+Charles P. McIlvaine Sermon :: The Form and Power of Godliness

July 25, 2016

“Having a form of Godliness, but denying the power thereof.”–2 Tim., iii. 5.


We answer, it is the substance, or reality of godliness, as distinguished from all its forms. And godliness here is a term for that inward and spiritual grace which is the life and being of all genuine piety before God. Its only abiding place is the heart, which we are therefore exhorted to keep with all diligence, because out of it are the issues which make the visible life of righteousness. Just as prayer in the Spirit is essential to all reality of prayer, in distinction from the words of prayer; just as the inward grace of Baptism, signified in the sacramental “sign or form,” namely: “death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness,” is the reality of the true Baptism, in distinction from its outward administration; just as when one comes to the Lord’s Table, without “a true penitent heart, and lively faith,” he receives the outward part or sign in the Lord’s Supper, without the grace it signifies, and thus the form, without the power of that godliness which lives by faith upon the sacrifice and mediation of Christ; while another, approaching the same holy table, with the sacrifice of a contrite heart, and drawing near with faith, is a partaker not merely of the sacrament of the death of the Saviour, but of that death itself, in all the benefits of His passion, to his soul’s health. And so, in the whole life of a true believer, of which in its essential being and sustenance, the two sacraments are the concentrated expression, the power or reality of godliness is none other than, as St. Peter expressed it, “the hidden man of the heart,” in distinction from all visible ways and works of its manifestations before men.

“I am the life,” saith the Lord. “He that abideth in me, and [10/11] I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit.” The fruit is the effect of the life, and its evidence–notthe life.

“Your life, (saith the Scripture) is hid with Christ, in God.” [* Col. III. 3.] As branches of that “true vine,” his people abide in Him by a hidden communication of spiritual life, wherein they receive of His Spirit, just as the natural vine-branch abides in its vine, only as it is in communion with its hidden current of life. The Apostle has it thus: “The law of the Spirit of life, in Christ Jesus, hath made me free from the law of sin and death.” [* Romans, VIII: 2.] That blessed Spirit of life, shedding abroad in the heart, the love of God, creating in us the faith by which we are justified in the righteousness of Christ, and the holiness which makes us meet for his presence and glory, carrying on the hidden work of grace, into more and more conformity to the mind of Christ, till it become perfect in his likeness–such is godliness in its reality and power. Until it enters and takes possession within us, we are “dead in sin.” As soon as it so enters, we are “alive unto God.” As its essential being is in that new and inward life, its only beginning is in a new and inward birth. “Born again by the Holy Ghost,” “transformed by the renewing of the mind,” having “a new heart,” in place of the old; such, according to the Scriptures, are they to whom the Gospel has come “not in word only, but in power and the Holy Ghost.”

The inward depth of that great transformation, its thorough reality as a work of internal renewal, or new creation, is given by Saint Paul, when he says to the Christians at Ephesus, that if they had “been taught as the truth is in Jesus,” they had “put off the old man which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and were renewed in the spirit of their mind, and had put on the new man, which after God, is created in righteousness and true holiness.” [* Ephes. IV: 21-24.]

Such is godliness in the power, whether abiding in a heart [11/12] just now made new by the Spirit of God, or in a believer almost full grown in grace; whether time may not have been allowed, to make itself visible in the fruits of holiness, or whether it be already full clothed therein.

We must be careful not to confound “the hidden man of the heart” with the manifested man in the outward walks and deeds of righteousness. The child of God, is “God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus, unto good works.” [Ephes. II: 10.] Good works do not constitute him that new creature, they follow upon a workmanship of grace, of which they are the essential fruit and evidence.

Now such godliness is power, just because it is life. It is the power of a faith which purifies the heart, and gets victory over this evil world. In some of God’s children, it is more a power than in others, according as some are riper in grace than others; precisely as this natural life, essentially active and a power, varies in powerfulness as men differ in the maturity and activity of their faculties.

True godliness cannot be a mere inoperative seed or unconscious germ of spiritual being. It is a leaven that must leaven. The godliness is itself the power. And the new creature, in Christ Jesus, living by faith and working by love, is the godliness. It is just the image of God, lost in the first Adam, renewed in the second Adam, “the Lord from heaven.” Without it, you can no more attain to fruits of righteousness, than you can raise a tree to fruitfulness, while the root is dead. All works are “dead works,” before God, that come not of that new heart. Paint them, dress them as you may, to give them the aspect of life, they are not written among the living.

And just what that hidden life is to the individual christian, it is to the whole Church, which cannot have any true godliness but as its several members are children of that new heart. All the ability of the Church for its real, living work in this world, all its existence as a living Church, depends on that. [12/13] It is written: “Whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world.” And the Church overcomes the world for Christ, in the war and victory of his Gospel, only as it contains those who being so born of God, do in their personal striving so overcome. Be not deceived. There may be much outward aspect of life and growth, and none in truth. Church edifices may be built on every side, and adorned with all the magnificence that wealth and art can give. Our borders of sacramental communion may be greatly extended. Signs of flourishing increase and vigorous activity may stand in bright array before eyes that look only on the outward appearance; while to that which looketh on the heart, and finds the heart of the Church only in the hearts of its several members, that whole appearance, and all beneath it, may be only what St. Paul said he would be, “though he should give all his goods to feed the poor, and his body to be burned–and have not charity,” the love of God in his heart–“NOTHING.”

These teachings, I know, are old things, said over and over again by faithful Ministers of Christ, as they ought to be. They are too much the very marrow of the teaching of the old Bible and the old Apostles, who “spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost,” and of the old Church, to be else than old wherever the preacher keeps to “the old paths” in which the feet of Jesus led. I rejoice to believe that they are old, and loved because so old, in this congregation. Very sad will it be for you, Brethren, if ever the old Manna of this pilgrimage, that spiritual meat of which your fathers ate and never wanted other, shall become so distasteful, that you will hunger for something new instead of it, something more progressive, something, in other words, less of inspired teaching, more of the carnal mind.

Many years ago, and during all the years when it was my happiness to be the pastor of that beloved flock from which this has grown, and in that dear Old Church, where so many dear ones, now gone to their Lord, were “begotten again by [13/14] the word of God,” and the power of His Spirit, and where it pleased Him to give most precious fruits of grace to the seed of his truth–there, my constant teaching was, as it has been (I bless God) ever since, those same old things, of grace and faith, of the new heart and the new man, “justified by faith,” and so “having peace with God, through Jesus Christ.” And thus it must be, till I put off this tabernacle, the Lord being my helper. They are just the great truths which there is a continual and dangerous tendency among professing christians to get away from, to lose sight of their transcendant importance, to put something less vital in their place, to mix them up confusedly in a crowd of inferior matters, and thus very easily and sadly to confound the outside of godliness with its reality, and satisfy themselves with a name to live, while they are spiritually dead. It is exactly here that “the god of this world” labors to blind the minds of men, “lest the light of the glorious Gospel of Christ should shine unto them.”

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