The Myth of Only Internal Worldliness
False doctrine and practice have been around since the garden, so I shouldn’t be surprised by the constant, growing, and innovative arguments for justifying worldliness. Satan isn’t taking a vacation from his world system. And men love the world. It is tangible, tasty, and at the tip of the fingers.
A recent and common approach sees men, who propose to hate worldliness themselves, vindicate worldly living by redefining worldliness. They make worldliness impossible to judge by anyone but God. And He will. They say it’s only on the inside. These men challenge definitions of worldliness that recognize worldly externals. No doubt everything that is worldly in someone proceeds from his heart. However, what comes out is also worldly.
The World Is on the Outside
It is called the “world” because it relates to this planet we live on. Worldliness won’t ever have anything to do with Neptune or Venus. Men become enamored with what’s on the planet. They mind earthly things. Many of the things in the world or on the world came from people from here. They made it, invented it, played it, or produced it. And most of those things are the problem for men, the competition with God for their hearts. The stuff that man generates has been affected by the curse of sin. Because of that, it isn’t all innocent and it must be judged (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Music, dress, entertainment, recreation, and even the things that we put into our body have all been trouble for mankind since the beginning. And all of it is on the outside.
Being “conformed” to this world (Romans 12:2) is external. Even being “transformed” is external. It might start on the inside, but it will show up on the outside. The word translated “conformed” in Romans 12:2 is translated “fashioning” in 1 Peter 1:14: “not fashioning yourselves according to your former lusts.” ‘Lusts” are internal but “fashioning” is external. The primary verses on worldliness in the Bible are dealing with something that is external.
The Attack on External Worldliness
A recent primer for this novel approach to worldliness is Worldliness: Resisting the Seduction of a Fallen World, edited by C. J. Mahaney with a foreword by John Piper. Many of the chapter titles reveal the emphasis: “God, My Heart, and Media,” “God, My Heart, and Music,” “God, My Heart, and Stuff,” and “God, My Heart, and Clothes.” You can tell where the book is heading in the foreword when Piper writes: “The only way most folks know how to draw lines is with rulers. The idea that lines might come into being freely and lovingly (and firmly) as the fruit of the gospel is rare.” We get the heads up that rules are going to be a problem in a stand against worldliness. Then Mahaney adds in the first chapter (p. 29):
Some people try to define worldliness as living outside a specific set of rules or conservative standards. If you listen to music with a certain beat, dress in fashionable clothes, watch movies with a certain rating, or indulge in certain luxuries of modern society, surely you must be worldly. . . . Worldliness does not consist in outward behavior, though our actions can certainly be an evidence of worldliness within.
When this book came out, you’d think that nothing had been written about worldliness before. Actually many books have been written about worldliness through the centuries since the printing press. If you go to google books and use the advanced search mode and look only for full view books, you’ll find many books in the 19th and early 20th century that are now public domain, which talk about worldliness, many of which were sermons (consider this by J. C. Ryle, and this and this and this by Spurgeon). They weren’t afraid to talk about external issues in the days when to us there didn’t seem like much in the world that could be a problem.
We can all be thankful for a volume intending to slay internal or heart worldliness. However, circumventing the externals and painting only a partial picture of worldliness does more damage than good. It offers some leverage to deal with worldliness without depriving the worldly of the worldly things they demand. It vaccinates the adherents with a worldly, softer strain of Christianity that only inoculates them against the real thing. It sends an ambiguous warning signal across the bow while worldliness stays on board. I have to agree with Peter Masters in his recent short review of the Mahaney book, saying that it “hopelessly under-equips young believers for separation from the world.”
Others have obviously been influenced by Mahaney’s book. Blog posts began to appear everywhere that argued that worldliness is a heart matter, so the standards in churches and lines drawn are moralistic and legalistic, argued with fervent dogmatism. Of course, the point of Mahaney’s book was to deal with worldliness, not to encourage it, but the adherents caught one of his major emphases well, that is, people who obsess on externals don’t understand worldliness. “Oh good, I get to keep my music, my entertainment, my worship, etc.” Point taken. The book doesn’t do much to hinder worldliness.
But why would anyone write a book against worldliness but not be against worldliness? Worldliness is often how churches today got where they are. Worldliness is the goose that laid their golden eggs. They’ve produced worldly goslings, but they can’t very well destroy the goose. They use worldly music, encourage worldly dress, offer worldly activities, and allow for worldly amusement. It’s no wonder that they’ve got worldly people who need a book against worldliness. But you can’t slay the goose. So you go after “internal worldliness” with hopes for some kind of restraint.
However, Mahaney provides a perfect cover for the worldly person, excusing his worldly look, taste, and conduct. He says he has a scriptural basis for it and he uses the classic passage, 1 John 2:15-17. In an elaboration on v. 16, he writes:
Notice that in enlarging upon what is “in the world,” John doesn’t say, “this particular mode of dress, this way of speaking, this music, these possessions.”
Mahaney relies on the New International Version to continue with this point:
No, the essence of worldliness is in the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes, and the boasting of what he has and does.
Some of what Mahaney says is correct. The internal is important, even as James wrote in his epistle in chapter 4 concerning carnal desires over which we will fight and war.
Mahaney makes at least two errors that debilitate his presentation. First, 1 John 2:15 is far from the proof text on worldliness. What about Romans 12:2? What about worldliness as it relates to the doctrine of holiness, in setting a difference or distinction between the sacred and the profane? Second, he doesn’t hit target in dealing with 1 John 2:15-17. It reads as someone who comes to the text with a lifestyle to protect.
What about Romans 12:2?
Romans 12:1-2 is “gospel centered.” We’ve got eleven chapters of gospel presentation. What does the gospel effect? It effects acceptable, spiritual worship, the saint offering his body to God according to His will. That offering must not conform in its externals to the spirit of this age. Certainly, for that to be accomplished requires a renewing of the mind. You can’t think the same way about the world as you did when you were lost and not be conformed to it. So this isn’t “moralism,” a regular strawman of the new worldly Christianity.
We don’t have a reason to define worldliness only with 1 John 2:15-17. Those who claim to walk in the light, but love the world, are lying. Those who love the world conform to the world. Loving the world isn’t good and neither is conforming to it. You can’t say, however, that you don’t love it when you conform to it. The new approach to worldliness separates loving it from conforming to it. They’ll say they don’t. That’s part of the deniability found in ambiguous communication. They can profess that they weren’t dismissing externals really, but if you read their writing, they leave them by the wayside.
How do you conform to the kosmos, the spirit of the age, the zeitgeist? You do it with the way you talk, dude. You do it with your comfort first, shabby, disrespectful dress. You do it with your groovy music, your deco art, your fashions, your recreation, your amusement, and your entertainment. These externals smack of a philosophy originating from a system operating in opposition against God.
What about Worldliness as it Relates to the Doctrine of Holiness?
Holiness is described by more than just moral purity, but also the transcendent majesty of God. It relates to distinctions that separate us unto God from the common or the profane.
And I will put a division between my people and thy people: to morrow shall this sign be. Exodus 8:23
[T]hat ye may know how that the LORD doth put a difference between the Egyptians and Israel. Exodus 11:7
And that ye may put difference between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean; Leviticus 10:10
Her priests have violated my law, and have profaned mine holy things: they have put no difference between the holy and profane, neither have they shewed difference between the unclean and the clean, and have hid their eyes from my sabbaths, and I am profaned among them. Ezekiel 22:26
God wanted a difference put between the holy and the profane. That explains “be not conformed to this world.” It also helps us understand this verse in Zephaniah 1:8.
And it shall come to pass in the day of the LORD’S sacrifice, that I will punish the princes, and the king’s children, and all such as are clothed with strange apparel.
God will punish those who “are clothed with strange apparel.” “Strange” could be understood as worldly. The clothing itself is “strange” or “worldly,” in fitting with a profane culture. The “strange apparel” meant something—it has a philosophy that accompanied it. We see this same kind of teaching from Paul in 1 Corinthians. Paul says that an “idol is nothing” in 1 Corinthians 8:4, because “there is none other God but one.” And yet, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10: 19-21 that the idol, even though it is nothing, has a meaning to it that is devilish.
The pagan, anti-God philosophy of this world weaves its way into every part of a culture. For this reason, everything must be judged (1 Thessalonians 5:21) and that which associates itself with a humanistic or depraved way of thinking must be eschewed (1 Thessalonians 5:22). This applies to piercings, modern art, tattoos, extreme hair styles, rock, rap, and country. In other words, we are not to “[fashion ourselves] according to the former lusts in [our] ignorance: but as he which hath called [us] is holy, so be [we] holy in all manner of conversation” (1 Peter 1:14-15). Every aspect of our conduct or behavior is to be distinct. In no way should our externals reflect the old unregenerate life.
Hitting or Missing on 1 John 2:15-17
1 John 2:15-17 (KJV)
15 Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. 17 And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.
1 John 2:15-17 (NIV)
15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For everything in the world– the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does– comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.
Mahaney leaves out the first part of 1 John 2:15 in his exegesis. His description of v. 16, which isn’t completely accurately portrayed by the NIV, explains the love for the things “in the world.” But v. 15 starts with “love not the world” before it moves to “neither the things that are in the world.” The world itself is external. Mahaney argues that “the world” is only internal because that’s how it is described in v. 16. But v. 16 is explaining the things in the world, not the world itself.
The word “man” isn’t even found in the original language of v. 16 (or in the KJV). What is translated “sinful man” in the NIV is a single Greek word, the word for “flesh” (sarx). The NIV makes this “sinful man.” The Greek words translated “cravings” and “lust” in the NIV are actually the same word in the Greek New Testament (epithumia), as we can see reflected in the KJV. When you read the NIV, you’d think that there were two different words. Mahaney applies two different meanings, when they are actually both the same word. The NIV uses so much dynamic equivalence that you can’t get the true sense of 1 John 2:16 from its translation—and yet that is the translation that Mahaney chooses to use. It suits his purposes for his treatment of worldliness.
The lust and pride are a problem, but so are things in the world. We are not to “love the world.” “The world” that we’re not to love is a system that includes dress, music, entertainment, art, conduct, politics, and fashion. Satan is the prince of this current system, one that will be overthrown by Jesus Christ in the imminent future. Yes, weaving its way in this false system are the “lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” Those are not of the Father. We are to love only that which is of the Father. Whatever smacks of the world’s philosophy, the spirit of this age, we’re not to love. We’re called upon to show discernment and say “no” to some things. Those things are on the outside.
Quietism versus Pietism
From Mahaney and Piper (and many other evangelicals) we’re to assume something gospel driven that so swings away from human effort. I believe it misrepresents the gospel and God’s grace. God’s grace teaches to deny. Grace fuels human effort. We live by faith. We don’t let go and let God. The new nature possessed by the converted will do good (Romans 7:21).
The truth is that the new definers of worldliness emphasize conduct. It’s just that it is, and ironically, the loose conduct appealing to the lust of the flesh. And they’re judging externals. They will judge your standards (which they do have) to be more strict than theirs, so you must be the legalist and the moralist. Even in writing style they work hard to make it as easy as possible to understand. Even in the dress down style of the sovereign grace ministries, something strategic is going on with their urban chic and soul patches. They are working at attracting or making comfortable a certain demographic. Something is driving all that, but it isn’t the gospel.
Perhaps it might dawn on these “gospel driven” that grace works toward using the ruler to draw the lines. It is grace working though. Old Testament Israel tested God’s grace by getting as close to evil as possible ( 1 Corinthians 10). Thinking their liberty would kick in on their behalf, these Jews in the wilderness fell because they didn’t get further away from the evil. They should have set up some safety boundaries. The real bondage was found in their attraction to worldly things. God’s grace and the gospel would have driven to distance themselves from them.
What we have here is the age-old tug of war between quietism and pietism. Quietism is a view of sanctification in which the Christian exerts the least effort possible to ensure a product from God’s working. On the other hand, there is pietism, which asserts that we must work hard and discipline ourselves to effect the favor from God that will empower the Christian life. Neither of these are true. The phantom enemy of Mahaney and his crowd is a pietism that wishes to bind his adherents in shackles of extra-scriptural regulations. Most false beliefs that would dictate their desired point of view benefit from a boogeyman to inspire irrational fear. Pietism is the boogeyman of only internal worldliness.
The grace of God that works in believers “denies ungodliness and worldly lusts” (Titus 2:12). As God is working in both to will and do of His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13), true Christians are working out their own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). What is this “fear and trembling”? It is the fear of sinning, the distrust of human strength in the face of powerful temptations, and the terror at the thought of dishonoring God. The fear of God and his judgment seat motivated Paul to labor for Christ’s acceptance (2 Corinthians 5:11-12). When Philippians 2:13 says “to will,” the word speaks of the believer’s intent. God instills in His own the desire to please Him. He so respects God that he puts a distance between himself and the world, making no provision for the flesh (Romans 13:14).
Noah and his family were “saved by water” (1 Peter 3:21). What did water save them from? The ark saved them from destruction, but the water saved them from the world. God promises to be a Father to those who come out from the world and “be ye separate” (2 Corinthians 6:18). Having that promise, a believer will “cleanse himself of all filthiness of the flesh, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1).
Worldliness is more than internal. Believers will visibly and tangibly separate themselves from the world like Noah and his family did on the ark, and like God expected of Israel in the wilderness. Out of honor to God, to please Him, and with fear and trembling, they will work out their salvation. If it’s out, then it isn’t in. God put it in. Christians work it out. What God’s children work out is going to look and sound like something way different than this world system.