While we were discussing some practical aspects of the minister’s life, we were concentrating more specifically on what Paul has to say to Timothy in I Tim. 4:7, 8: “But refuse profane and old wives’ fables, and exercise thyself rather unto godliness. For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.”
We talked already about what Timothy must not do. He must not busy himself with profane and old wives’ fables. He must not put very much emphasis in his life on bodily exercise, for that is not very profitable. In this letter we ought to talk a bit about the positive part of the verse. Timothy must engage in exercise all right; but this exercise must have as its goal, godliness.
The Christian virtue of godliness is rather often mentioned in Scripture, and it is, by no means, a virtue which must be limited to ministers of the gospel. It is a virtue which ought to be found in all God’s people, and for it they ought to strive. Nevertheless, it is extremely important that those whom God has called to be ambassadors of the Word possess this godliness, for they are examples in the midst of the flock, and their conduct has a profound effect upon God’s people.
So it is rather important that we have a clear understanding of what godliness really is.
The basic meaning of the word is interesting and important. In the Greek language in which Paul wrote to Timothy this word comes from two other words, one of which means “well,” and the other of which means “revere” or “reverence.” To be godly is to revere well. That’s rather emphatic. “Revere” is a strong word in its own right; but to it is added “well” which makes it all the stronger.
There is only One Whom we must revere, and that is God. By the way, this is one reason why the title “Reverend” is by far not my favorite title by which to designate ministers. It would be good if we could get away from that practice and use “pastor” instead. But this is a parenthesis, and we ought not to be distracted by this question.
God is the only One Who is the object of reverence because He is so much higher than we are. We cannot reverence someone who is essentially our equal. Or, if we do reverence a man—our equal, then we are guilty of idolatry, or, as we sometimes call it, hero-worship. God is the object of reverence because He is infinitely exalted, the God of all glory, high and lifted up above all the works of His hands. In fact, the more we are able to understand how very great God is, the deeper will be our reverence, too. Reverence is an acknowledgement of God’s greatness.
In this sense of the word, reverence comes very close to fear. We know that fear is not terror. In Scripture the two are by no means the same. Even in this respect, though, I sometimes could almost wish that people who claim to be religious and who claim to worship God could have just a bit more terror in their hearts. It would maybe help. The tendency in our day to drag God down from His high and lofty throne, and to put Him on some pedestal constructed .by men’s hands; the tendency to speak carelessly and profanely about God and to God; the tendency to make Him Who is infinitely holy, common and profane; all this is surely very evil. It is, in fact, the opposite of fear and of reverence. People would not dare to address the president of the United States the way they address God. In fact, it seems as if they address their friends with more respect than that with which they address God.
But fear and reverence are born from the work of grace. That is, they are not only acknowledgment of the supreme and exalted majesty of God as such; but they are an acknowledgment of God’s supreme glory in the work of grace and salvation—and even that from a very personal point of view.
I know figures are always inadequate. But supposing for example that an utterly wretched bum who was the off scouring of society attempted to assassinate the king of a very glorious realm; and supposing further that this man was caught and haled before the king to stand trial; there would no doubt be, under those circumstances, abject terror in his soul. This terror would arise from an awareness of the awesome splendor of the king’s court not only, but also from the consciousness of his own horrible deed and the fear of just punishment. But if the king would say not only that he completely pardoned this wretch, but that he made this wretch a high prince in the realm with authority to rule over many cities, and he told this wretch that he had done this because the king’s own son had chosen to suffer the penalty for the crime in the place of the wretch, then this poor bum would be filled with fear. It would be almost too good to be true. And when he was persuaded that it was true and he received the robes fitting his office, then he would indeed fear that king. But that fear would arise out of a heart bursting with love and would be for all the king’s wonderful goodness.
That kind of fear, Timothy, is true reverence.
The term godliness, however, means more. And it means more because that reverence is a kind of dominating principle in a man’s life if he is truly godly. The wretch in the illustration would never for a moment forget what the king had. done for him. The wretch would, from that moment on, conduct his entire life in such a way that the reverence he felt for the king would shine through in everything he did. Reverence means, therefore, not only fear and awe and respect, but also a whole way of living in which it was evident that his king’s honor was upheld. He would live from the principle that he could do nothing contrary to his king’s wishes because in so doing he would hurt his king who had done so much for him.
When we are godly, then we live all our life out of that principle. We dare do nothing contrary to the will of God, for in so doing we hurt Him Who has done all this for us.
This is why this word is sometimes translated “piety.” The reference is not to some sanctimonious piety which a hypocrite has. It is a deep piety that flows from the heart. It is a piety that does not have to be talked about or explained or adorned with many high-sounding words. It is not a piety which has to be defended and blared from the housetops. It is a piety which is so deeply imbedded in a man’s soul that it is there in the look on his face, the words he speaks, the character of his life, his walk in all life’s relationships. He is fearless of evil because he fears God. He has steel in his soul and compassion and love in his heart. He is utterly devoted to the defense of the glory of God.
Paul says that we must exercise ourselves with godliness as our goal. Exercise belongs to the world of sports. In Paul’s day, exercise was particularly required for those who engaged in various public games, and especially for those who wanted a place in the Olympic games. What does one do when he engages in exercise to run, say, the 1000 meter race? In the first place, he puts aside many, many things which he would like to do in order that he may devote all his attention without distraction to preparation for the race. He devotes himself single-mindedly to-doing all he can to make himself ready. In the second place, he goes on a specially prepared diet in order that he may eat the best of foods to give all the strength and stamina to his body that can come by way of nutrition. In the third place, he engages in a regular schedule of exercises which are specially devised to develop to the full those particular muscles which he will need to run swiftly. In the fourth place, he engages in much practice. He will perhaps run as much as forty or fifty miles a day, not only to develop his wind; not only to develop his muscles; not only to study his style so that he will run with greatest efficiency; but also with the purpose of making running so totally natural that he can do it without thinking.
All these things apply in a spiritual sense to spiritual exercises.
The very fact that Paul speaks here of exercise suggests the idea that to be godly takes a great deal of practice. One does not become a godly man overnight. Godliness is emphatically rooted in the work of grace. But God does not give grace in the same way that a doctor gives us a shot of penicillin. In dependence upon God and upon the power of His grace we are called to exercise ourselves. This takes time, effort, single-mindedness, constant attention, even practice. And only in this way do we become godly ministers of the gospel.
There are genuinely godly people in the Church of Jesus Christ. There are genuinely godly ministers in the pulpits. When we meet them it does not take very long to know that they are godly. It is there. It is evident. It is unmistakable. It is a wonderful experience. And the godliness of these people is so natural, so unself-conscious that those who are godly are themselves the least aware of it. They would almost certainly be astounded if you mentioned it to them. It has become a genuine “way of life.”
The exercise of godliness comes, of course, in many different individual exercises. But chief among them are Bible study and prayer. No man can be godly without these. But even these require discipline, practice, concentration, continuous effort. These are not easy to do when first we start these exercises. The spiritual “muscles” required are often flabby and atrophied. And the use of such muscles is not a very enjoyable experience. The muscles begin to ache and cry out for relief. This is the sin which remains in us. But through constant use they become strong.
How important godliness is in a minister of the Word. It is important in all God’s people, indeed. But especially so in ministers. It is a strange thing, but I have observed it again and again. The example of poor parents, of ungodly teachers, of profane ministers is an example which all concerned are ready and eager to follow. And the sins in children, pupils, and parishioners are easily blamed on the sinful example of those who should be different in their life. A good example is not so easily followed. While many (if not most) in a congregation will easily and happily slide into the same patterns set by their pastor, there will be only the few who follow his godly example. But this makes this matter of godliness more urgent than ever. The spiritual effectiveness of a godly minister is beyond our measurements. While the spiritual effectiveness of an ungodly minister is nil.
An ungodly man in the pulpit is an anomaly, an insult to God and His cause, an agent of untold harm in the Church of Christ. A hypocritically pious minister in the pulpit is a repelling force to all who desire to live godly lives. A godly man is a blessing to himself and God’s people.
Fraternally in Christ,