There is a lure, an unavoidable temptation that we feel that seeks to draw us to the world and the things of it. It pulls at us even as we seek to focus our minds and our attention on God, creating tension within us. This tension, in turn, works to wrestle us from the grips of God until we have ventured far from where He had intended, swallowing us until we are engulfed by the temporal.
We see this in several places within the church and the lives of believers today. It’s there in the more popular form of the deconstruction movement that seeks to dismantle the Christian faith rather than dangerous cultural influences that have woven its way through it. It is there in the progressive values that are adopted, supplanting the clear, foundational teachings of Scriptures for subjective, secular postmodern ideals. We witness it with the synergistic practices that embrace other religious traditions, and cultural influences, mingling them with Christianity until the biblical faith becomes something almost unrecognizable.
Confronting the dominant pagan religion and culture that permeated his society the second-century Assyrian theologian Tatian would write his Oratio ad Graecos, his Address to the Greeks. In addressing the nature of sin, declaring it to be, by its very nature, a product of man’s free will, rather than simply a question of fate, he states that we must “Die to the world, repudiating the madness that is in it. Live to God, and by apprehending Him lay aside your old nature.”
It’s a bold statement, particularly when we consider it in our present day and age. Our current society, after all, teaches us not only that we need to live only for ourselves, but that we, ultimately, need to embrace the madness that we see in the world around us. What’s more is that it tries to deceive us, trying to trick us into believing that, somehow, someway, we can be better people, better Christians by embracing our cultural zeitgeist even when it is in conflict with the Word of God. It tries to make us believe we can be both of this World and of God simultaneously.
Yet this is not the way it’s intended for Christians. Recognizing the inherent tension that exists between the will of God and the nature of this world they are called to something different entirely.
Die to the World, Repudiating the Madness That Is In It:
To study the Scriptures is to recognize something crucial. This is, namely, that man, in his natural state, is beholden to this world, following the course of this world as those who are captive to too the prince of the power of the air. This gives them over to disobedience, living according to the passions of the flesh and the desires of the body and the mind. (Eph. 2:2-3) Why? Because this world is naturally opposed to God.
We see this clearly in the words of James who declares “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (Jm. 4:4) His use of the word adulterous here is not one that is meant to point simply to sexual immorality. Rather, filled with Old Testament imagery what he is, instead, drawing attention to is unfaithfulness to God. They cause us to lose our focus as our interest becomes less about who He is and what He requires, and more about how we can please the world around us. In those moments what we desire is righteousness before this world, rather than righteousness before God.
Thus, to be alive to this world, is to be dead to God. This is why, in the words of the German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “When Christ calls a person, he bids him come and die”, recognizing that the disciple of Christ is called not only to follow him, but to share in his suffering, in his rejection, and, ultimately, his crucifixion.
Here we then come to recognize that what becomes an absolute necessity is that we die to this world, or, as Paul puts it, we are crucified to this world. (Gal. 6:14) This death to the world comes when we repudiate the madness of it, rejecting that which would draw our attention and our focus away from God, denying those things that would have us compromise on His objective, foundational truth. And the reality is, this madness is all around us trying to draw us into it, trying to pressure us to conform to this world, trying to force us to allow it to transform our faith into something more acceptable to it.
We must then be willing, as Jesus commands us, to take up our cross and follow him, knowing that we lose our life in our desire to save it, gaining the world but, ultimately, forfeiting our soul. (Matt. 16:24-26) We must, then, daily, crucify our flesh, we must put our passions and our lusts to death, we must kill our pride, setting aside anything that we would elevate to the level of God, or cherish more than Him and His Word.
This death creates in us a hunger for God, a desire for Him, one that transcends our need for the adulation of this world. It realizes that it is our love of this world, our willingness to embrace sin and justify it, to call evil good and good evil, to give in to the lusts and the passions of our flesh, that ultimately holds us back. It creates in us a willingness to suffer and struggle, to withstand rejection and sorrow, recognizing that, in Christ, we have something greater than anything this world can offer to us.
Live to God:
Yet, when we are called to die to this world and the sin of it, this is not the end of the story. Yes, as we are baptized into Christ we are baptized into his death, but just as he was raised by the glory of the Father, we are too that we may walk in the newness of life. (Rom. 6:4-6) The moment of our death to this world is the moment of our unity with Christ through faith. It is here that He, through His Spirit, makes us alive together with Christ by grace. (Eph. 2:4-5) This is the wondrous promise that He makes to us as He brings life out of death.
This, though, means that the Christian must live by their faith, according to their faith. This is signified by Christ’s words, for example, to the woman caught in adultery, as he shows he grace and mercy. In offering to her life, his words to her are that he does not condemn her, but in the newness of her life now given to her by him, he commands her to “sin no more.” (Jn. 8:1-11) Paul would express it this way, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:1-2)
As we are raised to life in Christ, we are then to live in God, we are to live to God. Our chief end is then that we glorify Him, pursuing him with all that we are, the entirety of our being. We are to seek Him and his righteousness first, (Matt. 6:33) to love Him with all our heart and soul and mind (Matt. 22:37-40) giving ourselves freely to Him as we seek to live according to His will rather than our own. This means when the world makes a claim contrary to that of God, when it seeks to redefine our morality based on its standards, when it tries, as it may, to pressure us to adhere to its ideals rather than those of God, whatever they may be, we reject it and its power over us, recognizing the one true authority in our lives. It is not our god, nor will it ever be. Regardless of the power it claims, we, as those who live to God, will always refuse to offer it that measure of our devotion or worship.
Thus, we live bearing the fruits of that faith that blossom because of the tree we are grafted to. We seek the guidance and the direction of the Spirit, dwelling in God’s revealed Word given for us. We reflect a sincere love for our neighbor reflected truth rather than affirmation, we care for those who are in need, and we offer freely of ourselves even amidst a world that hates us because of the hope that sustains us. Though we recognize that we are sinful and that we will fall short of the glory of God, we do not willingly partake in the sinful behavior of the world around us. We strive that we may not live as the hypocrite does, and, in that show no difference between a life given to the world, and a life given to God.
And By Apprehending Him Lay Aside Your Old Nature:
At the heart of this is then that we seek to know Him, and, in knowing Him, we recognize that His nature is one that is different from our nature. Whereas He is righteous, our righteousness is imputed upon us, whereas He is holy, we are only holy in Him through Christ. Sinful, and inclined towards that sin, perpetually feeling its draw, there is a natural tension that exists between our will and God’s will, between our nature and God’s nature.
This, in turn, teaches us that our nature must be set aside. Why? Because it is our nature that creates a distance between us and God. As Tatian would go on to say, “Our free will has destroyed us; we who were free have become slaves; we have been sold through sin.” We, by our nature, have created a distance between us and God, manifesting wickedness in this world. We, by our nature, have created sin and suffering, in many senses becoming our own worst enemy through our enmity with God. By turning to our own free will, rather than the will of God, what we have done is allowed captivity to take hold of us as we become chained by the bondage to sin, death, and the devil.
Apprehending God in His majesty, in His holiness, which we recognize to be a gift, a calling from the Spirit, transforms us so that we reject that wickedness that grips us, the wickedness that we have, ultimately created.
This means that we must rightly see God, realizing that, as A.W. Tozer would write, “What comes to mind when we think about God is the most important thing about us. The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion and man’s spiritual history will positively show that no religion has ever been greater than idea than its idea of God.” We must live our lives in awe of His majesty, in awe of His holiness and righteousness, forever given to worshipping and glorifying Him above all else.
This is done through a perpetual process in our live, one that purifies just as Christ himself is pure. (1 Jn. 3:3) This is crucial to how we live as imitators of Him, (Eph. 5:1) living a life given to holiness just as He is holy. (1 Pt. 1:15-16) As our nature is laid aside the nature of Christ transforms us, putting on the new self, one which is renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. (Col. 3:10) It is, after all, His divine power, which gives to us all that we need, all that is necessary for life and godliness, so that we may become participants in His divine nature, escaping that corruption that comes from the world and is caused by our own passions and evil desires. (1 Pt. 1:3-4)
There is no doubt that this is difficult. On this side of heaven we will always feel the draw of this world. It will appeal to our pride. It will try to draw us into its madness by appealing to our desire for adulation. It will play off our lusts and vanities, our weaknesses and insecurities. It will try to force us to compromise on our faith, working to undermine the objective truth of God even as it challenges the revealed Word of God, through the wisdom of this world. These traps laid before us will always try to ensnare us so that they may slowly but surely draw us away from God, dismantling our faith.
Yet, by putting our faith in Christ, by being crucified with Him, and dying to this world, placing the full measure of our faith and trust in Him, we are provided a sure defense as our life is secured in God, to God. The crass wickedness, the sinful hypocrisy, the shallow wisdom of this world are put aside as we see its worthlessness and God’s worthiness.
The question then becomes where do we place our trust? In what or who do we place our trust? Whose approval do we desire? Is it this world for all of its madness? Or is it God, the source and the fount of all wisdom and truth, the One who created all, and, in creating all, looked upon it declaring it to be good? Is it this world that tells us to elevate our free will above all, as if it wasn’t our free will that twisted and warped that good that God had created? Or is it God, who by His will reconciled a lost and fallen humanity to Him through Christ Jesus that His creation may be restored to Him?
Die then to this world. Lay aside its madness and wickedness. Live to God, dwelling in His grace, mercy and love, seeking Him above all else that you may truly know Him. Be transformed by His Spirit that your nature may be conformed to His nature, forever finding your peace and rest in the only place where true peace and rest can be found.
Lord, grant this unto us all.