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What is Godliness?

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Something More Than Christian Character

Although we’ve all heard the word, few of us can give a quick and easy definition for godliness. We read little about it (historically the concept has been treated rather lightly in Christian literature), and we might conclude that it’s something we'll experience and understand only as we go much further down the road of Christian living.

But in the following excerpt from his new NavPress book The Practice of Godliness, Jerry Bridges helps us to see the importance of this foundational spiritual attribute, and to commit ourselves to building it into our lives now.

NO higher compliment can be paid to a Christian than to call him a godly person. He might be a conscientious parent, a zealous church worker, a dynamic spokesman for Christ, or a talented Christian leader; but none of these things matters if, at the same time, he is not a godly person.

The words godly and godliness actually appear only a few times in the New Testament; yet the entire Bible is a book on godliness. And when those words do appear they are pregnant with meaning and instruction for us.

When Paul wants to distill the essence of the Christian life into one brief paragraph, he focuses on godliness. He tells us that God’s grace "teaches us to say 'No' to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives" as we await the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (Titus 2:11-13).

When Paul thinks of his own job description as an apostle of Jesus Christ, he describes it as being called to further the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness (Titus 1:1).

Paul especially emphasizes godliness in his first letter to Timothy. We are to pray for those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. We are to train ourselves to be godly. We are to pursue godliness—the word "pursue" indicating unrelenting, persevering effort. Godliness with contentment is held forth as great gain; and finally, godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.

When Peter, in looking forward to the, day of the Lord when the earth and everything in it will be destroyed, asks what kind of people we ought to be, he answers that we are to live holy and godly lives (2 Peter 3:10-12). Here Peter uses the most momentous event of all history to stir us up to our Christian duty—holy and godly living.

Surely, then, godliness is no optional spiritual luxury for a few quaint Christians of a bygone era or for some group of supersaints of today. It is both the privilege and duty of every Christian to pursue godliness, to train himself to be godly, to study diligently the practice of godliness.

We don't need any special talent or equipment. God has given to each one of us "everything we need for life and godliness" (2 Peter 1:3). The most ordinary Christian has all that he needs, and the most talented Christian must use those same means in the practice of godliness.

What then is godliness? What are the marks of a godly person? How does a person become godly?

I have asked a number of people, "What do you think of when you think of godliness?" The answers, though varied, always end up expressing some idea of Christian character, using such expressions as "Godlike," "Christlike," or "the fruit of the Spirit." Godliness certainly includes Christian character, but it is more than that. There is another, even more fundamental aspect of godliness than godly character. It is the foundation, in fact, on which godly character is built.

Devotion in Action

The Bible gives us some clues about godliness in its earliest pages. Genesis 5:21-24 tells us about Enoch, the father of Methuselah. In a short three-verse summary of Enoch’s life, Moses twice describes him as one who "walked with God."

Much later in the Bible, the author of Hebrews gives Enoch a place in his great 'Faith’s Hall of Fame" in chapter 11, but he sees Enoch from a slightly different perspective. He describes him as "one who pleased God."

Here, then, are two important clues: Enoch walked with God, and Enoch pleased God. It is evident from these two statements that Enoch’s life was centered in God; God was the focal point, the polestar of his very existence.

Enoch walked with God; he enjoyed a relationship with God; and he pleased God. We could accurately say he was devoted to God. This is the meaning of godliness.

The New Testament word for godliness, in its original meaning, conveys the idea of it, a personal attitude toward God that results in actions that are pleasing to him. This personal attitude toward God is what we call devotion to God.

But it is always devotion in action. It is not just a warm, emotional feeling about God, the kind of feeling we may get while singing some grand old hymn of praise or some modern-day chorus of worship. Neither is devotion to God merely a time of private Bible reading and prayer, a practice we sometimes call "devotions."

Although this practice is vitally important to a godly person, we must not think of it as defining devotion for us.

Focused On God

Devotion is not an activity; it is an attitude toward God. This attitude is composed of three essential elements:

  • the fear of God
  • the love of God
  • the desire for God.

Note that all three elements focus upon God. The practice of godliness is an exercise or discipline that focuses upon God. From this Godward attitude arises the character and conduct that we usually think of as godliness. So often we try to develop Christian character and conduct without taking the time to develop God-centered devotion. We try to please God without taking the time to walk with him and develop a relationship with him. This is impossible to do.

Consider the exacting requirements of a godly lifestyle as expounded by the saintly William Law in A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. Law uses the word devotion in a broader sense to mean all that is involved in godliness—actions as well as attitude:

Devotion signifies a life given, or devoted, to God. He therefore is the devout [godly] man who lives no longer to his own will, or the way and spirit of the world, but to the sole will of God; who considers God in everything, who serves God in everything, who makes all the parts of his common life parts of piety [godliness], by doing everything in the name of God, and under such rules as are conformable to his Glory.

Note the totality of godliness over one’s entire life in Law’s description of the godly person. Nothing is excluded. God is at the center of his thoughts. His most ordinary duties are done with an eye to God’s glory. In Paul’s words to the Corinthians, whether he eats or drinks or whatever he does, he does it all for the glory of God.

It is obvious that such a God-centered lifestyle cannot be developed and maintained apart from a solid foundation of devotion to God. Only a strong personal relationship with the living God can keep such a commitment from becoming oppressive and legalistic. John writes that God’s commands are not burdensome; a godly life is not wearisome, but this is true only because a godly person is first of all devoted to God.

Devotion to God, then, is the mainspring of godly character. And this devotion is the only motivation for Christian behavior that is pleasing to God.

This motivation is what separates the godly person from the moral person, or the benevolent person, or the zealous person. The godly person is moral, benevolent, and zealous because of his devotion to God. And his life takes on a dimension that reflects the very stamp of God.

It is sad that many Christians do not have this aura of godliness about them. They may be very talented and personable, or very busy in the Lord’s work, or even apparently successful in some avenues of Christian service, and still not be godly. Why? Because they are not devoted to God. They may be devoted to a vision, or to a ministry, or to their own reputation as Christians, but not to God.

Godliness is more than Christian character: It is Christian character that springs from a devotion to God. But it is also true that devotion to God always results in godly character. The essential elements of devotion must express themselves in a life that is pleasing to God. So godliness can be defined as devotion to God which results in a life that is pleasing to him.

Enoch walked with God, and Enoch pleased God. His walk with God speaks of his relationship with God, or his devotion to God; his pleasing God speaks of the behavior that arose from that relationship.

It is impossible to build a Christian behavior pattern without the foundation of a devotion to God. The practice of godliness is first of all the cultivation of a relationship with God, and from this the cultivation of a life that is pleasing to God. Our concept of God and our relationship with him determine our conduct.

We have already seen that devotion to God consists of three essential elements: the fear of God, the love of God, and the desire for God. Think of a triangle representing devotion to God, with these three elements as each of its three points.

The fear of God and the love of God form the base of the triangle, while the desire for God is at the apex. As we study these elements individually, we will see that the fear of God and the love of God form the foundation of true devotion to God, while the desire for God is the highest expression of that devotion.

The God-Fearing Christian

The late professor John Murray wrote in Principles of Conduct, "The fear of God is the soul of godliness." Yet the fear of God is a concept that seems old-fashioned and antiquated to many modern-day Christians.

Some of our aversion to the phrase "fear of God" may be due to a misunderstanding of its meaning. The Bible uses the term "fear of God" in two distinct ways: that of anxious dread, and that of veneration, reverence, and awe.

Fear as anxious dread is produced by the realization of God’s impending judgment upon sin. When Adam sinned he hid from God because he was afraid. Although this aspect of the fear of God should characterize every unsaved person who lives each day as an object of God’s wrath, it seldom does. Paul’s concluding indictment of ungodly mankind was, "There is no fear of God before their eyes" (Romans 3:18).

The Christian has been delivered from fear of God’s wrath (1 John 4:18). But the Christian has not been delivered from the discipline of God against his sinful conduct, and in this sense he still fears God. He works out his salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12); he lives his life as—a stranger here in reverent fear (1 Peter 1:17).

For the child of God, however, the primary meaning of the fear of God is veneration and honor, reverence and awe. Murray says this fear is the soul of godliness. It is the attitude that elicits from our hearts adoration and love, reverence and honor. It focuses in awe not upon the wrath of God but upon the majesty, holiness, and transcendent glory of God.

The angelic beings of Isaiah’s vision in chapter 6 demonstrated this awe when, with two of their wings, they covered their faces the presence of the exalted Lord. We see this same awe in Isaiah himself and in Peter when they each realized they were in the presence of a holy God. We see it most vividly in the reaction of the beloved disciple John in Revelation 1:17, when he saw his Master in all of his heavenly glory and majesty, and fell at his feet as though dead.

It is impossible to be devoted to God if one’s heart is not filled with the fear of God. It is this profound sense of veneration and honor, reverence and awe that draws forth from our hearts the worship and adoration that characterizes true devotion to God. The reverent, godly Christian sees God first in his transcendent glory, majesty, and holiness before he sees him in his love, mercy, and grace.

There is a healthy tension that exists in the godly person’s heart between the reverential awe of God in his glory and the childlike confidence in God as heavenly Father. Without this tension, a Christian’s filial confidence can easily degenerate into presumption.

One of the more serious sins of Christians today may well be the almost flippant familiarity with which we often address God in prayer. None of the godly men of the Bible ever adopted the casual manner we often do. They always addressed God with reverence. The same writer who tells us that we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place, the throne room of God, also tells us that we should worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, "for our God is a consuming fire" (Hebrews 10:19 and Hebrews 12:28-29). Paul, who tells us that the Holy Spirit dwelling within us causes us to cry "Abba Father," also tells us that this same God lives in "unapproachable light" (Romans 8:15 and 1 Timothy 6:16).

In our day we must begin to recover a sense of awe and profound reverence for God. We must begin to view him once again in the infinite majesty that alone belongs to him who is the Creator and Supreme Ruler of the entire universe. There is an infinite gap in worth and dignity between God the Creator and man the creature, even though man has been created in the image of God. The fear of God is a heartfelt recognition of this gap—not a put—down of man, but an exaltation of God.

Even the redeemed in heaven fear the Lord. In Revelation 15:3-4, they sing triumphantly the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb:

Great and marvelous are your deeds,

Lord God Almighty.

Just and true are your ways,

King of the ages.

Who will not fear you, O Lord,

and bring glory to your name?

For you alone are holy.

All nations will come

and worship before you,

for your righteous acts have been revealed.

Note the focus of their veneration upon God’s attributes of power, justice, and holiness. It is these attributes, which particularly set forth the majesty of God, that should elicit from our hearts a reverence for him.

This same reverence was drawn forth from the children of Israel when they saw the great power the Lord displayed against the Egyptians. Exodus 14:31 says, "The people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant." Along with Moses they sang a song of worship and gratitude. The heart of that song is found in Exodus 15:11: "Who among the gods is like you, O Lord? Who is like you—majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?" To fear God is to confess his absolute uniqueness—to acknowledge his majesty, holiness, awesomeness, glory, and power.

Words fail us to describe the infinite glory of God portrayed in the Bible. And even that portrayal is dim and vague, for now we see but a poor reflection of him. But one day we will see him face to face, and then we will fear him in the fullest sense of that word.

No wonder, then, that with that day in view Peter tells us to live holy and godly lives now. God is in the process of preparing us for heaven, to dwell with him for eternity. So he desires that we grow in both holiness and godliness. He wants us to be like him and to reverence and adore him for all eternity. We must be learning to do this now.

In our day we seem to have magnified the love of God almost to the exclusion of the fear of God. Because of this preoccupation we are not honoring God and reverencing him as we should. We should magnify the love of God; but although we revel in his love and mercy, we must never lose sight of his majesty and his holiness.

Not only will a right concept of the fear of God cause us to worship God aright, it will also regulate our conduct. As John Murray says, "What or whom we worship determines our behavior." Albert N. Martin has said that the essential ingredients of the fear of God are (1) correct concepts of God’s character, (2) a pervasive sense of God’s presence, and (3) a constant awareness of our obligation to God. If we have some comprehension of God’s infinite holiness and his hatred of sin, coupled with this pervasive sense of God’s presence in all of our actions and thoughts, then such a fear of God must influence and regulate our conduct.

The fear of God should provide a primary motivation for, as well as result in, obedience to him. If we truly reverence God we will obey him, since every act of disobedience is an affront to his dignity and majesty.

Gripped By God's Love

Only the God-fearing Christian can truly appreciate the love of God. He sees the infinite gulf between a holy God and a sinful creature, and the love that bridged that gulf through the death of the Lord Jesus Christ. God’s love for us is many-faceted, but he supremely demonstrated it by sending his Son to die for our sins. All other aspects of his love are secondary, and in fact are made possible for us through the death of Christ.

The apostle John says, "God is love" (1 John 4:8). And he explains, "This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins" (1 John 4:9-10).

This last phrase can also be translated, "he loved us and sent his Son as the one who would turn aside his wrath, taking away our sins" (NIV marginal rendering). The truly godly person never forgets that he was at one time an object of God’s holy and just wrath. He never forgets that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—and like Paul he feels that he is himself the worst of sinners. But then as he looks to the cross he sees that Jesus was his atoning sacrifice. He sees that Jesus bore his sins in his own body, and that the wrath of God—the wrath which he, a sinner, should have borne—was expended completely and totally upon the holy Son of God. And in this view of Calvary, he sees the love of God.

The love of God has no meaning apart from Calvary. And Calvary has no meaning apart from the holy and just wrath of God. Jesus did not die just to give us peace and a purpose in life; he died to save us from the wrath of God. He died to reconcile us to a holy God who was alienated from us because of our sin. He died to ransom us from the penalty of sin—the punishment of everlasting destruction, and of being shut out from the presence of the Lord. He died that we, the just objects of God’s wrath, should become, by his grace, heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.

How much we appreciate God’s love is I conditioned by how deeply we fear him. The more we see God in his infinite majesty, holiness, and transcendent glory, the more we will gaze with wonder and amazement upon his love poured out at Calvary. But it is also true that the more deeply we perceive God’s love to us in Christ, the more profound will be our reverence and awe of him.

The psalmist caught this truth when he said, "If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared" (Psalm 130:3-4). He worshiped God with reverence and awe because of God’s forgiveness. In our practice of godliness, then, we must seek to grow both in the fear of God and in an ever-increasing comprehension of the love of God. These two elements together form the foundation of our devotion to God.

This awareness of God’s love for us in Christ must be personalized in order for it to become one of the solid foundational corners of our "triangle of devotion" to God. It is not enough to believe that God loved the world. I must be gripped by the realization that God loves me, a specific person. It is this awareness of his individual love that draws out our hearts in devotion to him.

There was a period in my early Christian life when my concept of God’s love was little more than a logical deduction: God loves the world; I am a part of the world; therefore, God loves me. It was as if God’s love were a big umbrella to protect us all from his judgment against sin, and I was under the umbrella along with thousands of other people. There was nothing particularly personal about it. Then one day I realized, "God loves me! Christ died for me."

Our awareness of God’s love for us must also be constantly growing. As we mature in our Christian lives we are increasingly aware of God’s holiness and our own sinfulness. In Paul’s first letter to Timothy he reflects upon God’s mercy in appointing him to the gospel ministry. Paul recalls that he once was a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man. This description no longer applies to Paul; it is all past tense. But as he continues to reflect upon the grace of God, he slips, almost unconsciously it seems, into the present tense of his experience: "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst" (1 Timothy 1:15). He is no longer thinking about his past as a persecutor of Christ. Now he is thinking about his present daily experience as a believer who falls short of the will of God for him. He doesn't think about other Christians, whom we know were way behind Paul in their devotion to God and their attainment of godly character. Paul never wastes time trying to feel good about himself by comparing himself favorably with less mature Christians. He compares himself with God’s standard, and he consequently sees himself as the worst of sinners.

Through this present sense of his sinfulness Paul sees God’s love for him. The more he grows in his knowledge of God’s perfect will, the more he sees his own sinfulness, and the more he comprehends God’s love in sending Christ to die for him. And the more he sees God’s love, the more his heart reaches out in adoring devotion to the One who loved him so.

If God’s love for us is to be a solid foundation stone of devotion, we must realize that his love is entirely of grace—that it rests completely upon the work of Jesus Christ and flows to us through our union with him. Because of this basis his love can never change, regardless of what we do. In our daily experience, we have all sorts of spiritual ups and downs—sin, failure, discouragement, all of which tend to make us question God’s love. That is because we keep thinking that God’s love is somehow conditional. We are afraid to believe his love is based entirely upon the finished work of Christ for us.

Deep down in our souls we must get hold of the wonderful truth that our spiritual failures do not affect God’s love for us one iota—that his love for us does not fluctuate according to our experience. We must be gripped by the truth that we are accepted by God and loved by God for the sole reason that we are united to his beloved Son. As the King James Version translates Ephesians 1:6, "he hath made us accepted in the beloved."

Does this apprehension of God’s personal, unconditional love for us in Christ lead to careless living? Not at all. Rather, such an awareness of his love stimulates in us an increased devotion to him. And this devotion is active; it is not just a warm, affectionate feeling toward God.

Paul testified that Christ’s love for us compelled him to live not for himself, but for him who died for us and rose again (2 Corinthians 5:14-15). The word for "compel" which Paul used is a very strong verb. It means to press in on all sides and to impel or force one to a certain course of action. Probably not many Christians can identify with Paul in this depth of his motivation, but this surely should be our goal. This is the constraining force God’s love is intended to have upon us.

Jonn speaks similarly of the constraining force of God’s love when he says, "We love because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19). Whether it is love for God or love for other people that John had in mind, both are prompted by the realization of God’s love for us.

So we see that devotion to God begins with the fear of God—with a biblical view of his majesty and holiness that elicits a reverence and awe of him. And then we see that the fear of God leads naturally to an apprehension of the love of God for us as shown in the atoning death of Jesus Christ. As we contemplate God more and more in his majesty, holiness, and love, we will be progressively led to the apex of the triangle of devotion—the desire for God himself.

A Thirst For God

True godliness engages our affections and awakens within us a desire to enjoy God’s presence and fellowship. It produces a longing for God himself.

The writer of Psalm 42 vividly expressed this longing when he exclaimed, "As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and I meet with God?" What could be more intense than a hunted deer’s thirst for water? The psalmist does not hesitate to use this picture to illustrate the intensity of his own desire for God’s presence and fellowship.

David also expresses this intense desire for God: "One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple" (Psalm 27:4). David yearned intensely for God himself that he might enjoy his presence and his beauty. Since God is a spirit, his beauty obviously refers not to a physical appearance but to his attributes. David enjoyed dwelling I upon the majesty and greatness, the holiness and goodness of God. But David I did more than contemplate the beauty of God’s attributes. He sought God himself, for elsewhere he says, "Earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you" (Psalm 63:1).

The apostle Paul also experienced this longing for God: "I want to know Christ" (Philippians 3:10). The Amplified Bible forcefully catches the intensity of Paul’s desire in this passage: "For my determined purpose is that I may know Him—that I may progressively become more deeply and intimately acquainted with Him, perceiving and recognizing and understanding the wonders of His person more strongly and more clearly."

This is the heartbeat of the godly person. As he contemplates God in the awesomeness of his infinite majesty, power, and holiness, and then as he dwells upon the riches of God’s mercy and grace poured out at Calvary, his heart is captivated by this One who could love him so. He is satisfied with God alone, but he is never satisfied with his present experience of God. He always yearns for more.

Perhaps this idea of a desire for God sounds strange to many Christians today. We understand the thought of serving God, of being busy in his work. We may even have a "quiet time" when we read the Bible and pray. But the idea of longing for God himself, of wanting to deeply enjoy his fellowship and his presence, may seem a bit too mystical, almost bordering on fanaticism. We prefer our Christianity to be more practical.

Yet who could be more practical than Paul? Who was more involved in the struggles of daily living than David? Still, with all their responsibilities, both Paul and David yearned to experience more fellowship with the living God.

The Bible indicates that this is God’s plan for us, from its earliest pages right through to the end. In the third chapter of Genesis, God walks in the garden, calling out for Adam that he might have fellowship with him. In Revelation 21, when John sees the vision of the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven, he hears the voice of God say, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them" (verse 3). For all of eternity God plans to have fellowship with his people.

Today, Jesus still says to us as he did to the church at Laodicea, "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me" (Revelation 3:20). In the culture of John’s day, to share a meal meant to have fellowship, so Jesus is inviting us to open our hearts to him that we may fellowship with him. He desires that we come to know him better; therefore, the desire and yearning for God is something that he plants within our hearts.

In the life of the godly person, this desire for God produces an aura of warmth. Godliness is never austere and cold. Such an idea comes from a false sense of legalistic morality that is erroneously called godliness. The person who spends time with God radiates his glory in a manner that is always warm and inviting, never cold and forbidding.

This longing for God also produces a desire to glorify God and to please him. In the same breath, Paul expresses the desire to know Christ as well as to be like him. This is God’s ultimate objective for us and is the object of the Spirit’s work in us. In Isaiah 26:9, the prophet proclaims his desire for the Lord in words very similar to the psalmist’s: "My soul yearns for you in the night; in the morning my spirit longs for you." Note that immediately before this expression of desire for the Lord, Isaiah expresses a desire for God’s glory: "Your name and renown are the desire of our hearts" (verse 8). Renown has to do with one’s reputation, fame, and eminence—or in God’s case, with his glory. The prophet could not separate in his heart his desire for God’s glory and his desire for God himself. These two yearnings go hand in hand.

This is devotion to God—the fear of God, which is an attitude of reverence and awe, veneration and honor toward him, coupled with an apprehension deep within I our souls of the love of God for us, demonstrated preeminently in the atoning death of Christ. These two attitudes complement and reinforce each other, producing within our souls an intense desire for this One who is so awesome in his glory and majesty, and yet so condescending in his love and mercy.

From "Value for All Things" and "Devotion to God"
in The Practice of Godliness by Jerry Bridges (NavPress, 1983).

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