There are certain words and ideas that, over time, fall out of favor. Once they have fallen out of favor, it is not long before they fall out of common parlance. Sometimes, when words are archaic or their ideas unbiblical, this is the church’s gain. At other times, though, this is the church’s loss, for words may be useful and their ideas key to the Christian life and faith. At such times we do well to reclaim them, to introduce them to a new generation.
Worldliness is a word and idea that has been recently neglected. Perhaps this is because it was abused in the era of fundamentalism, when innocuous pleasures were held to be dangerous distractions. Or perhaps this is because we prefer not to feel the weight of its conviction. Perhaps this is the work of Satan, who wishes to mask one of his masterpieces. Either way, the Bible has much to say about the world and its influence upon us. It has much to say about how we can and must refuse to be of the world, even while we live in the world.
In this article, we continue our “8 Rules for Growing in Godliness,” a series of instructions drawn from a great preacher of days gone by. Together these rules teach how we, as Christians, can be ever more conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. The second rule for growing in godliness is this: Guard against worldliness.
The World and Worldliness
In his first letter, the Apostle John lays out the challenge and the danger of worldliness. “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” (1 John 2:15). There is a stark contrast here between two opposing options: We can love the world, or we can love God, but we cannot love both. We can follow and obey the world, or we can follow and obey God, but we cannot serve two masters. Only one will own our heart, only one can claim our ultimate allegiance. That choice lies before us.
What is the “world”? In days past, some Christians took it to mean the earth and everything in it, as if there is something intrinsically wrong with experiencing pleasure in God’s creation. But this cannot be, for John would not contradict Paul who insists, “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving…” (1 Timothy 4:4). The “world,” then, is not a place but a system. It is a way of thinking and living that rejects God’s rule. It is enthusiasm for the temporal and apathy for the eternal. It is living as if this world is all there is. To love the world is to value what unbelievers value, to foster ungodly desires and attitudes, to indulge in what is delightful to those who refuse to delight in God.
Those who love the world naturally succumb to worldliness. Worldliness is a failure to renew our minds by the Word of God so we can live in a manner pleasing to God. It is the failure to think and live in distinctly godly ways. It is the failure to become who God has called us to be through the gospel.
Worldliness is first a matter of the heart’s desires, then the mind’s meditations, then the hands’ actions. We all enter this world as lovers of the world who are in desperate need of salvation. It is only God’s work of saving grace that allows us to see our captivity, only the light of the gospel that frees us from our former blindness. Every Christian must then put off the old worldliness to embrace the new godliness. Thus, we have the choice before us: Will we be worldly, or will we be godly? Will we remain conformed to this world, or will we be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2)? We make the decision once and for all when we put our faith in Jesus Christ, and we make the decision again day by day as we battle to work out our salvation by putting sin to death and coming alive to righteousness (Philippians 2:12, Colossians 3:9-10).
Christians who mean to grow in godliness must be vigilant to guard against worldliness, for worldliness is a wily foe and a constant tempter. Few who profess Christ set out to be worldly, yet multitudes bear the world’s imprint. Just as some jump off the dock into a cold lake, while others creep down the ladder so their bodies can adjust, some who profess faith plunge into worldliness rapidly, while others become worldly through a long and slow immersion.
Some make a close study of the world and its ways, then deliberately imitate what they observe. We see this often with those raised in Christian families, ready to gain their independence. They purpose to be worldly and easily achieve their goal. They inevitably drift from the faith. Tragically, many are lost forever.
More commonly, though, Christians become worldly by neglect. We fail to be watchful, to maintain an offensive posture against the world’s attraction and intrusion. We neglect the means of grace, allowing ourselves to lose confidence in the ordinary means of Word, prayer, and fellowship. Having lost our confidence in them, we soon forsake them altogether. We neglect to approach ungodly entertainment with due caution, so that what at first shocks us soon amuses and delights us. We neglect Christian friendship and instead ally ourselves with people who have no affection for God and no desire for holiness. Through such neglect we slowly lower ourselves into the waters of worldliness. Soon, we find sin has begun to look attractive and holiness has begun to look futile.
To be healthy and growing Christians, we must maintain a close watch, guarding against the least encroachment of worldliness. We must be aware of its existence and its allure. We must be aware of its ease, for while godliness requires tenacity, worldliness takes only apathy. Whereas we can easily coast into worldliness, we will not attain the least godliness without persistence. And we must be aware that either godliness will drive out worldliness, or worldliness will drive out godliness. They cannot coexist any more than light can mingle with darkness, than God can cohabit with devils.
Ultimately, it is our love for Christ that will overcome our latent worldliness. Our new affection for Christ has what one Puritan referred to as an “expulsive power,” an ability to expel whatever competes with it, diminishes it, or threatens to supplant it. Thus it becomes our duty and delight to fix our eyes on Christ. “In this duty I desire to live and to die,” said John Owen. “On Christ’s glory I would fix all my thoughts and desires, and the more I see of the glory of Christ, the more the painted beauties of this world will wither in my eyes and I will be more and more crucified to this world. It will become to me like something dead and putrid, impossible for me to enjoy.”
The first rule of godliness warned us of our tendency to lose our confidence in the means God has provided for our sanctification. The second rule warns us against spiritual slumber, of failing to maintain a close watch against a fearsome, cunning enemy. If you long to be godly, determine not to be worldly. Guard against the least encroachment of worldliness and fight for every appearance of godliness.
The “8 Rules for Growing in Godliness” are drawn from the work of Thomas Watson. Here are the words that inspired this article: “If you would be godly, take heed of the world: it is hard for a clod of dust become a star, 1 John ii. 15. ‘Love not the world:’ many would be godly, but the honours and profits of the world divert them; where the world fills both head and heart, there is no room for Christ; he whose mind is rooted in the earth, is likely enough to deride godliness; when our Saviour was preaching against sin, the Pharisees, who were covetous, derided him, Luke xvi. 14. The world eats out the heart of godliness, as the ivy eats out the heart of the oak; the world kills with her silver darts.”