Beware of Style over Substance

Bible Book: 2 Timothy  3 : 7
Subject: Falsehood; Lies; Truth; Emptiness; Rest

Beware of style over substance. Dr. J. Michael Walters, director of ministerial education and preacher-in-residence at Houghton College in Houghton, New York, comments on James chapter 3, “James’s concern for the teaching leadership of the church is well founded. What ought to concern any and all who love the church is the general failure to hold teachers and leaders accountable to the standards of James 3. The contemporary church is filled with people claiming to be leaders and teachers, but whose lives clearly deny any hint of the wisdom James describes in these verses. Our day is the day of ‘style over substance.’ As long as someone ‘looks’ the part, we are more than willing to assume they possess enough wisdom to teach and lead. Unfortunately, our religious landscapes are littered with the debris of empty claims, empty lives, empty religion. These aspiring teachers claim authority without ever manifesting the fruit of genuine heavenly wisdom, and we have either applauded their exercises of insincerity or stood by and kept our tongues when we should have spoken out. Little wonder, then, that the modern church seems powerless to make peace even within its own ranks—to say nothing of the world around it. We have reaped what we have sown, and, sadly, the fruit is not righteousness. James is right. Not many of us should be teachers.”[1]

2 Timothy 3:1-9 reads, “But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away! For of this sort are those who creep into households and make captives of gullible women loaded down with sins, led away by various lusts, always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. Now as Jannes and Jambres resisted Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, disapproved concerning the faith; but they will progress no further, for their folly will be manifest to all, as theirs also was.”

Regrettably, many men and women can be described in the words of 2 Timothy 3:7, “always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” This verse presents the folly, futility, and frustration of an indulgent and accommodating Christianity. Notice three things about those so inclined.

I. First, there is a relentless educational pursuit.

“. . . ever learning. . .” Education without a Christian worldview produces a generation of “clever devils”. In 1987, philosopher Allan Bloom observed in The Closing of the American Mind, “There is one thing a college professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.”[2]

Someone said, “If you want knowledge go to college, but if you want wisdom go to God.” James 1:5 reads, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) said, “A thorough knowledge of the Bible is worth more than a college education.”[3]

Rev. Charles H. Spurgeon (1834-1892) explains, “Yes, be your thirst for pardon, for reconciliation, for sanctification, for deliverance from sin, or for perseverance and safety, you shall have any and all these in the waters which God has made to flow.

There are persons in the world, however, whose thirst takes another form. They have a thirst for knowledge. They want to know, to know infallibly. Through how many theories some people wade! There are minds so naturally inclined for cavil and controversy, for reasoning and reconsidering, that the more they study the more skeptical they grow. Ever learning, they never come to the knowledge of the truth. ‘Oh!’ they seem to say, ‘if I could but get hold of something that was true, some fact, some certainty.’ Well, sir, if thou thirsteth for this, let thy soul be given up to a belief in Christ, and thou shalt soon find certainty. I believe that the religion of Jesus Christ is so certain a truth to that man who has believed it, that it is so verified to his inner consciousness, and so interweaves itself with his entire being, that no proposition of Euclid could ever be more demonstrable, or more absolutely conclusive. We have known and believed the revelation that this Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God. We have tasted, and felt, and handled of the good word of life. I know, and many here know, that since we have believed in Jesus we have come to live in an entirely new world. We have broken through the veil that parted us from a kingdom of which we knew nothing, and we have been brought into this new kingdom, and live in it, and are as conscious of new sensations, and new emotions, and new sorrows, and new joys as we are conscious of the old sensations which we possessed aforetime. It is true, sirs, certainly true. Have not our martyrs stood at the stake and burnt for this truth? That is a stern truth which a man will dare to burn for. Twisted as their nerves and muscles were upon the rack, and their very hearts searched after with hot claws of fire by their tormentors, yet have they learned to sing in the midst of anguish, to tell of present enjoyment and to triumph in the absolute truth of the doctrine whereof they were the witnesses. If you want to get your foot upon a bit of rock, to feel your footing, and express your conviction, ‘Now, this is true whatever else is not,’ you must believe in Jesus Christ. Then you will be no more shifted about like an unguided vessel, by every wind and every current, but you will be sailing with the heavenly Pilot on board, directing you to the haven of everlasting peace.

But there are those whose thirst is that of the heart. It is not so much something to believe, as something to love which they want. Well, my dear friend, if you would have something worthy of your affection, a person whom you may love to the fullest possible extent, and never be deceived, adore and never become an idolater, let me say to you, come ye to the waters and drink of the love of Christ, for they that love him may love him more, they cannot love him too much. He never disappoints any confidence that is reposed in him. His dear, sweet love which he poureth into the souls of those that love him is a recompense for any sorrows they may have endured for his sake, a recompense that makes them forget their wrongs and woes in the exceeding weight of glory which it entails.”[4]

II. Second, there is a restless emotional pain.

“. . . never able . . .” Augustine of Hippo (354–430), shares the following in Confessions: “Our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.” On those who are “Always learning, while yet they never can come to the knowledge of the truth” John Calvin (1509-1564), one with whom I do not always agree, observes, “That fluctuation between various desires, of which he now speaks, is when, having nothing solid in themselves, they are tossed about in all directions. They ‘learn,’ he says, as people do who are under the influence of curiosity, and with a restless mind, but in such a manner as never to arrive at any certainty or truth. It is ill-conducted study, and widely different from knowledge. And yet such persons think themselves prodigiously wise; but what they know is nothing, so long as they do not hold the truth, which is the foundation of all knowledge.”[5]

Dr. Vance Havner laments in Hearts Afire, “Too many restless Christians today move from church to church, preacher to preacher, always getting right and never getting right, ever learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth. Some are always laying foundations but never building thereon.”[6]

From the Christian Weekly we read, “Francis de Sales (1567-1622) did not think well of those men who flit from book to book, taking up first one religious exercise and then another; he compared such persons to the drone bee, which makes no honey. ‘Always learning, yet never coming to the knowledge of the truth; always gathering and acquiring, without retaining anything, because what they gather is put into a bottomless sack, a broken cistern. The longer a bee rests upon the flower, the more honey it will gather,’ he used to say.”[7]

III. Third, there is a reckless experiential privation.

“. . . to come to the knowledge of the truth.” In the midst of all the competing voices of false prophets and false teachers offering insufficient solutions to our problem with guilt; remember, the Bible says, “Today, if you will hear his voice, Do not harden your hearts. . . lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin”(Hebrews 3:7b, 13b). Come to Jesus!

Romans 1:18-21 reads, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”

Dr. Kenneth S. Wuest (1893-1962) renders 2 Timothy 3:6-7 as follows: “For of these are those who by means of insinuation slink into houses and take captive the minds of silly women who have been in times past heavily laden with sins, and who are at present heavily loaded down with them, who are under the impelling urge of variegated, passionate desires, ever learning and never able to come to a precise and experiential knowledge of the truth.”[8] Dr. Wuest explains, “Chrysostom acutely implies that the victims of the crafty heretics were ‘silly women’ of both sexes. ‘He who is easy to be deceived is a silly woman, and nothing like a man; for to be deceived is the part of silly women.' St. Paul, however, refers to women only.’ Alford, Robertson, and Vincent concur with Expositors in limiting the expression to women. One of the great virtues of womanhood, namely, that of trusting another, is turned into a weakness by Satan here. Eve was deceived. Adam sinned with his eyes wide open. ‘Laden’ is sōreuō, ‘to heap together, to heap up.’ It is used in the LXX [Septuagint], of loading a wagon. It implies ‘heavily laden.’ Expositors translates, ‘overwhelmed,’ and asks: ‘Is there any contrast implied between the diminutive, indicating the insignificance of the women, and the load of sins which they carry? DeWette (quoted by Alford), notes that a sin-laden conscience is easily tempted to seek the easiest method of relief.’ And that method of getting relief from a sin-laden conscience, is the embracing of a false religion, one that satisfies the religious instinct of the individual, and at the same time fails to deal with the sin question and the true way of salvation. ‘Led away’ is ago, ‘to move, impel," used of forces and influences affecting the mind. ‘Lusts’ is epithumia, ‘a craving, a passionate desire.’ ‘Divers’ is poikilos, ‘variegated, of many different kinds.’ Vincent comments on the words, ‘ever learning,’ as follows: ‘From anyone who will teach them. . . . It is a graphic picture of a large class, by no means extinct, who are caught and led by the instruction of itinerant religious quacks.’ With reference to the words, ‘never able,’ he says: ‘Because they have not the right motive, and because they apply to false teachers. Ellicott thinks that there is in dunamena (able) a hint of an unsuccessful endeavor, in better moments, to attain to the truth.’ ‘Knowledge’ is epignōsis, ‘a knowledge gained by experience,’ the prefixed preposition making the compound word mean ‘precise and correct experiential knowledge.’ This would mean, not merely an intellectual understanding of the truth, but a heart submission and appropriation of the same, resulting in salvation.”[9]

Dr. Fergus Ferguson (1824-1897) writes, “St. Paul says, that ungodly men are ‘ever learning, and yet never able to come to the knowledge of the truth’—a remarkable statement, distinguishing, as it does, between learning and knowledge. To learn is to collect information merely. To know is to understand the nature and relationships of things. Men may increase in knowledge as to the letter of God's word, as the Scribes and Pharisees of old did—they may have a ‘form of knowledge, and of truth in the law’; but if they have not the light of life, which is the key to all learning, in their own souls, they are still walking in darkness, and know not whither they are going. All such are enlarging their information, but not extending their true understanding. They are building up pyramids of learning which may be only pyramids of falsehood. They are ‘ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.’ But ‘what God has hid from the wise and prudent He has revealed unto babes.’ Jesus makes this great declaration—‘No man knoweth the Father but through the Son’; and hence for every true idea of God we possess, we are indebted to Christ Jesus.”[10] Dr. Vance Havner observes, “Too many Christians live their Christian lives inside their heads; it never gets out through hands and feet and lips.”[11]

1 Timothy 2:3-4 reads, “For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Dr. Henry M. Morris (1918-2006) comments, “The phrase ‘the truth,’ referring to a certain vital body of doctrine, is found often in the New Testament, and the text quoted above is one of the most important, indicating as it does that fully understanding ‘the truth’ is equivalent to being saved. The theme of ‘the truth’ is especially emphasized in Paul’s two letters to Timothy, the first reference being in our text. He next points out that, in his capacity as an apostle, he must ‘speak the truth in Christ,’ teaching ‘in faith and verity’ (same word as ‘truth’—1 Timothy 2:7).
The church is called ‘the pillar and ground of the truth’ (3:15). An attitude of thanksgiving is proper for those who ‘believe and know the truth’ (4:3). On the other hand, those false teachers who teach with selfish motives are ‘destitute of the truth’ (6:5).
In the second epistle, Paul urges believers to be diligent in studying the Scriptures, because they constitute ‘the word of truth’ (2 Timothy 2:15). Then he warns of teachers ‘who concerning the truth have erred,’ teaching false doctrine and destroying the faith of some (v. 18). Those who are faithful teachers, however, are exhorted to help the unsaved come to ‘repentance to the acknowledging of the truth’ (v. 25).
Then, in his prophetic description of the humanist teachers of the last days, Paul says they will be ‘ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth’ (3:7). This is because they ‘resist the truth’ and ‘turn away their ears from the truth’ (3:8; 4:4). Thus, ‘the truth’ always emphasizes its vital importance in salvation and the Christian life. Most of all, the Lord Jesus said: ‘I am . . . the truth’ (John 14:6).”[12]

From the New Nelson’s Illustrated Commentary we read the following about “Counterfeit Christianity”: “Whenever people accept the truth of God and begin practicing it, counterfeits soon surface. That’s what Paul found at Ephesus [Acts 19:8-20], and what he warns Timothy about (2 Tim. 3:8, 9). He mentions two characters, Jannes and Jambres, whose names mean ‘he who seduces’ and ‘he who is rebellious’. Neither name is in the OT, but Jewish legend held that these were the names of magicians who oppose Moses’ demand of Pharaoh to free the Israelites. They tried to duplicate the miracles of Moses in an attempt to discredit him. But God showed that Moses’ authority was more powerful (Ex. 7:11, 12, 22).”[13]

Dr. John Phillips (1927-2010) writes, “Paul held these two magicians up as examples of end-time false teachers who will likewise resist the truth of God and keep people enchained in deception. It is not that the teachers will not know the truth; they will deliberately oppose the truth. We would probably be astonished if we knew how many false teachers and apostate religious leaders there are today who once knew God’s Word in truth.”[14] Dr. Phillips recounts, “Church history gives many examples of the victims of men who pretended to be holy. The Russian priest, Rasputin, was a wholesale seducer of women. Joseph Smith founded a religion based on polygamy, although present-day Mormons try to deny it; Brigham Young had scores of wives, and Time magazine declared that Mormons still practice polygamy. David Koresh, former leader of the Branch Davidians, was able to persuade the married men in his congregation that he alone had the right to be the husband of their wives. The sad list of ministerial miscreants and their sorry victims could go on and on.”[15] Dr. Joseph A. Seiss (1823-1904) explains, “And through all the ages of our world, there has been a Cain for every Abel, a Jannes and Jambres for every Moses and Aaron, a Babylon for every Jerusalem, a Herod for every John the Baptist, and a Nero for every going forth of God’s consecrated apostles,—all the types and precursors of the ultimate heading up of all evil in one final foe, which is the Antichrist.”[16]


And now for the balance of this message how do we insure substance over style? When you encounter those who “speak great swelling words of emptiness” (2 Peter 2:18) and those who speak “smooth things” (Isaiah 30:10b); remember the price many pay to “rightly [divide] the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15b). Paul writes to those in Corinth, “Now I say this, that each of you says, ‘I am of Paul,’ or ‘I am of Apollos,’ or ‘I am of Cephas,’ or ‘I am of Christ’” (1 Corinthians 1:12). Paul forthrightly dealt with those who desired style over substance as we read in 2 Corinthians 10:10, “‘For his letters,’ they say, ‘are weighty and powerful, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.’” He confesses in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, “And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” Dr. John R. W. Stott (1921-2011) explains, “. . . Paul may have been contrasting his own presentation of the gospel with the kind of rhetoric popular in Corinthian culture of that day. Rhetoric was a systematic, academic discipline taught and practiced throughout the Greco-Roman world. In fact, in the first century A.D., rhetoric became the primary discipline in Roman higher education. In public debates in the law courts and at funerals the rhetoric of display and ornamentation was tremendously popular as a form of public entertainment. Gradually it became an end in itself, mere ornamentation, with a desire to please the crowd—without serious content or intent. A sophist was an orator who emphasized style over substance, form over content. The goal was applause, the motive vanity and the casualty truth.”[17]

Paul further writes in 2 Corinthians 11:1-6, “Oh, that you would bear with me in a little folly—and indeed you do bear with me. For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he who comes preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted—you may well put up with it! For I consider that I am not at all inferior to the most eminent apostles. Even though I am untrained in speech, yet I am not in knowledge. But we have been thoroughly manifested among you in all things.” Paul writes in Romans 16:17-18, “Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them. For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple.”

“Paul’s encouraging message [to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:6-10] is that, as the truth of God prevailed against the tricks of the magicians of Egypt, even so the Gospel will triumph over every kind of error that may arise.”[18] Paul further explains to Timothy the importance of substance over style in 2 Timothy 3:10-4:4, “But you have carefully followed my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra—what persecutions I endured. And out of them all the Lord delivered me. Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. But evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived. But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.”

To be forewarned is to be forearmed. In the last days beware of style over substance.


[1]Wesleyan Bible Commentary, ed. David A. Higle, James: A Bible Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition, J. Michael Walters, (Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House, 1997), 136. Database © 2007 WORDsearch Corp.


[2]Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, (New York: NY: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 25.


[3]Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Exultant, (Psalms 90-150) Praising God for His Mighty Works, (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2009), 82.


[4]C. H. Spurgeon, Storm Signals: A Collection of Sermons, “Ho! Ho!, (New York, NY: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1886), 147-149.


[5]John Calvin, Commentary on Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, Accessed: 08/06/14,

[6]Vance Havner, Hearts Afire: Light on Successful Soul Winning, (Westwood, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1952), 23.


[7]Thirty Thousand Thoughts, eds.H. D. M. Spence, Joseph S. Exell, Charles Neil, (New York, NY: Funk & Wagnalls, Publishers, 1889), 183.

[8]Kenneth S. Wuest, The New Testament: An Expanded Translation, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1961), 504.

[9]Kenneth S. Wuest, Wuest's Word Studies from the Greek New Testament Three-volume edition, Vol. 2, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973, 1980), 147. Database © 2014 WORDsearch.


[10]The Biblical Illustrator, ed. Joseph S. Exell, 1 John. Database © 2012 WORDsearch Corp.


[11]John Blanchard, The Complete Gathered Gold: A Treasury of Quotations for Christians, (Darlington, UK: Evangelical Press 2006), 676. Database © 2007 WORDsearch Corp.


[12]Henry M. Morris, Ph.D., Institute for Creation Research, “Knowledge of the Truth,” (1 Timothy 2:3-4), Accessed: 08/05/14,


[13]Nelson’s New Illustrated Commentary, eds. Earl D. Radmacher, Ronald B. Allen, & H. W. House, “Counterfeit Christianity”, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), 1615.


[14]John Phillips, Exploring the Future: A Comprehensive Guide to Bible Prophecy.(Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publication, 1983), 224. Database © 2009 WORDsearch Corp.

[15]John Phillips, The John Phillips Commentary Series – Exploring the Pastoral Epistles: An Expository Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2004), 413. Database © 2009 WORDsearch Corp.


[16]Joseph A. Seiss, The Apocalypse: A Series of Special Lectures on the Revelation of Jesus Christ, 322. Database © 2006 WORDsearch Corp.

[17]John R. W. Stott, Christian Leadership, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 56-57.


[18]The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, eds. Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison, (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1962, 1990), 138. Database © 2008 WORDsearch Corp.

By Dr. Franklin L. Kirksey, pastor First Baptist Church of Spanish Fort 30775 Jay Drive Spanish Fort, Alabama 36527

Author of Sound Biblical Preaching: Giving the Bible a Voice Available on and / / (251) 626-6210

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