In my Bible, the section heading to 1 Corinthians 3 is called “On Divisions in the Church.” That is what this chapter is all about. There are two themes in this chapter that have divided Christians: one theme is this matter of the carnal or worldly Christian, and the other is this matter of being saved, yet so as by fire. In both of these passages, there are significant divisions.
The chapter has four parts. The first part deals with the worldliness of these Corinthian Christians. The second section deals with Christian ministry. The third section has to do with the subject of being saved, yet so as by fire. Finally, the fourth section, verse 18 to the end, is the conclusion and a wrap-up of everything we’ve looked at in the book so far.
We first need to deal with this problem of the carnal Christian. We know that there is a big difference in the world between those who are not Christians and those who are. But that still leaves us with a question: is it true that among those who are saved there are two types of Christians? Some people think so. They believe that there are some who are growing in God and who are spiritual, while another set of saved people are not progressing on with God, but are still carnal.
There are two theologies about this. One organization, Campus Crusade for Christ, says, “Yes, there are carnal Christians, and then there are spiritual Christians.” Conversely, InterVarsity, another student group, asserts that a person is either a Christian or an unbeliever. What each one is saying is true, but they are using language that appears to indicate that they come from two separate camps. Let’s look at it from that perspective.
First of all, what can you say on the side of Campus Crusade, where they are talking about the carnal Christian? The language in 1 Corinthians 3 certainly suggests it. If a Crusade worker says, “Well, I’m just being biblical because verse 1 says, ‘Brothers, I can’t address you as spiritual but as worldly, mere infants in Christ,’ ” we’d have to say, “Yes, you’re certainly being biblical at that point.” Moreover, we would have to acknowledge that when we look at Christians, we say, “Well, certain ones don’t seem to be going on with the Lord, so it’s kind of nice to be able to put them in a category and say, ‘They are carnal Christians. What they need to do is get out of their worldliness and begin to get serious about the Lordship of Jesus Christ.’ ”
On the other hand, I want to criticize what flows out of that position. There is a certain smugness on one hand that says, “Well, you can live in a worldly way and still be a Christian – after all, Paul speaks of carnal Christians” – and a smugness on the other hand that says, “Yes, they are carnal. And, of course, I am not. I am spiritual; and, therefore, I don’t have to worry about worldliness in my life.” Therein lies both the strength and the weakness of that position.
In contrast, InterVarsity says, “No, you can’t distinguish between Christians in that fashion because if you’re born again, you must acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Christ is no Savior if Christ is not the Lord.” At that point, I speak positively to InterVarsity and say, “That is absolutely right. If you are a Christian, you are regenerate.” You are not saved just because you give mental assent to something. You are saved because you have the life of Christ within. And the life of Christ hungers and thirsts after righteousness. So, there must be growth.
And yet, I suppose, there is a certain sense in which there can be a smugness here, too. People in this camp may be tempted to think, “Here are some individuals who make a profession of faith, but who appear to be living in a non-Christian way.” And so this group says, “Well, they’re just not saved,” when, in point of fact, they may be. What they need is Christian fellowship so that they might grow and perhaps enjoy the kind of spiritual advantages that we ourselves have.