Unspotted from the World

Legitimate dealings with worldly people

The second mark of true religion is to keep wholly unspotted from the world (James 1:27). The Bible elsewhere warns us that we should neither love the world (1 John 2:15–16; 2 Tim. 4:10) nor be conformed to it (Rom. 12:1–2). Rather, we should come out from it and be separate (2 Cor. 6:17). What is the world? The world we must shun is not the world of nature, which glorifies God by showing His handiwork (Psa. 19:1–5). Nor is it the world of people. As God loves all men, so must we (John 3:16). Rather, the world threatening us is the world of evil influence—the world of sinners seeking to draw us into sin.

To what extent must we separate from the world? We need not withdraw altogether from ungodly people (1 Cor. 5:9–10 ). Scripture permits us to mix with them for a variety of purposes.

  1. We can live alongside them in their communities. When the apostles started a church, they never required its first members to forsake their homes and build a new community set apart from unbelievers.
  2. We can enter the world to conduct business. Paul, sometimes in partnership with Priscilla and Aquila, was a "tentmaker," a common term for someone engaged in leatherworking of all kinds (Acts 18:2–3). Lydia was a seller of purple (Acts 16:14). Paul authorized believers to make purchases at marketplaces patronized by worldly people (1 Cor. 10:25).
  3. We can meet socially with unsaved acquaintances, so long as we do not compromise our Christian testimony (1 Cor. 10:27). After all, Jesus ate with publicans and sinners (Mark 2:16).
  4. We can, and should, perform charitable deeds on behalf of people outside the church (Gal. 6:10).
  5. Jesus counseled us to "render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar's" (Luke 20:25). The question He was addressing was whether God's people should pay their taxes. His answer made it clear that they should be good citizens in every respect. Yes, they should pay their taxes, but also they should perform every other civic duty. Therefore, in today’s world they should engage themselves in the political process. By voting and other means, they should strengthen what is good in society and counter what is bad. It is even appropriate to hold public office. In Romans Paul mentions a prominent believer who was also "the chamberlain of the city" (Rom. 16:23).
  6. There is good evidence that among those who received the gospel proclaimed by the early church were many in the Roman army, both among the officers and the rank and file (Acts 10:1, 24, 44; Phil. 1:13). In the latter text, "palace" is the Greek word equivalent to the Latin praetorium, which likely refers to the Praetorian Guard, an elite division of the Roman army. Nowhere in the New Testament or in records of the early church do we find any suggestion that soldiers converted to Christ were expected, if possible, to leave military service or, if not possible, to stop cooperating with higher command.
  7. The last way we can mingle with the world is not simply a privilege and convenience, but a duty. We must go into the world and mix with worldly people in order to give them the gospel (Acts 1:8).

Where to draw the line

Exactly what forms of interaction with the world are illegitimate? We draw our rule of separation from Psalm 1:1, which is a series of vignettes comparing two men, one who receives the blessing of God and another who forfeits His blessing. The difference between them lies in their response to the world. The one who is blessed turns away from it. The other is pliable to it and, by degrees, comes under its complete control. At first, while conducting his own business, he happens to meet the ungodly on the road. Attracted to their company, he travels beside them and listens to their conversation. Later, he seeks them out in public places and lingers in their presence. Finally, he follows them into their homes, sits down, and joins in their scornful way of thinking and speaking. His downfall is the result of engaging the world under circumstances that allow the world to affect his thinking. We conclude that a believer should shun any practice that would make him receptive to worldly influence.

The first rule of separation

This might be called the influence test. And it may be stated thus. We stay away from the world if the result will be exposure to influence of a kind that will damage our innocence or our faith.

Yet we cannot altogether avoid worldly influence. In the course of earning a living, we may encounter ungodly people who pressure us to compromise our integrity. Work associates may assault our purity with obscene language or foul suggestions. A boss may ask us to lie or cheat. Even in the course of serving God, we may run into severe temptations. Anyone who has done Christian work in a slum or ghetto knows that ministry may necessitate going into extremely sordid situations. For example, on one occasion when I was a young man working in a ministry on the south side of Chicago, my team, consisting of myself and two older college girls, entered the apartment of a harlot. We went there with food on the basis of a tip from another apartment dweller that the harlot's children were on the brink of starvation. Upon arrival, we easily gained entrance, probably because the woman herself was hungry, and found several children, all with distended stomachs and severe mental impairment. We reported their plight to the authorities, who quickly removed them to better care.

Nowadays you can run into sordid situations almost anywhere as you reach out to meet people and help them. Therefore, the primary rule of separation requires a secondary rule.

The second rule of separation

It is this. We can expect God’s protection from worldly influence if we encounter it while doing something necessary and legitimate.

To make this protection effective, we must submit to it. That is, we must cooperate with the help that God is willing to provide. Suppose we are moved by Christian compassion to visit someone in the hospital, but once inside the hospital room we find it impossible to turn off an objectionable program on TV. Then we must ignore the program as much as we can. If we look at it, we lose God’s protection. We must handle ourselves in a similar fashion in the other situations we described. If we hear dirty jokes in the workplace, we must react with quiet disapproval. If the boss urges us to do wrong, we must meekly decline.

Whenever we are doing something necessary and legitimate, we must rely on the help of the Holy Spirit. He will not only show us how to conduct ourselves in a godly manner, but also He will shield us from any corrupting effects. When we leave the hospital room, we will forget the program on TV. We will forget the dirty jokes we heard at the office. The boss’s pressure to be dishonest will not undermine our integrity.

The third rule of separation

From the second rule of separation, we can derive a third. We cannot expect God’s protection from worldly influence if we accept it as the price we must pay for our own pleasure or success. This rule teaches us that two forms of interaction with the world are especially dangerous. The first is to become a spectator of worldly entertainment. The second is to pursue a worldly education. Entertainment and education bring a believer under influence of an extremely potent kind. Moreover, the influence is one-way.

When I watch TV, it communicates to me exactly what it wants to communicate. But I can say nothing in reply. I cannot speak to any of the people whose images and voices are electronically reproduced before me, nor can I exert any influence upon them. Yet everything they do and say has been designed by ingenious men to manipulate me. And I subject myself to this influence for no good reason except to please myself. I am deluded if I think the Holy Spirit will intervene to protect me from the consequences.

Likewise in the classroom of a public school or university, the student is helpless to counter any devilish lies coming from the teacher. The teacher is in control, and a teacher committed to attacking Christian faith may have developed clever strategies for making any student look ridiculous who dares to raise objections. So, by speaking up, Christian students may position themselves as a negative rather than as a positive witness for Christ. Moreover, they may hear such a smooth and sophisticated presentation of the secular worldview that they will be unable to resist it. It will damage or destroy their faith. Perhaps it will reshape their thinking without even being recognized as a challenge to their faith. However devoted to Christ they were when they entered the classroom, they will go away weaker Christians. Why does the Spirit decline to give them more protection in a public school? Because when they go there, they are violating the clear command of Scripture not "to sit in the seat of the scornful" (Psa. 1:1); that is, in the seat the scornful have provided so that the one sitting there can listen to all the scorn.

Going to a public school in a modern secularized society is legitimate only for students who have no alternative. Perhaps they are required by law to attend a public school. Or perhaps they must go there for necessary vocational training. Any student who cannot escape from entering a classroom hostile to faith can be sure of the Spirit's help if he or she earnestly seeks it.


Unless you guard yourself from the world, its tentacles will gain hold of both your thinking and your conduct. Let’s examine your thinking and conduct separately.

The prevailing system of thought today is known as secular humanism. This is the world view that denies the existence of God and puts man in God's place, giving man ultimate authority to judge what is true and false and what is right and wrong. Test yourself as to whether secular humanism has infiltrated your own thinking. As we have taught in an earlier lesson, the three cornerstones of this world view are evolutionism, pragmatism (the denial of moral absolutes, claiming that whatever works is right), and relativism (the denial of absolute truth). Let us revisit these modern delusions.

1. Do I accept any form of evolutionism?

Do you think that the universe is billions of years old? Do you believe that life evolved from non-life and that higher life forms, including man, evolved from lower life forms? Do you think that mankind is progressing to a higher level and that beings more advanced than man already exist in the universe? If your answer is “yes” to any of these questions, you have accepted an evolutionary lie, seeing history as an upward development over protracted time.

In the Bible we find the true story of our world’s past and future. We learn that the physical universe originated a few thousand years ago; that the various kinds of living things sprang into existence at the moment God created them; that the last kind He created was man; that the entire work of creation was accomplished within six days; that sin and evil arose shortly afterward; that before sin there was no death; that sin and evil are getting worse; and that God will soon put a stop to them when He destroys the present cosmos and replaces it with a cosmos perfect in righteousness and eternal in duration.

2. Do I subscribe to any form of pragmatism?

In other words, do you believe that man, either individually or collectively by means of public opinion, has the right to determine his own moral standards, even though these disregard God’s standards set forth in His Word, the Bible? The acid test is what position you take on the many social issues that are now being hotly debated. You have renounced the world’s pragmatism if you side with the Bible rather than with today’s opinion leaders. The Bible condemns divorce, premarital sex, adultery, homosexuality, and abortion, and it supports male leadership in the home as well as in the church.

3. Have I swallowed the lie that truth is relative?

When brought into the religious realm, the lie takes the form of claiming that all religions lead to God. But the Bible clearly teaches that the only way to find and know God is through belief in Jesus Christ (John 14:6; 5:22-23; Matt. 11:27). The test of whether you have purged your mind of relativism is whether you understand the peril of those who have never heard about Christ. If you fully comprehend that every responsible adult without Christ faces damnation, you will have a great burden to reach the lost.

Consider also whether the world is shaping your behavior. For the sake of time, we cannot look at all dimensions of its possible influence, so we will focus on three kinds of conduct that are especially prone to worldliness. These are dress, speech, and amusements.

4. Is my dress befitting my identity as a child of God, or does it show my desire to copy the world?

Your dress is worldly if it is immodest in any degree, or freakish, or transsexual, or elegant to the extent of making other Christians feel like social inferiors.

5. Does my speech always minister grace to the hearer, or does it veer into the crudeness, unkindness, and vanity that mark the speech of someone estranged from God?

Speech is crude if it is vulgar or impure or marred by profanity. As children of God, we dare not take His name in vain, using it flippantly as a mere expletive or blasphemously as a swear word or curse word. Speech is unkind if it cuts down other people, if it seeks to hurt rather than to help, if it assumes that to be insulting is funny. And speech is vain if it vaunts self at the expense of others. A person who is truly great does not need to speak of his greatness. Even when cloaked in modesty, excellence shines out clearly for all to see. The luster soon fades, however, if boasting sets the cloak aside.

6. Are my amusements unspotted by the world?

We could present a very extended critique of the modern entertainment industry and its products, but a believer sensitive to the Spirit of God needs to consider only one question when evaluating something he might choose to view, read, or hear. The question is, would Jesus Christ enjoy it? Jesus is here now, although we think of Him as remote, and He is there whenever you are using the media to amuse yourself. At the moment you begin, imagine turning to Christ and asking, “Will this offend you? Knowing that you are here with me, can I enjoy this without shame?” And as you ask the question, remember that you are talking to a holy God, one who cannot condone sin. He cannot overlook immodesty or provocative behavior. He cannot approve of unmarried people kissing and hugging like lovers. He cannot laugh at suggestive or malicious humor. He cannot view as a hero or role model anyone who is dishonest, or who uses manipulation to accomplish his goals, or who reacts to trouble with childish tantrums, or who handles frustration by breaking windows. He cannot accept God’s name—that is, His name—being abused or cheapened. He cannot endorse any portrayal of life that denies Him first place.

Study Questions

  1. What is not meant by "the world" we must shun?
  2. What is meant by this term?
  3. What forms of interaction with the world are legitimate?
  4. What text especially clarifies the line between legitimate and illegitimate forms?
  5. What forms of interaction with the world are illegitimate?
  6. What is the first rule of separation?
  7. What is the second rule of separation?
  8. What must we do to obtain God's protection while doing right?
  9. What is the third rule of separation?
  10. What two forms of interaction with the world are especially dangerous?

Further Reading

If you have found this lesson helpful, you might want to obtain Ed Rickard's commentary on the whole Epistle of James. For a brief description and for information on how to obtain it, click here.