Three Kinds of People


The founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, Lewis Sperry Chafer, wrote an influential book in which he presented a theory, based on 1 Corinthians 2–3, that there are three kinds of people: natural people, carnal people, and spiritual people.[1]

Natural People and Spiritual People

Natural people are unbelievers who are unable to sense or discern the things of God. “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14 ESV). In contrast to natural people are spiritual people who we would consider believers in Christ. “The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. ‘For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:15–16 ESV).

Carnal People

The third type people are what Chafer refers to as the carnal. “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?” (1 Cor. 3:1–3 ESV).

To be clear, Paul refers to these people as “infants in Christ.” Yet he also says that he cannot distinguish them from non-Christians. Is Paul creating a secondary class of Christians here, or are these just bad Christians behaving badly? Or perhaps these are professing Christians who are not born again and are simply acting like what they truly are, non-Christians? It could be that Paul was giving these Christians the benefit of the doubt. But outwardly there seems to be no distinction between the behavior of carnal Christians and natural people. Both appear to be deaf to the things of God.

A Secondary Class of Christians?

In arguing for the existence of this secondary class of Christians, Chafer makes the following argument (quoted in Stanley, Salvation by Works, 63):

The difference between the spiritual man and the carnal man is as follows: the spiritual man has “no limitation on him in the realm of the things of God. He can ‘freely’ receive the divine revelation, and he glories in it. . . . The ‘spiritual’ man is the divine ideal of life and ministry in power with God and man, in unbroken fellowship and blessing.” The carnal Christian on the other hand “is born again and possesses the indwelling Spirit; but his carnality hinders the full ministry of the Spirit.” He is characterized by a walk that is on the same plane as that of the “natural” man. In short the carnal Christian is controlled by the flesh whereas he that is spiritual is controlled by the Spirit. From this it follows that there are “two great spiritual changes which are possible to human experience.” The natural man must become saved, and the saved man—if he is fleshly—must become spiritual.”

The problem with Chafer’s argument is that it ignores the reality that every true Christian has carnality inside that is potentially debilitating. All believers struggle with the flesh, but all have the capacity to overcome it. In fact, true believers do overcome their sin and produce fruit in a consistent way. Chafer’s classification of carnal Christian, one as who has a ticket to heaven yet is fruitless and comfortable with sin, opens the door for confusion because, simply put, such a person does not exist.

What then is Paul saying in 1 Corinthians 3:1–3? In effect, he is telling the Corinthians Christians to stop acting like unbelievers. This is a pastoral response to sinful behavior that is similar to the rebuke we find in Hebrews 5:11–13, where the author calls these Christians “spiritually dull” and hard of hearing. He says they are “like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food” (Heb. 5:12 NLT). This immaturity is a very real problem in our churches. The question is not whether such people exist but whether we should establish a separate category for them and make allowances for real believers who no longer repent of their sin. If we accept that the category of carnal Christian exists, we slit the throat of the gospel, and in accommodating their sinful behavior, we drive a stake through the call to discipleship.

Carnal Christianity?

Carnal Christianity fits nicely with the alternative vision of the Christian life. Carnal Christians can assume they are forgiven and that discipleship is optional. This is a form of cheap grace, or as Bonhoeffer put it, the death of discipleship.

Carnal Christians make much of the forgiveness of sin. In fact, they love to hear that their sins are forgiven and see this as is the defining reality of being a Christian. But forgiveness detached from repentance and the call to follow Christ is not the gospel. A real Christian responds to discipline and changes to live and behave according to the standard of Jesus’ teachings. This is why we must include the call to discipleship in our proclamation of the gospel.

[1] Lewis Sperry Chafer, He That Is Spiritual: A Classic Study of the Biblical Doctrine of Spirituality (Philadelphia Sunday School Times, 1918; reprint Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1967), 15–22.

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This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

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