Arie den Hartog is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Randolph, Wisconsin.
The inspired apostle of our Lord exhorts us unto this holy exercise in I Timothy 4:7. He is writing especially to the evangelist Timothy and to those like him with regard to work in the church. But what Paul writes certainly applies to all of us. We all need to exercise ourselves unto godliness. How little concern there is today in the church for such exercise. The world of Christendom is full of lazy, lethargic, and weak Christians because of this. There is no more shameful and evil laziness than spiritual laziness. Such laziness has very serious consequences. Because many who call themselves Christians do not exercise themselves unto godliness, many a spiritual battle with the devil is lost. Without this holy exercise there is little true godliness.
Paul compares the exercise unto godliness to bodily exercise. Of bodily exercise the apostle says that “it profiteth little.” Yet in our day all the emphasis is on that. Hours of strenuous effort is spent on bodily exercise. Large sums of money are spent on gymnasiums and sports equipment. Much of this is carnal and vain. The motive for it all is the building of handsome physiques and shapely forms for the lust and glory of men. By bodily exercise man vainly attempts to extend his life beyond the time which the Lord has appointed. Paul does not condemn all bodily exercise. There is value in maintaining healthy bodies. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we must also take care of them. This must, however, all be subservient to the great purpose in our life to serve the Lord, and not for the glory of men. We may exercise our bodies if our purpose is to present our bodies living sacrifices unto the Lord. Also, we must never lose sight of the fact that in this life we must prepare ourselves for the life that is to come.
A far more important and profitable exercise is that exercise which trains us in godliness. What a tremendous thing it would be if Christians today would spend the same amount of time and effort on the holy exercise of which the apostle speaks. What a change there would be in the lives of the people of God and in the church.
In a number of places in his letters, Paul illustrates the Christian life with figures from the world of sports and games and the gymnasium. One of the main points in all of these illustrations is that a tremendous amount of discipline and personal exertion is required in the Christian life. When Paul emphasizes this, he of course does not mean thereby to suggest that our salvation is a matter of our own works and efforts. Our salvation is from beginning to end the work of the Lord. Our Lord Jesus Christ through His perfect work on the cross has merited and fully accomplished our salvation. Nothing that we can do or need do can in any way add to the basis of our righteousness in Christ. This is the blessed gospel which we must hold to without compromise. Furthermore, without the power of the grace and Spirit of God we can do nothing at all. If ever a man on earth stressed these great truths, it was the inspired apostle of our Lord. By no means, however, does this mean to imply that the Christian has no calling to perform and obligation to fulfill. It is a miserable and wretched teaching that suggests that the Christian life is entirely passive. We must simply sit back and do nothing lest we contradict the grace of God in our life. The Scriptures exhort us rather to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God, who works in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure. In the light of this, Scripture gives us such great exhortations as: “strive to enter in at the strait gate and the narrow way;” “run with patience the race that is set before you, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of your faith;” “press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus;” “fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life;” “let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the example of unbelief.” At the end of his life the apostle Paul can testify: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept :he faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing” (II Tim. 4:7, 8).
The exhortation to exercise ourselves unto godliness falls into the same class as the above quoted passages. The .apostle sets forth in this exhortation a very vivid illustration. The good athlete must exercise. This takes effort, discipline, training, and exertion. The gymnasium smells of the sweat of hard work-outs. In order to compete in the games, one must be well trained and exercised. The athlete must have his body in subjection. He must be careful to eat the proper diet. He must always be in training to build up muscle tone and skill. At no time can he let up on this, for then he will become lazy and his muscles will become flabby. All of this, then, must be applied to the realm of the spiritual.
Godliness must be the great goal of the Christian life. This is a high and lofty goal that no one can even begin to attain except by the grace of God. All our strength in the holy exercise of which we speak must come from God. Godliness is God-centeredness in all our life. It is reverence and fear and love for God. It implies the knowledge of God and His sovereignty, holiness, and truth. Godliness is the life of gratitude of the child of God who knows the exceeding greatness of his salvation. We are godly when in all our life we desire to serve the Lord and live unto Him and for His glory. We are godly when we earnestly seek to avoid in our life all those things that are displeasing to the Lord and bring dishonor to His name. We are godly in our life when we fight in God’s name against the devil, the great enemy of .God, and against the temptations of sin in the world. We are godly in our life when we are seriously interested n the things of God, His truth and righteousness, His church and kingdom, the glory of His name in the world.
To live a life of godliness requires great effort and discipline. It does not come easy. It takes much serious training and practice and application of ourselves. One will never be godly if he does nothing or is spiritually lazy and careless. The lazy and careless Christian will fall in the battle, He will not be able to stand. He will become shamefully and miserably ungodly.
There is something very concrete to all of this. God Himself must by His Word and Spirit make us godly. The Lord is pleased to use the means that He has ordained. We become godly and exercise ourselves unto godliness when we sincerely apply ourselves unto the use of these means. Many Christians today must be condemned for their failure to do this. God uses first of all the preaching of the Word for the working and strengthening of our faith and for teaching us the truth of God.
We exercise ourselves unto godliness when we seriously apply ourselves to hear and receive the preached word. The church may be called God’s gymnasium. There we must exercise ourselves unto godliness. We certainly do not do this when in church we sit back with a callous attitude of disinterest and inattentiveness. Shame on any of us who does that in the house of the Lord. We exercise ourselves unto godliness through constant, diligent, and careful study of God’s word. Though the message of the gospel is simple and plain, and can be understood by every child of God who has the mind and Spirit of Christ Jesus, this does not mean that the Word of God is in every part easy to understand. There are great and deep doctrines of the Word of God, such as the sovereignty of God, predestination, and justification by faith. Our age is one of superficiality. Any truth that does not come easily is discarded as unimportant and not worth the effort. We are raising a generation that knows very little of the great doctrines of the Bible because they are not exercised unto godliness. Therefore, false doctrines engulf many a church, and many Christians are led astray by the wiles and temptations of the devil. Let none of us vainly imagine that this cannot happen to us and to our own churches. There is in our day little understanding and wisdom and discernment because few are exercised in godliness. Few can really grasp the great issues of life and the great truths of the Word of God. Let us all judge ourselves how much time and effort we spend in the study of God’s Word. When is the last time you have read a solid doctrinal book to help you understand Reformed doctrine and to equip yourself to join, by Gods grace, in the defense of the truth against all the modern day heresies?
We become godly in the way of prayer. How much time and effort do we spend in prayer in our Christian life? Prayer is a strenuous spiritual exercise. Surely, those who every day rattle off a purely formal and routine prayer ought not to imagine that they have finished their exercise for the day. It is a great shame if we spend more time and effort daily on routine bodily exercise than we spend on the holy exercise of the worship of God. To exercise ourselves unto godliness we need to wrestle with God in prayer, in tears and pains and struggles, that we may obtain from Him the strength and blessing we need to live the Christian life.
Exercising ourselves unto godliness means that we are serious about constantly putting into practice the principles of the Word of God in our life. We must do this with conscious effort and dependence upon the grace of God. Daily practical Christian living does not come easy. We have the devil and our own flesh to fight against. There is much we must know about the implications of the Word of God for every area of our life.
We are called to give a living and personal witness in the world of the blessed truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In order to do that we must sanctify the Lord God in our hearts. Many say that they find it very difficult to speak of their faith to others and to communicate to others the. doctrines which we believe. The chief reason is that we do not practice. We are not exercised unto godliness.
“But godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.”