Worldliness: A Perennial Danger

There are two passages in the New Testament where the Holy Spirit explicitly warns us against the world. The first is James 4:4 where James calls Christians and church members “adulterers and adulteresses” because of their friendship with the world, adding that the one who will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God. Earlier in that same epistle James says that “pure religion and undefiled” is (among other things) “to keep [oneself] unspotted from the world” (James 1:27).

The other passage is 1 John 2:15, where John commands Christians not to love the world. The force of the Greek grammar is: “Stop loving the world.” The reason John gives is similar to James: “if any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”

I believe that we all know instinctively what worldliness is. We can sense it; we know it; and we are very quick to see it in others and to excuse it in ourselves. Worldliness is one of the greatest dangers to the church. The Christian has three main enemies: the flesh, the devil, and the world.

Worldliness also causes division in the church. Some Christians have legalistic tendencies: they see almost everything, and especially what others do, as worldly. Therefore, they are quick to condemn worldliness in others. For some Christians, worldliness is defined almost as “whatever the world does, if the Christian does it, it is worldliness.” That, however, is an inadequate, inaccurate, and ultimately unhelpful definition. Other Christians, who want to avoid legalism, with its excessive rules and judgmental spirit, err on the side of worldliness. They are inclined to be too close to the world so that the world bewitches, fascinates, and ensnares them. Since love of the world is probably the number one reason for apostasy in the church, we need to find balance between world flight and worldliness. May God give wisdom!

The first thing to do if we are not to love the world is to identify what the world is. To be clear, we need to identify what the world is in 1 John 2:15-17.

The Bible uses the word “world” hundreds of times in a variety of meanings.

The main meanings, then, are as follows:

  • The physical creation, the world that God has made, and in which we live.
  • The people of the world, the inhabitants of the earth, sometimes the wicked, sometimes the elect, and sometimes men in general.
  • By “world” we could also mean the things that belong to the world, gifts that God in his providence has given to us: culture, art, music, technology, and other inventions.

The word that John uses is the Greek word kosmos from which we derive the English word cosmos. A cosmos is a unified whole, an organized system, or an arrangement. When God made the world, he did not throw the various elements together in a haphazard, disorganized fashion. He formed a cosmos. That cosmos was created under the headship of Adam, but when Adam fell the cosmos fell into the bondage of corruption. God, in his wrath, delivered the cosmos into the power of Satan and into the bondage of corruption (Rom. 8:20–21). That’s why, although God is still perfectly sovereign, Satan is called “the prince of the world” (John 12:31) or even “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4). That’s why John writes, “The whole world (kosmos) lieth in wickedness” (1 John 5:19).

The world we are forbidden to love is the “world system” as it is unified, organized, and arranged in hostility against God. The world is especially the world of fallen men in alliance with the devil against God; or the world is the created order under the power of Satan. Insofar as the “world order” is the enemy of God, we are not to befriend it, and we are not to love it, but we are to hate it and to oppose it.

Therefore, worldliness has nothing to do with computers, cars or modern conveniences; these things are simply the good gifts of God that can be used for good or for evil. John warned about worldliness in the first century long before computers, cars, or modern conveniences. When Demas forsook Paul for the world (2 Tim. 4:10), he did not buy an iPhone! In every age, worldliness takes on a different form. In every age, the world adapts its lures to appeal to our sinful flesh.

John explains the meaning when he adds “neither the things that are in the world” (v. 15). The things that are in the world are not trees, rivers, and mountains. They are not computers, television sets, or microwave ovens. John explains in verse 16 what these “things” are. They are “the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” The emphasis is on that word “lust,” for the world appeals to our lust. A lust is a burning, a burning desire for something forbidden by God, and the world has three avenues by which it enters into our heart and life: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.

“The lust of the flesh” is the desire or longing of the sinful nature. Our sinful flesh is that totally depraved, sinful nature which comes to us from our parents and ultimately from Adam. That flesh has desires: the desires of flesh are always evil, always deceitful (Eph. 4:22). Each person has his own particular flesh and peculiar desires. These desires are expressions of man’s enmity against God and love for the things that God hates. The world says to us: “Follow me and I will satisfy the desires of your flesh.”

“The lust of the eyes” is similar to the lust of the flesh, except here the flesh employs our senses to seek its own gratification. John mentions the lust of the eyes, but we could add the lust of the ears, of the taste, of the feeling, and of the smell. These five senses serve as vehicles for sin to enter our hearts and lives. The world says: “Feast your eyes on the dainties I have to offer; feast your ears on the sounds I will give you; fill your nostrils and your taste buds, and arouse your senses by feeling what I can give to you!” That’s the lust of our senses. Of course, not everything that comes to us through our senses is sinful (it is not sinful to smell a rose or to use perfume; it is not sinful to enjoy a piece of apple pie; it is not sinful to listen to the violin; it is not sinful to wear velvet or silk), but our senses are so corrupt that they easily become the servants of sin.

“The pride of life” is the arrogance that belongs to this present, earthly life. The word “pride” means arrogance, a boasting caused by self-sufficiency. One with the pride of life lives without God in his thoughts. The world encourages us to live independently of God, to find everything we need in this present life, and not to concern ourselves with God and eternity. The world is the source of all of these things. God is not the author of these things; God does not tempt, allure or attract us by means of these things. These things are not of the Father but are of the world” (v. 16).

We can see then the meaning. I offer my definition: “Worldliness is an attitude of the mind and heart in which the heart of a person is fascinated, excited, and bewitched by those things which gratify the sinful lusts, and it is a giving over of oneself to serve those things instead of God.”

What is there in this life which so fascinates you, so titillates your lust, so attracts you, that it draws you away from Christ? For you that is worldliness. For some worldliness might be TV: the type or amount of TV you watch. That feeds the lusts of your flesh and arouses in you sinful thoughts. For some worldliness might be music. Music might fill your heart with ungodly lusts and titillate your senses until you are almost drunk with pleasure with never a thought for the glory of God. For some it might be video games, the internet, or sport; for another it might be books and magazines. Those things might be the way in which you feed your sinful flesh. Others, whose life is rather simple and uncluttered by modern inventions, might derive pleasure from judging, belittling, and gossiping about their fellow saints. Gossip is a worldly activity also!

Many of these things, not evil of themselves, might have strangled your soul so that you are bewitched by them, so that for the enjoyment of them you are tempted to forsake devotion to Christ. For others worldliness might be seen in the company you keep: worldly, ungodly, unbelieving friends. You spend time with them, you learn their ways, you get drunk with them, you go to their parties, and you imbibe their whole philosophy and way of thinking.

But these are only examples, and the legalist errs here. The legalist says that all TV, all video gaming, all sport, all internet, all secular literature, and all social interaction with unbelievers is per se worldly, and because he has cut such things out of his life, he insists that all believers do the same. But you will notice that the legalist measures worldliness according to his own standard, so that always by his definition he is not worldly but the neighbor is.

What is worldly activity for me might not be worldly activity for you; and what is worldly activity for you might not be worldly activity for me. It is not the thing per se that is worldliness, but one’s attitude to it.

Of course, some things are per se sinful. Watching TV is not per se sinful, but watching pornography is; sports are not sinful, but skipping church to watch sports is; drinking alcohol is not sinful, but underage drinking or drunkenness is. Many otherwise lawful things can become an obsession or an addiction. Many otherwise lawful activities are unlawful on Sundays.

It would be easier if the Bible gave a list of worldly activities, and showed us where exactly to draw the line, but it does not. We do not live in the Old Testament, hemmed in by laws that regulate what we eat and wear. We have freedom in Christ to use the things of this world. The test is this: can you use the thing in question to the glory of God; can you use it sparingly and with thanksgiving without it feeding your sinful lusts and desires and without it affecting your love for God? If not, you need to cut it out of your life or reduce your use of it. Perhaps it is a “weight” that hinders you in the Christian race (Heb. 12:1). Ultimately, worldliness or love of the world is really a love of self: what pleases me; what entertains me; what makes me feel good, without ever thinking about the glory of God.

To be continued...

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This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. If you have any questions or comments, please post them in the comment section on the blog.

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