December 12, 2017

How to Apply the New Testament Concept of the World to Life Today: Foundations for Discernment

Randy Leedy

Few readers of FrontLine magazine would fail to recognize Scripture’s testimony to a thriving evil spiritual system that combines the power of Satan’s headship, the depravity of the human race in its rebellion against God, and the evil inclinations of individual sinners. “The world, the flesh, and the Devil,” this unholy trio is often called. Of those three, the first is the focus of our attention here. While space constraints preclude the presentation of a fully developed method of applying Scriptural teaching on the world to contemporary lifestyle issues, we can at least survey some important foundational considerations.

“The World” in the Old and New Testaments

The word “world” in this sense of humanity in its hostility toward God does not appear much in the Old Testament, but the concept is strongly present, primarily in the expression “the nations” (often “the heathen” in the KJV). The nations in the Old Testament are the mass of humanity outside God’s covenant family of Israel. We might think that Israel would be so enamored with her gracious God and His holy laws (Deut. 4:7–8) that the ways and the gods of the nations would hold no attraction for her. The reality, though, is just the opposite: time and again Israel fell under the mesmerizing spell of the nations, disobeyed her sovereign Lord, and brought upon herself His mercifully chastening hand.

Surely, we might think, the beneficiaries of God’s New Covenant in Christ would avoid that trap. Surely the horror of Israel’s Babylonian captivity, combined with Calvary’s testimony to the awfulness of sin as demonstrated by the terrible price required for cleansing and forgiveness, would purge us from any inclination to follow Israel’s worldly ways. Fallen flesh, though, is fallen flesh in every dispensation. So the apostles warn, “Be not conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2), and “Love not the world” (1 John 2:15).[1]

Perhaps the first challenge we face in applying these commands to contemporary life is defining “the world.” The concept is not difficult to state in the abstract: the world is the mass of unregenerate humanity and the patterns of behavior by which, under the headship and energizing influence of Satan, they manifest their willful ignorance of God.

“The World” and Contemporary Culture

There is a further sense, though, in which we must define our term: by what criteria may we determine which elements of contemporary culture come under this heading and require our rejection and resistance? Not everything that unbelievers do is inappropriate for Christians: the basic functions of life as we interact with God’s good creation are the common privilege of all, saved or not. Equally obvious, on the other hand, is the fact that believers who imitate ungodly culture in such matters as sexual immorality or ostentatious materialism are worldly. The right and wrong of such extremes is plain in Scripture. But what about the huge range of options that Scripture does not address so explicitly? Matters such as styles of dress and grooming, taste in music, forms of entertainment and amusement, and choices about such material things as homes and cars? How do we define “the world” in terms of categorizing the various options in such areas as worldly or not?

In such matters any attempt at formulaic definition is bound to fail, since Scripture’s approach to identifying worldliness is not mechanical—indeed it cannot be. Cultures are too varied and complex to submit to simple, formulaic analysis and evaluation; the Scriptural model demands Biblically informed, Spirit-guided discernment. Philippians 1:9–11 is clear: a life that is a credit to God’s name (v. 11) requires blamelessness before Christ (v. 10b), which in turn requires discriminating moral judgment (v. 10a), which in turn requires a love that abounds in accurate knowledge and discernment (v. 9).

Believers who have developed such maturity in Christ are able to set aside their own personal inclinations and preferences—especially those which they know arise from the old man rather than the new. They are able to perceive the origins and nature of various practices of their culture, and they judge accurately how these various practices function: whether as morally good expressions of human nature and activity as God intends it or as manifestations of ignorance of God and resistance to His will. When they read, for example, the list of the works of the flesh in Galatians 5:19–21 and find, at the end, “and such like,” they are able to expand the list with specific vices prevalent in modern culture that share the same morally evil nature. Similarly in verses 22 and 23, where Paul delineates the fruit of the spirit, they know how to expand Paul’s “such” to include other things that are morally good.

Are these mature Christians infallible in their judgment? No. Will all who have attained a comparable level of growth in grace agree on every controversial matter? Of course not. It does not follow, though, that for this reason we are at liberty to disregard the concerns of others and adopt whatever convictions most please ourselves. We are to be subject to one another (Eph. 5:21) and to seek to please our neighbor for his good to edification (Rom. 15:2). A self-pleasing spirit is the very antithesis of the abounding love of Philippians 1:9, so the believer who never rises above his flesh’s insistence on pleasing itself fails even to reach square one of the journey to a Christian maturity that glorifies our Father.

“The World” and Mature Christians

Mature Christians can profitably come together in discussion of their differences over matters of worldliness. With a teachable spirit, each can learn from others’ insights and experiences, and all can grow together in grace. They can reach consensus on some matters while recognizing that our Father does not want a pack of cookie-cutter Christians, and so some of our differences will be legitimate and God-ordained as they impart to each the perspectives and personalities that will make us most effective in reaching and edifying the particular groups to which the Lord of the harvest has appointed us to minister. They will come to realize that it is rarely possible to draw perfect lines between worldliness and holiness, but they will come to realize equally the value of an imperfect line, especially when it is drawn with special effort to ward off danger and defilement, without going so far as to produce an isolation that makes it impossible to function as salt and light among unbelievers.

As an illustration of the value of an imperfect line, consider such a simple matter as drinking water. No such thing on earth exists—at any reasonable price, if at all—as 100.000% pure water. Yet no sane person concludes from this fact either that we ought not to drink water at all or that we ought to drink water from every source indiscriminately, with no concern for purity. We do not know precisely where the line between safe and unsafe water lies, but we wisely do two things: we drink water that gives us no reason to question its purity, even though we are not absolutely certain that it is safe, and we refuse water whose purity is obviously questionable or worse. Our boundary lines are imperfect, but they are nevertheless beyond valuable— they are crucial for our health.

And positive spiritual health is the emphasis in the New Testament’s teaching on the world. Ephesians 4:1–5:21 provides a great study in how believers must set aside the old ways of the world, not just because they are evil, but because they are counterproductive to the positive virtues that glorify God our Father. Though the New Testament does warn against grieving God by getting dirty, the note of emphasis falls on glorifying God by pursuing purity. If we will fixate on the imitation of our holy Lord Jesus and develop such a walk of constant communion with Him that our hearts remain full of His love, all conditioned by a full exposure to and embrace of the full Scriptural portrait of God’s perfect character, worldly ways will become increasingly distasteful to us as we come to delight more and more deeply in the holy ways of Heaven.

Randy Leedy, author of Love Not the World (Bob Jones University Press, 2012), is professor of New Testament Interpretation at Bob Jones University Seminary, where he is the lead Greek professor. He is the author of the grammatical sentence diagramming program for the Greek New Testament for BibleWorks, a well-known software package for Biblical research.

(Originally published in FrontLine • January / February 2014. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. In the New Testament, the terminology shifts from “the nations” to “the world” because God’s focus in salvation turns from the Jews to the nations, so that the nations become the beneficiaries of the gospel rather than aliens from God’s grace. []

Although Proclaim & Defend is the blog of the FBFI, the articles we post are not an expression of the views of the FBFI as a whole, they are the views of the author under whose name they are published. The FBFI speaks either through position statements by its board or through its president. Here at Proclaim & Defend, we publish articles as matters of interest or edification to the wider world of fundamentalist Baptists and any others who might be interested.

Submit other comments here.