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God wants his people to be radically different from others. British pastor and teacher John R.W. Stott said,
“For the essential theme of the whole Bible from beginning to end is that God’s historical purpose is to call out a people for himself; that God’s people is a ‘holy’ people, set apart from the world to belong to him and to obey him; and that its vocation is to be true to its identity, that is to be ‘holy’ or ‘different’ in all its outlook and behavior.”25
God, through Moses, told the people of Israel, “You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices. You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees. I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 18:3-4 NIV). (Also see Leviticus 21:23; Deuteronomy 12:30-31.) Jesus told his followers, “Do not be like them” (Matthew 6:8). (Also see 2 Corinthians 6:17; 1 Peter 1:14-15.) Jesus did not want his followers to be like the heathen, or to be like the religious leaders of his time. (See, for example, Matthew 6:1-8.) Paul told the Ephesians that they should “no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk” (Ephesians 4:17).
Jesus told the religious leaders of his time, “You are of this world; I am not of this world” (John 8:23). Then he said to his Father in heaven that his disciples “…are not of the world any more than I am of the world” (John 17:14 NIV). (Also see verse 16.) The disciples were to be different. The rules of the kingdom of God are often the exact opposite of the rules of this world. That is why many people speak of the teachings of Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere, as “unrealistic” or “impossible.” To those who do not give their full allegiance to God, they are impossible to follow. To those who are wholeheartedly committed to God, have the Holy Spirit living in them, and God’s power working in them, they are still very challenging. But as we mature as Christians, we can come fairly close to living by them.
Why is it so important for Christians to be different?
Paul’s letter to the Romans is the most detailed and systematic discussion that we have of Paul’s teaching to believers. As in most of his letters, he starts with a discussion of basic spiritual principles, and then discusses their practical application in our lives. In Romans that discussion of application begins with chapter 12. First he tells us to give our lives to God, to commit ourselves totally to God (Romans 12:1). (I deal with this in chapter 16.)
Then he says, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” (Romans 12:2 NIV). I believe this is a key verse in Scripture. In this chapter, I deal with the first half of this sentence. In the next chapter, I shall deal with the second half. The two are closely related. They are opposite sides of the same coin. In order to be transformed into God’s character, we need to reject the pattern of this world. As we become transformed, we will reject the pattern of this world. But we cannot have it both ways. Either we live by the world’s rules, and to that extent reject God, or we seek to have God’s character and reject the world’s rules.
WHAT IS THE PATTERN OF THIS WORLD?
“World,” aion, also translated “age,” refers particularly to the prevailing thought-patterns and attitudes of the current age. Rejecting the pattern of this world does not mean that we should live in isolation, as hermits. Quite the contrary. We are called to be salt and light to the world (Matthew 5:13-14). Jesus moved about actively in the world of his day. So did Paul. But we must resist the pressure to conform to the world’s ways. Scripture repeats this theme over and over, in many different ways.
Christ came to “deliver us from this present evil age” (Galatians 1:4). Jesus warns that the “cares of this world” can choke out the word of God (Matthew 13:22). Paul speaks of satan as the “god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4). He contrasts the wisdom of this world, or of this age, with the eternal wisdom of God, and warns against following the former (1 Corinthians 1:20-25, 2:6-8). (Also see James 3:13-18.) Paul says that we once were “dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:1-2). He says that Demas deserted him because he “loved this present world” (2 Timothy 4:10). He tells us to deny “ungodliness and worldly lusts” (Titus 2:12).
Another Greek word translated “world” is kosmos, which refers to the physical universe, the material in contrast to the spiritual. Scripture warns us against it, also. Jesus spoke of satan as the ruler of this world (John 12:31). He told the Jewish religious leaders, “You are of this world; I am not of this world” (John 8:23). He told his disciples, “because you are not of this world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19). (Also see John 17:14.) Paul wrote, “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we may know the things that have been freely given to us by God” (1 Corinthians 2:12). Paul warned, “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8). He said that we have “died with Christ from the basic principles of this world” (Colossians 2:20). James tells us that pure religion is to keep oneself from being polluted by the world (James 1:27). (Also see James 4:4.) Peter warns us to escape the corruption that is in the world (2 Peter 1:4). (Also see 2:20.) John warns us not to love the world or anything in it (1 John 2:15-17). He speaks of believers as overcoming the world (1 John 5:4).
Scripture calls on us to be holy (1 Peter 1:15; Hebrews 12:14). The Greek word for “holy” is hagios. According to Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, it “fundamentally signifies ‘separated’,” and hence, “separated from sin and therefore consecrated to God.” In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word quadosh and related words also have the meaning of separated. “Come out from them and be separate, says the Lord” (2 Corinthians 6:17).
Today the pattern of this world is thrust upon us to a greater degree than ever before. From the time we get up to the time we go to bed, many of us are bombarded with sounds and visual images—from newspapers, radio, television, computers, “background” music, magazine covers, billboards, etc. Most of these sounds and images are worldly. Some encourage sexual immorality. Others contain excessive and graphic violence. There is profanity and crude language. The family (particularly fathers) is portrayed in an unfavorable light. Christian values are mocked. Lying, cynicism, hardheartedness, and sexual promiscuity are portrayed as being normal. Selfishness and greed are encouraged. Through all these, we are often exposed to the “counsel of the ungodly” (Psalm 1:1).
The world is not neutral. It is making a deliberate assault on Christian values and standards. It takes determination, and solid roots, to stand up against this assault.
Why is the world such a danger? Let me mention some, among many, reasons:
WHY IS IT SO DIFFICULT
We are dealing here with two different world-views, a secular or worldly one, and a godly one. Our world views are pervasive and deeply entrenched. We do not change them easily or quickly.
We are also dealing with mental strongholds. (See 2 Corinthians 10:4.) There is spiritual conflict going on within us. (See Chapter 15.) The devil resists strenuously our efforts to demolish the stronghold of worldliness. Often strongholds do not come down easily or quickly. It takes persistent effort.
One of the greatest temptations we face, as Christians, is the desire to please the world rather than God. Our goal should be to please God (2 Corinthians 5:9). (Also see Ephesians 5:10; Colossians 1:10.) But the temptation is always to seek to please men, or to avoid their displeasure. In an effort to be more acceptable to men, we often fall into the world’s ways of thinking and acting. John’s gospel speaks of religious leaders who “loved the praise of men more than the praise of God” (John 12:43). I’m afraid there are such leaders today. Jesus said, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for so did their fathers to the false prophets” (Luke 6:26). (This statement may seem shocking, but I think we need to take it seriously.) God said, “…Who are you that you fear mortal men, the sons of men, who are but grass, that you forget the LORD your Maker, who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth…” (Isaiah 51:12 NIV). The social pressure to conform to the world and its standards is great, but we must resist that pressure.
I believe that one of the major causes of weakness in the body of Christ today is that many individuals, churches and denominations have tried to conform to the prevailing patterns of the world, both in thought and in conduct, and have been drawn away from God’s ways and values. We have ignored Romans 12:2.
HOW CAN WE STOP CONFORMING?
Believe in the Bible
The first essential is that we must really believe in the Bible. We must consider it as authoritative and take it seriously. We must take Romans 12:2 as one of our basic rules of conduct.
Then we must check everything we say or do against what the Bible says. Our standard, for all that we think, say or do, must become, “Is this consistent with Scripture?” “Is this what God wants?”
There are quite a few Christians, and some churches and even denominations, who go along with worldly standards. Many of these are people who do not accept the Bible, the entire Bible, as authoritative. If we don’t accept the Bible as authoritative, we have nothing with which to stand against the pressure to conform to worldly standards. If we stand on the truth of Scripture, we have a solid basis from which to resist worldly pressures. If we do not stand on the truth of Scripture, then there is little reason not to go along with every popular movement and teaching.
We must also make a conscious decision not to conform to the world’s standards. This may take courage. It is hard to resist peer pressure. When we resist, it may lead to confrontation, to mocking and ridicule, to rejection and other unpleasant consequences. The world hated Jesus and his disciples because they were not of this world. If we would follow godly standards, we need to be willing to accept disapproval and even hatred. Whom do we want to please, people or God? There are times when you cannot do both.
Take Our Thoughts Captive
Scripture tells us to take our thoughts captive to obey Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). I
would carry this further and say that we need to take our thoughts, our words, and our actions captive to obey Jesus Christ. (See Chapter 17.) This takes continual alertness. We need to notice what we are thinking, saying and doing, and compare it with Scriptural teaching. We need to catch ourselves and repent. This is not easy, but it becomes easier with time and practice.
It is when we are not consciously thinking of spiritual things that we are most apt to find ourselves conforming to the pattern of this world. During our ordinary daily life, we may find ourselves thinking thoughts, accepting attitudes, saying and doing things, that conform to the pattern of this world and not to God’s will. We need to take these captive. We need to recognize them, repudiate them, and replace them with godly thoughts, attitudes and actions.
This is particularly true of what we call entertainment. When we are seeking entertainment, we tend to relax and let our guard down. There is much in the entertainment field—television, movies, music, novels, video games and the like—which is based (either openly or through underlying assumptions) on beliefs and values that are contrary to God’s ways. These can instill in us (often without our awareness) a conformity to ways of this world which are in opposition to God’s ways. We need to be aware of this. We need to guard what we are feeding into our hearts and minds. We must not allow ourselves to slip, unsuspectingly, into worldly ways and attitudes that can be quite destructive.
Many Americans tend to compartmentalize things, to put some things in a “religious” category, some things in a “work” category, some things in a “home life” category, and some things in a “recreation” category. But Scripture tells us to love the Lord with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to pray constantly. Everything we think and do should be dedicated to God. This means that we should take all of our thoughts captive to Christ—not just “religious” ones.
Focus on the Things of God
I believe one good way to resist the pressure to conform to the pattern of this world is to make a conscious decision to focus our minds on the things of God. “Seek those things which are above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth” (Colossians 3:1-2). “Look to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). “We do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthinas 4:18).
This does not mean that we ignore what is going on in the world. We need to be aware of it. We may need to take a very active part in some aspects of it. But we need to balance our concern over the things of this world, by feeding our minds and spirits on the things of God. We need to feed ourselves with Scripture, prayer, praise and the like. Our primary focus needs to be on the eternal things of God.
For example, as I am doing the final editing on this manuscript, we are coming very close to a Presidential and Congressional election. My family and I care deeply about the results of the election. We spend time reading about it, discussing it, asking ourselves what we can do about it. I ran a voter registration drive in my church, and have written a letter to the editor about the Presidential election. We pray about the election every day. Sometimes all this becomes very distressing. But then we need to come to the point of saying, “Lord, you are in charge. It will come out the way you want it, or at least the way you choose to let it. Our ultimate desire is simply to see your will be done in this election. And however this election comes out, we know that ultimately your purposes for mankind on this earth will prevail. They cannot be thwarted.” So we take comfort in that knowledge. We do what we can, but ultimately it is up to God.
Also, in practical terms, we cannot fix the problems in this country. However, we can do something about getting this book published. And that, hopefully, will help some fellow Christians stand firm in their faith no matter what happens to our country. We cannot do everything, but by the grace of God, what we can do, we will do.
I cannot emphasize too much the importance of resolving not to conform to the pattern of this world. The question is, “whom will we serve?” Will we serve the world and try to please people? Or will we serve God and try to please God?
I believe that one of the principal reasons for the weakness that the Christian church as a whole has shown in resisting the growing secularization of our nation, has been the fact that many Christians have been far too willing to conform to this world.