“The World”

A Message by J. C. Ryle


“Come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 6:17)


The text which heads this page touches a subject of vast importance in religion. That subject is the great duty of separation from the world. This is the point which St. Paul had in view when he wrote to the Corinthians, "Come out . . . be separate."

The subject is one which demands the best attention of all who profess and call themselves Christians. In every age of the Church, separation from the world has always been one of the grand evidences of a work of grace in the heart. He that has been really born of the Spirit, and made a new creature in Christ Jesus, has always endeavored to "come out from the world," and live a separate life. They who have only had the name of Christian, without the reality, have always refused to "come out and be separate" from the world.

The subject perhaps was never more important than it is at the present day. There is a widely-spread desire to make things pleasant in religion--to saw off the corners and edges of the cross, and to avoid, as far as possible, self-denial. On every side we hear professing Christians declaring loudly that we must not be "too narrow and exclusive," and that there is no harm in many things which the holiest saints of old thought bad for their souls. That we may go anywhere, and do anything, and spend our time in anything, and read anything, and keep any company, and plunge into anything, and all the while may be very good Christians--this is the maxim of thousands. In a day like this I think it is good to raise a warning voice and invite attention to the teaching of God's Word. It is written in that Word, "Come out, and be separate."

There are four points which I shall try to show my readers, in examining this mighty subject.

I. First, I shall try to show that the world is a source of great danger to the soul.

II. Secondly, I shall try to show what is not meant by separation from the world.

III. Thirdly, I shall try to show in what real separation from the world consists.

IV. Fourthly, I shall try to show the secret of victory over the world.

And now, before I go a single step further, let me warn every reader of this paper that he will never understand this subject unless he first understands what a true Christian is. If you are one of those unhappy people who think everybody is a Christian who goes to a place of worship, no matter how he lives, or what he believes, I fear you will care little about separation from the world. But if you read your Bible, and are in earnest about your soul, you will know that there are two classes of "Christians," converted and unconverted. You will know that what the Jews were among the nations of the Old Testament, this the true Christian is meant to be under the New. You will understand what I mean when I say that true Christians are meant, in like manner, to be a "peculiar people" under the Gospel, and that there must be a difference between believers and unbelievers. To you, therefore, I make a special appeal this day. While many avoid the subject of separation from the world, and many positively hate it, and many are puzzled by it, give me your attention while I try to show you "the thing as it is."

I. First of all, let me show that the world is a source of great danger to the soul.

By "the world," be it remembered, I do not mean the material world on the face of which we are living and moving. He that pretends to say that anything which God has created in the heavens above, or the earth beneath, is in itself harmful to man's soul, says that which is unreasonable and absurd. On the contrary, the sun, moon, and stars--the mountains, the valleys, and the plains--the seas, the lakes, and rivers--the animal and vegetable creation-all are in themselves "very good" (Genesis 1:31). All are full of lessons of God's wisdom and power, and all proclaim daily, "The hand that made us is Divine." The idea that "matter" is in itself sinful and corrupt is a foolish heresy.

When I speak of "the world" in this paper, I mean those people who think only, or chiefly, of this world's things, and neglect the world to come--the people who are always thinking more of earth than of heaven, more of time than of eternity, more of body than the soul, more of pleasing man than of pleasing God. It is of them and their ways, habits, customs, opinions, practices, tastes, aims, spirit, and tone, that I am speaking when I speak of "the world." This is the world from which St. Paul tells us to "Come out and be separate."

Now that "the world," in this sense, is an enemy to the soul, the well-known Catechism teaches us at its beginning. It tells us that there are three things which a baptized Christian must renounce and give up, and three enemies which he ought to fight with and resist. These three are the flesh, the devil, and "the world." All three are terrible foes, and all three must be overcome if we would be saved.

But, whatever men please to think about the Catechism, we shall do well to turn to the testimony of Holy Scripture. If the texts I am about to quote do not prove that the world is a source of danger to the soul, then there is no meaning in words.

(a) Let us hear what St. Paul says: "Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Romans 12:2). "We have received, not the spirit of this world, but the Spirit which is of God" (1 Corinthians 2:12). "Christ gave Himself for us that He might rescue us from this present evil world" (Galatians 1:4). "In time past ye walked according to the course of this world" (Ephesians 2:2). "Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world" (2 Timothy 4:10).

(b) Let us hear what St. James says: "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world" (James 1:27). "Know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God." (James 4:4).

(c) Let us hear what St. John says: "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love 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 pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof, but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever" (1 John 2:15-17). "The world knoweth us not, because it knew Him not" (1 John 3:1). "They are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them" (1 John 4:5). "Whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world" (1 John 5:4). "We know that we are of God and the whole world lieth in wickedness" (1 John 5:19).

(d) Let us hear, lastly, what the Lord Jesus Christ says: "The cares of this world choke the Word, and it becometh unfruitful" (Matthew 13:22). "Ye are of this world; I am not of this world" (John 8:23). "The Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive because it seeth Him not, neither knoweth Him" (John 14:17). "If the world hate you, ye know that it hated Me before it hated you" (John 15:18). "If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you" (John 15:19). "In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). "They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world" (John 17:16).

I make no comment on these twenty-one texts. They speak for themselves. If anyone can read them carefully, and fail to see that "the world" is an enemy to the Christian's soul, and that there is an utter opposition between the friendship of the world and the friendship of Christ, he is past the reach of argument, and it is a waste of time to reason with him. To my eyes they contain a lesson as clear as the sun at noon day.

I turn from Scripture to matters of fact and experience. I appeal to any old Christian who keeps his eyes open, and knows what is going on in the Churches. I ask him whether it be not true that nothing damages the cause of religion so much as "the world"? It is not open sin, or open unbelief, which robs Christ of His professing servants, so much as the love of the world, the fear of the world, the cares of the world, the business of the world, the money of the world, the pleasures of the world, and the desire to keep in with the world. This is the great rock on which thousands of young people are continually making shipwreck. They do not object to any article of the Christian faith. They do not deliberately choose evil, and openly rebel against God. They hope somehow to get to heaven at last; and they think it is proper to have some religion. But they cannot give up their idol: they must have the world. And so after running well bidding fair for heaven while boys and girls, they turn aside when they become men and women, and go down the broad way which leads to destruction. They begin with Abraham and Moses, and end with Demas and Lot's wife.

The last day alone will prove how many souls "the world" has slain. Hundreds will be found to have been trained in religious families, and to have known the Gospel from their very childhood, and yet missed heaven. They left the harbor of home with bright prospects, and launched forth on the ocean of life with a father's blessing and a mother's prayers, and then turned from the right course through the seductions of the world, and ended their voyage in shallows and in misery. It is a sorrowful story to tell; but, alas, it is only too common! I cannot wonder that St. Paul says, "Come out and be separate."

II. Let me now try to show what does not constitute separation from the world.

The point is one which requires clearing up. There are many mistakes made about it. You will sometimes see sincere and well-meaning Christians doing things which God never intended them to do, in the matter of separation from the world, and honestly believing that they are in the path of duty. Their mistakes often do them great harm. They give opportunity to the wicked to ridicule all religion, and supply them with an excuse for having none. They cause the way of truth to be evil spoken of, and add to the offense of the cross. I think it a plain duty to make a few remarks on the subject. We must never forget that it is possible to be very much in earnest, and to think we are "doing God service," when in reality we are making some great mistakes. There is such a thing as "zeal not according to knowledge" (John 16:2; Romans 10:2). There are few things about which it is so important to pray for a right judgment and sanctified common sense, as about separation from the world.

(a) When St. Paul said, "Come out and be separate," he did not mean that Christians ought to give up all worldly callings, trades, professions, and business. He did not forbid men to be soldiers, sailors, lawyers, doctors, merchants, bankers, shopkeepers, or tradesmen. There is not a word in the New Testament to justify such a line of conduct. Cornelius the centurion [soldier], Luke the physician, Zenas the lawyer, are examples to the contrary. Idleness is in itself a sin. A lawful calling is a remedy against temptation. "If any man will not work, neither shall he eat" (2 Thessalonians 3:10). To give up any business of life which is not necessarily sinful to the wicked and the devil, from fear of getting harm from it, is lazy, cowardly conduct. The right plan is to carry our religion into our business, and not to give up business under the specious pretense that it interferes with our religion.

(b) When St. Paul said, "Come out and be separate," he did not mean that Christians ought to decline all intercourse with unconverted people, and refuse to go into their society. There is no warrant for such conduct in the New Testament. Our Lord and His disciples did not refuse to go to a marriage feast, or to sit at meat at a Pharisee's table. St. Paul does not say, "If any of them that believe not bid you to a feast" you must not go, but only tells us how to behave if we do go (1 Corinthians 10:27). Moreover, it is a dangerous thing to begin judging people too closely, and settling who are converted and who are not, and what society is godly and what ungodly. We are sure to make mistakes. Above all, such a course of life would cut us off from many opportunities of doing good. If we carry our Master with us wherever we go, who can tell but we may "save some," and get no harm? (1 Cor. 9:22)

(c) When St. Paul says, "Come out and be separate," he did not mean that Christians ought to take no interest in anything on earth except religion. To neglect science, art, literature, and politics--to read nothing which is not directly spiritual--to know nothing about what is going on among mankind, and never to look at a newspaper--to care nothing about the government of one's country, and to be utterly indifferent as to the persons who guides it, counsels and make its laws--all this may seem very right and proper in the eyes of some people. But I think that it is an idle, selfish neglect of duty. St. Paul knew the value of good government as one of the main helps to our "living a quiet and peaceable life in godliness and honesty" (1 Timothy 2:2). St. Paul was not ashamed to read heathen writers, and to quote their words in his speeches and writings. St. Paul did not think it beneath him to show an acquaintance with the laws and customs and callings of the world, in the illustrations he gave from them. Christians who pride themselves on their ignorance of secular things are precisely the Christians who bring Christianity into contempt. I knew the case of a blacksmith who would not come to hear his clergyman preach the Gospel, until he found out that he knew the properties of iron. Then he came.

(d) When St. Paul said, "Come out and be separate," he did not mean that Christians should be singular, eccentric, and peculiar in their dress, manners, demeanor, and voice. Anything which attracts notice in these matters is most objectionable, and ought to be carefully avoided. To wear clothes of such a color, or made in such a fashion, that when you go into company every eye is fixed on you, and you are the object of general observation, is an enormous mistake. It gives occasion to the wicked to ridicule Christianity, and looks self-righteous and affected. There is not the slightest proof that our Lord and His apostles, and Priscilla, and Persis, and their companions, did not dress and behave just like others in their own ranks of life. On the other hand, one of the many charges our Lord brings against the Pharisees was that of "making broad their phylacteries, and enlarging the borders of their garments," so as to be "seen of men" (Matthew 23:5). True sanctity and sanctimoniousness are entirely different things. Those who try to show their unworldliness by wearing conspicuously ugly clothes, or by speaking in a whining, snuffling voice, or by affecting an unnatural slavishness, humility, and gravity of manner, miss their mark altogether, and only give occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme.

(e) When St. Paul said, "Come out and be separate," he did not mean that Christians ought to retire from the company of mankind, and shut themselves up in solitude. It is one of the crying errors of the Roman Catholic Church to suppose that eminent holiness is to be attained by such practices. It is the unhappy delusion of the whole army of monks, nuns, hermits. Separation of this kind is not according to the mind of Christ. He said distinctly in His last prayer, "I pray not that Thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that Thou shouldest keep them from the evil" (John 17:15). There is not a word in Acts or the Epistles to recommend such a separation. True believers are always represented as mixing in the world, doing their duty in it, and glorifying God by patience, meekness, purity, and courage in their several positions, and not by cowardly desertion of them. Moreover, it is foolish to suppose that we can keep the world and the devil out of our hearts by going into holes and corners. True Christianity and unworldliness are best seen, not in timidly forsaking the post which God has allotted to us, but in boldly standing our ground, and showing the power of grace to overcome evil.

(f) Last, but not least, when St. Paul said, "Come out and be separate," he did not mean that Christians ought to withdraw from every Church in which there are unconverted members, or to refuse to worship in company with any who are not believers, or to keep away from the Lord's table if any ungodly people go up to it. This is a very common but a grievous mistake. There is not a text in the New Testament to justify it, and it ought to be condemned as a pure invention of man. Our Lord Jesus Christ deliberately allowed Judas Iscariot to be an apostle for three years, and gave him the Lord's Supper. He has taught us, in the parable of the wheat and tares, that converted and unconverted will be together till the harvest, and cannot be divided (Matthew 13:30). In His Epistles to the Seven Churches, and in all St. Paul's Epistles, we often see faults and corruptions mentioned and reproved; but we are never told that they justify desertion of the assembly, or the neglect of the Lord's table. In short, we must not look for a perfect Church, a perfect congregation, and a perfect company of communicants until the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. If others are unworthy Churchgoers or unworthy partakers of the Lord's Supper, the sin is theirs and not ours: we are not their judges. But to separate ourselves from Church assemblies, and deprive ourselves Christian ordinances, because others use them unworthily, is to take up a foolish, unreasonable, and unscriptural position. It is not the mind of Christ, and it certainly is not St. Paul's idea of separation from the world.

I commend these six points to the calm consideration of all who wish to understand the subject of separation from the world. Far more might be said about each and every one of them than I have space to say in this paper. I have seen so many mistakes made, and so much misery and unhappiness caused by those mistakes, that I want to put Christians on their guard. I want them not to take up positions hastily, in the zeal of their first love, which they will afterwards be obliged to give up.

I leave this part of my subject with two pieces of advice, which I offer especially to young Christians.

I advise them, for one thing, if they really desire to come out from the world, to remember that the shortest path is not always the path of duty. To quarrel with our unconverted relatives, to "avoid" all our old friends, to withdraw entirely from mixed society, to live an exclusive life, to give up every act of courtesy and civility in order that we may devote ourselves to the direct work of Christ--all this may seem very right, and may satisfy our consciences and save us trouble. But I venture a doubt whether it is not often a selfish, lazy, self-pleasing line of conduct, and whether the true cross and true line of duty may not be to deny ourselves, and adopt a very different course of action.

I advise them, for another thing, if they want to come out from the world, to watch against a sour, morose, ungenial, gloomy, unpleasant, bearish demeanor, and never to forget that there is such a thing as "winning without the Word." (1 Peter 3:1) Let them strive to show unconverted people that their principles, whatever may be thought of them, make them cheerful, amiable, good-tempered, unselfish, considerate for others, and ready to take an interest in everything that is innocent and of good report. In short, let there be no needless separation between us and the world. In many things, as I shall soon show, we must be separate; but let us take care that it is separation of the right sort. If the world is offended by such separation we cannot help it. But let us never give the world occasion to say that our separation is foolish, senseless, ridiculous, unreasonable, uncharitable, and unscriptural.

III. In the third place, I will try to show what true separation from the world really is.

I take up this branch of my subject with a very deep sense of its difficulty. That there is a certain line of conduct which all true Christians ought to pursue with respect to "the world, and the things of the world," is very evident. The texts already quoted make that plain. The key to the solution of that question lies in the word "separation." But in what separation consists it is not easy to show. On some points it is not hard to lay down particular rules; on others it is impossible to do more than state general principles, and leave everyone to apply them according to his position in life. This is what I shall now attempt to do.

(a) First and foremost, he that desires to "come out from the world, and be separate," must steadily and habitually refuse to be guided by the world's standard of right and wrong.

The rule of the bulk of mankind is to go with the stream, to do as others, to follow the fashion, to keep in with the common opinion, and to set your watch by the town clock. The true Christian will never be content with such a rule as that. He will simply ask, What saith the Scripture? What is written in the Word of God? He will maintain firmly that nothing can be right which God says is wrong, and that the customs and opinions of his neighbors can never make that to be a trifle which God calls serious, or that to be no sin which God calls sin. He will never think lightly of such sins as drinking, swearing, gambling, lying, cheating, swindling, or breach of the seventh commandment, because they are common, and many say, "Where is the mighty harm?" That miserable argument, "Everybody thinks this way, everybody says so, everybody does it, everybody will be there," means nothing to him. Is it condemned or approved by the Bible? That is his only question. If he stands alone in the parish, or town, or congregation, he will not go against the Bible. If he has to come out from the crowd, and take a position by himself, he will not flinch from it rather than disobey the Bible. This is genuine Scriptural separation.

(b) He that desires to "come out from the world and be separate," must be very careful how he spends his leisure time.

This is a point which at first sight appears of little importance. But the longer I live, the more I am persuaded that it deserves most serious attention. Honorable occupation and lawful business are a great safeguard to the soul and the time that is spent upon them is comparatively the time of our least danger. The devil finds it hard to get a hearing from a busy man. But when the day's work is over and the time of leisure arrives, then comes the hour of temptation.

I do not hesitate to warn every man who wants to live a Christian life, to be very careful how he spends his evenings. Evening is the time when we are naturally disposed to relax after the labors of the day; and evening is the time when the Christian is too often tempted to lay aside his armor, and consequently brings trouble on his soul. "Then cometh the devil," and with the devil the world. Evening is the time when the poor man is tempted to go to the bar and fall into sin. Evening is the time when the workman too often sits for hours hearing and seeing things which do him no good. Evening is the time which the higher classes choose for dancing, card-playing, and the like; and consequently never get to bed till late at night. If we love our souls, and would not become worldly, let us be careful how we spend our evenings. Tell me how a man spends his evenings, and I can generally tell what his character is.

The true Christian will do well to make it a settled rule never to waste his evenings. Whatever others may do, let him resolve always to make time for quiet, calm thought--for Bible-reading and prayer. The rule will prove a hard one to keep. It may bring on him the charge of being unsociable and overly strict. Let him not mind this. Anything of this kind is better than habitual late hours in company, hurried prayers, slovenly Bible reading, and a bad conscience. Even if he stands alone in his church or town let him not depart from his rule. He will find himself in a minority, and be thought an peculiar man. But this is genuine Scriptural separation.

(c) He that desires to "come out from the world and be separate," must steadily and habitually determine not to be swallowed up and absorbed in the business of the world.

A true Christian will strive to do his duty in whatever station or position he finds himself, and to do it well. Whether statesman, or merchant, or banker, or lawyer, or doctor, or tradesman, or farmer, he will try to do his work so that no one can find occasion for fault in him.

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