God’s Word in Godless Times, or the Appearance of Godliness in Signaling Virtue
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. For among them are those who 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 the truth.
—2 Timothy 3:1-7
Read those seven verses of God’s words again. Slowly. Now go check your twitter feed or simply do a social media search for #GeorgeFloyd, #GeorgeFloydProtests, and #GeorgeFloydRiots. Paul is talking about America in 2020. Just as he was talking about Ephesus in the late AD 60s as well as about other times and places between then and now. He is speaking of recurring “times of difficulty”—perilous times; what he elsewhere describes as “the evil day” (Ephesians 6:13).
Godlessness in society does not stay there but seeps into the church wreaking havoc among the people of God.
Such seasons will be characterized by severe problems in society as “people” (v. 2) in general will give themselves over to the types of wickedness Paul catalogues in verses 2-4. Such wickedness is characterized by selfishness (“lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant”) and lawlessness (“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”).
That is bad enough. What is worse, however, is that godlessness in society does not stay there but seeps into the church wreaking havoc among the people of God. The most unsettling part of what Paul says is coming is his description of how professing Christians will act. They will be “having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” (v. 5).
Paul further describes these people within the church in verse 7—they will be unteachable, “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.” Even more to the point, he warns in chapter 4, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions and will turn away from listening to the truth” and will “wander off into myths” (vv. 3-4).
I am convinced that America is living in a peculiarly “evil day,” in “times of difficulty” of which Paul writes. The asphyxiation of George Floyd as he begged for mercy from Officer Derek Chauvin who, ignoring his pleas, slowly snuffed the life from his handcuffed body is an example of this. When a civil authority mercilessly ends the life of a person he is charged to serve and protect, the evil of his abusive, heartless, and brutal action is compounded.
The outbreak of lawlessness in the wake of George Floyd’s death is also evil. Mayhem, brutal attacks, destruction of people’s livelihood, intimidation, violence, and murder have marked the protests of the last week. Attacks on police officers, breaking into private homes, looting, stealing, and blatantly breaking just laws have become almost commonplace.
True godliness unashamedly declares what God has said and it does so not just when it is safe but even when that message might cost your life.
Such lawlessness in our society is tragic. But what is worse is the failure and even complicity of so many Christians in the face of it. In their responses they have, as Paul puts it, an appearance of godliness that denies its power (v. 3:5). True godliness unashamedly declares what God has said and it does so not just when it is safe but even when that message might cost your life. It is taking God at His Word regardless of cost or consequence and speaking that Word with confidence in its power. Thus, John the Baptist didn’t merely preach repentance in the wilderness, he also applied God’s Word to Herod that by telling him that he could not lawfully have his brother’s wife (Matthew 14:1-12).
The mere “appearance of godliness,” by contrast, is willing to say what God says when it isn’t costly. If doing so actually elevates you in the eyes of the curators of the prevailing cultural narrative, then more’s the better. It is what today is commonly called, virtue signaling. That is what a person does when he would rather be perceived as virtuous and applauded by the modern arbiters of “virtue” than actually be virtuous and risk being canceled as a result.
It’s sort of like the German Landeskirchen preaching on submission to governmental authorities in Nazi Germany. No one got arrested for that. But it was a failure of nerve, or rather, a denying of the power of godliness, that kept most German Protestants from speaking against the anti-Semitic butchery in 1941. It is easy to go with religion when she walks in silver slippers.
The prevalence of an apparent but impotent godliness is being widely and prominently paraded today. That is why you have seen such bold, articulate outcries against the lawlessness of Derek Chauvin but only reluctant, comparatively muted responses to the lawlessness of the violent mobs that have terrorized cities and communities across the nation in the days since. That is why demands for justice are readily applied to the former but only hesitantly—if at all—to the latter. That is why you saw so many evangelicals following the crowd in #BlackoutTuesday on their social media feeds, some even sporting the Black Lives Matter (BLM) hashtag for extra virtue points. Never mind that the BLM organization and movement intentionally promote godlessness in their stated goals and focus.
That is why you know the names of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd but not the names of David Dorn, Shay Mikalonis or Italia Kelly. From all indications each of them unjustly suffered violent deaths (although at this point Shay is being sustained on life-support) but only the first three serve the destructive agendas of those who want to rip apart the fabric of our civil society. True godliness is willing to apply the standard of God’s Word to each of these cases. Apparent godliness will stop at the first three because to speak further is to invite the vitriol of the mob and, well, who has the power to withstand that?
It is the holy Scripture that God breathed out to be our authoritative, sufficient guide for life and godliness.
So, what are Christians who fear God more than people to do in such godless, evil days? We are to do exactly what Paul tells Timothy to do in 2 Timothy 3:14-15 and 4:1-5. First, continue in the Word, and second, preach the Word.
It is the Holy Scripture that God breathed out to be our authoritative, sufficient guide for life and godliness. It alone is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (vv. 3:16-17). Such a man—especially pastors—must, like Timothy, preach that Word at all times with authority and conviction. That is what Paul means when he writes, “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (v. 4:2).
This is to be done even when people don’t want to hear it; when they “will not endure sound teaching” (v. 4:3) and “turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (v. 4:4). The Word alone is able to make people “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (v. 3:15). So, if we who know the Lord and have His Word fail to preach it, we are withholding the only message that God has provided to reconcile sinners to Himself. And all the virtue signaling in the world cannot change that.
So this is the choice that Christians are facing in times of difficulty. We can settle for an appearance of godliness while denying its power and win the accolades of this age. Or we can pursue real godliness and trust its power thereby inviting the venom and opposition of the champions of this age. To put it another way, we can signal false virtue and be welcomed by those operating on false principles of righteousness. Or we can practice genuine virtue and be welcomed by the God whose Word we refuse to compromise.
What we cannot do is have it both ways.
This article was originally written in June 2020