Theology in 3D

Identifying Worldliness

July 19, 2019
New Testament, Theology

This is the fifth and final installment of a series by PhD graduate Jon Cheek. Click here for earlier posts in the series.

A friend recently asked his Facebook and Twitter friends and followers how they would define worldliness. He received over sixty responses, many of which were biblical, but most differing from each other to some degree. The fact is that worldliness is “frequently being missed, or misjudged, in the evangelical church today” (David Wells, God in the Wasteland, 37). What does it actually mean for a believer to refuse to be conformed to this world?

In discussing worldliness, many theologians include the idea that the world is the organized system of humanity that is hostile to God and/or a lifestyle that is under the sway of Satan. These definitions are not inaccurate, but can be difficult to go straight from these definitions to specific applications. For example, most Christians would probably agree that at least some movies are worldly. And those movies may be worldly even if they aren’t explicitly “hostile to God” and don’t necessarily give explicit evidence of Satanic inspiration. In fact, it is possible that a movie could be worldly to some degree even if it is a Christian undertaking (with a Christian story, and professing Christians as director, writers, actors, etc.).

I have argued that the strong distinction the NT presents between the church and the world represents the outworking of the enmity between the seeds spoken of in Genesis 3:15. In one sense, the world definitely refers to the seed of the serpent, the mass of unbelieving humanity that resists God (e.g., John 15:18; 17:25; 1 Cor 1:21).

There is another sense, however, in which the NT speaks of the world: not the people of the world but the mindset and behavior of the world. The NT exhorts believers not to love the world (1 John 2:15) or be friends of the world (Jas 4:4) or be conformed to this age (Rom 12:2). These exhortations do not prohibit Christians from loving the people of the world. Rather, they express the danger that is endemic in the mindset and behaviors that are promoted by the seed of the serpent and its ruler. Thus, the world and worldliness represent a grave danger to the spiritual welfare of believers.

Key Passages on the World

For a number of reasons (which are laid out more fully here on pages 9–23), I identify the following as providing the key NT statements on the world: Paul (Eph 2:1–3; cf. 4:17–22); James (Jas 4:1–4); Peter (1 Pet 2:9–12); and John (1 John 2:15–17). These different NT authors present consistent concepts of the world, though they use different terminology and emphases. The following points summarize the concepts in these passages.

  • Satan’s role as the chief opponent of the church and believers is prominent in each of the key NT passages on the world. Some refer to Satan in the immediate context (Eph 2:2; Jas 4:7), and others reference Satan’s influence in the world in the same letter though not in the immediate context (1 Pet 5:8; 1 John 5:19). In the latter instances, in the overall context of the letters, Satan is still seen as the energizing force behind opposition to the church.
  • Each of the texts uses one or more of the key NT terms related to the world: “world” (kosmos in Eph 2:2–3; Jas 4:4; 1 John 2:15–16); “age” (aiōn in Eph 2:2–3); and “the nations/Gentiles” (ethnē in Eph 4:17; 1 Pet 2:11; cf. 4:3).
  • Each of the key texts specifies that the role of the church and believers is to live in the world and among unbelievers but to be distinct and separate from the world in behavior, thinking, and affections.
  • These passages emphasize worldly behavior as representative of the former lifestyle of believers or of the lifestyle that is characteristic of unbelievers. Paul speaks of the way “in which you once walked” and of the sons of disobedience “among whom we all once lived” when we “were children of wrath” (Eph 2:1–3). Peter speaks of the church’s role as a people who have been transformed (1 Pet 2:10) and who had already spent enough time living as the Gentiles do (4:2–3; cf. 1:14). John’s exhortation fits within his overall concept of the world in which all unbelievers are born as part of “the world” and are no longer “of the world” after salvation (17:14)
  • James and John both emphasize that it is not merely a problem to act or think in a worldly way; rather, worldliness consists of the desire to be a friend of the world (Jas 4:4) and the love of all that is in the world (1 John 2:15–16). Often, worldliness is when believers are enamored with the behavior of unbelievers.
  • The critical element that Paul, James, Peter, and John each include in their key passages dealing with the world is “the passions” or “lusts” (epithumia in Eph 2:2–3; Titus 2:12; 1 Pet 2:9–12; 1 John 2:16; hēdonē in Jas 4:1–4), particularly “lusts/passions of the flesh” (epithumia and sarx in Eph 2:2–3; 1 Pet 2:11–12; 1 John 2:16).

The following table displays the similar themes in the key NT passages on the world.

PassageKey Phrase for “World”Associated Behavior
Eph 2:2–3kosmos and aiōn
“following the course of this world” (2:2)
epithumia and sarx
“the passions of our flesh” (2:3)
Eph 4:17, 22ta ethnē
“you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do” (4:17)
“deceitful desires” (4:22)
Jas 4:1, 4kosmos
“friendship with the world is enmity with God” (4:4)
“your passions are at war within you” (4:1)
1 Pet 2:9–12ta ethnē
“keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable” (2:11)
epithumia and sarx
“the passions of the flesh” (2:11)
1 John 2:15–16kosmos
“do not love the world” (2:15)
epithumia and sarx
“the desires of the flesh” (2:16)

The recurrence of “lusts” and “desires” (and “flesh”) in each of these passages should not be overlooked. When the biblical authors are talking about the world, illegitimate desires constitute the primary emphasis behaviorally. For John, the things the eyes sinfully desire and the things the body sinfully desires comprise worldliness. For Paul, the characteristic lifestyle of unbelievers consists of “living in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind” (Eph 2:3).

Of course “lusts” are not the only element that can characterize worldly behavior. For example, John adds the pride of life (1 John 2:16). Most descriptions of the world, however, include sins that are energized by lust (e.g., Eph 4:19; 1 Pet 4:3). When the biblical writers talk about the world, they do not necessarily point to specific sins of culture. They frequently point to lusts.


How then should we understand the world and worldliness? Though the terms are broad, two concepts summarize the NT teaching in general. Worldliness is (1) thinking and behaving like unbelievers do, and (2) desiring prohibited pleasures, whether pleasures of the body or the eyes, or the pleasure of achieving a high status. The primary manifestation of worldliness is acting or thinking on the basis of sinful lusts and not on the basis of love for the Father. “Lusts” or “passions” do not comprehensively define “worldliness,” but they are the recurring elements in each key NT passage on the world.

We must allow for some level of subjectivity here because an unbelieving lifestyle and the specific outworking of worldliness may look different in different cultures and settings. The basic problem of worldliness is that it follows after the patterns of Satan and those who operate under his influence. A failure to be distinct from the world constitutes an alignment with the serpent and his seed. A believer who adopts a lifestyle that is indistinct from that of an unbeliever aids and abets the serpent’s enmity against God and actually makes himself the enemy of God.

2 responses to “Identifying Worldliness”

  1. Aashish George says:

    Thanks for this great article. “Worldliness is when believers are enamored with the behavior of unbelievers” is a very true statement.

  2. Donnie Moore says:

    Thank you for that great article.

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