe a Christian?

In order to ascertain the answers to these questions and the validity of the use of the term ‘carnal Christian,’ it is necessary to carefully consider both terms as used in Scripture.

The Name: ‘Christian’

Firstly, consider The Use of the Designation, ‘Christian.’

The current usage of the term ‘Christian’ by many people conveys a very broad meaning, much more inclusive than is warranted. Some use it in the broadest possible sense. But to derive its true Scriptural meaning, we must turn to The Word of God, which conveys a very much narrower meaning. Since the term was originally used early in the spring of A.D. 44 in Antioch, Syria and first recorded by Luke in Scripture in Acts of The Apostles in A.D. 62-63, it is to that Scripture it is required for one to refer for the proper meaning of the term, ‘Christian.’

Then Bahrnáhbahs exited unto Tahrsóhs, to thoroughly search for Saul. And when he found him, he led him unto Antioch. Then it came to pass for them to be gathered together with the church and to teach a considerable crowd for a whole era. And as a result the disciples were identifyingly named [indicating one’s business] Christians first in Antioch (Acts 11:25,26).

This word occurs in the Bible only three times (Acts 11:26; Acts 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16). The first time the word Christian occurs it is used to designate the disciples of the church at Antioch, who were evident followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. Their lives emulated the Lord Jesus so well that the Greeks at Antioch, Syria, called them ‘little Christs’ - Christians. The word ‘Christian’ comes from Xreestóhs which is the Greek word for ‘Messiah.’ The Greek suffix -ianos is appended. This suffix carried the meaning of “belonging to, a follower of, or a strict adherent of.” This suffix was used to designate the fanatic political party known in Christ's day as the ‘Herodians.’ It was added to ‘Caesar’ to form the appellation ‘Caesarian.’ Even today, it is used to indicate a kind of birth, because it is believed to be the way Julius Caesar was born. Thus, the Greeks observed the disciples as followers of Christ, those who belonged to Christ, fanatics - those who fanatically followed Christ, were called Christians and because of the way they lived, ‘little Christs.’

‘Christian’ is a name or designation God’s people never used or claimed for themselves. It was always ascribed to them by someone else who recognized that their lives backed up their message. Their whole lives revolved around The Lord Jesus Christ. As Paul so aptly put it, “. . . to me to live is Christ . . .’ This reflected the existence of all true Christians.

A number of years ago during several weeks of evangelistic preaching in Jamaica, while giving out tracts in an open air market, I was asked by a lady vender sitting by her wares, as she reached up to take the tract I offered, Christian? The reply, are you asking, Am I a Christian? She nodded yes. My response was, “That is a question others must answer. The content of this literature is about The Lord Jesus Christ. And if you call me a Christian because my life reflects Christ as a follower and disciple of Him, I will be honored. But it does not belong tome or anyone to make such claim for ourselves because the Scriptural meaning is so limited in scope.”

Secondly, consider “Disciples first called Christians.

The word translated ‘called’ in Acts 11:26 by most versions is very interesting. It is not kahléh0, the word usually translated ‘called’ but literally means ‘summoned’ and is translated so in A Precise Translation. It is xraymahtéez0, which means “to be given an identifying name indicating one’s business.” This word is used to designate a business, to call by a name which comes from one’s business. For example, a business called ‘the bootery’ would be a place which sells boots, repairs boots, or makes boots to order. One who cuts up meats and sells them is ‘the butcher,’ just as the one who makes and sells bread and all kinds of baked goods is ‘the baker.’ That is the way a number of English people got their surname - by their occupation or business. The name by which people are ‘called’ indicates the business in which they are engaged, their life occupation.

   The Greeks in Antioch, Syria may have used the term ‘Christian” in a derogatory manner, but it accurately described those who belonged to Christ, those who were close followers of His, and those who were fanatic about their salvation and most assuredly their Savior. Unless one was sold out to Christ, he would not be given the title, or be called a Christian; nor would one want the title, because of the reproach that went with the name. But in our day there are so few who live such sanctified, separated lives in such fanatic devotion to Christ.

Thirdly, consider that ‘Christian’ Means Little Today.

Through the years, the full significance that this name conveyed in the first century has been lost, until it is a misnomer in its common use today. It is commonly used to designate anyone who practices a religion that believes in Jesus Christ in any way at all, even as ‘just a great teacher.’ If one professes to believe in Christ, he claims to be a Christian. Scripturally, this is not proper or correct. It is about time that true believers - possessors and not professors of eternal life - insist on the proper use of the name Christian. This can only be done by our lives measuring up to our confession and living separated and sanctified lives which demonstrate possession and not mere profession that we belong to Christ

According to the New Testament use of the term, no one can call himself a Christian. It is for others to observe and, if the life measures up, to call that one a Christian. We cannot properly claim the title; but if others see Christ in us so that our lives reflect that we have died to self and Christ lives his life in and through us as Paul claimed in Galatians 2:20, then it is an honor to be called Christians. We glorify Christ and God as we bear Christ’s reproach (Heb. 13:13) and suffer as a Christian (1 Peter 4:16). Just because one has made a profession of faith, he does not become a Christian unless His life indicates he is a true disciple of Christ who has forsaken all to follow Christ (Luke 14:26, 27, 33). But in our day there are so many who claim to be Christians and yet are living in sin and worldliness, fulfilling fleshly lusts, that the average ‘unregenerated Jane or Joe’ does not see anyone so distinctly different as did the unregenerated Syrians in Antioch in A.D. 44.

On the one hand the name ‘Christian’ is a restricted term, used to specify a godly living, dedicated, and totally committed person, strictly following The Lord Jesus Christ. On the other hand ‘carnal’ has an entirely different meaning.

The Meaning of ‘Carnal’

The Greek word for ‘carnal’ is sahrkeekóhs. It comes from sáhrks, the word for flesh. It is the word from which we get ‘sarcophagus,’ a flesh-eating stone, a stone coffin and also the word ‘sarcophagous’ which means flesh-eating, or carnivorous. ‘Carnal’ is defined in the English dictionary as relating to or given to crude bodily pleasures and appetites, marked by gratification of the senses, fleshly. Paul uses the Greek word sahrkeekóhs to describe some of the people at Corinth. This is a compound word using sáhrks plus the suffix -eekohs (ikos) which carries the meaning of “pertaining to or dominated by, that quality which belongs to, or under the control of.” There are a number of New Testament words that contain this suffix. Three of them are found in 1 Cor. 2:14 - 3:3. When the Scripture speaks of the sahrkeekóhs man, the reference is to the human (person) who is dominated by the flesh, who lives his or her life in relation to pleasing the flesh, under the control of the flesh with its lusts and appetites, even though he may have a degree of interest in Scripture, spiritual things, and the blessings of Christ.

In contrast to the carnal person who lives to please the flesh, the Christian lives to please The Lord Jesus Christ and has died to the flesh and its appetites. Paul contrasted the sahrkeekóhs man with the psuxeekóhs man and the pneumahteekóhs man in 1 Cor 2:14, 15.

The psuxeekóhs man is the natural human who lives life to the full in relation to his soul. He may be moral but without God and without hope. Or he may be morally degraded, heartless, and ruthless. He is hopelessly lost living to himself. The pneumahteekóhs man is the spiritual human under the control of and dominated by the Holy Spirit of God.

According to Romans 7:14 the sahrkeekóhs human is sold under sin and still in bondage to sin. This is the one whose mind is carnal, fleshly, and is at enmity with God (Rom 8:7). Literally: “. . . to be flesh minded is death . . .” (Rom. 8:6). The carnal person is an enemy of God and not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. “For to be carnally minded is death!” What an indictment Paul has written over the carnal person! How can such an one be a Christian? He may profess to be saved, but if Scripture calls him an enemy of God he has not yet been reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:17-20). The sahrkeekóhs person walks as unregenerated humans walk (1 Cor. 3:3), “According to the ruler: of the authority of the air, |namely| of the spirit who is now continually effectively working in the children of disobedience: . . . demeaned in the passionate lusts of the flesh of ours, doing the determined wills of the flesh and of the thinking capacities” (Eph. 2:2,3 APT).

In 1 Corinthians 3:1-3, Paul addressed the Corinthians as ‘brothers.’ He wrote that he could not speak to them as spiritual, but on the contrary as to two other groups of people. The double use of h0s in the Greek indicates two classes of people being addressed. He wrote to them as to babes in Christ, immature and not able to discern spiritual truths (1 Cor. 3:2 cf. Heb. 5:12-14), and he wrote to them as to carnal people seeking to please the flesh with minds at enmity with God.

Some will object and say he is writing to ‘brothers.’ But Paul wrote to ‘brothers.’ as a group which also contained false brothers (2 Cor. 11;4, 13-15, 26; Gal. 2:4; Phil. 3:17-19). He wrote the Second Epistle to the Corinthians and addressed them as ‘brothers.’ (8:1) but in 6:14-7:1 he exhorted them to “ . . . come out from among them and be separate.”

The double h0s opens the door to the thinking that carnal is another class of people, other than babes and not the same as babes. These carnal Corinthians had intellectual faith and not heart faith. Therefore ‘carnal’ and ‘Christian are contradictory terms.

Can Carnal Be Christian?

Does this description of the carnal person bespeak one described as a Christian? Does it not rather indicate one who has not come to recognize that he is dead to sin, if he indeed be alive in Christ? Does it not indicate a lack of repentance? It cannot be denied that the carnal person desires spiritual blessings. He does desire the spiritual but will not yet pay the price of total commitment to Christ. He wants the blessings of the gospel and enjoys the lusts of the flesh. He doesn't want to mortify the deeds of the body (Rom 8:13). He may have been introduced to the Cross, but he lives his life as though he has not had a Cross-experience. If the person who persists in walking after the flesh is considered a Christian, isn't fragmentary salvation proffered (see? How does 1 John 3:4-10 apply to such an one?

Can it not be concluded that carnal can not be Christian? The true spiritual condition of the carnal person is sinful, fleshly, dead to God, without peace and life. The true spiritual condition of a Christian is dead to sin, spiritually alive, under the control of the Spirit with the flesh reckoned to be dead. He may slip into sin by a carnal act but he will not persist in it. He will consciously, conscientiously abstain from fleshly lusts and “make no provision for the flesh” (Rom. 13:14).

Men and Brothers, What Shall We Do?

Let us not confuse God’s people with contradictory terminology! Let us not any longer confuse the unregenerated ones with contradictory terminology! Let us not give place to the Devil to infiltrate our churches with false ‘brethren’ who make a profession but give no evidence of repentance and of experiencing the full salvation provided by Christ - salvation not only from the plight and penalty of sin, but also from the power and dominion of sin! (See leaflet entitled Fragmentary or Full Salvation.)

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This article in abridged form appeared in Hermeneuo Vol. 12, December 1987. Hermeneuo was a publication

of the Australian Bible Seminary, registered by Australia Post, Publication No. NBG7689.

Dr. Wittman was the Principal of the Seminary, and also the Editor of Hermeneuo at that time.

He is currently engaged in writing, teaching and lecturing, and translating The New Testament into A Precise Translation.

He currently lives in Wilmington, Delaware, USA.


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Last modified: May 25, 2005