The Distinguishing Traits of Christian Character
Gardiner Spring, 1829
16. SEPARATION FROM THE WORLD
A convincing evidence of true piety is the spirit of separation from the world. Saints are expectants of glory. They are born from above and have no home beneath their native skies. Here they are strangers and pilgrims and plainly declare that they seek a better country (Hebrews 11:13-14). It is their avowed profession that their happiness and hopes are neither in nor from the present world. Their treasure is in Heaven. They are not of this world even as Christ was not of this world (John 17:14).
The spirit of the world is incompatible with the spirit of the Gospel. It is the spirit of pride and not of humility; of self-indulgence rather than of self-denial. Riches, honors, and pleasure form the grand object of pursuit with the men of the world. Their great inquiry is "Who will show us any good?" Indifferent to everything but that which is calculated to gratify a carnal mind, they lift up their souls unto vanity and pant after the dust of the earth. Their thoughts and their affections are chained down to the things of time and sense. And in these they seem to be irrecoverably immersed. They seldom think but they think of the world; they seldom converse but they converse of the world.
The world is the cause of their perplexity, and the source of their enjoyment. The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life close every avenue of the soul to the exclusion of every holy desire. I had almost said, every serious reflection. This spirit the Christian has mortified. "Now we," says Paul, "have not received the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God" (1 Corinthians 2:12).
The disciple of Jesus, as he has nobler affections than the worldling, has a higher object and more elevated joys. While the wise man glories in his wisdom, the mighty man glories in his might, and the rich man glories in his riches—it is the Christian's privilege to glory in nothing save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ by whom the world is crucified unto him, and he unto the world (Galatians 6:14).
The character and cause of the blessed Redeemer lie so near to his heart that in comparison with these everything else vanishes to nothing. He views the world by the eye of faith and in a light that reflects its intrinsic importance—the light of eternity. There the world shrinks to a point and the fashion of it passes away.
As the spirit of the world is not the spirit of God's people, so the men of the world are not their companions. "We know that we are of God," says the apostle, "and the whole world lies in wickedness" (1 John 5:19).
Between the people of God and the men of the world there is an essential difference of character. The views, the desires, and the designs of the children of God are diametrically opposite to the views, the desires, and the designs of the men of the world. The one loves what the other hates. The one pursues what the other shuns. Saints are passing on the narrow way which leads to life; sinners the broad way which leads to death (Matthew 7:13-14). If there were no other ground for the expectation, therefore, than the common principles of human nature, we might look for dissension rather than unity between the disciples of Christ and the men of the world. "How can two walk together, except they be agreed?" (Amos 3:3). What fellowship has light with darkness? Or what communion has Christ with Belial? (2 Corinthians 6:14-15).
The same principles which prompt the men of the world not to select the people of God for their familiar companions, also induce the people of God to choose other companions than the men of the world. There is an irreconcilable spirit between them. The friendship of the world is enmity with God (James 4:4).
Many as may be mutual tokens of respect, civility, and kindness (and many there should be) between Christians and the men of the world, they are notwithstanding two distinct classes of men. As much as Christians esteem the men of the world as good members of civil society, as much as they regard their happiness, and endeavor to advance it, as much as they have compassion on their depravity, and deplore their prospects, as much as they are conversant with them in the ordinary calls of duty—still they are not their chosen companions. They cannot court their friendship because they are afraid of it. "Do not be misled: Bad company corrupts good character." (1 Corinthians 15:33). "He who walks with wise men shall be wise, but a companion of fools shall be destroyed" (Proverbs 13:20).
Those who have mortified the spirit and who stand at a distance from the men of the world, are also in some good degree above its corrupting influence. The claim, which from their numbers and strength, the world is apt to consider itself as warranted to make upon the opinions and practices of God's people, is habitually resisted. Though good men may be often seduced by the smiles and awed by the frowns of the world, it is no part of their general character to conform either to its pleasure or displeasure. They act from higher motives and maintain a more consistent character than to give way to indulgences merely for the sake of pleasing the world or to avoid duty merely through the fear of offending it.
While they regard the fear of God more than the fear of man, they will not dishonor God to please the world. And while they regard the favor of God more than the favor of man, they will not purchase the favor of man at the expense of the favor of God.
A habitual regard to the will and the favor of God is an effectual security against the smiles of the world. The great object of the Christian is duty; his predominant desire is to obey God. When he can please the world consistently with these, he will do so; otherwise, it is enough for him that God commands, and enough for them that he cannot disobey. While they dread to offend God, they cannot tamely bow to the favor or frowns of men. Whether it be right to hearken unto men rather than unto God, you judge? (Acts 4:19). There would be no difficulty in pointing out the path of duty upon this subject, but there is some in saying how far man may swerve from this path and yet be Christians. One thing is plain: Christians cannot be worldlings. They cannot be lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God (2 Timothy 3:4).
He who fixes his highest affections on wealth, honor, sensual pleasures, mirthful amusements, and the various pursuits of the present scene—cannot fix them supremely on God.
Nor is the character of the vast multitude who attempt to make a compromise between God and the world better than that of the mere worldling. The mere fact that they are forever balancing between a life of devotion, and a life of pleasure; that they design now to yield the empire to God, and then to the world—decides the question against them.
We may not deny that the children of God are sometimes guilty of awful defection from the standard of Christian character in their interaction with the world. But after all, their prevailing feelings and conduct are not those of conformity to the world, but of habitual non-conformity.
The principles of the new man are at war with the principles of the world. True believers are taught, with regard to their former way of life, to put off their old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; and to be made new in the attitude of their minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:22-24). "This I say then," says the apostle, "Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lusts of the flesh" (Galatians 5:16).
We cannot walk after the flesh, while we walk after the Spirit. While the love of God is the reigning affection of the heart, it will turn away from the allurements of the world.
This subject presents a number of solemn questions to everyone who is anxious to ascertain whether his heart is right in the sight of God. It is a great point with all of us to know . . .
whether we are spiritually-minded, or worldly-minded,
whether we are conformed to this world, or are transformed by the renewing of our minds,
whether the objects of faith, or of sense,
whether things present, or to come—
have the predominating influence over our hearts.
What shall we say of those who exhibit to themselves and to others all the traits of character which belong to worldly men?
What of those who pursue worldly things with all that ardor, all that intemperate zeal which enters into the pursuits of worldly men?
Is there not reason to fear that they are supremely attached to earth and are as yet aliens from the commonwealth of Israel?
What shall we say of those who love the circles of fashion more than the associations for prayer?
And who court the friendship of the rich, the mirthful, and the honorable, more than that of the humble disciple of Jesus?
What of those who "send forth their children as a flock; their little ones dance about. They sing to the music of tambourine and harp; they make merry to the sound of the flute." (Job 21:11-12).
Was Job uncharitable when he ranked people of this character with those who say unto God, "Depart from us, for we desire not the knowledge of your ways"? What shall we say of those who are forever varying from the path of duty lest it should be unpopular, who never lisp a syllable or lift a finger for the honor of God lest they displease the world? What, but that they love the praise of men more than the praise of God (John 5:44).
Conformity to the world is to be expected from the professed worldling—it is the character of the worldling.
But is it to be expected from the professed disciple of Jesus?
Is it the result of habitual determinations of a heavenly mind?
Is it the character of one who looks on things that are unseen and eternal, of a stranger and sojourner, of one who sets his affections on things above and not on things on the earth?
How many like the young man in the Gospel, exhibit a decent and regular outward profession—who are wholly devoted to the world! Here their affections center. From this polluted fountains all their joys flow. They had been Christians, but for the world. The world is their fatal snare. They have plunged down the precipice, and drifted almost beyond the hope of recovery. "If any man loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him" (1 John 2:15). To be carnally minded is death (Romans 8:6).
Show me the men . . .
who imbibe the spirit of the world,
who choose the company of the world,
who imitate the example of the world,
who conform to the maxims of the world,
who are swallowed up in the gaiety, fashions, and amusements of the world
—behold, these are the ungodly who are brought to destruction as in a moment! "I have seen a wicked and ruthless man flourishing like a green tree in its native soil, but he soon passed away and was no more; though I looked for him, he could not be found." (Psalm 37:35-36).