The world, the flesh, and the devil each work in human beings in two directions at the same time. In this case, “the world” refers to the ways that human groups, societies, and institutions act to keep the true and living God far away. The “flesh” refers to that part of every human being that acts to keep the true and living God far away. And the “devil” refers to a real spiritual being (and by implication all other similar spiritual beings) in rebellion to the true and living God while being hostile to human beings.
The world, the flesh, and the devil all work against us both individually and collectively. In human beings, these forces push us towards two equal but opposite directions: Let me explain.
Sin acts to remove the distinctiveness and uniqueness of human beings. Think for a moment of several people very drunk, or several people in the grip of watching pornography. When not in the depths of the sin, they are different, and in meeting them you can notice and appreciate their uniqueness. But as the alcohol takes over, or the porn takes over, the person’s uniqueness vanishes. The true and living God creates uniqueness; the world, the flesh and the devil seek to remove uniqueness and create sameness.
But they also have a centrifugal function – in other words, the world, the flesh, and the devil act to drive us apart – hostility, prejudice, words-that-wound, unforgiveness. Tragically, these three act to create a world where no one wants the living God close, everyone thinks alike, yet we are hostile and suspicious of each other. Now to be clear, this is not a full description of human life. God through His common grace restrains evil, but that is a topic for another article.
In light of the world, the flesh, and the devil, it is good to think of a phrase in the Nicene creed that often bothers us. This phrase should instead be our prayer and rallying cry. The creed ends with the phrase, “I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” Catholic? Huh? Why is that there? The word “catholic” is the God given good that the world, the flesh, and the devil seek to bend, break, and corrupt. “Catholic” is a one word summary of Ephesians 2:11-22 and John 17 and the glorious end of the book of Revelation. It is unity and difference as opposed to the sameness which destroys uniqueness and the centrifugal power which separates.
The biblical church is “catholic” in the sense that it is universal. More than universal, the church also spans time. We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. When we put our faith in Christ, we are born again, made a new creation, made a new “man”.
Each person in Christ is now a “son” in God’s household, an equal citizen in Christ’s Kingdom; a living stone in the temple that God indwells. This one kingdom has citizens converted through Patrick in Ireland in the fifth century, citizens converted in London (England) in the 70’s through Billy Graham, and citizens converted by underground evangelists in Iran and China today. We are one, without sin-crushing sameness.
But catholic also means varied. To have a catholic taste in books does not mean you like reading Graham Greene and Flannery O’Connor – it means you read and enjoy many different genres. So it is with the biblical church, where Christ rules, variety grows. Formal liturgies, charismatic spontaneity, or simple order and flow. Cathedral choirs, Gospel-music choirs, praise bands, psalm-singing, or a single pianist. Solemn quiet, demonstrative exuberance, and everything in between. Pastors in robes, in suits, in Hawaiian shirts, in jeans and t-shirts. The world, the flesh and the devil act to kill uniqueness and drive us apart. The Gospel brings a catholic church, one in Him yet unique and varied.