What is Godliness?

A friend e-mailed me a response to my June 18 article on the topic, "Godliness in Everyday Shoe Leather." After describing the lives of Christian friends, family and acquaintances, with some of the accompanying struggles and issues that Christians can and do face, the following was the observation made and the question posed in the e-mail: "These are real life examples of people whose lives are about knowing and following God. But the standards, choices and activities may not fit the criteria for godliness….or do they? What is godliness?" Although Scripture does not state a cut and dried definition of godliness per se it does hold up the example toward which our pursuit of godliness is to be directed. That example is Jesus. In his writing on godliness the apostle Peter writes of becoming "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). Is that an impossible standard for us? In our own strength and abilities, yes! Should we adjust the standard so that it is attainable? No! God has prepared all the resources we need. Here is what Peter writes:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. (2 Peter 1:3-7)1

The Scriptures, then, with the portrait they paint of Jesus must always be our standard when we ask "What is godliness?" But I wonder if the biblical concept of godliness is not so much about living up to a particular set of criteria as it is about pressing on in the pursuit of becoming more and more like Jesus. It is more of a process to be struggled through, with victories to be won, cherished and celebrated together, than it is to "have a product", so to speak, to be held up for scrutiny and comparison. It is true that Jesus told us that we are to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48). That is an absolute standard. But Paul made it very clear that in his own journey of faith he had not yet attained but was still in process (Philippians 3). He wrote of pressing on, with a calling ringing in his ears and a shimmering goal beckoning ahead! Interestingly, the Scriptures do describe what godliness is not. Peter, in the passage above, describes the contrast as, ""having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire." The contrast between ‘fleeing’ and ‘pursuing’ to which Paul exhorts Timothy give a good sense of what things war against our pursuit of godliness (1 Timothy 6:11). In his exhortation to Titus, Paul writes:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works (Titus 2:11-14).1

In several passages (Ephesians 4 and 5; Galatians 5) Paul contrasts the old life of the flesh with the new life in the Spirit giving us a clear picture of what godliness is, and isn’t. However, as my friend’s e-mail pointed out each of us has his or her own story of how godliness is being pursued in our individual lives. One Christian might marvel at another’s "Christian experience" and long to taste similar victories. Another might look around at other Christians and wonder why they are struggling so with something that has long been conquered in his or her life. Another might wonder why there seems to be no evidence of victory or even struggle in the life of a particular Christian or group of Christians with some practice deemed to be "ungodly". A danger I see in all of this is that when we look around at others we take our eyes off of our ultimate standard – Jesus. So, in my life, I have viewed the pursuit of godliness, not so much as trying to live up to a set of carefully detailed criteria but rather nurturing a deep passion to grow in Christ-likeness (in grace, mercy, love, joy, forgiveness, peace, contentment etc.) and to help others to grow similarly. Recognizing that I come with my own "unique" set of weaknesses and challenges I take Paul’s example to heart and keep pressing on, watching for those around me who I might be able to encourage along the way. Practically, then, what does it mean to become more like Jesus? Scripture tells us that Jesus "gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works" (Titus 2:14). Here some basics:

  • Jesus was absolutely committed to doing the Father’s will. His life was marked by obedience. That is a good starting point for the pursuit of godliness – obedience to the revealed will of God. The corollary there is that obedience requires knowledge – which leads us to the importance of diligent study of His Word (we cannot obey if we are unfamiliar with His desires).
  • Jesus was completely dependent upon the Spirit’s enabling. He spent much time in prayer. As I read the stories of godly men and women of the past and of today prayerfulness is a recurring theme.
  • Jesus loved others. He reached out to the outcasts of society — the unloved and forsaken and gave them hope. We will grow in godliness as we grow in loving one another. Jesus commanded this of his followers and said that they would be known as his followers by this very characteristic.
  • Jesus proclaimed the Good News wherever He went. He has commanded us to do the same.

Why don’t you share a few thoughts on this website? In what ways have you been following Jesus? What "good works" do Christians today need to be focusing on? Has someone encouraged you in your walk of faith – challenged you to keep pressing on? My wife and I were discussing this article and she was quick to point out that mine was not the last word on the topic of godliness. So, let’s continue the conversation and as I enjoined us in my first article on this topic, let’s continue to encourage one another to keep pressing on. Here are some conversational threads that I see in the Scripture passages mentioned above.

Our pursuit of godliness involves determined effort (2 Peter 1:5)
Our pursuit of godliness requires strict training (1 Tim. 4:7)
Our pursuit of godliness entails a renunciation of ungodliness (Titus 2:12)
Our pursuit of godliness will be characterized by/produce a zeal for good works (Titus 2:14)
Our pursuit of godliness has been resourced richly (2 Peter 1:3,4)
Our pursuit of godliness has an ultimate goal in view (Titus 2:13 and many other passages)

Feel free to log in and register and respond to this article via this website. A poem I wrote back during high school days seems appropriate here:

With patience I shall run the race,
I’ll lay aside each heavy weight,
No falt’ring step, no change in pace,
I’ll not stray from the course called ‘straight’!
My goal? Toward the mark I press!
The mark? The prize of God in Christ!
The prize? All else shall count for less
When winning Him, I’m found in Christ.

    ____________________

  • 1Scriptures quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright ©2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. ESV Text Edition: 2007 (emphases mine).