But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:15, 16).
The “Puritan” Standard
The stern faces of the Puritans of the 60s were terrifying. (The 1960s not the 1660s.) Is that what “godliness” was? This boy wasn’t sure he wanted any part of it.
Yet the concept made sense. Godliness, that is. Even as a kid I knew we were supposed to be different from the world. “‘Come out from them and be separate,’ says the Lord. ‘Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you’” (2 Corinthians 6:17).
I thought it was the natural path for the adult Christian, especially the American Christian. Growing up in India I knew plenty of Christian men who smoked and chewed betel nut. But somehow I got the idea that white Christians didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, and always wore suits with crisp white shirts on Sundays.
Even into my college years I viewed smoking and drinking as something good Christians didn’t do. In our Life of Christ class, when we talked about Jesus turning water into wine, we were pretty sure he made really good grape juice.
Of course, there were some other components of holiness: no sex before marriage, no sex outside of marriage, no divorce, no gossip (unless it was true), no cussing. The list of prohibitions could have been longer, but that covered most. (Note: I know that holiness and godliness are not synonymous, but since holiness is contained within godliness I will use them interchangeably, knowing that godliness also includes the nature of God, characteristics such as love, justice, and mercy.)
The Age of Relativism
Fast forward 40 years to the age of relativism. Now ministers talk about their favorite wines in sermons. Craft beer is a booming industry for the young evangelical. Divorce is sad but accepted. Living together before you’re married is the norm. As long as you have a good reason, almost anything is okay.
It seems we’ve found a new favorite verse: “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive” (1 Corinthians 10:23). And guess who gets to decide what’s beneficial.
The question is, is godliness outdated? Can it make a comeback? Should we even bother expecting it within the church?
You know the answer. It’s not up to us to decide if godliness and holiness should be preached from our pulpits and taught in our Sunday school classrooms. The Scriptures demand it. God expects it. Jesus died for it.
Training for Godliness
“Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, 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” (1 Timothy 4:7, 8).
When the Word is heard, whose responsibility is it then? What role do we play? What role does the Spirit play? What role does grace play?
Let’s start with the Spirit. “When he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you” (John 16:13, 14).
Do we listen to his prompting, his nudges, or even his shouts? Or do we “quench the spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:19)? You know, add just enough of the cold water of self so that we can ignore what we know we should do.
Do we let the Spirit move us to maturity as he works to make us like God? It’s his work to add to our character increasing amounts of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.” But we have to let him.
Then there is grace. What does grace have to do with it?
This may be one of the most under-taught doctrines in the Bible. Oh, we sing it over and over, but we don’t read it over and over.
We sing, “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear. And grace my fears relieved.” (Thanks, John Newton.) Yet how often do we read, “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:11, 12)?
We’re more than happy to accept salvation through grace, because, well, that’s what grace is for. We tell ourselves grace is for the next life — grace is about Heaven.
As we know and profess, “it is the gift of God.” Grace as a teacher goes against our concept of what a gift is.
The socks you knew you were getting from Grandma for Christmas really didn’t qualify as a gift. That’s about where “Teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age,” fits into our pursuit of godliness. It’s just too useful! It actually expects something of us.
Which brings us to our responsibility. “Train yourself to be godly.”
Paul taught about godliness using an athletic metaphor. Such metaphors are a frequent theme in his writing. “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever” (1 Corinthians 9:25). Paul went on to say “I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave” (v.27).
Training is about discipline. It’s about repetition. Aristotle said, “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have these because we have acted rightly.”
Grace saves for the next world and teaches for this world. The Spirit teaches and prompts. We respond. We learn. But only if we put into practice the things we have been taught. Godliness isn’t natural. It doesn’t always feel right. In fact, the flesh struggles against the Spirit. So it has to be practiced, repeated over and over until it feels natural.
At one time I coached junior high school football, and one of the most basic things we taught was the offensive lineman’s stance. It doesn’t feel natural, but it’s essential that you get it right and that you learn to come out of the stance staying low. There’s only one way to get it right. Repetition. Training.
For Daniel-san (Karate Kid) it was “Wax on. Wax off.” For bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger it was hours on the weights and in front of the mirror. Even a superhero like Spiderman had to practice shooting his web over and over. For you and me, it’s putting into practice those things we know we should do and avoiding the things we know we shouldn’t do. It’s learning, and listening, and doing.
Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
Ken Fairbrother is minister of Black Hawk Community Church in Black Hawk/Rapid City, South Dakota.