22 October 2010

What Does Worldliness Look Like?

by Phil Johnson

What is worldliness, and when is it sinful?
A reminder about a forgotten sin.

(First posted 1 December 2005)

hristians in earlier generations were a lot more concerned about worldliness than we typically are. Many evangelicals these days don't even seem to be aware that worldliness is still a sin.

A major shift seems to have occurred in less than three decades' time. I have vivid recollections of the two semesters in I spent in fundamentalist purgatory in the mid-1970s. Worldliness was one of the most oft-mentioned sins by chapel speakers at the Baptist college where I was enrolled.

To hear them describe it, worldliness was essentially the sin of being too cool. An acquaintance of mine—a rigidly old-fashioned middle-aged woman—once scolded me as a worldling for wearing contact lenses. She was certain my motives for wearing them were driven only by carnal vanity. She pleaded with me to opt for thick bifocals instead. "I like you the way God made you," she protested.

"He didn't make me with eyeglasses," I reminded her.

"You know what I mean," she said, waving her hand, as if the point should be obvious.

Sure. Makes perfect sense.

Our Amish friends take it even further. Their strategy for avoiding worldliness involves eschewing all modern conveniences.

The same sort of thinking culminates in austere forms of monasticism, where poverty, celibacy, and ascetic solitude are seen as sure means of avoiding worldly influences.

The truth is, you can live a totally cloistered life or be as unhip as a Stephen Foster song and still be worldly.

That's not to deny that worldliness poses a particular threat to those who are obsessed with being fashionable. There's no question that a fixation with being hip and trendy has made the evangelical movement itself worldly. If you need evidence of that, find the posts on "The Fad-Driven Church" in the archives of PyroManiac, or search the archives there for "Biblezines®."

Worldly simply means "pertaining to this earth." On the one hand, Hebrews 9:1 speaks of "a worldly sanctuary"—i.e., an earthly and material one, contrasted with the "True tabernacle"—the heavenly temple, "which the Lord pitched, and not man" (8:2). So something can be "worldly" (like the Tabernacle) without being sinful.

On the other hand, Titus 2:12 speaks of "worldly lusts," meaning passions that are set on earthly and temporal things. Love for earthly things is inconsistent with true love for God, because the passions that drive this world's philosophies and value-systems are all characterized by pride and sinful lust (1 John 2:15-17).

The sin of "worldliness" is the tendency to set one's affections on things of the earth rather than on heavenly things (cf. Colossians 3:2). "Friendship with the world is enmity with God" (James 4:4). It is positively sinful to love this present world and imbibe its values more than we love heaven and order our lives according to heavenly values (cf. Philippians 1:23; Romans 8:5-6; Matthew 6:19-21; 16:23).

In other words, worldliness is a sin of the heart.

Conversely, worldliness isn't necessarily related to movies, music styles, the latest fashions, or other typical fundamentalist taboos. Those things certainly can be worldly and obviously do have a tendency to provoke sinful worldliness insofar as they naturally appeal to our passions and tempt us to become obsessed with earthly things.

But there's an even worse kind of worldliness than that. Religion—even conservative, doctrinally-sound religion—can be worldly too.

Think about it: if a person cares less for heaven and heaven's values than for the trappings of "a worldly sanctuary"—be it an ornate cathedral, a megachurch with a Starbucks kiosk in the foyer, or a lowbrow church where snake-handling provides the entertainment—that person is worldly and living in disobedience to God.

As a matter of fact, I know some hard-core fundamentalists who are the rankest kind of worldlings, because they imagine that holiness consists only in external and cultural things, and they have not cultivated a genuine love in their hearts for that which is spiritual.

So you cannot discover whether you are worldly merely by seeing how you look or what kind of lifestyle you live. If you want to recognize true worldliness, you have to assess your desires and passions. What do you truly love? Since worldliness is inherent in the bent of the old man, when you examine your heart honestly, you're virtually certain to discover a degree of worldliness there.

The biblical instructions for how to deal with worldliness are surprisingly simple:

"Put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and . . . put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness" (Ephesians 4:22-24).

Phil's signature


Highway dog said...

The use of my time is the most often way I fall into worldlyness. It is too much for me, I want to stop thinking about it. It makes me fear for my salvation, (if I would really get worked up about it)

MSC said...

Here is a question I grapple with as a pastor. How much can my love for sound doctrinal preaching become a form of worldliness such that my love for Christ and for the sheep are not motivating factors?

Keith said...

Is this post about worldliness, or is it about sniping at fundamentalist's supposed hypocrisy?

I understand that worldliness is a sin of the heart, but didn't Jesus say that "The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil."(Mat 12:35) This tells me that a person who does not have a worldly lifestyle may or may not be worldly, but a person who has a worldly lifestyle is highly likely guilty of worldliness.

I think I'd give all the fundamentalists a pass before I'd turn a blind eye to all the hypocirtes hiding under the "man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart" dodge.

Stefan Ewing said...

Apart from "worldliness" per se, it's still too easy to get caught up in worldly distractions, none of which are inherently sinful, but take our minds off God, especially when done to excess: watching TV, reading secular books and magazines, sports, entertainment, etc., etc., etc. This has been an ongoing issue for me.

donsands said...

Excellent post.

"..there's an even worse kind of worldliness than that."

Yep. Religion worldly is the most deceiving, to others, and to oneself.

Jesus said, "And the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you." Luke 11:39-41

And there's the Pharisee and tax-man.
Yet, our hearst are so wicked that we could even be the taxman smiting our breast and asking for mercy in a proud way.

There is the genuine heart that Christ has turned from granite to flesh, and when one has been born again, there is no mistake, but there will be times, and seasons, when the flesh, the world, and the devils in the world get the best of us.

Have a wonderful weekend and Lord's day.

Rachael Starke said...


It's a recalibration of an oft-used term to a more Biblical foundation. There's no "supposed" hypocrisy, it's a reality. This sin, like all others, begins in the heart. Worldly evangelicals pursue the acceptance of the world with tattoos, makeup and designer jeans. Worldly fundamentalists pursue the approval of other worldly fundamentalists by eschewing tattoos, makeup and designer jeans.

Same sin, different expressions. Both expressions of it, as we read yesterday, need to die.

Great reminder...

Eric said...

"In other words, worldliness is a sin of the heart."

Good reminder, Phil, and I think truthfully said about all of our sinful trappings at their core.

Carl said...

Speaking of examining motives...

Can public blogging itself, at its core a desire to be heard by the world at large, be a form of 'worldliness'?

Not being facetious, actually, I sadly find the blog-sphere inundated with Christians betraying all shades and colors of their pride. Writing with impunity and in a manner in which, I presume, they would not likely (be quick to) approach their neighbors or colleagues at work.

Let me be more specific here. I am not saying that, as Christians, we do not have the freedom to comment on different issues- even publicly. We certainly may chose to do so, at times, just as we may also participate in other public (non-internet) forums that may benefit our community. However, I do not think that an honest evaluation of 1Thess 4:11 will sustain the idea of any kind of personal (public) blog as being conducive to the "quiet life" we all seem to be called to. It seems as though we have somehow accepted the notion that if an activity may be done in the solitude of our home(s) it cannot at the same time be a very public activity and a hindrance to our living a "quiet life". Why is this so?

Anticipating the most obvious objection: No, preaching as a public activity is not in the same category as blogging...

RomansOne said...


You wrote: "I am not saying that, as Christians, we do not have the freedom to comment on different issues - even publicly."

If you're talking about issues that affect Scriptural truth, then it's not about "freedom" but about "responsibility". We are required to "contend for the faith" (Jude 1:3), and are to "correct those who are in opposition" to the faith -- though with "gentleness" and "patience" (2 Tim. 2:24-26). Living the "quiet life" does not mean we keep silent about the truth of the gospel.

And you wrote that "preaching as a public activity is not in the same category as blogging". But weren't Paul's letters the "blogging" of New Testament times? Didn't Paul write letters in lieu of visiting and preaching directly to churches? Didn't he write those letters (mostly) from the "solitude" of his prison cell? And weren't those letters communicated far and wide? Pen, ink, words, and parchment were the communication technology of that day. Computers, keyboards, words, and blogs are a communication technology of this day, intended to be transmitted far and wide -- and they do so immediately, without the need for a human courier to carry it from church to church.

Just because blogs often do include writings from "Christians betraying all shades and colors of their pride", it in no way invalidates the medium. It only shows that we all must be more careful to carry out our conversations with gentleness, patience, and in the fear of the Lord.

But we need to be careful that we don't interpret leading the "quiet life" in a way not intended by Paul, and in a way that excuses silence.

Otherwise, our love for the "quiet life" may, too, become worldliness, since "minding your own affairs" is the popular cry of our self-indulgence-driven culture.

walsingham said...

I'm with Stefan here - my thirst for entertainment is like an albatross yoked about my neck, and that struggle just became more of a challenge after reading Dan's two recent posts on repentance.

David said...

Funny ... Don't you look more like God made you when you wear contacts rather than glasses?

Unknown said...

Um... What does thieving look like?
Did you obtain permission from Roger Ballen and the subjects of his photograph, to use them for your purposes here?

Anonymous said...

Not knowing whether you're serious about obtain(ing) permission from Roger Ballen, I wanted to point out that PyroManiacs' use of Roger Ballen's original work certainly falls under the fair use doctrine and as such requires no permission from Roger Ballen.

Unknown said...

Hi Stan

Thanks for your response. You sound certain. I am not so sure. You also fuzz the boundary between legal and moral issues in referring to the doctrine (sic) of fair use. The word doctrine is a religious term whereas what is at issue is a legal (and moral) matter.

Legally, I am not so sure that the use made here is fair; either to Ballen or to the unfortunate subjects of the photograph.

Need I spell out the ethical and moral dubiousness of the use that has been made of the image of the people in question?

Anonymous said...

I sound certain because I'm right. It's a settled issue, your protest notwithstanding.

You're trying to make a moral issue out of something that is deliberately allowed in the law? That sounds troll-like to me.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

As the law states: “The distinction between fair use and infringement may be unclear and not easily defined.” I am not trolling, Stan and I take offence at such ad hominem labelling. Neither am I being wilfully antagonistic. I am addressing an issue that is important, with respect. I merely find it fascinating that the insensitive and possibly thieving use of the image is here juxtaposed with a theological debate on the subtleties and nuances of what does and does not constitute moral offense or sin. It makes for fascinating discussion. My aim is to further and deepen the debate. I have two problems with the use of the image:
1. I find the use of the image “sinful” because it casts very unfortunate individuals in a light that makes them the object of laughter. (It is implied here that in their “un-cool-ness” they are the epitome of “unworldliness” like the Amish; and thereby they are made to appear ridiculous.) This is insensitive at best, cruel and smug at worst. It is certainly not charitable.
2. I question the artistic integrity of the designer and the publisher of this article. The artistic product of another artist has been used without acknowledgement in an article about ethics. It seems like a moral blind spot.
I realise this is tangential to the topic of the article. I hope I have not offended anybody by voicing my opinion. Not everything that is allowed in the law is necessarily morally virtuous or without sin. The law does not prohibit one from worshipping homemade idols or being greedy for example.

Protoprotestant said...

That was well done.

It's not about lists...which usually stem from cultural values rather than the Bible.

It's about wisdom.

Sometimes watching a movie might be sinful....sometimes it's not. It depends.

Liberty can be abused but barring all liberty in the name of piety is an even worse abuse.

And it is ironic that those who judge worldliness by their arbitrary cultural taboo checklist....are often some of the most prideful people I know...which is worldy as the Bible defines it.

The problem with all that type of thinking is...rather than focus on Christ...they're focusing on themselves and then judging everyone who doesn't look and act like them.

God delivered me from that mindset years ago. It was bondage.

W said...

As a Christian, I get much encouragement from this blog and use it as my homepage...but I feel it is very uncompassionate for you to use this picture of deformed twins in your blog. As a parent of a daughter with kyphosis we know how much this kind of ridicule hurts and how often even Christians feel the freedom to laugh and poke fun at what they don't understand... and have never had to deal with. I'm not sure what worldliness looks like...but I do, unfortunately, know what "unkindness" does. Please remove this picture out of respect for the men it depicts and for the sake of people who live with such sad deformities today. Please...

donsands said...

"..this picture of deformed twins.." CW

Do you know these two persons?

Just wondering.

thomas4881 said...

Thanks for presenting this Phil. I remind myself that by focusing on Jesus Christ and on God's promises the Holy Spirit takes me forward in obeying the plain truth of scripture. It's the flesh that always try to take me back to the world. It's my natural tendancy to want to turn to the flesh for answers first but I must constantly remind myself -

Hebrews 12:1Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. 2Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

thomas4881 said...

Many times throughout the day I get tempted to want something. Most of the time I must respond "No that's pig food". This is an issue of holiness and often I'm thankful God is with me to discipline me to be able to even have the ability to have that type of thinking.

Anonymous said...

Here's a little information about the photo.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this Stan.

So, yes, the image carries a history of causing offense, outrage, hurt and indignation. This is one reason I see the way it's been used on this Christian blog as so surprising.

Martins said...

Very good post.I do have a question that this post brings to mind.I have been grappling with this one for a while.
Has the Church became worldly?I mean in it the aspect of looking to the Church as it was at Reformation to today.My thoughts are that God is the same yesterday ,today ,and forever.But the church,and what it accepts and and rebukes are changing,and have changed.I know this is not because man has been more "elightened" because the Bible is thee same bible at reformation.I do understand that worldliness is a heart issue,but was it a heart issue in Sodom and Gommorah? Was Lot comfortable as he lived among the evil,as it was his culture?Was he set apart?
Is our complacency worldliness?Is our going to church Sunday and Wed. and not exhorting the gospel,is that worldliness.

I am really struggling with this question, for some time.
I am not pretending ignorance,I admit it!!
Of course there is "nothing new under the sun" but are Christians today trying to be so culturally sensitive,that the distinction between the world and the church has drawn a very lukewarm line between the two.~Shellie

donsands said...

"..are Christians today trying to be so culturally sensitive,that the distinction between the world and the church has drawn a very lukewarm line between the two." Shellie

Yep. There are many in the Church who have a watered down theology, gospel, and doctrines of the Bible. They want to "nice" people, sinners, into the kingdom of light, God's kingdom.

donsands said...

Here's a little information about the photo. -Stan


bp said...

The Martins: Is our complacency worldliness?Is our going to church Sunday and Wed. and not exhorting the gospel,is that worldliness

I don't think it's "worldliness" so much as laziness or simply fear. Worldliness is loving the things that the world loves and spending our time and resources the same way the world does.

But as far as being culturally sensitive, yes! I think you can tell a lot by church signs. They are there for the world to see, unbelievers and believers alike, and they tell us a lot about the state of the American Church. I'm actually keeping a log of many of the church signs I see and talking to my kids about them..having them tell me why it's a good message or a bad one and why. Yesterday I went by one that said:

It's ok to get mad at God
He can take it

Bad message for Christians driving by, preposterous message for the world.

Martins said...

BP,The signs are a big sign that the churches that put the ridiculous ones out,don't take God serious.There used to be a common respect for Chrisianity,and I do think it was in a big part because Christians took the Word of God more serious.Serious in the way they conducted themselves,a reverence of sorts.Today it is though allot of "Christians" think it folly to make fun of "Christians".Calling each other names...legalist,judgemental ect.What happened to looking to the Word of God and not to the opinion of man!!~Shellie Martin

bbqjason said...

I heard Paris Reidhead's definition of the world a while ago. I thought is was well put. He said something like "The world, to you, is anything that makes the commandments of God to be grievous." Thereby eliminating the need for lists and such.

UncleChicken said...

I've often said that most people's definition of worldiness excludes most of the World. Muslims and are EXTREMELY worldly.

Jim Pemberton said...

As such with any sin, we cannot claim to be less worldly than others. For who knows the heart? But we each bear a measure of worldliness. So one cannot say, "I am less worldly than another because of what I have done to alleviate my worldliness." Yet because of the grace of God we pursue less attachment to the worldly tools God has given us to use that we not depend on them or their absence in our struggle against worldliness. Rather, our attachment should be on God who truly saves us from sin.

Carl said...

RomansOne, I appreciate your reply.

I think you capture well the essence of the interpretation I disagree with.

Note that the primary reason for the letter was to address the problem of false teachers within the church ("For certain persons have crept in unnoticed..." v.4). Note further that the book of Jude is addressed to those "who are the called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ". Your verse, then, is very clearly sandwiched in the context of the church. The same can be said of all the letters of the new testament, including the ones sent from the prison cells. Paul's letters were inscripturated for all eternity (for all to see, forever!), but even neglecting the unique nature of the apostolic period during which they were written, the original audience was not, as you seem to be implying, the world at large. If Paul wanted the world or the marketplace to read his letters addressed to the churches (or to individual believers) we should expect to find at least some hint of instruction to that end. But when addressing the specific topic of who should read his letter to the Colossians, for example, what does he say about it? (Col 4:16)

Neither is blogging equivalent to the writing of letters in the NT times. Email, perhaps- but not blogging. New technologies certainly do not in and of themselves redefine public and private (limited, to be precise) domains, do they? This is very basic stuff. So your bundling of the new technologies under one roof as a modern-day equivalent of letters is off the mark.

In a nutshell, I think you need to keep in mind the very important distinction between the world and the Church, as well as between private (or limited) and public domans. It is an all too common oversight today and it contributes to all kinds of cultural engagements (entanglements) that serve very little else but for the showcasing of our pride and immaturity.

Nash Equilibrium said...

Thanks much, Phil, for reminding me of the perniciousness of the sin of worldliness, a sin that is easily hidden from others and so easily held on to by us. I am very guilty of this sin, and at times become very aware of it. But not often enough. There is so much emphasis on external appearances in the church that I can easily overlook this sin in myself.

As an aside, I have no issue with your use of Alfred E. Newman as an illustration of ignorance, no matter how non-PC it may be.