The Bible Doctrine of the Separated Life: Part I by Johannes G. Vos

By April 10, 2011April 12th, 2016Christian Life

The question of the separated life is a very important one, not only because it is a practical question which must be faced by every thoughtful Christian, but also because of the doctrinal ramifications that it has. Insistence upon the obligation to live what is called ‘the separated life’ is very prevalent in some circles of earnest Christians today. The details of the separation demanded vary greatly; practices which are tolerated by some groups are denounced by others as inconsistent with Christian duty and fellowship, and vice versa. In general, ‘the separated life,’ as the term is commonly used, may be understood to be a life which is separated not only from what can be proved by Scripture to be sinful, but also from various other practices which may be indifferent in themselves; and this separation is regarded as binding on the conscience of the Christian, and is sometimes made a term or condition of ecclesiastical or even of Christian fellowship.

This problem is far more important than is at first apparent. It is far more important than the mere question whether Christians ought to participate in or to abstain from certain particular kinds of conduct. Other problems of the greatest importance are involved. If we give a wrong answer to the question, ‘What is the Bible doctrine of the separated life?’ we are certain to fall into serious errors in other doctrines. Using the term ‘separated life’ in the Biblical, not the popular, sense, we may say that the separated life is an ethical implication of the covenant of grace and is related to the doctrine of sanctification as the latter deals with the nature and place of good works in the Christian life. The other doctrines which are involved in the question of the separated life are:

  1. Christian liberty in the use of things indifferent;
  2. liberty of conscience from the commandments of men;
  3. the sufficiency of Scripture as the standard of faith and conduct;
  4. the nature and limits of the authority of the Christian church.

The purpose of the present paper is to set forth the teaching of Scripture concerning the separated life, and then to show how erroneous teaching about the separated life affects the four doctrines enumerated above.

I. Separation from Sin

Separation from sin is required of the Christian by the covenant of grace. The conditions of the covenant of grace are repentance and faith. The repentance which contemplates continuance in sin is not true repentance but a mere feigned or hypocritical repentance. When a particular course of conduct is demonstrated to be sinful, that is, contrary to the moral law of God, then separation from such conduct is required of the Christian by God himself. The moral law of God binds all of Adam’s posterity to personal, entire, exact and perpetual obedience (Westminster Confession of Faith, XIX.i). That God requires separation from sin is the consistent teaching of all Scripture. Rom. 6:1-2 may be cited as an example: ‘What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. We who died to sin, how shall we any longer live therein?’

That the Christian may continue in sin in order that grace may abound is Antinomianism, which is one of the most harmful of all heresies. We may confidently assert that Scripture requires the separated life, in the sense of separation from sinful conduct, of every Christian — indeed, of every human being.

II. Separation from Occasions of Temptation to Sin

The Christian is required to separate not merely from sin itself but also from known occasions of temptation to sin. It is not a sin to be tempted; the Lord Jesus Christ was tempted by the devil, yet He was wholly without sin. It is, however, a sin deliberately to place ourselves in the path of temptation to sin. In the Lord’s Prayer we use the petition, ‘Lead us not into temptation.’ Concerning this the Larger Catechism, no. 195, states: ‘. . . that we, even after the pardon of our sins, by reason of our corruption, weakness, and want of watchfulness, are not only subject to be tempted, and forward to expose ourselves unto temptations; but also of ourselves unable and unwilling to resist them, to recover out of them, and to improve them . . . .’

Christians are here said to be forward to expose themselves unto temptations, and doubtless this forwardness is itself sinful, inasmuch as it proceeds from our corruption of nature. Christians, therefore, instead of being forward in exposing themselves to temptations to sin, ought to separate themselves from such temptations and those things which are known to be occasions thereto. This is substantially taught in the words of Christ in Matthew 5:29-30: ‘And if thy right eye causeth thee to stumble, pluck it out and cast it from thee; for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not the whole body be cast into hell. And if thy right hand causeth thee to stumble, cut it off, and cast it from thee; for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not thy whole body go into hell.’

Of course these words are not to be understood literally; the Lord does not intend us to attempt to avoid sin by actually mutilating our bodies. The real meaning is that the Christian is bound to cut off occasions of temptation to sin. A hand or an eye is not sinful in itself; they are here used metaphorically for occasions of temptation, which may be quite harmless in themselves, but which for various reasons cause the Christian to stumble. The Lord’s command is to cut them off, even though they may be harmless in themselves.

It will be noted that the command is conditional: ‘If thy right eye causeth thee to stumble,’ etc. Therefore no universal rule can be made in this matter, for what is an overwhelming temptation to one person may be no temptation at all to another person. For a Chinese just converted from heathenism to keep a small brass image of the Buddha in his house, would be to tolerate a serious occasion of temptation to sin. For him the only safe course, even the only right course, is to get rid of the abomination as soon as possible. For a retired missionary living in America to have an image of the Buddha in his house as a curio cannot possibly be an occasion of temptation to him or to anyone else; to dispose of such an object in order to avoid temptation would be absurd. The image itself is ‘nothing in the world’ (I Cor. 8:4); it is simply ‘a piece of brass’ (II Kings 18:4); but to the man just saved from paganism it is a symbol of all the abominations of idolatry and a constant invitation to return to the old ways.

We should always remember that in reality all temptation is so dangerous because of the corruption of man’s sinful heart, not because of the inherent nature of any material thing. The truth is elementary, but it is constantly being overlooked or misunderstood, not only by earnest Christians but even by popular religious teachers of the present day. Since the real menace of temptation comes from the corruption of the human heart, not from the material things which surround us or the situations in life with which we are confronted, we see how false the doctrine is which would formulate hard and fast rules about separation from occasions of temptation to sin. Since, in the very nature of the case, that which tempts one man does not affect another, such formulations ought not to be made, and if made, they ought to be rejected by all Christian people who value their freedom of conscience. Beyond question it is a duty to separate from occasions of temptation to sin; but just what constitutes an occasion of temptation to sin, no man can authoritatively say for another so as to bind the other’s conscience; much less can any man or church formulate universal regulations binding upon all men in such matters as these.

III. Separation from the World

In addition to the obligation to separate from sin and from occasions of temptation to sin, there is a sense in which Scripture requires of the Christian separation from the world. In the original languages of Scripture, various terms are used which are translated ‘world’ in the English Bible, and these are used with various meanings. In the New Testament the words aioon and kosmos are frequently used, the latter being much more common. The latter term is used in the New Testament with at least two entirely distinct meanings, of which examples may be cited as follows:

  1. The World of Men, Regarded as God’s Property: — Matt. 13:38: ‘And the field is the world…’ Rom. 5:12: ‘Through one man sin entered into the world…’ I Cor. 7:31: ‘Those that use the world, as not using it to the full…’
  2. The Sinful World, Regarded as Satan’s Kingdom: — I John 2:15: ‘If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him…’ John 14:30: ‘The prince of this world cometh, and he hath nothing in me…’ Eph. 2:2: ‘According to the course of this world, according to the prince of the powers of the air…’

That the Christian is not required to separate from human society or from the world itself is proved by I Cor. 5:9-10, ‘I wrote unto you in my epistle to have no company with fornicators: not at all meaning with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous and extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world.’

Mediaeval monasticism was an attempt to separate from the world itself, an attempt to escape corruption by abstaining from all association with the corrupt. The Apostle Paul, in the text cited above, rejects this as an absurdity. The Christian is not required to separate from all association with unregenerate and sinful men; he is permitted to have civil association, even with fornicators, covetous, extortioners and idolaters; but he is forbidden to regard such as within the pale of Christian or ecclesiastical fellowship.

The Christian is, however, required to separate from all participation in the sins of the world. This is taught by II Cor. 6:17-18 and I Tim. 5:22, ‘Wherefore come ye out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; and I will receive you, and I will be to you a Father, and ye shall be to me sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.’ ‘Neither be partaker of other men’s sins: keep thyself pure.’

In this sense, separation from the world is the same thing as separation from sin. It simply means separation from those things, sinful in themselves, which specially characterize the world regarded as Satan’s kingdom.

The Christian is also bound to witness against the world as Satan’s kingdom. Jesus Christ was a witness against the world in this sense, as shown by John 7:7, ‘The world cannot hate you; but me it hateth, because I testify of it, that its works are evil.’

The Christian must follow the example of Christ, and testify of the world, that its works are evil. The Christian must maintain a consistent testimony against the world, and this involves separation from all conduct inconsistent with that testimony. This kind of separation from the world is required of Christians in Rev. 18:4, ‘And I heard another voice from heaven, saying, Come forth, my people, out of her, that ye have no fellowship with her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues . . . .’

Even in the legitimate use of the world considered as God’s possession, the Christian must be moderate, as is shown by I Cor. 7:29-31, ‘But this I say, brethren, the time is shortened, that henceforth those that have wives may be as though they had none; and those that weep, as though they wept not; and those that rejoice, as though they rejoiced not; and those that buy, as though they possessed not; and those that use the world, as not using it to the full; for the fashion of this world passeth away.’

The Christian is a stranger and pilgrim on the earth (Heb. 11:13); his citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20), where he already is in the person of his representative, Christ (Col. 3:1); the present world, even regarded apart from sin, as God’s creation and possession, is only temporary, a mere preparation for the eternal order of things (Heb. 13:14); and therefore the Christian must abstain from everything inconsistent with his position as a stranger and pilgrim, that is, from all inordinate use of the world. The expression ‘not using it to the full’ might be paraphrased ‘not using it too intensely.’ In this matter, as in the case of occasions of temptation to sin, it is obviously impossible to formulate specific rules; each case must be decided on its own merits by the person concerned, acting in accordance with a conscience enlightened by the Holy Spirit.