What is Worldliness?

By: David H. Walls
(Holman New Testament Commentary)

The chapter of 1 John 2 contains the central passage in Scripture on worldliness but gives no technical definition of worldliness. The best we can do is create descriptive definitions. The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology says it is "an affection for that which is unlike God and contrary to his will" (1191).

Warren Wiersbe writes in the Bible Exposition Commentary: "Worldliness is not so much a matter of activity as attitude.. . . [It] not only affects your response to the love of God; it also affects your response to the will of God. "The world passeth away . . . but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever"" (I John 2:17, KJV).

Doing the will of God is a joy for those living in the love of God. "If you love Me, keep My commandments" (John 14:15). But when a believer loses his enjoyment of the Father's love, he finds it hard to obey the Father's will.

When you put these two factors together, you have a practical definition of worldliness: "Anything in a Christian's life that causes him to lose his enjoyment of the Father's love or his desire to do the Father's will is worldly and must be avoided" (Wiersbe, 492)

We are to put a barrier between us and the world (2 Corinthians 6:17). James 4:4 says that "friendship with the world is hatred toward God." Scripture tells us that while we cannot avoid being in the world (1 Corinthians 5:10), we are not of the world (John 17:16). How to erect this barrier is complicated and unclear. In times past Christians have constructed lists of things not to do, which often included things such as don't go to movies, don't dance, don't smoke or drink, don't play cards, don't listen to secular music, don't let your hair grow long (men), and don't wear makeup or jewelry (women). These lists contained some wise safeguards, no doubt, but they didn't touch the attitudes. It was possible not to do all these things and still be riddled with greed, anger, and pride.

We would be wise to work on our attitudes and refine the list, so that we have both godly attitudes and prudent activities. But too many of us have neither godly attitudes nor prudent activities. We have become worldly.

It is time to reclaim true Christian distinctives in both attitudes and actions. As we do, we must realize that if we are to be spiritually healthy, some things we must do and some things we must not do. For example, if we want to be physically healthy, we must do certain things. We must eat properly, get sufficient sleep, and exercise. On the other hand, we must not abuse tobacco or alcohol, or place ourselves under relentless stress. It is not enough to do the positive. We must also avoid the negative.

The same is true spiritually. We must do the positive and avoid the negative. Concerning our attitudes, we should love the Lord our God with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind . . . and we must love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-39). We should not, we learn in this chapter, 1 John 2, follow the lust of the flesh (illicit physical desires), the lust of the eyes (illicit mental desires), or the pride of life (illicit social-status desires).

Concerning our actions, we should obey God and serve others. We should avoid every kind of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:22), and we should neither participate in the evil things the world does, nor even speak of them (Ephesians 5:12). If that is true, how vigilant we should be in guarding our hearts and minds against the things that pull us away from devotion to God! How disciplined we should be in pursuing the things that encourage us toward God.

A number of years ago I was in an informal meeting with a Christian leader of international stature. He was asked what he saw as the number one problem in the church today. Without hesitation, he replied, "Carnality" Then, a couple of years later, I was in a similar meeting with another Christian leader of international stature, and he was asked the same question. His reply was exactly the same: "Carnality"

No matter what age we live in, we tend to conform to the society in which we live. We naturally take on the strengths and weaknesses of that society. We must encourage the natural strengths and battle the natural weaknesses. We can have direct control over some factors that contribute to our carnal condition-including television and music. I am persuaded that the secular media have gutted modern Christians of spiritual zeal, so that we have little to distinguish us from the non-Christians. It is not the total battle, but the battle would be well advanced if we simply stopped watching television and listening to godless music.

No one doubts that today's Christians are worldly. No one doubts that it is incorrect to rail against certain questionable activities without addressing godless attitudes. Yet, many times, especially in this media age, our activities contribute directly to the degeneration of our attitudes and values. When it comes to worldliness, we tend to think that somebody else is the culprit. We tend not to see our own activities as worldly. Yet, using the definition above by Warren Wiersbe, we might do well to refine our activities.

Do our activities cause us to lose enjoyment of the Father's love or our desire to do the Father's will? If so, it is worldly and should be avoided.


Our Father, grant to us the discernment to see what is worldly in our lives, both in attitude and in actions. Give us the courage to take a stand against it, and the strength to be faithful to our convictions. Amen.


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