Worldly Holiness, Holy Worldliness


I want to be a worldly Christian. In the Christian community in which I was raised, saying that would have gotten me voted off the island. “Worldliness” was a bad thing. And you can find Bible verses to prove that point. The Apostle John told the early Christians that they ought not to “love the world or anything in the world” (1 Jn 2:15). Jesus himself warned His disciples that since they “do not belong to the world” they should not be surprised if “the world hates you” (Jn 15:19). In one of the most poignant asides in his epistles, Paul tells us that his friend Demas had “loved this world” and hence, “deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica” (2 Tim 4:10).

So yes, you can find condemnations of “worldliness” in the Bible, even from Jesus Himself. And when “the world” is referred to in that manner, it means the general patterns of life have become corrupted by our shared rebellion against the Living God. To love the world in that sense is to be attached to those things that are, from the perspective of Christ’s Kingdom, transitory and illusionary; it is also to adopt the values of the sinful social order.

But there are times in the Bible when “the world” is referred to with different meanings. In some places the word simply has to do with geography. For example, Jesus predicted that the “gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations” (Mt. 24:l4). Here “the world” is a physical expanse, the territory containing the people of the earth – it is basically neutral, neither good nor bad.

But there are times when the word “world” actually has a very positive meaning, so much so that we should try very hard to love the world. Indeed, in this sense God Himself is a lover of the world, made clear in the simplest of all biblical summaries of the Gospel: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). The Greek word for world here is cosmos, referring to the “created order.” To be sure, this creation is presently distorted by sin and rebellion, but it is not unsalvageable. “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him” (Jn 3:17). The creator God who judged His creation to be “very good” at its beginnings (Gen 1:31) has reaffirmed its fundamental worth by sending His Son to renew it.

Christians have obligations to the world in all three senses of the term: bad, neutral, and good. We are sent into the sinful order, not to conform to it, but to confront its rebellion. As Jesus prayed to the Father on behalf of His disciples: “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one” (Jn 17:15). Christians are called to penetrate the territory over which sin presently rules. We must bring the Gospel, in a territorial sense, to the ends of the earth so that all may hear the Good News. And we must identify with all that is good in the cosmos, the good creation.

To say that the Gospel is about God’s love for “the world” is to recognize that the Christian message extends beyond a mere concern for the individual; it has implications with the whole creation. Not that the message for individuals ceases to be important. Jesus Christ did indeed come to save sinners. But He also came to reclaim a larger creation that has suffered because of human’s sinfulness. The Gospel is God’s response to sin, and sin affects the whole of the world that God has made. The curse of sin is cosmic in scope.

For one thing, the sinful rebellion of Adam and Eve has, according to Genesis 3, ramifications for the non-human natural order. Although this is a matter that is shrouded in some mystery, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s commands, a curse was introduced into the creation that apparently sent shock waves throughout the non-human realm: “cursed is the ground because of you…It will produce thorns and thistles for you” (Gen 3:17-18); and the Old Testament prophets view hostilities among the animals as a manifestation of sinfulness (Isa 11:6-7).

But there is another sense in which the curse of sin affects more than individual human beings: it also touches human institutions. Human greed, prejudice, selfishness, and pride – these attributes, which may well have their origins in the individual human heart, come to be woven into our institutional life, into the corporate patterns of human interaction. Institutions in turn perpetuate and reinforce these attributes in individuals.

This is clear from the phenomenon of racism. In the past, blacks in North America, South Africa, and other white-dominated societies were viewed as inferior human beings, even subhuman. Racist beliefs were consciously accepted and propagated by the white people. These beliefs were translated into action. Blacks were enslaved or were assigned to the most menial tasks. They were deprived of basic human rights. They were made the butt of demeaning jokes and stories. These conscious practices in turn became corporate embodiments with a “life of their own.” Racist attitudes were reflected in the legal system and in the labor market. The black community was systematically demoralized, constantly running up against stereotypes and prejudices.

It is no simple matter to change a situation of this sort. It is certainly not enough to say, as some Christians are fond of saying, that “changed hearts will change society.” Racial prejudice may well have begun in individual human hearts, but it comes to be institutionalized, codified. To correct things is to work at rewriting constitutions and labor codes. Self-images need to be repaired; communities have to be rebuilt.

Or think about the sex trade. If we managed to bring every individual prostitute in a given country to Christ, we would still have to deal with the economic realities of the situation. Where will they now get access to education and job training? What about those who manage and benefit from the “industry” of sexual trafficking? Changing individual hearts has to be coordinated with changes in the legal and economic structures.

These more “systemic” efforts are included in the biblical picture of redemption. When the prophets envision the fulfillment of God’s saving purposes, they portray a renewed creation: animals are at peace with one another and human beings; the earth yields abundant produce; the weapons of war are exchanged for instruments of harvest; people live together in faithful communities; justice, righteousness, and peace are the rule of the day.

When I say I want to be a worldly Christian, these are the things I have in mind. I want to nurture a “holy worldliness.” I want to be associated with a community of Christians who sense God’s call to be both witnesses to, and agents of, the full redemption that Christ came to accomplish. I want to be a part of a church that understands our identity as redemptive witnesses and equips men and women to be agents of God’s program of renewing His creation.

There are, of course, many difficult questions involved in deciding just how we are to contribute to the renewal of the world. For example, the main campus of the seminary that I serve is situated very near to Hollywood, and we meet regularly with Christians who work in the entertainment industry. They struggle with big challenges. In a work environment that produces film, websites, TV comedies, and video games, how do we use our talents and opportunities to serve the cause of Christ’s Kingdom? Again, some difficult challenges. But we do at least know that we can’t simply be guided by “giving them what they want.” The woman who reads scripts at Disney Studios, who is also a part-time student at Fuller Seminary, wants to see her work as an exercise in Christian discernment.

What are the plots and portrayals of human life that depict a God-honoring human flourishing? How can we point people, without being overtly “religious,” to the ideals of self-sacrifice, faithfulness in relationships, and the concerns of justice and peace?

For some of us, the most we can hope for in the patterns of our daily lives are small acts of obedience to the cause of the Gospel: a question we raise in university class discussion, a kind word to a customer, influencing the way in which a corporate policy gets worded, a letter of sympathy to a grieving non-Christian friend. None of these things will automatically turn into an opportunity for inviting people to come to Christ. But they can still be important efforts to engage in a “holy worldliness.”

Dr Richard J Mouw is President and Professor of Christian Philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary, USA. He has been an editor of the Reformed Journal and has served on many editorial boards, including currently Books and Culture. He is the author of 17 books including Consulting the Faithful; The Smell of Sawdust: What Evangelicals Can Learn from Their Fundamentalist Heritage; He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace; Wonderful Words of Life; Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport, and, with co-editor Eric Jacobsen, Traditions in Leadership. Check out his musings at