What is worldliness?
The first thing to say is that whatever the scriptural answer to the above question, the flesh will not like it. Paul wrote that ‘the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned’, 1 Cor. 2:14. The things of God, his ways of looking at things, are totally at variance to ours, so that all he declares to be ‘the truth’ is bound to meet with opposition from us unless we are indwelt of the Spirit, cp. Isa. 55:8,9.
Worldliness : What Man Thinks
Having been brought up in a church-going family, and having lived most of my life among chapel people, I have long been exposed to the idea that worldliness is something to be avoided if we would be ‘good’ Christians. And, of course, scripture has been quoted to establish this doctrine and to keep us on ‘the strait and narrow’.
My grandparents’ generation had fairly definite views on what worldliness was, but times have changed, for today it seems to be either much less of an issue, or much harder to define. In fact, I asked a young person recently what her understanding of worldliness was – as one who attends a modern, exciting, youth-friendly, extremely popular, ‘amazing ministry’, evangelical church – but she seemed to have no idea what worldliness was: at least she couldn’t tell me anyway.
But this is not the case with everyone. Some do retain definite views on what they think worldliness is, which views they impose quite rigidly upon their people – and especially on their young. But as we shall see it turns out to be a Pharisaical view: one which concentrates solely upon works and outward appearances and performances. Indeed, Pharisaism is the state of judging others by our own standards and traditions, where we become the benchmark by which all others are to be judged, as in Luke 18:11,12.
In researching this article I have asked a number of people from different Christian traditions what they think being worldly is, and I’ve also observed what others obviously deem worldliness to be, and the following is something of what I’ve discovered.
First of all going back to my own upbringing and to what was, until perhaps thirty or forty years ago, the generally accepted and settled view among Christians on what worldliness was. You were worldly if you went to the cinema, went dancing, listened to ‘popular’ music, or if your women wore make-up and bedecked themselves with overmuch jewellery. Reading novels was counted worldly, and perhaps buying a (tabloid) newspaper and having a television set; but radio was all right. Going to the pub was definitely worldly, along with other sordid things like playing bingo, taking part in raffles, or playing cards – although it would be ‘harmless fun’ to play ‘snap’ or ‘happy families’ with the children.
Now today, among those for whom worldliness is still a big issue, some of these things have been extended: for instance, not only do their women not wear make-up or have their ears pierced, but they are also discouraged from having short hair, and, although they are allowed to wear pyjamas and leggings – the current ‘fashion of this world’ for girls – they definitely cannot wear trousers – although one suspects that quite a number of them ‘wear the trousers’ in the home.
Again, there seems to be quite particular views among some on what worldliness is in regard to sport: so you wouldn’t go to a football match on a Saturday because ‘that’s worldly’, but you can have a kick around with the children at the local park ‘because it’s good exercise for them’. You wouldn’t join the world in having the occasional relaxing game of golf, but you could go for a nice long walk in the country! – one is worldly, the other isn’t; but thinking about it, you could probably get away with playing ‘pitch and putt’ or ‘crazy golf’ when on holiday at the sea side. Taking the lad to have a game of snooker at the local ‘triangle club’ would be horrifically worldly – a veritable den of iniquity – but staying home and playing Monopoly, or the like, would probably not be frowned upon. And so it goes on.
Having a television is a very big issue with some. In some churches you cannot be a member if you have a television set. But you can have the internet! As far as I know if you have a television today you potentially have access to hundreds of channels, but with the internet, well, it’s the ‘world wide web’ – ‘the world in your home’ like never before – and the sky’s the limit. Just think of all those iplayers, etc. But because being online today is increasingly ‘needful’ – especially for the children’s education and, therefore, advancement in the world – then it is not classed as being worldly – if you can work that one out. And even if you only have a computer but not the internet, then there are plenty of interesting DVDs you can buy and watch – documentaries, nature programmes, ‘harmless’ children’s videos, etc. without falling into the category of being worldly because, well, we don’t have a TV.
This reminds me of an attitude of years gone by: that whereas you would never go to the cinema, yet in later years if you got a television set you could, with no apparent twinge of conscience, quite happily watch the very same films in your own living room. Again, whereas you can watch the world go by from your living room window, and imagine what sort of lives your neighbours have based on what you observe – in other words, if you are a good member of the local neighbourhood watch – if you had a television and watched ‘Neighbours’, you’d be worldly.
Having said all that, though, the child of God is better off without the television. It, like the internet – like everything in the world, ultimately – is ‘the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’. There may be ‘good’ things on it at times but mostly in its programming, content, and more importantly in the attitude which it subtly infuses into the mesmerised mind, it is the number one tool for training its watchers to think and reason as the world does. What else in the modern world encourages lust, desire, greed and ambition as much as the television? Whether the viewers are ‘intelligent’ or not, they are but clay in the hands of the broadcasters, who can do with them whatsoever they choose. And don’t forget that it is the evil one himself who is ‘the prince of the power of the air’ waves.
These then are some of the attitudes towards worldliness which have been in days gone by, or are prevelant today. And what can we say about it all? Are these attitudes the answer to our original question? I would have thought that the above clearly indicates that there is something terribly amiss in this state of mind and understanding as to what worldliness is. Do not all these things betray a great spirit of legalism? Is not all of this a ‘works’ mentality? Does it not bypass completely the truth that God looketh first and foremost on the heart? Is this not the religious hierarchy issuing particular diktats so that, in the not doing them, their people can feel more holy than those that do? Yes. But this attitude is completely opposite to walking by faith: to the spirit of the gospel, and to being able truly to rest and rejoice in the finished work of Christ.
I found it increasingly amazing and bewildering that this frame of mind was so prevelant in the denomination of which I was last a member; especially because two of its pillars of belief were, supposedly, the necessity of ‘heart religion’, and that ‘we are not under the law but under grace’. But there you are: such is, and ever will be, the blindness of the Pharisee.
But someone is going to say here, Hold on. Are you saying that the things you’ve been writing of are not worldly? Surely if the heart was right none of them would appear in the life of the child of God. Although it is true to say that much of the above would probably hold little interest for those on the narrow way, the question tends to miss the whole point of what worldliness is; for when we come to look at what the scriptures define as worldliness – and not what men think, whose views change from one generation to another – then we will get a whole new perspective on the subject; yea, we will discover what God himself thinks. And in so doing the child of God who is caught in the bondage of men and of systems, will be set free to view ‘the world’ and the true Christian walk as it really should be. Mind you, the process of coming there – especially if you have been born and brought up with the above mentality – will be hard, will cause enmity from others who like their works of holiness in not being ‘worldly’, but it will be liberating in the end – after all, gospel liberty is the antithesis of legalism.
This is not to say that I am about to advocate antinomian abandon. I do not believe that as we are now in Christ we can live as we please, do what we want, have our fill of ‘the world’ and then arrive in glory, as Luke 9:23,24 clearly indicates. No, there is worldliness to be avoided, but as we shall discover, it is far deeper and more profound than what those who hold to the above definitions perceive: because worldliness does indeed emanate from the heart, and cannot primarily be judged merely by outward actions. Salvation, in all its various aspects, is not of works; why else do you think it must be all of grace? What pleases God is faith, Heb. 11:6; he views the state of the heart, cp. Ps. 51:6,16,17; but a legalistic view of worldliness renders one blind to these things.
The ‘Non-worldly’ World
Before we come to investigate what worldliness is let us look for a moment at one or two things of ‘the world’ which are not worldly. When I first discovered the apostle John’s words ‘love not the world, neither the things that are in the world’, I found that they were quite unsettling to my then legalistic mind because I was taking them literally. What I mean is this. I reasoned that if something was not ‘of the Spirit’ then it must be ‘of the world’. So I was beginning to form this understanding that, outside of legitimate work, everything that was in the world – ‘the things that are in the world’ – was sinful to view, peruse, be interested in, or enjoy. As we were supposed to be those who ‘walk in the Spirit’ I thought that even something like appreciating nature was wrong because it was the creation rather than the Creator, was therefore ‘carnal’ and not spiritual.
Also I reasoned that anything which stimulated or delighted the senses was to be avoided because, again, that could not be classed as a fruit of walking in the Spirit. So when someone quoted 1 Timothy 6:17 to me, or rather, at me: ‘God hath given us all things richly to enjoy’, I suspected that it was simply being used to justify anything we wanted to do. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before this brought a heaviness to my spirit, and a severely judgmental attitude toward those who couldn’t see it the way I thought I did. Pharisaism.
So let us try and unravel all this by shining the light of scripture upon it, for we must have peace in our consciences before God as we walk in this world. The Lord Jesus in his prayer to the Father in John 17 didn’t say that his people, though not ‘of the world’, should be taken out of the world. So shutting ourselves away from the physical world and leading some sort of monastic life would not be right. Also this would be doing something the Lord Jesus himself didn’t do; after all, he ‘came into the world’; he lived and moved and had his physical being among sinful men, yet in so doing ‘did no sin’. So I gradually realised that there is nothing wrong with seeing beauty in, and thanking God for his creation. Although the earth is polluted with sin and under a curse through the Fall, yet it retains a certain beauty which shows forth God’s ‘eternal power and Godhead’, Rom. 1:20. His children can see their Father’s handiwork in the wonders of creation, but it does only remain physical and has nothing ‘spiritual’ about it. None can come to God through the work of his fingers: creation itself, though beautiful, is not a way by which we can approach God. The Lord Jesus clearly asserts that position only for himself, John 14:6.
There is a belief that ‘God’ is everything in which there is life, where the physical creation becomes part of the Creator; this is called ‘pantheism’, but is totally at variance to the revelation of Scripture. ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth’, for ever distinguishes God from his creation. He is a Spirit and exists apart from the work of his hands. Of the Lord Jesus Christ, God the Son, it is written, ‘All things were made by him’, John 1:3, Col. 1:16; he therefore existed and exists before and apart from his creation. It is sin – idolatry – to worship the creation rather than the Creator, Rom. 1:25, Ex. 20:3.
So, as creation is not God and not of itself spiritual, then glorying because of it can be not much more than a fleshly exercise. Whereas it is not wrong to thank God for his creation – and perhaps we should stop and ‘consider’ it more often, Ps. 8 – it, in itself, does not give us spiritual fulfilment or peace of mind. Nothing outside of revelation of Christ: his wonderful Person and work, can fulfil the longing which the child of God has. Paul’s sole desire was to know Christ and be found in him, etc, Phil. 3.
There is beauty for the senses in creation but there is only beauty for the spirit in the Saviour. How often, when feeling fed up or frustrated, have we gone to the delights of creation for rest and peace and yet, although finding temporary physical refreshment, have come away still empty within, when we’d have been better exercised in seeking the Creator. No, but the Spirit leads the children of God to seek after and feed upon Christ himself who is their ‘all in all’. So if we find our desires being drawn away from the Lord Jesus Christ then to whatever we are drawn becomes ‘the world’, including the physical world.
Another important point needs to be made here. Nowhere in Scripture is the child of God told that honest labour, albeit in and amongst the world, is ‘worldly’ and wrong. ‘Come out from among them and be ye separate’ is not an exhortation to withdraw from the world in an absolute sense, as we have seen; the context there is separation from every thing false in religion, 2 Cor. 6:14-18. No, work is good, it was, after all, part of the original creation which was ‘very good’: ‘And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and keep it’, Gen. 2:15. Sin had not yet entered, nor Eve created, yet there was the man commissioned to work. The apostle also witnesses the same to the Thessalonians, observing that there were some ‘walking disorderly’ among them, ‘working not at all, but are busybodies’; of them he writes that therefore they shouldn’t eat, 2 Thes. 3:10-12.
Work is good, and mostly work is out in the world, amidst the pollution of it, and it can, as a result, be a sore trial to the children of God. But there is no calling to surround ourselves only with heavenly things at the expense of earning our daily bread. Remember the Lord Jesus’ prayer was not that his people should be taken out of the world, but that they be kept from the evil while in it; after all, Paul exhorts ‘servants’, that is, ‘employees’, to be good workers for their ‘masters’, whether they be brethren or not, Eph. 6:5-8.
The Lord Jesus, his people’s great example, worked most of his life as a carpenter, no doubt having to deal with people – customers – all the time. And when the Spirit of the Lord had descended upon him, he was not slow in going into the world to preach, teach and heal. He was rebuked by the religious hypocrites of the day for receiving sinners, for going into their houses and eating with them, Luke 15:2; he didn’t shut himself away in the hallowed sanctuary of the Temple and call the people to come and hear his words – after they had ceremonially cleansed themselves; no, he was ‘in the world’ constantly. The very fact of the Incarnation, God the Son humbling himself and taking upon him the likeness of sinful flesh; exposing himself to the filth of the world of men in unbelief, is a clear indication that it is not God’s will for his elect to absent themselves totally from ‘the world.’ ‘Ye are the salt of the earth… ye are the light of the world’, he told his disciples; and salt and light are useless unless amidst and among, Matt. 5:13-16.
How many of the Lord’s people, who have needful and legitimate employment in the world, may have to conform – to many outward appearances – to ‘the way of the world’ as part of their occupation; but they are still not worldly. Although Zacchaeus was a tax collector, there is no reason to believe – from the text of scripture – that he left that occupation after salvation had come to him. But we can be certain that he was the most honest publican around thereafter.
Other of the Lord’s people find their lot cast in pretty horrendous circumstances. Take Lot, for instance. There is no indication from the scriptural text that he knew the character of the city of Sodom when he chose the well watered plains of Jordan for his cattle to feed on; after all if he’d chosen the opposite path, presumably Abram would have had these plains for his cattle. No, but Lot was a righteous man whose soul was vexed when he found himself among the inhabitants of the city ‘in seeing and hearing the filthy conversation of the wicked’ day after wearying day. But the Lord rescued him. And it is no good sanctimonious people pointing the finger at Lot here and saying, ‘Ah, yes, but he lingered, and had to be hastened out!’ Yes, but he didn’t look back, as they would likely do if they suddenly lost their comfortable home, most of their family, all their possessions, and probably their financial security as well – not to mention the shock of hearing their home town going up in flames behind them.
The point about Lot was that, as a just man, he wasn’t worldly, even though he lived in an environment that most of us have never had to experience – yet. Yes, some of the Lord’s people do hate the position they are in, not least because their minds are so polluted by the environment in which they live or work. All you can do is pray for grace to fall under the sovereign providence of the Lord for the present, and call upon him that, if he will, you would like a position less troublesome to your spirit. But in it all, you are not worldly yourself, and none should judge you for living in ‘such a place’, or having ‘such a job’.
So the world out of which God’s people are called does not include the world of legitimate work. If however we are ‘career-orientated’: that the work we pursue is driven by fleshly, proud ambition, by the love of money, or power and status; is gain-orientated above and beyond our needs, then greed is at play, and covetousness, which is idolatry; this is wickedness and worldliness. And the same is true if our lust is for some great position in the church.
But to counter all this the Lord’s people have a simple encouragement which, when applied to the conscience by the Spirit, sets them at liberty, and gives peace and rest: ‘Let your conversation [way of life] be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee. So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me’, Heb. 13:5,6.
Finally here it is always good for the Lord’s people to be reminded of their position ‘in Christ’ – another sure counter to worldliness. The Lord Jesus said of his disciples that ‘…they are not of the world…’ Now this is a statement of fact. In Christ his people have been called out of the way of the world and are now members of his body and indwelt of his Spirit. As such they ‘walk in the Spirit’ and therefore ‘fulfil not the lusts of the flesh.’ If we believe in the power of God to reign in the hearts of his people – without their permission or consenting co-operation – then this must be the case. This is a fundamental truth. God works in his own both the will and the doing of his good pleasure, despite the fact that they are still in the flesh and fall under many temptations to indulge their lusts – yea, and sometimes do fall therein. But, ultimately, they do not walk in the flesh as a constant way of life, as they did before they were called, 1 Peter 1:14-25, 4:1-4.
Being ‘in Christ’, therefore – not being in a denomination – is the only state to be in which cannot be called ‘worldly’. All those outside of Christ are in the world, whether they be religious or not. Unregenerate men in pulpits are one hundred percent worldly. Every self-righteous Pharisee in the pew is of the world. Works mean nothing. If you are not in Christ then you are of the world.
Worldliness : What God Thinks
There are two verses of scripture which are most commonly quoted with regard to worldliness. The first is the aforementioned 1 John 2:15: ‘Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world’, and the second is James 4:4, ‘know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God’. To a lesser degree the phrase from the prayer of the Lord Jesus in John 17 mentioned above might be alluded to: ‘they are not of the world’, and possibly Romans 12:2, ‘be not conformed to this world’ – although perhaps more rarely: it being rather more difficult to take out of its immediate context – verse one being too close to costly living for comfort. Also in more specific situations – regarding women not wearing jewellery, make-up, or trousers – reference would be made to 1 Peter 3:3, 1 Timothy 2:9, 2 Kings 9:30, and Deuteronomy 22:5.
Before coming to these verses one or two preliminary observations must be made. These exhortations regarding ‘the world’ are made specifically to the people of God. In John 17 the Lord Jesus is praying for them only: for those ‘which thou gavest me out of the world’, verse 6. Jesus is not praying for all mankind. He says in verse 9, ‘I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine.’ Therefore we must always remember that gospel exhortations are always addressed to God’s people – to those in the faith: the New Testament epistles being written to them alone.
Again we must keep in mind that the word of God is first and foremost a spiritual revelation, which only those born of the Spirit can receive unto salvation and profit. It was to Timothy, a child of God, that Paul wrote, ‘All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works’, 2 Tim. 3:16,17. Paul had said that the scriptures were able to make ‘thee’, Timothy, a child of God, ‘wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus’: and not all men have faith except the elect, to whom it is given as a free gift, cp. 2 Thes. 3:2, Eph. 2:8-10.
That religious giant of Jerusalem, Nicodemus, was told emphatically by the Lord Jesus that all his religious learning, understanding, and perceptions were carnal and counted for nothing; he ‘must be born again… of water and the Spirit,’ John 3. Only those who have been regenerated by a sovereign gracious act of God the Holy Spirit can, by his inworking, obey spiritual exhortations. Those dead in trespasses and sins, dead to God and to spiritual life have no grace, no faith, and no desire rightly to obey any gospel exhortation – although that doesn’t stop many of them taking the scriptures and interpreting them how they please, which is always, obviously, carnally, and to their own condemnation.
But when the Lord Jesus prays for his people we can be sure that the Father will answer him: Jesus will always receive answers to his prayers; after all, ‘The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into his hand’, John 3:35. The Lord Jesus declared at the tomb of Lazarus, ‘Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. And I know that thou hearest me always’, John 11:41,42; he is even now praying for his people at the right hand of the Father – the only reason they are being kept from falling away, Rom. 8:34. So in the light of this we can confidently conclude that all his people will be called out of the world, rescued from worldliness, and kept from the evil. In another place Jesus stated, ‘My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me’, John 10:27; not, ‘I hope they will follow me’, but ‘they follow me.’
So let us look at these verses which are used to justify men’s interpretations of worldliness, and see if they are being applied correctly, or misapplied to justify a particularly chosen view. We will start with James 4:4, because this verse, in context, goes, literally, to the heart of the matter. The words ‘know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God’, come in the context of addressing the problem of ‘your lusts’, verse 1. There is inordinate desire in your heart: a burning lust for something you must obtain, and it wells up in you to such a degree that you will even pray to God for its fulfilment. But it is the very spirit of worldliness.
James asks, ‘From whence come wars and fightings among you?’ Why is there such disquiet among you at times? Why are ye so often discontent? And he answers straightly and directly: ‘Come they not hence?’ Is this not the reason? It is the reason, without a doubt: ‘Come they not hence, even of your own lusts’ – lit. ‘hedonism’ – ‘that [wage] war in your members?’ These are Peter’s ‘fleshly lusts’ which likewise wage war against the soul, 1 Peter 2:11. ‘Ye lust, and have not’, frustrating, isn’t it? But do we throw ourselves on the mercy of God and cast off this spirit of worldliness? No. ‘Ye kill – or envy – and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war’ within yourselves, in utter frustration because you cannot get what your heart so desires – and this is a principle which applies, ultimately, to everything we desire outside of Christ himself, cp. again Phil. 3:7-14. ‘Yet ye have not, because ye ask not’. Ask who? Well, God presumably. You’re the children of God and have these desires, so why not ask him for their fulfilment? Well, I did, but I couldn’t get what I wanted! ‘Ye ask, and receive not’; well I know that! But why didn’t God answer me and give me my heart’s desire? ‘Because ye ask amiss’ – which word indicates that the motivation behind the asking is all wrong, for it is according to the flesh, sinfully: remember that Christ did nothing ‘amiss’, but we’re the opposite. So it is said, ‘Ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.’ I want it, and I must have what I want.
Then the truth of the gospel cries, ‘Ye adulterers and adulteresses’, so men and women suffer from this; and yes, adultery is not just going off with your neighbour’s spouse – or imagining doing so, but adultery is lusting after things which are not Christ’s things, and which are not according to the revealed will of God, and is the fundamental spirit of worldliness: ‘Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world [walking hand in hand with the world in the way that it thinks and desires] is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.’ Why? How? Because lust and desire is the driving force behind ‘the way of the world’. Must have! Got to get! Must qualify! Must advance! Must obtain! Must succeed! And how prevelant this spirit is in those who outwardly, and as viewed in the mirror – and at chapel – appear barely to be worldly at all.
Now read James 4 verses 5 and following to see the grace of God to all those who – though his people – suffer from this affliction from time to time, and who, by his grace, follow the exhortations and attain to the ‘lifting up’ of verse 10.
Next we turn to what the apostle John says in chapter 2 of his First Epistle. And, lo and behold, he says the same thing: ‘For all that is in the world’ – so this is the complete definition of what worldliness is: ‘all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life… is of the world’, verse 16; nothing here about women wearing trousers, is there? No, this is a heart matter: a matter of the affections: ‘Love not the world.’ So ‘the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life’, according to the apostle’s doctrine, is what ‘the world’ and worldliness is.
This truth was first manifest in the garden of Eden. There was the woman being subtly tempted, openly lied to, and having her mind corrupted by the serpent: and what do we read? ‘And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food’ – the lust of the flesh – ‘and that it was pleasant [lit. ‘a desire’] to the eyes’ – the lust of the eyes – ‘and a tree to be desired to make one wise’ – the pride of life – she partook of the ‘fruit’ of the tree of ‘the love of the world’, Gen. 3:6, 2 Cor. 11:3. Achan, too, ‘saw… and coveted’ of the spoil of Jericho, and although it was practically useless to him – he could never have displayed it openly – yet it satisfied the lust of his heart to have it – until the judgment came, Joshua 7. James, earlier in his epistle, gives us this worldly principle which destroyed Achan: ‘Every man is tempted when he is drawn away of his own lust and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death’, James 1:14,15. Yes, worldliness is lust within, and it is that which brings about our fall.
Now this is where things become very uncomfortable for the legalist; for all that he judges as worldly is what he can see others doing. But is this not how Saul of Tarsus was found out? ‘I was alive without the law once’, he said. Yes, there he was in all his outward legal pride: not doing these things, doing the other things. He could stand in front of the mirror on the Sabbath morning just before he went to synagogue and, making broad his phylacteries, could purr, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are…’ But he was ignorant of the state of his heart: for ‘when the commandment came’ – ‘THOU SHALT NOT LUST’ – ‘sin came to life, and I died.’ Note: this tenth of the Commandments is the only one which addresses the interior man. So God looketh upon the heart. And what does he see there? ‘The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life’: worldliness. And ignoring this fundamental definition makes all outward religious observances, performances, and adherence to peculiar denominational traditions, totally irrelevant and vanity.
But there is something more to this verse in 1 John 2; for the context shows to whom the apostle was writing. And it was specifically to the ‘young men’, verse 14. This exhortation was not addressed to ‘the fathers’ nor to the ‘little children’. To the young men John had said: ‘I have written unto you, young men, because ye are strong, and the word of God abideth in you, and ye have overcome the wicked one. Love not the world…’ None of these things were addressed to the little children; for to them, as little children, it could ‘only’ thus far be said that ‘your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake’, and that they ‘have known the Father’, verses 12,13: although, that is eternal life. These were the babes in Christ, and it seems that John goes on to address most, if not all, of the rest of his epistle specifically to them, including many warnings. But to the more mature – the young men – although as yet not the elders: the fathers, who had been long in the way – to the young men John still felt the need to warn of the dangers of loving the world and the things that are in the world. Obviously these young men were still liable – despite their spiritual overcoming thus far – of being enticed away.
This reminds us of the fact that it is only those who ‘endure to the end’ which shall be saved. Apparent spiritual maturity, attainment, and power even to ‘cast out devils in thy name’ – overcome the wicked one – is no guarantee of final salvation. The Lord’s people are to hold the beginning of their confidence steadfast unto the end; are to deny themselves and take up their cross daily; are to fight the good fight of faith constantly; are to run with patience the race which is set before them; there is a standing, and having done all, to stand; a patient continuance in well doing; a daily looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God; there is a settled state of loving his appearing. There can therefore be no slackening in the way of faith – on the narrow way which leadeth, in the end, unto life. And what is one of the reasons why the way is so narrow? Because it is a way which says ‘no’ to the way of the world: a way so totally contrary to the way the flesh would take, inasmuch as it is called ‘crucifying the flesh with the affections – passions – and lusts’, and a mortification – starving to death – of your members upon the earth. Oh, what enemies we have within! So as there is no room for presumption in these young men, they are warned specifically not to love the world, neither the things that are in the world.
In the light of this let us pause for a moment to consider the temptation and overcoming of the Lord Jesus. Here was a man who, although he was in the world, was not of it. At one point late in his ministry he comforted his disciples with these words: ‘These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer – take confidence from this – I have overcome the world’, John 16:33.
And how do we understand Jesus to have ‘overcome the world’ in the context of what we’ve been considering? Well, just go to his temptation in the wilderness at the hand of the adversary. These three temptations – which make up one complete temptation – was nothing different in principle to what faced Eve in the Garden: to partake of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – the things of this world. Can we not see that inherent in Satan’s temptation of the Saviour was the falling under and indulging ‘the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life’? cp. Luke 4:1-13. But the man Christ Jesus instantly and totally overcame the devil and yielded not to the temptation. This is not to say that he could have yielded but didn’t; but it is to show us that he was totally ‘without sin’ in his Person and therefore could not sin and that, as ‘the last Adam’ – as the head of the spiritual body, the church, he was not and could not be touched or overcome by the tempter, cp. 1 Cor. 15:44-50: as he said, ‘…the prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me’, John 14:30. And the church being ‘in Christ’, the evil one now has nothing in them, the members of Christ’s body, either – not ultimately.
This is the pure doctrine of the gospel. Consider it: can a person be indwelt of the Spirit of God and Satan at the same time? What has Satan got in those who are ‘in Christ’: who live by faith? He’s got plenty in those who walk after the flesh, and who love the world and the things that are in the world; but he can have nothing in those who have been ‘crucified with Christ’ and are therefore ‘dead’, Gal. 2:20. Again, it is essential to have a full understanding, and to live in the light of the doctrine of the unity of Christ and his people.
So, the Lord Jesus overcame the world for his people as their covenant head – just as Adam fell into the world, and all his posterity in him, as the first head of mankind. The question now arises for the reader: Who, then, are you ‘in’? Do you love the world, being still in Adam, or are you overcoming the world in Christ? In Adam you will be full of lust for this world, for the realm of time, and for the indulgence of the senses; but in Christ, though greatly tempted at times, you will be overcoming these things. Don’t forget: the temptations of the devil and the power of the flesh are not so great that the saints cannot overcome them; not if ‘greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world’; cp. 1 John 2:13,14; 4:4; Rev. 3:21; 12:10,11. Unbelief may scoff at that truth, but faith lays hold upon it and by grace walks in the light of it.
So, let us return to look at these lusts – first mentioned by James and now by John – in more detail. ‘The lust of the flesh.’ If you are a child of God you will be aware – painfully aware – of the power of your flesh when at times it rises up to consume you with its desires. And this is a trial that you – though in Christ – will have to endure, more or less, for the rest of your life. Nevertheless we have just hinted at the answer to how these desires can be overcome: and it is with the gospel – of course. And we do not tire of repeating it. Paul, writing to the Colossians, first reminds them of their position ‘in Christ’, before exhorting them to ‘mortify your members which are upon the earth’. He tells them that it is only as they keep in mind that, in Christ, they have been ‘circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ’, and that they have been ‘buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.’ (Wonderful truths. Where are the men preaching and expounding these things today to the comfort of the flock?)
But the apostle’s doctrine doesn’t finish there: ‘And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; and having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it.’ What a comprehensive defeating of our enemies! Col. 2.
‘Wherefore if [as] ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world’, there’s your ‘philosophy, vain deceit and traditions of men’, Col. 2:8 – so worldliness has been defeated in Christ – ‘why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances?’ – the traditions which men impose on you – ‘after the commandments and doctrines of men’; the obeying of which makes you think you are not worldly: ‘Touch not; taste not; handle not’; can you see the frowning faces and wagging fingers? ‘which all perish with the using’! Why do you do it? Why do you let men impose upon you their Pharisaical traditions with ‘a show of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh’? Why, when you are in Christ, having union with him in his death, burial and resurrection?
But, ‘If ye then be risen with Christ’, which ye are, then ‘seek those things which are above, where Christ [and you in him] sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection [the lusts of your mind] on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.’ Oh, this wonderful doctrine of the gospel is the only answer to worldliness: ‘ye are dead, and your lives are hid with Christ in God.’ How many of us can truly walk in the light of having been ‘crucified with Christ’? Not until we can – losing self completely – will our desires count for nothing. If I am dead, then what can I lust after? And so ‘when Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory. Mortify therefore’ – in the light of all that wonderful gospel truth here is the salient exhortation – ‘Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth…’ Col. 3:1-5.
Away with these legalists, imposing their works upon the people, instead of preaching and expounding the doctrine of Christ to them. But then, how can they preach Jesus Christ and him crucified if their ‘works of righteousness’ – their outward supposed nonconformity to the world – are so encouraged by their traditions and laws. What need they of Christ at all if they have somewhat to perform themselves. Either salvation is all of grace – exclusively of grace from first to last – or it is of works. Either the Christian walk is ‘by faith’ or it is by legal performances. The only valid work in the way of faith is ‘the work of faith’; the only true labouring is ‘the labour of love’; which two things are driven on by ‘the patience of hope’, 1 Thes. 1:3.
And how are these things manifest in the current context of Colossians 3? ‘Mortify therefore your members’. To mortify is ‘to cause the death of’. But we will never completely see the death of our members – the seat of all these lusts – until we have entered into eternity. For while we are still in this world, and while our spirit, which longs to be with Christ, is incarcerated in this body of sin and death, then this will always be a trial – part of the ‘much tribulation’ we must go through. But the flesh can be starved; it can have its sustenance cut off; it can be kept from seeing, hearing and being stimulated by those things which invigorate it: ‘mortified’.
And this is exactly what the Lord Jesus taught his disciples on more than one occasion: ‘If thy hand cause thee to offend, cut it off… If thy foot offend thee, cut it off… If thine eye cause thee to offend, pluck it out’, Mark 9:43-48; Matt. 5:29,30. These words are not to be taken literally, of course; they mean that we should keep ourselves from doing, walking in, and seeing those things which lead us into the stimulation of the flesh. So, if you have a certain weakness then rid yourself of all those things which encourage your exposure to it. If you are, like me, a television-holic, or if you are hopelessly addicted to, say, the internet, then the only thing to do is to remove it from your house – you’ll have no peace in your spirit until then.
With this in mind the apostle exhorted the Hebrews to ‘lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us’, Heb. 12:1. Every child of God has those things which readily cause them to fall; they know what they are, and so does their enemy. We each have certain ‘lusts of the flesh’ and ‘lusts of the eyes’ which so easily beset us; but we are to ‘lay them aside’. Much prayer and diligence is needed, and often many cries go up to the Lord when a certain temptation is upon you. And it is hard. But again the gospel of God concerning his Son is the answer: ‘Looking unto Jesus… For consider him…’, verses 2,3.
The apostle Paul experienced the same trials of the flesh; which is why he said, ‘I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway’, 1 Cor. 9:27. Why so hard on himself? Because he was running the race to obtain an incorruptible crown. Echoing what we have previously said, there was no presumption with this man. Just because he was an apostle and had received abundant revelation didn’t mean he could lightly give way to the lusts of the flesh and the eyes thinking that, oh, well, ‘once saved, always saved’. No, but he strove to ‘tame’ his body (Tyndale). When his eye offended him, he plucked it out, not indulged it while holding a perverted interpretation of what salvation by grace alone meant: Paul was no antinomian. So, ‘mortify therefore your members’ is essential to a true Christian walk.
Therefore it is just not good enough to impose specific prohibitions on people, as if all the Lord’s people are tempted with the same things. Saying things like, ‘It is worldly for the children of God to have television, so we will make a rule which says that no member of the church must have television’, is to miss the whole point; for to some TV is just not a source of temptation. No, they can rule it so completely that they use it for their own benefit, never abuse it, 1 Cor. 7:31, and know where the off button is – just like most do with the radio. But for others the screen just sits there alluringly saying, ‘Watch me, watch me’, leaving the poor child powerless to resist. In that case, then, as with anything like it, the flesh must be mortified; it has to go.
This point has to be emphasised, because this is the crux of the matter. Some of the Lord’s people struggle with certain temptations and desires which others are never troubled with. The spirit of the world is lust, desire, and, as we shall see, ambition. That which overcomes one member of the body betimes is unknown to another. Those things which are of no interest to some are a heavy burden to others. How much pain and dread they feel when they are beset by a certain temptation, which would be to others hard to understand. Therefore the tried soul needs pity, empathy, and a loving prayerful concern from his brethren; not for the church to legislate against it and then charge the poor soul with being worldly – especially when they are never tried with that particular temptation themselves.
I hope the sober reader can see the great principle that I am trying to bring out here. Paul wrote on more than one occasion that some of the Lord’s people are weak and some are strong; all must be guided by their own conscience, and none should judge another if the latter’s conscience is clear and their actions are not unlawful: cp. Rom. 14 and 1 Cor. 8. But this is all overturned by the legalist who makes blanket rules and stubborn definitions regarding what worldliness is; and if they are strictly imposed upon all, then will not the innocent be offended, whose consciences are clear before God? or will not those who fall under them – because they want to stay in that particular company – be led to believe that they are being holy, and are not worldly, even though they may remain unregenerate? Again, I say, whatever we do which makes us think we are either more holy, or better than others, is nothing but works; this attitude is not taught of the Father, betrays no real need of Christ and his salvation, and is a long way from the life of faith.
This attitude also betrays a blindness to the truth that, even if a person were to separate himself totally from ‘the world’; yea, if he were to pluck out both his eyes, and burst both his ear drums so that he lived in total darkness and silence, thus separating and freeing himself, supposedly, from all worldly temptations, that the world would still be in his heart. Blind men can still imagine, and deaf men can still hear the dictates of the heart. Oh, its works, all works.
Which leads us to the other thing which is in the world: ‘the pride of life’. What does this legalistic attitude produce but pride: raging pride. ‘These six things doth the LORD hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him’, One: ‘A proud look.’ But the pride of life – which is quintessential worldliness – is, obviously, missed completely by the legalist. As the end of his conversation is pride, then how can he see it in himself? In the denomination of which I was once a member I heard more than once – in solemn tones – that ‘On my way here this morning I saw people mowing their lawns, going shopping, pursuing their pleasures… and yet here we are, but a few in number, found by the grace of God in the Lord’s house.’ Well, how wonderful! But not by the grace of God, I’m afraid; but by ‘the pride of life.’ How I was increasingly repulsed by otherwise carnal men who put their religious observances and conformity to particular traditions of unworldliness down to the working of the grace of God. The end of the grace of God is not men’s dead religion! Please do meditate upon the attitude of mind which brought forth the Pharisee’s ‘confession’, Luke 18:11,12; and don’t think that his attitude has disappeared just because from time to time you like to mutter the publican’s prayer, verse 13.
But the pride of life reaches much deeper than this. It is not just pride which is addressed here, but the pride of life. And what is this if not the working of ambition – the lust of the mind – ambition to attain in this world. Paul’s desire of Philippians 3 is a right ambition, and the Lord who looketh upon the heart can see if it is there or not, regardless of what other people think they see. What drives us in our daily lives? What hopes do we have for the future? What do we desire for ourselves and for our children? Security? – that is, financial security? A good ‘education’? – as the world calls it. A good job? Position? Success? A good pension? Being comfortable in old age? Perhaps respect or honour is your goal. Well, you can have it all in this life if you work hard: and then when you die you can go to hell, cp. Luke 9:23-25, John 12:25,26; for the desire and pursuit of these things is the very essence of worldliness.
I am not saying that if the child of God finds himself in any of these positions in the providence of God that they are necessarily worldly-minded in themselves – Joseph, for instance, was repeatedly raised to positions of authority and honour, Gen. 39:1-6, 21-23; 41:37-44; but if these things are the ambitions of your heart, and are what concentrate your mind above everything else, then you are of the world, regardless of how holy you appear on a Sunday.
When the Lord Jesus said, ‘What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world’, what he meant was this: ‘What shall it profit a man if he attains to everything he desires in life.’ A very poor man can be said to have ‘gained the whole world’ if he is happy with his meagre lot, wants for nothing – except perhaps to be left alone – and has no further ambition in this world, or for the next.
But to those who profess the Lord but still hanker within for more in/of this world, let me ask you a question: Whatever happened to ‘and having food and raiment let us be therewith content’? 1 Tim. 6:8, cp. Eccl. 4:6. But we live in the rich West, and our standard of living is so comfortable nowadays; it is just our hap to have been born at this time; surely we should not impoverish ourselves just because we are Christians! No, that is true. But doesn’t it show what a rotten corrupt godless ‘civilisation’ we live in, when we can treat the exhortation of the apostle as though it were now irrelevant? What about, ‘Master, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest!’ ‘Foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.’ I suppose we just view that man with smug, condescending amusement, pitying his simplicity, do we? Well, for those who have eyes to see, the ‘rich’ West, being a civilisation built on debt, cannot continue much longer before it comes crashing down. Then these words of the Lord Jesus and his apostle will suddenly look very stark and relevant for ‘the 21st Century’, and will find out and separate the ones who, despite the advantages of the trappings of ‘modern life’, have not placed all their ‘faith’ in the here and now, but have always had their hearts and minds set upon the world to come. You see, true discipleship costs; it must cost. It costs self: ‘Follow thou me’, said Jesus; and if we are following him then ‘the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life’, won’t be found reigning in our hearts.
To sum up, then: being worldly is desiring, thinking and reasoning how the world desires, thinks and reasons. These lusts of the mind determine how we live, what we pursue, what is important to us. If you look at ‘the people of the world’ and see from their walk, and hear from their conversation the same desires, ambitions and reasonings that you know dwell in you and drive you, then you are worldly – even though you might hide behind a religious exterior. And in a way your life will be more frustrating even than theirs, for because you are religious and have to maintain some sort of holy-looking exterior, then your lusts – which are the same as the world’s – can never be fully realised, because you cannot and must not live as you would; for though your heart and conscience tells you otherwise you must continue to give the impression to the world – and more importantly, to others at chapel – that you are not worldly at all. But don’t forget that the day of judgment will soon be upon you, when the secrets of all men’s hearts will be revealed – remember Solomon’s ‘with every secret thing’, Eccl. 12:14 – and you will be judged by what the Lord sees there. If only these words would sink down into our ears and rest in the very depths of our being: not only does the Lord look upon the heart but, ‘I the LORD search the heart’ as well, Jer. 17:10.
What repentance is needed here. Paul writes to the Romans, ‘be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind’, 12:2. The renewing of your mind is repentance. The mind has to be transformed – transfigured, lit. ‘metamorphosis’ – from thinking and reasoning as the world does to thinking ‘soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith’, verse 3. Indeed, the whole of this passage in Romans 12 is dealing with ‘proving the will of God’ – a key need for the people of God, cp. Matt. 7:21. Therefore Paul has exhorted his readers that they, ‘by the mercies of God’, are to ‘present their bodies’ – including their desires and lusts – ‘a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God… be not conformed to this world… be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind’. What is this if not a turning from the old mentality to the new – which is the very essence of repentance. Nevertheless the doctrine of the gospel here declares that in Christ the Lord’s people already ‘have the mind of Christ’, 1 Cor. 2:16, and therefore as they walk in the Spirit they do not fulfil the lusts of the flesh.
In the light of all these gospel truths, then, we can now briefly comment on the other verses quoted at the beginning of this article, which mostly seem to pertain to women: the legalistic interpretations of which suddenly now appearing rather tiresome to the spiritually minded.
Firstly 1 Peter 3:3. This verse is used to impose the law of not wearing jewellery: Thou shalt not have your ears pierced, etc. But when I was among the people who placed such great importance on this, I saw plenty of necklaces, bangles and brooches. But why focus in this verse on the ‘wearing of gold’ only? For Peter also mentions ‘plaiting the hair’, and the ‘putting on of apparel’. Why not impose a restriction on any styling of the hair; and why not frown on fashionable clothing? Yet I don’t remember seeing much ‘dowdiness’ in the chapels – and especially not among the fashion-conscious and vain young women. I saw relatively short skirts; smart suites and jackets – often with very masculine square padded shoulders – various styles of hats, depending on the time of year – with not a few feathers; and all presented in a variety of colours. Not to mention the matching shoes and handbags; for you must realise that God won’t meet with us if we’re scruffy, or casual, or worse, if we ‘clash’!
Some might not like this style of writing, saying it is sarcastic and ungracious. Well if that’s how they want to describe the exposing of their hypocrisy, then that’s up to them; but it’s nothing compared to what will be heard on the day of judgment by those who abuse the holy scriptures and live by their traditions at the expense of the truth of the gospel. For the problem with all this – whether these things were imposed to the full or not – is that this is not what Peter was talking about. He wasn’t making general comments about how women should dress and what they should or shouldn’t wear; he was talking about a Christian woman’s relationship to her disobedient husband.
There is a godly woman whose husband is not ‘obeying the word’, verse 1; and in this situation the temptation might be to start lecturing him and perhaps even ceasing to obey him, as she is not in disobedience – how easy it is for pride to rise up when we see another wandering into paths which we never would. But no. She is to continue to ‘be in subjection’ to her husband, that he ‘without the word’ might ‘be won by the conversation of his wife.’ She is not to preach at him, nag him, dishonour him, but uphold a ‘chaste conversation coupled with fear – reverence’, verse 2. And it is in this context that her adorning is mentioned. And what is the great adorning of a godly woman to win her husband to the right way? Not by outward ‘seduction’, verse 3, ‘but let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price – very precious’, verse 4. How different this verse reads now in its proper context, and how devoid of legalism and vanity it is.
1 Timothy 2:9 is likewise used to impose the non-wearing of jewellery. But again the immediate context reveals a specific meaning and interpretation to the verse. Paul is speaking from verse one specifically about prayer. In verse eight he addresses the men when they pray and then in verse nine ‘in like manner also’ the women when they pray. The broader context, say, up to verse 12 of this chapter, would seem to indicate that the apostle is referring to the occasions when the church is gathered together – prayer was part of the order of such gatherings, cp. Acts 2:42. So then it would be improper for the women to be overly adorned. Soberness of dress, adorning, and behaviour, springing from a soberness of mind – remember it’s the state of the heart which matters – is the theme of this verse.
Now it may be argued by some – and this was my initial reading of the text – that nowhere in these verses does Paul actually use a phrase like ‘when ye come together’; so that the words of verse nine should be applied to women in all their lives, and not just while they are in church or chapel; and this sounds reasonable. But if this is the meaning here, then all we can say to those who think it is: Well, follow it then! and follow it to the letter. Make sure that at all times, and in every situation, your women and girls are never to be found in immodest apparel – skirts must always be down to the ankles; no transparent or ‘body-hugging’ clothing; no swimwear, no slightly low-cut tops – summer as well as winter; indeed nothing should be worn which will cause a man’s head to turn. They must constantly exercise shamefacedness: modesty and reverence of character; and sobriety: ‘the voluntary limitation of one’s freedom of thought and behaviour’. They must never have broided or braided hair – probably better to keep it covered at all times – never bedeck themselves with gold – including gold watches, I presume – or pearls – granny’s beads? – or costly – expensive – array. You see, if you want this verse to mean what you profess it to mean then you must implement it absolutely. But then, it will still only be ‘filthy rags’ – so to speak – if the heart is not right.
The third verse used to impose a closely related ‘rule’ upon women and girls is 2 Kings 9:30. This verse apparently – clearly! – instructs women that it is worldly to wear make-up: If you wear make-up you will be nothing better than wicked queen Jezebel who ‘painted her face’. But she also ‘tired her head’ – that is, beautified her hair – her whole appearance: we just cannot get away from this prohibition regarding styling the hair, can we. But how many women and girls regularly do this so as to be attractively presented to the world; or perhaps to ‘win over’ a situation as Jezebel was trying to do here? Again, if you’re bent on legalism in religion then you really must be consistent and mark and fall under every jot and tittle; i.e. ‘in all things’, Gal. 3:10.
But then, was the painting of her face really the reason for Jezebel’s downfall? Hardly. Just look at her character which exposed where her heart really lay. We read that this woman ‘slew the prophets of the LORD’, while she entertained the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of the groves. And hear her words to Elijah the man of God after he had slain the prophets of Baal at the brook Kishon: ‘So let the gods do to me, and more so, if I make not thy life as the life of one of them by to morrow about this time.’ And what about the whole affair of her stirring up Ahab her husband against Naboth: what did she care about that righteous man’s desire to obey the law of the LORD regarding the inheritance of his fathers? No. Here was an altogether godless woman; and having put a bit of make-up on her face is now the least reason for her torments, 1 Kings 18,19,21.
Fourthly, Deuteronomy 22:5 is quoted in relation to women wearing trousers. Apparently trousers are the only item of clothing which pertains exclusively to men. So we never wear T-shirts, as women do, or vests, shirts, pyjamas, sweaters, socks, etc. Ah, but most of those other items come in men’s and women’s styles, you can always tell the difference. Exactly! So too with trousers! But why pick on trousers? Would this interpretation hold true among the Lord’s people who live in cultures where the common dress is different to ours? But Deuteronomy 22:5 speaks of ‘that which pertaineth to a man’, and ‘neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God’ – just like all those who walk in Pharisaic pride are an abomination to the Lord, Prov. 6:16,17.
But surely this verse is speaking of what today would be called ‘cross-dressing’: men literally dressing as women, and women as men. What the Lord is prohibiting here is the confusion of the sexes. If you cannot tell, or if you verily think it is one when in fact it’s the other, then you’re at the proper meaning of this verse. So for religious men to come along and start categorising single items of clothing can only lead to the shifting interpretations of ‘the fashion of this world.’ It’s just another scheme which Pharisees have invented to keep their people under submission, so they can ‘lord it over them’.
How hard it must be for girls who have to endure teasing and perhaps even bullying at school because ‘you always wear skirts’. Some might say, ‘Ah, but they are being persecuted for righteousness’ sake’. No they are not. If they are merely under the rule and in bondage to the legalistic traditions of dead religious men, and if they are as yet unregenerate themselves, then that word does not apply to them. No, they suffer at school so that their elders can glory in the flesh, in ‘not being as other men are’.
One last word for those who insist on keeping the people concentrating on outward appearances to the exclusion of the heart: just read Matthew 23:25-28: you will not get past the judge of all the earth and his words.
So what do we conclude about all this. I hope I have shown that the constant testimony of scripture is that outward appearance – among the spiritual children of God in their daily lives – is nigh on irrelevant. God looketh on the heart, as it is out of the heart that proceed all manner of lusts and the very spirit of worldliness – and we ignore this profound truth at our peril. Everything else flows from this. The worst thing that can be said about all these outward things is that they are but vanity – just as ‘all is vanity’ anyway; it shows that those females who concentrate over much on beautifying themselves are likely in a poor state spiritually, as are those men who like to make their appearance more respectable or attractive in public; for let us not forget that there are plenty of males who spend just as much time in front of the mirror as females do. And anyway, there is another fact that is quite lost in all this legalistic nonsense: that there are many non-religious women in the world who never wear make-up, etc. – but they are still worldly!
Please don’t think that I am for one minute advocating headlong integration with all things ‘worldly’; I just want us ‘to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God’; to walk solely by faith and to be free from a legal mind. And how else is all this to be realised but by ‘abiding in Christ’, cp. 1 John 2:28: surely this is the settled state of the child of God from which all righteousness flows, verse 29. I believe that the principle behind ‘I will have mercy, and not sacrifice’ is completely set aside by all those who are bent on a legal show; indeed, Jesus always addressed that word to Pharisees, Matt. 9:10-13, 12:1-7.
To repeat the fundamental exhortation of the new covenant in this context to the people of God in their daily lives: ‘Let your conversation – manner of living – be without covetousness – lusts – and be content with such things’ as the Lord in his providence has bestowed upon you. Why? Well surely our main concern in this life is that the Lord would keep us, sustain us, and protect us from godless men and temptation; that he would provide all that is needful for us to live quiet and peaceable lives in this wilderness; and that he would so captivate our hearts and affections that we’d never be found wandering out of the way. And that is what the apostle goes on to say: ‘For the Lord hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee. So that we may boldly say’, and our boldness is in Christ, and by our union with him, ‘The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me’, Heb. 13:5,6.
Despite what we each might vainly wish for our outward appearance – an appearance which deteriorates all too quickly – and despite the fact that some spend rather more time than others think they should on ‘things indifferent’, yet with no trouble of conscience before the Lord; nevertheless let us not be like the heathen in heart, who only have their lusts set on the here and now; but rather, ‘Seek ye first – and foremost – the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all your daily needs shall be added unto you.’ Remember that the goats’ condemnation is that they never meet the spiritual needs of the sheep, Matt. 25:41-46, not that they fall sometimes into a vain show.
Furthermore, for peace and rest in your consciences before God, whatever you do, ‘Cease ye from man’, especially religious men and their traditions; for their breath is only in their nostrils, and they shall soon perish. But seek after the revelation of the truth of the gospel of Christ, in the power of it; settle for nothing short of ‘the faith of the Son of God’, and the liberty of the Spirit, found only in ‘the perfect law of liberty’. And if you are found in this way then you will be able to judge your own motives and actions according to righteousness, be at peace in your own conscience before God – a very precious state to be in – and won’t need any wagging fingers to tell you how you should be living.
And then may the Lord grant you, according to the riches of his glory, that ye be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God, Eph. 3:16-19.
And what will ‘all that is in the world’ matter to us then?
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Peter tells us that, at the end of the world, ‘the earth and the works that are therein shall be burned up’, 2 Peter 3:10. Therefore we can justifiably view ‘the world, and the things that are in the world’ as one huge bonfire ready to be ignited at the coming again of the Lord Jesus.
So as we live on this bonfire, then all that we possess, own, make and accomplish is nothing but kindling for the flames. Every time we buy or gain something, then all we’ve done is add or move ‘a twig’ from one part of the bonfire to another. And if we lived in the light of that, perhaps we would hold all our ‘stuff’ – goods, Luke 17:31 – with a much looser hand.
‘Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved’, what is left to us? What is of any real value in this world? Being ‘in Christ’, the salvation of our souls, is the only thing of value – of immense and eternal value. When we appear before the judge of all the earth, all that we ‘possess’ will have come down to this: Am I ‘in Christ’, or was I ‘of the world’? If I was of the world then I will have nothing on that day, because the bonfire will be ablaze.
Yes, all things will suddenly become very clear and simple.
‘Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh’; yea, ‘The day of the Lord will come.’