Understanding Godliness

All cultures have their heroes. The stories of these heroes capture what a group holds most dear. One hero of Rome was the mythical Trojan warrior, Aeneas. When the Greeks burned down his city, Aeneas escaped with his elderly, crippled father on his shoulders and holding the hand of his young son. The picture, painted and sculpted many times over the centuries, captures a character trait that was central both to Romans and Greeks. This character trait brings us again to Peter’s list of virtues in 2 Peter 1:5-7.

In most modern translations, the quality that Peter lists in 2 Peter 1:6 after perseverance is godliness. We often think of “godlikeness” when we see this word, but godliness refers to the respect or reverence that a person has toward someone or something deserving. The older word for this trait is piety. Non-Christians thought that a person had to be godly or pious to be a good citizen. For them, a pious person would show proper regard for family members, homeland and the gods. Aeneas shows piety in all these ways: He cares for his father and son, his father carries the household gods, and he finds a new homeland where his legendary descendant Romulus founds Rome. When, in Virgil’s Aeneid, Aeneas introduces himself to Queen Dido, he says, “I am pious Aeneas” (1.378).

How is Christian piety different? The most important difference is that Christian piety centers around the true God. Christian godliness means reverence for the Creator instead of created images (Romans 1:18-23). We still show piety toward elders, parents and grandparents (1 Timothy 5:4), but God is by far the most important recipient of our reverence. Isaiah would have laughed at the fact that Aeneas’ father had to carry their gods; a real God doesn’t need a lift (Isaiah 46:1-2). Second, godliness in the New Testament corresponds to the fear of the Lord in the Old Testament (Proverbs 1:7, Isaiah 11:2, and Job 1:1). Piety is, therefore, the foundation for wisdom and knowledge. Third, we need to remember that faith in Christ is the founding virtue, and love is the crowning virtue in Peter’s list (2 Peter 1:5-7). Piety without faith or love is still not Christian.

What can we do to become godly? First, we need to recognize how countercultural godliness is today. Most likely, if you hear the word piety, it’s an insult. If ancient non-Christians tried to have piety without God, we attempt to have God without piety. Our default question is, “What job, church, spouse, house, music or community satisfies my preferences?” Godliness means that God’s will always trumps our preferences. Second, we need to treat worship seriously. Christian worship isn’t a concert or a movie, and fearing God means worship has a reverence that entertainment doesn’t need (Hebrews 12:28-29). Third, we need to grieve over sin. The holy God that we love grieves over sin; if we revere Him, we will grieve as well. Peter experienced both forgiveness and restoration, but the process was painful (Luke 22:62, John 21:17).

Nehemiah recognized the importance of godliness in his day. He chose Hananiah to lead Jerusalem, and the text gives us his primary qualification: He was a man who “feared God more than many” (Nehemiah 7:2, NASB).

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