The Lord’s Day Morning

I Timothy 6:11

“Biblical Godliness”

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to I Timothy 6:11. Let me remind you what we’ve been doing, since we’ve been away from this series for over a month now. Back on October 22, we started a new Sunday morning series. After looking at the five questions of membership to refresh us about the commitments that we made when we joined this congregation as communing members, we immediately went into a topical expository series dealing with the biblical priorities of a healthy local church. We wanted to look at what the Bible sees as the characteristics of a local church which is biblical and healthy in its shape and substance. We’ve had four messages addressing that issue so far.

The first one we dealt with was the context in which we live and minister today. We asked “Where in the World is the Church?” and the point behind that question was, “What’s the context in which we are living and ministering today?” We commented on the fact that we live in a world of individualism, where self is sovereign, where “me” is first, and God is frankly second on the list. That profoundly impacts the nature of church life very often. In fact, the gospel itself is often presented as something in which God is a divine butler catering to our every need.

We also talked about the apparel of relativism in our culture: that we live in a culture where truth is at a discount. Many of you who have young people off at university or in graduate school are well aware that professors are a dime a dozen who tell your students that there is no such thing as absolute truth. [Now don’t think that they believe that when it comes time for their paycheck to be cut by the university, you understand! If the university were to short them by twenty percent of their salary on contract, they would immediately be demanding that the Bursar give them their allowed due; and if the Bursar responded, “There is no such thing as absolute truth, so why do I have to pay what’s on the ledger?” they would protest immediately, and become absolutists on the spot!] But they’re going to tell your young people that there’s no such thing as absolute truth. And so we live and minister in a culture where truth is at a discount.

We also live in a culture that is consumeristic. I don’t just mean that it’s materialistic, though it is; I mean that we consume so much material that we actually see ourselves fundamentally as consumers, and consequently we often approach religion as consumers. We have a Burger King approach to Christianity — we want to “have it our way,” and so we want the church to fulfill our every need and our every whim.

And so we spent some time looking at the context in which we live and minister. We also looked at the way that Christians grow. In fact, we looked at the way that the church grows, and we asked the question, “How in the World Does the Church Grow?” and we looked at the primacy of preaching and the ministry of the word as God’s appointed means whereby Christians are built up, individually and collectively, into the family of God.

We also considered the importance of worship, and we asked the question, “How in the World Should the Church Worship?” And our answer was that we should, as individuals and corporately, worship God 24-7. That is, we view ourselves as those who worship God in all of life, all the time; but also and especially when we gather together we worship in accordance with the word.

We also considered the importance of truth, or of doctrine, and we asked the question in a somewhat quirky way, “What in the World is the Big Deal about Doctrine?” and our point was not so much to single out the specific beliefs that Christians hold to (although that’s important, and we do that all the time when we’re expounding the Scripture); our point was the importance of truth itself, that truth is unto godliness; that doctrine is important for the Christian life; that’s it’s a practical subject. We said that one mark of a healthy biblical church is that it will be filled with members who love the truth, who are passionate about the truth, who know that it’s important, and who not only know those things and profess those things, but are being transformed by the truth.

Today we come to a fifth subject, a fifth quality or characteristic of a healthy, biblical, local church, and that is (as you see in your bulletins) the subject of godliness.

If you were to look for one word by which the Apostle Paul or the Apostle Peter would characterize a local congregation of New Testament Christians, a good candidate for that one word would be the word godliness. If we’re going to be a healthy local church, we will have to be collectively characterized by godliness. I want to emphasize that because it’s not enough that many in our midst are following hard after God in the pursuit of godliness. If we are not all pursuing God and godliness, it compromises every single one of us.

Many of us have watched with heartbreak and horror as we have seen the situation unfold at Ted Haggard’s church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where not only Pastor Haggard but now another member of his staff has had to be relieved from their responsibilities and duties as ministers because of serious moral failure. We instinctively know the kind of trauma that that inflicts upon a congregation. No matter how faithful and God-fearing and Bible-believing they may be, it is a shaking thing to see their pastor fall, and to see yet another pastor fall in serious moral failure. We know that that impacts the whole congregation, that there will be perhaps tender sheep who will begin to question the reality of the word and the gospel itself because a minister has fallen. It seems to call into question the truth of Christianity. Well, my friends, if that is true when a minister falls (and it certainly is), it is no less true that when parts of the congregation are not faithful in the pursuit of God and godliness it impacts all the rest of us.

You know, I wouldn’t be a prophet if I were to say today that there are no doubt people in this room who are struggling with Christianity precisely because of some of the Christians that they have encountered — God forbid, maybe even some Christians who are members of our own church.

Godliness, you see, my friends, is not just something for the preacher, and it’s not just something for that lady who goes to all the MOMS Bible Studies and to all the WIC Circle Bible studies, and it’s not just for that guy who goes to a small group on Friday mornings that meets at the local restaurant and comes in to pray on Saturday morning. Godliness is for all of us, because if we’re believers we’ve been called to godliness. And so I want to think about that important subject with you today, and as we do so, I want to think with you about five things.

First, I want to think about the importance of godliness; secondly, I want to think with you about the meaning of godliness; thirdly, I want to think about how you cultivate godliness (or, the cultivation of godliness); fourthly, I want to think with you about the enemy of godliness; and then, finally, I want to think with you about the result of godliness. And I think we can do that in the time that we have today.

Now before we read God’s word, let’s look to Him in prayer and ask His help and blessing.

Heavenly Father, this is Your word, and we ask as we come to it today that we would not only give assent to its truth, but that we would be transformed by the truth that we read and hear, and consider and believe. This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Hear the word of God:

“But flee from these things, you man of God; and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance and gentleness.”

Amen. Thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

I. The importance of godliness

If you were to ask what characterizes a healthy, biblical congregation of believers, one good word to give in answer to that question would be godliness. In one word we are called as believers together to be godly; to live lives toward God; to live lives in the fear of God; to live lives that are characterized by a desire for God above all things else; to live lives especially in our conduct which are characterized by a joyful embrace of God’s instruction and commandment. Godliness characterizes all true Christians, and because that is true, the church itself cannot be healthy unless all of those who make up the local church are committed to this pursuit of godliness.

I very frankly struggled with what text to start with in this passage today. About three or so weeks ago, Jeremy and Missye Rhee called me up and said, “Now we’ve got to get our texts ready for this Sunday bulletin, because we’re doing all the bulletins way in advance.” Now, normally a text isn’t a problem for me, because we’re preaching through a Bible book. I know exactly what the next text is. But I genuinely struggled with where to start with “godliness” because there is so much in the Bible about it, and there are so many good texts to start with. I’ll illustrate that to you in just a few moments. As we consider the importance of godliness, Paul not only makes that clear in I Timothy 6, but he makes it clear in I Timothy, II Timothy, Titus…and then Peter uses almost the same language about this in II Peter 1 and 3.

Let me just rifle through some of those passages with you to demonstrate to you the importance of godliness. Turn with me back to I Timothy 2, and look at verse 2. There Paul is instructing Christians on how to pray, especially for kings and those who are in authority over them, and then he says that they’re to do this “…so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.” And so the Apostle Paul is making it clear to that congregation of Christians in the Roman Empire in Ephesus, under the pastorate of Timothy, that one of his fundamental desires for them is that they would live lives of godliness and dignity. He wants to have that kind of witness and that kind of influence in the community so that the whole church is characterized by people living lives of godliness and dignity.

And then in I Timothy 2:10, just a few verses forward, he’s talking about women in Ephesus who are known by their beautiful jewelry and their beautiful clothing and the accoutrements that go along with wealth, and the Apostle Paul says I want you Christian women to be known by your…what?…I want you to be known by your good works, he says, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness. Paul’s point is very simple. Sometimes you see a woman who is beautifully dressed, and she’s very attractive, and your response is “Wow! How attractive! How beautiful!” and the Apostle Paul is saying that he wants the Christian women in Ephesus to be so adorned with godliness that the response is “What a woman of character! What a godly woman, who is characterized by a love for God and embrace of His truth,” so that we are struck by a woman’s character and conduct, and give praise to God for it.

Then in I Timothy 3, he utters that very, very famous word in verse 16: “Great is the mystery of godliness.” You remember the Ephesians, who were Diana worshipers (or Artemis worshipers)…you remember that caused the Apostle Paul some trouble once upon a time in the Book of Acts…they had a saying that went like this: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians. Great is Diana of the Ephesians.” That was one of their ascriptions of praise to their goddess, and here Paul says to the Ephesians no, no, no. “Great is the mystery of godliness.” And then he begins to tell you about — who? in verse 16? The Lord Jesus Christ. He’s telling you that the Lord Jesus is the source, the origin of true godliness. That is an important truth that we’re going to consider at the very end of this message.

But notice again, here in I Timothy 3:16, Paul is summing up, as far as he is concerned, the totality of the Christian life. And how does he sum it up? Godliness. I could show you other passages in Timothy, as well: I Timothy 4:8; I Timothy 6:3; I Timothy 6:5; I Timothy 6:6…. But let me hasten to II Timothy. Turn with me there to II Timothy 3. Here Paul is talking about false teachers, and he says of these false teachers that “…they hold to a form of godliness; although they have denied its power….” (II Timothy 3:5). And he tells Timothy ‘Don’t hang around people like that.’

Now what Paul is reminding you there is that godliness can be faked. There are some people who put on an appearance of godliness for show. We’ll talk about that in just a few moments, too. But his concern, of course, is for real godliness to be cultivated by Timothy, and for him not even to hang around false teachers who do not manifest such real godliness.

Now turn with me to II Peter 1, and look at verses 3, 6, and 7. Three times in II Peter 1, Peter speaks about the importance of godliness. First of all, he says that God’s “…power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness….” (1:3). Then in II Peter 1:6, he speaks of the believer being characterized by knowledge, self-control, perseverance, and …what? Godliness. And in verse 7, he says that that godliness is coupled with brotherly kindness. Ah! That’s interesting, too, because there the Apostle [Peter] is making clear that you can’t be godly, you can’t have a heart for God, you can’t live in the fear of God, you can’t be devoted to God and not be in right relationship to your brothers and sisters. The ultimate sign of a hypocrite is somebody who pretends to be in right relationship with God, but who is not in right relationship with his brothers and sisters.

Isn’t it interesting? Back in I Timothy 6:11, even there Paul tells Timothy to do what? Pursue righteousness and godliness. In other words, be right — live in integrity — with your brothers and sisters, and be devoted to God. Both. It’s a both/and. It’s not an either/or…either be devoted to God, or be righteous. Either be godly or have integrity. No. Piety and integrity go together. Godliness and righteousness go together, and Peter is saying the same thing here. And he raises the same issue again in II Peter 3:11. Take a look at that. He says, “…What sort of people ought you to be in your conduct?” Well, he says you ought to be holy and godly. (II Peter 3:11). That’s the way we ought to be in our conduct.

You see, the whole of the New Testament — I Timothy, II Timothy, Titus, II Peter…and we could show other examples — is concerned for godliness. And of course that flows right out of the Old Testament which said the heart of religion is — what? “The fear of God.” You see, godliness is all about the fear of God.

Now, all of those verses and all of those references and all of that background was simply to demonstrate one point: Godliness is important. Paul thinks that godliness is important for the believer. Peter thinks that godliness is important for the believer. Jesus thinks godliness is important for the believer. The whole of the Bible, even the Old Testament in its language about the fear of God and living in the fear of God, and the fear of God being the beginning of knowledge and the beginning of wisdom, thinks that godliness is important.

II. The meaning of godliness.

But now I want us to think for a moment about the meaning of godliness. When we say godliness, what in the world do we mean?

Now, chances are the words that you most often hear used as a synonym for godliness are words like pious or piety…and very frankly, those words do not often have positive associations in our minds. When we hear pious, we immediately think of sanctimonious. You know — we think of somebody who’s looking down their spiritual nose at us…condescending…pie in the sky, by and by…too heavenly minded to be any earthly good. We think of Robert Burns — Holy Willie’s Prayer. We think of some minister with an affected voice: “Oh, the godly Dr. Johnson often said ‘Waste not, want not…’” We think of some sort of affected spirituality. That is not what the Bible is talking about when it talks about godliness.

Godliness is a loving but reverent awe of God. Godliness is what the Bible means by the fear of God, the fear of the Lord. It is a respectful, loving awe of God. It is living caring more about what God thinks than about what other people think.

A great example of this is found in the Bible. If you turn back with me to Genesis 39:6-9, you will quickly see that that is the story of Joseph in Potiphar’s house. You remember the story. Joseph had been sold into slavery, and having been bought by Potiphar (a high-ranking Egyptian official), he had been brought into his household as a servant, and he had served Potiphar very well. In fact, Potiphar was so confident in Joseph that he gave Joseph charge of his money, he put him in charge of his household, he trusted Joseph with everything. The only problem is Potiphar’s wife was very attracted to the handsome young Joseph, and she eventually goes after him. She attempts to seduce him. She attempts to attract him into an adulterous relationship. And if you look at Genesis 39:6-9, you’ll notice how Joseph responds to that. His first response is ‘I can’t do this to Potiphar.’ But his second, and deeper and more important response is ‘I can’t do this to the Lord.’

Now understand, men, that Joseph doesn’t do that with that pious little voice that I’ve just put on. Joseph is a man like you. And if an attractive and wealthy lady were throwing herself at you, well, you can imagine how Joseph would have felt in that circumstance. He was a man like you. Remember, Joseph was not a sinlessly perfected human being! He was capable of great pride and arrogance. You remember God gives him a vision and he goes bopping into his brothers’ room and he says ‘You know, I had a dream last night…you guys were all bowing down to me.’ Now, that was tactful, wasn’t it? Here’s a guy with a pride problem, an arrogance problem. And now here is a beautiful, wealthy woman saying ‘I want you.’ But godliness moved Joseph first to care more about his master than himself, but ultimately to care more about what God thought than about the passing pleasures he could have experienced in that relationship. “How could I do this thing and sin against God?” he said. That is a perfect example of godliness. He feared God more than he desired the acceptance of Potiphar’s wife or the pleasures that could have come to him from giving in to that temptation.

Now, my friends, we face this all the time, where the world offers us pleasures if we will simply cease to fear God, if we will simply cease to be godly, to be God-ward, to think in terms of God’s approbation of what we’re doing. The world says ‘I will give you pleasure.’ Godliness in that context says ‘No. I fear God more than I long for the acceptance of this world.’

I was listening to an MPR program over the weekend in which a biographer of the late President Richard Nixon was being interviewed. It was interesting that the biographer had spent some time reading the correspondence of Nixon after his resignation from the presidency. He wrote to public leaders great and small in copious quantities of correspondence, and one of the things that the biographer observed was that Nixon flattered everyone. If you were a leader, he flattered you. If you were a potential leader, he flattered you. And when I heard that story I immediately thought of the famous story of Regent Morton, who was the acting King of Scotland in the year that John Knox died, 1572. Morton was invited to eulogize John Knox at his gravesite, and Morton said only this of John Knox as he stood at the grave: “Here lies a man who neither feared nor flattered any flesh.” I cannot think of a greater compliment that could be given. It was so interesting that here was Knox, this man who was godly and who did not care what others thought of him, and here was this interesting contrast with Nixon, who both feared and flattered the flesh. And you see the end of the two.

But, my friends, we face that same temptation — that desire to be accepted by the flesh all around us, and we’ll consider this in a few moments.

Well, there’s the meaning of godliness: a loving but reverent awe of God.

III. How to cultivate godliness.

What is the way that godliness is cultivated? How do you cultivate godliness? If we’ve considered the importance of godliness and the meaning of godliness, how do you go about the cultivation of godliness?

Well, the Apostle Paul makes it clear in I Timothy 6:11 and elsewhere that godliness does not just happen. It has to be pursued, even as sin is fled from. Isn’t it interesting that Paul says to Timothy ‘Flee from sin and pursue [go hard after] godliness’? The Apostle Paul doesn’t say ‘Turn gently from sin and stare in the other direction, while walking calmly towards godliness.’ He says ‘Flee for the hills!!!’ from sin. ‘Run after godliness!!!’ That’s so, so helpful. You know, men struggling with the temptation of lust are so often tempted to slouch away reluctantly from lust, hoping that it will catch you. And the Apostle Paul says ‘Flee! Run! There’s a tsunami approaching! Run! Run! Do not walk!’

But he doesn’t just say ‘Don’t do that. Get away from that. Run away from that.’ He says ‘You must pursue godliness.’ The Apostle Paul knew that simply running from something could never establish godliness in a life. He knew what the great Scottish pastor Thomas Chalmers said was “…the expulsive power of a new affection.” In other words, if we desire something wrong, the way to live in godliness is not simply forbidding ourselves to desire that which is wrong, but replacing that desire for that which is wrong with the desire for that which is best and right and good. And if our desires are not fixed on that which is good, if our desires are not fixed on God, if we are not pursuing God and godliness, we will never have the power to stop pursuing that which is wrong. The Apostle Paul knows that, and he says that in I Timothy 6:11. He says it elsewhere in his teaching, as well. We must flee from sin and pursue godliness.

You know, this January there are going to be a lot of memberships renewed in the health club. And you know what? You’re not going to fall out of bed on January 3 and have lost 30 pounds! If you’re going to lose that weight, you’re going to have to pursue it. [Oh, I wish there were a pill that I could take!] It doesn’t happen that way, does it? You don’t get back into shape by accident; you must pursue it. It takes discipline. In football, so also in godliness, “No pain, no gain.” [In the case of weight loss, “No pain, no loss!”] Godliness requires discipline. It does not just happen. That’s why the Apostle Paul says pursue it.

What’s the enemy of godliness? What’s the opposite of godliness? In a word, the enemy of godliness is worldliness. Now, when the word worldliness is said, you perhaps remember (or at least think you remember) some pastor somewhere preaching, inveighing against “drinkin’, dancin’, smokin’, and playin’ cards.” But biblically, worldliness simply means any attitude which makes righteousness to be abnormal and sin normal. Worldliness is any attitude which fosters the idea that sin is normal and godliness is abnormal.

You’re sitting at the homeroom desk waiting to go to your classes, and you’re talking to a friend. She says, “Do you have sex with you boyfriend yet?” “No.” “Why not? Everybody’s doing it!” That is the voice of worldliness. Sin is normal, it says. You’re weird if you don’t sin. Godliness is weird. It’s abnormal. That is worldliness, and we are awash in those kinds of worldly temptations in our culture.

Ambition, we are told, is normal; materialism is normal; keeping up with the Joneses is normal; fitting into society, no matter what we have to compromise by way of belief or conduct, is normal. You’re weird if you don’t do these things. This, my friends, is the enemy of godliness. This is where our fear of the flesh interrupts our fear of God and undermines our fear of God, and destroys our fear of God.

You know, psychologists and sociologists have observed a very bizarre thing in our culture. On the one hand, our culture is individualistic. We are “all about me.” We’re all about doing what we want to do. But at the same time, psychologists and sociologists have observed that our culture is filled with what they call other-directed people; that is, people who, instead of looking to higher moral principles which inform their consciences as to how they are going to live and what their priorities are in life…instead, what do they do? They look around to everyone around them, and it is from them that they determine what they are going to do in life. They are other-directed people. They claim that they’re individualists, but in fact all they’re doing is following the pack. All they’re doing is following the herd. That is, in biblical language, worldliness.

But believers do not get our marching orders from the world. We get it from the word. We get it from God. And godliness’s great enemy is worldliness.

IV. The result of godliness.

Now, what’s the result of godliness? The result of godliness is witness.

Turn with me in your Bibles to Matthew 5:16, and take a peek at Matthew 6:1 while you do it. Jesus says that the result of godliness is witness, gospel witness. Isn’t it interesting that in Matthew 6:1, Jesus says ‘Now, look. Don’t practice your righteousness before men, to be noticed by them.’ And then in Matthew 5:16, He says, “Let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good works.” Hmmm. So which is it, Jesus? Do You want us to practice our righteousness before men, or do You want us not to practice our righteousness before men? And of course Jesus’ answer is ‘Both.’

You see, in Matthew 6:1, the key phrase is “to be noticed by them.” In other words, Jesus is saying don’t live the way you live in order to get praise from men. But in Matthew 5:16, He says live in such a way that — who gets praise? — God. Your godliness, not just individually but as a congregation, is a powerful gospel witness, an irrefutable gospel witness to the power of God’s grace.

You know, we live in a world desperately desiring change. All you have to do is spend a couple of hours flipping through cable channel infomercials to see that people are dying for some sort of change that will revolutionize their life: a pill that will make them beautiful and skinny; an exercise machine that will make them strong; a real estate selling and buying secret that will make them rich. They are hoping against hope for some miracle of change. You know the real reason why they will throw away… (and by the way, that industry produces billions of dollars of disappointment…billions of dollars of disappointment…all of that industry produces billions of dollars of disappointment)…but do you know why people will throw money down the drain? Because they don’t really think change is possible, and so they’re willing to throw exorbitant amounts of money at this hope against hope because in their heart of hearts they don’t think change is possible. And the Apostle Paul and the Apostle Peter and the Lord Jesus Christ are saying to you no, no, no, friends. The gospel transforms, and a godly believer is a living, breathing, walking, talking evidence that change not only can happen, but it does happen.

And so, collectively, godliness in a congregation stands as an irrefutable witness to the community, to the world around us, that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation.

Now I want to tell you, my friends, that the greatest single obstacle in our witness in the church today is the lack of godliness. We can hand out tracts until doomsday, and if our lives do not demonstrate what our lips testify to, it will not matter. Godliness is our great need.

And here’s the last thing that I need to tell you: You can’t be godly on your own.

Godliness, as the Apostle Paul teaches in I Timothy 3:16, is the product of God’s grace at work in your life. And so godliness, my friends, begins with the gospel: resting and trusting in Jesus Christ alone for salvation, as He is offered in the gospel…but not simply assenting to those words, wanting to be forgiven but not transformed, but embracing those words, knowing that forgiveness comes in Christ, but also — also — comes that transforming power of the Holy Spirit that makes us what we were not. Godliness, my friends. May God grant it to us as a congregation in the year to come.

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, by Your Spirit remake our lives by grace. In Jesus’ name. Amen.