Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.
These verses teach that the heart full of love and warmth for the world is a heart that is cold and dead toward God. To say it another way, these verses teach that worldliness and godliness cannot coexist. The first is the lifestyle of those under Satan’s power and influence; the second, the lifestyle of those liberated from his power and free to live in God’s light. The first leads to death; the second to eternal life.
In his book, The Hole in Our Holiness, Kevin DeYoung defines worldliness in this way: “whatever makes sin look normal and righteousness look strange.” (37)
Satan–the “evil one” who holds power over this world (I John 5:19)–aggressively pursues this mission of making God’s ways look strange, unattractive, unfair, and even ridiculous. He whispers these accusations in news headlines. He asserts them in deceptive lyrics paired with beautiful music. He shouts them across the airwaves. He saturates curriculum and academia with them. He pounds them out from certain pulpits and codifies them into law. Satan flaunts his anti-God dogma in artful and ingenious ways, energizing those who hate God to suppress his truth by any means necessary. All those still walking in darkness eagerly consume these lies. Sometimes Christians thoughtlessly imbibe them too, unwittingly filling our homes with them and plating them up for our kids to devour.*
But these verses recall us to our senses, reminding us that this world is Satan’s domain. It is the place where he carries out his soul-destroying work of blinding and deceiving. These verses remind us that godliness is the good life. True happiness is found in fellowship with God and with his people. (I John 1:3) True happiness is living in the light and sacrificially loving our family of faith. Worldliness is an unquenchable thirst for self-gratification driving an unrelenting pursuit of youth and beauty, or love and sex, wealth and power, or fame and influence.
Beyond these verses, John also reminds us that this world is inhospitable to Christians, just as it was to Jesus. (I John 3:1, 13) From the moment Jesus was born, the world—energized and held up by the power of the evil one—was bent on his slaughter. And it seeks the same destruction of all God’s image bearers.
But Jesus came to “destroy the devil’s work.” (I John 3:9) He came to bind Satan, plunder his house, and release souls from his power. (Mark 3:27) Jesus’ spirit now lives in us, (I John 4:4) granting us his same power to overcome the evil one, to resist his temptations and to shine in this “warped and crooked generation” like the “stars of the sky.” (Phil 2:15) It is through our faith in Jesus that we overcome the world. (I John 5:4-5)
While we mark the world as Satan’s domain, we must also recognize that it is full of God’s image bearers. It is home to men, women, and children created in God’s image: people whom God loves and for whom he sent a Savior. (I John 2:2; 4:14) That Savior has undone Satan’s power, and we can already see the fruits of his defeat in this world. We see it with the spread of the church across the globe as God snatches souls from every tribe and tongue out of darkness and transplants them into the light.
And while this world is Satan’s domain, we must remember that he exercises his power only under the sovereign will of God. Try as he might, Satan cannot rid the world of God’s presence and influence. We see God at work in the world with the ever constant coming and going of the seasons and with the rising and setting of the sun. We recognize his influence when his image bearers (even unconsciously) mirror his character–when they care for and subdue the natural world in order to promote human progress, to cure disease, or feed the starving.
Knowing God’s heart for the afflicted (James 1:27), we celebrate efforts to rescue orphans and free the enslaved. We applaud when human governments act to promote justice for the poor, the orphan, the unborn, the alien and all the oppressed and when they act to deter evil and encourage righteousness. (Psalm 68:5, Romans 13:4; I John 3:17, James 5:1-6). We rejoice to see God’s image bearers reflect his truth and beauty in all the arts. All these are evidences of God’s sovereign authority in a world where Satan is still permitted to reign.
We live in this world–wary–but not afraid of the evil one. We uphold God’s truth with lives of obedience and love, and by speaking the glorious gospel of Jesus. We live in this world calling on others to overcome it.
*C.S. Lewis knew and feared the perversions of the evil one. He wrote The Screwtape Letters to awaken God’s people to the evil designs Satan has on the souls of the world.
*Martin Luther knew and feared the power of the evil one. In his hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, he reminds the faithful that Satan hates God and wields all his “craft and power” “to work us woe.”
*Isaac Watts recognized the influence of the evil one on the world and asked this rhetorical question: “Is this vile world a friend to grace, To help me on to God?”
*John Bunyan lifted the veil on Vanity Fair (the world) in Pilgrim’s Progress to help us see it for what it really is: continual temptations, darkness and lies designed to ensnare and kill our souls.