Approaching the topic of worldliness must be done with great care and conviction. A combination of the two is a rare thing when this topic is probed. If there is not enough focus on grace, a strong approach to worldliness could be interpreted as, or even actually be, legalistic. However, at the same time, if there is not a strong enough stance taken, approval of worldliness can seep through the pages of a book designed to speak against it. In Worldliness, a cohort of men connected to Sovereign Grace Ministries and C.J. Mahaney (the editor of the work), have tried to root a discussion of the dangers of worldliness in the framework of the gospel. Expectations for a book that could easily be labeled legalistic, written by men that have always been about the gospel of grace and holiness, could not be higher.
The aim of this book is to exalt the gospel of Jesus through encouraging Christians to resist worldliness. Mahaney writes, “The antidote to worldliness is the cross of Jesus Christ” (34). This book is divided into six chapters, each written by a different contributor. At the end of the book there are two appendices that further a discussion of modesty. After a foreword written by John Piper, Mahaney is the first to take up the issue of worldliness. Aptly titled “Is this Verse in Your Bible?” the first chapter expresses the radical call to avoid and put to death worldliness. Mahaney discusses how we all have a tendency to cut and paste together our own version of the Bible using the Jefferson “Bible” as an example. One verse that Mahaney says we all tend to cut out of our personal version of the Bible is 1 John 2:15 (“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him”). He writes that even for those of us who do not outright ignore the verse, we qualify its meaning. “We empty it of its authority, its meaning for our day-to-day lives” (18). Mahaney uses the case study of Demas to demonstrate what happens when we succumb to worldliness. He discusses what we lose when we allow the sinful passions of this world to overcome us. Mahaney demonstrates that to overcome this world, we must be united to the One who did overcome the world.
In this chapter he provides a stepping stone for the rest of the book. He gives a biblical definition of worldliness (27) and shows that the problem is not so much in the externals, but in the internal. Our struggle with worldliness is in our own hearts. Fighting worldliness is not about following a list of rules, but having a transformed heart by the gospel. Mahaney closes by showing that the seriousness of falling prisoner to the sinful passions of this fallen world is found in the glory of Christ, and he urges us to defeat worldliness by dwelling where “the cries of Calvary are louder than the clamor of the world” (35).
While chapter one serves as a foundation for the rest of the book, the following chapters are more specific as they address different areas of worldliness. In chapter two, Craig Cabaniss addresses the role of the media and the Christian’s relation to it. He discusses how pervasive the media is in our society and how deep it can be rooted in our lives. Though Cabaniss discusses various guidelines of biblical obedience in relation to media, he forms his discussion on the platform of gospel and grace. He discusses the problem of over-saturation in the media and also engages types of media that the Christian would be wise to avoid. He urges readers to exercise biblical discernment in the media because filling our minds with sinful media depictions “dulls our sensitivity to God’s holy hatred of sin” (53). Cabaniss encourages readers to engage media with a thankful heart, with a discerning heart, and with an accountable heart.
Chapter three, written by Bob Kauflin, begins a discussion of music and how a Christian should relate to it in our world. He begins by stating the fact that music comes from God and is a good gift to be cherished in all of its forms or genres. When used correctly, each genre can glorify God. Kauflin writes that music conveys content, context, and culture. The Christian must take each of these into consideration when listening to music. Again, biblical discernment is necessary when it comes to the kind of music we listen to because without it, we reveal that we have a heart “willing to flirt with the world” (71). The message that music brings can shape our hearts and attitudes.
Chapter four addresses materialism, or “stuff,” in general. Dave Harvey addresses what materialism really is and why it is dangerous. He then moves to show that covetousness is at the heart of materialism. Materialism is essentially being a “glutton for stuff” (95). Through biblical and other testimonies, Harvey demonstrates the temptation to hoard up a bunch of stuff. He then outlines four chains of covetousness to further reveal the danger materialism carries in our fallen world. He closes his chapter by warning readers to “post your guard” against covetousness “by walking in grace” (107). This grace is the grace of Christ. He encourages readers to fight materialism by thinking about the riches believers have in Christ, by expressing gratitude, by rooting out some of the materialism in your life, and by giving generously. Finally, Harvey urges parents to guard their children from covetousness. He concludes, “As we, by grace, delight in God and guard our hearts against covetousness, we’ll see the chains loosen, and a freedom from the tyranny of stuff will grow in our lives” (114).
Chapter five is written by C.J. Mahaney and addresses the issue of modesty. He primarily addresses women in this chapter as he encourages them to dress modestly as a distinction from those who are not in Christ. He challenges women, “[Y]ou can be either a blessing or a distraction” in the church (127). Once again his argument is rooted in the gospel as he writes, “Modesty is important because of the gospel of Jesus Christ” (137). To accompany this chapter, there are two appendices that address even more specific issues within modesty. Again, these primarily are directed at women.
Chapter six is written by Jeff Purswell. In this chapter, Purswell unfolds redemptive history as he goes through each stage in the Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation format. Following this interaction, Purswell encourages readers to engage the world with three “God-given tasks” (147). He writes that we should enjoy, engage, and evangelize the world. He concludes, “[W]e’ll take our place in this world, enjoying God’s gifts, fulfilling God’s purposes, and giving our lives to see the gospel proclaimed, sinners saved, and God glorified” (171).
Worldliness is an important book that addresses incredibly important issues that can be easily mishandled. With that said, this book carries both strengths and weaknesses.
One notable strength in this book is the continual emphasis on the gospel. Addressing the issue of biblical obedience can easily lead one to include many helpful lists with no gospel. This is not an issue in this book. Although some chapters harp on the gospel more than others, the message is clear in all three that without the heart transforming grace of God in Jesus, there is no hope to overcome the seduction of a fallen world. Some of the chapters do an excellent job of weaving the gospel in throughout the description of each problem relating to worldliness by emphasizing the internal problems that lead to external moral compromise and sin. For the most part, the gospel is on full display throughout the book.
Another strength is the pastoral guidance, counsel, and advice that is given in each chapter. While chapter one is more of an exegetical foundation, the rest of the chapters provide tangible ways to fight against worldliness and for affections for Christ. Though lists with no gospel breeds legalism, lists accompanying the gospel are helpful aids to practically loving God over and against the fallen nature of this world. An example of this is found in chapter two. Not only does Craig Cabannis exhort readers to exert discernment in their media intake, but he also provides two and a half pages of helpful questions to ask relating to our time, our hearts, and the content of the media we absorb (57-59).
Despite these overwhelming strengths, which in and of themselves make this book highly commendable, there are a couple surprising weaknesses. One such weakness is the lack of depth. This is surprising because of Mahaney’s typical depth that he employs in his works. It seems that the topic they chose to address may just have been too deep or broad to handle in a book of this size. This is particularly seen in the last few chapters, especially in the chapters on materialism and dress. Mahaney’s chapter on modesty is very brief and lacks his typical theological and biblical depth and prowess. While there are bits and pieces of helpful advice, the problem of worldliness is not addressed in the hearts of men and women in these final chapters as it was in the first three. That leads to the second weakness, which is the lopsidedness of the book. The first three chapters are exactly what one would expect from a book edited by C.J. Mahaney. However, the closing three chapters, particularly chapters four and five (and the appendices), do not probe the issue of the heart as much and simply lack the depth that the subjects they probe require. So, the book is uneven, but that is always a possibility when multiple authors are compiled into one work.
In light of these weaknesses, the book is not quite as forceful as some other works Mahaney is associated with, but there are plenty of nuggets of biblical wisdom to be found within the pages of this book. And the gospel of Christ shines forth from these pages, which makes it a valuable work on the topic of worldliness.
Personally, I was greatly helped by this book and benefited from reading it. I sped through the first three chapters soaking in every detail. I was convicted as I saw the deception of my own heart and the depravity of my own sin. I was then encouraged with the gospel of Christ as my only hope to flee the seduction of the sinful passions that fill this fallen world is found in the pure One who died for me to redeem my fallen heart. I saw that the only way for me to find satisfaction that surpasses all that is offered from the world is in submission to this Savior. Obedience to Christ is therefore a means of grace to find soul-quenching waters in the dryness of the world. The fullness I received from the first three chapters did wear off as the closing chapters were not as filling, yet the practical biblical wisdom implemented by these sincere, Jesus-loving men penetrated my soul and led me to consider how I have been flirting with the world. This book served as a timely warning for me and it has led me to more consciously rely on the grace of God in Christ to spur me on toward godliness as I fight and truly resist the seduction of a fallen world.