What is Godliness?

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by Spencer Harmon

It’s a prerequisite for Christian leadership. It’s championed in Christian literature. It’s absence is a red light in romantic relationships.   It’s heralded in thousands of churches every Sunday.  It motivates accountability groups, is commended by Christians around the world, and is summarized in one word:

Godliness.   

But godliness is dangerous.  Not because you may be persecuted if you pursue it – although you may.  Not because Satan will oppose you at every turn of your striving towards it – although he will.  Not because your sinful flesh will roar in resistance as you reach for it – although it will.  No, godliness is dangerous for a much more subtle reason.  

Godliness is dangerous because we use the word so much.  And where words are used often, assumption follows closely behind.  As we continually use this word without defining it from God’s Word, vague definitions take root.  As a result, people who should be pricked are comforted, people who should be freed are burdened, and at worst a culture of shallow holiness implants itself in our Christian communities.  

When something is precious and being threatened, you guard it from multiple sides.  The same is true with godliness.  We not only need to know what godliness is, but also what it isn’t.  

WHAT GODLINESS ISN’T

Godliness is not gifting.  God gives his church gifts, but we should not equate them with godliness.  The Corinthians excelled in spiritual gifts, but at the same time were rebuked for heinous sin (1 Corinthians 5; 11:17-22).  Preaching, teaching, counseling, music, writing, leadership, persuasiveness, hospitality – all of these things can be included in godliness, but are not godliness in and of themselves.

Godliness is not personality.  Godliness is not politeness, an easy going attitude, or diplomacy. Jesus was not perceived as polite by the money-changers when he turned over their tables and called them robbers.  He wasn’t perceived as diplomatic when he called the Pharisees whitewashed tombs.  He wasn’t perceived as easy-going when he rebuked his disciples.  Paul rebukes Peter for not eating with Gentiles.  James rebukes the rich.  All of these men were godly, and one of these men was God himself.  

Godliness is not knowledge.  A robust knowledge of theology, a nuanced understanding of the human heart, and sharp apologetical skills does not make us godly.  Knowing things makes us accountable for them.  The Pharisees were men of astute knowledge, but Jesus tells them they are blind to spiritual reality (John 9:40).    

Godliness is not a leadership position.  The greatest cause of trembling for me as a young pastor is that I would begin equating godliness with my position rather than my character.  Just because we lead a discussion group or Sunday school does not make us the godliest person in the room.  Being a pastor does not automatically mean you become the holiest person in the church.  No, the Bible assumes this principle: the higher the leadership, the deeper the character (1 Timothy 3:1-7).  And the higher you get without deeper character the more likely you are to fall.  

Obvious gifting, a dynamic personality, rigorous knowledge, and lofty leadership are wonderful.  They should be affirmed in the local church lifted up as worthy of pursuit.  But these qualities are not what the Bible defines as godliness.  Knowing this for myself is challenging and clarifying as I aspire towards greater Christ-likeness in daily life.

CHARACTERISTICS OF GODLINESS

Godliness believes the truth.  The fountainhead of godliness is knowing and believing the truth.  Trees need seeds, houses need foundations, cars need gasoline, and godliness stands on truth.  The man who follows a false map walks in the wrong direction.  False teaching in the New Testament warrants swift rebuke because it leads people to sin and death.  The apostle Paul calls the gospel itself the mystery of godliness (1 Timothy 3:16).  The apostle Peter says godliness comes through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence (2 Peter 1:3).  This is why every saint is called to speak the truth in love to one another. (Ephesians 4:15)

Godliness is dignified.  In 1 Timothy 2-3, dignity is a marker of the Christian community from the laity to the leadership.  We should pray for leaders so we can live dignified lives (2:2), pastors should lead their families with all dignity (3:4), and deacons are to be dignified (3:8, 11).

Dignity is the outward reputation of a godly heart.  Dignity doesn’t flow from trying to look dignified, but it’s the result of a heart that loves Christ and others.  The Bible calls this living worthy of the gospel (Philippians 1:27) or conducting yourself with fear (1 Peter 1:17).  It’s a life that appreciates that gravity of their salvation in Christ, and lives a life dripping with that gravitas.  

Godliness is marked by good works.  The person who spends all their time in a prayer closet but never loves their next door neighbor isn’t a godly person in the Bible.  Godliness is not just private piety, but public goodness.  Godliness is a light that is meant to be seen (Matthew 5:16).  Good works signify a godly person, and the nature of good works are to not remain hidden (1 Timothy 5:25).

Godliness is a fight and race.  Godly people are marked by fighting and fleeing, racing and pushing, practice and persistence.  Paul tells young Timothy to train himself for godliness (1 Timothy 4:7).  Training involves intentionality and vigilance that monitors the areas of life that propel you towards or away from your goal.  This means that godliness doesn’t come automatically to us, we must intentionally grow in it, practice it, and discipline ourselves for it.  

GODLINESS HAPPENS TO US

Two parallel truths meet when we talk about godliness.  The first truth is obvious from everything written above: godliness can’t be assumed. It must be understood, pursued, and intentionally fought for.  Godliness doesn’t just happen to us.  Yet, there is a second truth that undergirds the first truth: godliness does happen to us.  

The human heart does not thirst for godliness out of the formation of new habits, but from the transformation brought about by the new birth.  God’s Spirit transforms the human heart by cleansing it from sin and giving it a new nature that desires to grow in godliness (John 3:1-8).  The human soul becomes tender as the seed of the gospel breaks through cement-soil hearts.  May we grow in this grace that he might reap a fruitful harvest.  


Spencer Harmon is the Senior Pastor at Vine Street Baptist Church and the co-author of Letters to a Romantic: On Dating and Letters to a Romantic: On Engagement (P&R, 2017).

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