If you're like me, you've probably heard people preach on this passage. But if you're like me, you've probably never heard it preached in context. It turns out that part that's quoted is not the full thought (or even the full sentence).
Here's the full quote:
2 Timothy 3:1-5
- This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.
Some pastors take this verse and run with it, they preach week after week about how their parishioners need to make sure they keep themselves holy and away from sinners like this verse is talking about. They take it so far that they scare people into avoiding the unsaved altogether... so much for the great commission!
Except the passage, even the sentence, doesn't end with that list. Before he says to turn away, the author points out exactly who he's talking about, by describing them as "Having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof". Now, the list that proceeds this phrase sounds nothing like a person that has a form of godliness to me. It sounds like a list of grave sinners.
But taken in context it seems clear to me that the author is NOT talking about non-Christians here. He's talking about people who have "a form of godliness"... yet still fit into that list. Wolves in sheep's clothing. People showing one image in public and secretly living as something else. People who sin all week and then repent on Sunday. Or worse, people who sin all week, preach about not sinning, and then just hide their sins from the people in the church. The "do as I say, not as I do" type.
Before looking at this scripture yesterday I always assumed "denying the power thereof" was talking about the power of the gifts of the Holy Spirit -- the kind of power that spurs healings and prophecies and the like -- but after looking at the context more closely I don't think that's what he means here. What power is someone denying when they preach the Word while continuing to sin? Is it not the power of God that effects sanctification in the life of the Christian? The power to change one's life so completely as to turn them around and make a new man out of them?
Having a form of Godliness does a person no good if they deny God the power to change their lives. I think the author is warning us to stay away from people who want to label themselves Godly, while continuing to sin. While it's possible he's talking about 'religious folk' of any type, and not just Christians, I rather think he's speaking directly about people who claim Christ.
I also think he's talking about the "sinner saved by grace" mentality... this idea that once you get saved, you can't help but to go on sinning, so don't try, just make sure you repent every Sunday and God won't care. This idea, in my opinion, is toxic and disgusting. Sure, we're all human, and as humans we're going to screw up from time to time, but God is not impotent. If you believe and ask Him to take charge of your life He will come in and clean house. He will impart to you the POWER, through his Spirit, to overcome your sinful nature. He will make you into something new, not just a sinner who's saved, but an overcomer, a person who used to be a sinner, who was saved, and is now a new creature. Christians do not have to be, and should not be slaves to sin.
Here are some other scriptures that speak to this same issue...
1 Thessalonians 4:3-7
- For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication: that every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour; not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God: that no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter: because that the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also have forewarned you and testified. For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness.
1 Corinthians 5:9-13
- I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons - not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world.
- But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one.
- For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge?
- God will judge those outside. "Drive out the wicked person from among you."
- For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.
- Anyone who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy "on the testimony of two or three witnesses."
- How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by those who have spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace?
- For we know the one who said, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay." And again, "The Lord will judge his people."
- It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
- Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?
- But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.
- I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.
- When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death.
- But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.