Whatever Happened to Pursuing Godliness?

In my experience most Christians aren’t very interested in godliness. That’s a strong statement, but I remain persuaded that modern evangelical culture has a real problem here.

My experience is that calls to godliness among modern Christians are largely met with silence and slowly coasting tumbleweed. Sadly, this appears to be just as true at the ministry conferences and pastors’ retreats as in churches. It doesn’t excite or interest us much. The Bible tells us endlessly to “be holy, be godly, pursue righteousness.” But that 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! Evangelicals are activists. We tend to get excited about outward actions, not personal renewal or repentance.

The Bible tells us endlessly to ‘be holy, be godly, pursue righteousness.’ But that doesn’t get our hearts racing. What excites us are new ministry strategies and initiatives.

In so doing we miss much of what the Bible says. 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. Worldliness, it seems, is far more exciting than godliness.

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 in a way that I do not see reflected among Christians today. They had their own problems and blind spots too, obviously. But they were clear on the priority of godliness.

If they were obsessed with godliness, today we are obsessed with pragmatics. “What will produce the best results?” we ask. I suspect that’s the problem. Perhaps godliness just seems impractical to us. 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 you can pursue.

Five Roadblocks to the Pursuit of Godliness

Allow me to offer five observations of things I think prevent us pursuing godliness as we should:

1) Godliness is often redefined as involvement in ministry

Godliness is not pursued because various activities often 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? That’s the relevant issue when it comes to godliness. Church involvement can give the impression 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 will be 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 a regenerate heart that deeply desires to be righteous in every way and will be satisfied with nothing less (Matthew 5:6).

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 various criminal actions. This is an extension of the first point. If someone is involved in church life and doesn’t commit one these select few sins, they are 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 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. I have found that 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 like we think repentance is something that happens at the beginning of the Christian life but not afterward. 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 much prefer to use softer, less moral and ‘judgemental’ language: they “stuffed-up” or “made a mistake”. No need to make a fuss!

Christians today are deeply embarrassed by the idea that we might need to call a fellow believer to repent. It’s like we think repentance is something that happens at the beginning of the Christian life but not afterward.

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. Christians must ever seek to identify the sin remaining in their thoughts, words, and deeds and turn away from them.

4) Confrontation and Rebuke are avoided at all costs 

I have previously written on my concern that church discipline rarely happens today. For many of us this is a culturally challenging topic. It is difficult for many of my own Anglo/English/Australian culture: 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 a very ungodly way (!), 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). 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 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 the godliness of our churches and of ourselves.

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 is the acquisition of new skills and competencies so as to ably perform various roles in the church. You can learn how to lead Bible studies, give a Bible talk, teach children, explain the gospel, or serve in any other number of ways. All these things are valuable but they are only tools.  The Bible emphasises training in godliness, not just skills and competencies:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God frmay 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?

Over the course of my time as a Christian I have been to many conferences, both as a church-goer and as a pastor. I do not believe I have ever been to a conference dominated by the theme of godliness. This is a very serious oversight. We should be talking about this topic all the time!

This is even true of conferences for pastors. I have heard a lot of good input of the “how to” variety. I’ve learned very useful things over the years about leading, budgeting, evangelising, new program and initiative ideas, and instruction on more aspects of ministry than I can recall. However, I have heard very little on cultivating a lifestyle of insatiable pursuit of godliness. I have heard nothing on thinking through how to help our churches actively repent of sin and pursue godliness.

Perhaps I have just been to the wrong conferences. But I doubt it. It seems plain to me that modern evangelicals greatly undervalue godliness. May God renew our hunger to be more like Jesus! 


 Photo by Samuel Martins on Unsplash

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