A group of first-graders had just completed a tour of a hospital and the nurse who directed them was asking for questions. Immediately a hand went up. “How come the people who work here are always washing their hands?” a little fellow asked.
After the laughter had subsided the nurse gave a wise answer. “They are ‘always washing their hands’ for two reasons. First, they love health; and second, they hate germs.”
In more than one area of life, love and hate go hand in hand. A husband who loves his wife is certainly going to exercise a hatred for what would harm her. “Those who love the Lord hate evil” (Ps. 97:10). “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good” (Rom. 12:9).
In my last article, we saw how John’s epistle reminds us to exercise love (1 Jn. 2:7–11)—the right kind of love. Now, it warns us there is a wrong kind of love, a love that God hates (1 Jn. 2:12-17). This is love for what the Bible calls “the world.” There are four reasons why Christians should not love “the world.”
1. BECAUSE OF WHAT THE WORLD IS
The warning, “Love not the world!” is not about the world of nature or the world of men.
The “world” named here as our enemy is an invisible spiritual system opposed to God and Christ. The world is Satan’s system for opposing the work of Christ on earth. It is the very opposite of what is godly, holy, and spiritual (1 Jn. 2:16).
Jesus called Satan “the prince of this world” (Jn. 12:31). The devil has an organization of evil spirits (Eph. 6:11–12) working with him and influencing the affairs of “this world.” Just as the Holy Spirit uses people to accomplish God’s will on earth, so Satan uses people to fulfill his evil purposes. Unsaved people, whether they realize it or not, are energized by “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in those who are disobedient” (Eph. 2:1–2).
Unsaved people belong to “this world” (Lk. 16:8). When Jesus was here on earth the people of “this world” did not understand Him, nor do they now understand those of us who trust Him (1 Jn. 3:1). A Christian is a member of the human world and he lives in the physical world, but he does not belong to the spiritual world that is Satan’s system for opposing God. “If the world [Satan’s system] hates you, keep in mind that it hated Me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you” (Jn. 15:18-19).
“The world,” then, is not a natural habitat for a believer. The believer’s citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20) and all his effective resources for living on earth come from his Father in heaven. The believer is somewhat like a scuba diver. The water is not man’s natural habitat; he is not equipped for life in (or under) it. When a scuba diver goes under, he has to take special equipment with him so that he can breathe.
Were it not for the Holy Spirit’s living within us and the spiritual resources we have in prayer, Christian fellowship, and the Word, we could never “make it” here on earth. We complain about the pollution of the earth’s atmosphere—the atmosphere of “the world” is also so polluted spiritually that Christians cannot breathe normally!
But there is a second—and more serious—reason why Christians must not love the world:
2. BECAUSE OF WHAT THE WORLD DOES TO US (2:15–16)
“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world” (1 Jn. 2:15-16).
Worldliness is not so much a matter of activity as of attitude. It is possible for a Christian to stay away from questionable amusements and doubtful places and still love the world, for worldliness is a matter of the heart. To the extent that a Christian loves the world system and the things in it, he does not love the Father.
Worldliness not only affects our response to the love of God; it also affects our response to the will of God. “The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever” (1 Jn. 2:17). Doing the will of God is a joy for those living in the love of God: “If you love Me, keep My commandments.” But when a believer loses his enjoyment of the Father’s love, he finds it hard to obey the Father’s will.
When you put these two factors together, you have a practical definition of worldliness: anything in a Christian’s life that causes him to lose his enjoyment of the Father’s love or His desire to do the Father’s will is worldly and must be avoided. Responding to the Father’s love (our personal devotional life) and doing the Father’s will (our daily conduct)—these are two tests of worldliness.
Many things in this world are definitely wrong and God’s Word identifies them as sins. It is wrong to steal and to lie (Eph. 4:25, 28). Sexual sins are wrong (Eph. 5:1–3). About these and many other actions, Christians can have little or no debate. But there are areas of Christian conduct that are not so clear and about which even the best Christians disagree. In such cases, each believer must apply the test to his own life and be scrupulously honest in his self-examination, remembering that even a good thing may rob a believer of his enjoyment of God’s love and his desire to do God’s will.
A senior student in a Bible college was known for his excellent grades and his effective Christian service. He was out preaching each weekend, and God was using him to win souls and challenge Christians. Then, something happened: his testimony was no longer effective, his grades began to drop, and even his personality seemed to change.
The president called him in. “There’s been a change in your life and your work, and I wish you’d tell me what’s wrong.”
The student was evasive for a time, but then he told the story. He was engaged to a lovely Christian girl and was planning to get married after graduation. He had been called to a fine church, and was anxious to move his new bride into the parsonage and get started in the pastorate.
“I’ve been so excited about it that I’ve even come to the place where I don’t want the Lord to come back!” he confessed. “And then the power dropped out of my life.”
His plans—good and beautiful as they were—came between him and the Father. He lost his enjoyment of the Father’s love. He was worldly!
John points out that the world system uses three devices to trap Christians: lust (desire) of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and pride of life (1 Jn. 2:16). These same devices trapped Eve back in the Garden: “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food [lust of the flesh], and pleasing to the eyes [lust of the eyes], and also desirable for gaining wisdom [pride of life], she took some and ate it” (Gen. 3:6).
The lust of the flesh is anything that appeals to man’s fallen nature. “The flesh” does not mean “the body.” Rather, it refers to the basic nature of unregenerate man that makes him blind to spiritual truth (1 Cor. 2:14). Flesh is the nature we receive in our physical birth; spirit is the nature we receive in the second birth (Jn. 3:5–6). When we trust Christ, we become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). A Christian has both the old nature (flesh) and the new nature (Spirit) in his life. What a battle these two natures can wage! (Gal. 5:17–23)
God has given man certain desires and these desires are good. Hunger, thirst, weariness, and sex are not at all evil in themselves. But when the flesh nature controls them, they become sinful “lusts.” Hunger is not evil, but gluttony is sinful. Thirst is not evil, but drunkenness is a sin. Sleep is a gift of God, but laziness is shameful. Sex is God’s precious gift when used rightly, but when used wrongly, it becomes immorality.
Now you can see how the world operates. It appeals to the normal appetites and tempts us to satisfy them in forbidden ways. In today’s world, we are surrounded by all kinds of allurements that appeal to our lower nature—and “the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41). If a Christian yields to it, he will get involved in the “works of the flesh” (Gal. 5:19–21).
It is important a believer remember what God says about his old nature, the flesh. Everything God says about the flesh is negative. In the flesh there is no good thing (Rom. 7:18). The flesh profits nothing (Jn. 6:63). A Christian is to put no confidence in the flesh (Phil. 3:3). He is to make no provision for the flesh (Rom. 13:14). A person who lives for the flesh is living a negative life.
The second device the world uses to trap the Christian is the lust of the eyes. Have you ever said, “Feast your eyes on this”? While the lust of the flesh appeals to the lower appetites of the old nature, tempting us to indulge them in sinful ways, the lust of the eyes operates in a more refined way. These are pleasures that gratify the sight and mind—sophisticated and intellectual pleasures. Back in the days of the Apostle John the Greeks and Romans lived for entertainments and activities that excited the eyes. Times have not changed very much! In view of television, perhaps every Christian’s prayer ought to be, “Turn my eyes away from worthless things” (Ps. 119:37).
Achan (Josh. 7), a soldier, brought defeat to Joshua’s army because of the lust of his eyes. God had warned Israel not to take anything from the condemned city of Jericho, but Achan did not obey: “When I saw in the plunder a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels, I coveted them and took them” (Josh. 7:21). The lust of the eyes led him into sin and his sin led the army into defeat.
The eyes (like the other senses!) are a gateway into the mind. The lust of the eyes, therefore, can include intellectual pursuits that are contrary to God’s Word. There is pressure to make Christians think the way the world thinks. God warns us against “the counsel of the ungodly.” This does not mean Christians ignore education and secular learning, but it does mean they are careful not to let intellectualism crowd God into the background.
The third device the world uses to trap the Christian is the pride of life. God’s glory is rich and full; man’s glory is vain and empty. The Greek word for “pride” describes a braggart who is trying to impress people with his importance. Such people are always trying to outdo others in their spending and their getting. The boastful pride of life motivates much of what they do.
Why is it that so many people buy houses, cars, appliances, or clothes they really cannot afford? Why do they succumb to the “travel now, pay later” advertising and get themselves into hopeless debt taking vacations far beyond their means? Largely because they want to impress other people—because of their “pride of life.” They may want folks to notice how affluent or successful they are.
Most of us do not go that far, but it is amazing what stupid things people do just to make an impression. They even sacrifice honesty and integrity in return for notoriety and a feeling of importance.
Yes, the world appeals to a Christian through the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. And once the world takes over in one of these areas, a Christian will soon realize it. He will lose his enjoyment of the Father’s love and his desire to do the Father’s will. The Bible will become boring and prayer a difficult chore. Even Christian fellowship may seem empty and disappointing. It is not that there is something wrong with others, however—what’s wrong is the Christian’s worldly heart.
It is important to note that no Christian becomes worldly all of a sudden. Worldliness creeps up on a believer; it is a gradual process. First is the friendship of the world (Jas. 4:4). By nature, the world and the Christian are enemies: “Do not be surprised if the world hates you” (1 Jn. 3:13). A Christian who is a friend of the world is an enemy of God.
Next, the Christian becomes polluted by the world (Jas. 1:27). The world leaves its dirty marks on one or two areas of his life. This means gradually the believer accepts and adopts the ways of the world.
When this happens, the world ceases to hate the Christian and starts to love him! So John warns us, “Love not the world!”—but too often our friendship with the world leads to love. As a result, the believer becomes conformed to the world (Rom. 12:2) and you can hardly tell the two apart.
Among Christians, worldliness rears its ugly head in many subtle and unrecognized forms. Sometimes we tend to idolize great athletes, TV stars, or political leaders who profess to be Christians—as if these individuals were able to be of special help to Almighty God. Or we cater to wealthy and “influential” persons in our local church, as if God’s work would fold up without their good will or financial backing. Many forms of worldliness do not involve reading the wrong books and indulging in “carnal” amusements.
Sad to say, being conformed to the world can lead a Christian into being “condemned with the world” (1 Cor. 11:32). If a believer confesses and judges this sin, God will forgive him; but if he does not confess, God must lovingly chasten him. When a Christian is “condemned with the world,” he does not lose his sonship. Rather, he loses his testimony and his spiritual usefulness. In extreme cases, Christians have even lost their lives! (1 Cor. 11:29–30)
The downward steps and their consequences are illustrated in the life of Lot (Gen. 13:5–13, 14:8–14; 19). First, Lot looked toward Sodom. Then, he pitched his tent toward Sodom in the well-watered plains of Jordan. Then, he moved into Sodom. When Sodom was captured by the enemy, Lot was captured too. He was a believer (2 Pet. 2:6–8), but he had to suffer with the unbelieving sinners of that wicked city. When God destroyed Sodom, everything Lot lived for went up in smoke! Lot was saved so as by fire and lost his eternal reward (1 Cor. 3:12–15).
No wonder John warns us not to love the world!
3. BECAUSE OF WHAT A CHRISTIAN IS (2:12–14)
This raises a practical and important question about the nature of a Christian and how he keeps from getting worldly. The answer is found in the unusual form of address used in 2:12-14. Note the titles used as John addresses his Christian readers: “little children … fathers … young men … little children.” What is he referring to?
To begin with, “little children” (2:12) refers to all believers. Literally, this word means “born ones.” All Christians have been born into God’s family through faith in Jesus Christ and their sins have been forgiven. The very fact one is in God’s family, sharing His nature, ought to discourage him from becoming friendly with the world. To be friendly with the world is treachery! “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (Jas. 4:4).
Something else is also true: we begin as little children—born ones—but we must not stay that way! Only as a Christian grows spiritually does he overcome the world.
John mentions three kinds of Christians in a local church family: fathers, young men, and little children. The “fathers,” of course, are mature believers who have an intimate personal knowledge of God. Because they know God, they know the dangers of the world. No Christian who has experienced the joys and wonders of fellowship with God, and of service for God, will want to live on the substitute pleasures this world offers.
The “young men” are the conquerors: they have overcome the wicked one, Satan, who is the prince of this world system. How did they overcome him? Through the Word of God! “I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God lives in you” (2:14). The “young men,” then, are not yet fully mature; but they are maturing, for they use the Word of God effectively. The Word is the only weapon that will defeat Satan (Eph. 6:17).
The “little children” addressed in 2:13 are not those addressed in 2:12; two different Greek words are used. The word in 2:13 carries the idea of “immature ones” or little children still under the authority of teachers and tutors. These are young Christians who have not yet grown up in Christ. Like physical children, these spiritual children know their father, but they still have some growing to do.
Here, then, is the Christian family! All of them are “born ones,” but some of them have grown out of infancy into spiritual manhood and adulthood. It is the growing, maturing Christian to whom the world does not appeal. He is too interested in loving his Father and in doing his Father’s will. The attractions of the world have no allure for him. He realizes the things of the world are only toys, and he can say with Paul, “When I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Cor. 13:11).
A Christian stays away from the world because of (1) what the world is (a satanic system that hates and opposes Christ); (2) what the world does (attracts us to live on sinful substitutes); and (3) what he (the Christian) is—a child of God. But there is a fourth reason why Christians should not love the world.
4. BECAUSE OF WHERE THE WORLD IS GOING (2:17)
“The world is passing away!” (2:17).
That statement would be challenged by many men today who are confident that the world—the system in which we live—is as permanent as anything can be. But the world is not permanent. The only sure thing about this world system is that it is not going to be here forever. One day the system will be gone and the pleasant attractions within it will be gone: all are passing away.
What is going to last? Only what is part of the will of God!
Spiritual Christians keep themselves “loosely attached” to this world because they live for something far better. They are “foreigners and strangers on the earth” (Heb. 11:13). “For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Heb. 13:14). In Bible times, many believers lived in tents because God did not want them to settle down and feel at home in this world.
John is contrasting two ways of life: a life lived for eternity and a life lived for time. A worldly person lives for the pleasures of the flesh, but a dedicated Christian lives for the joys of the Spirit. A worldly believer lives for what he can see, the lust of the eyes; but a spiritual believer lives for the unseen realities of God (2 Cor. 4:8–18). A worldly minded person lives for the pride of life, the vainglory that appeals to men; but a Christian who does the will of God lives for God’s approval. He “abides forever.”
Every great nation in history has become decadent and has finally been conquered by another nation. There is no reason why we should suppose our nation will be an exception. World civilizations in the past have slipped into oblivion. There is no reason why we should think our present civilization will endure forever. “Change and decay in all around I see,” wrote Henry F. Lyte (1793–1847), and if our civilization is not eroded by change and decay it will certainly be swept away and replaced by a new order of things at the coming of Christ, which could happen at any time.
Slowly but inevitably, and perhaps sooner than even Christians think, the world is passing away; but the man who does God’s will abides forever. This does not mean all God’s servants will be remembered by future generations. Of the multitudes of famous men who have lived on earth, less than 2,000 have been remembered by any number of people for more than a century.
Nor does it mean God’s servants will live on in their writings or in the lives of those they influenced. Such “immortality” may be a fact, but it is equally true of unbelievers like Karl Marx, Voltaire, or Adolf Hitler.
No, we are told here (1 Jn. 2:17) that Christians who dedicate themselves to doing God’s will—to obeying God—“abide [remain] forever.” Long after this world system, with its vaunted culture, proud philosophies, egocentric intellectualism, and godless materialism, has been forgotten and long after this planet has been replaced by the new heavens and the new earth, God’s faithful servants will remain—sharing the glory of God for all eternity. And this prospect is not limited to Moody, Spurgeon, Luther, or Wesley and their likes—it is open to each and every humble believer. If you are trusting Christ, it is for you.
This world system is not a lasting one: “This world in its present form is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31). Everything around us is changing, but the things that are eternal never change. A Christian who loves the world will never have peace or security because he has linked his life with that which is in a state of flux. “He is no fool,” wrote missionary martyr Jim Elliot, “who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
The New Testament has quite a bit to say about the “will of God.” One of the “fringe benefits” of salvation is the privilege of knowing God’s will (Acts 22:14). In fact, God wants us to be “filled with the knowledge of His will” (Col. 1:9). The will of God is not something we consult occasionally like an encyclopedia. It is something that completely controls our lives. The issue for a dedicated Christian is not simply, “Is it right or wrong?” or “Is it good or bad?” The key issue is, “Is this the will of God for me?”
God wants us to understand His will (Eph. 5:17), not just know what it is. “He made known His ways to Moses, His deeds to the people of Israel” (Ps. 103:7). Israel knew what God was doing, but Moses knew why He was doing it! It is important we understand God’s will for our lives and see the purposes He is fulfilling.
After we know the will of God, we should do it from the heart (Eph. 6:6). It is not by talking about the Lord’s will that we please Him, but by doing what He tells us (Matt. 7:21). The more we obey God the better able we are to “find and follow God’s will” (Rom. 12:2). Discovering and doing God’s will is something like learning to swim: you must get in the water before it becomes real to you. The more we obey God, the more proficient we become in knowing what He wants us to do. God’s goal for us is that we will “stand firm … complete in all the will of God” (Col. 4:12). This means to be mature in God’s will.
A little child constantly asks his parents what is right and what is wrong, and what they want him to do or not to do. But as he lives with his parents and experiences their training and discipline, he gradually discovers what their will for him is. In fact, a disciplined child can “read his father’s mind” just by watching the parent’s face and eyes! An immature Christian is always asking his friends what they think God’s will is for him. A mature Christian stands complete in the will of God. He knows what the Lord wants him to do.
How does one discover the will of God? The process begins with surrender: “Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—His good, pleasing and perfect will” (Rom. 12:1–2). A Christian who loves the world will never know the will of God in this way. The Father shares His secrets with those who obey Him. “Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (John 7:17). God’s will is not a “spiritual cafeteria” where a Christian takes what he wants and rejects the rest! No, the will of God must be accepted in its entirety. This involves a personal surrender to God of one’s entire life.
God reveals His will to us through His Word. “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light on my path” (Ps. 119:105). A worldly believer has no appetite for the Bible. When he reads it, he gets little or nothing from it. But a spiritual believer, who spends time daily reading the Bible and meditating on it, finds God’s will there and applies it to his everyday life.
We may also learn God’s will through circumstances. God moves in wonderful ways to open and close doors. We must test this kind of leading by the Word of God—and not test the Bible’s clear teaching by circumstances!
Finally, God leads us into His will through prayer and the working of His Spirit in our hearts. As we pray about a decision the Holy Spirit speaks to us. An “inner voice” may agree with the leading of circumstances. We are never to follow this “inner voice” alone: we must always test it by the Bible because it is possible for the flesh (or for Satan!) to use circumstances—or “feelings”—to lead us completely astray.
To sum it up, a Christian is in the world physically (Jn. 17:11), but he is not of the world spiritually (Jn. 17:14). Christ has sent us into the world to bear witness of Him (Jn. 17:18). Like a scuba diver, we must live in an alien element and if we are not careful the alien element will stifle us. A Christian cannot help being in the world, but when the world is in the Christian, trouble starts!
The world gets into a Christian through his heart: “Love not the world!” Anything that robs a Christian of his enjoyment of the Father’s love or of his desire to do the Father’s will is worldly and must be avoided. Every believer, on the basis of God’s Word, must identify those things for himself.
A Christian must decide, “Will I live for the present only or will I live for the will of God and abide forever?” Jesus illustrated this choice by telling about two men. One built on the sand and the other on the rock (Matt. 7:24–27). Paul referred to the same choice by describing two kinds of material for building: temporary and permanent (1 Cor. 3:11–15).
Love for the world is the love God hates. It is the love a Christian must shun at all costs!