In 1 John 2:15 the apostle John gives the very first command of the entire epistle: “Do not love the world or the things in the world.” John doesn’t tell the church right off the bat what they should or shouldn’t do, but rather what they should and shouldn’t love. John cuts right to the chase by cutting right to the heart. But how exactly should we understand this command?
How to Understand the Command
John’s exhortation could startle or even confuse someone at first glance. Didn’t John write in his gospel that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son to save whomever would believe in Him? And doesn’t God’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves mean we must love those who are in the world? And do not the Scriptures encourage us to enjoy with gratitude to God all the good gifts that He gives us in this world?
“World,” in this command, doesn’t merely refer to the created order, which God made and pronounced good. It refers to the anti-God world system. It refers to how all of humanity, following after Satan, has rebelled against God and embraced values that are opposed to God. God does love this evil world in that He desires to save sinners out of this rebellion; we should love the world like that too.
The kind of love for the world that John warns against is not this good desire to see evil men saved. Rather, John here warns saved men about evil desires. He urges them to watch carefully over their loves (cf. Proverbs 4:23), to make sure their hearts do not become filled with the evil desires that dominate the world all around them, that drive the world to follow in the footsteps of Satan in opposing God and exalting self.¹
The “love” that this command warns of is not the love of benevolence, which is the love that gives and acts for the good of another. We should love the world in that way, to earnestly will and work for the welfare of sinners, especially their spiritual welfare: their salvation from sin and God’s judgment. We love the world with a love of benevolence when we long to see sinners saved out of the world, and see worldly men born again as children of God.
The love that seeks the good of others can’t be what’s meant here, and not only because of what other Scriptures teach. This usage of the word love also doesn’t make sense of the rest of the verse. In it, John tells us not to love the things in the world. You can’t really be benevolent towards the things of the world. Also, a love of benevolence can’t be what is meant by the love that John directly contrasts with the love of the world: love for the Father (2:15b). We are not called to love God in the sense of giving ourselves to seek his welfare, or to benefit him somehow, as if he was served by human hands or needed anything (Acts 17:24-25).
Rather, “love” in this verse—loving the world, loving the things in the world, and loving the Father—refers to a love of delight, a love of satisfaction or pleasure, a love of desire. To have affection for: that’s what John means here. This is the love of settled affections, delights, and desires that drive a person.
In effect, John is telling his Christian readers, “You need pay attention to what your heart is going after. You need to watch over what you are setting your affections on, and are delighting in, and are satisfied by, and are valuing, and taking pleasure in. Beware of worldliness creeping into your loves and loyalties. Beware of aligning your affections with the world’s values, cares, and causes. Beware of developing a strong affinity for, and an oversized attachment to, this present, evil age.”
But how might one do this? After all, the desires, delights, and affections of our hearts do not come and go easily, as if controlled by a simple switch we can toggle on and off. How could one stop loving something that he loves?
The words of John right after this command, as well as his words just before it, teach us much about how we can heed John’s call to not love the world.
How to Keep the Command
Right after John issues the command in verse 15, he begins to gives reasons why we should not love the world or the things in the world. The first reason is found in the second half of verse 15; we should not love the world because it opposes love for the Father. Love for the Father, and love for the world, cannot coexist. If love for the world is creeping into your heart, love for the Father must be creeping out. These are rival loves that oppose one another. These loves cannot share the same throne in anyone’s heart. It must be this way because the world has rebelled against God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one (5:19).
This principle, that the love for the world opposes love for the Father, certainly undergirds how important this command is for believers. But this principle also helps us understand the most effective way to ward off loving the world.
If love for the world dampers love for the Father in one’s heart, then the inverse must be true as well! Increasing in love for the Father is the way to deal mortal blows to the love for the world that might be in one’s heart. The best way to throw cold water on one’s love for the world is to fan the flame of one’s love for the Father.
Love for the world will not easily be removed, unless it is replaced by an ascendant love for the Father. Our affections, desires, and delights will not typically change until different, new affections, desires, and delights come in and get the upper hand.
I draw this insight especially from a very well-known sermon on this passage of Scripture (1 John 2:15) preached in the first half of the 19th century. The message was called “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” and the preacher was Thomas Chalmers (1780–1847). The title says it all: new affections for God have expulsive power in our hearts. They expel, or push out, other affections.
Chalmers argued that the effort to get rid of world love will not be very effective if we merely focus on getting rid of it, focusing only on how foolish, futile, spiritually dangerous, and even evil it is to love the world. The way to draw one’s gaze off of an object is rather to present them with an object that is more alluring. He writes, “the way to disengage the heart from the love of one great and ascendant object, is to fasten it in love to another … it is not by exposing the worthlessness of the former, but by addressing to the mental eye the worth and excellence of the latter.”² And thus he offers this counsel: “Let us try every legitimate method of finding access to your hearts for the love of Him who is greater than the world.”³
Christians know the Father (1 John 2:13), and so they should seek to behold and enjoy His glory, beauty, and unmatched desirability through a continual use of all God’s ordinary means of grace (personally at home, and corporately in the life and worship of a local church). Chalmers follows the apostle John in asserting that believers especially see God’s loveliness in the gospel of Jesus Christ: “In the Gospel do we so behold God, as that we may love God.”⁴
How does the apostle John say that we come to love the Father? Only as we see and receive by faith the Father’s love for us. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Where do we see the Father’s love for us? In the gospel: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him (1 John 4:9). In the following verse, John writes, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). A few verses later John writes, “We have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world… So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us” (1 John 4:14, 16). Embracing Christ’s saving work by faith—and then doing so in continuing and deepening ways—fuels the fires of new, expulsive affections for the Father, as we see His great love for sinners, even for sinners who are prone to love the world and the things in the world, and also love Him far too little.
In addition to being helped by what John writes after his exhortation, we also derive some practical counsel on how to obey the command “do not love the world” by considering the statement we find just before it. “I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one” (2:14). Overcoming the evil one describes the same victory that is overcoming the world (1 John 5:19, 4-5). How did John say the believers overcame these joint enemies? By the spiritual strength that was theirs because God’s Word dwelt in them. The more God’s Word abides in us, and we in it, the more we will be strong to overcome the world and its lusts. The more we read, study, and meditate on the Bible in faith and in personal communion with God, the more we guard our hearts against worldly, godless desires. When God’s Word abides in us, our hearts will not be fertile soil for the love of the world.
Let us heed John’s command by heeding the counsel he gives before and after it. We strive to love the world less especially by pursuing love for the Father more. We pursue love for the Father more especially by cherishing His love seen in the gospel. And we see by faith His great love and glory and beauty especially as His Word abides in us.
¹ The next verse of 1 John 2 defines these worldly desires as “the lusts of the flesh,” “the lusts of the eyes,” and “the pride of life” or “pride of livelihood/possessions.” It isn’t hard to connect many of the issues we often see in the counseling room to this list.
² Thomas Chalmers, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” Accessed September 19, 2020 at https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/Chalmers,%20Thomas%20-%20The%20Exlpulsive%20Power%20of%20a%20New%20Af.pdf. I have slightly abridged Chalmers’ words in this quote.