We continue to look at the passage that’s similar to end of Rom 1 we studied in The Reality of God’s Wrath. First we discussed our need to Turn Away From Self Idolatry. Next we discussed our need to Turn Away From Disobedience. Then we looked at Turn Away From Defiance. Today we’re looking at Turning away from religious pretensions, the last part of the passage. “But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; Avoid such men as these.” (2 Tim 3:1-5) 

As we read what Paul is warning us about and that we’ve discussed thus far: “lovers of self”, “lovers of money”, “boastful”, “arrogant”, “revilers”, “disobedient”, “ungrateful”, “unholy”, “unloving”, “irreconcilable”, “malicious gossips”, “without self-control”, “brutal”, “haters of good”, “treacherous”, “reckless” and “conceited”; these look like horrendous examples of humanity. In psychological terms these words altogether form the mind of a psychopath, who care only about themselves: and are “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God”. And He can look into their hearts and see that.

Why should people who are exposed to the Bible, who profess the truth, sing the hymns, and go through the ritual that is being carried out in thousands of churches across our land today reflect during the week the attitudes described here in such a way that destroy the fabric of society? The answer is in this one phrase: “holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power”. It is the denial of the Word of the cross that constitutes this kind of “professed Christianity” without Christ, godliness without God, spirituality without the Spirit. “For the Word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor 1:18) The Word of the cross is that which puts to death the carnal life, so that we can deny self. 

Jesus was clear when He said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Luke 9:23). Being unwilling to deny self means that we are unable to experience life from God. That is the problem. That’s why we lay constant stress that our actions must reflect what we say we believe in: we must practice what we preach. We must say “No” to all the risings of the flesh within us in order that we might lay hold of the supply of power and life and vitality which enables us to walk with God in righteousness and truth. Otherwise we contribute to the cause of these terrible times of stress that repeatedly come upon humanity.

Dr. R. C. Sproul has pointed out that the Bible divides life into four divisions of humanity:

  1. The first group is those who are not saved and know they are not saved. They are the godless, the pagans, we call them, the people who do not profess any form of religion, the atheists, the agnostics of our day, who have no interest in the things of God, and say so openly.
  2. Then there are those who are saved, but they are not sure of it. They really have come to Christ, they really do love the Savior, they know they have been born again, but, because they have not been taught properly, they don’t understand the promises of God. For one reason or another they think that they will lose their salvation if they slip or fall in any way. When they do, they succumb to despair for weeks and months in a painful condition of uncertainty. This group is not sure of anything about their faith. They need to be in a Biblical church that disciples the flock, who have a pastor who understands what it means when Jesus said “Shepherd My sheep”
  3. Then there is the group who are saved and they know it. These are the ones we would call the strong, mature Christians who are growing, evincing a new, changed life. Though they have the normal struggles of everyone else, they show from year to year evidence of progress and growth in these areas. They know they belong to God; they have no doubts about it.
  4. Finally, there is a large group of those who are not saved but think they are. That is the group that is being confronted in this passage. Jesus said, “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’” (Matt 7:22-23) They are the cause — think of it — of the times of stress that come upon humanity, times such as we are going through right now. The second factor is described in Verses 6-9, which describes the rise of strange cults which embrace very confusing concepts and immoral practices; these are begun by people who have been hypocritical Christians.

Here Paul reveals two favorite tactics of the devil. Growing out of a morally corrupt and hypocritical church, Christians who talk one way and live another way will come infiltrating into homes that may not be connected with the church at all, and strange, exotic cults will emerge. This always happens in times of stress.

It happened in the 19th century, when cults like Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, Mormonism and others arose. It is happening again in our day. Out of these times of stress are emerging these new cults — the Moonies, the Eastern-related cults, metaphysical groups, est, and other mind-manipulative groups. Notice the tactics that are employed:

The first is infiltration. Certain misguided men, for their own benefit and advancement, make their way into households and take captive silly women, rendered vulnerable because of their sense of guilt within, burdened with sin, who will believe anything they are told. Everybody who is a sinner — and that includes all of us — cannot escape a sense of guilt. This manifests itself in many ways that are not called guilt, for what people seek to do today is to escape the label guilt. But they cannot avoid the fact.

It shows up in inner tensions, in a sense of despair, emptiness, and meaninglessness, or sometimes in a wildly rebellious spirit that seeks to lay hold of pleasure and an unending round of amusement. All this is a manifestation of guilt. There are some women, as there are some men, who are morally weak and vulnerable; and they are intellectually weak — they will believe anything that is told them, so they can never arrive at the truth. When you believe everything you hear you will never arrive at truth because you are taking in a lot of error along with the truth. With these infiltrative tactics new cults arise.

That kind of corrupt, counterfeit faith is what we run into in times of stress, such as we are living in today. The cults offer to do what only God in Christ can do — give peace of mind, an untroubled heart, forgiveness of sins, a sense of purpose in life. All the riches offered to us in the gospel are also held out by the cults. Many people fall for them, and for a while they think they have found these things. Today you can read testimonies of how people have found, especially in these metaphysical cults, peace of mind, a sense of harmony or a quality of enjoyment of life they never previously possessed. That is true, they do possess that for a while, but it does not last: “but they will not make further progress; for their folly will be obvious to all” (v 9).

When the serpent which Aaron’s rod had formed saw the other two snakes, it ate them up (Ex 7:12). This was a visible sign that God’s power is always more powerful than the devil’s. The apostle says that this is what will happen with counterfeit groups. Do not panic, he says to Timothy, evil has its limits. The devil always overreaches himself. His very success at winning converts will ultimately leave people so empty, so hungry of heart, so searching for ultimate truth they become wide open to the appeal of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is what is happening in our day. Times of stress are also times of great opportunity, when God uses the devil’s very deceitfulness to outwit him, and to prepare the hearts of people for a genuine pouring out of the blessings of God.

Remember, then, that hypocrisy and insincerity in the church is what was produced the times of crisis that are described here. We are living heirs today of the lukewarmness of the churches of the ’20s and ’30s of this century. God’s righteous judgments always are based upon reality. He knows what is in the heart. If we think we are fooling God by our coming to church, by singing hymns, by faithfully attending Bible studies, but not allowing the Word to get at our self-indulgent lives and change us, we will awake sooner or later only to find we are fooling ourselves. 

Lord, thank you for how accurately you describe what happens in our world. Thank you also that there is something we can do about it. We can be real, not phony, people; we can be genuine, not hypocritical; we can allow the Word to change us from the heart outward, and not dress up the outside merely to impress others. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.