If you had no knowledge of Scripture but simply watched popular evangelicalism, you might reasonably infer that the church is under some order to imitate the world as closely as possible.
Every popular fad or movement soon has a ‘Christian’ counterpart. Every product logo will eventually be mimicked with a religious slant, silk-screened onto a T-shirt, and sold to evangelicals as a witnessing tool. Every hit movie will become the basis for countless sermon series. And every new trend in popular music will soon be integrated into the worship band’s repertoire.
Evangelicals nowadays desperately want to be fashionable, but so many of them don’t seem to care whether they are biblical. They take far more care to be politically correct than they do to be doctrinally sound. To borrow a phrase from James 3:10, these things ought not to be so.
The New Testament is full of texts that contrast the church with the world in the starkest possible terms. No wonder. These are rival domains, locked in irreconcilable opposition, at war with one another for mastery of human souls.
Christ is Head of the church (Ephesians 5:23), and it confesses him as its Lord. But ‘the whole world lies in the power of the evil one’ (1 John 5:19). The church has no calling to try to broker a truce with the world. Jesus said believers can expect no more friendly reception from the unbelieving world than he received: ‘If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you,’ he said.
‘If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you’ (John 15:18-19).
Repeated attempts to reverse that reality have proved disastrous for the church. To try to appease popular opinion or win the friendship and affection of the world by imitation, flattery, compromise, accommodation, or any other means is actually treason against Christ. It is high rebellion against our heavenly Father, because ‘if anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him’ (1 John 2:15).
It is a brazen attempt to subvert the work of the Holy Spirit because ‘the spirit of the world’ is antithetical to ‘the Spirit who is from God’ (1 Corinthians 2:12). Scripture leaves no wiggle room here: ‘Friendship with the world is enmity with God… whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God’ (James 4:4).
There’s no hint of a contradiction between that principle and the best-known verse in all of Scripture: ‘God so loved the world’ (John 3:16) describes God’s incomprehensible love for people in this world despite their sin. That verse and its context describe the amazing, tender-hearted willingness of God to save sinners such as us from the condemnation we deserve, highlighting the inexplicable grace that made such a costly sacrifice even ‘while we were enemies’ (Romans 5:10).
But make no mistake: the world itself remains systemically and fundamentally at enmity with God. Its political systems are in the grip of Satan, who is called ‘the ruler of this world’ (John 12:31) and ‘the god of this world’ (2 Corinthians 4:4).
The world’s values are corrupt (2 Peter 1:4). The whole world is full of lust and evil pride (1 John 2:16). Its dogmas are full of lies (Colossians 2:8). Its very best philosophies are sheer folly (1 Corinthians 3:19). This world is fallen, hopelessly corrupt, and slated for judgment (1 John 2:17).
We do, of course, share God’s compassionate love (and a true empathy) for people who are enslaved by the passions and pleasures that dominate this world (Colossians 3:3). The spiritual battle we wage against the world consists of tearing down strongholds of earthly ideologies in order to liberate people from their captivity (2 Corinthians 10:4-5).
But believers are commanded not to love the world itself or the lusts and the pride that dominate all the world’s systems (1 John 2:15). In fact, true holiness starts with a refusal to conform our thinking to this world’s values or ideas (Romans 12:2). Christians must strive to be different. We don’t belong to this world. ‘Our citizenship is in heaven’ (Philippians 3:20).
One of the hallmarks of true faith is a confession that we are ‘strangers and pilgrims on the earth’ (Hebrews 11:13). And one of the traits of our faithfulness is that we don’t accommodate to the world. Although we are in the world, we are not to be of the world.
Perhaps you have heard that saying many times. It echoes Jesus’ prayer for his people in John 17:14-16: ‘I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.’
This does not mean, of course, that Christians should wear some external costume that sets us apart, like the Pharisees’ broad phylacteries. It means we should be different in character, thoughts, and actions – holy and Christlike, in a world that hated (and still hates) Christ and his righteousness.
Jesus said believers are the salt of the earth. Salt in that culture was used for more than flavour enhancement. It was the best preservative for curing meats. Its antibacterial properties also made it useful in the treatment of wounds. Believers are supposed to have a similar influence in the world. True holiness exemplified by a faithful church has that effect – counteracting the corruptions of evil in the world.
Jesus also said we are the light of the world. When the church proclaims the truth of God’s Word, we radiate the true light that dispels spiritual darkness.
But when believers imitate the world or embrace worldly values, the saltiness is lost and the light is hidden. Let us strive to be distinctive in this world of darkness and corruption. After all, we ‘are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession’, and our singular calling is to ‘proclaim the excellencies of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvellous light’ (1 Peter 2:9).
This article was first published in Tabletalk, the Bible study magazine of Ligonier Ministries. Find out more at TabletalkMagazine.co.uk or try it free for three months today at TryTabletalk.co.uk.
John MacArthur is pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California.