2 Timothy 3:5
Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.
I do not suppose that these words need much explanation. "Godliness," in the New Testament, means not only the disposition which we call piety, but the conduct which flows from it, and which we may call practical religion. The form or outward appearance of that we all understand. But what is the "denying the power thereof"? It does not consist in words, but in deeds. In these latter epistles we find "denying" frequently used as equivalent to "abjuring," renouncing, casting off. For instance, in a passage singularly and antithetically parallel to that of my text, we read "denying ungodliness and worldly lusts," which simply means throwing off their dominion.
I. Observe THE SAD FREQUENCY OF SUCH A CONDITION. Wherever any great cause or principle is first launched into the world, it evokes earnest enthusiasm, and brings men to heroisms of consecration and service. And so, when Christianity was first launched, there was less likelihood of its attracting to itself men who were not in earnest, and who were mere formalists. As years go on, the primitive enthusiasms die out, and the cause which was once all freshly radiant and manifestly heaven-born becomes an earthly institution, there is a growing tendency to gather round it all sorts of superficial, half-and-half adherents. And every church has its full share of such people; loose adherents, clogs upon all movement, who bring down the average of warmth like the great icebergs that float in the Atlantic and lower the temperature of the summer all over Europe. They make consecration "eccentric"; they make consistent, out-and-out Christian living, "odd," "unlike the ordinary thing." And they pull down the spirituality of the Church almost to the level of the world.
II. Think, next, of THE UNDERGROUND WORKING OF THIS EVIL. These people about whom Paul is speaking in my text were, I suppose, mostly, though by no means exclusively, conscious pretenders to what they did not possess. But the number of hypocrites, in the full sense of the word, is amazingly small, and the men whom you would brand as most distinctly so, if you came to talk to them, would amaze you to find how entirely ignorant they were of the fact that they were dramatising and pretending to piety, and that there was next to no reality of it in them. A very little bit of gold, beaten out very thin, will cover over, with a semblance of value, an enormous area. And men beat out the little modicum of sincerity that they have so very thin that it covers, and gives a deceptive appearance of brilliancy and solidity to an enormous amount of windy flatulence and mere pretence. The worse a man is, the less he knows it. The more completely a professing Christian has lost his hold of the substance and is clinging only to the form, the less does he suspect that this indictment has any application to him. The more completely a man's limbs are frost-bitten the more comfortable and warm they are, and the less does he know it. I need say little about the reasons for this unconsciousness. We are all accustomed to take very lenient views, when we take any at all, of our own character; and the tendency of all conduct is to pull down conscience to the level of conduct, and to vindicate that conduct by biassed decisions of a partial conscience. The underground enemies of our Christian earnestness are far more dangerous than the apparent and manifest antagonists; and there are many men amongst us who would repel with indignation a manifest assault against their godliness, who yield without resistance, and almost without consciousness, to the sly seductions of unsuspected evil. The arrow that flies in darkness is more deadly than the pestilence that wasteth at noonday.
III. Further, notice THE EVER-OPERATING CAUSES THAT PRODUCE THIS CONDITION.
1. I suppose that one, at anyrate, of the main examples of this "form" was participation in the simple worship of the primitive Church. And although the phrase by no means refers merely to acts of worship, still that is one of the main fields in which this evil is manifest. Many of us substitute outward connection with the Church for inward union with Jesus Christ. All external forms have a tendency to assert themselves, and to detain in themselves, instead of helping to rise above themselves, our poor sense-ridden natures. Seeing that the purest and the simplest of forms may become like a dirty window, an obscuring medium which shuts out instead of lets in the light, it seems to me that the Churches are wisest which admit least of the dangerous element into their external worship, and try to have as little of form as may keep the spirit. I know that simple forms may be abused quite as much as elaborate ones. Let us be very sure that we do not substitute Church membership, coming to chapel, going to prayer-meeting, teaching in Sunday schools, reading devout books, and the like, for the inward submission to the power.
2. Another cause always operating in the tendency which all action of every kind has to escape from the dominion of its first motives, and to become merely mechanical and habitual. Habit is a most precious ally of goodness, but habitual goodness tends to become involuntary and mechanical goodness, and so to cease to be goodness at all. And the more that we can, in each given case, make each individual act of godliness, whether it be in worship or in practical life, the result of a fresh approach to the one central and legitimate impulse of the Christian life, the better it will be for ourselves.
3. And then, still farther, there is the constant operation of earth and sense and daily duties and pressing cares, which war against the reality and completeness of our submission to the power of godliness. Grains of sand, microscopically minute in the aggregate, bury the temples and the images of the gods in the Nile Valley. The multitude of small cares and duties which are blown upon us by every wind have the effect of withdrawing us, unless we are continually watchful, from that one foundation of all, the love of Jesus Christ felt in our daily lives.
IV. So, lastly, let me point you to THE DISCIPLINE WHICH MAY AVERT THIS EVIL.
1. First and foremost, I would say let us cherish a clear and continual recognition of the reality of the danger. Forewarned is forearmed. Rigid, habitual self-inspection, in the light of God's Word, is an all-important help to prevent this sliding into superficiality of our Christian life. In a country which is only preserved by the dykes from being swallowed up by the sea the minutest inspection of the rampart is the condition of security, and if there be a hole big enough for a mouse to creep through the water will come in and make a gap wide enough to drown a province in a little while. And so, seeing that we have such dangers round about us, and that the most formidable of them all are powers that work in the dark, let us be very sure that our eyes have searched, as well as we can, the inmost corners of our lives, and that no lurking vermin lie beneath the unturned-up stones.
2. And then, lastly, and as that without which all else is vain, let us make continual and earnest and contrite efforts day by day to renew and deepen our personal communion with Jesus Christ. He is the source of the power which godliness operates in our lives, and the closer we keep to Him the more it will flood our hearts and make us real, out-and-out Christians, and not shallow and self-deceived pretenders. The tree that had nothing but leaves upon it hid its absence of fruit by its abundance of foliage. The Master came, as He comes to you and to me, seeking fruit, and if He finds it not He will perpetuate the barrenness by His blasting word, "No fruit grow upon thee henceforward forever."
(A. Maclaren, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.