Whatever Happened to Pursuing Godliness?

Most Christians aren’t particularly interested in godliness. That’s a strong statement, but I remain persuaded it is true. Modern evangelical culture has a real problem here. Our priorities don’t align with God’s as they should. (I count myself among those failing here).

My experience is that calls to godliness among modern Christians are too often met with silence and slowly coasting tumbleweed. Or, worse, we just don’t talk about it at all. It doesn’t excite us as it should. The Bible tells us endlessly to “be holy”, “be godly”, “pursue righteousness”, but this topic doesn’t get our hearts racing. What excites us are new ministry strategies and initiatives. That always produces excitement and an eagerness to get involved! But godliness… yawn…

We are missing out on God’s best for us. The Bible says: ‘It is God’s will that you should be sanctified’ (1 Thessalonians 4:3). Read that again. This passage declares God’s will for your life! Why doesn’t that get us excited? Why doesn’t it produce a buzz? Don’t you want God’s best for you? Why don’t we want to talk about that and explore every facet of it?!

But, to our shame, godliness doesn’t get us excited. If you want to get a church excited, announce a new church building project. If you want people’s interest, tell a story about sport. Anything rather than the beautiful thing that godliness is. Worldliness, it appears, is far more exciting than godliness. It certainly takes less effort!

The Practicality of Godliness

During my studies I have had the privilege of spending a lot of time reading the writings of Christians from the 16th and 17th centuries (i.e. Reformers and Puritans). One of the things that has repeatedly struck me is that they were obsessed with godliness. They knew that God’s purpose for us is not only our justification in Christ, but our transformation into his image (Romans 8:29). The Bible’s call to holy living is reflected in the priorities of early Reformed authors far more than I have seen among Christians today. Of course, Christians of that era had significant problems and blind spots too. But they were clear on the priority of godliness, and here we have something to learn from them.

If they were obsessed with godliness, today we are obsessed with pragmatics instead. “What will produce the best results?” we ask. I suspect that’s a big part of the problem. Godliness sounds too vague and impractical. Perhaps we fear that it threatens to make us “too heavenly minded to be of earthly good”, as the saying goes. But the Bible claims the opposite:

…train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance.

1 Timothy 4:7-9

The practically-minded among us should pay attention: godliness is of immense practical value in the here-and-now. Furthermore, godliness is valuable for everything. It is the most practical thing that you can pursue.

Five Roadblocks to the Pursuit of Godliness

Allow me to suggest five observations that I believe prevent us from pursuing godliness as we should.

1) Godliness is often redefined as involvement in ministry

We often fail to pursue godliness because other activities stand in as an effective replacement for it. For many of us a ‘godly Christian’ is someone who goes to church and Bible study each week, does their quiet times regularly, and serves in a rostered ministry at church. But what is their character like? Serving in ministry and church can give the appearance of godliness without changed life (cf. 2 Timothy 3:5).

Similarly, godliness is often practically equated to involvement in mission. Someone who is heavily involved in evangelism is ‘godly’. A pastor who is a good preacher and leads evangelistic work is ‘godly’. In each case the person is assumed to be godly on the basis of their ministry commitments. However, godliness is primarily about character:

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Galatians 5:22-23

Godliness is about how regenerate hearts so desire to be righteous in every way that they will be satisfied with nothing less than perfection (Matthew 5:6, 48).

2) We often act like the only sins of consequence are a handful of top-tier sins

For many evangelicals the only sins of any consequence are a handful of obviously serious sins, such as adultery or criminal activity. If someone is involved in church life and doesn’t commit one these ‘big’ sins, they might be considered ‘godly’.

But what if they are a liar and make a practice of deceiving others? What if they gossip? What if they have an anger issue and take it out on others? What if their sins are less obvious? What if their actions seem good on the outside, but are motivated by jealousy, envy or selfish ambition? Some of these sins are hard to detect. Even when they are noticed it is easy to treat them as relatively insignificant. However, the Bible says that these things are serious enough that those who continue in them are in danger of being excluded from God’s kingdom (Galatians 5:19-21).

3) Repentance has become a dirty word

The Reformation began with Martin Luther (1489-1546) nailing his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church door in 1517. His first point in that document was: ‘When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Matthew 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance’. For Luther repentance was the bread-and-butter of the Christian life. Thomas Cranmer (1484-1556), the author of the Book of Common Prayer, believed the same thing. His liturgy led English people to engage in repentance for their sins as part of every church service.

The contrast between this Reformation emphasis and today is striking. Too many Christians today are deeply embarrassed by the idea that we might need to call a fellow believer to ‘repent’. The word doesn’t roll off our tongues comfortably. It’s jarring and sounds judgmental. It’s as though we think that repentance is something that occurs at the beginning of the Christian life, but not afterwards. I’ve even had many church leaders respond with astonishment at the suggestion that someone needs to be challenged to ‘repent’ of a sin that they have committed. We prefer to use softer, less moral and ‘judgemental’ language: they “stuffed-up”, “made a mistake”, or “mean well”. Yet unintentional sins require repentance too.

All Christians have substantial evils remaining in their lives, both known and unknown to them. Love will lead us to carefully identify and expose these things to those sinning and to call upon them to repent (James 5:19-20; Ephesians 5:11). If we are to pursue godliness we need to be well-practiced in repentance. Every Christian must seek to identify the sin remaining in their thoughts, words, and deeds, and turn away from them. This is truly hard work, but it is what the Spirit of God calls us to.

4) Confrontation and Rebuke are avoided at all costs 

I have previously written on my concern that church discipline too rarely happens today. For many of us this is a culturally challenging topic. We don’t do confrontation, much less rebuke. We avoid. We minimise. We run away. We allow small problems to grow into big problems or to develop into long histories of unchecked toxicity.

There is nothing ungodly about confrontation. Of course, confrontation can be done in very ungodly ways (!), but confrontation is an important part of the Christian life. One of the things that Scripture equips us to do well is to rebuke others (2 Timothy 3:16; 4:2). That word is important. And there are countless examples of godly rebuke in Scripture (e.g. Matthew 23:13-39; Galatians 2:14). Our discomfort with confrontation and rebuke should not be mistaken for these actions being wrong. Our culture might tell us that these things are rude, needlessly unpleasant, or constitute a failure to be “nice”, but that doesn’t make them ungodly. Our discomfort with rebuke and confrontation is a cultural challenge that we need to overcome for the sake of our personal godliness, and that of our churches.

5) Christian Maturity is often redefined as the mere acquisition of skills

Evangelicals often talk about being ‘equipped’ or ‘trained’ for ministry. What is usually meant by this is acquiring new skills and competencies in order to ably perform roles in the church. You might learn how to lead Bible studies, give a Bible talk, teach children, explain the gospel, and so on. All these things are valuable, but they are only skills.  The Bible emphasises training in godliness, not mere competencies:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. 

2 Timothy 3:16-17

The real equipping for ministry is growth in righteousness. When teaching the Bible is reduced to mere learning of content we miss God’s bigger purpose of character-transformation. It is God’s will that you be sanctified. That is far more important than learning new skills!

Conclusion: what do you want to see at a conference?

Christians have a habit of forgetting what really matters. It’s like walking through a mall and being distracted by all the impressive shiny things, forgetting that today’s trend is tomorrow’s trash. The value of godliness never expires and only grows.

There is nothing more precious in life than knowing Jesus and being transformed into his image. Knowing Jesus means sins forgiven by his blood. Knowing Jesus means knowing the Spirit’s transforming power. It means knowing God as Father, and knowing his loving call to grow up to be the kind of children he desires. God’s desire is that his children would be like him.

We need to repent of focusing on programs, techniques and trends. We need to stop focussing on other people and examine ourselves (regularly). Let’s pray that God would renew our hunger to be more like Jesus! We all have a lot of work to do.