The Gospel and Worldliness
The three great enemies of the Christian, the unholy trinity as it were, are the world, the flesh and the devil. The only power that can overcome these enemies is the Gospel, the power of God for salvation for all who believe (Romans 1:16). Drawn by a vision of a Gospel-centered life but confronting the formidable obstacles of the world, the flesh and the devil we are likely in our human nature to first turn to works. It is the knee-jerk reflex and the default mode of our sinful nature. Something in us tells us that being spiritual is going to be costly and we will have to expend a lot of effort and willpower to make any progress. This is the heart and soul of works righteousness (Romans 10:2, 4) which is a pseudo spirituality. It suffers from two very basic errors. It underestimates our very great weakness and the depth of human sin remaining in us. It also overestimates the strength of our moral power to enable us to win the battles. It does not receive through faith in Christ but attempts to achieve through effort and willpower. When it comes to worldliness 1 John 5:4-5 is clear: “And this is the victory that overcomes the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”
So let’s look at what worldliness is and is not and how the third way of the Gospel enables us to rise above our moralistic and hedonistic impulses and strategies. The classic text regarding worldliness is 1 John 2:15-17: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” Note the caution that every-thing in the world is identified not with material creatures but with the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes, and the boasting of what he has and does. These are, however, just manifestations of the flesh. They are the disordered desires that motivate fallen humanity. We love the creation—we battle against its fallen values.
These desires create patterns or structures of behavior which make up the corporate life of fallen humanity—together they share the structures of society in which we live. They are the “zeitgeist” i.e. the spirit of our age. The world can be defined as corporate flesh—a pattern of desires and actions resulting from the interrelationship of all the individual flesh in the bulk of humanity. As human beings design economic systems, governments, businesses, and many lesser structures of civilization they are influenced partly by reason and God’s common grace, and partly by their own selfish interest and fleshly natures. The resulting structures are always in some measure crooked. The church is like a fish swimming in the ocean of the world. Every culture has corporate idols that beckon us to find life, hope, meaning, fulfillment, joy, etc. if we will only obey and trust them. They preach a gospel to us and attempt to seduce us to conform to their ways. There is a way that seems right to a man but the end thereof are the ways of death.
The history of the church in its response to worldliness could be described by three terms: destructive enculturation, protective enculturation and disenculturation. Destructive enculturation happens when the people of God are saturated with the godless culture of the surrounding world. When people’s hearts are not full of God they become full of the world around them like a sponge full of clear water that has been squeezed empty and thrown into a mud puddle. Only the fullness of Christ’s life and the transformation of ourminds by the renewing action of the Holy Spirit illuminating the whole counsel of God can effectively prevent this conformity to the world. No amount of discipline, willpower, principles, codes, etc. can do it. The Gospel alone is the power of God unto salvation, even from the seduction of the world.
Since the full benefits of union with Christ were not available under the Old Covenant, it was necessary for God to build around Israel a wall of protective enculturation formed by welding together the Jewish culture with its religious core. Thus there is a divinely-inspired enculturation of religion in the Pentateuch, in which not only the general fabric of the theocracy but also such details as civil law, national holidays and dietary taboos are directly imposed by God. If a sponge is first dipped in oil, it can be thrown into muddy water without any danger of absorption.
The protective enculturation in the Jewish lifestyle was an accommodation to the spiritual infancy of Israel. At their level of spiritual development the Israelites wanted anything their neighbors had from kings to taboos, and so God gave them a meticulously detailed religious training code. The code served as a tutor to bring them into readiness for the coming of Messiah (Galatians 3:24). It was protective but also restrictive of the flesh. This restriction aroused sin, made it visible, producing a guilt which drove the believer sacrificial system which pointed to the coming Lamb of God. Among the devout, it served as a training code which could prepare them for a fully-developed spirituality in Christ. Protective enculturation had a serious list of do’s and don’ts, dietary laws, etc. which distinguished between the clean and the unclean. It also drew lines which excluded outsiders which bordered on prejudice, yet had a divine rationale. Pharisaic Judaism had intensified this exclusion and segregation. It had also elaborated the rest of the protective code into a scrupulous legalism which tithed herbs and scrubbed exteriors to erase guilt over the weightier matters of the law.
After the cross and resurrection, a wholly new state of affairs comes into being. The kingdom of God which has been established is not an earthly cultural and political organization but a process of spiritual energized by the Holy Spirit using the catalyst of the Gospel which will spread like leaven among all cultures. The kingdom must therefore be disencultured, freed from its protective shell, so that it may take root in a thousand different cultural and political soils and bring them to full self expression. The oil must be wrung out of the sponge that it may be filled with new wine.
In Acts 15 at the Jerusalem council, Peter refuses to permit the Judaizers to weld the protective enculturation and legal requirements of the Old Covenant to the New Covenant lifestyle, to put “a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear” (Acts 15:10). The Gospel is free and unencumbered in its outward spread. As we know, Paul had an unflinching intolerance for legalism in any of its forms. Paul explains his attitude to the Corinthians regarding his major principle of conduct, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). Here we see Paul disenculturing the Gospel presentation so that it is free to come encultured in a plethora of cultures.
Paul in Colossians asserts that spiritual freedom in the fullness of Christ and protective enculturation are mutually exclusive alternatives. Once we have learned to walk in the Spirit, we cannot lean on the legal training code as if it were a child’s walker. But if we fail to put on Christ, we are bound to fall back into a protective encultured lifestyle. “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elementary principles of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:6-8).
Paul goes on to give a concise and complete statement of the benefits of the atonement for us through our union with Christ, including justification, sanctification and authority over the powers of darkness. He continues by warning against any return to protective enculturation: “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or new moon or a Sabbath…If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Colossians 2:16, 20-23).
In the next chapter Paul urges that life in Christ can and must deal effectively with the world, the flesh and the devil; paradoxically, when the church begins to draw up codes and taboos which separate it from the world it is most worldly, most in conformity to the world’s understanding of holiness and spirituality.
The third way of the Gospel is a way of seeing our relationship to the world and the culture not merely as a battlefield but also as a mission field. Only the Gospel can give us the power to overcome our insecurities and fears that lead to protective enculturation i.e. a legalistic and adversarial position toward the culture. Only the Gospel can give us the power to overcome destructive enculturation i.e. the assimilation of the church into the world and the godless culture. Only the Gospel can free us to be able to take the message of the cross and resurrection to a thousand different cultures. True holiness is not merely virtue but is conformity to Christ who loved us and gave Himself for us.
(Much of this article was influenced by Richard Lovelace, The Dynamics of Spiritual Life)