How are believers to win the war against worldliness? God’s people are called to be holy; the repentance through which we are first saved is intended to become a lifestyle of repentance and separation from the fallen world around us. We must be careful to define what the “world” is if we are to properly understand what it means to be worldly. The “world” in the negative sense is not the physical creation, and it isn’t even really physical things (unless they are being used for sinful purposes). The world is the organized system of opposition to God and His rule, inhabited by fallen humans and demons, and expressed both in sinful attitudes/actions/desires/words and in the unique cultural systems and structures that manifest rebellion against God. One theologian wrote that the world is “the bad part of culture.” As such, separation form worldliness often includes separation from our culture, whether in attitude, affection, values, behavior, or even those much-contested things like dress, entertainment, use of money and time, etc.
First John was written both to give true Christians assurance of their salvation and to exhort them to continued steadfast loyalty to Jesus Christ in the face of false teaching and carnality. Union with Christ has both objective and subjective, static and dynamic elements. Human responsibility is not swallowed up or rendered irrelevant by God’s sovereign election of sinners to salvation. As such, John encourages us to remain faithful to the Lord Jesus and to pursue obedience, Spirit-filling, confession of sin, and the like, for only the one who does God’s will abides forever.
The passage we will study today applies this exhortation to the issue of the believer’s relationship to the world. How ought Christians remain faithful to the Lord in a radically fallen environment? John tells us how, and why. He gives us the command followed by three reasons we should obey it.
The Command: Love Not the World (v. 15a)
In verses 12-14, John addresses his audience as believers at various stages of Christian maturity. This is important for our discussion for at least two reasons: First, it means that believers can still succumb to love of the world if they have to be told to not do it; second, it implies believers at any stage of maturity are not exempt from this temptation, and as such must continue to vigilantly guard against it.
The Greek word John uses for “love” means to have a devoted, willing, earnest attachment to someone or something. It is the kind of love, treasuring, and devotion that compels you to defer to that thing or build your life around it, to the exclusion of other, competing affections. In other words, it is your consistent priority, value, and attraction.
So John exhorts the believers under his care, which includes us, to not have this kind of love for the world. Again, the “world” is not to be reduced to either the physical creation or material things, but a fallen system that manifests its opposition to God through various means, including and most especially ungodly culture. However, even good things can be worldly if they become idols. We are thus commanded to love nothing supremely expect God (thus living good things ordinately) and to not love bad things at all.
Of course, John is not calling for sinless perfection. He is giving us the standard so we can repent of and mortify our failings. Only when this love characterizes a person to an impenitent and pervasive degree should they question whether they truly know the Lord. Struggling with sin is not embracing it. Even embracing it for a season and then repenting and pursuing righteousness is not the same thing as settled impenitence. God is merciful. He wants us to be holy and happy. Do not run from Him because of a misunderstanding of His holy standard! For only in throwing yourself upon Him will you find power to obey.
A. Love of the World Characterizes Unbelievers (v. 15b)
The first reason John gives for rejecting this kind of attachment to the fallen world system is because such love characterizes the unsaved. It is not hard to see this in practice. Every unsaved person you know either loves certain bad things, loves good things as ultimate things, or both. This is utterly ingrained in their thinking, affections, and choices. Moreover, behind it is self-rule—the rule of life and the purpose for their life is the gratification and assertion of self. Thus, even the image of God in them—which is rightly drawn to beauty, comfort, pleasure, meaning, purpose, etc.—is distorted as it idolizes or misinterprets good things like sex, family relationships, work, money, etc., and is also helplessly ensnared by love for inordinate things (physical immorality, coarse joking, drunkenness, autonomy, pride, arrogance, unbelief, etc.).
Love for the world characterizes the lost because John says to love the world is to not love the Father. These loves are mutually exclusive. One can either be characterized by loving God or loving the world, but not both. I am reminded of Solomon’s words in Proverbs 3: We may either lit. “lean unto” Yahweh with all our hearts, or unto our own understanding. But we may not do both.
Are you unwilling to abandon worldly things in your life, whether those unique to our culture or those more basic to fallen humanness? Do you prefer them over God? I am not asking if in a given season or stage of life you find yourself more drawn to, say, a sitcom with lowbrow humor than listening to a sermon (this is both an overly-artificial, unrealistic comparison and not necessarily reflective of the overall set of your spirit). I am asking if, over time, there is a persistent unwillingness to part with worldliness because you really do love it more than God. If so, John’s warning applies to you: You cannot love God and love the world. You must make a choice. Repent, and know His favor, if not His salvation for the very first time.
B. What is In the World is Not From the Father (v. 16)
Not only is love for the world incompatible with love for the Lord God, but we are not to love the world because what is in it is not from the Father. This is an interpretive clue that assures us the world is more than just the physical creation or even culture in general (a combination of God’s creative activity and ours as humans in His image).
John goes on to clarify that what is in the world is comprised of (a) lust of the flesh, (b) lust of the eyes, and (c) the pride of life. These are attitudes based upon fallen perceptions, that influence behavior and choices. The world, then, is fundamentally sinful attitudes that then find expression in various behaviors, human structures/cultural endeavors, and choices.
The lust of the flesh speaks to satisfaction of human desire in an inordinate, ruling way. It is not necessarily sexual, but simply speaks of a controlling desire for the satiation of some human longing, particularly if it is outside the will of God.
Lust of the eyes denotes this longing specifically as expressed through the eye-gate. It is to be inordinately drawn to something based on its pleasing appearance, again for the satiation of a longing.
Pride of life is the root of worldliness. It is inordinate self-focus. It is when one’s goals, plans, desires, intents, and so on terminate on oneself. It is further unbelieving and dissatisfied with God’s authority and provision.
Because sin ruptures communion with God, worldliness causes the believer to lose usefulness and joy, which are tethered to obedience and humility. Unchecked, unconfessed sin is incompatible with serving the Lord, so once again John highlights the mutual exclusivity. This time, he tells us that not even what is in the world is from God., If so, how on earth can we be devoted to it and yet know, love, and serve the Lord?
C. The World is Passing Away (v. 17)
The final reason to not attach ourselves to the world is because it is passing away. “Is passing” implies this is an already ongoing process. Likely, John means to root the genesis of its destruction in our Lord’s crucifixion-resurrection-ascension, where He paid the penalty for sin, inaugurated the new creation, and is ruling victoriously from heaven to oversee its conquering spread over the face of the earth. Of course, that new creation will not be completed until our Lord’s glorious bodily return, where He will establish the millennial empire and then the complete renewal/resurrection of the heavens and the earth.
Interestingly, John does not say the world will pass away, but that it is. The destruction of the world system is an ongoing process only to be completed in our Lord’s Second Advent. An unstoppable process has begun and is sure to be completed in the final day. This means that all who are in “the world” are on a collision course with the fiery wrath of Jehovah God. For “the world” will reach its zenith of manifest expression during the dominion of Antichrist’s Babylon over all the earth, a dominion used by God to punish the earth for its evil (Isaiah 13:11; cf. 24:1–6; Zeph. 3:8; Micah 7:13), and yet a dominion that will be toppled by Him for its ultimate pride and opposition to the rule of Heaven.
Judgment is coming. The holy God will have the victory and save His humble, penitent people. In light of that future victory, why align yourself with a system marked for destruction? O that the reality of God’s promised future would arrest our whole being and be more real to us than breathing! Dear believer, depart from the world. Do not fall away into destruction with it (and prove you were never saved to begin with). Flee! Come all the way out, and spend your life to draw others out with you, that the Lord might have a resplendent bride in both beauty and number.
O that God would grant us passion for Him, for His holiness, and for others to know both. May God help us to glorify Him through sanctified, joyful, consecrated lives brimming with His beauty and glory until the day we see Jesus Christ face to face!