The New Testament tells us that we are not to be conformed to this world but that we are to be transformed by the renewing of our mind (Rom. 12:2).
Let’s look at those two words that are crucial to that discussion in Scripture, the difference between conformity and transformation. The prefix con-means “with.” And so to conform to this world means literally to be with it. That’s one of the strongest drives and temptations that we have as Christians. Nobody wants to be out of it; we want to be “with it.” We want to be up-to-date. We want to fit in. And we’re often engulfed by peer pressure that wants us to imitate and participate in all of the structures and the styles of this world. The Bible says we are not to be conformed to the patterns of this world.
Now, when we hear that as Christians, so often we think that all we have to do is to become obvious nonconformists. So if the world wears buttons and bows, we don’t wear buttons and bows, or if the world wears lipstick, we don’t wear lipstick. We try to show ways in which we are different from the world. But that’s not what the Bible is talking about. It’s not just a matter of being different from the world; we are to go beyond nonconformity to transformation. That fits with everything the Scripture tells us of being salt and light to the world. Something that is transformed is something that is changed. The prefix trans-means “above and beyond.” We are to be above and beyond the standards of this world, not in the sense that we are to elevate ourselves in lofty status above everybody else, but that we are called to a more excellent way of life.
That doesn’t mean you drop out of the world; this world is my Father’s world, and this is the arena of God’s redemption. The tendency has always been to flee from the world and hide in the upper room, but God the Holy Spirit won’t tolerate that. He sends his people into the world. Luther said it this way: “There’s a normal pattern for Christian behavior. The person who’s converted out of the world spends his first days as a Christian in a tendency to completely withdraw from the world, as Paul went to Arabia, for example, or we might have a desire to be so far removed from the stains and the pollution of this world that we become monastic in our thinking—withdrawing, stepping out of the world altogether.”
But Luther said a Christian doesn’t reach maturity until he reenters the world and embraces the world again, not in its worldliness and its ungodly patterns but as the theater and the arena of God’s redemption. That’s what Jesus did; He went into the world in order to save the world. This world is the world that God has committed Himself to renew and redeem, and we are to participate in that with Him.