Hunched over his desk, penknife in hand, Thomas Jefferson sliced carefully at the pages of Holy Scripture, excising everything that did not fit his personal world view. Hell? It can’t be. The supernatural? Not even worth considering. God’s wrath against sin? I don’t think so….
Today, Jefferson’s handiwork is on display at his home in Monticello: a copy of the King James version of the New Testament, full of holes.
Christians rightly shudder at this brazen impudence and thank God that we have been preserved from such monumental deception. And surely, no true Christian would be comfortable with the aggressively arrogant stance that Jefferson took toward Holy Scripture.
But check your pockets. Look in your purse. Almost certainly you’ll come across a penknife — a metaphorical one, perhaps, but good and sharp just the same.
We all keep one around, you know. Yours and mine may not be as well-used as Jefferson’s. You’ve probably never sliced away at Scripture with the same unholy zeal. But surely, now and then, every one of us watches some challenging passage flutter to the floor. Then we fold in the blade, tuck the knife away, and simply keep reading, as if nothing odd has happened.
One passage that particularly challenges Christians is the Apostle John’s command, “Do not love the world or anything in the world” (1 John 2:15). Many modern evangelicals have conveniently imposed on this passage fanciful qualifications intended to weaken its impact and authority. Others of us simply ignore it. In either case, it’s as if this section has been cut out of the Bible.
Can you hear the soft hiss of sharpened steel on paper? See? There’s the passage, lying in a curl in the trash. But what a futile act! What hopeless, defiant folly! Has this intellectual maiming of Scripture actually altered God’s Word? Has His truth been diminished or changed in any way? Are we less accountable than before?
Scripture is a unique gift from God requiring our careful, reverent attention. Some passages we may wrestle with our whole lives. But no passage is ever to be dismissed. And no passage as plain as 1 John 2:15 ought to be hard to grasp. Rather, taken in the full context of Scripture, let us embrace its clear and liberating challenge.
God’s Dear Children
James Means has pointed out that in the evangelical church in America it is common for a “professing Christian to remain in a lifestyle indistinguishable from that of the unregenerate individual, but with confidence [that he possesses] eternal salvation.”James Means, Effective Pastors for a New Century: Helping Leaders Strategize for Success (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1993) p.63. In his letter, the Apostle John confronts with fatherly concern those to whom such an observation would apply. “The man who says, ‘I know him,’ yet does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:4).
At the same time, the Apostle graciously affirms the genuinely converted, describing them as walking in the light, confessing sin, obeying God’s Word and demonstrating love. Five times he addresses these believers with the tender phrase, “dear children.” The words offer strong encouragement, affirming his confidence that their sins are forgiven. They are genuine believers in Jesus Christ. “I write to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name” (1 John 2:12).
These believers are, of course, living at various stages of Christian maturity. In chapter two, John affirms the younger men for growing strong as the Word of God changes their lives. He rejoices that the fathers — the more mature members of the church — have increasingly been delivered from the power of sin and have developed an intimate communion with God. All the truly converted are among the dear children whom John addresses, and he graciously attests to the evidences of saving and sanctifying grace in their lives.
What We Must Not Love
John’s affirmation of the church provides the necessary basis for this firm, unequivocal exhortation:
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world — the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does — comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever (1 John 2:15-17).
Here, honest questions may arise in the minds of some. In Genesis, didn’t God declare all his creation “good”? Then how is it that we, God’s dear children, may not love it? And if “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (John 3:16), why are we forbidden that same love?
The issue here is, of course, simply a matter of translation. When Christians in the first century read John’s letter, there was no confusion about the meaning of this passage. There need be none for us, either.
The original readers of John’s letter recognized that the John 3:16 “world” which God loves is a reference to people — the entire human race. And they knew that elsewhere in Scripture, that which we now find translated as “world” often speaks of the sinful ways of fallen humanity — the world of arrogant self-sufficiency and hostility toward God. This is the “world” we are warned of in 1 John 2:15. Not the human race, creation, or God-ordained structures such as family, career and government. It is, instead, the world of sin, rebellion and self-reliance from which we must diligently withhold our so easily diverted affections.
We are to love all God has established, but we are never to participate in the defiance of God that has polluted creation since the fall. This is what it means to be in the world but not of the world.
Because God’s grace is sufficient for our every need and our every pursuit of holiness, we need not fear failure as we purpose to obey John’s command. But purpose we must: without diligent, grace-motivated effort to not love the world, we will fail and, by degrees, become of the world: worldly.
Cravings, Lust and Boasting
Whatever the culture in which we live, 1 John 2:16 lists three desires of the heart that reveal worldliness: “the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes, and the boasting of what he has or does.” David Jackman comments, “The ‘worldly’ characteristics of which the verse speaks are in fact reactions going on inside us as we contemplate the environment outside.”David Jackman, The Message of John’s Letters (Grand Rapids, MI: InterVarsity Press, 1988) p.61. In other words, the root issue when it comes to worldliness is internal in nature, not environmental. John is equipping us to discern worldliness where it first lurks: within the heart.
Cravings. The “cravings of sinful man” are not the legitimate desires of the body. They are the illegitimate, idolatrous cravings and tendencies of the non-Christian, or of the Christian who continues to be excessively influenced by sin. Indeed, due to indwelling sin the heart can defile even legitimate desires, transforming them into idolatrous cravings. This is why John Calvin observed that “the evil in our desire typically does not lie in what we want, but that we want it too much.”
Lust. Our eyes are a precious gift from God, yet they provide us with opportunities not only to observe, but to covet. “Lust of the eyes” is not a reference to sexual sin exclusively. It applies to many areas that may entice us and attract our covetous attention, including such things as modern media, music and dress.
Boasting. How prominent in this materialistic age is the boasting of what one has or does! Several years ago, the Washington Post Magazine described a man who arrives at a Washington networking party.
[T]he people there weren’t so much potential friends as potential commodities, each hoping to rise in some unknown way through the rub of others. Sure enough, when the people around the man discovered he was a reporter for an influential newspaper, they fawned over him. This irritated the man. He went upstairs, where someone again chanted the Washington mantra, “What do you do?”
“I’m a garbage man,” he said.
“Oh, you own a garbage company.”
“No, I pick up garbage.”
A labored silence followed. “Yeah, and you know what bugs me — people who put wet grass clippings in plastic garbage bags. You know how heavy that is? Why don’t people think?” The man rambled on and on, knowing that his squirming audience was trapped as long as he talked. When he finally stopped nobody said a word. Heads turned and soon he was alone.Walt Harrington, “Prisoners of Overachievement,” The Washington Post Magazine, (November 13, 1998) pp.56-57.
Why was this man left alone? Because no one there aspired to share in his particular brand of boasting. We all tend to enjoy certain kinds of boasting, and to value boasting about the things we find worthy of our time and attention. What sort of boasts do you value? How much of your boasting is in the things of this world, and how much of it is, like Paul’s boasting, centered on the Gospel?
Worldliness, like any other sin, can never truly satisfy the soul. Even the unsaved, if they live long enough and gain any measure of wisdom, often come to understand this. Media fixture Ted Koppel has written,
So many people are, on paper, indisputably fortunate to live in such an unbelievably rich and blessed nation. And yet these Americans do not strike me, by and large, as a happy people. There is a sullen edge to our satisfaction…. And the worst part is that we don’t seem altogether sure of what we’re missing.Ted Koppel, Off Camera: Private Thoughts Made Public (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2001) p.314.
What’s missing is the fruit of the Gospel. There is no future in worldliness, but there is an eternal future in godliness. Only godliness delivers as advertised. When informed by an eternal perspective, the things of this world are exposed as worthless.
Do not slice from your Bible the inspired admonitions of 1 John, chapter two. Study them, love them, embrace them. Seek out their abundant, course-correcting wisdom. And never desert the things of God for the things of the world.
Instead, deepen your relationship with the Father. Receive God’s gracious forgiveness of sin, increase in your knowledge of Him, and triumph over the evil one. From there — from the place of greater maturity, wisdom and godliness — you will be able to look at the tawdry, temporal glimmerings of the present world and say, “Why would I love this?”
Copyright 2002 Sovereign Grace Ministries. All rights reserved.