Persecution may be a foreign experience for most of us, but it has been the norm for most Christians throughout church history. In a culture that seems increasingly hostile to the biblical worldview, we should not fear or panic. We can find the joy, comfort, and courage that God has provided for us in His Word. This series, first published in October, 2015, works to that end. —ed.
In its practice of religious pluralism, the Western world tends to remain quiet about religion. Rarely will you hear the public media discuss Buddhism, Hinduism, Scientology, Mormonism, or Jehovah’s Witnesses. When you do, the media uses muted tones and carefully crafted statements to avoid offending followers of those religions.
However, when it comes to Christianity, it seems the editorial rulebook goes out the window. Other religions might be scoffed at or questioned, but no other organized faith suffers as much public mockery, derision, and scorn as Christianity.
In fact, while other religions have succeeded in improving the world’s perception of their faith—the normalization of Mormonism through its “I am a Mormon” ads, and the liberalization of Catholicism by the current pope—the public opinion and influence of evangelical Christianity has steadily declined for years.
But that opposition shouldn’t take us by surprise. The evening before His arrest, Christ warned His disciples about the response they should expect from the unbelieving world:
If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. (John 15:18-19)
The natural result of being an outsider to the world is persecution. In the words of Paul, our life and doctrine is the aroma of death to unbelievers (2 Corinthians 2:15-16), and the world responds to our stench with extreme prejudice. Persecution, then, should be a source of encouragement and joy as we follow in the footsteps of our Savior.
Being in the world and not of it brings persecution, but it also has gospel implications. It’s true there is a spiritual divide that separates us from the unsaved world. But we cannot be faithful ambassadors for God or heralds of His gospel if we create a physical chasm.
As we saw last time, godly living is divinely intended to serve as a rebuke to sinners. But there’s more to God’s design than just holding to a higher moral standard. Our pursuit of holiness ought to reveal the light of the gospel to men and women blinded by their sin.
In his book The Upper Room, John MacArthur describes how the testimony of your life must point others to the truth of God’s Word:
We cannot hide from the world what Scripture says and expect unbelievers to sense that they are indicted. We’re not supposed to retreat to our churches and proclaim the gospel there but never take the message to the world. It should not be necessary for people to come into our church to hear the truth of God’s Word, to be exposed to the gospel, or even to discover that we are followers of Christ. Our lives in the world should show it. Jesus says in Matthew 5:14 that we should be like a city that can be seen for miles because it is set on a hill. In the next verse He says that believers are like a lamp that should not be put under a basket but rather should be set on a lampstand so that it can light the entire house. Our faith should be visible to the world, not hidden away in a Sunday-school room, only to be brought out for an hour or two on Sunday.
We stand out from the world because Jesus has chosen us. In John 15:19 He tells His disciples, “I chose you out of the world.” The verb in that statement is in the Greek middle voice, which gives it a reflexive meaning. Jesus is literally saying, “I chose you for myself.” He has chosen us to be different. We are called not only to learn the Word of God and hide it in our hearts, but also to proclaim it to the ends of the earth, to live it out before a watching world, and thereby to be a living rebuke to those in love with sin. That is always costly.  John MacArthur, The Upper Room (The Woodlands, TX: Kress Biblical Resources, 2014) 201-202.
Your integrity—or lack thereof—is perhaps the loudest, clearest testimony to the true nature of your heart. You can say you believe anything, but the watching world knows whether it’s true by how you live. This society is adept at spotting hypocrisy, and eager to find it in our midst.
Being in the world but not of it means we need to be living, breathing testimonies to God’s transforming work through His Word. There needs to be a noticeable difference between us and the hell-bent world—one that draws sinners to the light of His Word.
But that’s not possible if we aren’t actually in the world. Too many believers allow their spiritual separation from the world to justify creating a physical barrier, withdrawing from society completely. But in the process of shutting out the influences of a wicked culture, zealous Christians forfeit their opportunities to be salt and light in that culture.
That kind of pious stiff arm won’t bring anyone to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, total separation from the world isn’t an accurate portrayal of our Lord, who crossed a much wider spiritual chasm to die on our behalf. In light of Christ’s example, we must be willing to reach out to sinners with the good news of His life and sacrificial death.
However, too great a separation isn’t the only pitfall for believers when it comes to being in the world but not of it. While many Christians cut off avenues of gospel ministry by pulling away from the world, many others tarnish the testimony of the gospel through their careless dalliances with the world.
In the days ahead we’ll consider how to be in the world without succumbing to its corrupting influence.