Training in Godliness
In this present day and age one often hears the complaint that life is so hectic. We are always busy. Busy with work, with study, with school, or otherwise with some kind of a hobby. As far as our spare time is concerned it also happens that a lot of time and energy is spent on a sport we like, be it soccer, footy, hockey, or surfing. When it comes to training for such a sport, in general we don't mind to give a free evening or Saturday afternoon for it.
However what about the training of our spiritual life, our life in faith? How much time and energy do we spent on this? Yes, how busy are we with the things of the Lord? Is there growth in faith? And if not, what then do we do about it?
Perhaps someone might say, "Can one do something about it? Can you train yourself also in this area, so that faith may grow stronger?" From Scripture we learn that this indeed possible. I now think of what the apostle Paul has written in his first letter to Timothy, where he urges the believers to train themselves in godliness. And then in the original Greek he uses a word that was very well-known in those days, a word derived from the world of sport. Today we still recognise it in the English word 'gymnasium', which is a large room or hall for games or physical training. It is this word for physical training which the apostle Paul now also uses for 'training in godliness'.
'Godliness' – what is that? It is the translation of a Greek word of which the etymology is 'that of right reverence, worship or fear', i.e. worship, reverence well and rightly given. From a biblical perspective it means: true respect for the Lord and a genuine desire to obey God's commandments. In 1 Timothy 3:16 we read about the mystery of godliness as it has been made known and manifested in Jesus Christ. Yes, it is in and through Jesus Christ only that man may truly know God and is able to worship Him rightly. In 2 Corinthians 4:6 the apostle Paul writes that God "has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." In 2 Peter 1:3 it reads, "as His divine power has given us all things that pertain to life and godliness." The latter means: one enters into godliness through the power of the living and saving God, which salvation is wrought through Him who is the mystery of this godliness, i.e. Jesus Christ. Summarising: godliness is something that comes about in one's life as a result of knowing God's will and obeying it. The doctrine or teaching of the Christian Faith is that which produces godliness.
What now does this mean in more practical terms? It means that in every day life we will seek the Lord in whatever we do. It means that in everything you know yourself depended on Him. You take God's Word seriously. It means: having respect for the Lord and also showing this respect in obeying His commandments. The OT speaks in this context about 'the fear of the LORD', which is the beginning of all wisdom.
Well, living such a life is not something that happens automatically in the life of a believer; it needs training. Yes, also godliness needs training. For let us be honest, do we really live close to the Lord always? Just think of an ordinary day in life, when we are busy with this and with that: when and how often does it then really show up that it is our heartfelt desire to serve the Lord. Maybe I'm generalising. But isn't it true that at times we are so taken up with all kind of things, that we don't even think of the Lord. Yes, how often does it happen in our life that a day passes by and you go to sleep without having opened God's Word for ourselves on a personal basis, whilst prayer was more or less a matter of routine. I think when we are really honest with ourselves, we all can identify with situations like these. Therefore the apostolic call for training in godliness is surely not superfluous or unnecessary. We had better take it to heart.
The next question is: how now do you actually do this? How does one train himself in godliness? Is there a certain method which can be recommended? For instance, in the same way as certain people have a schedule for physical training; say three times a week or something like that?
For a start: the training for which the apostle Paul calls is not something he wants us to do just every now and then, when it suits us. No, in the same way as physical training requires dedication and determination, so it is when we want to train ourselves in godliness. Also this requires determination and dedication. More, just as physical training requires a fixed system, so also training in godliness requires a systematic approach. Training involves more than just an occasional effort.
When applying this to godliness, the apostle Paul wants to make clear that our life as a Christian, if it indeed means something to us, must also be characterised by a Christian walk of life. No, Paul does not mean that we have to go out of this world. Rather, as we live in the midst of this world we should not feel ashamed to live our own Christian way of life. Then serving the Lord will determine how we do things. Then the question 'what is pleasing to the Lord?' is always foremost in our mind and this is not as if in a certain way we can earn something with God, but out of thankfulness for being a child of the Lord. That's what constitutes true godliness, true godliness as fruit of our redemption in Christ. This godliness will blossom when we indeed do live by faith, trust in God and rely on His promises.
All this requires an active life in faith. As I stated before, this is not something that happens automatically in the life of a believer. Well, that's why the apostle Paul urges us to train ourselves in godliness. In 1 Timothy 6:11 he writes: pursue godliness! Likewise the apostle Peter in his second letter writes, "add to your faith ... perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness..." 2 Peter 1:6, 7.
Freed from Vanity
Sometimes it can so easily happen that our life is determined by all kinds of social commitments, a party here and a party there, that we become almost enslaved to it. We thrive on the pleasures which life has to offer us and it seems all so nice. However as Christians we should not let our life be determined by the pleasures of this world, but by an agenda from above. This applies to our personal life, but also to family life. To mention just one example: the TV should not decide how we spend our spare time, since we don't want to miss out on our favourite program, or the footy on Saturday afternoon. After all, in Christ we have been freed from all vanity. We have better things to do than a whole evening sitting down in front of the TV and finally go to bed with an empty and unsatisfied feeling. When training ourselves in godliness we will no longer be enslaved to the empty pleasures of this world.
See, that's how we ought to direct our life. And this not as a burden, but joyfully. Being thankful that we have something better to live for than the world around us. Yet again, this does not go by itself. Nor is this simply a matter of abstaining from all these things.
In this context, for a moment, I would like to draw your attention to one of the heresies Paul is fighting in the first letter to Timothy. In the congregation of Ephesus, where Timothy was working at the time he received this letter, where certain people with some strange ideas when it came to godliness. To them a mark of true godliness was that you were able to abstain from certain things, e.g. from marriage and enjoying food. According to them a Christian should live a sober life, for this would bring you closer to the Lord. In Chapter 4:1 Paul calls these people of: deceiving spirits. They considered the OT as a book full of myths, stories which had not really happened, but which nevertheless contained some deep religious truth (1:4). Even the narrative about creation was judged this way, with a result that these heretics had a totally wrong outlook on the material things. And not only on the material things, but also on sin. They saw sin as an inherit part of the material things, and that's why one had to abstain from marriage and food, for example. If you would do so, you would not sin either. Well, according to these people, that's how one had to train himself in godliness.
However, not marriage, enjoying a good meal, nor – to mention an example of this present time – the TV as such are sinful. But sin lies at the bottom of our own heart. And therefore we will not cut sin out of our life by simply abstaining from all these things. It is only God's grace that can redeem us from sin. And when our life becomes full of this grace, the way we live will also change. Then our heart no longer goes out to all the empty things this present day and age is so full of. Then our life will be renewed and be directed more and more towards the Lord.
Word and Prayer
In 1 Timothy 4:4, 5 the apostle Paul writes,
For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by the Word of God and prayer.
In these last words, which precede the call for training in godliness, the apostle Paul gives us two important directives for this training: the Word of God and prayer. Indeed these two have an irreplaceable function in the training for godliness. The Word: that is the Word of redemption in Jesus Christ which sanctifies life created by God. When this Word is accepted in faith it will do something in our life. Again, this does not mean that we have to go out of this world, as those heretics in Paul's day recommended. But then with the Word of God as a weapon in our hand we know how to resist the power of sin. Then we use the things created by God no longer for own pleasure, to satisfy our own desires, but then we use them to the honour of God the Creator and praise and glorify Him in it. Then the Lord becomes number One in our life. See there how the Word of God and prayer, i.e. our response to God's Word, sanctify life.
Well, all this now constitutes true godliness. But again one has to train himself in this.
The Word of God – I think first of all of the preaching on Sunday through which the Lord gives us direction to live a life pleasing to Him.
That's how we commence the week with the Lord. Through the preaching of the gospel the Lord gives us a new incentive to serve Him from the heart. When this preaching is accepted in true faith it must bear fruit. On Sunday in the church we also unite in prayer to bring the Lord our thanks for all the blessings we receive from His hand and to ask Him for strength in the battle we have to fight. Thus the Sunday becomes a very important means for training in godliness. That's why we should treasure this day as a precious gift of God.
We should treasure this day also in the circle of the family, considering that celebrating the Sunday as a day of the Lord consists of more than just going to church twice. The way in which we spent also the rest of the Sunday should be determined by the fact that the Sunday is indeed a day set apart by the Lord from all the other days of the week, so that we have time for Him who has so richly blessed us in Christ. Then we take the Word home with us to discuss it further in the circle of the family. That's how we can train ourselves in godliness. Then discussing the sermon should not be used as a means to vent our opinion about the minister. That has nothing to do with training in godliness. But then we will discuss also with our children how to apply what we have heard, how to apply it in everyday life, thus building each other up in faith. Such training, so the apostle Paul says in 1 Timothy 4:8 is profitable for all things.
Training in Our Families
Training in godliness – this means the Bible should be an open book in our families, since – as the apostle Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:16 & 17,
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.
This text is often quoted as a proof text for the infallibility of Holy Scripture. But there is much more to this text. It teaches that it is indeed God who speaks to us in Scripture. The Bible is the Word of the Living God which we have to accept in faith. Yes, it is our faithful covenant God and Father who speaks to us in Scripture and who wants us to listen to what He has to say to us. Through His Word He will teach us in all wisdom, but also warn us not to give the love of our heart to all kind of vanities. Through His Word God will equip us for every good work.
Daily Bible Reading
The Word of God – then I think indeed of the preaching on Sunday, but when it comes to training in godliness, we should also give thought to our daily Bible reading, for example after a meal, especially during tea-time, one of the spare moments that hopefully as family we are still together to spent time for and with the Lord. Precious moments in a life that often is so hectic. Let us then also make the most of it. Let us be careful that this daily routine never becomes a matter of custom, but rather something that we treasure as family, when the Bible is opened and God in His grace speaks to us, to which we may respond in prayer.
Next to this family worship we should not forget about our personal Bible reading and prayer either. For through it we maintain our relationship with God. This relationship will only remain a meaningful relationship when we also allow God to speak to us, whilst we from our side take time to speak to God. Indeed, we should take time for this and not do this simply because it is the thing we are expected to do. In John 15 Christ says that the branch cannot bear fruit of itself. One cannot expect any fruits of faith when his relationship with the Lord has dried up, is no longer a living relationship. On the other hand, when this relation is living it will show up also in the rest of our life, in our relation with our fellow brothers and sisters with whom we share the same faith, but also in our conduct in this world. Then having the mind of Christ we will be fully concerned for the needs and interest of others. Then we no longer act out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility we count others better than ourselves. The circle of the family is a good training school to learn this. That's how parents may instruct their children in the riches of being Christ's.
Training in our Bible Study Societies
Finally I also think of the work of our Bible Study Societies. Again one of the means through which we may train ourselves in godliness. Not only by attending these meetings, but also by making proper preparation study True, this might involve some sacrifices as regards personal pleasures. But that's now exactly what this training is all about. Sports people do the same. If in a certain area of sport you want to reach the top it means bringing sacrifices, sacrifices for what is valuable to you. This raises the question: how valuable is it to us to be a child of the Lord? Are we indeed willing to bring sacrifices for it.
As to the meetings of the Bible Study Societies, the aim of these meetings is to build each other in faith. The apostle Paul warns against all kind of empty chatter which is to no profit. In 1 Timothy 4: 7 he writes, "But reject profane and old wives fables." Applying this to our discussions at club, then the danger is indeed there that we are caught up in a fierce discussion about the interpretation of some words, which sometimes can go on for a whole evening, whilst we forget to address the question: what now does the Lord want to teach us via this passage of Scripture, what can we learn from it for everyday life, how does it give us direction in godliness. And yet this should be the first aim of this training evening. In 2 Timothy 2:23 Paul writes, "avoid foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they generate strife." I think this is a rule we all can learn from.
Set Yourself to Training
In this article I have tried to give some practical application of what training in godliness is all about. Let us now also set ourselves to this training, for as the apostle Paul writes in vs. 8, "...godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and that of which is to come." These words point to the benefit one derives from training in godliness, whereby the apostle utilises the widespread concern and preoccupation with bodily exercise as a foil or contrasting motif to emphasise the necessity for and the value of godliness and training in godliness. If bodily exercise is profitable for little, and so much time and energy is devoted to it, then how much more should one exercise himself unto godliness which "is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come." We meet here the same contrast as made by the apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, 9:25, where the corruptible crown which the victorious athlete receives is contrasted with an incorruptible crown which the Christian receives. In 1 Timothy 4:8 the apostle Paul highlights what value training in godliness has, not only as regards the future, but even for today.
Godliness – I pointed this out – means our life is directed towards God, who in Christ is our Redeemer. In Christ God has dispelled the darkness from our life. Because of the precious blood of Christ, shed on Calvary, our sins have been forgiven, whilst through His Spirit, i.e. the Spirit of life whom Christ obtained for us, we may live a new life, today already.
Crown of Honour Assured
Training in godliness thus totally differs from bodily training. Both require determination and devotion. But whereas with bodily training one never knows whether he will make it to the top, as regards training in godliness we may do so assured of receiving the crown of honour, not because of our efforts, but since godliness directs us to Christ who obtained the victory for us. Then in faith we cling to Him, the Redeemer of our life. After all, that's what godliness is all about.
And then this godliness indeed does hold a promise, not only for the future, but thankfully also for this life. Otherwise one could feel helpless at present. But we are not helpless when we live close to the Lord. He is there to help us through. But we from our side should then also make sure that we live close to Him in godliness. For it is godliness that keeps us in communion with Christ. Yes, Jesus Christ He is the mystery of godliness, which means the revealed truth of it.
Summing it all up, Scripture summons all of us to run the race that is set before us, full of confidence, putting off sin and every weight which could slow down our pace. In more practical terms this means: training ourselves in godliness we will more and more deny ourselves, and the sinful pleasures of this present world, to direct our life to Jesus Christ, the Author and Finisher of our Faith. If we do so life will receive a totally different outlook. Then we learn to see how empty the happiness of this world is. Then our desires no longer go out to it. But then we seek our strength in Christ, who one day will give to all who have longed for His appearing the imperishable wreath of glory.