‘Godliness’ sounds very old-fashioned, and modern translators find great difficulty in providing a suitable alternative. ‘Religion’, ‘reverence’ and ‘piety’ are often substituted but none of these synonyms adequately reflects the meaning.
Among the pagans of New Testament times ‘godliness’ meant what people think of today when they speak of ‘religion’.
But when Peter and Paul used the term they were not thinking of religiosity or devout religious practices, of whatever sort. They gave the word new content. For them it had reference to the Christian faith (Titus 1:1) and what it meant to be a Christian (1 Timothy 6:6,11; 2 Peter 3:11).
What is godliness?
Godliness carries the idea of true devotion to the God who has revealed himself in Christ, a devotion that is worked out in daily life. ‘Great is the mystery of godliness, God was manifest in the flesh…’ (1 Timothy 3:16).
It has to do with truth that only God could give us. God has disclosed the good news concerning salvation through faith in his unique Son, Jesus Christ. ‘Great is the gospel of our glorious God’.
It is possible, however, to have ‘a form of godliness’ but to know nothing of the reality (2 Timothy 3:5). Genuine godliness includes the appropriate response to the knowledge of God in Christ.
We must trust ourselves to the Son of God who bought us. We must rely entirely on Jesus Christ for salvation from sin and hell, acknowledging that we deserve to be eternally separated from God’s goodness and loving presence.
Godliness is more than knowing the facts of the gospel. It involves believing on the Lord Jesus with self-despairing trust.
At the same time, as Peter reminds us in his second letter, godliness is a disposition that is opposed to the worldly mindset. We must refuse to follow the thinking and values of the godless media and society.
Our supreme ambition must be to please and serve the Lord and to tell others about him.
I am sure we would all say ‘Amen’ to this. But what about practising this godliness? Let me give you an example of what I mean.
I knew a man by the name of George. Like his father he was a blacksmith by trade, working for one of the county councils.
The temptation to become a communist was quite strong prior to the Second World War but he was converted in his late twenties and ten years later was challenged to be more fully committed to a life of godliness.
He was an accomplished violinist and in his early days had played in local orchestras as well as giving recitals at special functions. With his deeper commitment to Jesus Christ these activities fell away, although he continued to teach one or two pupils a week for many years.
Though he left school at the age of fourteen, he valued what instruction he had been given and built on this in later life. After his conversion he learnt some of the great texts and chapters of the Bible by heart, enrolled for a Bible correspondence course and was always regular in attendance at the Sunday services and mid-week meetings for prayer and Bible study.
On Sunday afternoons George taught a class of teenage boys. Every week he would give them a key Bible-verse to learn for the following Sunday. Before teaching the lesson he would make sure they all knew the verse and what it meant.
This followed a pattern he had developed at home with his own son. Though he used the Scofield Reference Bible he did not slavishly accept all the notes. He would often take his class through The Westminster Shorter Catechism.
Before jumping on his bicycle for work each morning, he would spend time reading his Bible and praying while eating his breakfast. Until his retirement he was a Transport and General Workers Union shop steward at the county depot.
He was well respected by his fellow workers and employers. I do not remember him ever calling the men out on strike, although there were tough negotiations on some issues.
Everyone at work knew him to be a man of strong Christian convictions who was not afraid to testify to his faith in the Saviour.
College students working at the depot during their summer vacations enjoyed eating their sandwiches at the smithy, when he would engage them in discussion over issues of the day.
Invariably he would be able to turn the conversation round to spiritual matters and make them think deeply about life, their relationship to God and the good news concerning Jesus Christ. They nicknamed him ‘the philosopher’.
He was well known in his local community. In his earlier years he was elected to the parish council as a Labour member. He learnt first hand what a dirty game politics could be.
Though he continued to vote for the party of his youth, his sights were higher, as he worked for the advancement of the heavenly kingdom.
Until his death he served as a manager of the primary school where he and his sons had been pupils. Through his influence he was able to encourage the head and the other governors to raise money without resorting to gambling.
Life had its difficulties and trials for him. He was an only child. His parents suffered much ill health, so he often had to clean the house and cook. His first wife died of cancer when he was in his mid-forties.
He had to contend with a fiery temper. Over the years he mellowed but to the end he was always forthright and open. He was not afraid to challenge preachers who denied vital elements of the faith.
On the other hand, he was quick to show his appreciation of those who were earnest in proclaiming the gospel. He died, not trusting in his own activities, but in the merits of the Son of God who loved him and gave himself for him.
I thank God for every remembrance of him and for his influence on my life. This is the kind of godliness we are urged to pursue.