RELIGION – TRUE OR COUNTERFEIT?
A sermon preached by Robert W. Oliver at Coppice Chapel, Coseley
on 21st September 1997.
‘Having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof,” 2 Timothy 3.5a.
Powerless religion is a pathetic sight. It stands in marked contrast to the religion of the New Testament. One has only to read the Acts of the Apostles and the New Testament epistles and one realises that we are faced with a godliness which is powerful in its nature. Even the ungodly world was compelled to take note of that. You may recall that we are told in the Acts of the Apostles that the opponents of the gospel said on one occasion that “the men that have turned the world upside down have come here also.” You may remember too that the Apostle Paul when writing to the Thessalonians recalled the fact that the gospel that he preached there was not in word only but in power and in the Holy Ghost and in much assurance. The evidence of that, he tells us, was to be seen in the effects of his preaching in Thessalonica. He puts it in a very powerful and very remarkable way in the first chapter of the first Epistle to the Thessalonians, where, after making that statement, he says in verse 6, “Ye became followers of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost; so that ye were ensamples to all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia. For from you sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith to God-ward is spread abroad; so that we need not to speak anything. For they themselves show of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God.” What he is saying here is, such was the power of the gospel in Thessalonica, that the news of it was spread throughout these two provinces of the Roman Empire and it became the talk of the people of that part of the world at that time. They were asking one another whether they had heard of what had happened; how that in Thessalonica people had turned from idols to serve the living and the true God, how lives had been changed, drunkards had turned from their drink, idolaters had turned from their idols, how immoral people were living godly lives. There was a power, there was an effect, there was a result to be seen as a result of the preaching of the gospel and it was known throughout that area. That is the power which has been demonstrated again and again down through the long history of the church of God, godliness which is according to power. Now, sadly we don’t live in days like that when the power is known to the same degree but we can thank God that that power is known in some measure, that there is still a believing people here upon earth and we rejoice in this, because where there is no power at all the church of God and Christianity, religion, is reduced to a kind of an ornament which is simply brought out on special occasions. Something, if you like, which is there in the cupboard, which people bring out for their own convenience at certain times and seasons. We know that there are many people who may perhaps attend a place of worship only occasionally, perhaps for christenings and marriages and funerals, and they expect something to be said for their comfort on such occasions, but what is said is often irrelevant to the gospel and there is no power in it whatsoever. So, there is a godliness which is powerless, but there is a godliness which is of power.
Now I have called your attention to this passage because I’m concerned to contrast the two with you this afternoon, but I want just to draw attention to the context. In the context we are told that “in the last days”, verse 1, “perilous times shall come.” Now, ‘the last days’ was obviously a time that was relevant to Timothy. We are told, in the verse that we are looking at, of people “having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof” – “from such turn away”. Obviously, Timothy was living in such a time, and if you look at Scripture, you will find that Scripture in fact divides the long history of the world into two parts. You can take, for example, the statement at the beginning of the Epistle to the Hebrews, chapter 1 in verses 1 and 2, “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds”. The Epistle to the Hebrews, then, divides time into “time past”, which was the Old Testament when God spoke by the prophets, and these “last days” when God spoke by His Son, which we call the New Testament dispensation, the time in which we are living. I mention that because there is a tendency sometimes to suggest that “the last days” simply refers to the very end of the age in which we are living and consequently there is a tendency to look at some of these scriptures and treat them almost as indications of the end of time and that may cause us to lose the impact of them, whereas the word of God teaches us that they are much broader in their nature. You have, of course, a statement in the Acts of the Apostles relating to the day of Pentecost where Peter is preaching, in Acts chapter 2, and he says that what happened then was the fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy. Verse 17 – “and it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams”.
So, Timothy was living in the last days and we are living in the last days, taking this broad, scriptural approach. Now, says the Apostle, “in the last days perilous times shall come”, dangerous times, and he proceeds to give some indications of the dangers of these times. We could translate the word “times” as “seasons”. We are very used to seasons, we are really at the point of a change of season at the moment. Summer is now changing into autumn and we know that each year has its seasons. Autumn becomes the winter, and the winter becomes the spring, and the spring gives place to the summer. Seasons are periods of time but they are not permanent. They have their time and then they pass away. What the Apostle seems to be saying to Timothy is that there is a change of season. The early days of the apostolic era were days of great advance in the gospel. Read the account of Pentecost -.tremendous blessing – an outpouring of the Spirit of God. People were added to the church in their thousands, something which is out of our experience, certainly. But it was a season, it was a time of great blessing. But now, says the apostle; the season is changing and there are some days of the outpouring of the Spirit of God, and then there are perilous seasons, seasons which are marked by things such as are indicated in this chapter, and then there are changes again. We know from the history of the church of God that there are times of great gathering when chapels are built, big chapels sometimes, vast congregations are gathered under the preaching of the word of God. Seasons come, seasons go, but some seasons are marked by a having of a form of godliness which is denying the power thereof. So Timothy must not settle down to expect that he is about to enter a tranquil season, an easy period. All these features are there from time to time and in varying degrees but he needs to be on the alert for a form of godliness which has no power.
In approaching this subject this afternoon, I think we need to ask ourselves first of all. What does the apostle mean by godliness? What do we understand by it? Obviously this is the key to our understanding of this statement, and you find that in the Epistles of Paul to Timothy and Titus, he comes back again and again to this subject of godliness. For example, in the first Epistle to Timothy he speaks in chapter 2 of our responsibility to pray for kings and all in authority. Why? That we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, that we may make money, have nice homes, that we may glide along gently? No, that’s not the reason. ‘That we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.” This is a goal, this is an objective, this is something that the people of God are to be concerned about. God has favoured us with peace for many years in our own country. Sadly, it has not been marked by godliness but we, as God’s people, need to be concerned to live godly lives which are pleasing to God.
Well, what is this godliness then, that the Apostle is concerned about? In the fourth chapter of the first Epistle, he says in verse. 7, ”exercise thyself rather unto godliness. For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things.” Now, we must be careful at this point, but he is making a contrast between physical exercise and spiritual exercise. He says, bodily exercise profiteth little, or for a little while. “A little time”, the margin has it. It has its place, there is nothing wrong with it, God has given us bodies that we are responsible for. It is wrong to abuse the body, it’s wrong to neglect the body, our bodies are a gift to us from God, but bodily exercise has simply reference to the life which we are now living. But, says the apostle, there is another sort of exercise. It is an exercise of the soul, it is an exercise unto godliness and it has the promise not only of this life, the life that now is, but also of that which is to come. So godliness is involved with spiritual exercise. But also, it is related to the truth because, writing to Titus, in the very first verse in the Epistle to Titus, he talks about “acknowledging of the truth which is after godliness” or according to godliness. The truth, he says, is a truth which promotes godliness. So what is godliness? Well, it is a reverence for God, a true reverence which comes from a knowledge of the truth. It comes from our understanding of who God is, of His Being, His attributes, all that God has declared Himself to be in the pages of Scripture. We can only know God as He has been pleased to reveal Himself to us. We can know God in an empty notional way but if we know anything of God truly, we shall be humbled under the knowledge of God. It is what the Old Testament refers to as the fear of the Lord, a reverence, a humbling of ourselves under the mighty hand of God: a right attitude towards God, His holiness, His majesty, the glory of His Being, His love and His goodness. So then, true godliness arises from the truth and it is a response to the truth, it is a reception of the truth, it is an impact of the truth: an impact of the truth which affects our lives.
Now, there would be no place for the false if there were not a true. Nobody counterfeits what is not true. Nowadays you sometimes go into a shop and you hand a note, a Â£20 note, to the shopkeeper, and he tests it, he uses a pen and moves it across to see if it is the genuine thing. If there were not true notes, nobody would bother to forge notes. If there were not true godliness, no one would be concerned to produce a counterfeit godliness and so we need therefore to see clearly the nature of the truth. Arising from a sense of the presence of God; the revelation of God in Scripture under the teaching of the Holy Spirit. I’m not talking about anything visionary: I’m talking about something which comes upon us as a result of the impact of the truth. It may come upon us very gently but you feel that this word is true. He speaks to you as the God of Scripture. It is not simply a concept, not simply an idea, not simply something or someone who is remote; but He is speaking and you are compelled to take the word seriously because God has been pleased to speak, and then you begin to realise something of the glory of this God: something of the glory of God in His being, something of the glory of God in the gospel, and that glory of course is to be seen supremely in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. No wonder the apostle Paul, on another occasion, says, “God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ” because there is seen the love of God, a love which is so intense, that is so burning and so real and so moving that He was willing to save sinners by the sacrifice of the eternal Son. We were singing something of the overwhelming solemnity of that in the opening hymn when we sang of Christ as the true paschal Lamb and we spoke of the most horrible heat, the terrible heat, of Sinai. Well, we can develop that somewhat and speak about the wrath of God which was poured on the Lord Jesus Christ when He offered Himself as a sacrifice for the sins of His people on the cross. We are facing a great mystery. In a sense we can’t understand this, we can’t understand how it can be, but what we do know is that it is a demonstration. It is indeed more than a demonstration, it is the real expression of the love of God, the wisdom of God, in that His justice is vindicated in the death of the Lord Jesus Christ. His holiness, every attribute, is demonstrated and vindicated at the cross of the Lord Jesus. It does not matter which one you think about. His wisdom; oh, what wisdom! Only divine wisdom could have devised such a way of salvation! Only divine justice could have demanded such a sacrifice, and only divine love could have provided it.
Now, my dear friend, does that mean anything to you? Have you ever seen anything of the love of God and the wonder of the love and the mercy of God in the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ, and you realise that there is no glory to compare with this, the glory of God in the person of Christ, and you begin to want to express your response to it in love and worship and adoration. You remember how Isaac Watts puts it in that great hymn, “When I survey the wondrous cross”, he takes this big broad view of the cross of the Lord Jesus and he says,
“Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering far too small,
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all”.
If you see it in that way, by the grace of God, under the impact of the teaching of the blessed Spirit of God, there is nothing that you can put alongside the love of God and the grace of God.
Godliness will then make the Word of God very precious to you. There is nothing to compare with it. Here God speaks. There are good books and we thank God for good books, but here is a unique book which comes to us with the divine authority, and God speaks through it in a unique way and the Word of God is very precious. If there is true godliness you will want the Word, you will want to feed on the Word and when you can’t feed on the Word you will mourn over the fact that you can’t. When your reading of the Word of God becomes hard and mechanical and dull, that becomes your complaint and you can’t settle with it, you can’t rest with it, you press on, plead with the Lord to send forth His light and His truth, that the light of the Holy Spirit may shine upon the Word of God and through the truths of Scripture you may have communion and fellowship with God. Where there is true godliness you will want to please God, you will want to obey Him, you will want to walk in His ways, you will want to identify with His cause, you will want to keep the commandments of God which are given to us in scripture. “If ye love me, keep my commandments,” says the Lord Jesus Christ. That is godliness. You will want to live a life which is honest in the sight of all men, you won’t want to do anything that will bring reproach upon the cause of God. You will want to honour Him and serve Him and walk in His ways to the praise and the glory of His great and holy Name. Yes, and you will want to identify with His cause. If the Lord Jesus Christ went to the cross of Calvary, if He was isolated on that sacrificial cross, dying for your sins, you will want to identify with His cause and you will want to walk in His ways and in the ordinances of His house. Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, these things will become very real, very precious, very vital to you. Godliness is the out-working, the expression, the development of a principle, a divine principle which God has wrought within us. You won’t be complaining about the commands of God, the demands.
Sometimes God’s commands do cross our ambitions. There may be a struggle to obey His will. The Word of God speaks to us in situations that sometimes affect us very deeply, but ultimately in keeping God’s commandments there is great blessing. “This is the love of God,” says John, “that we keep his commandments; and his commandments are not grievous.” They are not grievous in the ultimate. They might appear to be grievous, they might in prospect appear to be a barrier, a difficulty, an insuperable difficulty, but grace is given and in obedience there is no grief- there is love. “If ye love me, keep my commandments.”
Now this godliness is not natural, it is supernatural. Every one of us was born a sinner. We all fell in Adam and all the consequences of the Adam-fall are being worked out in our lives. We came into this world as sinners against God, with carnal minds which were at enmity with God, not subject to the law of God neither indeed could be. The unbelieving man resents this Biblical revelation of God, he wishes that there were no God and often he persuades himself that there is no God, and he is ready to listen to people who argue that there is no God and produce their books or their programmes which try to present a universe in which there is no God, he is very quick to argue that God is a God who saves everybody. He assumes that all will be going to heaven. This is natural to the unbelieving man. God alone is able to overcome these false ideas and He does so by the power of godliness.
How does He do it? Well, He does it first of all by the new birth, regeneration: the operation of the Spirit of God by the truth of God on the soul of man. And that is a radical change. It is not a matter of taking up religion. It is not making religion your hobby. It is not a matter of being naturally religious. It is something which is a radical change in the sinner so that the sinner who once resented God, had no appetite for the things of God at all, no pleasure in being found at a service of worship, no desire for the word of God whatsoever, now has a new nature. Think of the expressions that the Bible uses to describe this. Being “born again”. It is a very radical description. The apostle Paul speaks of being “a new creation”, “a new man”, a change, an operation of God that redirects us and gives us new desires. He says, “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” New desires for the things of God. The same person – we don’t lose our personality. The same person as when we were born but with a new nature, a new direction, and a new work of God’s grace that begins to express itself in a lifelong work of sanctification. The new believer comes to the Lord Jesus Christ, that new nature trusts in Him, rests in Him, knows the pardon of sin, justification, but there still is this problem of indwelling sin, so the Christian begins a lifelong warfare against sin. He has to know something of mortification. “If ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live” says the Apostle. There are still those lusts of the flesh, those evil desires, those wicked thoughts, those idols which find a resting place in the recesses of our minds. There are those expressions of the old nature – that unbridled tongue, that temper, that selfishness, that self-will – and these things have to be mortified, they have to be brought to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. We need the help of the Holy Spirit to renew our repentance and to humble us because of these things, but especially to bring us back to Christ. Our sanctification, our mortification of sin focuses in the cross, in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.
But there will be growth in grace. “Grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,” says Peter. That means that there will be fruitfulness in the Christian life. The term is a very important term. You know, if you have a fruit tree, the fruit comes from the tree because the tree feeds. It draws up sap and it benefits from the sunlight and all the things that it needs it draws from the earth. The fruit of the tree is not something that is tied onto it. We may tie things onto a Christmas tree but the genuine fruit comes from within. Now, it’s like that in the Christian life. The Christian is one who feeds, one who enjoys the sunshine of God’s love, the blessing of God, the showers of God’s grace, and sometimes the rough wind of God’s discipline, and the food that God has provided in His Word, and as the Christian feeds and is exercised unto godliness, so those fruits of the Spirit, of love, joy, peace, long-suffering, begin to appear. They don’t appear all at once. This is a long process. There is much halting. There sometimes is backsliding and departure, but overall there is a movement, a movement to God, and this is a true godliness. Power, the power of a changed life, the power of a transformed life which is set in the ways of God.
Now, says the Apostle, over against that there is a form of godliness but it denies the power. What does he mean? Well, he means that there is an appearance. This form is an appearance but there is no change of heart. Religion, but no change of life, no change of direction. This can come about in many different ways. Sometimes it comes about as a result of people being pressurised in some sort of a meeting, to make a decision, as it is called, and it is not the result of regeneration. They are pressurised at the moment, perhaps an appeal is made, the advantages of a Christian life are set forth. The person may hear that Christians are guided, God answers the prayer of the Christian and that there are certain advantages in a Christian life. Maybe heaven appears to be attractive and people are drawn to it and they make some sort of a response, some sort of a movement. You will remember there was a character in the Pilgrim’s Progress called Pliable, and he set out on pilgrimage with Christian, and Christian spoke to him of the glories of the Celestial City, and the prospect and the streets of gold, the wonder of that place and the dangers of the City of Destruction, and they went off together. Presently they both tumbled into the Slough of Despond, and Pliable struggled out on the same side that he went in and he said, “I don’t want any of these things. If this is what it is all about, I am going back again.” Some response – no power – no reality in the life, but where there is power the Christian goes on, struggles on, cries to God, pleads with God. He can’t go back even though at times he is in darkness. So it is possible for a profession of Christianity to be made without a changed life.
But where there is godliness without the power there is often an emphasis on externals. This of course was the tragedy of the Pharisees, and those who emphasise the externals always tend to exaggerate them, saying the right things, doing certain things in an approved way, showing the right sort of emotions. Now, true godliness will affect the emotions, but sometimes people adopt a certain tone of voice, a certain demeanour, and because it is external it goes to an excess. People have sometimes assumed a certain voice in prayer. Other forms of religion adopt elaborate ceremonial and they see godliness in terms of this, but no change of heart. Others are concerned to follow the behaviour of a particular group. Sometimes there is a laying aside of certain sins. I remember reading of a man, of whom it was said that when he laid aside the sins of the flesh, he assumed the sins of the spirit, and there was pride and malice and evil speaking in his conduct. It is one thing to turn one’s back on certain worldly pleasures, but godliness does affect the whole life. True godliness will. I am not for one moment suggesting that there is perfection. There is no sinless perfection on this side of the grave, but although sin is there, indwelling sin is there, the Christian can’t settle with it. He longs for deliverance from it and to make progress in living the Christian life.
So then, there is a true godliness, a godliness which is powerful, which changes the life. But there is a godliness which denies the power. Now, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” and Christ is a complete Saviour. He came to bring pardon, to forgive those sins which cried out for our punishment and which demanded that we should bear the consequences in eternal misery. The Lord Jesus Christ brings pardon for sinners, He brings justification. The law of God demands righteousness from us, perfect righteousness. It demands total conformity to all of its demands, and you know and I know that we can’t begin to meet the demands of a broken law, even were we to begin from this moment, there would still be that backlog of sin and breaches of the law which would maintain a testimony against us. The law demands a perfect life, an absolutely perfect life, but the life of the Lord Jesus Christ is a perfect life. He did obey the law, He did fulfil the law, in deed, in word, in thought, in desire, so that the Father could say, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Total, absolute delight in the Lord Jesus Christ –
“In him the Father never saw
The least transgression of his law.”
Total obedience to the law of God, and that obedience, the perfect obedience of Christ, is imputed to His people:
“Jesus, thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress
Midst flaming worlds in these arrayed
With joy shall I lift up my head,”
says the hymnwriter. A righteousness imputed, a righteousness which is not ours but which is brought to us by the Lord Jesus Christ. “In the Lord,” shall one say, “have I righteousness and strength.” A new life which flows from this, a new life which consists in knowing God and having fellowship and communion with Him. Holiness of life, a growth in holiness, an increase in the knowledge of God and ultimately in the eternal glory, a state of sinlessness. Now, if you have known anything of this godliness which has power in it, you will be concerned about that. One of your desires, one of your longings will be to be free from sin, to enter into that place where sin will vex your soul no more. Where it will cause you no more heartbreak. A place where you will be free from indwelling sin, free from temptation, and without the clogging, dragging-down effects of sin be able to worship the Lord Jesus Christ, and God in Him, in perfection, throughout a never-ending eternity. But, you know, a love for that has to be given now. If a sinner were taken out of this world in an unregenerate state and put into heaven, he would find it a place of utter discomfort, because he has no desire for God, no love for Christ, no desire to be free from sin, no concern about the things of God. Oh, he may talk about going to heaven but if we are not changed we have no desire for heaven, no love of heaven, no love of the glory of Christ. And that mighty change takes place here. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. He is mighty to save. He provides a full and a complete salvation because He has done all. He has met all the demands, He is now exalted at the right hand of God, and He requires nothing – nothing from us, no preparation, nothing for us to do. He calls upon us to come in our weakness, in our sinfulness and utter unworthiness. How perfectly Joseph Hart put it in the hymn that we were singing before the sermon:
“Let not conscience make you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness He requireth
Is to feel your need of Him.
This He gives you,
“Tis the Spirit’s rising beam.”
It really comes to this question: “What think ye of Christ?” How do you view Him? Is He attractive to you, do you desire Him, do you love Him, do you long for Him? Oh, my dear friend, if you are not sure with regard to these things, go to Him, call upon Him, seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near. I ask you, Do you want reality? Do you want a godliness which has power therein? Oh, what a mercy it is if that is our concern, to know Christ and to be numbered amongst the people of God. If we look to Him, then indeed God has granted us this great and this glorious change, a supernatural desire. Something which is not according to nature, but a desire for Christ because of what He is and what He has done. Amen. |