The Christian Professor


John Angell James, 1837


CONFORMITY TO THE WORLD
 

There is such a precept as this in the New Testament, "Do not be conformed to this world." This precept is unrepealed, and in full force; and is as binding upon us, as it was in the days of the apostles. There may exist difficulties in the way of ascertaining its meaning, its applicableness, and its limitsóbut it has a meaning Christians, and it still is a rule of Christian conduct. There are passages similar to it in the word of God such as the following. "Do not love the world or the things that belong to the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. Because everything that belongs to the world--the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride in one's lifestyle--is not from the Father, but is from the world." 1 John 2:15, 16. "No one can be a slave of two masters, since either he will hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot be slaves of God and of money." Matthew 6:24. "Adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? So whoever wants to be the world's friend becomes God's enemy." James 4:4. "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." Rom 12:3

To what does the rule apply? Not merely to actual vice, as immorality is forbidden in other places where its acts are enumerated and branded. Nor on the other hand, can this rule intend to set the Christian in all things in direct contrariety to the world. It is not a command to useless and unmeaning singularity for the sake of singularity. The world is sometimes and in some things right; and in all that is kind, courteous, polite and honorable, in all the innocent usages of society, in all the pure tastes and lawful pursuits of our neighbors, we may be conformed to the world. But there are many things which occupy a kind of middle place between these two things; they are not absolutely immoral, nor are they innocent, pure, lawful for a Christian. They are sinfulóbut yet not what are usually denominated viciousóand some of them are things lawful in their nature, and made wrong only by excess. They are matters which a man may carry on, and yet not lose his reputation with the multitude, even as a professor; and yet they are forbidden.

What is the meaning of the rule?

It will help us to determine this, if we turn back and consider what a profession of religion impliesówhich is, that we take the Lord Jesus Christ as our Savior, Lord, and example; are supremely intent upon the salvation of our souls as the great end and object of existence; and make the word of God the rule of our conduct. In these things we are different from the world around us. This, in fact, constitutes the difference. We acknowledge ourselves to be a peculiar people, and that this separation is visibly maintained by our entire submission to the laws of Christ. We say to all around us, "Whatever you seek, I am seeking salvation; whatever rules of conduct you observe, I obey the laws of Christ, as laid down in the New Testament. I am governed by these laws in all thingsóand I cannot allow you to intrude your rules upon me. I am determined in what is right or wrong, not by the law of honor, or fashion, or ambitionóbut by the commands of Christ."

Now this is really the import of a Christian profession, and therefore conformity to the world must be tried by this. The member of a community or of a family situated in the midst of other states or families, must be governed by the laws of his own community, and must not allow the laws of these other states or families to be intruded upon himóbut must obey his own. So the Christian church is a community situated in the midst of the world, and has laws of its own, which it must obey, and not allow the world to impose upon it their maxims, customs, and rules of action. It is not to allow a foreign jurisdiction to come in and modify and relax its code, under the pretext that it is too rigid or severe; too much in opposition to the systems that prevail around. A professor, as long as he is such, must obey the precepts of Christ's kingdom, and if he will not, he should give up his profession. The church is Christ's community, peculiar in its nature, different from all others, being a strictly spiritual kingdom, which is not of this world. The church is peculiar in its design, being intended to show forth the glory of God in its present sanctification and eternal salvation, through Christ. It must keep up, not let down its singularity; it must maintain its peculiarity of nature and design, as a holy, heavenly body, and not do anything to soften it down, and blend itself with the kingdoms of this world. All attempts on the part of its members to accommodate it to the community by which it is surrounded, is an encroachment on the authority of its head, an incipient alteration of its nature, and a frustration of its design.

We are now prepared to see what conformity to the world is forbidden to a professing Christian.

1. A conformity to the SPIRIT of the world. And what is the spirit of the world? It is described by the apostle, where he says, "they mind earthly things." Phil. 3:19. This is a concise, emphatic, and accurate description of a worldly man; his supreme, yes, exclusive desire, aim, and purpose, is to get as much, and enjoy as much, of the world as he can. He thinks of nothing else, and wishes for nothing else. His hopes and fears, joys and sorrows, desires and dread, are all of the earth, earthly. This is set forth in another form by the Psalmist, "There are many who say, who will show us any good?" This is also an emphatic description of a worldly mind, an exclusive regard to, and wish for, earthly possessions and enjoyment.

We have still another representation of it in the rich man in the parable, who, upon the increase of his wealth, is made to say, "Soul, you have much goods laid up for many years, take your ease, eat, drink, and be merry." Luke 12:19. Here, then, is a worldly spirit, a making the world the highest object of pursuit, and the chief source of enjoyment. This shows itself in various ways; a love of pleasure in one; avarice in another; ambition in a third; exclusive delight in home in another. In proportion, therefore, as a Christian partakes of this spirit, he is worldly-minded. If he appears like one whose supreme aim is to be rich and happy on earth; if he appears to be continually intent on increasing his wealth and multiplying his comforts; if he looks like a man who is entirely occupied in enjoying himself here on earth, no matter how remote he may be from covetousness, or ambition, or sensuality; no matter how pure and innocent his tastes may be, he is a worldly-minded man.

It is the intention of Christ's kingdom to exhibit a community who live by faith; whose delight is in God; whose joy and peace come from believing; who are not so much seeking to be happy now, as preparing to be happy hereafter. Just in so far as it appears that a Christian is more anxious about the body than his soul; earth than heaven; time than eternity; temporal possessions, than eternal salvation; and just in so far as he seems to derive his happiness from things of sense, rather than things of faith, he is conforming to the world; for the spirit of the world is an earthly spirit.

2. Our nonconformity to the world must include in it a stern refusal to adopt those corrupt principles, or rather that lack of principle, on which a great part of the modern system of trade is conducted. I dwell on this subject, with a repetition, that many will dislike, and because of its great importance and necessity. We are commanded to follow whatever things are true, just, honest, lovely, and of good report; and we are to do nothing that is contrary to this rule. This is the Christian law of trade; this is the New Testament system of commercial morality, from which we may not depart. In reply to all this it is said by many professors, that if they do not, in some degree, conform to the practices of others, in the manner of conducting their business, although their practices cannot be justified on the ground of scripture, they cannot live. Then, I say, they ought not, in their meaning of the phrase, to live. For what does it mean? Not that they cannot existóbut that they cannot live so comfortably; cannot have so good a house, such elegant furniture, and such luxurious diet. What says Christó"And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire." Mark 9:43. "Whoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me." Mark 8:34.

There was an age of the church, when its members were required to burn a little incense to the statue of the gods or the emperors, and upon noncompliance with the command, were hurried off to be torn to pieces by lions in the amphitheater. Upon that single act, because it was regarded as a test of Christian character and influence, depended not only their property or libertyóbut their life; and myriads sacrificed their lives rather than conform. What is now the ordeal? What is now the trial of integrity? Not an act of homage to Jupiter or Trajan; but bowing the knee, and burning incense to 'Mammon'! And shall there be no martyrs for Christian morality, even as there were once martyrs for Christian doctrine? If the early Christians could not serve God and Jupiter, shall we try to serve God and Mammon? If they hesitated not to sacrifice their lives for their profession, shall we think it hard to give up a portion of our gains? Trade is the trial of the church in the present day, and fearful are the disclosures which it makes.

Other ages, besides our own, have been, in some measure, exposed to this trial. "The disciples of Wycliffe," says the Roman Inquisitor, Reinher, "are men of a serious, modest deportment, avoiding all ostentation in dress, mixing little with the worldóthey maintain themselves wholly by their own labor, and utterly despise wealth, being content with bare necessaries. They follow no dishonest dealings, because it is attended with so much lying, swearing, and cheating. They are temperate, are never seen in taverns, or amused by the trifling gaieties of life."

To go out, or keep out of business, however, in order to avoid its snares, is not required of Christians; but it is evidently their duty to avoid all ways of transacting business, which are contrary to the rules of the word of Godóthe morality of which does not fluctuate with the customs of men and the manners of the age. If we cannot get anything more than bread and water, without lying and fraud--we must be content even with this meager fare.

3. We are not to conform to the world, by a deference to its opinions, on questions of right and wrong. Our opinions must be taken from the word of God, and must be in accordance with that. It must be our standard of sentiment; and we must not adopt any other. It must be the reason and only reason, why we approve or condemn anything. We must ask the question, "what says the scripture on this subject?" and not, "what says the world?" Having ascertained what is the will of God, what is the law of Christ--we must never seek, or care about, the world's opinion; much less must we seek, or in any way desire to bring down the law of Christ to the world's taste or approbation.

We must neither do a thing, nor avoid it, simply because the world approves or disapproves of it. In many things we shall coincide with the worldóbut it must not be for the sake of conciliating their favor, or commendationóbut because the thing itself is right. There is, in many Christians, an excessive and sinful deference to the opinion of worldly people, an obvious wish to stand well with them, to get as near to them as they can, without being actually of their party; a constant aim and endeavor to conciliate their esteem, by humoring their prejudices; and thinking, as much as possible, as they think, saying as they say, doing as they do, till the world concludes that these compliant professors are almost won to their party. A concern to gain the world's good opinion, on the part of a Christian, is a decisive evidence of that conformity to it, which is sinful. I do not advocate or recommend rudeness, a hatred of mankind, or vulgarity; a Christian may be, and should be, polite, courteous, and refinedóbut not because the world admires these thingsóbut because they are right. He should seek to please his neighbor; but then it is only so far as he can please God, and his own conscience, and even then, not to gain his neighbor's applauseóbut for his good to edification. He should, of course, be concerned to have the world's testimony to his godly integrity and consistencyóbut this is not from a deference to the opinion of the worldóbut for its welfare, his own reputation, the credit of Christianity and the glory of Christ.

To give up any one single point of duty, however minute; to alter any one single pious custom, or habit; to relax in any one conscientious pursuit, or even to conceal any one peculiarity of our profession, from a dread of the ridicule of the fashionable, the contempt of the wise, or the neglect of the greatóand on the other hand, to do anything, however trivial or insignificant, which our conscience tells us is sinful, in order to avoid these consequences, is a fearful indication of conformity to the world.

4. We ought not to conform to the world, in such of its social habits, customs, and practices--which are directly or indirectly opposed to the laws of Christ, the spirit of true piety, and the ends of a Christian profession.

By this rule, theatrical representations must be condemned, as opposed to the laws of Christian morality; and balls, card-parties, and public concerts as opposed to the spirit of religion and the ends of a Christian profession; and for this same reason, large mixed parties, where religious exercises are excluded to make way for dancing, music, and singing. It may not be possible to say, exactly, how many people, nor what kind of occupations, shall constitute a party, into which a Christian may lawfully adventureówe can only state general principles, remind him of the important design of his profession, and then refer him to his judgment and conscience.

It is obvious that the tendency, in the present day, is not towards too much separation and seclusionóbut towards too much company, and company too much mixed, for Christian association and edification. The large and mirthful parties which some nominal Christians frequent, are an inappropriate adjunct, and an exhibition of their sickly profession. There is little in such circles congenial with the spirit of piety; little that is calculated to promote spirituality of mind; little that befits a person, set apart to be a follower of the Lamb, a witness for God, and a traveler to heaven. The song, the music, the frivolous discourse, the mirthful apparel--do not correspond with the spirit of penitence, of prayer, of faith. A professor in such a situation can neither get good, nor do good; he not only cannot introduce his religionóbut he cannot promote the cause of common humanity; nor communicate or receive useful knowledge. Parties are convened for amusement, and everything besides amusement is thought out of season and out of place.

Now, it may be difficult to prove, apart from his profession, that these things are wrong; but then, by his profession, he must be tried. I am speaking of professors. A professor is one who is Christ's, one who desires to obey him, and to promote his glory in the world; one whose desires may be summed up in the supreme wish and aim to be assimilated to Christ, to be prepared for eternal glory, and to bring his fellow men to be partakers of the same hopeóone who is praying and seeking to be dead to the world, to crucify the flesh, and to get ready for the coming of the Son of God. Is this so, or is it not? If not, what does a profession imply? If it does imply all this, then here is a rule of action, a test of the propriety of a thousand things which might otherwise be the subject of much debate.

"A child can much more easily decide whether a thing be right, by considering if it will be acceptable to the mind of his father, than he could settle its propriety by argument. So a Christian can more easily decide what is right, by considering what will be approved by the mind of Christ, than by reducing it to the touchstone of logical proof. So it might become a question of abstract reasoning, about a thousand scenes of amusement. It might be easy to argue by the hour in favor of parties of pleasure, and theaters, and ball-rooms, and gaiety, and all the variety of fashionable life, and the mind might 'find no end in wandering mazes lost.' But apply the safe rule before us, and all mist vanishes. Since the beginning of the world, it is to be presumed that no professing Christian ever dreamed that he was imitating the example of Jesus Christ, or promoting his own salvation, or the salvation of others, or honoring the Christian religion--in a theater, a ball-room, or a mirthful party of pleasure. And equally clear would be this decision in reference to multitudes of pleasures, which it is useless to specify. The word of God, which we profess to make the rule of our conduct, must be the test of what is right or wrong." ("The Rule of Christianity in Regard to Conformity to the World." by Albert Barnes. This is an incomparably excellent discourse, to which I am indebted for many sentiments and expressions in this chapter; and which I most cordially recommend in its present elegant and cheap form, to all professing Christians. Professors! Buy itóRead itóPractice it!)

This test will decide what is improper in dress, furniture, decorations, social interaction. All restless ambition to rise above our condition and circumstances, to outshine our equals, and vie with superiors; all anxious desire and eager endeavor to appear wealthy or stylish, and to be thought so; all unnecessary extravagance and show, even when our income can sustain it; everything in short that evinces a disposition to be admired by the world, that looks like the workings of a mind more intent on earth than heaven, more solicitous to be happy here than to prepare for happiness hereafter, is unquestionably a conformity to the world, forbidden by the precepts of God's word, and the principles of our profession. An obvious eagerness to be fashionable in our dress, and social habits; a wish to be considered a person of elegant taste; an endeavor to maintain social interaction with the mirthful; a constant change and heavy expense to keep up with the fluctuations of fashion, are all violations of the rule of Christianity.

And so also is the too common practice of bringing up children, with a far greater attention to fashionable accomplishments, than genuine piety. The piety of their children is the last thing which many who call themselves Christians seem to think of. Schools for girls are selected with far greater solicitude about the dancing, music and drawing masters, and the French teacher--than for the religious character of the establishment. And in the education of boys, Latin, Greek, and the mathematics--are far more thought of than religion.

Nor must I pass over another odious and criminal indication of worldly-mindedness among professors, I mean the preference which is often given to the sect with which they will unite themselves, and the congregation with which they will publicly worship God, and which is decided not on the ground of greater adaptation to personal edificationóbut of worldly respectability. A fashionable section of the Christian church, and a respectable congregation of that section, are among the demands of some, who would be thought pious too, in the present day. They wish to go respectably to heaven. They have no objection to evangelical sentiments now they can hear them from the lips of a preacher whom the wealthy and the great flock to hearóand can endure the most heart-searching discourses, since they are delivered to assemblies in which the diamond sparkles, to which the silk-worm has lent the satin and the velvet, and which the noble dignifies with the coronet. O who would not be religious when they can join in the same prayer or hymn with the aristocracy of trade or of rank. Alas, alas, such professors had they lived in the days of "the Man of Sorrows," the reputed son of Joseph, the carpenter, who lived on charity, and whom the common people heard gladly--they would have been Jews and not Christians, for the former had respectability on their side. Or had they lived in the days of the apostles they would never have been the followers of fishermen and tent-makersóbut would have gone with the patrician nobles to the temples of their gods.

Beware then, professors, of the love of the world, even in that form of it which appears most blameless, I mean making it the supreme end of life to get money, though by honest industry, and to live respectably.

"So far," says Mr. Fuller, "is the love of the world from being the less dangerous on account of its falling so little under human censure, that it is the more so. If we are guilty of anything which exposes us to the reproach of mankind, such reproach may assist the remonstrances of conscience, and of God, in carrying conviction to our bosoms; but of that for which the world acquits us, we shall be exceedingly disposed to acquit ourselves.

"It has long appeared to me that worldliness will, in all probability, prove the eternal overthrow of more professing Christians, than almost any other sin. This because it is almost the only sin which may be indulged, and a profession of religion at the same time supported. If a man is a drunkard, a fornicator, an adulterer, or a liar; if he robs his neighbor, oppresses the poor, or deals unjustly, he must give up his pretensions to religion--or his pious friends will give him up. But he may love the world and the things of the world, and at the same time retain his profession! If the depravity of the human heart is not subdued by the grace of God, worldliness will operate. It is thus, perhaps, avarice is most prevalent in old age, when the power of pursuing other vices, has in a great measure subsided. And thus it is with religious professors, whose hearts are not right with God. They cannot go long with the openly profane, nor indulge in gross immoralities; but they can love the world supremely, and still keep up a profession of religion."

Christians, I call you to fight the good fight of faith; one great part of which is, to attack and subdue the world. How can you satisfy yourselves that you are the children of God, if this victory be not gained, when it is said, "whoever is born of God, overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith." 1 John 5:4. Renew the conflict, grapple with the foe, determine by divine grace to conquer. Understand well the means of maintaining the contest and securing the victory. It is by faith alone, that you can become conquerors. Losses, trials, afflictions, disappointments, sorrows will not do itóthese things have made men hate the world, and flee from itóbut not conquer it. These things have broken their hearts in the worldóbut not from it; and in some instances have made them cling the closer to what was left. It is faith alone, that can really exalt the Christian above the sphere of earthly things, and raise him to that lofty mind in which he is so satisfied with the present enjoyment of God, and the hope of future glory, that he is neither weary of the world nor fond of it!

Keep faith in exercise; faith, which by truly believing in the truth of gospel revelation, realizes the existence of invisible and eternal glory, and by uniting the soul to God through Christ, accepts the very blessedness of heaven, as our own ineffable portion. Give yourselves more to the contemplation of heavenly bliss. Consider it is the very object of your vocation. "The God of all grace has called us unto his eternal glory" 1 Peter 5:10. It was matter of the apostle's thanksgiving on behalf of the Thessalonians, that they were called by his gospel "to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ." 2 Thes. 3:14. What a calling! And yet by allowing the world to have such power and influence over us, we are opposing the holy, divine, and God-like purpose of drawing our hearts up into heaven, and are pulling them down to earth. Has God revealed to us the heavenly state, set open the very doors and windows of the celestial temple, that we might have the lovely prospect, as far as we can have it, before us--and shall we not behold it?

Does it become us--is it proper--that we should not open our eyes to heaven, when God has opened heaven to us? Or shall we, in effect, tell him that we are too much occupied with the cares of business, the comforts of home, or the enjoyments of life, to attend to or to hope for the revealed glory? O how few thoughts we have of it, how little we converse about it! How little does the prospect of the exceeding great and eternal weight of glory, weigh down the griefs of our troubles, or the joy of our earthly possessions. There it is, above our heads, bright and effulgent, yet we are too much taken with the things that are of the earth, earthy, to look at it.

"If one should give a stranger to Christianity an account of the Christian hopes, and tell him what they be and expect to enjoy before long, he would sure promise himself to find so many angels dwelling in human flesh, and reckon when he came among them he should be as amidst the heavenly choir; everyone full of joy and praise. He would expect to find us living on earth as the inhabitants of heaven, as so many pieces of immortal glory lately dropped down from above, and shortly again returning thither. He would look to find everywhere in the Christian world, incarnate glory sparkling through the overshadowing veil; and wonder how this earthly sphere should be able to contain so many great souls. But when he draws nearer to us, and observes the course and conduct of our lives, when he sees us live as other men, and considers the strange disagreement of our daily lives to our so great avowed hopes, and how little sense of joy and pleasure we discover ourselves to conceive in them--would he not be ready to say, 'Sure some or other (willing only to amuse the world with the noise of strange things,) have composed a religion for these men which they themselves understand nothing about. If they do adopt it and own it as theirs, they understand not their own pretenses; they are taught to speak some big words, or to give a faint or seeming assent to such as speak them in their namesóbut it is impossible they should be in good earnest, or believe themselves in what they say or profess.' And what reply, then, should we be able to make? For who can think any who acknowledge a God, and understand at all what that name imports, should value at so low a rate, as we visibly do, the eternal fruition of his glory and a present sonship to him, the pledge of so great a hope. He that is born heir to great honors and possessions, though he be at great uncertainties as to the enjoyment of them, yet when he comes to understand his possibilities and expectancies, how grand does he look and speak? What grandeur does he put on? His hopes form his spirit, and deportment. But is it proportionably so with us? Do our hopes fill our hearts with joy, our mouths with praise, and clothe our faces with a cheerful aspect, and make a holy charity appear in all our lifestyle?

"Does it not argue a low sordid spirit not to desire and aim at the perfection you are capable of--and not to desire that blessedness which alone is suitable and satisfying to a reasonable and spiritual being? Bethink a little--how are you sunk into the dirt of the earth? Is the Father of spirits your father? Is the world of spirits your country? Have you any relation to that heavenly offspring? Are you allied to that blessed family, and yet undesirous of the same blessedness? Can you savor of nothingóbut what smells of earth? Is nothing grateful to your soul, but what is corrupted by so impure and vicious a tincture? Are the polluted pleasures of a filthy world, better to you than the eternal visions and enjoyments of heaven? What--are you all made of earth? Is your soul stupefied into a clod? Have you no sense with you of anything better, and more excellent? Can you look upon no glorious thing with a pleased eye? Your spirit looks too like the mundane spirit--the spirit of the world. The apostle speaks of it by way of distinction, 'We have not received the spirit of the worldóbut the spirit which is from God, that we might know or see (and no doubt it is desire that animates that eye, it is not bare speculative intuition, and no more) the things that are freely given us of God.' 1 Cor. 2:12. Surely he whose desire does not guide his eye to the beholding of those things, has received the spirit of the world only. A spirit that conforms him to this world, makes him think only thoughts of this world, and drives the designs of this world, and speak the language of this world. A spirit that makes him like the world, makes him of a temper suitable to it; he breathes only worldly breath, carries a worldly aspect--is of a worldly mind. O poor, low spirit, that such a contemptible world should withhold you from the desire and pursuit of such glory! Are you not ashamed to think what your desires are used to dwell upon, while they decline and forfeit this blessedness? Methinks your own shame should compel you to quit the name of a saint or a man; to forbear numbering yourself with any who pretend to immortality, and go seek pasture among the beasts of the field, with them that live that sordid animal life that you do, and expect no other." (Howe's "Blessedness of the Righteous")

Christian professor, would you then be crucified to the world, and have the world crucified to you? Would you indeed, and in truth, have the spirit of the world cast out of you; would you cease to be characterized as minding earthly things, and no longer bear the image of the earthly upon your soul as well as upon your body? Go daily by sacred meditation, to Mount Calvary, and while all the mysteries of redeeming love, as concentrated in the cross, there meet the eye of faith--and as the visions of celestial glory, seen most distinctly from that spot, attract and fix the transported gaze of hope, you will see the beauty of the earth fade away before you, amidst the splendor of a more excellent glory, and feel the love of the world die within you, under the power of a stronger and a holier affection!




HOME       QUOTES       SERMONS       BOOKS