Powerless Godliness

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Our Lord Jesus describes the Pharisees as “whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity” (Matthew 23:27–28).

The Apostle Paul warns Timothy of those who have “a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof” (2 Timothy 3:5).

It seems there is an appeal about piety and godliness that attracts false pretenders such as those our Lord Jesus and Paul warned about. What is the reason behind the fascination with people who exhibit an outward religiosity and external piety? The reason, ironically, is that even in a secular world, the appearance of piety commands respect and honour.

Watson in his book says that “men are ambitious of credit, and wish to gain repute in the world; therefore, they will dress themselves in garb and mode of religion so that others may write them down for saints….What good will it do to a man when he is in hell that others think he has gone to heaven?”

That is why our Lord Jesus tells the disciples they ought not to give their alms as the Pharisees who sound a trumpet every time they give so “that they may have glory of men” (Matthew 6:2); that when they pray, they should not like the hypocrites “for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men” (Matthew 6:5).

The warning from Watson is this “Counterfeit piety is double iniquity.” The reasons are as follows:

  • External piety incurs the anger of God. Our Lord Jesus repeatedly pronounced woe upon the scribes and Pharisees (see Matthew 23:13-16, 23, 25, 27, 29). There are those who pretend to be saints, who wear Christ on their sleeves but do not have Him in their hearts. And these are the people who made use of God and Christ for their own personal gain and agenda. Paul describes these people as “enemies of the cross of Christ…whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things” (Philippians 3:18–19).
  • External piety is self-delusion. James says that those who are hearers of the Word and not doers are deceiving themselves (James 1:22). My church history professor often warns us about being chalices of gold, but whose content is poisonous not just to others but also to ourselves. Watson writes: “The hypocrite deceives others while he lives, but deceives himself [as] he dies.”
  • External piety is repulsive both to God and man. This warning is especially pertinent to those who are in positions of leadership. No man can wear the mask of godliness and the cloak of piety forever. The hypocrite will be eventually exposed. And when that happens, he will be abhorred by other men for making a show, and he will be abhorred by God for just being a show. Watson says, “the wicked hate the hypocrite because he is almost a Christian, and God hates him because he is only almost one.”
  • External piety is vain and futile. Religious hypocrites are foolish because they do not realise that their actions have no lasting fruit. The Pharisees who “love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men…[will] have their reward” (Matthew 6:5). But it is an earthly reward – one that lasts only as long as the people who praise them are alive. It is indeed a poor reward if it expires with the breath of men. Such external piety – Watson puts it – is like “painted gold” that cannot enrich a man, and yield not lasting comfort.
  • External piety will be met with scorn. In the Old Testament, the prophet Balaam was mocked by the donkey (Numbers 22:22-35). Lot was mocked by his sons-in-law when he warned them about God’s judgment upon Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:14). In the Gospels, Judas Iscariot was mocked by the chief priests and elders when he tried to return the thirty pieces of silver he got for betraying our Lord Jesus (Matthew 27:3-4). When the Apostle Paul performed numerous miracles at Ephesus, he attracted many pretenders. Some of them – exorcists – thought they could invoke the name of Jesus and Paul to cast out demons. But the result was hilarious and tragic. “And the evil spirit answered and said, Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are ye? And the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, and overcame them, and prevailed against them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded” (Acts 19:15–16).

Cursed is the man who has the style of godliness but not the substance. This façade of piety is a deadly delusion. It may hoodwink man for a life, but it will never deceive the all-seeing God. It may earn the praise of man in this life, but it will reap the wrath of God for eternity. Our Lord Jesus says, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation” (Matthew 23:14).

How may we know that a man’s godliness is but a show? When a person serves God for personal ends. Like the Pharisee, such a person loves “the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi” (Matthew 23:7). In our modern-day vernacular, such a person loves to be known as “doctor of theology.” There is, however, something more sinister behind the cloak of hypocrisy for it often serves as a cover for obsessive sin. Man clothed in religious garb but who are “false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ” who pretend to be angels of light and ministers of righteousness (2 Corinthians 11:13–15).

But lest we gleefully point the accusing finger at others, it is best that we examine ourselves. “Search me, O God, and know my heart: Try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, And lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23–24); so that our hearts may be sound in God’s statutes, and we be not ashamed (Psalm 119:80).

Pastoral Letter by Pastor Isaac Ong – Calvary’s Weekly Bulletin (5 May 2019)
Edited by the BPilgrims Content Team