The Apostle Paul describes godliness as being profitable not just for the life to come but also for the present (1 Tim 4:8). Making a commitment to God therefore places an importance on the purpose and reason for living in the present, as well as for the future. If we are to find out what that promise is and how we might benefit now from our commitment, we need to examine what godliness is. It will show us how godliness is to be a way of life, indeed the only way of life that provides promise now and for the future.

The doctrine which is according to godliness

The word “godliness” comes from the Greek word eusebia. It is defined in Vines as from eu – ‘well’, and sebomai – ‘to be devout’. It denotes that piety which is characterized by a godly attitude and does that which is well-pleasing to God.

In his first epistle Paul instructs Timothy how to behave in the house of God (3:15). He had exhorted Timothy to teach sound doctrine, avoid speculative questions and concentrate upon “godly edifying which is in faith”. The purpose of “the commandment”, that charge, was love, “out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned” (1:3–5). All these things are incorporated in godliness.

Some in Ephesus were turning aside from the apostles’ doctrine to fables, to endless genealogies and swerving to vain jangling (1:6). “Swerved” means to ‘miss the mark’ and “vain jangling” means ‘random talk’ or babble. There is a further warning for Timothy to avoid profane and old wives fables and, instead, to work towards godliness (4:7). These words conjure up a distressing picture of random, confused noise in the ecclesia having no substance or foundation. It would be a bit like the mixed, confusing messages of the world today where so many conflicting opinions lacking any substance lead to hollowness and a lack of satisfaction. In contrast the gospel, that which is incorporated into “doctrine” as mentioned in 1 Timothy 1:3, has substance, authority and clarity, as in the teaching of the Lord, where “he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Matt 7:29). Connecting these thoughts in chapter 2, Paul exhorts that prayer is to be made for those in authority so that believers may live quiet and peaceable lives in all godliness (v1, 2). We should pray that we have a government that can create the conditions in which these characteristics can be developed.

Paul talks about the ecclesia being “the pillar and ground of the truth” and then goes straight on to talk about “the mystery of godliness”, which Vine defines as ‘godliness embodied in, and communicated through, the truths of the faith concerning Christ’. These are things that are to be incorporated into ‘the truth’, which is the pillar of the ecclesia, the place where Timothy was to fulfil his charge. This incorporates godliness into doctrine and takes us back to the opening verses of the letter where the importance of correct doctrine was established. Paul goes on to warn of those departing from the faith, those who take heed to “seducing spirits and doctrines of devils” or alternative teachings to the true gospel (4:1).

Timothy is encouraged to “refuse profane and old wives’ fables” and to instead “exercise thyself rather unto godliness” with its associated benefits (v7,8). He is to “give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine” (v13) and again in verse 16, he is to “continue in” the doctrine. These two things are thereby inseparably linked – godliness incorporates doctrine. This is not just theoretical teaching; it is the whole application of Scripture in a godly way of life. This link between doctrine and godliness comes out again when Paul denounces those who teach anything other than the doctrine which is according to godliness. Vine puts it as the doctrine that is ‘consistent with godliness’.

The things we believe, the way of life we lead, our attitude towards God, are all encompassed in ‘doctrine’ and they all demonstrate godliness. Paul describes himself as “a servant of God … according to … the acknowledging of the truth which is after godliness”, or that leads to godliness (Titus 1:1). Paul himself is an example of godliness and we have no doubt about the type of person who Paul was. In addition we have the Apostle Peter’s list of characteristics whereby we are to be “neither … barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet1:3–8). It begins with knowledge and the knowledge of Christ gives us all things that pertain to life and godliness (v3). Included in this is the knowledge of the promises (v 4). But knowledge is not enough on its own. “Beside this”, Peter says, “giving all diligence, add …” and then there is a list of things that need to be added to knowledge, including godliness (v5–7). So while we may have the “knowledge” of godliness, we have to add various characteristics to actually have applied, working and real godliness. It is this building upon knowledge that makes that initial knowledge worthwhile. To do otherwise is to make that knowledge barren or idle and unfruitful.

Exercising godliness

Having seen then what godliness is and the benefit we derive from it, how then can we develop godliness? Firstly, there are some things that we need to avoid – the old wives’ fables, the doubtful doctrines, etc. But simply avoiding things is not enough. We need to replace that void with positive action. We need to be doing! We saw in 1 Timothy 4:7 the need to exercise ourselves unto godliness; in 1 Timothy 6:11 the need to follow after godliness; and in 2 Peter 1:6–7 the need to add godly characteristics. It is all about effort as exemplified in the Apostle Paul himself. Godliness is therefore not like a garment that we put on. It requires making an effort, with all the thoughts of discomfort that it may bring. The more effort, the more you push yourself, the better you will do. The pain is only short term. But the difference is that while bodily exercise has to be done over and over and only profits for a little while, exercising ourselves unto godliness has long term, life-long profit.

There is another thought too. In becoming like God, we need to yield ourselves. Instead of taking the bits of God’s ways we want, we need to let God take all of our lives, as in, “yield yourselves unto God” (Rom 6:13–19). The word “yield” is the Greek paristemi meaning, ‘to stand by, to be present, to place a person or thing at one’s disposal, to present, bring into one’s fellowship or intimacy’. It is translated as the word “present”, as in “present your bodies a living sacrifice” (Rom 12:1). It’s about determining that we want to yield to God. We want to stand alongside God and really identify with Him, not just be at His disposal. We anticipate what He would want of us and be there to do it or be in position to act straight away. It’s a positive thing. The negative way is to speak in terms of ‘not’, saying, I am not going to yield to the world, I am not going to do this or that. The risk there is that you have not yielded to the world but you have not determined in your heart to yield to God either. We need to determine in our hearts that we will serve God. Just saying, ‘I must not’ may stop us from developing world-likeness but that does not actively develop God-likeness either.

How godliness gives us promise of the life that now is

How does godliness give us “promise (meaning ‘a divine assurance of good’) of the life that now is”? We are, in fact, created to feel frustrated and to desire something better. Paul says, “For the creature was made subject to vanity” (Rom 8:20; see also Eccl 7:14). We understand the purpose of God, that God wants people who reflect His character, or glory. In coupling these thoughts together we find that trying to reflect God’s character brings us closer to what we have been designed for and we start to experience fulfilment. If we were to go through the beatitudes in Matthew 5 and count the blessings we would see how that sure and certain doctrine can make us happy and fulfilled now.

What a privilege it is to develop God’s character! Developing godliness is the intended purpose of life. Developing that will lead us to do things for others, helping out our fellow human beings, showing to them something of the character of God. “What does the Lord require of thee,” says Micah, “but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8 rsv). “Pure religion and undefiled before God is this”, says James, “to visit the fatherless and the widows and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (1:27).

The problem of a ‘form of godliness’

But there is also the need to sound a warning with regards to godliness. Some suppose that “gain is godliness” (1 Tim 6:5–6). Here are people who think that gain, or money-getting or acquisition, is godliness. Someone such as Simon the sorcerer would be one such example. But verse 6 puts the lie to that in the well-known words, “godliness with contentment is great gain”. Contentment not gain is linked to godliness.

Another example is “Having a form of godliness”, as in 2 Timothy 3:5. Here is a warning that in the last days people will have a form of godliness but will deny the power of it. “Form” equates to ‘appearance’. It is looking godly on the outside but really being something else on the inside. This is one of the big lessons for us. We need to ask ourselves, what are we really? Has our godliness any substance to it? Or are we like the Pharisees, “whited sepulchres”? Do we try and portray ourselves as something we are not? What about the photos or videos that your friends may take of you and show others on social networking sites? Do they show something that you would prefer people not to see? Do we feel guilty about it? How we come across on a Sunday morning may not translate into our socialising mid-week. Many of us do not find God-likeness easy. Let us then ask ourselves, “What would Jesus have done in certain circumstances?” Would Jesus have done something that would have caused his brothers or sisters to go astray by having a different lifestyle outside of ‘the meeting’? What sort of example do we set to others?

There is a warning to be seen in Jacob’s sons. To their father they were pilgrims and heirs of the promises but they sought after a different life in Dothan. They had “a form of godliness” but denied the power of it. It didn’t impact on the whole of their lives. But Scripture is telling us that if we deny the power of that godliness, it is no good to us. Do we understand the power of godliness? Do we know that it has life-changing power or is it something that is just a part of our lives? The ‘Laodicean’, half-hearted attitude is one of the main problems of our age. It is godliness ‘when it suits us’. We can see it as restrictive or not feel any incentive or see any reason to make it count all the time. There is an underlying aspect of apathy to it.

So how do we make godliness count? Seeing it as God-likeness is a start. Let us think about being like God! Can we imagine it?! Does it mean anything, the magnitude of that?! Of course we will not do it perfectly but we will try, and perhaps it helps if we think of Christ as the manifestation of his Father. God provided His Son so that we can relate to and identify with him. How did Christ react to people and circumstances? What was his relationship with his Father? Close, intimate and responsive! Desiring to do his Father’s will, even in a hostile environment! We have the blessing of a measure of law and order that enables us to lead quiet, godly and peaceable lives (1 Tim 2:2). Are we making the most of our opportunity to be godly?

The final question

Having seen what godliness entails, how we can be godly and how it holds hope for the life that now is, we come to the last usage of the word in Scripture, in Peter’s second epistle. With the end of our age symbolised by the destruction of the elements, Peter asks the question, “what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation [‘way of life’] and godliness”? (3:11).

We come to examine ourselves and as we take the emblems, we need to evaluate ourselves honestly and realistically. We know the requirements and we know that godliness is beneficial, and not just for the future but also for the present. But in reality, how close are we to godliness? It is a question that we can only answer for ourselves individually when it comes to application. What manner of persons ought we to be in all holy conversation and godliness?