What It Means To Be In The World But Not Of It
The Westminster Assembly was an advisory body of theologians to the English Parliament which met at Westminster from 1643 to 1648. It produced a new range of standards for church order and government, worship and doctrine for the churches of England, Scotland and Ireland that have been used ever since by Presbyterian churches across the world.
4 Feb, 2021

The words are simple in themselves but it still seems hard for many Christians to understand how their daily lives should be “in the world but not of it.” They have heard the phrase so often and on face value it seems simple. But how does it apply in practice? Many seem genuinely confused by the constant dilemma between engaging with the world and fleeing from it. They have a calling to follow in this world in which they can glorify God and this means they cannot retreat from life. They need to be distinctively salt and light. Although the words are simple it is difficult and so some want to limit its impact. They try to reinterpret it or define only specific things as “of the world.” The phrase belongs to Christ and in using it He shows us we have to imitate Him in applying it (John 17:14). Let us find out how.

Much could be and needs to be said about how to apply this truth but first of all we need to have a better grasp of its meaning. We need to have a deeper sense of the spiritual principle being revealed in these words before we start putting them into practice. There is an attitude here that we need to embrace before we can start thinking about what it means in the details of life. Anthony Burgess helps us understand what this phrase means in the following updated extract.

He defines what “of the world” means. It means to partake of the life and lifestyle of the world, to have the spirit of the world in us as opposed to the Spirit of God and heavenly things. If we are of the world both the inward inclination and outward behaviour are wholly worldly. As Christ says, those who are of the earth are earthly (John 3:31). A soul that is controlled by worldly principles sets it mind only on earthly things (Philippians 3:19). To be in the world is a different thing to being of it. Christ and the disciples were in the world, but not of it. Burgess illustrates it like this, a person may be in the water for a good reason, but fish are properly of the water because that is their element. Having considered this we can address what it is not to be of the world.

1. Those Who are Not of the World Believe Heavenly Truths

Those who are not of the world receive those heavenly truths that the world cannot grasp but rather scorns and derides. Peter had not received the truth about Christ from flesh and blood but from heaven (Matthew 16:16-17). There is a worldly religion and worldly doctrines which are suited to the principles and interests of the world and these are readily embraced. The world loves such preachers and doctrines, those who are of the world hear them (1 John 4:6). The Spirit of the world and the Spirit of God are completely opposed, it is only by the Holy Spirit we come to know the things that God has given us (1 Corinthians 2:12). When God enlightens our minds by faith to assuredly believe those truths God has revealed in His Word we are clearly not of the world. We are so persuaded that neither corrupt reason nor the opinions of the greatest number or the greatest influence will make us go against it. It is because people are so worldly in their understanding that their lives are also so worldly. When this is the case they receive their religion not as it is revealed by God, but so far as they can use it for their corrupt objectives.

2. Those Who are Not of the World Have Been Born Again

We must have another nature (qualitatively) than that with which we come into the world (1 Peter 1:4). A person must be born again, or from above, and made a new creature, old things have passed away (John 3:3; 2 Corinthians 5:17). This is to be above the world, not of the world, and indeed seeing the soul is not naturally of the world but created by God, why willingly debase it to serve every worldly object? Why love the world, delight in it and be ensnared by it? Pray for this new nature and regeneration, otherwise you are as earthly as a worm because your love, heart and thoughts, and you all is nothing but earth.

3. Those Who are Not of the World Have Their Hearts in Heaven

You are to live as one whose heart is with Christ already in heaven. It is not enough to be born again, the progress of our lives must be spent on heavenly motives and considerations. The birds of the air light on the ground to eat their food, but immediately fly up again. Thus, it is with the godly, although they take the lawful comforts of this world, yet their hearts are presently off ascending to God (Philippians 3:20). Because we are risen with Christ, we set our affections on things above (Colossians 3:1–2). Christ was not of the world and He showed that by the way He lived, it was His food and drink to do His Father’s will. He was always either praying to God or preaching to the people? Although you are in your family, in your employment and calling, yet do not be of the world. They best part of yourself is from God. Say, what are all these things compared to the favour of God?

4. Those Who are Not of the World Have Other Joys

They have other comforts than the world knows about and other joys. Therefore, it has not even entered into the heart of man to conceive of this (1 Corinthians 2:9). It is called “joy unspeakable” (1 Peter 1:8). David acknowledged that God had put more joy in his heart than worldly men could have in all their abundance (Psalm 4:7). What is carnal joy and delight compared to that admirable and unspeakable joy which the godly find in God? This is a joy that will continue in trials and death itself, when in such a drought the wicked man’s stream is completely dried up.

5. Those Who are Not of the World Have a Different Lifestyle

They are not conformed to this world (Romans 12:2). They go in opposite directions. Their words and language are different, their actions are contrary. What the righteous love, the wicked abominate, and what the wicked loves the godly abhors. The godly move quickly towards heaven, while the wicked make as much haste to hell.

6. Those Who are Not of the World Have Their Treasure in Heaven

Remember you are not of the world, therefore beware of worldly affections and worldly hearts, where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. If it is in God and heaven your heart will be there, if in earth and earthly things it will be there it will be. If you are not of the world, the troubles of the world cannot hurt you, the losses of the world will not grieve you, the vexations of the world will not disquiet you. But because part of us (remaining sin) is still of the world, we are not completely and perfectly free from disquiet and so we remain in the midst of combat and conflict so that heaven may be the sweeter.

7. Those Who are Not of the World are Christlike

They are not of the world as He is not. He who is the God of all the earth, and has all things at His command, came to be in the world to be hated, scorned, and at last crucified. Christ adds “as I am not of the world.” He does this to forewarn us that we will experience from the world the same hatred, misery, and trouble He grappled with. It also brings much comfort that it however bad it is with us, it was worse with Christ.

We must imitate Christ and resemble Him in our lives. We must endeavour to live as He lived. It is impossible for us to do what He did as God, yet in those things which He did as being under the law, we are to be conformed to His example. We are to be humble , meek, and patient as He was. We are to do God’s will and to seek God’s glory as He did (Philippians 2:5). Paul urges them to be followers of him as he was of Christ (Philippians 3:17). Stop yourself when you are impatient, discontented and grumbling at what you suffer and say, “did Christ do this?”
It was necessary for Christ to suffer and then enter into glory. It is necessary for every godly person to into the kingdom of heaven through many tribulations. As Christ had a crown of thorns before a crown of glory, as He had to drink of the brook, and then lift up His head, so it must be with all His disciples. This should bring us comfort even though it is grievous to flesh and blood.

We may be loved of God, even though we are greatly afflicted in this world. Christ (though dearly beloved of His Father) was still delivered up to the cruel mocking and rage of men? We read of only one son of God who was without sin, but we do not read of any who are without chastisement, even Christ Himself drank deep of that cup. Christ was a man of sorrows, and yet God from heaven said, “This is my well beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased.”

No trial will separate God and us, for Christ has undergone these conflicts as our head. He has taken the sting out of all of them. They are not judgments to destroy, He was afflicted and troubled to sanctify these things to us. If no troubles or afflictions could overcome Him, neither can they overcome us. He is able to help and pity us (Hebrews 4:15). Consider it an honour to be made like Christ in His sufferings. Be like Christ in His graces as you are like Him in His trials and you will be like Him in glory.


Perhaps we can see that not being of the world goes deeper than avoiding certain practices, it reaches into our attitudes, goals, thoughts and words. How far are we influenced by the world in these things and how far are we in conformity with Christ? 


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