My friend Toby Sumpter had a few wonderful things to say about one of the central confusions of our time, and it caused more discussion than it ought to have done—although the discussion did help to illustrate the confusion. But among thoughtful Christians, there really should be no discussion whatever. His words can be found here and here. At the same time, all the exercises in missing the point caused me to do some further mulling on the topic of the border country between the obvious and not so obvious. And so here we go.
I want to pour some exegetical footings first, and then move on to defend the outrageous conviction that outrageous things should be treated as outrageous, and that it is outrageous not to.
More Than Any Beast of the Field
“I may not be able to define worldliness, but I know it when I see it.”
Canyons and chasms are not nuanced or subtle affairs. But certain creatures, more subtle than the other beasts of the field, are capable of making some of us think that definitional shades and distinctions are involved.
Scripture tells us that the distance between that which is worldly and that which is not worldly is the distance between Heaven and Hell—a pretty long way. For example, James tells us that friendship with the world is enmity with God (Jas. 4:4). And John tells us that if anyone loves the world, then the love of the Father is not in him (1 John 2:15-16). There is no subtlety involved in this at all. Subtlety can be introduced by serpents and their sophistries, but there is no subtlety at all involved in “do not eat from that tree.” The subtlety came in with the question (and the questioner) that arrived after the fact—did God really say . . .?
God in His kindness writes things out for us in big block letters. “Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse” (Deut. 11:26). He sets it before us, plain as day. “And unto this people thou shalt say, Thus saith the Lord; Behold, I set before you the way of life, and the way of death” (Jer. 21:8). The way of life goes this way, and the way of death goes that way. Which one is the way of death? Well, which part of the sky has buzzards circling in it?
Three Shiny Objects
We must understand that the temptation to worldliness is the primal temptation. It is not a peripheral sin, like excessive card playing. It is the central sin. Worldliness was the cause of the Fall. We need to understand how this works, and what is actually going on when we are in the grip of it. And make no mistake—Christians who are in the grip of this temptation and sin are legion. Now Christians who are not dealing with the challenges of our time properly are either grown up and adulterous, or they are infantile and naïve, suffering with a bad case of arrested development. Follow this closely.
Note how the world is first introduced to us.
“And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2:9).
The trees were pleasant to look at. They produced fruit that was tasty. And also in the Garden were two special trees—the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The tree of life was theirs from the beginning, but the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was off-limits for the time being. This is the world—not worldliness yet. Just the world we inherited, before we broke it.
The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was not to be their introduction to basic morality. Rather it was intended to serve as their introduction to maturation and rule. In Scripture, the knowledge of good and evil relates to the maturity of authority and rule.
But in order to understand this more fully, we have to look a bit more closely at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Good and Evil in the Hard Cases
We all know that there was only one prohibited tree in the Garden of Eden, the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Note that the tree of life was not prohibited to Adam and Eve (Gen. 2:16), but once sin had entered the world it went off limits—lest we should eat from it in a rebellious condition and so live forever that way, unredeemable (Gen. 3:22, 24). So God in His mercy barred the way back to the tree of life, until it was opened up again in and through the gospel (Rev. 2:7). But what about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?
We need to take a moment to consider what that phrase means, and what it does not mean. The two basic alternatives are that it was bad for us to have knowledge of the difference between good and evil, period, or it means something else. The prohibition was temporary, and the sin was because our first parents grasped for something prematurely.
We should be able to see that it had to have been the latter by how God responds to the situation after Adam and Eve disobeyed. It cannot mean experience of sin because the Lord said, “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil” (Gen. 3:22). The serpent earlier had promised that this knowledge would make them “as God” (or gods, elohim), “knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). The serpent was inviting them to be inducted into the council of the gods, on their own authority, long before they were ready for it.
That is why, millennia later, the author of Hebrews identifies this ability to distinguish sin from righteousness as maturity, a characteristic with the capacity to handle “strong meat.”
Too many Christians assume that the prelapsarian lack of the knowledge of good and evil was a total blank innocence, no ethical categories at all. But if this were the case then how would Adam have been able to fall into sin? How would he have known it was evil to eat from the prohibited tree? No, the knowledge of good and evil here has to mean something more than a simple knowledge of the difference between right and wrong.
God was preparing us for rule. He was growing us up into discernment. What do I mean? He had created mankind to rule over creation and all creatures (Gen. 1:27-30). In learning how to judge and rule the created order, man really would be like God (Eccl. 12:14). Entering into that rule would have been a transition from immaturity to maturity, and not a transition from moral cluelessness into an ability to tell right from wrong. Kings have to make judgments, and they have to do so in plain cases and hard cases both. They have to be able to discern right and wrong in the case before them. And the case before them is frequently a tough one.
Now it is quite true that the Bible sometimes speaks of “good” and “evil” in simple moral categories of individuals learning how to love what is good and hate what is evil. But when we talk about discernment, and especially discernment when it comes to various cultural issues like the relationship of “reinvent yourself” pink hair and “reinvent yourself” gender bending, we are often talking about the ability to tell good from almost good, or good from too good, to discern the difference between white and off-white. Because God created us for rule, He created us to be able to handle this.
The problem is the reinvent yourself part, which is currently THE massive pomosexual campaign that is underway everywhere all the time. Or perhaps you haven’t noticed? The problem is not the color of the dye. The problem is the reinvent yourself whenever or however you want doctrine, and that is not a trifle. It is a rebellious and sulfurous stink wafting over the lip of Hell’s crater. An additional complication is created by those Christians who say that there is nothing wrong with sulfur-sniffing, just so long as you stop one nostril, and do not breathe too deeply with the other one.
Getting back to the point, when our first parents ate the forbidden fruit, they were grabbing for rule prematurely, before God gave it to them as a gift.
God was preparing us for the day when we would have the ability to make hard things simple, but we listened to the serpent, who enabled us to make a simple thing hard. And we are still doing it. Some want to say that Christian parents and pastors shouldn’t want to “control outcomes.” Sorry, but that is what parents and pastors are for. A shepherd who stands by the flock without wanting to control outcomes is not watching over the sheep, but merely looking at them. And after about half an hour of that kind of shepherding, he is looking at wolves too.
This matter of good and evil concerns what little children don’t do, and what kings are supposed to do. And the current cultural revolt against maturity is just this—an infantile rejection of God’s invitation in Christ for us to grow up. God wants to crown the infantile with maturity. We want to crown the infantile with a crown.
Consider the language of Scripture. “Moreover your little ones, which ye said should be a prey, and your children, which in that day had no knowledge between good and evil, they shall go in thither . . .” (Dt. 1:39; cf. Jer. 4:22). This was true of a type of the Messiah, the child born in fulfillment of the promise to Isaiah. “Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel . . . for before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings” (Is. 7:14-16). Extreme old age prevents a man from being able to serve as a judge between good and evil, as Barzillai observed: “I am this day fourscore years old: and can I discern between good and evil . . .?” (2 Sam. 19:35).
And how did Solomon please the Lord when a vision was given to him at Gibeon? Even though he sacrificed in the high places, he did love the Lord (1 Kings 3:3). When the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream and told him to ask for whatever he would have, Solomon’s answer pleased the Lord (1 Kings 3:10). So what did Solomon ask for? He said first that he was “but a little child” (1 Kings 3:7), and so what deficiency did he think needed to be corrected? “Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad: for who is able to judge this thy so great a people” (1 Kings 3:10)?
And so when professing Christians today stand gaping at the most current, high-profile, and obvious indicators of rebellion against God and His Word—not to mention God and the natural law He embedded into the very nature of things—and they just blink at stupidly, claiming not to be able to tell whether this or that is worldly, their entire enterprise is either adulterous treachery or an infantile retardation.
Back to the Primal Temptation
As mentioned earlier, worldliness is the primal temptation.
“And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat” (Gen. 3:6).
And this primal temptation was a temptation to worldliness. How so?
“Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh (good for food), and the lust of the eyes (pleasant to the eyes), and the pride of life (desired to make one wise), is not of the Father, but is of the world” (1 John 2:15–16).
And making a mistake on this point is no trifle. If someone is confused on this point, then the love of the Father is not in him. Why can he not make these distinctions? Because he is unconverted, radically unfaithful, or infantile. Because he is a worldly man, and worldly men refuse to make such simple distinctions. It is not complicated but folly is certainly up to the task of making it so.
“Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God” (James 4:4).
Put another way, the sin of worldliness is not a sin out at the edges. Worldliness is not a matter of using lipstick that is just a tad too red. Worldliness is not a matter of simply using some hair dye. Worldliness is not a function of listening to music that might make you want to tap your foot. Worldliness is not defined by a generation of legalists, now deceased for lo these fifty years.
No, we live in a corrupt and decadent time when Christian fathers make their daughters insecure in the first place, and then go along with them advertising that “easy lay” insecurity to the world—by whatever the current appointed messaging system might be. We live in a time when other professing Christians think they have the authority to “pray about” whether their child should “transition” to the other gender. We live in a time when a pastor catches more grief for admonishing the saints over pink hair then he would if his wife and daughters all starting sporting the said pink hair.
And of course, when a professing Christian differs with this, they do not retreat to the law and to the testimony. They don’t want to have a Bible study. They retreat—just watch them—to their secular, individualist, pomosexual catechism. “You say that this neon hair color means rebellion, but that’s not what it means to me.” As though personal definitions down in the heart, all mixed up with the confusions down there, had any authority to determine what societal badges mean. Evangelical Christians, when it comes to copycatting the world, are like a drunk Japanese businessman in a karaoke bars, singing a note perfect rendition of “Honky Tonk Woman” by the Stones. He knows absolutely everyone about that song, every note, every inflection, and every riff. He knows everything about it except what it means.He knows everything about it except what it means.
So when—in the article referenced above—it was argued that Christians ought not to adopt an obvious badge and symbol of rebellion, some Christians decided to conduct an intervention—but not an intervention in application of the truth as taught. It is time to rise up and comment on the Interwebs! How dare a pastor notice what is happening? Noticing begins with an n, and that is just two letters away from l, which stands for legalism. Wisdom is justified by her children, but more and more of them have weirder hair than God intended.
Maturity Is Not Legalism
I have said a number of times that wise Christians see what is going on. Foolish Christians want to argue the point. That folly might come in the form of mature sin, or in the shape of immature naiveté. In neither case do you want that person in charge of anything.
It is as though a wife caught her husband in bed with the next door neighbor’s wife, accused him of adultery, and then he started to argue the point, demanding that she define her terms more carefully. “Yes, dear, but your reasoning is extremely simplistic. I am simply maintaining that there was no penetration at all. That’s my point, which I wish you would take more seriously.”
“But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5:14, ESV).
This is what we are talking about. This is an era where this verse needs to be tattooed on the insides of our eyelids. Why does it take training to distinguish good and evil? Why does it take constant practice? Why is maturity necessary?
Apostles and Refugees
One last comment. I have made this distinction for a number of years, and it needs to be emphasized yet again. The Church is a place where any refugee, however messed up, however she looks, whatever he has done, should be completely welcome, inappropriate tattoos and all. The Church is God’s field hospital in the battlefield of this world, and a field hospital is no place to be squeamish about what people might bring to you. Every refugee is welcome. No refugee from the world should ever be turned away.
But apostles from the world are a different matter. We turn them away, and the horse they rode in on. And clueless Christians who provide a lame apologetic for such apostles are also a different matter.
Much more needs to be said on this topic, and so—chances are—I will.