The Meaning of Carnal, Fleshly, Worldly, Etc.

Sin Nature. It is a problem with our humanity that many try to deny. We need to be familiar with the various Bible terms related to this, and what they mean--words such as worldly, sensual, the natural man, and the Adamic nature, and so on. These words and phrases represent key spiritual truths about the desperate plight of the unsaved, and the dangerous potential for believers who are not living as they should.

1) THE NATURAL or SENSUAL PERSON. "The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned" (I Cor. 2:14). ("Natural" translates the Greek word psuchikos, from which we get our word psychology. It refers to the soul--the mind will and emotions--of the person, as opposed to his God-energized spirit. We could call this individual a soulish person.) The natural man is one who was born naturally (i.e. physically) but who has never been born again, and therefore is still "dead in trespasses and sins" (Eph. 2:1, 5). He is severely limited when it comes to understanding and applying spiritual truth, since this ability is given to those indwelt and taught by the Holy Spirit (vs. 12-13).

The word "sensual" is also used to translate psuchikos. It refers to that which pertains to the old, unregenerate nature. "The apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ...told you there would be mockers in the last time who would walk according to their own ungodly lusts, these are sensual [psuchikos, or soulish] persons, who cause divisions, not having the Spirit" (Jude 1:17-19). And if they do not have the Holy Spirit indwelling them, they are not Christians (Rom. 8:9). But it is possible for a born again believer to yield to temptation and somtimes act in a soulish way. James warns, "If you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual [psuchikos], demonic" (Jas. 3:14-15, and see the context, vs. 13-18).

2) THE OLD MAN is an expression used three times in the New Testament. (It is sometimes described as the ADAMIC NATURE by theologians.) These terms speak of the corrupt fallen nature we inherited from Adam. When we put our faith in Christ, the "old man" is considered to have been crucified in Christ. "Our old man was crucified with Him" (Rom. 6:6). "You died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God....You have put off the old man with his deeds" (Col. 3:3, 9).

As to our legal position (or standing) before God, the old man has been dealt with. But as to our condition (or state) in daily experience, the old man or Adamic nature continues to be an active force that can only be controlled as we reject its promptings and walk in the Spirit. Each Christian has a responsibility to "Put off...the old man...and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and...put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness" (Eph. 4:22-24; cf. Rom. 12:2).

This conflict in the Christian between the old Adamic nature, and the new nature energized by the Holy Spirit, will continue until we go to be with Christ and are transformed into His likeness (I Jn. 3:2; cf. Col. 1:27). The struggle is captured in Paul's words, "What I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do" (Rom. 7:15). "The flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another; so that you do not do the things that you wish" (Gal. 5:17).

The answer, if the Christian is to live a victorious life, is submitting to the ministry of the indwelling Holy Spirit. This is described by the twin terms of walking in the Spirit, and being filled with the Spirit.

¤ "Walk in the Spirit and you will not fulfil the lust of the flesh" (Gal. 5:16). This "walk" refers to daily and habitual steps of faith and obedience toward God. That is our responsibility, by His enabling grace.

¤ The word "filled" is perhaps better translated "fulfilled"--another meaning for the Greek word pleroo. (Cf. "He who loves another has fulfilled [pleroo] the law," Rom. 13:8.). Thus, "Be filled with the Spirit" (Eph. 5:18) could be paraphrased, "Be being fulfilled by the Spirit, allowing Him to fulfil His sovereign purpose in you, by His divine power."

These two realities of the Christian life are expressed in a little different way in Philippians 2:12-13. "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling [live out what God has equipped you to be, by an ongoing walk of faith and obedience], for it is God who works in you [filling and fulfilling] both to will and to do for His good pleasure."

3) FLESH & CARNAL. The Greek word (sarx) is most often translated "flesh," though occasionally it is rendered "carnal." Sometimes physical flesh and blood (the physical body) necessarily is in view. (For example, we are told that Christ "was born of the seed of David according to the flesh," Rom. 1:3.) But when it is used in an ethical or theological sense, it refers to the human nature, or earthly nature of man, apart from God's intervention and influence. The flesh in that sense is spiritually impotent, and prone to sin. Further, it tends to be self-centred, and opposed to God. Paul recognizes that when he says, "In my flesh nothing good dwells" (Rom. 7:18).

When we are saved, through faith in Christ, we are no longer living in the sphere of the flesh but in the sphere of the Spirit (Rom. 8:9). However, the flesh (the old, sinful human nature) is still within us, and we have a choice whether to respond to the flesh, thus walking according to the flesh, or to respond to the Holy Spirit, walking in the Spirit. This is the difference between a spiritual Christian and a "carnal" (sarx) Christian. To be saved is to be rightly related to Christ. To be a spiritual Christian is to be rightly related to the Holy Spirit. "Walk in the Spirit [controlled and guided by the Holy Spirit], and you shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh" (Gal. 5:16; cf. Rom. 8:4).

Paul condemns some in the church at Corinth because of their carnality. He does not deny that they are born again, but labels their behaviour as spiritually infantile. "I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ [i.e. as to those who are still spiritually immature]. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it...for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men [i.e. acting as unsaved individuals would]?"(I Cor. 3:1-3).

4) WORLD, WORLDLY. This is another word (kosmos in Greek) that can be used in a physical or spiritual sense. It can refer to the earth, or to the people living on our planet ("God so loved the world... " Jn. 3:16). But in the spiritual and ethical sense it speaks of this corrupt world system, dominated by Satan. In that usage we are warned, "Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world--the lust of the flesh [sarx], the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life--is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever" (I Jn. 2:15-17). Instead, we should be those who, "denying ungodliness and worldly soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age" (Tit. 2:12).