Do not be conformed
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This article was first featured alongside our Prayer Diary in April 2020. You can download the April 2020 prayer points here or sign-up to receive future editions by post or email.
John Piper addresses some of the questions raised by Romans 12:1-2, about what it means to ‘not conform’ and how we should understand this verse in the light of other verses about how we should live.
The reason there are questions like these is not that Paul slipped up and got confused about what it means to follow Christ in a fallen world. Paul was not confused. He was holding two Christian impulses — two principles — in balance. When Christ came into the world, and lived and died and rose from the dead, and set the redeeming kingdom of God in motion, and unleashed the mighty gospel on the world — two powerful impulses, or forces, spread everywhere the gospel spread.
The Indigenous Principle and the Pilgrim Principle
These two impulses are always in tension with each other. At times they push in opposite directions, and the great challenge is to find the biblical balance. Andrew Walls, in his book, The Missionary Movement In Christian History, calls these two impulses the indigenous principle and the pilgrim principle (7–9). In other words, the gospel can and must become indigenous in every (fallen!) culture in the world. It can and must find a home in the culture. It must fit in. That’s the indigenous impulse. But at the same time, and just as powerful, the gospel produces a pilgrim mindset. It loosens people from their culture. It criticizes and corrects culture. It turns people into pilgrims and aliens and exiles in their own culture. When Paul says, ‘Do not be conformed to this world,’ and ‘I became all things to all people,’ he is not confused; he is calling for a critical balance of two crucial biblical impulses.
‘I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.’ Romans 12:1-2
There are many ways to describe this tension. We say, Christians are in the world but not of the world. Jesus prays, ‘I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world’ (John 17:15–16). They are in the world — that’s the indigenous principle. They are not of the world — that’s the pilgrim principle.
Separation and Participation
Or we say, Christians should be separate from the world and yet participate in the world. 2 Corinthians 6:17 says, ‘Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing.’ That’s the pilgrim principle. But in another place, Paul limits the meaning of separation and says,
‘I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people — not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world … since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality…’ (1 Corinthians 5:9–11)
That’s the indigenous principle. Don’t go out of the world. One impulse is separation, and one impulse is participation. Both are crucial.
Adaptation and Confrontation
Or we can speak of the impulse of adaptation and the impulse of confrontation. For example, on the one hand, Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4:11–12,
‘Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands . . . so that you may live properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.’ In other words, adapt and don’t make waves; do what’s fitting and seemly — live properly (euschemonos). So, Paul prays in 1 Timothy 2:2 ‘that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.’ Quiet, peaceful. That’s adaptation.
But on the other hand, Paul has a very different word to say in Ephesians 5:6–11, namely, confrontation. ‘The wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore, do not associate with them. . .. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.’ Expose them! This is not going to go down well. Which is why Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:12, ‘Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.’ That happens when you are ‘not conformed’ to the world.
- • Adaptation and confrontation;
- • participation and separation;
- • in the world, but not of the world;
- • do not be conformed to this world, yet become all things to all people that you might save some;
- • be indigenous yet be a pilgrim.
I think what will help us navigate our way through these waters between excessive adaptation and excessive confrontation — overemphasis on the indigenous or the pilgrim principle — will be to understand the biblical roots of this tension.
This excerpt is taken with permission from a sermon by John Piper from the Desiring God website, www.desiringGod.org. © Desiring God Foundation. If you would like to read or listen to the full sermon, you can do so here.