What Is Worldliness?

The term “worldly” is not uncommon in our language. But what does the word really signify?
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

The English noun “world” derives from the Greek term kosmos (used 186 times in the New Testament).

In classical Greek, the word suggested the idea of “order” or that which has been “arranged.” This hints at an Orderer or one who has arranged the harmonious elements of the universe—though this concept entertained by the Greeks was obscure. Balbus, a Stoic writer, asked:

“Can one behold heaven, and contemplate what passes there, without discerning with all possible evidence, that it is governed by a supreme divine intelligence?” (Rollin 1854, 580).

How Does the New Testament Use the Word “World”?

In the New Testament, kosmos is used in various ways, depending on the context in which it occurs.

Material Universe

“World” may refer to the material universe. To the Athenians, Paul declared that God “made the world and all things therein” (Acts 17:24).

Earth’s Environment

Kosmos may be restricted to the earth’s environment. Christians are charged with taking the gospel into all the “world” (Mk. 16:15).


There is a figure of speech called metonymy (one illustration of which is when a container stands for its contents; cf. Lk. 22:17). Thus, on occasion, the people of the earth are designated as the “world.” In this sense, “God so loved the world that he gave his unique Son” as a sacrifice for sin (John 3:16).

The Lost

Additionally, in a narrower, theological sense, “world” can refer to that company of humanity that, because of its unforgiven sins, remains estranged from the Creator (Isa. 59:1-2; Eph. 2:1). Of this unregenerate segment of the human family, Jesus declared the “world” hates both him and his followers (Jn. 15:18).


Finally, “world” may signify a worldly nature. It is the whole realm of “this-world” interests involving things that are hollow, frail, and fleeting.

Worldliness embraces that which is devilish and seductive. It has to do with matters that are obstacles to the service of God and, in many cases, lure men away from interest in Christ altogether (see Thayer 1958, 357). John wrote:

“For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the vainglory of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world” (1 Jn. 2:16).

With these brief sketches behind us, let us focus on some of the essential traits of “worldliness,” as suggested above.


The adjective form kosmikos is found only twice in the Greek New Testament. It is translated as “worldly” both times in the King James Version and “of this world” in the American Standard Version.

First, it is used to describe what is material in nature, i.e., the realm of the earth, thus “earthly.”

The writer of Hebrews employed the term to describe the tabernacle and the material implements that accompanied the Mosaic system. The first covenant had “ordinances of divine service and a worldly sanctuary” (Heb. 9:1).

This sets the stage for the contrast between the heavenly order of the New Testament regime and the earthly, more carnal nature (Heb. 9:10) of the Mosaic economy. F. F. Bruce commented that the nature of the Jewish system “proclaimed its own temporary character” (1990, 198).

Is it not a striking commentary on our age that many today prefer the worldly arrangements of the old economy (e.g., a physical priesthood, the burning of incense, the noise of mechanical instruments, etc.) rather than the spiritual essence of the new order?

Second, Paul declares that the Christian way of life is one of “denying ungodliness and worldly lusts” and, in contrast, living “righteously and godly in this present world” (Tit. 2:12). Here, “worldly” has a moral connotation. As we observed in our commentary on Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus:

“Deny” (arneomai, to repudiate, renounce) carries the idea of a defiant attitude. Conversion to Christ is not merely separation from ungodliness with a shrug; rather, it must be an emphatic “No!” (see Spicq, 1.204). “Ungodliness” (asebeia) is that which stands in opposition to what is “godly” (see 1 Tim. 1:9; 2:2; 2 Tim. 2:16). It is anti-religious, anti-God in nature. “Worldly” (kosmikos) is a moral and religious sphere of evil that captivates the minds of those who have no interest in honoring God (Jackson 2007, 346-347).

What Is Worldliness?

Worldliness may be analyzed from several vantage points that share much in common. Although these expressions have some practical overlap, each is distinctive in its point of emphasis.

Flesh over Spirit

Worldliness elevates the urgings of the flesh over the teaching of the Spirit. The Greek term for “flesh” is sarx (147 times in the New Testament). The word takes on a variety of meanings. Literally, it is physical flesh (2 Cor. 12:7).

Metaphorically, “flesh” can stand for the “worldly” side of life; hence, it is rendered as “worldly” in some of the newer translations. Paul speaks of those Greeks who were “wise after the flesh” (1 Cor. 1:26 ASV). The ESV translates it as “wise according to worldly standards.”

Jude wrote of those who are “sensual” (Jude 19 ASV), while the ESV depicts them as “worldly people.” Living for the flesh is set in vivid contrast to serving in the Spirit (Rom. 8:4; Gal. 5:16ff; cf. also 1 Pet. 2:11).

[Note: The NIV renders sarx as “sinful nature” twenty-three times. If one interprets that as a sinful nature inherited from Adam, hence, “original sin” or “heredity depravity,” a false idea is conveyed. If “sinful nature” should be viewed as a “mode of feeling or acting which by long habit has become nature” or standard practice (cf. Eph. 2:3; Thayer 1958, 660), the idea would be correct.]

Worldliness in this sense could involve many sub-categories, e.g., materialism—the ambition of laying up treasures on earth (Mt. 6:19ff), the passionate desire for wealth (1 Tim. 6:9-10), or subscribing to the ideology of “eat, drink, and be merry” (Lk. 12:19). Such worldly persons are like beastly “creatures without reason,” who function more on the level of animals than rational human beings (2 Pet. 2:12), who should have a sense of eternity in their hearts (cf. Eccl. 3:11).

The “flesh-over-Spirit” worldly are those who mentally or physically indulge in forbidden sexual pleasures or who entice others by flirtatious and lewd flouting of their flesh. As Justice Potter Steward once said regarding obscene material, one may be unable to formulate a succinct definition of “fleshly worldliness,” but he certainly knows it when he sees it.

Time over eternity

The worldly person is fixated upon now instead of then. He has no concept of “redeeming the time” (Eph. 5:16), i.e., making the most of time and opportunities (Danker and Bauer 2000, 343). He sees life as an endless playground of thrills.

As an old song has it, “Live fast, love hard, and die young.” Like the reckless prodigal who threw himself with abandon into temporal satiation (Lk. 15:13), the worldly never realize that clothes wear out and bellies grow lean. Robert H. Smith lyrically provides a grim reminder in his poem “The Clock of Life.”

The clock of life is wound but once
And no man has the power
To tell just where the hands will stop,
At late or early hour.

To lose one’s wealth is sad indeed,
To lose one’s health is more.
To lose one’s soul is such a loss
As no man can restore.

The present only is our own.
Live, love, toil with a will.
Place no faith in “tomorrow”
For the clock may then be still

Outward over inward

Paul declares that the “outward man” is decaying, but, for the Christian, the “inward man” is being renewed every day (2 Cor. 4:16). The worldly soul glamorizes the body inordinately as it shrivels towards the corpse’s repose. Americans spend some $22 billion on cosmetics yearly, but most invest precious little to advance the welfare of their everlasting souls.

There are exercise machines and gym fees, but how much effort is expended in “exercising” (gymnazo) for the development of godliness (1 Tim. 4:7; Heb. 5:14; 12:11). There are tummy tucks, face lifts, reductions, augmentations, liposuctions, and pigmentations—all sorts of extreme makeovers. No expense is spared. Comedienne Phyllis Diller once quipped that she had had so many facelifts that every time she smiled, it pulled up her socks.

But where is the extraordinary concern over the inner person, the soul? It is almost nil in many places, even among Christian people.

Self above God and others

Anyone with a smattering of Bible knowledge knows that God must be placed above all other objects of adoration.

“You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve” (Deut. 6:13-15; Mt. 4:10).

One must love the Creator with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30). Jesus himself, being deity in nature as well as human, insisted:

“He who loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me, and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Mt. 10:37).

That would be a hard pill to swallow were it not for the vast chasm between the holiness of deity and the sinfulness of humanity. That makes the difference! But we are challenged even further.

“Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good. In love of the brothers be tenderly affectionate one to another; in honor preferring one another” (Rom. 12:9-10).

Some versions render this last phrase as: “Honor one another above yourselves” (NIV). The apostle continues with more rigorous instruction, showing how the Christian should treat even his enemy (Rom. 12:20ff).

In his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul admonishes a people troubled by an element of factionalism to manifest “lowliness of mind, each counting others better than himself,” not looking exclusively to one’s interests but to the interests of others as well (Phil. 2:3-4)—just as Christ did on our behalf (Phil. 2:5-8).

Everyone knows the primary lesson in the parable of the Good Samaritan, but it largely is ignored, because it’s a jungle out there, a dog-eat-dog world, and “Samaritans” had better get out of the way! The benevolence of Christ struggles for mastery against the blood and guts of Charles Darwin’s “survival of the fittest.”

The Present World over That To Come

Jesus once talked about the sacrifices that are sometimes required when one submits to the gospel of salvation. There may be painful separations from loved ones, loss of friends and property, etc.

But such deprivations are not to be compared with the value of one’s new family in Christ and the host of other blessings, not the least of which is that of eternal life in the “world to come” (Mk. 10:30).

It is quite unfortunate that so many, even within the family of God, have their interests riveted more in the “now” world than in the “to come” realm.

One such person mentioned in the New Testament was Demas. This brother is three times mentioned in the letters of Paul. First, he was with the apostle at some point during Paul’s initial Roman imprisonment. His salutation is conveyed to Philemon, and he is complimented as Paul’s “fellow-worker” (Phile. 24).

Later, when the apostle penned a letter to the brethren at Colossae, he strangely says: “Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas salute you” (Col. 4:14). Luke is “the beloved”; Demas, at this point, is just plain Demas. There appears to be a distant stiffness.

Noted scholar J.B. Lightfoot remarked that the language here is possibly a “foreshadowing” of things to come in connection with Demas. He comments that in this context Demas “is dismissed with a bare mention and without any epithet of commendation” (1892, 240).

Finally, in the last epistle he wrote, before being led away to execution, Paul urged Timothy to “give diligence to come shortly to me.” The reason for the urgency is stated:

“[F]or Demas forsook me, having loved this present world, and went to Thessalonica” (2 Tim. 4:9-10).

Paul’s word for “loved” is the Greek, agape. Scholars have associated this term with an action that tends “to choose its object deliberately . . . a calculated disposition” (Turner 1981, 263).

Though more than ninety percent of Americans profess to believe in God, and subscribe to some level of accountability in view of the “world to come,” precious few, practically speaking, demonstrate a genuine sensitivity for the “after-death” life in their day-to-day existence. There is a gaping abyss between religious theory and down-to-earth godliness.

In our “inclusive,” non-judgmental society virtually everyone is perceived as going to heaven except for the most despicable rogues of rotting human flesh. Religious formalities, combined with a void of spiritual dedication, are common fare. But the "Church of Façade " is utterly reprehensible to the Creator (cf. Is. 1:11-17).

Where did the notion arise that "this world " is for partying, and the "world to come " is for religious devotion? Some appear to be so infatuated with this world, that they even imagine that the world to come will be a renovated earth, a heavenly Disneyland it would seem.

One needs only to compare the time many spend in secular employment, lavish recreational activities, prolonged entertainment, etc., with that engaged by more dedicated children of God who are diligent in prayer, study, corporate worship exercises, helping others, engaging in wholesome family time, etc., but with an eye always fixed upon the ultimate goal.

The contrast in time and expense between the this-world crowd, and the world-to-come group is astronomical. Many might be well served if they were to do the math.

There are 168 hours in the week. If it were assumed that fifty-six hours are spent in sleep, forty hours on the job, twenty-eight hours at meals, and twenty-one hours in the evening with one’s family, that leaves but twenty-three hours remaining.

How much of that left-over time is devoted to any sort of specially allocated service to God? That answer may help determine how this-world oriented one actually is.

If those who profess an interest in heaven spent more of their time and energy on their eternal souls, rather than upon unnecessary, trivial interests, what a difference there would be in this world.

What is the problem? It is "this-world-ism, " or, in another mode of expression, worldliness!


Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the vain glory of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust thereof: but he who keeps the will of God abides for ever (1 Jn. 2:15-17).

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