'Cross Fit' Godliness

The Mandate to Godliness

Writing the Pastoral Epistles, the Apostle Paul makes “godliness” (Greek, eusebeia) primary. Some have perceived here a theologically incompatible, and hardly “pastoral,” fixation. It might sound strange to hear the apostle of grace making such a big deal about our godliness, our works. Wasn’t he himself saved from moralism (cf. Galatians 1:11–17)? Isn’t the redemption he preached all about the freedom of grace rather than the condemning chains of personal piety?

Has Paul, in these last letters of his ministry, lost his way? Does he, in an act of apostolic madness, abandon the gospel? Or does the senior apostle suffer a series of senior moments, exchanging grace with godliness, substituting fidelity for faith, replacing forgiveness with fear? Does Paul lose sight of the cross?

Or perhaps, it is worse—that the Pastoral Epistles evidence no senior slippage at all. Maybe Paul had a change of heart. After all, as he faces the end of his ministry, the Church stands on the threshold of major risks. Aging, suffering and dying, the apostles are passing off the scene; the Church will soon find itself with no more apostolic presence and no more apostolic preaching. Perchance Paul, burdened by the moral corruption around him, sees the need to preach a desperate though disparate message. Enough about grace! The Church will only survive if it stays godly!

What are we to make of Paul’s preoccupation with the moral state of the Church? What are we to make with his repeated insistence upon godliness? What are we to make of his urgent mandate to pursue good works, even to “train . . . for godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7)?

Before seeking an answer to these questions, we should first listen to his multiplex pleas for such vital and visible godliness. In 1 Timothy 2:8, Paul calls out the men of the church, who evidently had a habit of wrangling rather than praying. Church officers were to be men of good character and to do good works (1 Timothy 3:1–13; Titus 1:5–9). Without godliness, men fail even to qualify for spiritual office in the Church.

He turns to the women, and urges an adornment of godliness and good deeds among them: “likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works” (1 Timothy 2:9–10).

Later he returns to godliness among women, but this time for those who are widows, “But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God” (1 Timothy 5:4).

Paul’s godliness preaching leaves no gender, age, or office untouched. He even sounds a siren about an apparent godliness that does injustice to the term.

Assessing his contemporary world, he warns of a fake piety “having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.” Such bogus godliness involves deceivers who actually advocate for it. Paul minces words neither about the impotence nor the impostors: “Avoid such people” (2 Timothy 3:5).

Critiquing the self-centered gain pursued by false teachers in their mock devotion, Paul nimbly rejects the empty piety of false teaching, contending for a piety of substance: “But godliness with contentment is great gain,” (1 Timothy 6:6 ESV).[1] The apostle of grace turns our attention to the personal benefits of good works. Not only is piety necessary, he contends it brings advantage. Real piety produces benefits!

If such motivational appeal sounds startling, note that he unashamedly associates this promise with the pure doctrine of Jesus. Just as Paul weds false teaching and false piety, he yokes faithful teaching of Christ to his mandate for faithful living. “If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing” (1 Timothy 6:3–4a). As Paul sees it, his apostolic call to right living moves in lock step with the gospel(!) words of Jesus.

How is that possible? Doesn’t such a rigorous call to moral behavior operate at odds with the pure forgiveness of Jesus? How can Paul align such demands for godliness with the grace in Christ Jesus?

Physical and Spiritual Fitness

According to recent statistics, a relatively new physical fitness rage called “CrossFit”[2] has grown 806 percent in the last three years![3] CrossFit gyms are springing up all over the place, as growing numbers of enthusiasts subject themselves to the grueling combinations of conditioning and strengthening exercises. The CrossFit approach to fitness “crosses” traditional boundaries, blending a full-scope of rigorous exercises with formal competitions. CrossFit devotees view the program not merely as a workout regimen, but rather as a competitive sport, even as a way of life.

With CrossFit-like enthusiasm, in 1 Timothy 4:7–8, Paul calls his son in the faith and other readers to the gym, and distinguishes useless workouts from useful ones. “Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for 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.” Two bold points emerge. First, real godliness rejects sham training programs. Second, real godliness requires rigorous workouts, real sweat, and uncompromising discipline. Genuine godliness comes by spiritual exercise.

We must understand what the Apostle is doing here. His consistent profiling of godliness and its benefits can get easily misconstrued and misappropriated. As rigorously as Paul calls for godliness fitness training, the most important feature of his spiritual fitness program remains for us to uncover.

Paul’s theology of godliness draws exclusively upon the person and work of Christ Jesus. The exercise of Christ in his life, death, and resurrection provide the only basis for the Pauline appeal to spiritual fitness. Godliness concerns the godly Son of God.

In 1 Timothy 3:16, Paul pens what was likely an extant early church confession. He introduces this gospel-rich confession about the humiliation and exaltation of Jesus Christ with a theologically paradigmatic statement:

            “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.”

Godliness for Paul not only looks to Christ Jesus for its meaning, but also finds its very realization (“vindicated by the Spirit”) and revelation in him (“He was manifested in the flesh”). The “mystery of godliness” is now on display: the actual godliness of a man was before unseen, but is now attained.

Where do we see it? Only in one Place, one Man. Godliness glimmers in the righteous and glorified Son of God: manifested before men, vindicated by the Spirit of God, seen by angels, proclaimed by witnesses, believed by untold numbers, and glorified in his heavenly exaltation and session at the Father’s right hand.

Paul, in his repeated calling to godliness in the Pastoral Epistles, operates with an exhaustively Christ-ward and gospel orientation. He does not plead pathetically for godliness out of our spiritual incapacity; rather he commands godliness on the basis of the inexhaustible strength and power of the Lord Jesus Christ.

To put it otherwise, for Paul, godliness is attained in the life of Christ and at the cross of Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18). He alone became fit as the humiliated and suffering One, whose suffering on our behalf secured our gospel destiny and hope. As attested by the angels and proclaimed by the apostles, the Son of God was shown to be fully fit as our Savior in his glorious resurrection. He is worthy of our full faith because he incarnated godliness. He attained mature godliness in his own life, and by divine grace secured godliness for us.

Here is the point. The power of godliness is the power of Christ’s cross. There is no godliness without redemption, no good works without the Good Worker who was crushed in death and then made alive in the Spirit. The Pauline plea for godliness relies unswervingly on Christ and his cross. Biblical godliness centers on the success of Jesus Christ in his temptation and suffering, as attested by his glorious resurrection. Biblical godliness is truly cross fit. False godliness “denies its power,” and artificially structures its morality around form rather than substance, around sinners’ sanctimony rather than the Savior’s sanctity.

With a proper cross-ward orientation, we must salute the power of the cross. The rationale for the call to godliness is the godly Christ of the cross. Jesus calls us to cross fit training. The spiritual gymnasium is open, and the spiritual workout is not optional. To be sure Christ demands a lot of us. Actually, he demands everything of us. But he does so only because he has given everything for and to us. In him we have everything we need for “life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3).

No wonder the Apostle Paul marvels at the godly power of the gospel: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness” (1 Timothy 3:16). In its revealed mystery is the power of Christ. His power is sufficient for godliness. His power facilitates godliness. His power formulates godliness. His power necessitates godliness. He is godliness incarnate!

By God’s grace in the gospel, Christians united to the mighty Christ become cross fit. And because the Son of God now lives, the power of the gospel prevails for this life and the next. Our spiritual cross-fit training continues with fullest assurance of great gain.

[1] The relationship between godliness and contentment is both fascinating and critical. This relationship will be the focus of the next SQN column.

[2] http://www.crossfit.com/. Accessed January 18, 2015.


David Garner