What is Godliness? Paul’s First Letter to Timothy

It is clear that when the Apostle Paul focused on the practical life of the church, the godliness of the people was of intense concern. Of the fifteen occurrences of godliness in the New Testament, thirteen are in the brief span of the Pastoral Letters (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), with a whopping nine in 1 Timothy alone. Since the Pastorals are the last of the old apostle’s letters, the matter of godliness is naturally charged with final urgency.

For Paul godliness is no static, stained-glass word. It is active—kinetic obedience that springs from a reverent awe of God. It is the Isaiah-like action that has a man, awestruck by God, rise from his face saying, “Here am I! Send me” (Isaiah 6:8). Awe—then action! Godliness is not piety as we generally think of it—upturned eyes and folded hands. Godliness cannot be cloistered. The godly among us are those people whose reverent worship of God flows into obedience throughout the week. Only God-struck doers of the Word can rightly be termed godly.

Furthermore, true godliness is rooted in the mystery of Christ. The last verse of 1 Timothy 3 sings about this:

Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:
He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory. (
1 Timothy 3:16)

Jesus is the essence and wellspring of godliness. He lived in godliness, and now as ascended Lord he gives us godliness. Godliness is not external but is the inner power to live a godly life (cf. 2 Timothy 3:52 Peter 1:3). The mystery of Christ makes godliness possible. Jesus strikes us with awe and then enables active obedience.

That is why Paul delivers a scathing attack on those who were promoting asceticism as thepath to godliness through abstinence from marriage and certain foods. Outraged, Paul calls these ideas “teachings of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1) and assails the teachers as “liars whose consciences are seared” (1 Timothy 4:2). What blasphemy it is to teach that things that God has declared good must be rejected in order to become godly. What a slam on the work of the exalted Christ!

Confronted with the force of such a fearsome denunciation of asceticism, we might conclude that we must steer clear of all bodily disciplines that claim to promote godliness. Not so. In the following paragraphs (1 Timothy 4:6-10) Paul lays out the correct approach to godliness—which, ironically, he describes as coming through diet and discipline.

Diet for Godliness (vv. 6, 7a)

Paul first addresses the matter of a good spiritual diet: “If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness” (1 Timothy 4:6-7).


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