A Form of Godliness

Paul’s last known letter – called 2 Timothy in our Bibles – contains a startling warning to a pastors and churchmen.  In 2 Timothy 3:1-4 Paul lists out characteristics of the last days – the days in which the church lives.  People, Paul says, will be selfish, greedy, arrogant, malicious, and reckless; they will hate all that is good; they will love pleasure more than God.  It is not an encouraging picture, although, to us, it may be a familiar one.

But, as James Boice frequently remarked when commenting on this passage, the most startling aspect is displayed in verse 5, when Paul continues his description by writing, “…holding to a form of godliness, but denying its power.”  Verse 5 shows us that this list of startling and discouraging characteristics does not refer to the world outside, but instead describes the professing church.  These disobedient, pleasure-loving, malicious, reckless people also have a form of godliness!  In other words, these are not the scoffers on the outside, but those who are worldly on the inside.  Calvin puts it this way: “They whom [Paul] briefly describes are not external enemies, who openly assail the name of Christ, but domestics, who wish to be reckoned among the members of the Church.”[1]

If Paul gave these stark warnings today, we can imagine that he might be accused of being uncharitable.  He’d at least be encouraged to sit down with each individual he described and make sure to probe deeply into their background story and motivations.  Perhaps he’d be ostracized for confronting them in the first place.  After all, they were filling the pews.

But Paul diagnosed the sins in the church with forthrightness and clarity.  Not only does he describe the behavior (which sounds remarkably like those found in the world), and he gives Timothy practical instruction for how to deal with them.  Perhaps we could summarize the points Paul makes in this way: Timothy is to continue leading the church in accord with sound teaching; Timothy is to set a godly example, in light of the false godliness around him; Timothy is especially to preach the word. 

These three categories could well summarize some of our major topics during these first few months of e-publication.  We plan to continue publishing a number of articles that diagnose the problem of worldliness within our churches.  Here we must always be careful.  Our aim is never to be like the Accuser of the Brethren, of whom the New Testament speaks; it is rather to give honest diagnosis, aimed at warning and repentance.

In addition, many of our forthcoming pieces aim more at the three categories of instruction that Paul gives to Timothy. First, how are pastors to lead churches in accord with sound teaching?  To that end we will be looking in the coming months at creeds, confessions, elder, and church life in general.  Second, how are Christians to set a godly example?  Here we will focus mainly on our roles as men and women, and on the family as a whole.  Finally, what should a pastor do?  Here our attention will be fixed on preaching, and on the other means of grace God has revealed to us in His Word. 

Our editorial plan is not to post articles on these topics in exact succession; but it is to cover these topics with clarity, both in terms of diagnosis and with respect to practical action.  Today, like the first century of Paul, and the sixteenth century of Calvin, we need to avoid vague answers and fuzzy prescriptions at all costs.  These are difficult days, abounding with mere forms of godliness.

[1] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapid: Baker, 1979 reprint) p. 237.


Jonathan Master