And be not conformed to this world: but be you transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good…
1. There is no command in Scripture about which there is more debate than this. Are we required to separate ourselves from all who are not Christians, and avoid all employments except those of devotion? This is manifestly impossible. Are we then to abstain from those practices which are common among irreligious persons? Then the question arises, What practices? Where shall we draw the line? Many draw for themselves a line within which they keep; but unfortunately each person draws it differently. To some, this world means profligacy and sin; to others, great luxury; to others, certain fashionable amusements, or dress; to others, the use of secular music, or the reading of light literature. Each believes himself in the right, and blames his neighbours for going beyond or not coming up to the line he has drawn for himself. Each is alternately accuser and accused; while the ungodly consequently declare that it is quite impossible to say what is and what is not worldly.
2. Now all this arises from overlooking the fact that the precepts of the gospel are addressed to our new and inner nature; that they supply principles and motives on which we are to act always, not laws applying to any particular act or set of acts. "Be not conformed to the world" is defined by "Be ye transformed," etc. It is clear, then, that that conformity is forbidden which interferes with our being transformed. Now that into which we are transformed is the image of God (2 Corinthians 3:18).
3. Now, the rule of the renewed man is simple, always applicable — "The one thing I am to seek is conformity to God's image, and in order to that, constant communion with God; whatever, then, I find to interfere with this, however good it may seem, is the world to me." Now the application of this rule is matter of personal experience, and it is impossible to draw a line; for what is the world to one person is not the world to another; and the question is not so much where you are as what you are. To lay down a rule for all lives is as difficult as to prescribe a diet for all constitutions. If you ask us whether certain food will agree with you, we answer — That depends upon your constitution; we can only give you the broad rule — eat nothing that you find to disagree with you. So we lay down the broad rule — whatever disagrees with your soul's health you must avoid.
4. This is a rule which we would plead with worldly people. Christians are often perplexed when asked — Why do you not join in this or that amusement?
(1) If they answer — Because they are sinful, they say what they cannot prove. Sin is the transgression of a law, and they can cite no law which expressly forbids such things. And then if we call them sins, we may induce others to consider sins as not much worse than amusements.
(2) If they say, we object to these things because they are worldly, then they will be asked, What is the essential difference between the amusement in question, and some other which they hold lawful?
(3) Now if in all such cases the Christian would be content to say — I refrain because I find I cannot enjoy it and afterwards have communion with God, he would give an answer which, if not understood, could certainly not be gainsaid. To ask for a law when this reason is given would be as unmeaning as to ask for a law of the land forbidding all imprudence in our diet, or exposure to the weather, or to the risk of infection. We cannot prove these acts to be crimes, but they are dangerous, and all come under the general principle which makes it wrong for a man to injure himself.
5. In this way we should deal with all cavillers on this subject. Worldly men set down the objections of ministers to prejudice or envy. "Of course, clergymen abuse theatres, etc., but where is the harm? Where are they forbidden in Scripture?" We answer this question by another: "What is the state of your soul? Are you the possessor of a spiritual life? If not, then you cannot possibly understand our objection; for we object to these things as injurious to that which you tell us you have not got, namely — life in the soul. To understand a spiritual precept you must be spiritual yourself.
6. But there are those in whom this spiritual life is as the tender blade, or as the just kindling fire, who ask, anxiously, What is the danger? To show this, we will take —
(1) The theatre. If we are asked, Is there any sin in a theatrical representation? We answer — There is no more sin in a person presenting to your eyes a certain character than there is in writing a description or painting a picture of it. But what we have to consider is, not the abstract idea of a theatre, but what it practically is. Now not to enlarge upon the evils connected with the stage, to which you give your countenance and aid by attendance and payment for admission: we will admit that these are not essential to the stage, though somehow they are always found connected with it. We are willing to allow all that can be said for it, and will not ask whether, in the course of the play, vice is not often made attractive, and whether the recollection of the pleasure of sin does not outlast the impressions made by the moral at the end, when the vicious characters meet with that punishment which we so rarely see them visited with in real life. We will suppose every play to have its moral, and the audience to be duly impressed with it. Yet we must ask, What character would you be conformed to if you followed out the lessons there taught? Would it be to the image of God? Is the good man of the stage the good man of Scripture? Who would venture to produce upon the stage one in whom was the mind of Christ? Would such a character crowd houses? Men would throng to the playhouse to hear sentiments which they do not care to study in their Bibles, or to witness a display of qualities which, in real life, they hold in contempt. Our objection to the stage, then, is this: it sets up a false and worldly standard of morality; and he who desires to be transformed to the image of God will find here another image set before him.
(2) The card table. Is there any sin in moving about pieces of painted pasteboard? Certainly not. And yet it becomes a cause of sin; because, however small the stake, it excites, in however slight a degree, that desire of gain which is of this world. In proof of this note the greater zest with which men enjoy the game when some small stake is played for, "just to give an interest to the game." And by indulging in this we hinder that renewing of our mind which we should cultivate so carefully.
(3) The ball-room. Is there any harm in the act of dancing? No more than in any marching to the sound of music. But is there not temptation there for the indulgence of vanity, frivolity, envy, and evil speaking? We ask whether one renewed in the image of God would find himself a welcome guest there? — whether his spiritual life would be strengthened, and his conformity to Christ increased, by constant attendance? — and whether the guest as he returns is in that frame of mind which best fits him for communion with God? In short, in all these matters we ask you simply to use your own judgment. Try honestly the effect of these amusements upon your own spiritual life; and if you be really renewed in the spirit of your mind, you will find that their atmosphere is injurious to the new life, which you desire to cherish.
7. But we must not forget that the principle may be applied in an opposite direction. There are others who need to be told that what is forbidden is worldliness of heart; viz., those who are sure they do not conform to the world, because they never enter a theatre, etc. Their idea of unworldliness is the abstaining from these things, and a few others, e.g., display in entertainments and equipage. Add to this, becoming members of religious associations, frequenting religious society, and attending a gospel ministry, and their definition of unworldliness is complete. Now it is possible to do all this, and more, and yet still be conformed to the world. Worldliness can no more be excluded by a fence of conventional rules and habits than a fog or a miasma by a high wall: it is in the atmosphere. They avoid the theatre, and eschew fiction: to what purpose, if they are daily acting out the characters they will not see represented, or read depicted? They will not gamble. Are they the better for this, if they indulge the covetous spirit elsewhere? They will not frequent the ball-room. Are they any gainers, if they indulge the same spirit of display, etc., in a quiet party, or in a religious meeting? They will not wear fashionable dresses; to what purpose, if they are secretly as proud of their plain dress? Conclusion: To attack at once the worldliness of the religious and the irreligion of the world, is to risk the displeasure of both. But the world and the fashions of it are passing fast away; a few short years, and we shall all be where the applause or censure of men shall be alike indifferent to us — upon our dying beds. Then the question to be decided shall be, not how far may I go in my enjoyment of the world, or where must I fix a limit to my pleasures, for the world can be enjoyed no longer, and death is fixing the last limits to its pleasures, and there remains but one act more of conformity to the world — that last act in which all flesh conforms itself to the law of dissolution; but this shall be the great question: — Am I fitted for that world which I am about to enter? Am I, or am I not "transformed in the renewing of my mind"? Ask yourselves this question now, as you must ask it then.
Parallel VersesKJV: And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.
WEB: Don't be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what is the good, well-pleasing, and perfect will of God.