People who are oblivious to the perils around them are those who are most in danger of being harmed by them. In utmost love and concern, then, the Spirit of God, moving in and through the apostle Paul, gives us a specific catalogue of dangerous human traits to be avoided. That all of these are prevalent today should be a warning to any sober-minded believer to be careful and vigilant against the destructive inroads of Satan. And that some of the most significant of these traits are very subtle is evident from the one we examine today.
“Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof” (II Tim. 3:5). The description presented here is a clarion warning against drawing superficial religious conclusions. It is a reminder that earnest saints must distinguish between appearance and reality because the two are often not identical. Two competing qualities (found especially in false teachers) characterize a particularly virulent danger to the unwary.
First, is that which may be seen clearly and easily. Paul describes this as “having a form of godliness.” A. T. Robertson describes the word form as “the outward shape without the reality.” The form of religion is all that false teachers have, but that form is sufficient to attract and entrap the young, careless, and unwary. For man is inveterately religious. He has some sense of needing to be good and to do good. And he finds a certain religious satisfaction in performing various acts of kindness and generosity and even of performing certain acts of self-denial and self-abnegation. This along with various religious rituals is what false teachers offer. The flesh finds such behavior satisfying because it does not deal with the uncomfortable fact of sin against an offended God but promotes the comfortable idea of meritorious self-effort.
Second, is that which cannot be seen, except with spiritual eyes. Paul describes this quality in false teachers as a denial of the power of godliness. They have a superficial form of godliness, that is, they say and do things that appear to be good, but what they say and do have been empowered only by the fallen human nature. The Greek verb is more forceful than our English translation; it reads: “having denied the power thereof.” There is a sense, then, in which these false teachers have been confronted with and have rejected the truth, deliberately and willfully substituting a false religion for righteousness.
And that is the key to recognizing these dangerous purveyors of error: they substitute religion for righteousness. They replace supernatural faith with natural works (all the while speaking of faith and in the name of God). They are filled with religion; they promote religious activity, but they reject the power of godliness. Though freely using the name of Christ and invoking the power of the Spirit, they are devoid of Christ and the Holy Spirit; they lack His cleansing work from sin; they are absent His power to invigorate and motivate. Their efforts—though religious and impressive to the flesh—have no power to transform lives, to cleanse from the guilt of sin, to deliver from the power of sin. In the name of all three Persons of the Trinity, they exalt man and fleshly works. All that is done in the name of religion must be examined in the light of the whole counsel of God’s Word. And where we find those who replace true godly righteousness with mere religion, we are warned from such to “turn away.” Turn off the TV or the radio when such things are heard; flee the pulpits and pews of such purveyors of error. Mere religion is a danger to be avoided at all costs because to follow it will cost all—even and especially eternal life. God is gracious to warn, may we be faithful to heed.
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