Aside from Scripture itself, the book most beloved by Christians during the last three hundred years has been John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Bunyan pictures the Christian life as a long, arduous journey through a world of trouble to the Celestial City beyond the River. The central character is Christian, who represents every believer. In his pilgrimage he meets almost daily trials of his faith. Soon after entering the right road, he climbs the Hill Difficulty, which is so steep as he approaches the top that he can progress only by falling onto his hands and knees. Then on the other side he descends into the Valley of Humiliation, where Apollyon, the enemy of his soul, engages him in mortal combat. Christian emerges victorious and moves on, but immediately his way narrows to an obscure path leading through the dismal Valley of the Shadow of Death. On one hand is a deep ditch and on the other a smothering bog, yet by perseverance he at last overcomes this peril and rejoices to find an easier path. A fellow traveler, Faithful, joins him, and together they enter Vanity, a town obsessed with the frivolity of Vanity Fair. The townspeople, viewing the two pilgrims as a danger to their way of life, arrest them. Eventually they release Christian, but only after they have put Faithful to death. Undeterred, Christian resumes his journey in the company of another pilgrim, Hopeful. They do not go far, however, before they are captured by Giant Despair and imprisoned in Doubting Castle, where they languish a long while, without hope. There they would perish except that Christian discovers a key called Promise, which enables them to escape. Finally, after more trials and testings, they reach the River and cross to the other side. As they pass in triumph through the gates of the city, they hear the heavenly hosts welcoming them with songs of praise to God.
The story is an allegory. Every character and incident points to something beyond itself. Christian is, of course, a picture of the believer. All the trials that he must endure correspond to real trials in the Christian life. We too must cope with Vanity Fair, but we call it the world. We too must struggle up the Hill Difficulty, but we call it the flesh. We too must do battle with Apollyon, but we call him the devil. Believers have long understood that all assaults upon a believer’s faith come from these three enemies—the world, the flesh, and the devil (similar phraseology appears in Jas. 3:15). Let us explore useful strategies of defense.
The Bible warns us that we should neither love the world (1 John 2:16; 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), keeping ourselves wholly unspotted by it (James 1:27).
What is the world? As we said in an earlier lesson, 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? Should believers retreat into their own isolated settlements? No, early Christians kept their dwellings among ungodly people. To withdraw from them altogether is not what God requires of us (1 Cor. 5:9-10). He permits us to mix with them for a variety of purposes.
- We can use the marketplace for buying (1 Cor. 10:25) and selling (Acts 16:14).
- We can work in the employ of unsaved men (1 Tim. 6:1-2).
- We can enter into social relations with unbelievers, so long as we display rather than compromise our Christianity (1 Cor. 10:27).
- We can enter the world to do charitable deeds (Gal. 6:10), to perform civic duties (Luke 20:25), and even to hold public office (Rom. 16:23).
- Although some Christians have believed that military service is wrong, John the Baptist merely exhorted soldiers to be honest and humane (Luke 3:14), and Peter, when he took the gospel to the centurion Cornelius, who became the first gentile convert, refrained from condemning his profession (Acts 10).
- Besides all these forms of interaction with the world, we must enter the world to preach the gospel (Mark 16:15).
Exactly what forms of interaction with the world are illegitimate? We draw our rule of separation from Psalm 1:1, which offers three 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 first turns away from it. The second 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 allowing the world to affect his thinking. We conclude that a believer should shun any practice that would make him receptive to worldly influence.
The primary rule
Our rule of separation might be called the influence test. And it may be stated thus. We avoid interacting with the world whenever the result will be exposure to influence of a kind that will damage our innocence or our faith.
The secondary rule
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. While visiting the sick, we may enter a hospital room where we cannot turn off a morally degenerate program on TV. Christian work in the slums may involve special perils.
For a while during my college years, I participated in a ministry to the inner city of Chicago. One Sunday the girls on my team received a tip that a prostitute’s children were starving, so we went to her apartment. The mother let us in, probably because she too was in a desperate condition. Inside we found that the truth was worse than the report. Cowering there were several children with distended bellies, whose inability to communicate with us suggested that they suffered from severe retardation. The best we could determine was that recently they had rarely if ever seen the light of day. We could not call social services on Sunday, so we went to purchase food and brought it back to the apartment. Although we gave some to the mother, we insisted on feeding the children ourselves, because we suspected that the mother would not share it. The next day we contacted social services, who quickly responded by swooping down on the apartment and taking the children into custody. I relate this story as an illustration of God’s protection. Although I went into a sordid situation, I felt no temptation. The reason is that I was doing God’s work. Rather than posing any threat, that experience and others like it showed me the final tendency of sin, which is complete disgusting degradation. The lesson I learned would have been profitable for any young person.
Therefore, our primary rule of separation requires a secondary rule. It is this. We can expect God's protection from worldly influence only if we encounter it while doing something that He regards as legitimate.
To make this protection effective, we must submit to it. That is, we must determine the right thing to do, and then cooperate with God's help in doing it. If we hear dirty jokes in the workplace, we must express quiet disapproval. If our boss urges us to do wrong, we must meekly decline. In every outreach of ministry, we must, by focusing on the need we are serving, ignore any enticements to sin. If a television with corrupt programming hovers in the background, we must look away from it as much as possible. If we watch it, we lose God's protection.
If by the Holy Spirit we resist the temptations that come our way as we are doing right, we can be confident that He will shield us from all corrupting effects. We will forget the dirty jokes we heard at the office. The boss's pressure to be dishonest will not weaken our honesty. When we leave the hospital room, we will forget the program on TV.
From the secondary rule, we can derive an important inference. We cannot expect God's protection from worldly influence if we encounter it while seeking our own pleasure or advancement. This corollary shows 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 shrewd 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.
Rules and Standards
Recognizing the dangers in worldly amusement, many Christians and Christian bodies throughout history have adopted standards defining exactly what is not acceptable.
During the first part of the twentieth century, there were in America basically three kinds of Protestant churches: Pentecostal, fundamentalist, and liberal. The churches known as fundamentalist originally adopted this name for themselves to affirm their allegiance to the doctrines which they considered the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Anti-Christian bigotry has debased the term "fundamentalism" so that it now refers to religious fanaticism. But as recently as 1953, the only definition offered by Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary was "a recent movement in American Protestantism re-emphasizing as fundamental to Christianity belief in the inerrancy of the Scriptures, Biblical miracles, especially the virgin birth and physical resurrection of Christ, etc."
Until about 1970, fundamentalists were united on all major questions of doctrine and practice. There was no battle over music standards or versions of the Bible. There was no dispute over standards of personal separation from the world. Virtually all fundamentalists with a prominent voice agreed that Christians should not drink, smoke, dance, go the theater (defined as either live theater or movies), or play cards for the purpose of gambling. Most of these standards can be traced back to the early centuries of the church. In 1950, Time magazine referred to the separated lifestyle of Christians in an article on another magazine, Christian Life. "The readers of the monthly Christian Life are no friends of show business. Drinking, smoking, dancing, card-playing and movies they consider the Devil's traps." Many churches in the American South added mixed bathing to the list of forbidden practices. Some in the same region declined to disapprove of smoking. But otherwise, there was no debate.
Rules are not Scriptural.
Today, fundamentalist standards are regarded with disfavor even by many Christians who claim loyalty to a Biblical worldview. They complain that none of the outlawed practices is actually condemned by Scripture. So, they view the standards as unscriptural and pharisaical.
Yet to say that Scripture is silent concerning these five practices is an overstatement. Scripture does offer a clear warning against drinking (Prov. 20:1; 23:29–35). Although it does not mark the other four as off-limits, the reason is that they either did not exist in Bible times, or did not succeed so well in posing as harmless. Smoking did not exist. Card-playing did not exist. Social dancing did not exist. Objectionable forms of dancing and theater were so blatantly immoral that the authors of Scripture did not need to single them out for condemnation. Our problem today is that mankind in the last two thousand years has invented new ways of sinning. Thus, in formulating a code of conduct, a Christian must name illegitimate pastimes and pleasures that the Bible does not mention.
The Bible itself gives us a warrant for doing this. The Old Testament prophets did not shrink from denouncing all the specific forms of loathsome sin prevalent in their day (Isa. 5; Jer. 5; Ezek. 13; Mal. 2; these being a very small sample). Neither did John the Baptist (Luke 3:2–14). Neither did the early church (Acts 15:29). So, in our day, we must shine the light of divine holiness into every corner where evil lurks. We must identify sins by name, just as all other spokesmen for God have done throughout history.
Rules are legalistic.
Some years ago a well-known Christian leader accused certain Christian colleges of legalistically focusing on dress codes and rules rather than on the Spirit. Such disdain for separated Christians is common among more worldly Christians. But are good standards truly "legalistic"? The term has several meanings, but in no sense is it legalistic to insist on some standards useful as protection from worldliness.
- Strictly speaking, the term "legalistic" describes the belief that salvation is earned by good works. It is proper to call Catholics legalistic, for they say that salvation depends on rituals and moral living as well as on faith. It is proper to label the Judaizers in the early church as legalistic, for they taught that circumcision was necessary for salvation. But I have yet to meet a fundamentalist who denies that salvation depends solely on the work of Christ. Therefore, a fundamentalist is not legalistic, in this sense, even though he may advocate certain rules.
- The term "legalistic" can also refer more broadly to certain ways of misusing the law. For example, the multiplication of laws and rules beyond what is necessary is legalistic. The Pharisees manufactured rules until they were so numerous that any modern attempt to compile them requires many volumes. But the traditional rules against worldly amusement are few in number, and they simplify Christian duty. The man who simply rejects all Hollywood movies saves himself from ever approving what he should dismiss. He also preserves for better uses all the time that another man wastes in trying to decide which are acceptable and which are not. Besides, what inevitably happens if you start looking through movies and TV programs in an attempt to find some that are okay? You end up seeing a lot of garbage that God does not want you to see. You know I am speaking the truth.
Are any Hollywood movies truly pleasing to God? In recent years I have seen few movies from this source, but of the many I saw in my younger days, not one had the purpose of exalting God or giving Him the glory, yet we are to do all things to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). Not one bolstered faith in the Bible or taught submission to the God of the Bible. It is possible to find in Hollywood’s output a few movies sympathetic to Roman Catholicism, as well as many others that look favorably on Eastern or mystical religions, but fundamentalism never appears except as a target of ridicule. Still, of the countless thousands of worldly films now available, are not some sufficiently devoid of vice to be tolerable? Not many. The list would be pretty short.
- It is legalistic to suppose that you become a good Christian just by obeying a few rules of personal separation. To spare the flock from this delusion, preachers should hammer away at all sin, not just worldliness, and they should keep denunciation of sin in balance with recommendation of worship and charity. Also, they should impress upon the flock that our highest duty is to love both God and man (Matt. 22:36-40).
- Any moral code without foundation in the law of God is legalistic. The many rules of the Pharisees were legalistic in this sense. Jesus dismissed some of their ceremonial washings, for instance, as merely "the commandments of men" (Matt. 15:9). But the rules against worldly amusement have a solid Biblical basis, for they help a believer fulfill his duty to keep himself unspotted from the world (James 1:27). They assist him in overcoming the world's evil influence and resisting the world's enslaving pleasures.
To protect yourself from legalism, you should never impose a rule on yourself just because someone, even a Christian leader, recommends it. You should first be satisfied in your own heart that the rule truly helps you walk in holiness. But do not be quick to reject one of the time-honored rules as unbiblical. If you let the Spirit guide you in further searching of God’s will, you will discover how wise the rule is. Remember that God will judge you for your choices. Do not think that God will excuse a bad choice just because it did not trouble your conscience. Your opinion counts for nothing. It will never stand as an excuse if it rests on careless inattention to the real teaching of Scripture.
I believe that many churches in the past made the mistake of imposing good rules without explaining why they are necessary. Many years ago I had such a burden to fill the vacuum that I wrote a book providing an exhaustive defense of traditional specific standards as well as a detailed rebuttal of all arguments then circulating against standards in general. A well-known publisher accepted the book, but at the last minute got cold feet and canceled its publication. The governing board was especially afraid of backlash from my severe critique of TV-watching and mixed bathing, although the further degradation in these practices since then has certainly proved my warnings to be prophetic. In a search on Amazon.com for books by Stanley Rickard, you still, at least in 2015, find this book listed as forthcoming.
We live under grace, not under the law.
Some who criticize separated Christians imagine that the Bible itself supports their dislike of rules. The texts they often quote include some of the grandest declarations in the Book of Romans (Rom. 3:20; 6:14). These teach that knowledge and practice of the law cannot save a man from his sins. The law can do no more than show him his need of a Savior.
Yet it does not follow that the law has no place in the Christian life. Once a man is saved through Christ, God expects him to seek holiness. To please a Holy Father he must gain victory over sin. But if he could not attain his own righteousness before salvation, how can he attain it afterward? He cannot. Yet, at the moment of salvation he receives the Holy Spirit, who aids him in everything he must do as a Christian. The help of the Holy Spirit is one form of what Christians call grace.
The Spirit of grace does not operate by discarding the law. Rather, by instructing the believer in the Word of God, which is filled with rules and commands expounding the law, He shows the believer how to live. The law reveals exactly what behavior conforms to the will of God and what does not. Moreover, the Holy Spirit gives the believer a new ability to practice the law in his daily walk (Rom. 8:1-4).
All things are lawful.
Another favorite with objectors to rules is 1 Corinthians 6:12. Christians seeking permission for doubtful pleasures seize what they like in this verse and ignore the rest. The defense, "All things are lawful unto me," springs readily to their lips, but they fail to see that Paul adds some emphatic qualifications.
Yes, the Christian life is not a fruitless attempt to justify self through the keeping of laws. Whether a Christian obeys the law does not determine his eternal standing before God. Nor does it determine his provisional standing, as it did in Old Testament times. Rather, his standing depends solely on His relationship to Christ, the perfect law-keeper. So, a Christian is not under law. Indeed, as Paul says, all things for a Christian are lawful.
But anyone who cites Paul's statement as grounds for disobeying standards of separation could, with as much force of logic, cite it as grounds for committing murder. Paul does not mean that all things are morally right. Murder is not right. Adultery is not right. Worldly pleasures are not right. Rather, what he means is that the law no longer judges a Christian. In Christ he is above judgment.
Worldly pleasures are not right for many reasons, including two stated by Paul in the same verse. They might be inexpedient, and they might be enslaving. The inexpedient things include any distraction from proper attention to Christian service. The enslaving things include any sinful indulgence. Such an indulgence can deplete a believer's stores of time, wealth, reputation, and bodily strength and, at last, destroy his capacity for service. Notice that almost every amusement that a worldly Christian might seek to excuse by an appeal to 1 Corinthians 6:12 belongs to the things which this very verse condemns. What is TV, for instance, if not a time-waster and potential addiction?
Law is for the unrighteous, not for the righteous.
Still another text often brought into the debate over rules is 1 Timothy 1:9-10. It is true that moral laws and rules are meant for the unrighteous and not for the righteous. Why are they not meant for the righteous? "But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law" (Gal. 5:18). Paul's answer is that the righteous are living under the control of the Spirit. They need not keep their eyes on the law to follow the right path. They need only keep their eyes on the Spirit's leading. Through His influence they will be law keepers.
But Christians today cannot claim to be so Spirit-controlled that they can dispense with governance by rules. Within the church, both the young in age and the young in faith are filthy from wallowing in the cesspools of modern cynicism and hedonism. They desperately need not only positional cleansing through Christ but also practical cleansing through the Holy Spirit. Rules are a tool that the Spirit can use to instruct the ignorant and the carnal in the everyday meaning of righteousness (1 Tim. 1:8). The need for law, the need for rules generally, is in proportion to lawlessness in the world and in the church.
Antinomianism in the Last Days
The Bible clearly predicts that a contempt for rules will reign in the Last Days, the days in which we live (2 Tim. 4:3; 2 Pet. 2:1). Although the church has been plagued with false teachers from the start, now everywhere we look we see them peddling sin under the name of liberty. A host of pseudospiritual objections to rules has infected modern churches, turning them onto the downward path of the ancient heresy called antinomianism, which is lawlessness masquerading as higher spirituality. Scripture warns us that if we let antinomian teachers lure us away from holy living, we will be like a dog returning to his vomit, or a sow returning to the mire (2 Pet. 2:19-22).