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.
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), it will be most helpful to consider the voices of the more recent forerunners of modern evangelicalism: namely the Reformers and Puritans.
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.” 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.” 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 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.
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…
 Joseph Harp Britton, Abraham Herschel and the Phenomenon of Piety (London: T&T Clark, 2015): 26-27.
 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion Book I, Chapter II.
 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.