Denying the Power of Godliness

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This week I’ve been looking at 2 Timothy 3:1-9. The LEB version of this passage says:

“But know this, that in the last days difficult times will come, for people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, slanderers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, hardhearted, irreconcilable, slanderous, without self-control, savage, with no interest for what is good, traitors, reckless, conceited, loving pleasure rather than loving God, maintaining a form of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid these people. For from these are those who slip into houses and captivate foolish women loaded down with sins, led by various kinds of desires, always learning and never able to come to a knowledge of the truth. And just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so also these oppose the truth, people corrupted in mind, disqualified concerning the faith. But they will not progress to a greater extent, for their folly will be quite evident to everyone, as also the folly of those two was.”

You may be aware from either my bio or from things I’ve said in the past that I grew up in Pentecostal churches. I left the Pentecostal movement when I could no longer reconcile the Evidence Doctrine and many of their practices with the Word of God. But occasionally I come across a passage that was used a great deal in those churches. This is one such passage. By the way, please don’t take anything I say as an attack on Pentecostals or Pentecostalism. I have friends and family, whom I love, who are still in Pentecostal churches and I would never divide over these doctrines, just as I would not want them to divide from me over them.

For those of you not familiar with how this passage is used among Pentecostals let me explain. This passage is applied to those Christians who oppose Pentecostal doctrine. It is often claimed that this power of godliness denied in this passage is the power of Pentecostal experience. And those Christians who oppose it have an outward form of godliness, but no power behind it. They usually will confess that such non-Pentecostals are Christians and saved, but that their spiritual lives would be greatly improved and empowered by ‘a deeper experience.’ Funny, those teaching this never realize that Paul describes these people as traitorous, blasphemers, lovers of self and pleasure, etc. Paul also says some of these people sneak into homes to take advantage of silly young ladies. A passage must be read in context. There is just no way to read the above interpretation into verse 5. Of course, this leaves me with a responsibility to explain it in another way. Never let someone simply attack another position without also challenging them to give and defend an alternative view. It is too easy to say, “They are wrong! They are wrong! They are just wrong!” It is much harder to say, “They are wrong, and this view is right. Here’s why.”

So what is Paul speaking of when he says “…maintaining a form of godliness, but denying the power of it”?

To begin with, this phrase should not be separated out alone. It is not a separate sentence or thought. Both ‘maintaining’ and ‘denying’ are participles describing the persons spoken of in the previous verses. This statement is a continuation of the description of those same people. Most of the other descriptions are a single word—mostly adjectives, but a few common nouns used to modify—but there are two others which are compounds. The other compound descriptions of these men are:

“…disobedient to parents,” (Verse 2)

“…lovers of self rather than lovers of God.” (Verse 4)

So being more than one word is no reason to set this statement apart from the rest. Besides, the participial form here agrees with the number, gender and case of the subject in verse 2 (‘people’ in the LEB, ἄνθρωποι [men] in Greek). This agreement is how we know to whom Paul applies these participles. The subject in verse 2 (people/men) and the participles here in verse 5 (‘maintaining’ and ‘denying’) are nominative, masculine, plural. Verses 1 through 5 should be treated as a single sentence.

Then one must also consider verses 6 through 9 as part of this description. Verse six starts with ἐκ a preposition showing the group described in 6 through 9 are a subgroup of those described in verses 1 through 5. This brings all nine verses into a whole unit of thought that must be approached together. Those maintaining (‘having’ in NIV) a form of godliness, but denying the power of it are the same ones described by Paul as “lovers of self, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemous, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, irreverent, unloving, irreconcilable, slanderers, without self-control, savage, not lovers of good, traitors, reckless, having become conceited, and lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God. Some of them actively oppose the truth and sneak into homes to lead others astray.

Look at the differences between these descriptions. There is a quality to verse 5 that easily leads one to see it as a synopsis of the other terms. Those who have the previous qualities are then described as ‘having a form of godliness but denying its power.” Part of this comes from the attachment of “Avoid these people.” This is also where the differences of its construction shows this part as set aside from the others—not as a single thought, but as a label for the rest of the thought.

Those who maintain a form of godliness but deny its power are described by the other modifiers in the sentence. To experiment with this, allow me to treat everything between the subject and this final participial statement as parenthetical. Set it aside for a moment and see how the passage would read. Rather than trying to do this with a modern English version, I’ll simply base it on the Greek:

“But understand that in the last days hard times will come. For people will be […] maintaining a form of godliness but denying its power.”

The passage makes sense this way. We can see the rest as defining what Paul means by a powerless form of godliness. So a powerless form of godliness is the best that the slanderer, traitor, hater of good, selfish, blasphemer can muster. It is, as verse 5 says, an outward godliness.

We see that verses 1 through 9 must be treated together. We also see that verses 1 through 5 are one sentence. We can also see that verse 5 is not meant to be separate from the rest, but closely tied to it, though set apart in its own way as applying to the whole of the passage.

Now let’s dig down into this single passage.

Verse 5 says, “…maintaining a form of godliness, but denying its power.”

Paul is saying there will be some claiming to be godly but are only maintaining the outward appearance, while inwardly there is nothing there—no power of righteousness, no true godliness. These are not genuine Christians but those who have mastered making themselves look good—they can act godly without any reality. They perform all the right actions when it matters. They behave in just the right way when it is expected, but there is nothing genuine.

So how can one have no inner reality yet look righteous, or godly? One way is through the adoption of a legalistic system of rules. Legalism is happy with an outward appearance. Actually, legalism is an admission of powerlessness—“I am powerless to actually transform you within, so I settle for making you conform and look good outwardly.”

So, we see that the people Paul speaks about are acting godly (having or maintaining an outward form of godliness), but what is this power that he says they are denying? He even says it is the power of godliness. In this statement he is using the pronoun in the genitive case. The genitive is often described as the case of possession. However, possession is only one part of understanding the genitive. Its role is attribution (Dana & Mantey) or description (Summers). A genitive noun serves an adjectival function to somehow identify or explain the word to which it is attached. Since this is a pronoun, to interpret we swap in the substantive. We could say, “…denying the power of godliness.” This is telling us which power he speaks of “the very power of godliness itself”—the power that is supposed to be behind the form of godliness maintained by these men described here. They have the outward form, but the power that is supposed to animate and enliven it (making it more than an outward form) is denied. So what is this power they deny?

Since this power is not defined in the verses we’ve considered, the best thing to do is expand our selection and see if it becomes clear within the wider context. Paul helps with verse 10 through the rest of the chapter. Verse 10 begins with “however” or “but” depending upon the translation being used. The coordinating conjunction δὲ indicates that what follows is being compared to what came before. In the rest of the chapter Paul compares his own ministry to those he described previously. Unlike those he just defined Paul is known for his faith, his teachings, his way of life, suffering, patience, love, etc. Verses 14-17 are where we will find this power of godliness:

“But you continue in the things which you have learned and are convinced of, because you know from whom you learned them, and that from childhood you have known the holy writings that are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, in order that the person of God may be competent, equipped for every good work (LEB)”

The power of godliness they deny is the scriptures. This allows us to understand verse 5 if we say it as, “They maintain an outward form of godliness, but they deny the scriptures which inspire true godliness.” The problem is not rejection of some experience based on a questionable interpretation of a small handful of scriptures. The problem is a rejection of the scriptures, an attempt to live an outwardly godly life without the very word of God meant to teach, reprove, correct, and train. This is not to undermine the power and mission of the Holy Spirit in us. Yes, the Holy Spirit empowers us. However, it is a mistake to think that such empowering is separate from the scriptures. Also, keep in mind that Paul is not here saying scripture alone is the only power of godliness. The Holy Spirit empowers and his role is vital. However, the Christian life without the scriptures is a shell, an outward appearance, a shadow of what it is meant to be.

Without the scriptures godliness is quickly reduced to nothing but a set of ethical commands: do this; don’t do that; go here; stay away from there; don’t touch; don’t eat; etc. It is assumed so long as you follow these directives you must be acceptable. Such a life is not the true abundant Christian life. Sadly, it is what many have wrongly adopted in place of the true scripturally empowered life with God.

So what does it mean to deny the scriptures, as referenced here? Does it mean to interpret it allegorically? Does it mean to look for symbols instead of literalness? Does it mean to disbelieve in a literal six-day creation, the flood or Job? No. This is not what he means here. Those are separate issues, each with their own considerations. He is talking about an outright rejection of the sufficiency and necessity of the scriptures. It happens when one concludes either that the scriptures themselves are not enough or perhaps not even needed for living a godly life. Such people mimic a godly form of life without reference to the Word of God. They see no need to maintain the scriptures as part of their walk.

We as Christians must maintain or return to seeing scripture as being central to our faith. If you have laid aside the scriptures as option to a godly life, you are living a shell of the life that is possible. Open your Bible. Study the Word. Make it central to your life and practice.

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