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.³
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.)