The Disappearing of godliness



This past October, we, evangelical Christians, celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. It provided an occasion for us to remember, and appreciate our reformed heritage. It gave us an opportunity to reflect upon and celebrate some of our reformed theological principles. For myself, it was good to be reminded of that core, reformed distinctive which first caught my attention; its God-centeredness. 20 years ago, as a young christian, I was very frustrated with church. I was especially turned off by the man-centered approach which seemed to pervade every aspect of modern American Christianity; in the worship, in the preaching, in the church programs, everything was always about man. I was starving for something deeper, something transcendent, something other-worldly and authentically spiritual. God, in His great mercy, led me to find some precious treasures which I never knew existed before. I found myself being carried away by the writings of John Calvin, the Puritans, anpd many of the old Presbyterian theologians. They’re writings helped me to understand what biblical Christianity was about, that essentially, it was a God-centered faith, not a man-centered one. I also found, that among those who embraced it, the God-ward focus of reformed theology usually expressed itself in a God-ward focused living and worship. Reformed theology and a deep, God-centered piety seemed to go hand in hand. Unfortunately, what disturbs me about much of today’s reformed Christianity, is the increasing decline of this God-ward focus and lifestyle.

Because classical reformed Christianity is God-centered in focus, and because it makes much of the sovereignty and majesty of God, its purely logical that a radical godliness would be its by-product. I think its important to ask, what exactly is godliness? And why would it be the natural by-product of a God-centered theology? In the Bible, the word godliness means reverence. It means the same as the words “piety” and “devout”. These words are the New Testament counterparts to the Old Testament concept, “the Fear of the Lord.” In the Old Testament, the Fear of the Lord was foundational to Israel’s religion, it was the essential attitude necessary for all obedience and divine worship Ex. 20:20; Lev. 25;17; Pr. 16:6. Essentially, godliness is an attitude of reverence and godly fear. It is the attitude which grows in response to a recognition of God’s awesome presence (Ex. 3:4-6; Is. 6:1-5; Eze. 1:28; Rev.1:17). In the Bible, whenever God appeared before His people in majesty and glory, their response was always reverential awe and godly fear. Just as beauty evokes admiration from its observers, God’s majestic presence evokes fear. In other words, a  knowledge of God’s character and nature should always produces  godly fear. Real godly fear should always produce humble obedience and awe-filled worship Ps. 5:7; Heb. 12:28.

It’s no wonder then, that the reformers paid so much attention to the subject of worship and piety. It was the natural result of their God-centered approach to theology. If the God we serve is the same God we encounter in scripture; a God infinite in majesty, holiness and sovereignty,  a God who made all things for His own purpose and glory, then, what could be of greater importance then the performing of His will. Throughout the Bible, we learn that His primary and ultimate will is for the sanctifying of His name through humble obedience and acceptable worship (Lev. 10:3). You could say that God’s will and ultimate goal is for the entire world to be filled with godliness (Mal. 1:11; Matt. 6:9-10). This was the perspective of our reformed fathers. They saw Christian teaching as the doctrine of piety and godliness (1Tim. 3:16). For them, the goal of theology was the fear of the Lord, they believed that doctrine should lead to doxology and devotion (1Tim. 6:3; Tit. 1:1). For them, purity of worship was just as important as purity of doctrine, hence, our English reformed fathers received the label “Puritans” by their enemies. And so it should be; a high view of God should result in a high view of worship, which is the chief expression of godliness. The person who is gripped by a vision of God’s awesome glory and majestic holiness, will be transformed by that vision to a person of deep piety. And that piety will express itself in humble obedience, and awe inspired worship.

One of my greatest concerns for today’s American church, and especially for those claiming to be reformed, is for the diminishing of real godliness within the church. We talk a lot today about Christian living and about discipleship, but, unfortunately, good old fashioned reformed piety is almost completely absent from that talk. When we talk about discipleship, we talk about nothing more than preferences for discipleship methods, (small groups, life on life, etc). When talking about Christian living, its always about the family, or some other aspect of  being Christian within the context of our comfortable suburban lives, never anything  about seriously pursuing  the presence of God. Words and phrases like godliness, piety and the Fear of God have almost completely disappeared from our language. Any Christian who dares to talk seriously about such matters is deemed to be fanatical, or even weird. When you observe how many of today’s American Christians prioritize their lives, it becomes obvious, that God has ceased to be the main priority. We’ve lost sight of that deep, radical piety we read about in the lives of biblical saints, in the lives of Christians from the ancient church, and also in the lives of our reformed forefathers. In its place, we’ve adopted what seems to be nothing more than a Christian version of the American dream. We have substituted the pursuit of personal happiness in the place of  pursuing personal holiness. Today, we treat our Christian faith like a therapeutic remedy for our stressful lives. We treat the Lord Jesus as a consumer product, and our churches have become expert in treating Him as such.

Nowhere is the disappearance of godliness more evident than in the area of Christian worship. Our reformed fathers, especially those of the Calvinistic wing, spent a lot of time and effort wrestling over the question of acceptable worship. For them, purging the worship of God from the traditions of men was just as crucial as purging Christian doctrine from human error. Today, we do not discuss the issue of acceptable vs. non-acceptable worship, we no longer even think in those categories. We no longer see worship as being about God, we view it as being about us. Of course, we would never say that from our mouths, but we demonstrate it by our actions every Lord’s Day. Its all about what we feel or experience in worship. Worship has become about us getting what we need for ourselves, rather than us giving God what we owe to Him. For our reformed fathers, the question of how to worship God had nothing to do with contextualization. They didn’t target certain groups of people, and then ask what kind of worship style would appeal to that group. The  idea of making the worship of God appealing to sinners, and using it as an attractional tool for boosting church attendance, they would have found to be an abomination. If we truly believe that God is the sovereign King, infinite in majesty and holiness, and that He made us for His own purpose and glory, then, worship is not ultimately for our enjoyment, it is what we owe to Him, regardless of what we get out of it (Ps. 29:1-2).

This decline in godliness is evident in our attitude towards the things of God in general. When it comes to church, we have become way too casual. We have practically lost all sense of reverence and seriousness (Ec. 5:1-2).  While in worship service, we laugh and converse with friends, play on our cell phones and dip out for some fellowship in the lobby during the sermon. Church attendance is secondary to family events. We complain of sermons being too long, then rush off to spend the rest of our Sunday watching hour after hour of sports on television. We never have time for prayer, for bible reading, or for participation in ministry. There is a real disdain in the church today for anything that is considered traditional; things such as prayer meetings, fasting, mid-week bible study, hymns, a reverential demeanor in church, such things are ridiculed as being outdated relics of a narrow minded, legalistic past. Today, its all about “fellowship” and “community”, about programs for the youth, entertainment and fun. Fellowship and relationships are not wrong in their proper place, but today, relationships have become everything. Real community will grow naturally when we make God and His truth to be the central focus. But today, community is the central focus, and we rush to try the latest evangelical program or trend, hoping it can create the community we crave. But, without a deep and strong vertical connection, no program will ever produce a strong horizontal connection.

To some it may seem that I’m being legalistic and negative, or that I’m just one of those who believes that anything modern is bad. I am simply pointing to the symptoms which indicate something we should all be seriously concerned about. My point is that real, biblical Christianity is God-centered in nature, and that, it is this God-centeredness which gives substance and power to Christian faith and piety. When we loose sight of who God really is and of the God-centered nature of Christianity, putting man at the center instead, then, we no longer have true Christianity. That is what has been happening to American Christianity for many decades now, and sadly, it is happening increasingly within American reformed churches as well. The reformed denominations used to be the last stronghold of biblical Christianity in this country. However, today, when you look at the worship, and evangelism in many of our churches, you couldn’t tell us apart from the Charismatics and Arminians. As David Wells argues in his prophetic book, God in the Wasteland, God has become weightless among us, He rests too inconsequentially upon us. As a result, biblical Christianity is almost on life support among us, it is dying. I know that God is in control and that His Kingdom will prevail, but He never told us to surrender without a fight (Jd. 3).

We are in desperate need of revival, true revival, which only God can send by pouring out His Spirit upon His church. We must pray for this revival, If we really love God, His Kingdom and His truth, then praying for revival must be a priority. I believe that a man-centered, therapeutic, American dream version of Christianity is fast replacing all traces of true biblical Christianity in this country. If we want to see a return of biblical Christianity, then, in addition to praying for revival, we must also courageously fight to recover a truly Theocentric  Christian faith. We must rediscover the infinitely exalted, and infinitely holy God of the bible, and recognize Him as the center of all things. Only then will we see a return of depth and seriousness to our churches. Only then will the culture take us seriously. Only then will we see a reappearing of real godliness.


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