Key New Testament Texts
I John 2:15-17. The apostle gives all believers a categorical command to continuously avoid loving the world. Any person who willfully makes the things of the world system the center of his interest and desire has exalted the world to a place of idolatrous worship. The proper love of the Father is absolutely excluded from his life. Although God has made the material things of the world, when any of these is regarded with supreme interest, it has become an idol. Thus even the beauties of nature, of art, of music, or of literature can become idols. "The things that are in the world" can be the source of temptations in three general areas. "The lust of the flesh" is the desire which the flesh produces. It may be for an object which is neutral in itself, such as food (Matthew 4:3). But when food becomes more important than the will of God, it has become an idol. "The lust of the eyes" is the desire for anything beautiful or attractive that can be exalted in place of God. It may be as neutral an object as a tree (Genesis 3:6). "The pride of life" is the selfish and arrogant display of even good things that may replace the desire for God. The world system and all its appeals are passing away, but the believer who has made God the object of his existence will continue forever. The world system is not allowed to harm his fellowship with the Father. God will make such a believer the heir of all things in Christ (Revelation 21:7). Any person who allows any part of the world to ensnare his heart away from God is committing spiritual adultery (James 4:4). The use of the world is not prohibited, but its abuse is (I Corinthians 7:31).
II Corinthians 6:15-7:1. The apostle Paul commands believers not to be unequally yoked together with unbelievers (6:14). The contrast between the two is like the difference between light and darkness or between God and idols (6:14, 16). Paul is not simply giving good advice—he is declaring the command of the Lord: "Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord" (6:17). He goes on to urge, "Let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (7:1). Thus the doctrine of separation is grounded in the holiness of God. Christians must be separate from the world because God is separate from all sin. Believers must be separate from sin and worldliness in order to be separated unto God.
Additional Verses. "And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them" (Ephesians 5:11). "For they themselves shew of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God" (I Thessalonians 1:9). "Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God" (James 4:4).
Old Testament Parallel
"Worldliness" was a constant problem for the people of Israel. Though God taught His people to be separate from other people (Leviticus 20:26), when they consorted with the pagans, God sent prophets to condemn them for their evil associations (Isaiah 30:1-17). Since Israel was called to be God's "peculiar treasure" and His "holy nation" (Exodus 19:5-6), the people were to reflect that holy calling in their lives (Deuteronomy 7:1-11). God sent judgment upon Israel when they apostatized from the Word of God and worshipped the gods of the heathen so that they became like the heathen (II Kings 17:6-8), followed their practices, and even intermarried with them (Judges 3:5-8). In contrast to this pagan association and life-style, Psalm 1:1 promises blessing to those who do not associate with the wicked, and Proverbs has much to say about avoiding evil men (for example, 4:14-19).
World system: the unregenerate people of this earth as organized and dominated by Satan, the god of this world (age). This system opposes Christ and His goals for the earth (John 15:18-19).
Worldliness: an attitude of friendship toward, a desire for, and a wish to be recognized by the world system. This attitude will lead to indulgence in acts which may not be wrong in themselves but which will identify one with the world system and thus hinder his love for God, his spiritual growth, and his Christian testimony.
Explanation and Application
Christ describes the normal relationship of the Christian to the world system: "If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love its own; but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you" (John 15:18-19). The apostle John told the first-century Christians, "Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hate you" (I John 3:15). If this enmity between the world system and the Christian ceases, it is the Christian, not the world, who has changed.
Separation from the world is, therefore, first a recognition of the completely evil character of the world and a decision not to desire or to expect approval or fair treatment from it. Second, it is an avoidance of all actions which might fall in the category of worldliness as defined above. Sources of contamination from the world today include ungodly television, music, movies, and fashions. A main source of contamination often warned against in Scripture is worldly friends (I Corinthians 15:33). The Christian should disassociate himself from the sins of the world, its idols, and all its unbiblical ambitions and schemes.
God's command to separate from the world, however, does not mean that the Christian should isolate himself from society. Christians are to be the "salt of the earth" (Matthew 5:13). They are responsible to evangelize the world (Acts 1:8); therefore, separation from the world by no means should discourage earnest efforts to win the world to Christ. God Himself desires the salvation of the world (John 3:16).
Furthermore, separation from the world does not forbid association with worldly people in the course of legitimate daily work. Paul tells the Corinthians that he does not expect them to leave the world in order to avoid contamination with sinners (I Corinthians 5:9-13). This is in harmony with the prayer of our Lord that believers be kept from the evil of the world, not removed from it (John 17:15). The Christian may cooperate with unsaved people in beneficial community projects, election of worthy leaders, or efforts to promote morality, though the Christian must be careful not to give Christian recognition to unsaved people in these efforts or to promote any organization using political efforts to further ecumenical tendencies. Biblical characters such as Joseph, Daniel, and Nehemiah are examples of men who worked in pagan environments while remaining true to God.
Christians, therefore, separate from the world and from worldliness for the following reasons:
- To avoid the ever-present danger of contamination by the world (I Corinthians 11:32, 15:33; II Corinthians 11:3; I Thessalonians 3:5; II Peter 2:12).
- To maintain a close fellowship with God (James 4:4; John 15:15).
- To base their lives on that which is enduring (John 15:17).
- To make clear to Christians and non-Christians alike by their actions that they belong to God, not to the world (I Thessalonians 5:22).
- To avoid sin (James 4:17).