The Danger of Being Merely Human
From Gospel Translations
By John Piper About Sanctification & Growth
Part of the series 1 Corinthians: The Present Power of Christ Crucified
1 Corinthians 3:1-4
This is one of those texts that offer tenderhearted hope and tough-minded warning in the very same truth. The hope is especially intended for the earnest struggler in the faith; and the warning is especially intended for the careless drifter. And both are intended for the person on the outside looking in this morning, wondering what it might be like if you trusted in Christ and became a Christian. I pray that you will hear the message today according to the truth and according to your need.
Paul's main concern in these chapters is to melt the pride that causes boasting and division. And he comes down hard in chapter 1 on the pride of human wisdom.
But then to avoid a misunderstanding Paul says in 2:6 that he does impart a kind of wisdom, one that comes from God. And we saw last week that the only people who will receive it are spiritual people (2:15). Natural people see it as foolishness (2:14).
Correcting an Oversimplification
But now Paul knows that he has painted a picture of Christianity that is oversimplified. He has spoken of only two classes of people. The natural person is the person who is perishing according to 1:18—"The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing." And the spiritual person is the "mature" person of 2:6—"Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom."
The problem with this contrast between the natural person and the spiritual person is that it passes over the people who are not in either of these categories. It talks in terms that are all white or all black—natural, without the Spirit at all, or spiritual, in the sense of being mature (2:6).
So now in 3:1–4 Paul goes on to make some more distinctions. He distinguishes between Christians who are spiritual in the mature sense and Christians who are "fleshly" or "carnal." Why?
I think to guard one kind of person from despair and to guard another kind from presumption. The text is hopeful to the spiritual struggler and warning for the casual drifter.
Let's look at the text together to see where we stand.
Three Categories of People: Four Comments
But I, brethren, could not address you as spiritual men, but as men of the flesh, as babes in Christ.
In other words, I have just spoken in 2:6 about the "mature" who can handle the fullness of the wisdom I teach. And I have called them "spiritual persons" in verse 15 and said that they are capable of assessing spiritual things. But now I have to say that you weren't in that category. I could not address you as spiritual. For you, I have a new word, "fleshly." I can't call you "mature" (2:6); I can't call you spiritual. I have to call you babies in Christ.
So the term "babes in Christ" in 3:1 contrasts with "the mature" in 2:6. And the term "men of the flesh" (or: "fleshly") in 3:1 contrasts with "the spiritual person" in 2:15.
Now we have three categories of people.
- First, there is the "natural person" in 2:14—the person who has no spiritual life and who can't recognize anything compelling in the gospel.
- Second, there is the "spiritual person" in 2:15 or "mature" person in 2:6—the person who is so deeply controlled by the Holy Spirit that he can receive and value any level of biblical truth.
- And third, there is a group of people in between whom Paul calls not spiritual and not natural, but "fleshly," or "babes in Christ."
Now what we need to do mainly this morning is try to understand what makes this group tick and how God views them and whether we are one of them and what we should do about it.
So there are four things that I think we will have time to say about this group.
1. Addressed as Babes
In the early days at Corinth Paul had to address them as babes in Christ. He does not assert outright that they are babes in Christ or even that they were. He simply says, that's the way I addressed you. He gave them the benefit of the doubt.
There were signs of spiritual life in those early days. In 1:6 Paul says that "the testimony of Christ was confirmed among them." In other words when Paul preached about Christ they believed (1:21) and they called on the Lord for salvation (1:2). So Paul spoke to them in those early days as people who were "in Christ."
What does that mean. The fullest answer is given in 1:30. Paul says that God has acted so as to put these believers "in Christ"—"He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus." What this means is that God wraps them up in Christ as it were and Christ himself becomes for them all that they need in order to be accepted by God. "God made him our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption." So to be "in Christ" is the greatest privilege in the universe. It is the safest, most peaceful place there is. It doesn't mean that we are perfected yet in our moral nature. But it does mean that God is totally for us and all his ways with us are the love of a Father no matter how hard.
2. Called Fleshly
But even though they are treated as being "in Christ" Paul calls them "fleshly" (3:1). What does this mean?
It means, first of all, that a deep spiritual walk with God does not usually happen immediately after conversion. When the Holy Spirit invades the enemy territory of our lives and sets up Jesus Christ as King in the capital city of our heart, his strategy for conquering the rebel forces of the flesh that keep up their guerrilla warfare is different for each person. It may be fast or slow. God's clean up operations are very strange.
The Christian Life as Warfare
One way to describe what happens when a person is converted is that the Holy Spirit drops an atom bomb on the Nagasaki-Hiroshima nerve center of our flesh. This is what I think Paul means when he says in Galatians 5:24 that "those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh." The decisive blow against the enemy of our lives has been struck. The victory is now secured.
But the subduing of the rebel forces of the flesh, and all the insurgents of sin may take a lifetime. That's why Paul says something in Galatians 5:13 that seems contradictory to what he said about the flesh being crucified in Galatians 5:24. He says, "You were called to freedom, brethren; only don't use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh." So in a sense the flesh is crucified and yet we must guard against it.
Be vigilant in your spiritual warfare. Don't hobnob with the defeated forces of the flesh. Look to the victory of Christ! Look to the atomic power of the Holy Spirit! And purge the districts of your body and soul from all the guerilla troops of the flesh.
Justification and Sanctification
Another way to describe what it means that the Corinthians can be "in Christ" and yet "fleshly" is this: Justification precedes and supports sanctification. We are accepted with God and placed in the shelter of Christ's righteousness before we gain total victory over our old nature. We can be reckoned righteous before we are righteous. We share in the righteousness of Christ before we become fully Christ-like.
This is why I said at the beginning that this text is a word of hope for earnest strugglers. If there were no place in Christ for beginners and strugglers and stumblers, then most of us would have given up long ago in despair. Nobody is born mature. Babies come before adults.
3. Fed with Milk, Not Solid Food
The next thing to notice about the Corinthians is that they couldn't eat solid food but only milk. Verse 2: "I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not yet ready for it; and even yet you are not ready." Now what does Paul mean by milk and solid food? And what is it that the Corinthians still lack that makes them unable to digest solid food?
Humility as the Organ of Digestion
Verse 3 gives us the key to the answers. It says, "You are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh?" In other words the evidence of being fleshly, or still in the baby stage, is jealousy and strife. It's the same old proud boasting in men: "I belong to Paul!" "I belong to Apollos!"
So what is it about a person that makes them unable to digest solid food? It's pride. Or to put it positively, the organ that properly digests solid food is humility. As long as a person is still largely influenced by a spirit of self-exaltation, he is not able to digest solid food. The throat of pride is too narrow and non-pliable to handle the solid food.
What Is Milk?
So what, then, is the solid food and what is the milk? Milk is teaching that is uniquely designed to get a proud sinner started on the path of humility and hope. There is something about the word of the cross that can get into the hard and narrow esophagus of self-reliance and bring life-giving hope and humility without choking a person to death. Not that the milk of the gospel saves everybody. "The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing" (1:18). A person's spiritual throat can be so swollen with pride and self-reliance that they even gag on milk.
So milk is teaching that is uniquely designed to get a proud sinner started on the path of humility and hope, mainly the word of the cross, the message of Christ crucified.
What Is Solid Food?
What, then, is solid food? Notice that it is not something that takes more intellect to grasp. What it takes is less jealousy and strife, less pride and self-assertion. The solid food is not for smart people. It's for humble people—people who have stopped pursuing the pleasures of self-confidence and self-exaltation and self-determination—people who now want only to boast in the Lord and give him all the glory for whatever good there is in the world and in their lives.
If you were to ask me for an example of such solid food, I would make this connection. I would say, notice 1 Corinthians 2:10 where Paul describes the source of the wisdom he teaches. Verse 10b: "For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God." Then I would connect that to verse 6 where he says that he imparts this wisdom among the mature, that is, the non-babes. So this wisdom, the very depths of the mind of God, is the solid food which the babes cannot digest, but the mature can. Then I would take you to the one place in Paul where these two words come together, the wisdom of God and the depths of God, namely, in the doxology at the end of Romans 9–11 (Romans 11:33), "O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!" And I would answer: An example of solid food is Romans 9–11.
These are the doctrines that go down hardest in a throat that's accustomed to jealousy and strife. If you want to feed these to new Christians, you have to grind them up and stir them into the milk. And that is exactly what Paul has done in 1 Corinthians 1–2. And what I have tried to do in my own imperfect echo of Paul's message.
Well, we have seen that the Corinthians were not spiritual persons and they were not natural persons. They were babes in Christ, but they were fleshly, that is, they were largely influenced by the old nature of pride and so they boasted in men and were jealous of each other and there was strife among them.
4. In Danger of Continuing in This Condition
The last thing we have time to say about them is that they are dangerously continuing in this infantile condition.
Paul is not upset that they began as babes, but that they haven't grown out of it. Notice the last phrase of verse 2: "And even yet you are not able." Even now they're not ready for solid food.
In fact what causes a word of hope in this text to become a word of serious warning is this shift right from the past tense to the present tense. Everything up till this last phrase in verse 2 is past tense. "I could not address you as spiritual . . . I fed you with milk . . . You were not ready . . . " That's not a terrible accusation. They were brand new Christians in those early days.
But now comes the bad news, the dangerous news. "And even yet you are not ready, (v. 3) for you are still fleshly." But then come the most serious words of all at the end of verse 3 and verse 4. Literally: "And are you not walking according to man? For when someone says, 'I am of Paul,' and another, 'I am of Apollos,' are you not (merely!) men?"
He doesn't say they are. He leaves it as a question. Could it be that the reason you have not made any progress beyond those early days is that you really are no different than ordinary natural men? He doesn't want to believe it. And he doesn't treat them that way. He gives them the benefit of the doubt. But the warning is sounded! Not to make progress in Christian maturity is dangerous.
Four Closing Admonitions
- And so the first of my concluding admonitions is, Don't drift in the Christian life. The current of the flesh and the world will always carry a drifter downstream toward the falls of destruction.
- Let us be like Paul and hope for God's best in people. Let us not be quick to write off a struggler, but instead measure just what food would be best for them to help them grow.
- But let's not treat continued immaturity as unimportant. It could be a sign that no true spiritual life was ever present and that the professing Christian is only a natural man after all. This is very rarely for us to decide. But it is our responsibility to warn the careless drifter, as Peter says, to make his calling and election sure, by trusting in Christ TODAY and following him in the obedience of faith.
- Finally, if you have never trusted in Christ, you should be much encouraged by all this that he is very patient with beginners. One of the men who knew him best (Matthew) said, "He will not break a bruised reed, or quench a smoldering wick, till he brings justice to victory; and in his name will the Gentiles hope."