The World, the Flesh, and the Devil

Chapter 5- Dead to the World

Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. ~Galatians 6:14

Worldliness is any thinking, feeling, or doing in which God is absent—any pursuit that does not have God as its North Star and central frame of reference. With that devastatingly broad definition, how would you evaluate yourself? How did you do in the weed-whacking evaluation at the end of chapter 2? Jesus diagnosed those weeds of worldliness in Mark 4:

They are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.

That phrase “cares of the world” is particularly freighted with meaning that points to the absence of God as the central characteristic of worldliness. It comes from the Greek word “merimna,” which means care, worry, or anxiety. That seems simple enough; these are the weeds of worry that choke the gospel word and make it unfruitful. But it actually goes deeper than that. The root of this Greek word “merimna” has the idea of being pulled in two different directions at the same time; it’s often translated as “distraction.” The particular type of worry that Jesus has in mind is the kind of worry that distracts from kingdom building and fruit producing. It’s a worry that is overly drawn to concerns and agendas, pulling you away from higher concerns and agendas. Jesus gently cautioned against this kind of worldly anxiety which distracts from kingdom causes in Matthew 6, when he said,

Do not be anxious, saying “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

It is not worldly to want something to eat, drink, or wear. Your Father knows you need all those things and delights to provide them for you out of the riches of his kindness to you in Christ. What is worldly is for those material needs and desires to distract you from what is of first importance. Note that Jesus doesn’t say “Don’t seek those things.” He says, “Don’t seek them first. Seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness.” When God and his purposes are your highest priority—your North Star and central frame of reference—then every other concern finds its place in relation to him.

A good way to visualize this is to picture the solar system. When Jesus Christ is the sun at the center of the solar system of your life—his gravity and glory holding everything else in place—then every planet of desire and duty finds its proper orbit around him. But worldliness is when he is removed from the center and replaced with stuff, even good and necessary things. Just imagine if the earth suddenly replaced the sun at the center of the solar system; without the sun’s gravity holding every planet in place, the entire solar system would spin into chaos. In the same way, the things of this world are not weighty enough to hold the center, and when they displace Jesus, everything else starts spinning out of control. Worldliness is God displaced from the center, and every sorrow and sin is the outworking of the chaos unleashed by that exchange.

So the great and urgent question before us is, How do we keep God at the center? With so many things vying for our attention and affection, the fight against worldliness is a never-ending struggle to keep my sinful heart from giving into the distractions that pull me away from him.

I believe that the solution to worldliness is not ultimately found in self-denial (saying “no” to worldly things), although that certainly plays a part. Neither is it as simple as just trying harder. No amount of mustered willpower can overcome the fatal attraction that our hearts have to “the cares of the world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desire for other things.” The only thing that can break the allurement of the world is the allurement of something better. The only thing that can overcome the “gravity” of worldliness is to behold a superior gravity, superior glory, superior greatness.

BOASTING IN THE CROSS

In the book of Galatians, Paul spends six chapters unpacking the gospel as the free gift of righteousness and acceptance that comes to us through the costly sacrifice of God’s Son. We can’t add to what he’s done with our good works or religious duties; we can only receive it by trusting his finished work. In this gospel is full and glorious freedom—freedom from law and duty and worldliness and sin and death. At the very end of his letter to the Galatians, Paul summarizes his whole letter with one profound sentence that cuts to the very heart of worldliness, and shows us the only path to victory against this enemy:

Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world was crucified to me, and I to the world. ~Galatians 6:14

When he says, “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,” what he means is this: My only glory, my highest joy, the center of my solar system, is the cross of Jesus. His death on my behalf is the gravity that holds my life together and the glory that outshines every other boast I could possibly make.

That’s why he continues his sentence. Think of all the things he could say about the cross of Jesus: “the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which all my sins were forgiven;” “the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which my eternal life was won;” “the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the wrath of God was extinguished.” Those are all true, but are secondary to the point he wants to make, namely, that the cross of Christ is the center of his life and his highest joy. And so he continues his sentence by highlighting the most unexpected thing about the cross: it is the instrument by which the world’s power of allurement was decisively broken in his life. “The cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world was crucified to me, and I to the world.

When Paul says that the cross is the instrument by which the world was crucified to him and he to the world, he means that the distracting, alluring, pleasurable pull of the world was decisively severed; the weeds of worldliness have been pulled up by their roots. Think of this in terms of Jesus’ parable in Mark 4: the “cares of the world” no longer pull him away from God’s purposes; the “deceitfulness of riches” no longer tempt with their empty promises of happiness and security; and the “desire for other things” has been replaced with a greater desire, a yearning that he articulates in Philippians 3:

Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ… ~Philippians 3:7-8

How did this happen? Like this: when Paul thought of the cross and considered the Prince of glory suffering in the place of a guilty sinner like himself, he was so broken by the great cost and moved by the great love that he exclaimed, “I will surrender everything in pursuit of knowing this great Savior more! Whatever it costs, knowing him is worth it! Compared to everything I used to love and pursue, he is surpassing worth and gain!” Therein is the secret to victory over worldliness. A heart that sees Christ like that is a heart freed from the allurement of worldliness by the sight of superior glory.

This is how the human heart works; we are, like moths to a flame, irresistibly drawn to the brightest beauty we see. In every area of your life, even in the mundane things, you are constantly desiring and pursuing what you perceive to be the best glory, until that glory is displaced by something better. As a kid, I used to love Tootsie rolls. I eagerly desired Tootsie rolls… until I discovered the superior glory of Ghirardelli chocolate. Once I had tasted what gourmet chocolate tasted like, the comparatively bland and plasticky taste of Tootsie rolls lost all their power to tempt me. As a college student, I used to appreciate the utilitarian value of any cheap cup of coffee; the lukewarm gas station swill was good enough as long as it would keep me awake (I just had to add enough cream and sugar). But then, on my honeymoon in Hawaii, my eyes were opened by a single cup of expertly crafted cappuccino made with freshly roasted Kona coffee beans, and I was immediately converted into a pretentious coffee snob. Now I scoff at weak coffee and evangelize my friends as to the merits of quality espresso. But how could I not boast in single-origin, fair-trade, handcrafted, seven dollar lattes when they tasted so much better than the gas station swill that used to satisfy me?

Conversion—the supernatural act by which the Holy Spirit makes you come alive to the beauty of Jesus so that you embrace him as your Savior—is nothing more or less than a sight of superior glory that makes what you used to live for taste like gas station coffee by comparison. 2 Corinthians 4:4 says that before conversion, Satan’s main agenda in your life was to keep you from seeing Jesus as he really is. “The god of this world [Satan] has blinded the minds of unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.” The reason that Satan is so hell-bent on keeping people from seeing is simple: if your soul could catch a real glimpse of him, every chain that the world, the flesh, and the devil could put on you would not be able to stand in the way of you pursuing more of him. That’s how God has designed the human heart to operate: we are always irresistibly drawn to what we have experienced as best until allured by something better. Not even Satan can override that fundamental rule of human nature, and so the best he can do is to try everything in his power to keep you from seeing in the first place.

Once the blinders have been removed by the omnipotent power of God himself (2 Corinthians 4:6), the whole rest of the Christian life and every step forward in sanctification is nothing more or less than the same thing that saved you: striving for a sight of superior glory. To see Jesus as more desirable than whatever else is tempting me, to be more enamored with his love than I am with the latest gadget, to long to experience and see him more deeply whatever the cost, is the beating heart of the Christian life and the foundation for freedom from worldliness. In 2 Corinthians 3:18 we are given a simple yet profound recipe for spiritual transformation: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image, from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” Beholding is becoming; the glory that draws our attention is what we will pursue and become more like.

And where is the place that the glory and grace of Jesus shines the brightest? The answer is, the cross. At the cross we see his tender love, stooping servanthood, bleeding humility, flaming holiness, and peerless worth most clearly. So the strategy for freedom from worldliness is clear: make war on the worldliness in your heart by surveying the wondrous cross.

SURVEYING A SUPERIOR GLORY

In 1707, Isaac Watts wrote one of the most famous hymns of the English language, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” He based the hymn on Galatians 6:14, the key text to disarming worldliness. In this hymn, Isaac Watts points us to the ultimate defeat of worldliness in the believing heart: surveying the wondrous cross, from which a glory so superior shines, that every worldly gain is seen as loss and every charming object is seen as vain and empty by comparison. There are five verses to this song, and each one builds on the preceding verse, laying a gospel foundation for freedom from worldliness.

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

The first verse of the hymn lays out the central thesis of the song, and the motivating power behind all of the Christian life: “When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died, my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.” Nothing but surveying “the wondrous cross” in all its multifaceted glory could be enough to make every gain look like loss by comparison. The exceeding value of the Prince of glory only highlights the enormity of the cross and the preciousness of his sacrifice: he is doing it for me! Every treasure we hold dear can not hold a candle to the great worth of this Prince of glory, who loved me and gave himself for me. How could we not press in with all our hearts to know this great Savior better?

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

The second verse is the response to surveying the wondrous cross: “Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast, except in the death of Christ my God!” Let my only joy, my only boast, my only glory, be in this truth: that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, laid down his life for me. Jeremiah 9:23-24 puts it this way: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth.” Let our boasts be, “I know the God whose steadfast love paid the price of his justice in order to clothe me with his perfect righteousness!”

In response to this unfathomable, glorious love comes the second part of my response: “All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood.” This isn’t a sacrifice that is trying to earn something more from God; it’s my meager offering made in response to his perfect, final offering. This is the act of dethroning the “desire for other things” from the throne of my heart and reinstalling Jesus as my rightful King and Center. This is the act of laying down every one of my desires, all my dreams, and every possession and longing—even good ones—at the foot of the cross and seeing them as what they really are: vain, empty things that “charm” me but can never satisfy. In exchange for these empty treasures, I find at the cross enough glory to fully satisfy my soul forever.

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did ever such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

The third verse is the heart of the song, slowing down long enough for us to learn what, exactly, it means to “survey the wondrous cross.” It means to linger long enough to let the sight affect you, move you, break you, and bring you to your knees. See from the Savior’s head, infinitely precious blood flowing from the mocking crown of thorns—and see your own mockery and cynicism in the thorns that pierced him. See the Savior’s hands pierced through by more than nails; look again and see the weight of sin and resolve of love that held him there when he could have summoned legions of angels to his rescue if he had wished. Marvel that the hands that formed worlds and stars and hold together the universe (Colossians 1:17) still bear the scars of your rebellion and his rescue. And wonder that your own guilty name is written in those wounds with indelible, pardoning blood; hear the Savior say to you, “I will not forget you; behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands” (Isaiah 49:15-16). Ponder the sorrow of sin, Jesus’ bitter weeping in the garden as he contemplated drinking the cup of wrath (Isaiah 51:17), the Savior’s anguished grief when the Father turned his face away… and consider that this grief was yours, not his, and yet he freely bore it so that all of your tears might be wiped away forever. “He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” This is the richest of all crowns, more precious than gold, the highest possible praise to heap on King Jesus: he bled and wept and died for me.

His dying crimson, like a robe,
Spreads o’er His body on the tree;
Then I am dead to all the globe
And all the globe is dead to me

The fourth verse is the proper response to seeing the great love and sorrow of the Savior, the death of worldliness in the death of Jesus. As I see my sin executed in the person of my substitute, the punishment I deserve falling on him, “his dying crimson” blood buying my costly pardon, the clear sight of such love and sorrow, I realize that this is the highest, best glory that there is to see. Nothing could be sweeter, nothing could be deeper, nothing could be brighter, than the sweetness and depth and brightness of this amazing grace. This is the taste of joy that ruins me for every other lesser sweetness, the depth of mercy that exposes every other shallow thrill for what it really is, the brilliance of glory that outshines every other feeble worldly candle. That’s what it means to be crucified to the world; it is dead to me, and I am unresponsive to its allurements, caught up in a greater thrill than it could possibly offer. “Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and exult” (Isaiah 60:5).

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That would be an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all!

The hymn ends with the reoriented worldview of the ransomed, ravished heart: everything in the world, every trinket, toy, and treasure, exists to be an offering of love to the One who first offered himself in love for me. Those two lines, “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that would be an offering far too small!” captures the change of heart when Jesus replaces worldly treasures as the center of the solar system. Instead of the world being a temptation to idolatry and a distraction from kingdom pursuits, it is placed back into its proper orbit and becomes what it was created to be: a springboard to worship. Every material blessing I have is a gift of his grace, to be received with thankfulness and used in his service. Every gift and ability I have exists not for my praise but his. How could it be any other way, when he has done so much for me? Such amazing love demands, deserves, and daily lays claim on my soul, my life, my all. To the heart that has tasted the goodness of knowing a crucified Savior, such a demand is not duty but the highest possible delight: living in pursuit of him who died for me. Could there be any greater joy?

Oh Lord, I confess that my heart is all too often cold toward you. Even when I sing songs like, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” I don’t feel the wonder, I don’t sense the joy, that I know I should. Forgive my stubborn heart, and bend me to your Word. Open my eyes and fill me with your Spirit as I behold Jesus in the gospel, until I am moved by what I see.

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