Why Are Christians Told Not to Love the World? (1 John 2)

This article is part of the Tough Passages series.

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15Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16For all that is in the world— the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.

To Love the World

This first imperative of this letter can be misunderstood if we fail to identify the “world” properly. “Things in the world” does not refer to creation; this is not a dualist call to be concerned only with spiritual rather than physical things. John can use “world” (kosmos) more positively, such as in God’s love for the world (John 3:16), Jesus as the propitiation for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2), or Jesus as the Savior of the world (1 John 4:14). In these instances mankind, the inhabitants of the world, is in view. They are opposed to God, but God still loves humanity and comes to redeem it. Quite often, however, the “world” is the realm, even the system, of rebellion against God (1 John 4:4–5). It does not know God or believers (1 John 3:1) and indeed hates believers (1 John 3:13). It is the realm of false prophets and the antichrist (1 John 4:1, 3), for “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). Into this realm of hostility Jesus came (1 John 4:17) in order to be the Savior, to redeem people out of this realm, allowing us to overcome the world (1 John 5:4–5).1

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Thus John is not forbidding appreciation of creation or love for people. Rather he is warning against setting one’s affections on sin or behaviors inimical to God and his character. John “counsels strategic disavowals of loyalties to features of the world that would surely compromise the total devotion that is appropriate to God alone.”2

This point is made even clearer in the second half of the verse, which contrasts love of the world with love of the Father. John directs his readers toward the proper object of their affections by holding up contrasting objects. One cannot love the world and love the Father at the same time, for the world is at odds with the Father. One must choose. One must take a side. And because of who God is, proper love for him can brook no rivals. True love for God must place him supreme in one’s affections.

The problem with “the things in the world” mentioned in 1 John 2:15 is, first of all, that they are not “from the Father,” that is, they are not rooted in him. They arise instead from that which is in opposition to God. “John is thinking of things that can be regarded as detrimental because they lack sanctifying ties with the Father.”3 Obviously, people who love God ought not be attracted to things that arise from opposition to God and thus to them. John is saying, in part, “Do not love the sin that seeks to destroy you.”

The rivals in view here are heart dispositions. “Desire” (epithymia) is not always negative, but here it clearly is.4 “Desires of the flesh” refers to those desires that arise from fallen humanity apart from the influence of God’s sanctifying work, including a broad range of sinful desires such as lust, gluttony, and the pursuit of various other addictions.

The second element of things of the world, “the desires of the eyes,” is not an entirely separate category but can be seen as another aspect of the desires of the flesh. Our eyes are, of course, wonderful gifts, but once again John has in view the sinful use of these gifts. Jesus spoke of the eyes as the “lamp of the body,” with potential either for good or for causing the “whole body” to be “full of darkness” (Matt. 6:22–23). In the first sin, Eve was taken in as she noticed that the forbidden fruit was a “delight to the eyes” (Gen. 3:6). Thus “desires of the eyes” refers to being captivated via sight by desire for forbidden things. C. H. Dodd suggests this refers to “the tendency to be captivated by the outward show of things, without enquiring into their real values.”5 This would then refer to the tendency to chase what “looks good” without concern for whether or not it is pleasing to God.

We must love God, his Word, and his people, but we must not love selfishness and sin.

The last item in the list is the “pride of life.” This phrase is vaguer than the others. The word for “pride” (alazoneia) typically refers to arrogant boasting, while the word for “life” (bios) often refers to material goods, or that which one has to live on (e.g., Luke 15:12, 30; Luke 21:4), which is precisely the meaning of the word when it occurs later in this letter, in 1 John 3:17. Thus what is in view here is not pride generally but the vaunted sense of self-importance derived from one’s possessions, position, or prestige.

These three things “in the world” characterize what is at work in the world system in opposition to God. They are not passive, but aggressively seek to allure the affections of everyone including Christians. Thus, John warns his hearers not to love these things.

Not only are the “world” and its “things” opposed to God, but they are also “passing away.” They will not endure and thus are not suitable objects for our affections. Nor do they provide a stable basis for life. In contrast, those who do the will of God “[abide] forever.” John’s point is exhortatory: we ought not set our hearts on these sinful desires that will fade and fall away, for they will finally disappoint. Obedience to God, however, will lead to lasting joy. If, then, we love life and long for fulfillment, we must resist the allure of sinful desires and obey God instead.

Contrary to much of popular culture, John realizes that love, in and of itself, is not the answer. It matters what we love. Some love is sinful. We must love God, his Word, and his people, but we must not love selfishness and sin.

Some have wreaked havoc with 1 John 2:15, seeing there a pleasure-hating asceticism or a curmudgeonly skepticism toward beauty, enjoyment, or people. None of this is called for here. It is clear that there is a common way of life that is opposed to the things of God, a way that seems to help one get ahead but is actually opposed to God. This is what John is telling us not to love. He is not telling us to hate God’s creation or the good gifts he has given to us as part of that creation.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer ministered in the shadow of the Nazi machine, where friendship with the world captivated many believers, as it seemed to promise safety. He captured the essence of our text when he wrote,

In obedience and faith alone the church took up the struggle ordained for her. From the Word alone she may be led. For her Lord she gladly gave up all cares, all security, all friendship with the world. Yes, our way leads also through distress, but the Lord bound us not to yield. Do we want to yield today for the sake of friendship with the world, do we want to sell our calling for the mess of pottage of a safe future? Through our own behavior we are making the Gospel of our church unworthy of belief!6


  1. Cf. further the chapter on “The World,” in Paul Rainbow, Johannine Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 115–145.
  2. Yarbrough, Robert W. 1–3 John. BECNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008, 128
  3. Ibid., 131.
  4. Peter also contrasts wrong human desires (epithymia) with God’s will, that which God desires (thelēma) (1 Pet. 4:2).
  5. Dodd, Johannine Epistles, 41. Cf. also Daniel Akin 1, 2, 3 John, NAC (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001), 110.
  6. Bonhoeffer, quoted in Rudolf Wentorf, Paul Schneider: The Witness of Buchenwald, trans. Franklin Sanders (Las Vegas: Geodesics, 1986), 68.

This article is by Ray Van Neste and is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Volume 12) edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., Jay Sklar,.

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