The Corinthian Correspondence, Part 7: 1 Corinthians 3: 1-4; "God's Grace: Amazing or A Maze?" Part 1

The Corinthian Correspondence  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  45:23
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Ever gotten lost in a maze? just call 9-1-1! As a Christian, ever gotten distracted from the heart of ultimate reality--Jesus Christ and him crucified? You have if you hold to the teaching that is blatantly non-biblical, like the so-called Carnal Christian "doctrine." What is so non-biblical about it? Join the Grace United crew as we take a look at this very popular, but misguided teaching, the "Carnal Christian".

The Corinthian Correspondence, Part 7; 1 Corinthians 3:1-4 “God’s Grace: Amazing? Or a Maze?”, Part 1 One of the smart guys who lived several hundred years ago was Immanuel Kant. Here is one of his more famous quotes: “The only thing permanent is change.” A lot of truth to that! We can’t even wake up in the morning without something major having happened in the world while we were sleeping. Oh for the pre-Coronavirus days! Life in general changes from one day to the next. And to make things a little more specific: meanings of words change and our lives change as a result. Like the meaning of “happiness”. When Jefferson wrote the Declaration, he listed the pursuit of happiness as a God-given right. But what did happiness mean in his day? It was the good feeling you got by doing something good in your world. But how do we understand happiness today? Going after what makes us happy. Self-expression. So, when we read the Declaration today, and our God-given right to pursue happiness, we understand it much differently than when Jefferson actually wrote it. In other words, we misunderstand and then misapply what the Declaration of Independence means. But no problem, though. The trend that has been going on for a number of years sees our founding documents as “living things”, that our documents can, and indeed, must be formed and shaped to fit the times, given that it is the right person or persons who do the shaping. Now, as a country, if enough members of Congress wanted to update the Constitution, there is a procedure in place. It’s called a Constitutional Convention. And one of the biggest topics of discussion is getting rid of the Electoral College. If you haven’t been keeping up, in a nutshell, getting rid of the College is a really bad idea. It’s no secret that some people, even in Congress say that President Trump is an illegitimate President because he didn’t get the most votes. He won because he picked up the most electoral votes. In my opinion, we are living in very uncertain times. And if Congress voted to rescind the Electoral College, what many call the “American Experiment” would cease to exist as we know it. But we are not here to discuss politics that continually change. We are here to hear from the Lord, the one who never changes. And his word never changes, either. But over time, culture changes. And Christians, who live in the culture, often see God’s word, which does not change, in ways that are different than the way God intended us to see it. And tragically, we begin to misunderstand and then misapply Scripture to our lives. Before we know it, we are miles away from where God wants us to be. But true Christians have a deep desire to accurately understand and apply God’s word. And this goes to the heart of what we want to talk about today. If you were here last week or were able to catch the message online, you remember we talked about wisdom, which is a practical application of knowledge. This week—and next week--we are going to see many in the church in Corinth who had access to divine wisdom but did not use it. Their failure to apply God’s word was one of the main reasons why Paul wrote his letter to them. For the Corinthians, lack of unity, and threats to split the church were running rampant. In short, they did not live out the reality of Jesus Christ and him crucified in their lives. In preparing for this message, I was amazed with a couple of things. In our chapter for today, I found 4 specific truths that we in the modern and post-modern church have misunderstood and misapplied which has taken us way off course. Four misunderstandings and misapplications that have lead us down wrong paths. And for sake of illustration, and tying things together, I will call these misunderstandings and misapplications dead ends--like those we experience in big mazes. That’s why I titled today’s message: “God’s Grace: Amazing or A Maze?” I said I was amazed with a couple of things. First, with the sheer number of these misunderstandings and misapplications of Scripture in this chapter alone. These things have taken the church way off course. Either due to a lack of carefully reading and studying the text, or being too quick to take someone else’s word for what the passages mean, we have traveled into the maze and have gotten lost by embracing these ideas. And in committing ourselves to these things, we remain lost in the maze—we have taken our eyes off of what really matters: Jesus Christ and him crucified. And because of this, the spiritual health of the church and effectiveness in serving others has become much more difficult. Another thing I was amazed with had to do with how many of the 4 misunderstandings I bought into, and misapplied to my life and appallingly, taught to others over the years. Happily I can say that I no longer believe or teach these misunderstandings. But let me just list the 4 misunderstandings, then go into the passages where we find them. Then over the next 2 weeks I will give us the bottom line and a way out of the maze and re-discover God’s grace that is truly amazing. So, here are the misunderstandings we find in 1 Corinthians 3. 1. The teaching called “carnal Christian.” 2. The priority of individualism. 3. Using Scripture as a “fear factor” in trying protect people. 4. False assurance that non-Christians are right with God because they attend church. As we address these things, I have to tell you that I believe the Lord has directed me to change things up. I believe he has messed up my plans to cover 1 Corinthians 3 today. See, I wanted to cover all 23 verses. But, we are not going to cover 23 verses today. We are going to cover just 4. And the reason is one of extreme importance. Because the heretical teaching called “the carnal Christian” has so infected the church, I am compelled today to only talk about this first dead end in our maze. As we do, I have a 2-fold confession to make. In my early days as a Christian, I believed this heresy—or at least a form of it—and taught it to others. I held on to the idea that there were 3 kinds of people in the world: the non-Christian, the spiritual Christian and the carnal Christian. The second confession is that I will do something a bit unusual, in that a lot of the material will be taken from a single writing. It is a small booklet called, “The Carnal Christian” by Ernest Reisinger, a retired pastor out of Florida. When I prepare messages, I pull out many books and study them. But this one writing brings things together in such an excellent way, it is good for me to take what he has written and boil it down and include it in the message. Here is what we are going to do. First, I want to explain the passage in its context. Second, I want to tell you what the carnal Christian teaching is not and then what it is, to include 9 things that Reisinger rightly calls serious errors. Then I want to impress on you what I am convinced is the heart of the issue, and that is this: the idea of the carnal Christian is a result of a backwards approach to evangelism. And because it’s backward, the church has suffered grievously. Then I want to warn and encourage us to come back to the true gospel. The gospel that is seen as foolish by those who are perishing, and for those of us who are being saved it is the power of God: Jesus Christ and him crucified. Prayerfully we will have a little time left for Q&A. My earnest desire and hope is that we will walk out of here with a renewed sense of how vitally important it is that we get the gospel right. So, let’s take a look at the first dead-end in our maze, our first misunderstanding--the teaching of the so-called carnal Christian. 1 Corinthians 3:1-4: But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? Let me walk us through this passage so we can see what is really going on. It is simple, really. But it is vital we understand this because this passage is the very foundation upon which the carnal Christian heresy stands. In these verses Paul reminded the Corinthians when he first came to town a couple of years before he wrote this letter. He said he could not address them as spiritual people. Notice he did not say, “I cannot address you”—as in present tense, but “I could not”—as in past tense. When he first came to town, Paul could not talk to them as Christians but as non-Christians. And why do you think that is so? Because when Paul first came to Corinth, there were no Christians! Paul said that he had to address them at first as people of the flesh. What do you think this phrase means? In a word, non-Christians. People without the Spirit of God. What is the next phrase? “As infants in Christ”. What do you think this phrase means? Baby Christians of course. I don’t want to get us lost in the weeds here but I do think we need to see something that I believe many have overlooked. In short, Paul was leading them through a progression of sorts. He addressed the Corinthians at first as non-Christians. Then those who came to Christ, he addressed them as baby Christians. As I have wrestled with this passage, it seems to me that this understanding answers a whole lot more questions than it raises. In other words, I don’t believe Paul was equating people of the flesh with baby Christians. I believe he preached first to an audience where there were no Christians—people of the flesh. Then when some came to Christ, he preached to them as Christians. So again, I see this here as a progression from non-Christian to Christian, not equating non-Christians with baby Christians. He continues in v.2: I gave you—now baby Christians, milk not solid food, for you were not ready for it. This make sense. Brand new Christians who know nothing of the Christian life. And if we remember the culture in which the Corinthian Christians came out of, it makes sense that Paul would say that. Paul understood that would take a little time for the Holy Spirit to begin the work of weaning the Corinthian believers away from the sinful lifestyles they were leading. Now, comes the turning point—the second half of v.2: you are still not ready—ready for solid food. What Paul saw here was a profound disappointment. He expected the Corinthian Christians to act like Christians. He entrusted them to the Lord and they refused to cooperate with Him. After 2 years, they were still living by the ways of human wisdom and not by power of God when it came to following after their favorite spiritual leader. And Paul accuses them sharply. Why? Because of their behavior per se? No! When non-Christians act like non-Christians, that’s normal. But when people claim to be Christians and then act like non-Christians, that’s a huge problem. In the rest of the passage, Paul in essence says, “you are acting like non-Christians here. Christ has given you access to divine wisdom, but you are failing to use it. You are new people. But you are acting as though you are not.” In short, Paul expected them to grow out of relying on human wisdom—that frame of mind that exalted the person according to his outward talents and ability to move people with his use of words. Especially the leaders were very good at stoking up those of the various house churches around town. Because they did not take advantage of divine wisdom, which would have caused the leaders to boast in Christ alone and not man, disappointedly and I would imagine somewhat angrily, Paul whams his beloved brothers and sisters and tells them in no uncertain words, “Why are you still acting like you are wearing diapers and drinking formula? Stop using human wisdom! You, who have access to divine wisdom are acting like you don’t. Your use of human wisdom is tearing at the fabric of the unity of the church here!” Now, with the context of these verses laid out, let’s see how the carnal Christian heresy came about. It really has come from faulty logic. 1: Paul addresses all the Corinthians here as brothers. 2: Paul calls all of them “of the flesh” or carnal. Therefore, we have a new classification of humanity: the carnal Christian. As we saw in chapter 2 last week, God sees only 2 kinds of people: those without the Spirit, or natural persons and those with the Spirit, or spiritual persons. Natural persons, as Scripture tells us in Ephesians for example, are dead in trespasses and sins. They are children of wrath. On the other hand, spiritual persons are those in whom the Spirit of God lives. And here is not the only place where we see just 2 kinds of people. Time will fail us to list even some of the places where Scripture tells us this. But now, the teachers of the carnal Christian idea see a 3rd kind of person. This person is truly saved, they say, and on their way to heaven even though they typically live their lives as though they are not Christians. If one were to compare the lifestyles of the carnal Christian and the natural person, there is no difference. I guess the statement “It’s what’s on the inside that counts” is an apt description here. No one can see Jesus, but he is alive on the inside of a carnal Christian so they say. But as I’m explaining the carnal Christian teaching, let me tell you emphatically that true Christians struggle with sin. True Christians are tempted. They can even backslide for awhile—like the prodigal son. But a true Christian has the Holy Spirit living in his or her life. And the Lord brings his son or daughter under his discipline when sin has been committed. True Christians know the reality of spiritual warfare. We also know the anguish of committing sin against our heavenly Father and the Lord who died for us. The struggle against sin in a Christian’s life is real, and it will last until salvation is complete. Scripture calls that being glorified. Unfortunately that won’t happen until we cross the threshold that separates this life from the one beyond. But the point is Christians struggle with sin. And they use the weapons of warfare to defeat sin and overcome it: our faith in Christ, the word of God, prayer, obedience, fellowship, a healthy fear of the coming judgment. In short, a true Christian has really changed—changed by the power of God, that very power which raised Jesus from the dead. But a carnal Christian has no concern for these things. He or she has prayed a prayer, walked the aisle in a church service or a revival meeting, signed a card and at one time believed that this Jesus guy died for them because he loved them. That’s it. This person, it is believed, is going to heaven but lives as though he or she is not. But not to worry! They may be in heaven by the “skin of their teeth” but they will be there! They don’t care about living a life that reflects the glory of God, just as long as heaven awaits. But as we have seen in 1 Corinthians 3:1-4, Paul was not creating a third category of person. No, he was indicting the Corinthian Christians, not merely declaring them to be carnal as if this was somehow a new kind of Christian. And this teaching—which is only about 200 years old by the way--has done grave damage on the witness and power of the church of Jesus Christ. It has cut out the heart of the mission the Lord gave us to the world. We are to be salt--as in us reminding non-Christians that we are in a covenant relationship with the true and living God and they will have to give an account to him one day. We are to be light—as in doing good works so that non-Christians may see them and glorify the Lord. It’s by our distinction from the world, not looking like the world, is how the world can see divine wisdom in action. I mentioned toward the beginning of this message an article called “The Carnal Christian” by Ernest Reisinger and I said I would bring in his material. I’m going to do that now. Reisinger lists 9 serious errors that the carnal Christian heresy has introduced into the life of the church. We won’t have time to thoroughly cover all 9, but I will list them and briefly describe them. I have put in the bulletin an insert listing the website where you can find the article and I have a few copies on the information table for those of you who don’t normally use the internet. Here are the 9 serious errors Reisinger sees: 1. The misuse of I Corinthians 3: What was Paul primarily writing about here? Their attitude in one area of their lives. Those who teach the carnal Christian idea are making a blanket statement about their entire lives, not just one area. And I will add, it is also a misunderstanding of Paul’s use of “spiritual” and “could” as well. Remember that when Paul identified a Christian he said they were ones who had the Spirit. He did not say they were by definition mature. Also, Paul was recounting his time when he first gave them the gospel several years ago, not presently. The carnal Christian teachers take this passage completely out of context and created a doctrine based on the misunderstanding of a few words. 2. New Covenant blessings are separated: Reisinger makes a great point here. According to Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36, The New Covenant has two blessings: the forgiveness of sins and a new heart. Carnal Christian teaching divorces the forgiveness of sins part from the new heart part. But one who is a New Covenant Christian—the only kind there is—receives both. One can’t be forgiven of sin without receiving a new heart, along with the changes that go with it. 3. Saving faith and spurious faith are not distinguished: In what, or who does a carnal Christian place their faith? In a god of their imagination? The expectation that God will meet a felt need? The strength of their sincerity when they prayed the sinner’s prayer? But the carnal Christian teaching does not seem to make a difference in the object of their faith. Just as long as a person “prayed to Jesus” is all that matters. 4. The omission of repentance: Reisinger states the flaw in this error this way: “to suggest that repentance, including a changed attitude to sin, is not an essential part of conversion is a very grave error. It is to depart from the apostolic gospel. No one who so minimizes the necessity of repentance can say with Paul, ‘I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publicly, and from house to house, testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ’” (Acts 20:20, 21). 5. Wrong teaching on assurance: The bottom line here is that Scripture tells us how we can gain assurance of salvation: by obedience. Reisinger writes: “From such texts it is clear that obedience is intimately related to assurance; if we do not live and practice righteousness we have no reason to think that we are ‘born of God’, as passages like 1 John 2:3-5, and 5:4, and Hebrews 12:14 tell us. In fact, the letter of 1 John has a theme: “we know that we have come to know him if”—another way of saying “we are assured of salvation” if, as in if we keep his commands. 6. A low view of sin: Obviously. Reisinger reminds the reader here of Romans 6:1, 2 when he asks, ‘What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? God forbid...’ A carnal Christian can even be an atheist, so they say, and still go to heaven—as I recently heard one person tell me. 7. A second work-of-grace made necessary: What this basically means is that when we pray a prayer to “get saved” that means little. Where the real changes take place is when we make a “Lordship decision” to “place Jesus on the throne of your life and let him have control.” So which is it? The sinner’s prayer or “Lordship decision?” Or both? 8. A wrong view of Christ: Reisinger nails it here: “The 'carnal Christian' teaching is also the mother of one of the most soul-destroying teachings of our day. It suggests that you can take Jesus as your Saviour and yet treat obedience to his lordship as optional. How often is the appeal made to the so-called ‘carnal Christians’ to put Jesus on the throne and ‘make him Lord’! When they accept Jesus as Lord, they are told, they will cease to be ‘carnal Christians’. But such teaching is foreign to the New Testament. When our Lord appeared in human form in history the angel announced his coming in the words, ‘For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord’ (Luke 2:11). He cannot be divided. The Saviour and Lord are one.” 9. False spirituality: It logically follows that if there are carnal Christians and spiritual Christians, then spiritual pride is sure to follow, making the spiritual Christian become carnal! So, what are we to say about this damnable heresy? We can sum it up this way. When a person is confronted with who Jesus really is, there is no mistaking what needs to be done. Our problem is that we don’t confront the natural person with who Jesus really is. And I’m convinced it’s because we have been well trained to present Christ in a certain way: that he is Savior. We also tell people that Jesus is a gentleman and he does not come in where he is not wanted. Or some verbiage like that. But we have it backward. We invite people to ask Jesus to be our savior. The carnal Christian teachers then say, “we need to invite people to make Jesus our Lord.” Savior first. Lord second if at all. But how about if we get the pecking order straight? The emphasis the Scripture places on Jesus is that he is Lord. And so here is how we are to present the gospel: we tell people that Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth. The nations are his inheritance. He owns every person on the planet. And his wrath is sure. He has the right to do with his creation what he wants. How do we respond to this? We need to throw ourselves at the feet of the Lord, and beg him to save us. Instead of inviting Jesus to be our savior, we beg the Lord to save us. See the difference? Now this is not going to happen unless the natural person feels the weight of conviction of their sin, and this is brought about by the Holy Spirit working upon that person. Jesus said the ministry of the Holy Spirit is to convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgment. But when a natural person understands who they are dealing with, then they are in a position to receive salvation. The Holy Spirit will cause that person to be born again, and the sinner will then become a saint, set apart for God, and will begin the lifelong journey of becoming like Jesus. Paul put it plainly when he thought of his friends at Philippi and writes in Philippians 1:6 And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. So to wrap this up: 1. the teaching of the carnal Christian is heresy. 2. Christians are persons who are spiritual—meaning they have the Holy Spirit living in them. The Holy Spirit’s job is to make the Christian more like Jesus, changing him or her from “glory to glory”. And when it is all said and done, the spiritual person will look like Jesus in their character. The carnal Christian on the other hand, is an oxymoron. Though a Christian struggles with carnality, they are not classified as a carnal Christian any more than the Christian can be hyphenated with any other sinful lifestyle. A carnal Christian—a Christlike carnal person is the same as a Christlike adulterer, or a Christlike homosexual, or a Christlike thief. Etc. It does not work that way. I ran across a fitting quote about this carnal Christian teaching by none other than Charles Spurgeon. He pulls no punches here. Let’s heed his warnings to his preacher students: 'If the professed convert distinctly and deliberately declares that he knows the Lord's will but does not mean to obey it, you are not to pamper his presumption, but it is your duty to assure him that he is not saved. Do not suppose that the Gospel is magnified or God glorified by going to the worldlings or non-Christians and telling them that they may be saved at this moment by simply accepting Christ as their Saviour, while they are wedded to their idols, and their hearts are still in love with sin. If I do so I tell them a lie, pervert the Gospel, insult Christ, and turn the grace of God into a license to sin.' We need to remember Paul’s words: “Your faith needs to rest on the power of God.” The power to change a life and write on the heart of a sinner God’s Covenant, for after all, we are New Covenant Christians.
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