Review: Chapter 1 – “Is This Verse in Your Bible?” by C. J. Mahaney in Worldliness: Resisting the Seduction of a Fallen World, C. J. Mahaney, ed.
A friend of mine loaned me his copy of this little book for my review. Since it is a compilation of six essays by five Sovereign Grace Ministries clergymen, I thought it best to review the book section by section.
The foreword is written by John Piper. In the forward, he makes the statement “What does it look like when the blood of Christ governs the television and the Internet and the iPod and the checkbook and the neckline? Most people have never even asked this question, let alone answered it. The only way most folks know how to draw lines is with rulers. The idea that lines might come into being freely and lovingly (and firmly) as the fruit of the gospel is rare. That’s why this book is valuable.” (p. 11)
The rest of the foreword is of little note, but this statement reflects the horror of ‘drawing lines’ found in most evangelical circles. The statement, as it stands, is basically nonsensical. I think that I get what Piper is after – we are not under the Law, but under grace. But there is a line. It isn’t drawn by a ruler, at least a not a man-made one. It is the rule of the revealed will of God, found in the Bible (and to some extent in nature, see Rm 1.26, 2.14, 27, 1 Cor 11.14). But we do understand that the New Testament attribute of godliness is adopted by a heart that orients itself properly to God, then applies itself to conforming to God’s expectations (rules), and not the other way around. This understanding is, I think, what evangelicals like Piper are after in statements like this, but the way they are stated express their seemingly instinctive abhorrence of the “R” word (“rules”). It weakens their arguments for godliness and opposition to worldliness, I believe, because it encourages a ‘shrinking back’ from the very expressions of godliness that God expects.
The first chapter of the volume is by C. J. Mahaney, pope of Sovereign Grace Ministries. The chapter has commendable points and raises issues that many evangelicals rarely, if ever, voice (at least from my perspective). So I commend Mahaney for raising these issues and being as forthright as he is. I think his chapter is handicapped by a significant error, but let’s commend him for the good he accomplishes along the way.
Mahaney begins with the story of Thomas Jefferson and his pen-knife. Jefferson famously compiled his own Bible, picking out basically those teachings of Jesus of which he approved. He felt quite comfortable ignoring much of the Bible. Mahaney makes the point that many who have whole Bibles in fact are operating as if they have their own custom Bibles after the manner of Jefferson because they ignore ‘inconvenient truths’ they find therein (my term). The verse that is the object of the question found in the chapter title and Mahaney’s Jefferson illustration is 1 Jn 2.15, “Love not the world”. He does a good job challenging the reader to think about this passage and applying it to daily life. He uses Demas as a warning illustration of the dangers of ignoring the verse (I think he might read a bit more into the story of Demas than the Bible provides, but the points he makes here are sound regardless). He notes (pp. 21-23) that the evangelical mindset is softening towards things of the world, noting, “The greater our difference from the world, the more true our testimony for Christ — and the more potent our witness against sin. But sadly, today, there’s not much difference. The lines have blurred. The lack of clarity between the church and the world has undercut our testimony for Christ and undermined our witness against sin.” (p. 23) I would say, “Amen!” to that! Amazingly, Mahaney even uses the words “slippery slope” to express his concern about the softening evangelical testimony — doesn’t he know that there is no such thing as slippery slopes? How gauche of him!
Mahaney’s definition of the world we are not to love is:
“The world we’re not to love is the organized system of human civilization that is actively hostile to God and alienated from God. The world God forbids us to love is the fallen world. Humanity at enmity with God.”1
He defines worldliness this way:
“Worldliness, then, is a love for this fallen world. It’s loving the values and pursuits of the world that stand opposed to God. More specifically, it is to gratify and exalt oneself to the exclusion of God. It reject’s God’s rule and replaces it with our own (like creating our own Bibles). It exalts our opinions above God’s truth. It elevates our sinful desires for the things of this fallen world above God’s commands and promises.”2
The definition is acceptable in its first two sentences, but as he gets ‘more specific’, he veers off into a different idea entirely, the idea of idolatry. The problem with worldliness isn’t simply ‘idolizing’ things in the world, but adopting the values and pursuits of the world as if they are legitimate (godly) values and pursuits for a Christian. Hopefully I will be able to make this distinction clear as we go along in this review.
Mahaney is correct when he says, “[Worldliness] exists in our hearts. Worldliness does not consist in outward behavior, though our actions can certainly be evidence of worldliness within. But the real location of worldliness is internal.”3 As he tries to explain this, however, he moves to 1 Jn 2.16, as he should, but he is using the NIV which I think leads him astray in his thinking. This is how the NIV translates the familiar 1 Jn 2.16:
NIV 1 John 2:16 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.
Compare this with the KJV and the NAU:
KJV 1 John 2:16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.
NAU 1 John 2:16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world.
The first and third phrases in the NIV are quite distorted from the original.
Mahaney quotes David Powlison on this, who, he says, is paraphrasing Calvin. “The evil in our desires often lies not in what we want, but in the fact that we want it too much.”4 Mahaney proceeds to give his version of the same quote: “The ‘cravings of sinful man’ are legitimate desires that have become false gods we worship. It’s wanting too much the things of this fallen world.”5
This, in a nutshell, is where Mahaney’s chapter begins to be lacking. Earlier, he had correctly talked about the world as “the organized system of human civilization that is actively hostile to God and alienated from God.”6 But now, he speaks as if the problem is not with the things we want, but with the way we want them.
David Powlison and his cohorts talk a lot about idolatry, and their ideas find a ready voice in Mahaney, who is quite close to Powlison, et al. The concerns they raise are often worthy concerns. Idolatry is certainly a problem in the human spirit. But the problem with worldliness isn’t simply with how you crave for things, but with what you crave for. Those things are ‘the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life’. These are things in the world we are not to love because they are evil in themselves.
The flaw in Mahaney’s argument is that he makes worldliness out to be the evil that is within. The real danger of worldliness is the attractive evil that is without.
Mahaney’s mistake is evident when he goes on to refer to ‘sexual sin’ as something included in the second category, ‘the lust of his eyes’. Most commentators, I think, usually refer to sexual sin under ‘the lust of the flesh’, the first category of 1 Jn 2.16. But since Mahaney appears to be confused about the meaning of these phrases by the error in the NIV, he mentions it in connection with the second category, warning his readers not to limit ‘the lust of his eyes’ to merely sexual sin.
You can see this expressed as he tries to make application:
“If you’re more excited about the release of a new movie or video game than about serving in the local church, if you’re drawn to people more because of their physical attractiveness or personality than their character, if you’re impressed by Hollywood stars or professional athletes regardless of their lack of integrity or morality, then you’ve been seduced by this fallen world.”7
You see, he is making the problem out to be an inappropriateness in your desires, not an inappropriateness in the object of your desires. (Inappropriateness in your desires is a problem. But it isn’t worldliness.) Worldliness is loving a world that is evil in itself and opposed to God.
The fact is that in many, many cases, there is something wrong with the new movie or video game that makes it inappropriate as an object of Christian affection. Perhaps we should say in ‘most’ or ‘almost all’ cases! There is something wrong with the ‘star’ mentality the world promotes, Christians shouldn’t be impressed with Hollywood stars or athletes at all.
Well, we could go on. Do you see what I am saying?
As Mahaney moves to the third category of 1 Jn 2.16, he talks about boasting. But he speaks of it in such a way as to be describing simple pride, a notable sin to be sure, but it isn’t the hubris of the world as the world that he is talking about.
Again, the mistakes Mahaney makes here seem to be the consequence of relying too heavily on the NIV in this passage. The way he handles the passage makes me wonder if he is aware of the underlying Greek. He doesn’t engage with it all and thus appears blissfully unaware of the real issues of the passage. Not that one must be seminary trained to be in the ministry, but this may be an evidence of his lack of training. What is surprising in this connection is the number of well-educated evangelicals who endorse his book. But, as evangelicals, I don’t expect them to engage carefully with this text either. They may not view the world positively, but their tendency is to view the world at least ‘neutrally. The Bible views the world negatively, and the Christian must be on guard against it.
Finally, as Mahaney comes to his conclusion in this chapter, he advocates that the solution is “the cross of Jesus Christ.”8 His solution is to replace the world with meditation on the cross. This is very Piper-esque, and the current rage and all that, but I think it is an anemic and indefinite response.
What is needed instead of worldliness is ordinate affections – loving the things God loves – and godliness – a sense of the terror of the Lord that governs the heart and mind. We won’t achieve these ends by merely keeping rules, but we must cultivate a love for things that God loves in order to overcome the love of the world. Mere mystical meditation on the cross is insufficient to overcome a skewed value system. We need to replace the spirit of the world with the spirit of Christ – the values of the world with the values of God.
In conclusion, I appreciate the desire of C. J. Mahaney to address this subject. It is a start. But there are some fatal flaws in the argument and I think some worldly Christians can read this chapter and remain in their worldliness.