Updated: Jan 8
Frequently one hears this passage being misused and misinterpreted as to bring “carnal” into the nature of a saved person and that Christians can be and are “babes.” Neither is true. There is no such thing as a “carnal Christian” or a “baby Christian.” In support of this error 1 Cor 3:1-3 is favoured, but that false philosophy is neither found there or anywhere else in Scripture. 1 Cor 3:1-3 has to be twisted out of its meaning, out of context and falsely divided to achieve the desired effect or teaching. Paul is not teaching that a believer is carnal or can live carnally or that there is such a thing as a “carnal Christian.”
Modern day preachers and scholars have fabricated an entire category for this type of professing Christian. Who knows how many many professing Christians have been lured into a false sense of security by the suggestion that they are merely "carnal." Unfortunately a true born again Christian can behave carnally but nothing in Scripture suggests that a true born again Christian will pursue after the flesh with unbroken indifference or antagonism towards the things of God. True children of God do no masquerade as lovers of the world and children of the devil. The actual very opposite is true -- Satan comes as an angel of light and his servants as ministers of righteousness (2 Cor 11:12-15).
"Carnal Christians" is a lie that was popularized by false teachers such as Louis Sperry Chaffer, Jack Hyles, Charles Ryrie, and others, to give credence to false believers who follow after sin, who live after the world and their flesh, and then the teaching propagated by those that don’t do proper Bible study or are lost themselves.
Paul is questioning their professions of faith, whether they were in fact yet “carnal,” and “walk[ing] as men” that is, if they were yet lost people (Eph 4:17), since the “carnal” of 1 Cor 3 is the “natural man” (lost—in the flesh) of 1 Cor 2, and not the “spiritual” man (saved—in the Spirit) of 1 Cor 2, all of which is the same context (1 Cor 2:9-16). 1 Cor 2 is the basis for what we read in 1 Cor 3.
If “carnal” in 1 Cor 3 refers to a Christian, then there are three categories of people: the natural man, the carnal Christian, and the spiritual Christian, like L.S. Chaffer promoted. But there aren’t three, only two, noted throughout the Bible, hundreds of times, including by Paul. False Christianity creates three, to accommodate false believers. Hence the other terminology utilized by this same philosophy: “backsliding,” “lukewarm,” and “unbelief,” which are actually, just like “carnal,” referring to unsaved people that feign faith. These terms are Keswick/Revivalism currency to describe people that are actually lost but proclaimed as saved. They are an ever elusive category that does not exist in Scripture.
The context of 1 Cor 3, which is most crucial in proper hermeneutics, presents only two categories of people: the natural man and the spiritual man (1 Cor 2). The natural man of 1 Cor 2 and the carnal man of 1 Cor 3 are the same person. The natural man in 1 Cor 2:14 is “psuxikos,” a person controlled by himself, by his own soul (the “ikos” ending says "controlled by" or "pertaining to" or "characterized by"). The natural man is in control of his own life and destiny. The spiritual man, 1 Cor 2:15, is “pneumatikos,” so the Spirit controls him. These are the unsaved person and the saved person respectively. The contrast is also made in Eph 2:1-5, the carnal very much lost (vv. 1-3).
So, in 1 Cor 3, Paul says he could not speak to them "as" unto spiritual, actually referring back to the spiritual man of chapter 2, but plural, spiritual men. He's saying he couldn't talk to them like they were saved people, that is, people who could understand spiritual things. "But" (alla, strong contrast, on the contrary) "as" carnal (“sarkikoi” people controlled by the flesh, the unregenerate). Paul couldn't talk to them like they were saved (“spiritual”), but like they were unsaved (“carnal”). Paul is talking to professing Christians, so he says, "as." If he was actually talking to the so-called carnal Christians, he would’ve said, 'speaking to carnal Christians,' not "as."
Paul also says "as babes in Christ." He is talking to professing Christians, but "babes" doesn't have to be a Christian. It isn't in Heb 5:12-14 (also commonly misused, together with 1 Cor 3:1-3) or Gal 4:3. "Baby" is not a universal term for "new believer" in Scripture. "Baby" is often a term of derision for those who are not growing as they should. Paul isn't creating a category of “carnal Christian” that are “babes.” He isn't differentiating the two like they are two types of Christians. These Corinthians were behaving like unsaved people. He's having to talk to them like they’re unsaved.
As it turns out, some of them were unsaved (cf. 1 Cor 5:1-13; 6:1-10; 11:24-32; 2 Cor 12:20-21; 13:5), but the warning was based upon their behaviour. They should’ve been eating meat but were drinking milk. It doesn’t mean they were new believers, just that they were acting like babies, like lost people, like the carnal. At the end of Heb 5 "babe" is used to describe unsaved Jews who had not yet left their insufficient knowledge of Jesus to move on to salvation. The verses itself tell us that, but the context even further, which goes to Heb 6:15. The contrast is made between truly saved Hebrews and the pretenders, a very common contrast in Hebrews, even the very context: Heb 3 and 4.
What does Rom 8, the parallel passage to 1 Cor 3, say? “For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God. 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.” (vv 5-9). Is the carnal in this text a Christian? Of course not. It perfectly harmonizes with 1 Cor 3:1-3.
Carnal professors are lost and Rom 8 makes that crystal clear. That should be the basis for what we read in 1 Cor 3, which then perfectly harmonizes with the rest of Scripture as well (e.g. Rom 6:1-23; 7:4-25; Ep 2:1-5; 4:17-32; Ti 2:11-14; 3:3-7; 1 Jn 2:3-5; 3:1-10). Thats rightly dividing the Word of truth (2 Tim 2:15). Rom 7 says the same: “For when we WERE IN THE FLESH, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death.” (v. 5). So much in Rom 7 and 8 plainly says a carnal Christian doesn’t exist. The truly saved isn't after the flesh. He doesn't mind the things of the flesh. He isn't carnally minded or in the flesh any longer, as pre-conversion.
Sin does not have dominion over the believer (read Rom 6:6-11, 17-18). He no longer lives sin as a lifestyle (1 Jn 3:6-10). He is a new creature, old things are passed away and all things are become new (2 Cor 5:17). Not new added to the old but entirely new. The person he once was is crucified with Christ (Rom 6:6; Gal 2:20). He is an overcomer of the world (1 Jn 5:4-5), the devil (1 Jn 2:13-14; 4:4) and the flesh (Rom 6:1-23; 7:5), and all occurred the moment of conversion. Read those passages, they very clearly say that.
The Corinthians were acting temporarily like unsaved people, carnal people, natural people, and though many were not themselves carnal, some actually were (unsaved). That is alluded to in 1 Cor 5:1-13; 6:1-10; 11:24-32; 2 Cor 7:9-11; 12:20-21; 13:5. "They that are in the flesh," carnal people (Rom 7:5; 8:1-9), cannot please God because they’re unsaved. Being a "new creature" means there is immediate evidence of conversion (e.g. Eph 2:1-5; Col 1:4-6; 1 Cor 6:10; Ti 2:11-14; etc). Everything changes. Change does begin immediately and continues on till death or the rapture. If it doesn't, that person wasn't and isn't saved. There are no have-nots in the Bible. What people are doing is unscripturally using “carnal” and assigning an explanation for all the false professions that exist around them, some directly because of their teachings and techniques.
The moment a sinner repents and receives Christ, he has every spiritual blessing in heavenly places in Christ (Eph 1:3) and all things that pertain to life and godliness (2 Pet 1:3). The Holy Spirit is a Person, not a power of influence. The moment someone believes in Jesus he receives the Person of the Holy Spirit, all of Him. He won't receive any more of Him. He doesn't need anything more than He has in order to live the Christian life. Justification isn't a two step process. Someone doesn't receive Christ as Saviour and sometime later as Lord. He doesn't allow the Lord in but not on the throne of his life. No one can remain in rebellion (i.e. carnal) against the Lord Jesus and be saved. That person has never been saved to begin with. That is extremely clear in Scripture.
Confessing Him as Lord is more than words. It is more than intellectual, but also volitional. It is relinquishing allegiance to sinful self. Those who won't give up their life aren't “carnal Christians.” They're just carnal. They walk after the flesh and not after the Spirit (Rom 8:1). They won't have the power to live the Christian life. And that won't come either when they have revival or rededicating their life. However, when they do truly repent and receive Jesus for Who He is, He will save them and immediately give them victory for their Christian life (Rom 6:1-23). It will be a struggle (Rom 7:21-25), but they will conform to the image of His Son even as He predestined them (Rom 8:29).
“For when ye were the servants of sin [carnal], ye were free from righteousness. What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? for the end of those things is death. But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life.”
For further Biblical proof that refutes the "carnal Christian" teaching, please see here: Does the Bible Teach the Class of Christian known as “Carnal Christian”?