I think all of you are familiar with the oft-heard statement that Christians are people who are “in”the world but not “of” the world. There isn’t a specific biblical text that says it in precisely those terms, but James 4:4 does describe followers of Jesus as people who should avoid developing a “friendship with the world.” In fact, James says that to be a “friend” of the world is to be at “enmity with God” (James 4:4b). The apostle John exhorts Christians, “do not love the world or the things in the world” (1 John 2:15a).
So what then does it mean to be “in” the world but not “of” it? I think the idea is that we cannot avoid or evade the fact that we live physically in this world. Our feet are planted on the soil of this earth no less so than are those of people who hate God. We are card-carrying citizens of an earthly, this-worldly nation. We earn a living by working in the “world” of business. There is no escape from this rather obvious truth.
But we are to live “in” this world without embracing its beliefs or its values. We are to conduct ourselves according to its laws without breaking the laws of God. We are to enjoy the culture and do what we can by God’s grace and power to transform it but we must be diligent not to let this culture shape our ideas and aspirations and desires and conduct. As Paul said in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”
I would also suggest that there is even more involved in this tiny preposition “of”. To say we are not “of” this world means that we do not draw upon its energy to live, that we do not derive our motivation from the spirit of the world, that we do not identify with it in such a way that its power serves to drive and sustain us. Instead, we derive our power and energy and motivation and values from the kingdom of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. We are undoubtedly “in” this world until we die or until Jesus returns, but we are never “of” it. It has no hold on us. It claims nothing from us. It doesn’t own us. It doesn’t dictate how we believe or live or govern the decisions we make. Or so it should be.
The simple fact is that the values of the kingdom of God and those of the kingdom of Satan and this world are utterly opposite from each other. The world’s “treasure” is not our own.
The world insists that God doesn’t exist, or if he does, he’s irrelevant to our lives. The Christian insists not only that the God of the Bible exists, he is the only God that exists, and he is supremely relevant to our lives. In fact, apart from him, nothing else has any relevance whatsoever.
The world insists that the world is either eternal or that it simply came into being out of nothing without a sufficient cause to explain why it is. The Christian insists that the world came into being out of nothing when God called it into being.
The world insists that nothing governs the course and direction of human affairs outside the will and actions of humans. The Christian insists that God governs everything in human affairs including the will and actions of humans.
The world insists that history is going nowhere. One day, it will all simply come to an end, perhaps in as big of a bang as the big bang by which the world believes it came into existence in the first place. Everything will simply cease to be and nothing will remain. The Christian insists that history is providentially under the direction of a loving and all-wise God who will bring everything to its proper consummation in such a way that Jesus Christ will be seen and honored and glorified as Lord of all.
The world insists that good and evil are whatever you want them to be, or they are whatever a group of human beings decides them to be, or they are whatever circumstances require them to be, or they are whatever makes the most people happy. The Christian insists that good and evil are determined to be such by God. What God says is good, is good; and what God says is evil, is evil. His will is the deciding factor.
The world values physical appearance as a supreme value. The Christian values the inner beauty of the heart, regardless of external size, shape, or weight.
The world pursues wealth as an end in itself. Its motto is: “Whoever dies with the most toys, wins.” The Christian pursues the glory of God as an end in itself. Its motto is, in the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
The contrasts could go on seemingly without end. The simple truth is that what the world regards as truth, the Christian regards as error. What the world regards as of ultimate value, the Christian regards as dung, or “rubbish” if you prefer a more sanitized translation (see Phil. 3:8)! To put it as simply as possible, the world and the Church tell two entirely different and utterly contrary stories about the nature of reality, the meaning of life, where truth and goodness may be found, and what the ultimate destiny of mankind will be.
The tragedy in our day is that instead of watching the Church stand firmly in opposition to the world, calling it to repentance, men and women who say they know Jesus do everything in their power to merge the two. Whereas the Bible clearly says the world and the Church intersect, many today argue that the world and the Church coincide. Thus what we hear so often today is not a message of conviction and confrontation but one of compromise and convenience.
Friendship with the world is death, but friendship with God is life eternal.