Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
Worldliness: A Perennial Danger
by Martyn McGeown
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.
The Forbidden Love
John says, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.” The meaning of this commandment is not, “Do not start loving the world,” but “stop loving the world.” The saints to whom the apostle writes had already begun to love the world.
There is much confusion here.
Love for the world is not the same as merely living “in” the world. Since this is the case, it is impossible to avoid worldliness by leaving the world or by abstaining from modern society. Some have tried that: the monks of the Middle Ages sought to escape worldliness by asceticism, an extreme form of self-denial, but a monk has worldliness in his heart which he cannot escape in a monastery. The Amish have tried to escape worldliness by avoiding the use of modern conveniences, by a simple unindustrialized farming lifestyle, and by not having electricity, but that is not the answer to worldliness. Electricity or the lack thereof has nothing to do with worldliness! Electricity can be used to the glory of God or it can be used in the service of sin. Jesus prayed, “I have given them thy word, and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil” (John 17:14–15). The solution, therefore, is not to depart from the world.
Love for the world is not the same as using or even enjoying the good gifts of God’s creation. There are some Christians who feel almost guilty if they enjoy pleasure. They seem to think that it is a Christian’s duty to be miserable and to make others miserable. Christians, for example, may enjoy food and drink, art, culture, and leisure with a clear conscience. There is nothing sinful in pleasure itself. Pleasure only becomes sinful when it satisfies the lusts of our flesh, the lusts of our eyes, and the pride of life. We must not love pleasure rather than God (2 Tim. 4:4), but God has given us all things richly to enjoy (1 Tim. 6:17). If one forgets that principle, one can become self-righteous and legalistic, proud that one is holier than the Christian who uses a TV or computer, or who reads certain books, or ___________ (the reader should fill in the blank).
Love for the world is a worship of the creature rather than the Creator. While we may possess the things of the world, and even enjoy them, we must hold loosely to the things of the world, and even be prepared to lose them for the sake of Christ. When we find that the world’s treasures and pleasures are a distraction from our devotion to Christ (and each of us has a different limit), we must be prepared to give up the enjoyments of this world. We may possess the things of the world, but the things of the world must never possess us. They must never possess our heart.
Love in the Bible is devotion to and affection for something. When we love the world, we devote ourselves to the things of the world: we seek the things of the world so that they will satisfy our desires. If we love the world for its own sake we will devote our time, our energy, our money and our life to the things of the world to the exclusion of God.
For example, a person who has a nice car may not be worldly, but if he spends every waking moment devoted to his car, because it appeals to his lust and pride, he is acting in a worldly manner. Sports are not necessarily worldly activities, but obsession with sport bordering on idolatry certainly is. If the enjoyment of the pleasures of this world requires us to have an alliance with the world, we prefer to suffer than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season (Heb. 11:25). Often the pleasures of this world come with a cost: forsake Christ and you can enjoy the pleasures of the world.
The danger in loving the world is outlined in verse 15, “If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” “The love of the Father” is not the Father’s love for us, but our love for the Father. John is saying that love of the world and love of the Father are incompatible. Sometimes we flatter ourselves that we can have both God and the world, but the Bible contradicts that foolish notion. The one who loves the world is the enemy of God, that is, he hates God, because he loves the world that hates God. Quite simply, a love for the world will drive the love for the Father out of your heart.
There is a fine line between stewardship of our bodies and possessions and obsession and even idolatry. When we love the world, we do not seek our satisfaction in God, in Christ, in his truth. To love the world means to seek after the things of the world because they can satisfy something in you that the things of God cannot satisfy. A man who loves the world fills his heart and life with the things that the world offers to him, and at the same time he does not fill his heart and life with the things that God gives.
How does lovelessness caused by the love of the world manifest itself? It begins with a decreased interest in fellowship with God because of an increased interest in sinful pleasure. The worldly Christian will pray less, meditate less on the word, and become infrequent in his attendance at public worship. If it requires him to neglect God to have the world, the worldly Christian will be prepared to pay that price. The worldly Christian will show a preference for worldly activities, some of which are not sinful in themselves, but his desire for them will consume his time and his affections so that he will not have time and a heart for God. The worldly Christian will have a preference for worldly companions who are as worldly as he is becoming. He will begin to find the fellowship of God’s people irksome because they make him feel guilty. The end of a worldly Christian is often apostasy (v. 19).
Worldliness is a major contributing factor to apostasy because a worldly church member, whose heart the world has stolen, will be impatient with the holiness of life demanded by the church. The worldly person will be a member of a church and contribute to its life only insofar as the church does not interfere with his sinful pleasure. But the one who loves the world will be repelled by holiness and will eventually give up all pretense of Christianity all together. Or the worldly person will join a false church, which is basically the world with a religious mask. The false church will allow him to desecrate the Sabbath, to date unbelievers, to get drunk, to fornicate, to divorce his spouse, and to enjoy the sin of the world while promising him God’s blessing. The true church will call him to repentance. The worldly person does not like the call to repentance.
Here is a test by which you can examine yourself.
- If you can spend hours watching TV, on your computer, playing sports, and hanging out with unbelieving friends, but little time in devotion to God, the world may already have seduced your heart.
- If you find yourself enjoying the company and the sins of the ungodly so that you even find yourself defending the sins of the ungodly and preferring their sins to the godliness of the saints, the world has certainly seduced your heart.
- If you find yourself angry when you are confronted by a fellow believer and you seek to justify why you are not living like a Christian, then I urge you, examine your heart. Who or what has your allegiance and your heart? Do you love the Father or the world, or are you trying and failing to love both?
The Urgent Warning
John adds a warning and an incentive. The warning is: “and the world passeth away and the lust thereof” (v. 17). The things of the world are temporary, fleeting, and have no lasting value. The world offers pleasure, power, and the fulfillment of the lusts of the flesh, but one day these things will come to an end. There will come a time when you will not be able to enjoy them. However, it is almost impossible to convince a person infatuated with the world that this is the case. A worldly person lives for the moment, especially for the weekend, and it takes a miracle of grace to wrest his heart away from the world.
But by “passeth away” John means more than to underline the world’s temporary nature. These things pass away because they will be destroyed in the judgment. The worldly person will stand before God. The music will be silent, the sensual pleasure will be over, worldly friends will be gone and he will be sober. Then he must give an account to the Almighty: “I exchanged my Creator for the fleeting pleasures of creation. I had no love for God in my heart. The world was my god.” And if the worldly person has only his love for the world he will stand naked before God, stripped of everything except his sins, and will be condemned.
The world (in the evil sense) “passeth away,” its lusts (in the evil sense) will be gone, but the world itself (as God created it and purposed it) will be redeemed. Christ is rightly called the Savior of the world. Never in the Bible is he called the Savior only of the elect. This does not mean that he is the Savior of all men, including the reprobate, but it means that he is the Savior of men from all nations, and more that he is the Savior of the universe, the creation, or the cosmos. Christ redeems God’s world—God’s cosmos—from sin, death, and the curse. The world was sold into the power of the devil because of man’s sin, and Christ purchased the world back. The world of the ungodly with their evil lusts, that world shall be destroyed.
Christ redeems us from the wicked world and for the eternal world of God’s kingdom by his death on the cross (Gal. 1:4). That was necessary because only by the death of the cross could we, his sinful people, ever be part of the new creation in which righteousness dwells. That is part of the reason why Jesus rejected the devil’s third temptation. Satan offered Jesus the world, but Jesus already possessed the promise of the world, but he would receive it the Father’s way, the way of suffering and death.
And it is by the power of the cross that the world is crucified unto us: “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Gal 6:14).
The second incentive is: “he that doeth the will of God abideth forever” (v. 17). Those who deny themselves the pleasures of the world for a season have no disadvantage. In God’s kingdom there are eternal pleasures that the world will never know. These pleasures are ours already, when we by faith taste and know them. Love not the world. Love the Father. Do his will out of thankfulness to him.
The Rev. Martyn McGeown was ordainedin 2010. His Pastorates was as Missionary-pastor in Limerick, Ireland for the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church of Northern Ireland. Martyn McGeown grew up in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, and is a member of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Ballymena, Northern Ireland. He graduated from the Theological School of the Protestant Reformed Churches and has been the missionary-pastor of the Limerick Fellowship in Limerick, Ireland. He has sworn to uphold the doctrines of the Scriptures, as these are summarized in the Reformed Creeds (the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dordt), and by word and example to magnify the Lord Jesus Christ, the only Head of the church, which God has chosen in love and Christ has purchased with His own blood. This article first appeared as three blog posts on the RFPA blog on February 25, 2019