the mystery of godliness

SDC12273Foundational to the Christian message is that salvation is not something one earns, but is a free gift. It is based not on what we do for God but on what he has done for us through Jesus Christ. Anyone who has ever tried to get on God’s good side by following some code of conduct knows that all such attempts are doomed to failure. We are a condemned race, destined to disappoint our creator, with only one exception, and it is not me.

Grace in the bible is not a character trait or idea. Grace is a person, who “has appeared, bringing salvation to all people.”[1] By his sinless life and sacrificial death for everyone, Jesus did what every other human being could not do. He tasted death for everyone.[2] Having paid that penalty for sin, he was able to offer us the gift of eternal life which God so wanted to give us – out of his heart of grace.[3]

Christ’s death redeemed us from the penalty of death that we owed, and made us right in God’s sight as well. Because of that redemption, we “are justified by his grace as a gift.”[4] From Christ’s fullness “we have all received, grace upon grace.”[5] We owe everything to him – the fact that we are not what we once were, and the fact that we will be something better still in eternity future.

Rules and regulations can never do what Christ did. They are a poor substitute for grace. Even the law of God in the Old Testament had become just a set of rules to live by for the Israelites in Christ’s day. The Gospels tell us that “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”[6] The apostle Paul had been a staunch supporter of this law to live by, until he met Christ on the Damascus road. Then things changed. He learned that the law was not God’s plan for the salvation of the world. He found that “if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.”[7]

So his message changed. He taught that salvation “is no longer on the basis of works” (actually it had never been). “Otherwise”, (he reasoned) “grace would no longer be grace.”[8] This message of salvation through the completed work of Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross was called the “gospel of the grace of God”[9] It was also called simply “the word of his grace.”[10]

It was a message of sacrifice – not that God wants us to sacrifice for him, but that he has willingly sacrificed for us. It reminded people of what God had done to freely offer deliverance from sin and death. People were encouraged to think about Christ’s sacrificial life and death. Paul told the Corinthians “you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”[11]

This word of grace was not for Paul an excuse to sit back and rest. It was motivation for him to work harder than ever. He once proclaimed that he had worked harder than any of his opponents to get the gospel of grace out to the world that needs it. Ironically, he did so because it was the grace of God working with him.[12] For Paul, grace was not in conflict with hard work.

Yet there is a challenge we find in the New Testament that seems to conflict with this message of grace. These same apostles and evangelists that champion Christ as the grace of God revealed, also challenge their readers to live lives of holiness, righteousness and godliness.

Why? If Christ’s death is all the grace we will ever need (and it is) why are we encouraged to live godly lives as well? If our acts of righteousness are insufficient for our salvation – indeed are as filthy rags in God’s sight,[13] why should we waste our time trying live out impossible godly lives?

Yet, we cannot escape these challenges toward godliness for they are just as prevalent in the New Testament as the messages of grace. Paul tells Timothy to train himself for godliness, because “while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”[14] So, he encourages Timothy to pursue godliness.[15]

Peter encourages every Christian to seek godliness. In light of the evil nature of the last days in which we live, he says “what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God?”[16]

How we live as Christians is intended to reflect upon the holiness and godliness of the one we proclaim. That is why Paul instructed Timothy not to allow widows who were too young to become dependent upon the church for their support. Instead, they should go to live with their children or grandchildren. That would give the children or grandchildren a chance to “make some return to their parents.”[17] This would please God, and also be a good witness to the community that Christianity encourages family responsibility.

Paul also encouraged women in worship services not to dress with inordinate jewelry or immodest dress. Instead they should demonstrate “what is proper for women who profess godliness.”[18] Their husbands are encouraged to pray without anger – not to let their worship times be distracted by personal disputes or envy.[19] The reason is the same: godliness points people to Christ, ungodliness in Christians turns people away from Christ.

It is in this context that we read about what Paul calls “the mystery of godliness.”

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.[20]

At first glace, it seems strange that Paul should use such a title. He is not talking about godliness here, but about what he elsewhere calls grace. He is describing the willing sacrificial life of Christ on our behalf. The mystery of godliness is not about what we can do for God, but about what he has done for us. Godliness is what the incarnation was: truth manifested in the flesh.

This is where the gospel of grace and the apostle’s encouragement toward godliness collide. This is the reason that Christians should live out the righteousness that was bought for us at Calvary, at the price of Jesus’ blood.

There have always been those who say that what one does “in the flesh” does not really matter. Many have fallen for the deception that was prominent in the movement later to become known as Gnosticism. They valued knowledge (Greek gnosis) above action. Indeed, for some, no action was significant at all. All that mattered was what one believed. Eventually, this deception paved the way for all kinds of immorality, because it was believed that the flesh did not matter because it was not eternal. They were taught that the soul was as immortal as God, so it was all that mattered.

Others went in the opposite direction, and warned that too much contamination with the world would defile that all-important immortal part within. These would forbid people to marry, or forbid eating meat, defining godliness as meaning what one does without.[21] Godliness was defined as keeping one’s immortal soul pure, not allowing this world of matter to contaminate it.

If Jesus is God’s definition of godliness, then his life blasted away that Gnostic definition. He did not keep his life separated from the world. He invested his life in the world. He did not come simply to convert people’s souls – he came to redeem and heal and resurrect their bodies. His goal was not eternity in a disembodied state, he took on flesh never to lose it again. For infinity he will be walking around in a glorified human body – without sin or shame.

So, after establishing that Christ – the mystery of godliness – came to manifest God’s truth in the flesh, Paul tells Timothy to do the same. He is to pursue righteousness not in order to be saved, but to point people to the Saviour.

He is to be a good man, not out of fear of judgment, but out of love for those who do not yet know Christ, the living manifestation of godliness. Godliness is truth manifested in the flesh. When Christians live godly lives in the midst of a fallen and reprobate world, it draws people to Christ.

This is where the Christian message of grace and the encouragement toward godliness should also meet. Our message of grace should never give people the mistaken assumption that since we are saved by grace it does not matter how we live “in the flesh.” It mattered how Christ lived in the flesh – it should matter for us. Our lives should manifest such integrity and lack of sin that people should assume that they are backed by supernatural power. Our connection to God should be so real and honest that others seek us out when they want to know him. That is what it means to manifest the truth in the flesh.

There is always a danger that those seeking to live out this definition of godliness might fall back into legalism and bondage. As a believer grows and experiences God’s grace, he might go through stages where he feels more “hands on” in his own sanctification. But there will also be times when the believer is overwhelmed with his own unworthiness and depravity, and must fall back to the “hands off” position. God is at work in the believer’s life no matter what his subjective feeling is about it. The God of grace is also a God who works within us to accomplish his will.[22]

God wants us to live lives that manifest his truth while our tongues continue to proclaim it. Godliness, then, should never take the place of Christ as our primary message. We are called to live godly lives so that people will listen to us when we proclaim freedom in Christ.

The Gnostics got it wrong, because they had adopted a false theology about human nature: that human souls are as immortal as God. People who followed the Gnostic teachings became more and more enslaved. People who followed the gospel message were set free to live lives of godliness. They could manifest the truth in the flesh.

It remains to see what this generation is going to choose. Will they leave Egypt or remain in bondage? Will they follow Christ – the mystery of godliness – or seek a godliness of their own making?

LORD, teach us how to celebrate your grace with our tongues, and manifest your truth with our hands.

[1] Titus 2:11.

[2] Hebrews 2:9.

[3] Ephesians 2:8; Titus 3:7.

[4] Romans 3:24.

[5] John 1:16.

[6] John 1:17.

[7] Galatians 2:21.

[8] Romans 11:6.

[9] Acts 20:24.

[10] Acts 14:33; 20:32.

[11] 2 Corinthians 8:9.

[12] 1 Corinthians 15:10.

[13] Isaiah 64:6 KJV.

[14] 1 Timothy 4:8.

[15] 1 Timothy 6:11.

[16] 2 Peter 3:11-12.

[17] 1 Timothy 5:4.

[18] 1 Timothy 2:10.

[19] 1 Timothy 2:8.

[20] 1 Timothy 3:16.

[21] 1 Timothy 4:3.

[22] Philippians 2:13.

Author: Jefferson Vann

Jefferson Vann is pastor of Piney Grove Advent Christian Church in Delco, North Carolina. You can contact him at -- !

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