Month: February 2017

What is Godliness?

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How would you explain “godliness” to a new Christian or a non-believer? Often this key word is used in a well-meaning but unprecise way by many Christians. Sometimes “godliness” becomes synonymous with other terms like “holiness” or “integrity” and other times familiarity with its meaning is simply assumed. For example, R. Kent Hughes’ best-selling book Disciplines of a Godly Man* takes 1 Timothy 4:7b “train yourself for godliness,” as its foundational text. The book’s introduction goes to great lengths to explain what is meant by “training” and “discipline”, while failing to define or explain what godliness is.

Other times godliness may be subsumed under other ideas of what a Christian should be. Larry Crabb asks in The Silence of Adam,* “what does a godly man look like?” He immediately asserts “you can substitute the phrase ‘manly man’ for ‘godly man,’ the two are the same,” and later suggests: “Men in whom masculine energy is suppressed or distorted are unmanly, ungodly men…” Here, godliness appears to be subordinated to a particular notion of masculinity.

disciplines silence

 

The biblical concept of godliness is a very important element of Christianity and it deserves better than to be used as shorthand for generic Christian living, or in any other way that diminishes its uniqueness. There is also a rich heritage of earlier saints who were deeply concerned with the nature and characteristics of godliness, which can be drawn upon from two millennia of church history.  Every Christian will be well served to explore what godliness means biblically and how it has been understood and lived out by those in centuries past.

Eusebeia and Theosebeia in the New Testament

The main Greek word translated as “godliness” in our English New Testaments is eusebeia. It appears around 15 times in the Greek New Testament (Acts 3:12; 1 Timothy 2:2, 3:16, 4:7&8, 6:3,5,6&11; 2 Timothy 3:5; Titus 1:1; 2 Peter 1:3,6&7, 3:11) with words from the same family appearing several more times (Acts 10:2&7, 17:23; 1 Timothy 5:4; 2 Timothy 3:12; Titus 2:12; 2 Peter 2:9).

The word breaks down to eu- (Gk: ‘good’ or ‘well’) and sebeia (Gk: ‘reverence’ or ‘worship’) – literally ‘well-worship’ or ‘good (i.e. proper) reverence.’ In Greek, the concept doesn’t relate exclusively to God, but conveys the idea of giving appropriate reverence to those one has a duty to honour. The similar word theosebeia (literally: ‘God-reverence’) appears once only in 1 Timothy 2:10, but is also usually translated “godliness” in English Bibles.

Thus, if we are to use the term “godliness” in any meaningful way that is anchored in its New Testament definition, it must relate specifically to showing proper reverence to God in our lives. But exactly what is the nature of this worship or reverence?

A helping hand from History

It’s at this point that it will help if we draw on the thoughts of Christians who have wrestled with the implications of this biblical sense of godliness long before we ever asked the question. While Christians in the early centuries of the Church often have valuable insights on this issue (Augustine for instance is sometimes credited with tweaking the sense of the Greco-Roman notion of piety into a more personalised devotion towards God),[1] it will be most helpful to consider the voices of the more recent forerunners of modern evangelicalism: namely the Reformers and Puritans.

Calvin
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The Reformer John Calvin, defined piety (a synonym for godliness) as the “union of reverence and love to God which the knowledge of his benefits inspires.”[2] Here we see that proper reverence towards God must be accompanied by love towards Him. Calvin considered this reverence and love to be built upon a theological foundation: they were inspired by the knowledge of God and his benefits learned through the Gospel and instruction in the Scriptures. Piety was a heart-response to what the head had learned.

Calvin later said that the kind of godly reverence or fear he spoke of also led to “legitimate worship as is prescribed by the law.”[3] That is to say, the outward forms of worship (eg; a church service) which a godly person adopted would not only be characterised by a proper demonstration of reverence for God at all times, but would also be based on whatever forms of worship God had called for in the Bible.

The Puritans

 

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The English Puritans of the 16th and 17th centuries were perhaps more preoccupied with the meaning and centrality of godliness than any other movement in Christian history. They saw the biblical emphasis on worshipping God sincerely from the heart as a core truth that was denied by multitudes of nominal Christians who were “no better than baptised heathen!” (Thomas Watson, Godly Man’s Picture).

Like Calvin, they saw godliness as having the right appreciation and esteem of God as He really was. The Puritans emphasised the cultivation of godly affections – again chiefly fear and love – which showed God actually was being worshipped from the heart. The godly man or woman was a person who cherished God as their most precious treasure and who regarded Him as the Being of greatest magnitude and glory in the universe. This was only possible for those who had been regenerated and given a new nature by God’s Holy Spirit.

The Puritans were also concerned that outward worship be reformed to reflect that which God mandated in the Scriptures, as this was seen as an obvious means of showing they took God seriously. The English Church in which most of them worshipped (for some, until they were forced out) there was a mixture of biblical worship and the innovations of the Roman Catholic Church that found little Scriptural warrant. The Puritans sought to bring church services, corporate worship and private devotion in line with simple, God-honouring reverence and get rid of anything that reeked of superstition or took the focus away from God.

Summary

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I think the easiest way to emphasise the true meaning of godliness is to bold the first three letters: Godliness. In fact, perhaps bold them in size 200 font. Because godliness is all about your attitude towards God. When our heart beholds, by faith, the immense majesty of the King of Kings in His exalted-above-the-heavens glory and is inflamed with sincere love, while trembling with holy fear – that’s godliness. And the way that kind of heart-response shows up in our daily living and the way we gather and worship as a church is godliness-by-extension.

Now that you know what godliness is, it’s worth pondering whether you have it…

 

[1] Joseph Harp Britton, Abraham Herschel and the Phenomenon of Piety (London: T&T Clark, 2015): 26-27.

[2] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion Book I, Chapter II.

[3] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion Book I Chapter II.

*I have nothing against either author, nor do I intend to discredit these particular works: I simply sought to demonstrate from these books how commonly the meaning of godliness is either assumed or conflated with something else.

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Reverend Traitor?

Today is the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi – a critical document in the history and law of New Zealand – and February 6 is celebrated as the country’s national day. Like Australia Day here, the choice of date and the event that it commemorates are not without controversy in Kiwi society.

There remains debate as to whether the Treaty was a good or bad deal for the Maori in establishing their legal relationship with the British Crown. And the numerous military skirmishes between Maori tribes and British settlers and soldiers in the subsequent years have contributed indelible dark red, bloody hues to any picture of the relationship between the two peoples which have been incorporated into one modern society and nation.

As part of my commemoration of Waitangi Day, I commend to readers the story of a man who played a key role in the Treaty arrangement in 1840 between the Maori chiefs and the Queen of the Pakeha (i.e. the name for European settlers). Henry Williams was the most significant Christian missionary to the Maori in the early history of New Zealand’s “settlement” by British colonists. He was sent by the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in England to teach Maori the gospel and ways of Jesus Christ.

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Rev. Henry Williams

Williams demonstrated a sincere care for both the spiritual and overall welfare of the Maori people he lived and worked amongst and was put in a very difficult position when he became the translator of the proposed Treaty from English to Maori, and effectively the mediator of dialogue between British Governor Hobson and the Maori chiefs he sought to win over. Williams had the unenviable dilemma of ending up something of a negotiator representing the British to the Maori, whilst being an advocate of the Maori to certain British officials. This tension could not last…

Williams was branded a traitor by many in the British military ranks stationed in New Zealand for the way in which he acted in the interests of the Maori he knew and loved, including several who were openly hostile towards the British authorities and their troops. He himself seems to have had some remorse that he was unable to prevent hostilities from escalating and secure better conditions for his Maori friends under British rule.

He suffered unjustly at the hands of both Church and State as both the third Governor George Grey and the first Anglican bishop in NZ, took actions against his interests that made his life very difficult.
He was dismissed from CMS as a result of the political machinations against him, but stayed on to continue living and ministering in the country and was later reinstated as a CMS missionary at the request of the two aforementioned gentlemen who had previously done him wrong.

You can read about his life and ministry at his Wikipedia biography:

Or watch a classic New Zealand miniseries The Governor, the first episode of which “The Reverend Traitor” deals (relatively fairly) with Williams’ role in the Treaty process and the grief later caused to him by hostilities between local Maori and British colonisers and the accusations made against him.

reverend-traitor

In my assessment, Henry Williams was unjustly dubbed “the Reverend Traitor” by elements in the British forces who were unsympathetic to the work of the gospel and who viewed the Maori as enemy savages to be subjugated. They could not tolerate a man who did not blindly comply with imperial interests, but sought the welfare of the native people of the land they were colonising.

He could more justly be seen as a sterling example of a frontier missionary who was forced to struggle with satanic opposition in the form of worldly settlers and colonial powers as he strove to bring the light and love of Christ to a land the gospel had thereunto barely touched.

He ministered in New Zealand during the period it came into being as a modern nation and his role in translating the treaty and working towards the reality of the phrase “He iwi tahi tatou” (which he may have formulated as a means of bridging the gap between Governor Hobson and the Maori chiefs at the Treaty signing) surely make him one of the founding fathers of today’s NZ.

And while it’s Jesus, not me, who gets to make the assessment of whether he was a “good and faithful servant”, I’m inclined to believe he was greeted with those words as he entered into his eternal rest, in place of the aspersions cast on his motives and character by his adversaries in this age.

Let’s talk about Sex

It strikes me as peculiar that 90s RnB group Salt’N’Pepa had a hit with a song that presented the irresistible invitation: “Let’s Talk about Sex.” After all, it hardly makes sense to suggest a conversation topic that everyone already talks about almost incessantly…

Perhaps “Let’s keep talking about Sex”, “Let’s not talk about Sex” or “Let’s talk about sex less” would have been more apt suggestions. And yet, a quarter of a century later, there’s certainly no shortage of talk about sex in the media, workplace, playground and cyber-world.

 

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Salt’N’Pepa performing in Canberra a few years ago [1]

When it comes to the intersection between Christianity and topics relating to sex, many people have the unfortunate impression that Christians view sex as dirty and dangerous or, at best, a necessary evil. While some who bear the name of Christ have undoubtedly contributed to this public perception, it is in fact a terrible misrepresentation of the biblically informed, Christian position.

In an age which manages to somehow worship sex while simultaneously treating it as something base, common and profane – Christians simply believe sex is sacred without being absolute.

It is sacred precisely because it is a good gift from God, designed to affectionately and physically communicate the committed and lifelong, social and relational bond that exists between a man and woman pledged to one another in marriage. Its potential for pleasure and procreation are positive elements, naturally flowing from such a bond, and intended for enjoyment exclusively in such a relationship.

To divorce sex from commitment and the possibility of procreation is to exalt the aspect of pleasure at the expense of all others and cheapen sexual activity to a mechanism for achieving physical stimulation. Personal gratification becomes the absolute feature, which eliminates the possibility of expressing one’s sexuality in a meaningfully loving manner or channelling one’s sexual desires into something that can contribute positively to society through a stable, loving marital relationship and potentially the production of the next generation.

For many, sex has become a sort of “gospel” in and of itself. We constantly hear “preaching” that tells us we need it; that our lives will be better if we have it; and even, at times, that we can’t possibly be fulfilled as a person without experiencing it.

If you are having sex and it isn’t making you happy and fulfilled, the problem can’t be sex itself. Either you’re doing something wrong, or you’re having sex with the wrong person. In the words of the RnB artist, Lecrae, we are constantly encouraged to feel the kind of discontentment that leads us to search for “A new somebody to lay with, coz the last 5 just ain’t make it.”

On the one hand, our secular culture’s gradual, debilitating abandonment of all things spiritual and transcendent leaves the sensory stimulation of sexual climax as possibly the closest thing someone can have to an ecstatic or transcendental experience in their dull, material existence. Hormonal rushes, chemical reactions and positive psychological responses have necessarily replaced any hopes for heavenly euphoria or even a soul-enriching encounter with the Divine – since such things are held to be impossible.

 

On the other hand, some cultic groups and New Age versions of spirituality mysticise sexual intercourse, so it becomes a supposed means of spiritual elevation. While the appeal of such an idea is not hard to see (i.e. how many people could honestly say they wouldn’t enjoy experiencing both sexual pleasure and a spiritual high for the price of one?), it is nothing other than a deceitful tool of manipulative “spiritual teachers” who find opportunities for their own base sexual gratification by enticing naïve seekers of spiritual advancement with the promise of enlightenment or elevation through sexual participation with their guru or cult leader.

For Christians, sex can never be the gospel, since in the context of Christian marriage, its sacredness consists especially in its role as a symbol of the true gospel of Jesus Christ. The marital union, including the sexual aspect, reflect the loving, committed relationship between Christ and His Church (see especially Ephesians 5:22-33). While any element of sexuality between Christ and His people is absent, the sexual intercourse between a loving husband and wife is analogous to the spiritual intercourse and perpetual, mystical union between the Lord Jesus and those He died to purchase as His Bride.

This is important, because it allows a Christian to live a happy, faithful and fulfilled life without sex if they remain single. Not only did Jesus Himself never require a sexual experience to fulfil Himself while on earth (and therefore we can take comfort if we are called to follow His example in this regard), but the single Christian can be confident they will receive the glorious enjoyment of spiritual union with Christ that Christian, marital sex signifies – irrespective of whether they ever enjoy the short-lived pleasures of the sign in this age.

It’s equally important for married Christians, who are able to live in committed relationships and enjoy sex as a good gift from God, without relying on it to bring us ultimate fulfilment and satisfaction. If sex isn’t all you dreamed it would be, it could due to any number of reasons, eg; your own unrealistic or sinful expectations; the fallenness of our broken world (which can mark even some of the best things in life with difficulties and imperfections); or even the design-limitations of sex itself.

Because sex points us towards the grand truths of the gospel, you don’t need “better sex” and especially not a better partner/spouse to make you happier and fulfilled. You both need Jesus and the unfailing, all-satisfying enjoyment of Him that He promises to give to all who believe at His coming.

Sex is good. But even the “best sex” in the world falls far short of the best things God offers us in Christ. Those who fail to come to Christ and receive the greatest enjoyment possible for a human being may in fact find the most pleasure they’ll ever experience in sexual activity. But that’s a tragedy – not something to be envied.