THINGS WE MAY DO IN VAIN
T. PIERCE BROWN
Paul says in 2 Corinthians 6:1, “And working together with him we entreat also that ye receive not the grace of God in vain.” As I was meditating on the ways we might receive the grace of God in vain, many other passages came to mind about the things we may do in vain. I knew that the expression “in vain” generally meant something like “without value,” although I feel sure that thousands have sung
In vain in high and holy lays
Our soul its grateful voice would raise,
For who can sing the worthy praise
Of the wonderful love of Jesus
without knowing why a high and holy lay would be in vain.
Instead of proceeding with my study of how we might receive the grace of God in vain, I became intrigued by the fact that there are several different words translated “vain” and, although related, they have slightly different meanings. It is always a thrill to realize that no matter how much one knows, or how long he studies, God’s word has depths that he has never plumbed.
The word used here is “kenos” which is translated “vain” about 10 times, and “empty” four times. In Mark 12:3 and similar passages in Luke where they beat the servant and sent him away empty suggests part of the basic meaning. When Paul says in 1 Cor. 15:10 that “his grace which was bestowed on me was not in vain,” he is suggesting that “my life did not turn out to be empty, for I labored more abundantly than they all.” In 1 Cor. 15:14, he says, “If Christ hath not been raised, then is our preaching vain, your faith also is vain.” Our preaching is empty, useless, with no value, and your faith is empty, with no content if it is based upon a lie.
Each of the passages is worthy of a whole sermon or article as in 1 Thessalonians 3:5 where Paul points out that his labor would be in vain if the tempter had tempted them so that they brought no fruit for God. Their faith, if it had no works, would be dead, and both his labor and their faith would therefore be empty or vain.
When Paul says in 1 Timothy 1:6, “From which things some having swerved have turned aside unto vain talking (jangling-KJV),” he uses a different word, “mataiologia” which is a combination of “mataios” and “logos.” It still can be thought of as practically synonymous with “kenos” and means “empty,” “profitless,” or “to no purpose.” If we were to try to make a fine distinction between the two, we would offer Vine’s observation and say that “kenos” suggests the absence of quality, as when Jesus emptied himself (Phil. 2:7) of the quality of being in the form of God and took the form of man. However, “mataios” suggests emptiness with reference to aim, effect or result.
This would suggest that in James 2:20, “But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith apart from works is barren?” James is suggesting that the vain man is empty of the knowledge that he would have if he paid attention to God’s revelation. One cannot look intelligently at the examples in either old or New Testament, or anywhere in life, and not be aware that faith without works accomplishes nothing. So a person is a vain man, not in the sense of looking in the mirror and thinking, “How handsome you are!” but in the sense of being empty of the knowledge he should have.
But in James 1:26, he says, “If any man thinketh himself to be religious, while he bridleth not his tongue but deceiveth his heart, this man’s religion is vain (mataios).” Here, he is emphasizing that the effect of his religion is of no value. His religion may not be vain (kenos) in the sense of having no value of itself, or being empty, for his doctrine may be full of good things. If it does not cause him to bridle his tongue it is vain (mataios) so far as the effect is concerned.
This is the root of the word used in Matthew 15:9, “But in vain do they worship me, teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men.” The end result or purpose of worship is of no value, empty, unsuccessful if a person is doing it according to man’s precepts, guesses, suppositions and not as God decreed. Our worship can even be correct in form (not vain – kenos) and still be vain (mataios) if we do not worship in spirit and in truth.
To make that clearer: If a person uses a mechanical instrument of music, which is not authorized of God his worship is vain (mataios). However, a person’s worship can be just as vain (mataios) or useless with regard to the purpose for which it was ordained, if he sings without the spirit and understanding. If he sings, “We’ll work ’till Jesus comes” and intends to do nothing for the Lord, or “Lead me to some soul today” and you could not even use a bull whip to get him to try to save a soul, his worship may not be in vain (kenos) in terms of its form, but it is in vain (mataios) in terms of its value or effect. Perhaps we can write another article dealing with the very important subject of how we may receive the grace of God in vain.