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Investigating Legalism—Where in the World Is Worldliness?

Where in the world is worldliness? How you answer this question will determine how you live out your Christian experience in God’s world. Your “system of Christian practice” flows from how you answer my question.

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In this series: Part One and Part Two

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How you evangelize, interact with your culture, lead your wife, parent your kids, pray to God, read your Bible, confess your sins, and relate to your local church are some of the things affected by your understanding of worldliness.

The Gnostics believed that worldliness was in the world. The legalist has a similar perspective. They both see the “world” as evil and internal spiritual things as good. This understanding is why they both separate from the culture and encourage others to do similarly.

I used to think that worldliness was in the world too, and the logical outworking of my belief and practice was to draw lines between me and my culture. I became a separatist from all of those who were not like me. I did not learn these things from my observations of Jesus.

It was my Christian teachers that taught me how to live the life of a legalist. They told me about the (contrived) “doctrine of separation.” Even though Jesus contextualized Himself in His culture, my mentors motivated me to live differently from Him by separating from those who were not like me.

Holding tenaciously to this worldview created problems because I attempted to live in my world as I separated from them, integrated with them, and judged them from my self-righteous pedestal. It was not only an awkward relationship, but it was a joyless Christian experience. Rule-keepers can’t be joyful unless they are oblivious to how out-of-step they are to God’s Word.

Where Do You Draw the Line?

Christians are supposed to separate from the world, but the first question to ask is where is the worldliness—according to God’s Word—from which they are separating. I used to draw the line between me and my culture because I believed that worldliness was “out there” in the community.

Today, I draw the line in another place. I see that worldliness is in my heart, which is where John and James located it.

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 of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. – 1 John 2:14-15

But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. – James 1:14-15

Desires, lusts, and pride are born in and flow out of our sinful hearts. John and James placed worldliness inside an individual. John tells us not to love the world or the things in the world, and then he describes what is in the world by talking about pride, lusts, desires, which are sinful heart attitudes.

John is not teaching me to draw a line between myself and the culture in which I live. My primary problem is not about where I go, what I wear, who I hang with, what I say, or the things that I eat and drink.

Besides missing the mark on where the sin is, if I draw the line between the community and me, I will alienate myself from them, which will keep me from sharing Jesus with them. Christ came to penetrate the world, not to create hedges and barriers between Him and the unsaved. I praise God that He did not separate from me since I was one of those sinners that He needed to reach.

This biblical perspective on worldliness still leaves the question about styles, preferences, and interactions. What should I wear? Who should be my friends? Does modesty matter? What about cultural venues? Is it okay to get drunk? May I watch anything? All of these questions are excellent, and you must know how to answer them biblically.

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James 1:14-15

I Care What Others Think

I am my brother’s keeper; the bible is clear, which is the point that Paul was making in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13. If there is a weaker brother that is easily offended by things that the Bible permits, the mature Christian should be careful by refraining from those things—but within reason. The weak Christians in Paul’s day thought it was a sin to eat previously sacrificed meat. Paul knew their externalism of meat eating was not a sin much like going to a movie theater is not a sin.

But Paul warned those Christians, who knew their “external” meat eating was not a big deal, that they should be careful not to flaunt (arrogance) their accurate biblical knowledge in front of those who had weak (fearful) consciences and an inaccurate biblical understanding. A correct biblical understanding regarding a practice can lead to pride and arrogance in how you live out your preference. Paul cautioned his friends not to do those things.

If someone has taught you all your life that something is a sin, when in reality it is not wrong, the Christian who knows better needs to practice love around that individual because the “legalist” brother believes it is sinful. The issue in view here is more about loving a weaker Christian brother than living in the freedom of practicing your preference.

I am free to attend a movie theater, but I’m aware that it can be a stumbling block for a weaker brother who has been trained by religious “authorities” that it’s a sin to practice such things. It’s critical that you understand that I’m not drawing a line between the theater and me because that is not a sin to me. The sin would be if I proudly flaunt my freedom before my weaker brother.

John and James do not place worldliness in the world but inside a person’s heart. Paul agrees: it isn’t the meat, but it’s the heart of an individual that matters most. Self-righteousness can tempt one believer to think he’s better than the weak believer. Ironically, the weaker believer can succumb to a similar temptation of self-righteousness, as he thinks he better because he does not attend movies.

  • One believer is self-righteous because he’s free to do his preference.
  • The other believer is self-righteous because he’s not free, but judges the believer who does do it.

I’m Not Controlled By What Others Think

The question then becomes, “If I must be concerned for all the ‘weaker Christians’ in my life, I’m in a self-incarcerated prison of asceticism.” The logic seems to say that I must isolate myself from everyone and everything because there is seemingly no end to what a Christian may interpret as sin.

Of course, that is an immature response. It isn’t possible, reasonable, or biblical to isolate from a community whether those individuals are saved or lost. Christ penetrated His world. He embedded Himself in His culture. It is not possible for you to guard against every possibility of offense. Jesus was not able to keep from offending people.

One could say that God is an offense, as Paul implied in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25. Just because the world struggles with God, it does not mean that He must isolate Himself from them—the weak ones. God was a stumbling block.

People didn’t like the way the Lord operated, but He pursued the offended, hoping to reconcile with them. Did God change His practices? No. But some of the weak ones did transform—like me.

The mature Christian has enough self-awareness to know that he will offend some folks. And he knows his job is to help weaker brothers and sisters with grace and humility, serving them while hoping the Lord would free them from personal offenses that releases them to enjoy the things that the Bible does not prohibit.

Separate from and Embed in Your Culture

The meat eaters in Paul’s day were in real bondage, which is why he warned about flaunting your freedom. The fear is strong. I can tell you exactly where I was the first time I wore blue jeans to a church meeting. I felt as though I was sinning at the same time of feeling exhilaration in my soul. It was a strange juxtaposition of emotions.

My fundamentalist system had taught me all my Christian life that it was a sin if you did not wear “church clothes” to a church meeting, and jeans are not church clothes. The line of reasoning is that if you’re going “before the Lord,” you dress up for the occasion. (Of course, I was aware that I could come before the Lord in my pajamas.)

Jesus had the remarkable ability not to draw attention to Himself by how He was so much like His culture, but when it came to points that mattered, He distinguished Himself from His culture. But the way He dressed was not what identified Him.

Christ was free to look like everyone else. He also did not draw attention to Himself by where He went. In these ways, He was not a separatist. He mingled with His culture: He loved the people, and it was apparent. Jesus went where they went; He ate where they ate; He participated in what they did. He was an “embedded Christian.”

He did distinguish Himself as different from His culture in the critical areas that mattered. For example, Jesus was a servant to everyone—the lost and the saved—because He did not come to earth for others to serve Him.

He didn’t care if folks were offended when it came to serving people. He would serve the mixed-raced Samaritan (John 4:7-14). He would allow the trashy down-and-out woman to wipe His feet with her tears and hair (Mark 14:3-9). He would help the super-spiritual, overly proud Nicodemus (John 3:1-7). And He would draw a line in the sand between the lewd and the legalists (John 8:1-11).

  • If you distinguish yourself by serving your culture rather than isolating from your sphere of influence, you are behaving like Jesus.
  • If you differentiate yourself by loving your wife through serving her, you are acting like Jesus.
  • If you distinguish yourself by modeling biblical manhood to your children, you being like Jesus.

The opportunities for impacting your culture for Christ are wonderfully staggering.

To Dress or Not to Dress

Being immodest or over-modest can have the same effect: you’re drawing attention to yourself. If your behaviors capture the gazes of others rather than reflect the Christ whom you serve, you need to rethink why you dress the way you do.

This perspective is what the Pharisees were doing. They were drawing attention to their religious garb, which was merely a desire for the approval of “men” rather than receiving God’s pleasure, which is what John called worldliness. (John placed worldliness in our hearts, not in our clothes.)

It is better to be culturally relevant (and modest) than wear clothes that draw attention to your religiousness. I have never looked at an immodest woman and thought about God. And I have never looked at an over-modest woman and thought about God. In both cases, I thought about the way the person dressed. It was either seductive or odd, but ultimately it was the person I was thinking about and not God.

Jesus chose a “blend with His culture approach” unless it came to serving His culture for the glory of His Father, which is how He set Himself apart. Jesus was culturally relevant, modest, courageous, and embedded.

You can be relevant and reach your culture without caving to the immodesty of your community or the over-modesty of religious traditionalism. The key is to guard your heart against the temptation of thinking that the external is sinful.

It is the heart that you must safeguard. It is sinful lust, desires, and pride that will make you worldly. As you examine your heart and engage your culture, you’re attacking any potential worldliness that seeks to lure you away from God.

R. C. Sproul on Legalism

It is a tragedy that Christians have treated the matter of nonconformity at a shallow level. The simplistic way of not conforming is to see what is in style in our culture and then do the opposite. If short hair is in vogue, the nonconformist wears long hair. If going to the movies is popular, Christians avoid movies as “worldly.” The extreme case of this may be seen in groups that refuse to wear buttons or use electricity because such things, too, are worldly.

A superficial style of nonconformity is the classical pharisaical trap. The kingdom of God is not about buttons, movies, or dancing. The concern of God is not focused on what we eat or what we drink. The call of nonconformity is a call to a deeper level of righteousness that goes beyond externals. When piety is defined exclusively in terms of externals, the whole point of the apostle’s teaching has been lost. Somehow we have failed to hear Jesus’ words that it is not what goes into a person’s mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of that mouth. We still want to make the kingdom a matter of eating and drinking.

Why are such distortions rampant in Christian circles? The only answer I can give is sin. Our marks of piety can actually be evidences of impiety. When we major in minors and blow insignificant trifles out of proportion, we imitate the Pharisees. When we make dancing and movies the test of spirituality, we are guilty of substituting a cheap morality for a genuine one. We do these things to obscure the deeper issues of righteousness. Anyone can avoid dancing or going to movies. These require no great effort of moral courage. What is difficult is to control the tongue, to act with integrity, to reveal the fruit of the Spirit. – The Holiness of God. On pages 161-162

In this series: Part One and Part Two

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