Don Patterson on his blog mentioned that I had commented to him that worldliness is not people running amuck, but instead following rules and looking for rules and wanting rules. I wrote an article for Passion Magazine , the newsletter of the High Desert Baptist Association back in November, 2006 on this topic. Here it is:
What is Worldliness?
By R.P. Nettelhorst
When most of us think of what worldliness might be, we immediately think of bad behavior: dressing sleazy, saying bad words, hanging out with unsavory sorts. It will therefore come as a shock to learn that Paul’s understanding of worldliness is different from what we’ve been thinking most of our lives—especially for those of us raised in the church.
In his letter to the Colossians, Paul comments, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” (Col. 2:8)
Immediately we start thinking he’s criticizing thong underwear or maybe those teenagers chasing the latest fads, or evolution or that evil political party that’s not mine.
So what are these “principles of this world” that Paul is talking about?
It’s not a mystery. He quickly identifies what he thinks worldliness is: “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” (Col. 2:20-23).
What better describes the nature of the world than rules and ever more rules? Every government that has ever existed has delighted in imposing laws and regulations. They tell us how to build buildings, where we can build them, what speed to drive our cars, when we can go fishing and when we cannot. Homeowners associations impose regulations on what color you can paint your house and how often you have to mow your grass. We have bylaws and training manuals. Even our games come with lists of rules, whether it’s Candyland or baseball. We cannot escape rules and regulations. Lawyers infest the planet, threatening to take our last cent if we dare to push a toe across a forbidden line.
Running amok is not at all the essence of worldliness. Worldliness is exactly the opposite: it is following regulations and worrying about them all the time. Worldliness is imagining that if only we make another law that will solve the problem. Most of us are thoroughly infested with such worldly philosophy.
Paul points out that being worldly seems wise, worshipful, and properly religious. But rules do nothing to keep people from sinning. Consider: how much do the posted speed limits actually constrain your driving behavior? Do you really think that posting the Ten Commandments will help cut crime? A thief is going to walk into a bank, see the sign, “do not steal” slap himself on the forehead and go “Oh, yeah! Doh!” and quietly leave to find a job?
In the same chapter in Colossians Paul points out what is not worldliness: “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.” (Col. 2:13-14).
Following rules sounds good, but it is not godliness. Godliness is being transformed through the death of Christ on the cross. Love is the focus of godliness. As Paul points out in Romans (echoing what Jesus said in Matthew 22:36-40), “The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:9-10; see also Galatians 5:13-14)
Paul spends a lot of time in his letters contrasting grace with law, pointing out time and again that no one was every saved by the law. We tend to over-spiritualize our idea of what he means by law I think. What he’s saying is very simple: no one is saved by following the rules. We’re saved by grace. Grace is not just a theological statement, either, of significance only when we walked the aisle. It’s got real world, life-long implications and consequences—every day.
The world keeps piling on new rules. We’ve got people whose only job is to make lists and new regulations. We’ll elect more of them come November. But true godliness is simply that Jesus died for our sins. Godliness is that the Holy Spirit—God himself—lives inside us.
Think about that. Don’t you suppose that having God living inside us might have some profound impact on our behavior? But worldliness doesn’t believe that. Worldliness doesn’t trust God to actually be God in the lives of Christians. So in order to keep people from running amok, worldliness thinks it’s important to make rules, talk about rules, think about rules and to busy itself making sure everyone follows the rules.
Paul criticized the Galatians for such worldliness: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothing—if it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?” (Galatians 3:1-5)
Worldliness or godliness. Law or grace. Pick wisely.