The conquering power of evil is on the increase. This is characteristic of the last times. Innocent babies are now not even allowed to be born, so corrupted are the moral standards. Or if born, no one educates them, so desolate are studies. Or if trained, no one enforces the training, so impotent are the laws. In fact, the case for modesty . . . has in our time become an obsolete subject.
Although these words could easily describe the moral erosion that we see today in the modern Western world, they are in fact from the pen of Tertullian, an early church father who lived in Carthage, in the Roman province of Africa, during the late second and early third centuries. Like us, Tertullian dwelled in times of difficulty, when there was a noticeable decline in society’s decency and virtue. Reading these comments helps us remember that sin has been a perennial problem with humans ever since Adam rebelled in the garden. Godlessness is characteristic of every historical period. Never was there a golden age in which selfishness, greed, and violence were absent. We should avoid romanticizing the past, as if people were less sinful in days gone by. But we should also avoid romanticizing the future. We need a sober assessment of the problem of sin in society, especially if we are to appreciate the power of the gospel.
The Apostle Paul provides us with such an assessment: “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Tim. 3:1–4). Paul wrote these words to his young colleague Timothy, the pastor of the church of Ephesus, to help him put into context the troubles he was facing. Timothy should not be surprised by opposition from false teachers, nor by the rampant immorality in the city in which he served, for he lived in evil times, and the evil would only increase. Paul gives Timothy an accurate diagnosis of the radical corruption of the human heart so that he will put his confidence in God and stay focused in times of difficulty, preaching the Word boldly in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation.
The church today needs that same confidence and focus. We are too easily tempted to look for merely external solutions to the pervasive problem of sin, as if more laws or better public policies could produce righteousness in the human heart. Paul’s diagnosis of the last days not only helps us grasp the depths of societal depravity, but it also reminds us that only the gospel can regenerate the human heart and cause a sinner to live for the glory of God.
As Christians, certainly we are called to love our neighbors and to be good citizens, doing all we can to “overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21). Likewise, the magistrate has the God-given responsibility of suppressing vice in society, promoting justice, and being “an avenger . . . on him who practices evil” (Rom. 13:4, NKJV). But we must always remember that the godlessness in the last days described by Paul in 2 Timothy 3:1–4 cannot be overcome by laws and public policies. Not even the Ten Commandments can change the human heart. The persistent rebellion and idolatry of Israel, the nation to whom God had given His law and with whom He made a covenant, shows us the impotence of the law. The law can, to some extent, expose and restrain sin, but it cannot produce righteousness. It is powerless to change the human heart from being a lover of self to a lover of God. As Paul said in Galatians 3:21, “For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law.”