The Bible begins to give us some clues about godliness in its earliest pages. In a very short three-verse summary of Enoch’s life in Genesis, Moses twice describes him as one who “walked with God.” The author of Hebrews gives Enoch a place in his great “Faith Hall of Fame” in chapter 11, but he sees Enoch from a slightly different perspective. He describes him as “one who pleased God.” Here, then, are two important clues: Enoch walked with God, and Enoch pleased God. It is evident from these two statements that Enoch’s life was centered in God; God was the focal point, the polestar of his very existence.
Enoch walked with God, he enjoyed a relationship with God, and he pleased God. We could accurately say he was devoted to God. This is the meaning of godliness. The New Testament word for godliness, in its original meaning, conveys the idea of a personal attitude toward God that results in actions that are pleasing to God. This personal attitude toward God is what we call devotion to God. But it is always devotion in action. It is not just a warm, emotional feeling about God, the kind of feeling we may get while singing some grand old hymn of praise or some modern-day chorus of worship. Neither is devotion to God merely a time of private Bible reading and prayer, a practice we sometimes call “devotions.” Although this practice is vitally important to a godly person, we must not think of it as defining devotion for us.
Devotion is not an activity; it is an attitude toward God. This attitude is composed of three essential elements:
- The fear of God
- The love of God
- The desire of God
We will look at these elements in detail in chapter 2, but for now, note that all three elements focus upon God. The practice of godliness is an exercise or discipline that focuses upon God. From this Godward attitude arises the character and conduct that we usually think of as godliness. So often we try to develop Christian character and conduct without taking the time to develop God-centered devotion. We try to please God without taking the time to walk with Him and develop a relationship with Him. This is impossible to do.
Consider the exacting requirements of a godly lifestyle as expounded by the saintly William Law. Law uses the word devotion in a broader sense to mean all that is involved in godliness—actions as well as attitude:
Devotion signifies a life given, or devoted to God. He therefore is the devout [godly] man, who lives no longer to his own will, or the way and spirit of the world, but to the sole will of God, who considers God in everything, who serves God in everything, who makes all the parts of his common life, parts of piety [godliness], by doing everything in the name of God, and under such rules as are conformable to his Glory.
Note the totality of godliness over one’s entire life in Law’s description of the godly person. Nothing is excluded. God is at the center of his thoughts. His most ordinary duties are done with an eye to God’s glory. In Paul’s words to the Corinthians, whether he eats or drinks or whatever he does, he does it all for the glory of God.
Now, it is obvious that such a God-centered lifestyle cannot be developed and maintained apart from a solid foundation of devotion to God. Only a strong personal relationship with the living God can keep such a commitment from becoming oppressive and legalistic. John writes that God’s commands are not burdensome; a godly life is not wearisome, but this is true only because a godly person is first of all devoted to God.
Devotion to God, then, is the mainspring of godly character. And this devotion is the only motivation for Christian behavior that is pleasing to God.
This motivation is what separates the godly person from the moral person, or the benevolent person, or the zealous person. The godly person is moral, benevolent, and zealous because of his devotion to God. And his life takes on a dimension that reflects the very stamp of God.
It is sad that many Christians do not have this aura of godliness about them. They may be very talented and personable, or very busy in the Lord’s work, or even apparently successful in some avenues of Christian service, and still not be godly. Why? Because they are not devoted to God. They may be devoted to a vision, or to a ministry, or to their own reputation as a Christian, but not to God.
Godliness is more than Christian character; it is Christian character that springs from a devotion to God. But it is also true that devotion to God always results in godly character. As we study the three essential elements of devotion in the next chapter, we will see that all of them, individually and collectively, must express themselves in a life that is pleasing to God. So the definition of godliness we will use in this book is devotion to God that results in a life that is pleasing to Him.
In the first few chapters of this book we will concentrate on this devotion, seeking to understand what it is and why it results in Christian character. In the later chapters we will look at individual traits of godly character. But we must never lose sight of the fact that devotion to God is the mainspring of Christian character and the only foundation upon which it can be successfully built.