How to Discern False Godliness Part One

Taken and adapted from, The Works of Dr. John Tillotson, Vol. IX, Sermon 204
Written by, John Tillotson, Published Posthumously, 1756

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Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.
–2Tim. 3:5

THE Apostle in these words distinguishes two things in religion, which do not, but ought always to go together…

…that is, the show and pretense of religion, and the life and power of it. He condemns neither, but blames the separation of them. The latter indeed cannot be without the first; for where-ever religion really is, there will be some appearance of it: but the former may be, and often is, without the latter. Men may make a great show of religion, and yet be very destitute of the power of it. And such were those persons the Apostle describes here in the text; they were guilty of the greatest faults and vices in their lives, but thought to cloak all these by an outward show and appearance of godliness:  Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.

The word μόρφωσιν, which is here translated “form,” signifies the show or image of a thing which is dead and ineffectual, in opposition to the reality and the life, which is alive and powerful. And, I think, this word is but once more used in the New Testament, and much in the same sense, as for an empty and ineffectual knowledge of religion, without the practice of it, Rom. 2:17. 20. 21. The Apostle there speaks of some Pharisaical Jews, who gloried in their knowledge of the law, but violated it in their practice. Behold, thou art called a Jew, and rest in the law, and have the form of knowledge, and of the truth in the law. Thou therefore that teaches another, teaches thou not thyself? Thou that preaches, a man should not steal, does thou steal?

So that a form of godliness signifies an empty show and profession of religion, without the real effects of it.

And they who are destitute of these, are said to deny the power of religion. It is usual in several languages to draw metaphors from words to actions; and men are said to contradict: or deny anything, when they do contrary to what they pretend; and so this phrase is elsewhere used, Titus 1:10. They profess to know God but in their works they deny him.  1 Tim. 5: 8. If any man provide not for his own, especially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith. The Apostle does not mean that such a one denies the faith by an express declaration in words, but by actions so contradictory to the Christian faith, as an infidel would hardly do: He has denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.

In the handling of these words, I shall do these four things.

First.  Show wherein a form of godliness consists.
Secondly,  wherein the power of it lies.

Thirdly,  Give some marks and characters whereby we may know when these are separated, when the form of godliness is destitute of the power.
Fourthly,  Show that a mere form of godliness, without the power of it, is insignificant to all the great ends and purposes of religion.

First. To show what is a form of godliness and of what does it consist.

In general, it consists in an external show and profession of religion, or of any eminent part of it, or of that which is reputed to be so; and a form of religion is more or less complete, according to the extent of it. Some pitch upon one part of religion, and let themselves chiefly to make a show of that; others take in more parts of it, and endeavor to forge and counterfeit them; so that the forms of religion are various and different, and not to be reduced to any fixed and constant standard; but they commonly appear in some one or more of these shapes.

  1. An external devotion.
  2. An orthodox profession of the Christian faith.
  3. Enthusiasm, and pretense to inspiration.
  4. A great external shew of mortification
  5. An imperfect repentance, and partial reformation.
  6. The appearance and of ostentation of some particular grace and virtue.
  7. A great zeal for some party, or opinions, or circumstances of religion.
  8. Silliness and freakishness, and either a pretended or real ignorance in the common affairs and concerns of the human life.
  9. Much noise and talk about religion.

These are the several forms of religion which men are likely to affirm. Not that these always go singularly; but sometimes men put on one, sometimes more of them, as may best serve their several turns and interests. Nor would I be understood to condemn all these for several of these particular which I have mentioned are good in themselves, and necessary parts of religion; but being destitute of other things, wherein the life of religion doth consist, they are but a form of godliness.

  1. External devotion. This is the most common, form of religion, and easiest to be affirmed, and therefore it is that so many take it up. And this is good in itself, and a necessary part of religion; but if there be no more than this, it is a mere image and picture of religion, abominable to God, and very odious to discerning men.

Now, this external devotion shows itself more especially these two ways.

  1. In a frequent and diligent use of the means and instruments of religion,
  2. In a curious and nice regard to the modes and circumstances of performing these.
  3. In a frequent and diligent use of the means and instruments of religion, such as prayer, reading, and hearing the word of God, and receiving of the Blessed Sacrament.

These are not the life of religion, the great end and design of it, but the means and instruments which God hath appointed for the begetting and increasing of holiness and virtue in us.

Many exercise themselves in these with great constancy and devotion, praying to God, and reading the Bible, frequently going to church, duly hearing the God’s word attentively, and receiving the sacrament reverently, and behaving themselves devoutly in all parts of public worship; and yet all this may be but a mere form, and certainly is no more, where the great end of all this is neglected, and men do not sincerely endeavor to do what God’s word directs them to, and what they daily pray for God to enable them to do.For all these means are in order to some further some effect and design. We read and hear the word of God that we may know his will, and that we may do it; that, by the precepts and counsels of the Holy Scriptures, we may learn and understand our duty; and, by the motives and arguments which are there offered to us, we may effectually be persuaded to the practice of it. We pray to God, not only for the forgiveness of our sins, but for his grace and assistance to enable us to mortify and subdue them, and to proceed in all virtue and godliness of living. We receive the sacrament, to inflame our love to God and our blessed Savior, to excite in us a greater hatred of sin, and to confirm us in the purpose and resolution of well-doing. These are the great ends for which God hath appointed all these helps and means; and if these ends be not obtained, in vain do we worship God, all our religion but mere show and pageantry. 

These are but like the people God himself describes in Is. 29:13. This people draw near me with their mouths and with their lips do they honor me but they have removed their hearts from me. And like those, Ezekiel 33:30- 32. Who spoke one to another, everyone to his brother, saying, Come, I pray you, and hear what the word that cometh forth from the Lord, and they come unto thee as the people cometh, and they sit before thee as my people, and they hear thy words, but they will not do them: For with their mouth they show much love, but their heart goes their covetousness. And lo, thou art unto them as a very lovely song, of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument; for they hear thy words and do them not.

This is not to worship God, but impudence to affront him; and is we take this for religion we, put the grossest cheats imaginable upon ourselves. Hear how God challenges the people of Israel upon this account, Jer. 7:2-4 —Hear the word of the Lord, all ye of Judah, that enter in at these gates to worship the Lord. Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, “Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place.” This is the great end of all religious worship and devotion, the reformation of our lives and actions; and is it has not this effect, it is a cheat. “Trust ye not in lying words, saying, The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, are these. For if ye thoroughly amend your ways and your doings; if ye thoroughly execute judgment between a man and his neighbor; If ye oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your hurt: Then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, for ever and ever. Behold, ye trust in lying words, that cannot profit. Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense unto Baal, and walk after other gods whom ye know not; And come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, We are delivered to do all these abominations?”

What greater impudence can there be, than to worship God devoutly, and to live wickedly? This is to declare that we mock God under a pretense of serving him; or else that we believe that God, whom we worship, allows these abominations, and is pleased, with them.

Others make this form of external devotion yet more complete, by a curious and nice regards to the modes and circumstances of performing the duties of religion. They are very punctual and exact in all their carriage and gestures, as if they minded nothing but the outward part of religion.

Not but that great humility and reverence does very well become men in their addresses to God; but then we must be sure, that this external reverence be a significant indication of the inward and real devotion of our minds. For if it separates from this, it is not devotion, but superstition; it is not to worship God in spirit and in truth, but for show and appearance only; not to honor the divine majesty, but to fawn upon him, and flatter him. And where men are very intent upon these things, and endeavor to outstrip other people in voluntary expressions of outward devotion, it too often happens that such persons are destitute of the substance and reality of religion. They are like the formal complimenting sort of people in civil conversation, who commonly have very little in them, and notwithstanding all their smooth outward appearance, they have neither that solidarity nor sincerity which is in many a plain ordinary man.