Do Not Be Conformed to This World

The Indigenous and Pilgrim Principle of Christian Living

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.

Oh, how many questions this verse — Romans 12:2 — raises that need thoughtful, biblical answers. For example: How does the command not to be conformed to this world relate to Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 9:22, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some”? How is becoming all things to all people not conforming to the world? Or how does the command not to conform to the world, that is, to be counter-cultural, relate to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:32–33? “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.” How does not being conformed to the world fit with not giving offense to the world? You can’t always do both. How does not being conformed to the world fit with pleasing everyone for the sake of salvation? You can’t always please people if you refuse to conform to some of their thoughts and ways.

So the questions are many, and we will tackle some of them. My aim today is to give you a way to think about these questions. To give you some categories that I pray will be part of the renewing of your mind so that you can prove and embrace the will of God.

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.

“The gospel can and must become indigenous in every culture in the world.”

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. I see at least four: the uniquely Christian views of (1) creation, (2) Christ, (3) conversion, and (4) kingdom. Let’s take those one at a time and see how they are the root of the indigenous/pilgrim tension in Christianity.

1. The indigenous-pilgrim tension is rooted in the Christian view of creation.

For example, when Paul is dealing with how a Christian adapts to a culture where meat sold in the market may have been sacrificed to idols, he says this in 1 Corinthians 10:25–26, “Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.’” In other words, creation belongs to God and to his children for their use. Physical things like meat and drink cannot be religiously co-opted or morally contaminated by non-Christians. God’s ownership of all creation, including meat offered to idols, supports the indigenous impulse. You belong here. It’s all God’s; eat what you wish.

“All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

But that’s not the only truth about creation — that God owns it. There are other truths. One is Romans 8:20–22: “The creation was subjected to futility. . . . The whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” In other words, creation is fallen. It’s God’s. It’s for our use. But it has gone wrong. So another truth about creation is that it needs redemption and the present form of it is passing away. 1 Corinthians 7:31 says, “The present form of this world is passing away.”

When Paul applies this to food, he quotes the overly indigenous in Corinth who say, “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food” (1 Corinthians 6:13). True enough. But not the whole truth. So Paul adds, “And God will destroy both one and the other.” In other words, food and stomach are not absolutes. Creation is fallen. Its present form will pass away. It must be redeemed. Therefore, we are pilgrims.

God made it: we are at home (indigenous principle). It is fallen, and someday God will redeem it (pilgrim principle). So we are both at home and not at home. We must always use the world as though it belonged to our Father; but also with a view to God’s purposes in redemption, not just creation.

2. The indigenous-pilgrim tension is rooted in the Christian view of Christ.

Very simply, Christ became a human being. That’s the indigenous principle. He was one of us. Oh, how like us he was! “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). He shared our same nature (Hebrews 2:14). He was tempted the way we are (Hebrews 4:15).

But he came to his own, and his own did not receive him (John 1:11). We killed him. He knew we would, and he came anyway. And so he unleashed the pilgrim principle. He was at home, he became like us. But oh, how different he was. And the difference got him killed. This is the way Christianity has spread incarnationally for 2,000 years. Missionaries are human — they learn the language, they learn the culture. They fit in. Indigenous. And then they suffer, and sometimes get killed. They follow their Lord. They are pilgrims. Indigenous and pilgrims. Incarnation and crucifixion. Become all things; do not be conformed.

3. The indigenous-pilgrim tension is rooted in the Christian view of conversion.

Romans 3:28 says, “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” God counts you righteous in Christ the moment you put your faith in Christ alone as your Savior from sin and the Lord of your life and your supreme Treasure. In the twinkling of an eye you are counted righteous in God’s eyes by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone. Justification unleashed the indigenous principle. You are counted indigenous to heaven before you are morally fit for heaven. Christ is your fitness by faith alone.

“God counts you righteous in Christ the moment you put your faith in Christ alone.”

But now that you are accepted in the beloved — justified by faith alone — the Holy Spirit goes to work on you, and you start to become in practice what you are in Christ. And thus the pilgrim principle is unleashed: You must change. You cannot be at home in your present condition. “If then you have been raised with Christ [if you have become indigenous to heaven!] . . . Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth [become a pilgrim!]” (Colossians 3:1–2).

Justification and sanctification — in that order — are the root of the indigenous-pilgrim tension. We are righteous in Christ — indigenous, at home. Now we must become what we are — the pilgrim must make progress.

4. The indigenous-pilgrim tension is rooted in the Christian view of the kingdom.

The glorious kingdom of God has already come in Jesus Christ. The age to come has arrived. So Jesus says in Luke 11:20, “If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” And he says in Luke 17:21: “The kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” Therefore, subjects of the kingdom — the children of God — are at home here and now in the kingdom of their Father. And the indigenous impulse is unleashed.

But on the other hand, the kingdom of God is not yet fully here. Promise has arrived, but consummation remains future. At the Last Supper Jesus says, “I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes” (Luke 22:18). It’s not here yet. And therefore there is a strong pilgrim impulse. We are waiting. Yeaning. Longing. Aliens. Exiles. Sojourners. We are at home, yet oh, so not at home!

Know the Balance

In conclusion then, when Paul says in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world,” he is pushing on one side of this balance. My aim has simply been to give the bigger picture of his thought, and keep us in balance.

  • Yes, confrontation of the world! But also missionary adaptation.

  • Yes, separation! But also cultural participation.

  • No, not of the world! But yes, in the world.

  • No, not conformed to this world! But yes, becoming all things to all people that we might save some.

  • Yes, we are indigenous! But we are also strangers, pilgrims!


  • Creation is the Lord’s, yet fallen and in need of redemption.

  • Christ is incarnate, yet crucified.

  • Conversion is justification by faith alone, yet followed by the discipline of sanctification.

  • The kingdom has already come, but not its consummation.

How shall we know the balance? The answer is coming: “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.” My prayer is that this message is part of that mind-renewal that will help you prove what is the will of God.

What I aim to do when I come back from vacation is illustrate, by linking chapters 1 and 12, how this works in relation to homosexuality and the cultural issue of the marriage amendment to the constitution. Until then, in every issue and every action, ask the Lord for wisdom, immerse your mind in the Scriptures, and look steadfastly at Jesus Christ, and you will be transformed into his image.