A Theology of Godliness

Godliness, it turns out, is a complicated issue for many Christians. It is certainly an issue I find myself working through both personally and pastorally.  Ultimately, our approach to godliness is determined by our understanding of law and gospel, and our experience of grace. Unfortunately our theology and experience are often corrupt enough to lead us into two different but common errors concerning the practice of godliness: legalism and license. The former comes when we trust in law (God's or man's) and the latter when we trample God's grace. Legalism Kills Godliness

We are trusting in law when we find our confidence in our own conformity to the standards of the law. Do you feel that you are more acceptable in prayer or worship when you are obeying more? For many, the better their moral improvement and religious performance the more at peace they feel with God. Looking to the law like this creates an unholy confidence in our obedience that stands in opposition to the justification God offers us in Christ. Instead of the law being a means to lead us to grace by showing us our inability to meet God's standards, we attempt to use it as a means to establish our own righteousness before God.

If you believe yourself to be cleaner, or that God is more ready to receive you, when you are doing well then you are trusting in law, not in Christ. It means your approach to godliness is built on legalism and not the gospel, turning your "godliness" itself into an offense.

License Kills Godliness

On the other end of the spectrum we find those who presume upon the grace of God. Some believe that since God's grace covers our sins, and that we are accepted apart from our works, and that sin corrupts even our best acts of devotion (all of this is true, of course)  that a serious and godly life is unnecessary and impossible. This trampling of God's grace leads to an unholy complacency where professing Christians neither seek nor truly know God in his grace.

If you believe godliness to be an unnecessary impossibility and are not seeking die to self and live unto God than you are presuming on God's grace.

The Gospel Gives Life to Godliness

It is inappropriate to think of godliness as the stuff we do (or can't do). Godliness is not behavior. Godliness is the result of the gospel taking root in our hearts, producing the fruit of Godward love and obedience through an attitude of joy and gratitude. True godliness in the life of a sinner-saint is an imperfect experience, but an experience of grace nonetheless. We need a theology of godliness that understands it is much more than will-power and performance, but the sanctifying work of the Spirit and true affection that leads to the joyful work of denying self and following Jesus.

To avoid the common dangers of legalism and license I like to explain it to the people at Redeemer, and more often to myself, that godliness is to be desired and developed, but is never something in which we trust or boast.

1. We should desire it.

Godliness is the natural desire of all those born of God. We want to be reflect the imago dei and look like our Heavenly Father. We long to be more like our Savior who not only shows us perfect diety, but also perfect humanity. We crave for the Spirit of God to sanctify us through the word. There is happiness to be found in holiness when it is born in us by the grace of God.

Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. 1 Tim 4:7, 8 (ESV)

2. We should develop it.

While sanctification is the work of God, "whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God," it is also what enables us "more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness." (WSC Q.35). This means godliness is to be pursued. By the grace of God and the power of his Spirit we can die to the flesh and live unto him. We do not give up on the pursuit, for even though sin remains with us in all things this side of the resurrection, we have Christ's prayer for and God's promise of growth in grace and godliness.

But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. 1 Tim. 6:11 (ESV)

3. We must not trust in it.

Desiring and developing godliness is only good when we know better than to trust in our godliness as the means of believing or even feeling ourselves to be acceptable before God. Our hope and confidence before God is never our righteousness, but the righteousness of Christ.

...yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. Gal. 2:16 (ESV)

4. We must not boast in it. In our pursuit of godliness we must not boast in it for 2 simple reasons. First, our godliness is imperfect, corrupt with sin. Even our best praying and service is tainted with mixed motives or a divided heart. Second, our godliness is the work of God in us, not a result of our trying harder and getting better. True godliness produces humility as we recognize its presence and growth to be the gracious, progressive work of God.

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Phil. 2:12, 2:13 (ESV)

One of the most helpful books on the subject for me as been Vital Godliness, by William Plumer. God used it in truly transformative ways in my life. If you don't have it, check it out. (You can read it online for free here.)