Home > doctrines, J. C. Ryle, John MacArthur, S. Lewis Johnson > Lordship Salvation Views: The Carnal Christian

Lordship Salvation Views: The Carnal Christian

In recent online articles, and in my own sermon listening, I continue hearing about the “Lordship Salvation” issue and the never-ending controversy.  In March, the Bible Prophecy blog posted a brief article by Andy Woods, “What is Wrong With Lordship Salvation?” Since then, another blogger (Airo-Cross blog) has posted his own lengthy seven-part “rebuttal.”

From brief readings of all the above, I am again inclined to agree with S. Lewis Johnson, that we must define our terms of what we are talking about.  For many words have been wasted in dispute while each side is talking about different things.  The overall topic is too broad for my purposes, but here I will address one key issue:  the “carnal Christian.”

“Lordship Salvation” proponents, as in this article on John MacArthur’s GTY site, associate the carnal Christian idea with easy-believism and questionable methods of evangelism: the well-known “altar calls” and signing of decision cards that lead to many false conversions of people misled into thinking they are saved because they “made a decision” for Jesus at some evangelistic crusade.

The “carnal Christian” as defined by Ryrie, and similarly described in S. Lewis Johnson’s sermons, has nothing to do with that idea — and understands such individuals as the seed sown on rocky ground, who received the Word with great joy but fell away over time and when persecution came: because they had no root.  Rather, this definition of “carnal Christian” reflects the scriptural truth — observed in our church experience — that many saved people do not really live up to the great standard of holiness and maturity; they reach a saving knowledge and truly believe, but never progress in their sanctification beyond a certain point.  An important point to stress here is that such a condition is never desirable, does not please God and would not have pleased the apostle Paul–and invites God’s divine discipline on such believers, as in 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 John 5:16-17.

Scriptural evidences regarding this type of “carnal Christian” include the life-story of Lot, as well as the Corinthians, saved people acting like unbelievers.  When preachers get past the labels they recognize this, as John MacArthur did in his preaching about the CorinthiansNow let me summarize: Christians are positionally spiritual. They can be practically carnal. And that is the case of the Corinthians.

It does no service to truth, though, when someone feels the need to whitewash the scriptural record concerning Lot and the Corinthians.  Consider the following from the Airo-Cross blogger:

Dr. Woods takes one example from Lot’s life and extrapolates a whole category of Christians who live in continuous, wanton sin. However, just as he did point out, Lot was declared righteous by God (2 Peter 2:7-8). If Lot was called righteous by God, his life would have been marked by the habitual practice of righteousness (1 John 3:4-10). We cannot take one instance in Lot’s life and develop an entire doctrine around it, such as perpetual carnal Christians. This is a gross abuse of the Scriptures. The truth is, Lot hated lawlessness and was “greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked” and tormented “his righteous soul over their lawless deeds”. That does not sound like a man who habitually practiced a lifestyle of sexual immorality, lest he was a hypocrite and had no right to judge the acts of these wicked men.

It is true that Lot never knowingly committed flagrant immoral sin.  He was married to one wife, did not engage in the homosexual practices of the wicked men around him, and by all accounts was a fine, upstanding citizen.  Lot’s problem was worldliness, loving this world and trying to get all it offers — but in the end he had no influence and no fruit.

Ironically, the writer also lists J.C. Ryle among the great names in his cause, later even quoting J.C. Ryle on sanctification.  But anyone who has read Ryle’s “Holiness” chapter 9 (Lot–A Beacon) understands what I mean concerning whitewashing the truth of scripture.  Here are excerpts from J.C. Ryle’s teaching about Lot:

a. Let us mark, then, that Lot did no good among the inhabitants of Sodom. . . .
b. It is also telling that Lot helped none of his family, relatives or connections toward heaven  … —there was not one among them all that feared God! . . .
c. Lot left no evidences behind him when he died. We know but little about Lot after his flight from Sodom, and all that we do know is unsatisfactory. His pleading for Zoar because it was “a little one,” his departure from Zoar afterwards, and his conduct in the cave—all, all tell the same story. All show the weakness of the grace that was in him and the low state of soul into which he had fallen.

The Scripture appears to draw a veil around him on purpose. There is a painful silence about his latter end. He seems to go out like an expiring lamp and to leave an ill savor behind him. And had we not been specially told in the New Testament that Lot was “just” and “righteous,” I verily believe we should have doubted whether Lot was a saved soul at all.

But I do not wonder at his sad end. Lingering believers will generally reap according as they have sown. Their lingering often meets them when their spirit is departing. They have little peace at the last. They reach heaven, to be sure; but they reach it in poor plight, weary and footsore, in weakness and tears, in darkness and storm. They are saved, but “saved so as by fire” (1 Cor. 3:15).

J.C. Ryle also observed the following concerning such believers (the term “carnal Christian” was not around then, but the idea certainly was):

And yet, incredulous as it may appear at first sight, I fear there are many of the Lord Jesus Christ’s people, in fact Christians, very much like Lot. Mark this well! There are many real children of God who appear to know far more than they live up to, and see far more than they practice, and yet continue in this state for many years. Incredibly, they go as far as they do and yet go no further!

They hold the Head, even Christ, and love the truth. They like sound preaching and assent to every article of gospel doctrine when they hear it. But still there is an indescribable something which is not satisfactory about them. They are constantly doing things which disappoint the expectations of their ministers and of more advanced Christian friends. It causes one to marvel that they should think as they do and yet stand still!

They believe in heaven and yet seem faintly to long for it, and in hell and yet seem little to fear it. They love the Lord Jesus, but the work they do for Him is small. They hate the devil, but they often appear to tempt him to come to them. They know the time is short, but they live as if it were long. They know they have a battle to fight, yet a man might think they were at peace. They know they have a race to run, yet they often look like people sitting still. They know the Judge is at the door, and there is wrath to come; and yet they appear half asleep. Astonishing they should be what they are and yet be nothing more!

And what shall we say of these people? They often puzzle godly friends and relations. They often cause great anxiety. They often give rise to great doubts and searchings of heart. But they may be classed under one sweeping description: they are all brethren and sisters of Lot. They linger.

Later Justin says concerning the Corinthians:

These “carnal believers” were operating according to their flesh in this one area regarding the resolution of personal conflicts, but nowhere in this text do we see they continued to operate as carnal believers in the whole of their life. On the contrary, we see in chapter 1 that Paul thanked God for their faithfulness and acknowledged they lacked no spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 1:4-9). In this particular instance, Paul was admonishing and instructing them as infants in Christ because they were acting in the flesh with regard to conflict.

In answer, I would say to keep reading the rest of 1 Corinthians, including chapter 11 (gross mishandling of the Lord’s table), and chapter 14 (concerning orderly worship) and their immaturity in 2 Corinthians.  We cannot ignore the example of the Corinthians by saying that it was only in this one matter, of preferring Apollos or Paul or Cephas, etc., that they were behaving carnally.  MacArthur likewise recognized the truth concerning the Corinthian believers, as referenced in his sermon mentioned above.

Finally, and to reiterate the point:  carnal Christians (as defined here) do exist, scripturally and in our experience.  Yet this does not mean we condone or take pleasure in the fact that they exist.  I’ll close with this position as expressed by S. Lewis Johnson:

Is it possible for us to say that there are divisions of mankind that we can call non-Christians, Christians, and carnal Christians?  A lot of, to my mind, foolish things have been said about this, and people have made some statements that probably could be justly criticized, but this certainly says that there is such an individual as a believer who is living in a carnal way.  So it would seem, from Paul’s own language here, that one could say, with reference to a person, that it appears that there is such a thing as a carnal Christian, and you may know such that you feel reasonably sure there are such because some even talk in a way that reveals that that’s precisely what they are.

But to say that this is acceptable to God is something else.  And it is true that it is often conveyed in the way in which this kind of person is referred to, the idea that that’s acceptable.  In fact, I’ve known of individuals who will say, if you want to stir them up to take an advance and to learn a few of the theological doctrines of the word of God other than they have accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Savior, they frequently say or have said, “Well, I’m just afraid that I’m not interested in that.  If there is such thing as a carnal Christian, I’ll just be a carnal Christian.” The apostle would have been very unhappy with that.  God would be very unhappy with that.  Carnal Christians exist.  That is, they are babes, he says, and they are in Christ, but they’re walking in a fleshly way.

  1. Peter
    April 25, 2011 at 9:20 pm

    I am somewhat mystified by this post. It seems you are saying Carnal Christians exist and live in a fleshly way but what exactly does that mean? Are you saying that they habitually practice sin or they simply don’t produce fruit and have little to show for their walk?

  2. Rayn
    April 25, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    Interesting quotes by very dear and learned men of God on an intriguing subject.

    I suppose I’ve noticed before that when we study the Old Testament we cannot help but find several examples of great sinners who the Scriptures proudly, for God’s glory, declare they were saved by the righteousness of Christ. I do have difficulty balancing these examples with other plain scriptures which tell us we have “been freed from sin,” but rather are “slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:18)and that “if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Applying this to personal experience is difficult because there are hundreds of people in the south who profess Christ and refuse to come to Church, and many which do come to Church seldom show anything of love for Christ, love for His Word, or of progression in sanctification. As you say, they perplex me at the very least.

    But thanks for the sermon by Macarthur which I haven’t read before. I will definitely read it. Also, I’ve been reading J. C. Ryle’s “Holiness” and I find it very helpful and challenging. I look forward to the chapter you mentioned.

  3. April 26, 2011 at 7:20 am

    Peter: carnal Christians as defined here are those, like Lot, “who linger” — they are characterized by worldliness, and so they do not bring forth fruit, and have no influence.

  4. April 26, 2011 at 10:39 am

    Thanks for your comments, Rayn. Yes, it is a subject of which we wonder and are perplexed about — especially in some of the Old Testament saints, though it shows up in the NT as well: the very fact that the apostles had to continually remind believers about how to live shows how prone we all are to drift away and not grow in sanctification. The writer of Hebrews also had some “milk Christians” that he criticized because they had not progressed in their knowledge of the faith.

    I read J.C. Ryle’s “Holiness” last year — very good and challenging. I continue to learn, from the observations of J.C. Ryle and Spurgeon, that the type of thing we see today in the south is not at all uncommon but, sadly, seems rather to be the norm throughout history, that many people who come to Church and profess Christ show more interest in this world than in the things of God.

  5. Rayn
    April 26, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    What I seem to get from J. C. Ryle on this subject is that he believed in a type of Christian who showed incredible fruits of indwelling sin, but had not altogether rejected the yoke of Christ. As in the case of Lot, there was great distress for sin and yet a tendency to it in many cases. I think there is an amount of fruit but that it can be small and unless we had the commentary of divine revelation there would be absolutely no way for the onlooker to distinguish whether he was saved or not. Lot’s differences were small and hardly noticable without careful scrutiny, and I see no reason to assume this type of Christian doesn’t exist today.

    I also have noticed that carnal christianity has been painfully common throughout history, but it seems we encourage it in the south by not delivering sermons on perseverance or other shocking subjects, and also we have a lot of false professions because nearly everyone was baptized at a Vacation Bible School when they were under 12. :/

    As someone who has great interest in personal evangelism, it’s difficult when almost everyone I visit says they’re Christian but haven’t been to Church in a decade or more. I generally just say I have no reason to assume they’re saved, and share the Scriptures about perseverance and holiness in hopes that it may awaken them.

  6. April 26, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    Agreed, and good points. As I think Ryle says somewhere in that chapter, we would not know from the account in Genesis alone that Lot was a saved man. And then there’s that separate issue of the many false professions, which brought about the controversy and the criticism (rightly deserved) of questionable evangelism methods — childhood professions, decision cards, etc.

    As for those people who say they’re Christian but haven’t been to church in years, those are often the hardest people to reach. The gospel of course is freely available to all who recognize their need of it — Christ is the physician for the sick (not those who are well) — and the hardest part is getting people “lost,” to get them to the point of realizing their lost condition.

  7. April 27, 2011 at 7:52 am

    Just so I understand the distinction. You are suggesting Lot was a worldly man who had little influence and did not separate himself from the world. He brought forth little/no? fruit. But you just for clarity you are not suggesting JW walked on habitual sin right. He simply had little to show for his Christian walk. But he did indeed hate sin and struggled with it and did not walk in that sin habitually.

    Lot you say is a type of carnal Christian?

    I had been taught the distinguishing mark was as follows:
    The difference between a Christian and non-Christian: When a non-Christian is convicted of sin, he sides with his sin. When a Christian is convicted of sin, he sides with God against himself.

    Not all the time but a pattern of life.

  8. April 27, 2011 at 8:10 am

    Yes, that is the distinction: the carnal Christian, as exemplified by Lot, is a worldly man with little influence or fruit, and little or no progression in sanctification.

    Certainly that distinguishing mark is generally true in reference to believers and unbelievers. This post is addressing a different issue, that there are different types of Christians. I have a follow-up post (for tomorrow) with a few further thoughts on this as well.

    See the following blog also for a good perspective on the Lordship Salvation issue:

  9. May 9, 2011 at 9:09 am

    Hi Lynda,

    I appreciate your article and look forward to reading “Holiness” as it’s been in my queue for a while now. Your points are well taken regarding Lot and the Corinthians, and it is something I will study further. In the case of the Corinthians, yes, there were other areas for which Paul admonished them, which is really no less exampled in any Christian’s walk. There will never be a time where there is 0 carnality in us because we are still in our fallen flesh, and these residual parts of our sinful nature will continue to be cleansed from us by the work of the Holy Spirit.

    In reading your follow-up comments, I am driven to ask the question for clarity: do you believe in the possibility of a fruitless Christian, one who never progresses into practical holiness/sanctification?

    Also, for those who do not have time to read through the 7-part series, you might find the conclusion in Part 7 helpful: http://airo-cross.blogspot.com/2011/04/what-is-wrong-with-non-lordship_07.html

    Grace and peace to you in Christ,


  10. May 10, 2011 at 11:38 am

    Hi Justin,

    Thanks for your comments. I’m just back from vacation and returning to blog-mode.

    As to the issue of fruitless Christians: I agree with J.C. Ryle’s and SLJ’s conclusions, that some Christians remain “worldly” and do not mature as they ought to — and sometimes such conditions are temporary during long periods of their lives, while others remain immature throughout their lives, showing very little progress (at least that others can outwardly observe).

    Obviously there comes a point where we as outsiders cannot always be sure about someone else’s salvation and have to leave it to God, knowing that if the person is saved it’s a “doubtful conversion” at best, a life that certainly has no influence and, as Ryle said, perplexes us. I would not believe someone was saved if they were living openly in flagrant sin (such as sexual immorality, or homosexuality) and claiming to be Christian and that Christianity allows for their behavior — but that’s a different type of situation from the immaturity of Lot and the Corinthians.

    Certainly if we did not have Peter’s NT commentary on Lot we would not know for certain that Lot was saved. As I blogged on some time ago, Spurgeon allowed for the possibility that Achan (in Joshua), may have been saved — a doubtful conversion, one saved as by fire though without any fruit to show for it, but the text seems to allow for the possibility, at least according to some commentaries.


  11. May 10, 2011 at 1:16 pm

    Hi Lynda,

    Thank you for the reply. I understand you believe your position is in line with J.C. Ryle. The quote I used in Part 5 on sanctification was as follows:

    “Sanctification is the outcome and inseparable consequence of regeneration. He who is born again and made a new creature receives a new nature and a new principle and always lives a new life. A regeneration, which a man can have and yet live carelessly in sin or worldliness, is a regeneration invented by uninspired theologians, but never mentioned in Scripture.”

    Do you believe Ryle to be in contradiction to the quote from Holiness? Also, please consider the following excerpts:


    We must not only admire holiness, and wish for holiness: we must be holy…We must be holy, because this is the only sound evidence that we have a saving faith in Christ…We must be holy, because this is the only proof that we love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. What can be more plain than our Lord’s own words?…We must be holy, because this is the only sound evidence that we are God’s children…Lastly, we must be holy, because without holiness on earth we should never be prepared and meet for heaven…

    “You may say, It was never meant that all Christians should be holy, and that holiness such as I have described is only for great saints, and people of uncommon gifts. I answer, I cannot see this in Scripture. I read that “every man who hath hope in Christ purifieth himself” (1 John iii. 3). “Without holiness no man shall see the Lord”…

    “Reader, whatever you may think fit to say, you must be holy if you would see the Lord. Where is your Christianity if you are not? Show it to me without holiness, if you can. You must not merely have a Christian name and Christian knowledge, you must have a Christian character also: you must be a saint on earth, if ever you mean to be a saint in heaven. God has said it, and He will not go back,—”Without holiness no man shall see the Lord”…”

    And also this:


    “Let it be a settled principle in our religion that when a man brings forth no fruits of the Spirit, he has not the Holy Spirit within him. Let us resist as a deadly error the common idea, that all baptized people are born again, and that all members of the Church, as a matter of course, have the Holy Spirit. One simple question must be our rule: What fruit does a man bring forth? Does he repent? Does he believe with the heart on Jesus? Does he live a holy life? Does he overcome the world? Habits like these are what Scripture calls ‘fruit.’ When these “fruits” are lacking, it is profane to talk of a man having the Spirit of God within him.”

    And lastly this excerpt:


    “The man born again, or regenerate, then is, a holy man. He endeavors to live according to God’s will, to do the things that please God, to avoid the things that God hates. His aim and desire is to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love his neighbor as himself. His wish is to be continually looking to Christ as his example as well as his Savior, and to show himself Christ’s friend by doing whatever Christ commands. No doubt he is not perfect. None will tell you that sooner than himself. He groans under the burden of indwelling corruption cleaving to him. He finds an evil principle within him constantly warring against Grace, and trying to draw him away from God. But he does not consent to it, though he cannot prevent its presence. In spite of all shortcomings, the average bent and bias of his way is holy-his doings are holy, his tastes holy, and his habits holy. In spite of all this swerving and turning aside, like a ship beating up against a contrary wind, the general course of his life is in one direction-toward God and for God. And though he may sometimes fell so low that he questions whether he is a Christian at all, he will generally be able to say with old John Newton, “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be. I am not what I hope to be in another world, but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the Grace of God I am what I am.”

    Do you believe Ryle to be contradicting himself?

    Thank you for your time.

  12. May 10, 2011 at 1:45 pm


    I read and enjoy Ryle a lot, including these quotes, and agree with everything Ryle says about sanctification and striving for personal holiness — and Ryle’s writings have been very helpful for me personally. All I can say is that you should read Ryle’s Holiness, in its entirety including that chapter on Lot. In the very next chapter, he wrote about Lot’s wife (A Woman to Be Remembered), to show the distinctions he made between true believers who lingered (Lot), and those who were truly unsaved and unregenerate.


  13. May 10, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    Thank you, Lynda – I do look forward to reading “Holiness.”

    God bless,


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