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What is a Fleshly Christian? A Message from Keswick’s Theologian

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For my part, brothers and sisters, I was not able to speak to you as spiritual people but as people of the flesh, as babies in Christ (1 Cor 3:1).

Have you ever heard of a “fleshly Christian” or of a “carnal Christian”? Do you know what that is?

Generally speaking, to be carnal means to be dominated by the flesh.

All unbelievers are carnal. They have no choice. Since they’ve never believed in Jesus, they do not have the Holy Spirit within them. The flesh is all they have. You need the Spirit to be spiritual. But having the indwelling Holy Spirit living does not guarantee the flesh will not dominate you. As Evan H. Hopkins (1837–1918), Keswick’s theologian explained:

“A carnal man maybe be one who has been born of the Spirit but is not sufficiently actuated by His enlightening and sanctifying power to overcome the hostile power of the flesh; he still thinks, feels, judges, acts, ‘according to the flesh’” (Hopkins, The Law of Liberty, p. 47).

When you believe in Jesus and are being born again, a conflict begins between your flesh and the Spirit. The believer then has two possibilities—two be fleshly or to be spiritual. You want to be spiritual. But you might not be. As Hopkins goes on to explain, there are two very different reasons why a Christian be carnal:

“The condition described by ‘carnal’ may be either the immature stage of the young convert or a state of relapse into which the more advanced believer has fallen” (Hopkins, The Law of Liberty, p. 47, emphasis added).

In other words, carnality may be due to immaturity or backsliding. Each reason carries a different level of culpability:

“To the first no blame can be attached, for all must pass through this stage in their progress from the natural to the spiritual. But to the second condemnation belongs, as we see from the way in which the apostle writes to the Corinthian believers: ‘I could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ’ (1 Corinthians 3:1)” (Hopkins, The Law of Liberty, p. 47).

Taking those in reverse order, if your carnality is due to conscious rebellion, you are culpable for your state, should repent of whatever sin you’re mired in, confess it to God, accept His forgiveness, and return to your first love.

But if you are carnal due to immaturity, recognize that it takes time to grow. Meditate on God’s Word. Listen to faith-building preaching that extols God’s grace and is grounded in Scripture. Occupy your mind with Christ and live every moment by faith in Him. Become a functioning member of a local Christian community. Do that, and you will mature from fleshly to spiritual.

Babies are cute for a time, but not forever.

Send your questions or comments to Shawn.


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