What exactly is godliness? How do we exercise it?
The term “godliness” occurs repeatedly in Paul’s letters to Timothy but is never once defined there. So I’ve been scouring dictionaries and this is what I’ve found. The word is eusebeia, from the joining of eu- ‘good’, well-done’ with sebo- ‘to revere or worship, to be devout’. In the New Testament it always refers to a God-ward devotion, combining the idea of reverence toward God with love of His character and resulting in a life devoted to pleasing God.
Paul writes to Timothy to nail down the nitty-gritty of what godliness should look like in the household of God. He warns about false teachers, encourages prayer, describes appropriate behavior for men and women, advises about the qualifications of local church leaders… and then launches into a rather perplexing statement: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness” OK, so maybe godliness is not so straightforward as ‘do this’ and ‘don’t do that’. In explaining what he means, Paul quotes what is believed to be a hymn familiar to his hearers:
He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory. I Tim.3:16 ESV
He is of course describing Jesus, the epitome of godliness! Jesus–the One who perfectly fulfilled God’s intent for man, who was perfectly devoted to doing the Father’s will, who not only lived a sinless life, but provided a perfect sacrifice for the rest of us and then paved the way to glory, rising to prove His authority over death and His right to be the Saviour of the world. Jesus is the essence of godliness.
But what did he mean that godliness is a great mystery? The first line alone qualifies as mystery: “He was manifested in the flesh” How does “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see”…how does this one show up on earth in a physical human body? (I Tim.6:15,16) to live among us and show us what God is like?
Great indeed is the mystery of godliness!
But the mystery gets thicker. Not only is Jesus fully God and fully man but by the offering of Himself in a physical body he makes a way for humankind to be set apart as His own glorious, spotless, holy bride. As a man and his wife become one flesh, so Christ invites us to be one with Him and His Father. “I in them and You in me, that they may become perfectly one” (Jn.17:23) There that word ‘mystery’ crops up again: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” (Eph.5:32)
And lest you think I’ve gone off on a rabbit trail, I would propose that this mystery is integrally related to the mystery of godliness. How in the world can a human being of whom ‘none is righteous, no not one’ be expected to live a godly life? It is not in us. We can perhaps draw up a descriptive list of standards for godliness. We can commit ourselves to it. But we cannot do it to any degree that qualifies as godly. For to be godly implies that God must do it.
How can these things be?
Think of how many times Jesus was asked by dumbstruck people, “How can these things be?” There was Nicodemus, faced with the need to be born a second time if he wished to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. “How can this be? Can I enter a second time into my mother’s womb?! I don’t get it.” (Jn.3)
Later Jesus would tell His disciples that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God (Mk.10:25). Their response? “And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, ‘Then who can be saved?’”
And remember the feeding of the 5,000? It was getting late; everyone was hungry. The disciples advised Jesus that He’d better send them away to find food and lodging. He said, “You give them something to eat.” (Lk.9:13) Huh? We have only five loaves an two fishes… how’s that going to work?!
Following that episode He got to talking about Himself being the Bread of life. “If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.”(Jn.6:51) The Jews were scandalized at the idea. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?!” they said.
You can likely think of other such occasions where Jesus’ words were sheer mystery. How can these things be? And each time, what was required was unseen and unattainable apart from God’s intervention. Each time faith was required.
And I’m thinking that it’s no different with the mystery of godliness.
“With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” (Mk.10:26-27 ESV) If we could do it on our own there would be no mystery in it!
This is no matter of mere imitation. We can look at the life of Jesus and try to do exactly what He did, try to be pleasing, try to be ‘godly’. We can make rules and keep them by sheer will power. But it is exactly this will power that got us in trouble in the first place via our ancestors in the Garden. Trusting my will to accomplish righteousness is precisely the opposite of exercising faith in Christ’s righteousness. Thinking that we can conform to God’s standards on our own steam is a delusion of the most insidious kind. We might ask Abraham about this. It is not enough to be committed to doing God’s will by our own methods. God’s work must be done in God’s way, by God’s power, and in God’s good time.
We forget that the law was never meant to make man godly.
As Ian Thomas so aptly puts it: “The Law can no more make you godly than a railway guide can make a train run on time—and by nature you are always behind schedule!”(115)
The law only reminds us of our guilt and inability due to our inherently sinful natures. Our best efforts are not good enough. Of course, God knowing this, provided along with the law a sacrificial system so that He could show mercy on His people until the time had come for the Ultimate Sacrifice of His Son. “For what the law was powerless to do, in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did, by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so He condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.” (Rom.8:3,4) Ah the glorious mystery of godliness!
And that same necessity of Christ’s death and resurrection that saves us is the reality that will enable our lives to be godly. For in reality a godly life must be the life of God lived in me. I appreciate the way Ian Thomas explains it in his book, The Mystery of Godliness. He says that “godliness—or God-likeness—is the direct and exclusive consequence of God’s activity in man. Not the consequence of your capacity to imitate God, but the consequence of God’s capacity to reproduce Himself in you!” (42)
He suggests that the truly Christian life can only be explained in terms of Jesus Christ. If my life is explicable in terms of my personality, willpower, talents, money, sacrifice or any such thing, then it is not a truly Christian life. There is no mystery in it. The kind of life I live as a Christ-follower ought to be beyond human explanation, beyond the capacity of imitation. The Lord Jesus Christ must be the essential ingredient of it. I believe this is what Paul struggled to express in Galatians 2—“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Gal.2:20,21 NIV)
Just as Nicodemus needed the Spirit to transform him in order to enter God’s Kingdom, so each of us is dependent on that same Spirit to empower us to live godly lives. The key ingredient required is reliance on God to do for me what I cannot do for myself. This is faith. Apart from it there is no pleasing God. “It is only the Spirit of God acting within you, who can ever enable you to behave as God intended you to behave!” (47) I am NOT suggesting that a godly life must be punctuated by a series of miraculous events, signs and wonders, or supernatural phenomena in order to be a truly godly life. It is not these externals that prove a man is God-powered. God’s greatest works are done in the secret places of the heart. His Spirit moves when and how He wills in each of us. We are forewarned that many will say ‘Lord, Lord’ and point to the sensational accomplishments of their lives. And Christ will call them ‘workers of iniquity’ and deny ever having known them. Mt.7:22
“They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.” Titus 1:16 God is not expecting us to do sensational things. He is looking for the one who is willing to live in complete dependence and surrender to Him, trusting and obeying Him as He fulfills His will in us in whatever way He pleases whether small or great in man’s eyes.
He is not impressed by our words or our standards. He wants our hearts to be wholly His. The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.” Is.29:13
Christ modeled for us such a surrender—a dependent ‘faith-love’ relationship with the Father. He was unwilling to do anything on His own initiative apart from the Father’s instruction. He humbled himself to the point of death and calls us to take up the cross prepared for us and follow, to live to do the Father’s will, to die to our glory and live for His.
I am challenged by these thoughts. Paul instructs Timothy to exercise himself toward godliness (I Tim.4:7) I know what it is to do physical exercise–to push myself so that my heart gets a workout, to stretch ligaments beyond their comfort zone, to press weights so as to strengthen muscles–but what will training toward godliness look like? Exercising till my heart beats with God’s heart, stretching by faith beyond my comfort zone, and perhaps in this case laying aside weights that keep me from running well!
I can get lost in the theoretical and fail to bring things down to the practical. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what exercising toward godliness looks like. Let’s be looking to the Coach together. He knows.
A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher. Luke 6:40
Behold, God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid;
for the LORD GOD is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation. Is.12:2