What does it mean to have a form of godliness but deny its power (2 Timothy 3:5)?

In 2 Timothy 3, Paul discusses the characteristics of godlessness in the last days. In verse five, he warns of people who have a form of godliness but deny its power and gives the explicit instruction: "Avoid such people."

Paul has instructed Timothy to "flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart" (2 Timothy 2:22). He has warned against involvement in foolish controversies that "breed quarrels" (2 Timothy 2:23); "the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance, leading to a knowledge of truth" (2 Timothy 2:24–25).

Then Paul goes on to warn, "But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people" (2 Timothy 3:1–5). Paul warns that these people will "creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of truth" (2 Timothy 3:6–7). Ungodly influence, even that masquerading as being from God, is insidious.

Where the ESV talks of those who have "the appearance of godliness, but [deny] its power" (2 Timothy 3:5), other translations say "having a form of godliness but denying its power" (NIV, NKJV) or "holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power" (NASB). The NLT puts it this way: "will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly" (2 Timothy 3:5, NLT). These are people who profess to be following God or who make an outward show of godly behavior but who do not actually know God (Matthew 7:21–23). Paul gives a similar description of certain people in Titus 1:16: "They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work."

One of the hallmarks of life as a believer in Jesus Christ as Lord is that we receive the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). Part of the Holy Spirit's work in our lives is enabling us to say no to sin: "For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works" (Titus 2:11–15).

Rather than using our salvation as an excuse to sin because we are already forgiven, living our lives in obedience to God is the natural result of true salvation (see James 2:14–26). When we acknowledge the power of God, we will see the evidence of our salvation in the fruit of the Spirit at work within our lives and in our ability to say no to ungodly behavior (Galatians 5:22–24). If we encounter someone who says they believe in Jesus but lives in habitual, unrepentant sin, they are denying the power of God that would enable them to say no to that sin. They have a form of godliness in their words, but they deny its power by their actions. These are false believers. They claim Christ in name only, but their hearts are far from Him, as is evidenced by their deeds (Romans 8:7).

As a note of clarification, we all sin and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), so Paul is not saying that any believer who sins is a false believer. Only God knows what lies in people's hearts (1 Samuel 16:7). As for us, we know people by their fruit (Luke 6:43–45; Matthew 7:17–20). When we observe the patterns in people's lives, we can better discern if they are bearing godly fruit or ungodly fruit.

Importantly, Paul warns of the deceitfulness of the people he has warned to avoid. Those who have a form of godliness but reject God are often false teachers. It is not just that they profess to know God and yet live lives void of God; it is that they lead others astray and attempt to use the name of God to do so. In 2 Timothy 3:8 Paul writes, "Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith." Yet "they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all" (2 Timothy 3:9).

Being able to easily recognize false godliness is one reason it is so important to regularly study God's Word. The more we know God through His Word, our time with Him in prayer, the internal witness of the Holy Spirit, and time with other believers, the more obvious distortions of truth become. Paul counsels Timothy, "But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:14–17). Though "evil people and imposters will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived" (2 Timothy 3:13), we are to remain steadfast in our pursuit of God. Hebrews 5:14 says, "But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil." Our growth in Christ is enabled by the Holy Spirit (Philippians 2:12–13) and it is meant to be continual and consistent. When we know the true power of God, the things that deny Him become apparent.

We cannot live godly lives on our own; we need the power of God to transform us as we submit to Him afresh day-by-day (Colossians 1:21–22; Romans 5:1–2; Galatians 5:16; Ephesians 4:22–24; Philippians 2:12–13). We also need Him to give us wisdom and discernment (Matthew 10:16; Ephesians 5:15–16; Colossians 4:5). God equips us to endure as we continually abide in Him (John 15:1–17; Romans 8:28–30; Ephesians 1:3–14; 1 Peter 1:3–9; 1 John 2:24–35). We should be aware of the reality and danger of false teachers (Matthew 7:15–20; 2 Peter 2:1–3; 1 John 2:18–25; 4:1–6), yet confident and at rest in Christ (John 16:33; 2 John 2:24–27). "For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?" (1 John 5:4–5).


Related Truth:

What is the role of the Holy Spirit? How is the Holy Spirit active in our lives today?

How is the Bible inspired? What does it mean for the Bible to be inspired?

What does the Bible say about being a godly man?

What does the Bible say about being a godly woman?

What is the key to recognizing false teachers?


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