Spiritual, Godly, or Carnal?

The Word of God uses several adjectives to describe the various spiritual states in which believers are found while still in this world.  It is a wonderful thing to look forward to the day when all believers of all ages will be with and like the Lord Jesus who saved their souls – when that which is perfect comes, and when that which is “in part” shall be done away (I Corinthians 13:10).  But in practice here and now, Christians are all in need of spiritual growth, and ought to be making progress in their souls. Consequently, most of us will at some point in our lives and to various degrees be characterized by carnality, godliness, and spirituality.

You might ask why these scriptural characterizations should matter to us. First of all, it is always a healthy thing to accept the commentary of the Word of God applied to our personal lives, when the Spirit brings that to bear on our consciences in light of our behavior and our thoughts. Secondly, by looking at the kind of believers these terms are describing in the Bible, we may be able to gain (by grace) either the encouragement, or then the godly fear, that will enable us to better please the Lord Jesus our Savior. Let’s look briefly at each of the three designations given above.

Carnal (or fleshly) Christians are put before us as a negative example in I Corinthians 3. We find them also alluded to in Romans 8:4-6 and II Corinthians 10:2.  The apostle Paul chides the Corinthians for their fleshly thought processes and behaviors, which made them no different from “babes in Christ”, who were truly saved but who had made very little progress in learning Christ (Ephesians 4:20-24).  They were behaving like they knew nothing but the wisdom of the world, and that worldly wisdom was leading to envy, strife, schisms, and it was no doubt the reason that immorality and false doctrine was being allowed in the assembly at Corinth.¹  I think that no true believer in Christ would really want to be in such a sad state, but because we all still have the flesh in us, it is easy to lapse into such a condition if we are not “exercised unto godliness” (I Timothy 5:7). So what is godliness?

A godly believer is one who lives with reference to God in the situations of his or her life, and who practically brings God into everyday living.  Conversely, an ungodly person lives without reference to God, or shuts Him out in a practical way every time conscience or circumstance or divine testimony speaks of God to his soul.  I believe we can state that an ungodly person is never viewed as a true believer in the Bible.  A Christian may be carnal (or fleshly) and a very immature believer, but he is never considered to be ungodly. We ought to seek to “live godly in Christ Jesus” (II Timothy 3:12), and to the extent that we do so, we will not fit in with the “ungodly sinners” (Jude 15) around us. It is instructive that, for all of Lot’s lack of spiritual understanding and vigor, II Peter 2 alludes to him as an example of the “godly” whom the Lord delivers out of temptations. After all, Lot does endure a modicum of persecution when he references God, and specifically recognizes Jehovah’s right to judge his wicked neighbors (Genesis 19:9-14). Righteous Lot was in some respects carnal and godly at the same time. What an incongruity!

The spiritual saint is no doubt godly as well, but real spirituality goes beyond godliness. Spirituality and carnality are really mutually exclusive, and Paul seems to make that clear in I Corinthians 3:1.  Just before that point in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul had provided an insight into how a spiritual man or woman thinks and learns truth. He who is spiritual receives the things of the Spirit of God (who glorifies Christ), for those spiritual things are communicated to his own spirit by spiritual means, not in a manner that would appeal to the natural man or the flesh.²  The Lord Jesus condemned fleshly wisdom and established the supremacy of the Spirit’s operation in the believer’s mind in one short but potent utterance: “It is the Spirit that quickens; the flesh profits nothing” (John 6:63).

Following the tendencies of the flesh makes one carnal. Honoring God in practical, everyday living makes one godly.  Having a teachable spirit that learns the mysteries of God from the life-giving Spirit of God constitutes one a spiritual Christian. And should you exercise yourself unto godliness and prayerfully maintain a spiritual attitude, you will become that which is certainly the will of the Lord for all of His own: a Christian that is perfect

¹For example:  I Corinthians 5:1-2; 15:12

²  I Corinthians 2:6-16 (refer to J.N. Darby’s translation for verse 13 in particular: ” . . . communicating spiritual things by spiritual means.”)

³  Matthew 5:48; I Corinthians 2:6; Philippians 3:15; Colossians 1:28; James 3:2  (It is the temporal perfection of Christian maturity.)



The Lusts of Men

God created man on the earth in His own image, male and female, for the grand purpose of bringing glory to Himself through the eternal Son of God, who would come into the world as the sinless Son of Man, the Seed of the woman.  Man was created an intelligent being with a mind that has the capability of thinking independently of God, and that is capable of having desires that are independent of God’s desires or will. This capability makes man an “agent” according to the most basic definition of that word: “A person or thing that causes something to happen” (Merriam-Webster). God did not place constraints upon man’s potential for independence as to his thoughts, desires, and deeds.

Moreover, man as an agent was set by God in a relationship of accountability to Himself, to represent Him on this earth, and to be obedient to His pleasure or will.  This rendered man a “moral agent”,  for morality has to do with the matter of right or wrong behavior, and it was God who stipulated at the very beginning what was right (Genesis 1:28-29; 2:15-16) and what was wrong (2:17).   This jeopardy of moral agency for man was not a light matter for God, who of course foreknew the result of putting man to the test of obedience.¹  There was no ambiguity in His command to them, and His test was eminently fair.

The Lord God made the garden in Eden perfect for Adam and Eve. They lacked nothing that they needed for life and happiness, and even the tree of life in the middle of the garden was not off limits. That symbolic tree of life interested God very much, and it still delights His heart as the means by which He imparts the blessed enjoyment of “the life of God” (Ephesians 4:18) to man for his eternal blessing (Revelation 2:7; 22:14). But the man and the woman were not interested in what interested God, and did not find His superabundant provision sufficient for their every need and desire. They wanted more; and they distrusted their perfectly benevolent Creator, thinking that perhaps He was withholding something good from them. That is where “the lusts of men”² first come into view in God’s “very good” creation (Genesis 3:1-6).

It would be a mistake to think that these lusts (inordinate desires) sprang up only after their sin was consummated in the eating of the forbidden fruit. True, their latent conscience was only then awakened or sensitized, but the deed of disobedience was simply the result of the natural desires of the heart given free rein. (See also James 1:14-15.)  God allowed them to go through with the deed in order to make it manifest to them and to all their offspring what are the consequences of thoughts and desires independent of Him – alienation and condemnation.

The lusts of men are concisely stated in John’s first epistle as “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (I John 2:16). These together make up the principle of “the world” – that ordered moral system maintained in independence from God.  Eve succumbed to the primeval manifestations of this same three-fold motive after seeing the forbidden fruit and entertaining the claims of the Serpent. She “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise”.  The Lord Jesus was tempted in these three ways as well, but He as the second Man who came in sinless perfection overcame Satan exactly where the first man failed, and where the old man always will fail (Luke 4:1-13).

To make this warning against worldly ways and principles relevant to our modern experience, we could perhaps summarize the lusts of men in this way:  “The impulse to indulge, the desire to acquire, and the ambition to attain – without regard to the will of God.” The scourges of gluttony, drug abuse, pornography, homosexuality, extra-marital sex, greed, human trafficking, racism, classism, political and religious strife, and every other societal blight, have their roots in one or more of these lusts.

“All is vanity!” lamented Solomon, when he saw the results of living according to his desires. What hope is there when once we must acknowledge that our own lusts or desires have made us slaves to sin in the flesh?  Let us not dare to ask with the rebel in Romans 9:20: “Why hast Thou made me thus?” God made us with the potential for those desires, in His perfect wisdom and for His glory, but it is nonetheless we who have thought, desired, and acted in independence and distrust of Him.

Should a man then turn to the Law of Moses to curb his lusts and help him live uprightly? How futile that has proved be throughout history since the Law was given.  Take note that there was not even a law given to forbid or curb “the pride of life”, or the ambition to attain or achieve something outside of God’s perfect will (Romans 12:2). A law could never make a rebellious sinner humble.

Man’s only hope of deliverance from the bondage of his lusts is to cast himself upon the mercy of God by faith.³  The Spirit of God is the one who alone can quicken the spirit of a man (or woman, or child) in order to convict him of his utter need for God’s marvelous grace to “live the rest of his time in the flesh [not] to the lusts of men, but to the will of God”.²


¹  See Genesis 6:5-7 for God’s grief at man’s depravity.

²  I Peter 4:2

³  Daniel 9:18; Romans 9:15-16; Titus 3:5