having the appearance of godliness,
but denying its power.
Avoid such people.
2 Timothy 3:5 ESV
Back in 2021, I wrote an online study through what I called the Secular Creed, which is a fairly common house sign that reads: “In this house, we believe: Black Lives Matter, Women’s Rights Are Human Rights, No Human Is Illegal, Science Is Real, Love Is Love, and Kindness Is Everything.” Since that is explicitly a creedal statement, I aimed to approach each of those six statements as doctrines of our culture’s secular religion. With each study, I asked two questions: what can we affirm and what must we deny? Those questions arose from my belief that secularism fits what Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:5: it has “has the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.” Therefore, I sought to find those threads of godliness and then to expose where it deviates from true godliness.
This sermon is not a repeat of those studies. Instead I am aiming to focus on the actual text of 2 Timothy 3:5 through the particular focus of how it presently applies to secularism in our day. That is by no means the only application of that verse. In Paul’s own day, he was probably thinking about ascetics who thought they were godly through how rigorously they punished their bodies. Such asceticism has only an appearance of godliness, but it ultimately denies its power. Yet today that description applies very fittingly to secularism, which is the de facto worldview here in the West.
The structure of the sermon will reflect the two parts of 2 Timothy 3:5. First, we will explore why secularism is fundamentally a godless and, therefore, lifeless imitation of Christianity, and second, we will address how we as Christians ought to push back against the secular zeitgeist.
MORE VIRTUOUS THAN GOD: ETHICS OF THE SECULAR RELIGION
For all of its biblical inconsistencies, The Prince of Egypt is still a great film, and after watching its direct-to-video follow-up, Joseph: King of Dreams, it becomes evident that the songs are a significant factor in its appeal. My favorite song is sung by Jethro to Moses called “Through Heaven’s Eyes,” which challenges that we cannot properly see somethings worth until we look through the eyes of heaven, that is, beyond ourselves and even our moment in time and space. That idea of a transcendental perspective, however vaguely spiritual it might be, is the polar opposite of secularism, which is fundamentally rooted in the here and now. Indeed, as I have noted before that our word secular comes from the Latin word for the world in time, saeculum, which was often used to mean a lifetime. When the suffix -ism is attached, we have before us an entire worldview that is focused squarely, even exclusively, upon this life. Secularism excludes eternity, or at least argues that it is a non-factor. It is a religious view of life as being purely under the sun.
Although secularism sets itself pointedly against or, more accurately, above religion, it simply cannot escape the pull to become one itself. God fashioned the human heart to glorify and enjoy Him forever. We are made for worship and even the denial of worship cannot stop us from worshiping. Of course, I am not suggesting that all secularists are irreligious; however, to be a secularist means valuing secularism over religion. Indeed, secularism asserts itself as the arbiter of religious pluralism, since all religions can happily coexist with one another as long as they all agree to a secular public arena. Religion is a private matter; what happens in public is secular territory. Of course, such a stance is, nevertheless, religious, only with secularism acting as a kind of super-religion that hovers over all the others.
Yet from the onset we must acknowledge that secularism denies God. Of course, a secularist may intellectually affirm the existence of God, but practically he does not. This is deism, the belief that God is only a distant spectator to the world that He created and, therefore, ultimately irrelevant. Christian deists are followers of secularism with a flavor Christianity thrown in; they are not Christians. We who are residents of the Bible Belt ought to particularly keep this in mind, lest we believe that secularism simply is what everyone else believes. We are Christian and conservative, so we can’t be secular, right? It is not enough simply to believe in God, even the demons do and are smart enough tremble. A Christianity that is irrelevant to our everyday lives is not true Christianity but secularism in a Christian costume. Our discussion of secularism is relevant because we are very likely already far more secular than we consciously realize.
Secularism, then, is a worldview rooted only in the here and now, a worldview that is, at least practically, devoid of any notion of eternity. Thus, by its very nature, secularism denies God, who both defines and empowers true godliness. But how does it carry the appearance of godliness?
Rooted in self and the world as ultimate realities, secularism has no stable definition of good and, therefore, no solid ground for morality. Goodness, in secularism, is an ever-shifting ideal, yet most of its present stability owes to the lingering legacy from when Christianity dominated society. As Tom Holland argues in his book Dominion, secular values such as human rights, love, and kindness are fundamentally Christian, even when the modern world pretends that they are not. In other words, the ethics of secularism are mostly built upon a Christian foundation, which is why they appear godly.
Of course, we could go back to each article of the Secular Creed, but I would like to consider two fresh examples.
First, the so-called victimhood culture that many have lamented could only sprout to life in a Christianized soil. After all, it is nothing more than a corruption of the “last shall be first” theme that so marked Jesus’ ministry. We see this theme in the Beatitudes, which commend as blessed the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, the merciful, etc. Again, these were radical virtues when every society thus far held strength, power, and honor as supreme virtues. Present-day secularism carries on that ancient stream by still supremely valuing power, yet it is often cloaked in a Christianized disguise so that the greater power is given to the greatest victim of societal oppression. Intersectionality is one of the chief ways of discerning the new power structure. A straight, white male has been least victimized, placing him at the bottom of the totem pole now, while a transgender black female is practically a secular shaman. Just kidding. Scientists are the actual secular shaman.
Notice that there is no notion of greatness being equated with servitude or of exaltation being found through humility. No, power and domination are still the goal, only now it is expressed in the Marxist concept of the oppressed becoming the oppressors.
Second, we also see this appearance of godliness in the current criminal justice philosophy, which roots itself in the secular beatitude of victimhood and then attempts to be more just and righteous than God. Presently, this looks like a justice system that all but refuses to enforce justice upon criminals because it has labeled them as victims. Civil governments, however, have a duty to enforce justice and to punish wrongdoers (see Romans 13). Just as the poor will never be fully relieved in this life so also there will always be criminal activity until Christ’s return. The Scriptures look this reality in the face and provide the necessary structures for mitigating as much rampant wickedness as possible. By attempting to be more patient, more loving, and more righteous than God, the secular system of justice quickly becomes a vehicle for much injustice.
The problem is always that, without God and His revelation through Scripture, the basis of secular morality is nothing more than a house built on sand. It is somewhat standing for the moment, but in time, as the winds and rains pour down, it will collapse. A godliness without God simply cannot endure. Indeed, the reason why our present culture seems to be collapsing all around us is because it is actually collapsing all around us. The foundation has been chiseled away, and now the landslide has begun. Indeed, secularism creates a world of gelatin, a world without God, where humans are nothing more than animals, and where gender is a choose-your-own-adventure. Couple this with the abysmal procreation rates of secularists (being turned in on oneself does not make one prone to the sacrificial act of raising many children) and, short of indoctrination via the education system, secularism will no longer be the default view of the West by the end of my generation.
Instead, three main contestants are stepping up to bat. First, as secularism proves too mushy to endure, many secularists are reverting back to paganism, dressed up for modernity as neopaganism. Second, Islam provides an even more seemingly solid foundation to rest a civilization upon (it is in many ways a Christian heresy, after all), and they are still having the children and building communities in foreign nations like they intend to make disciples of all nations. Third is Christianity, more ancient than paganism and firmer than Islam. Indeed, to return to paganism is a return to the ancient world, and to succumb to Islam is to embrace a Medieval mindset, only this time entirely devoid of Christ.
The question before us then is: what can we do to push back against the secular tide today and the encroachments of neopaganism and Islam tomorrow?
AVOID SUCH PEOPLE: PUSHING BACK AGAINST THE SECULAR TIDE
What should we make of Paul’s command to avoid such people? Is Paul calling us to gather into communes as monks, divorced from our godless society? I do not believe so, for our culture’s flight from true godliness is nothing new. In Paul’s own day, Christianity was only just beginning to spread across the globe; thus, the vast majority of the world would have likely matched this description. So practically speaking, it would have been quite difficult for Timothy to avoid such people entirely, since that would essentially require exiting the world. Jesus, however, gives us an indication of how we are to interact with the world as He prayed for us to the Father:
I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.John 17:14–19
Here Jesus specifically says that we, as His disciples, are sent by Him into the world; however, twice He declares that we are not of the world, that we do not belong to the world. This has led to the often-repeated phrase: “in the world but not of the world,” which certainly does capture what Jesus is saying. While we are not to divorce ourselves from the world entirely, a categorical distinction must be made. We live within this world but only as sojourners who are on the road to our true home. Again, Daniel is a superb example. Throughout his life in Babylon, he learned the Babylonian language, answered to his Babylonian name, and served the Babylonian king, yet he remained a Jew, never becoming a Babylonian. His was a life of distinction, of dwelling within Babylon without ever truly belonging to Babylon.
We are in the same boat. In Romans 12:2, we find the command: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…” This is because “the course of this world” follows after “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2). Rightly, therefore, does James 4:4 warn that “whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” Similarly, 1 John 2:15 states plainly: “Do not love the world or the things of the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” And the list could go on and on.
Although we do indeed live in this world, we are called to be distinct and apart from it. If this sounds “holier-than-thou,” it should because we are describing the call to holiness, which means being set apart exclusively for God. Of course, that phrase is often used to describe legalism, which derives its sense of holiness from one’s attempted righteousness (i.e., the Pharisees). True holiness, however, does not stem from our own righteousness but from the imputed righteousness of Christ. Thus, holiness excludes any boasting except in the graciousness of God. But even still, a separation is still made. Those who are in Christ become children of God, while those who refuse Him remain children of God’s wrath (Ephesians 2:3).
All of this means that when Paul commands us to avoid those who have the mere appearance of godliness, he is urging us not to be influenced by the perishing ways of the world. Furthermore, our avoidance should be much more literal whenever someone who claims to be a Christian fits the apostle’s description in 2 Timothy 3:2-5. Yet specifically to our study, we should avoid the slogans and, more importantly, the ideologies of the Secular Creed and of secularism in general. We must strive toward genuine godliness, which requires avoiding all false and empty substitutes.
But does such avoidance look like? How can we effectively point to real godliness in a world filled with its mere appearance? What does a Christian witness look like in our post-Christian, secular world?
As I mentioned briefly toward the end of Love Is Love, I believe that the former conception of Christian and church ministry is passing away. With people increasingly relying upon governmental social programs, charity ministries are no longer as distinctive as they once were. Music ministries lose some of their punch now that most people have access to limitless tunes on Spotify or Apple Music. An inexhaustible number of books and digital sermons and teachings from amazingly gifted teachers can make the weekly sermons of one’s local congregation feel lacking. Social media’s offering of a 24/7 connection with a digital community has few of the limitations or hassles of face-to-face interaction. In other words, the world is changing, and the church collective and Christians individually must be ready to meet these changes.
Thankfully, the biblical response to shifts in culture is always simply to remain faithfulness in what God has commanded. Indeed, I believe that the technological and ideological movements of our society will provide greater, rather than diminished, opportunities for the gospel and its implications to shine. To keep things simple, let us focus briefly upon three areas of Christian witness to the secular world: the discerning individual, the faithful family, and the gathered church. But first two further thoughts.
First and most fundamentally, we must acknowledge that apart from Christ we can do nothing. He will build His church, even before the very gates of hell. But we may certainly consider how we can best become instruments through which Christ accomplishes His work. Joe Barnard talks about practicing spiritual disciplines being like encamping ourselves next to a stream. In a drought, we cannot bring water through the stream, but when the rain comes, we know that the stream will be the first place to fill and the last place to run dry. In a similar way, we cannot summon God’s presence or earn God’s grace, but reading and hearing Scripture, prayer, and gathering for corporate worship are channels were God’s presence and grace are known to come through. No analogy is perfect, but with this in mind, we can think of the following practices as disciplines for impacting or at least standing apart from the culture. Indeed, each of these practices are rooted in Paul’s command to Timothy: avoid such people.
Second, you will notice that these are not programs to be implemented but rather a lifestyle to be lived. This makes things both easier and harder. It is always easier to blame Christians as a whole than to become the ideal yourself. However, you do not need pastoral or committee approval to implement these changes; you just need to guard your eyes and heart, love your family, and love your church.
As individual Christians, we must be discerning of the lessons and indoctrination that the world gives to us. One of the most insidious lies today is the notion that anyone can go through life without being indoctrinated by something. Because doctrine simply means teaching, there is nothing that does not teach; therefore, everything indoctrinates. Our world particularly has been indoctrinated into the cult of secularism through the mystic spells of entertainment. The word spell in Old English simply meant word, so when we think of a spell, we should not think only of sorcery and witchcraft. Instead, words and messages are spells that influence how we think and behave. As Christians, our entire lives should be shaped around the gospel (the gōd spel or good spell in Old English). However, each piece of media that we consume is casting a spell of its own in our direction. We must be aware of the cultural hypnotism that entertainment can perform.
Again, this is not to say that entertainment is itself sinful, and biblical themes can certainly be found even within secular entertainment. The portrait of familial love in the film A Quiet Place is one of my favorite examples. Nevertheless, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that most entertainment can be theologized or that media consumption is necessary for cultural engagement. Perhaps the best witness that a Christian can give to a secularist is not a Christian perspective on the latest hit show but a loving display of what is far more important.
For example, A Game of Thrones was at peak popularity during my college years, and being a major Lord of the Rings fan, it was quite natural for classmates to ask about my opinion of the show. However, because it contained nudity, I abstained from ever watching it. This then led to many conversations about why, as a Christian, I could not support to exposure of fellow image-bearers to the eyes of millions of viewers. In a similar way, I greatly enjoy superhero stories, particularly Marvel; however, due to Disney’s (who now owns Marvel) willingness to work with and express gratitude to the Chinese Communist Party as they filmed Mulan in the same region where Uyghurs are being systemically raped and forcibly sterilized, my conscience no longer allows me to financially support Disney and its various companies. This has not hindered my cultural engagement; instead, it has led to many conversations explaining the present-day genocide of the Uyghurs. I do not intend to bind anyone’s conscience on particular matters; instead, I merely want to raise the question: How are you being counter-cultural in your consumption of entertainment? How does your media consumption look different from that of any non-Christian? As discerning believers, we must take great care to ensure that our worldview is shaped by Scripture, not by the culture’s narratives.
Second, secularism and its offshoot, cultural Marxism, have set themselves at war against the biblical structure of the family. This should not surprise us. While primarily pointing to Christ’s triumph over Satan, Genesis 3:15 can also indicate the Serpent’s continual battle against the continuation of God’s image-bearers. Abortion and steeply declining birth rates are two large indications of our society’s anti-natal mindset. The world now sees children as annoyances at best and a further plague upon Mother Earth at worst.
We, however, believe that God created the earth for us to steward and enjoy by filling it full of people, each of whom God designed to reflect His image. And we continue to reflect His character as we give ourselves to another of the opposite sex in marriage and raise new humans into the world. Secularism scoffs at all of this.
Indeed, we must understand that the destruction of the family is not simply a byproduct of secularism but rather its goal. Therefore, as the world continues to mangle the family pattern, loving marriages filled with many well-loved children will only become a more and more radical witness against secularism, paganism, and Islam.
Finally, the weekly gathered body of believers provides a simple yet powerful witness to the world around us. Secularism today is increasingly adopting a sort of gnostic character. Gnosticism was one of the first Christian heresies, and it believed the physical world to be entirely corrupt and sinful, while the spiritual world was good and true. This led the Gnostics to both licentiousness (because the body doesn’t matter) and asceticism (because the body must be beaten into submission). While many secularists today do not believe in the spiritual realm, the digital world is increasingly becoming its proxy. Without the hope of everlasting life in Christ, some are attempting to escape from death through such hopes as uploading their consciousness into a computer. This is merely a digital form of Gnosticism. The body is broken and faulty, but technology can provide the escape. The COVID lockdowns only accelerated this development by increasing people’s reliance upon digital interactions and shrouding face-to-face interactions with the fear of death.
Please do not misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that everything digital is wicked (I’m listening to Spotify as I write this, after all). However, we must be wary of secularism’s branch of digital Gnosticism coming toward us. While the advancements of digital technology are tremendous, they do not replace physical presence and interactions, and the gathered church must show the goodness of physical embodiment each Lord’s Day. Of course, there will always be better music to listen to online than in the local congregation, but Spotify cannot capture the beauty of a young child singing “In Christ Alone” with all his might within the body of Christ. Greater sermons than those within local congregations can be found online, but they cannot replace the weight of the pastor having specifically prayed for each member by name as he prepared his message.
And we have not even ventured into the beauty of the church being composed of men and women, children and adults, from all different backgrounds and ethnicities, worshiping the risen King. The secular world claims to desire unity; let us show them an embodied realization of it each Sunday.
I could say so much more upon each of these realms of life; however, if you notice these largely follow the pattern of Ephesians 4-6. How we display the gospel in our gathering together is expressed in Ephesians 4:1-5:21. How we display the gospel in our household is found in 5:33-6:9. Finally, our individual stand against the onslaught of Satan and the world is presented in 6:10-24. We should all linger of these passages all the more and structure our lives accordingly. Then as we look upon the our world’s godless imitation of godliness, we can live out Ephesians 5:7-11:
Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.
 Also, in case you are wondering, my wife and I also attempt to refrain from buying anything made in China, which is just as difficult as you might expect.
 For a theological discussion on why the body matters, see my sermon on Christ’s incarnation.