What is Real Godliness?
James Durham (1622-1658) was minister in Glasgow for only eleven years but left a considerable number of writings. One of the co-authors of 'The Sum of Saving Knowledge', he is best known for writing what is still regarded as the classic Reformed work on church unity, division and schism, 'A Treatise Concerning Scandal' as well as a highly sought after commentary on the Book of Revelation.
22 Oct, 2020

Sometimes words lose something of their meaning through overuse. The word “godly” used as a cliché has suffered from this. For some, it appears to describe someone who seems to be a committed Christian. Perhaps outwardly right thinking and decent living. Yet godliness in Scripture is not a superficial thing. Indeed, it warns us of the mere appearance or form of godliness without the reality (2 Timothy 3:5). How should we define godliness then? It is an inner response to the things of God which shows itself in devoted reverence for God: it shapes our attitudes, words and actions. Thomas Watson says that it is “the sacred impression, and workmanship of God in a man, whereby of carnal he is made spiritual”. It is something glorious and supernatural that is both intense in its fervency and extensive in its influence. There is much more we can say of course about what true godliness is and how we can discern it.

Godliness has value and benefit for everything; it is great gain in this life and the life to come (1 Timothy 6:6; 1 Timothy 4:8). There is nothing, therefore, of greater consequence and concern than to know clearly what godliness is and be thoroughly serious in practising it. Yet as Paul makes clear it is not only possible to be mistaken about godliness but even to counterfeit it. There is an outward form of godliness which denies the power of true and real godliness (2 Timothy 3:5). Paul also shows that such can even be combined with certain sins that lurk beneath the surface of a religious profession (2 Timothy 3:1-4 and Titus 1:16). Things such as self-love, pride, boasting, covetousness and unholy despising of what is good. James Durham points out that “there is nothing more perilous to the people of God, than when sinful and selfish practices come clothed with a show and pretext of godliness, when deformation comes under the cloak of reformation”. In this updated extract, he shows us positively what real, true godliness is.

1. Real Godliness Has Power

Real, true godliness always has a power with it which a mere appearance of godliness lacks. There is an external part or form of religion and an inward power. Power means two things.

(a) Power to command

Real godliness has the power to rule sway and command a person so that they are not “brought under the power of anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12). To be under the power of anything is to be under its dominion and command. To be under the power of sin is to be captivated by it, have it for a master and be ruled and commanded by it. To be under the power of godliness is to be under its dominion so that it sways, orders, directs, rules and commands a person (Romans 6:16). Obedience to righteousness in that verse is the same thing that is here called godliness. To be under the power of godliness is to obey it from the very heart (Romans 6:17,19), to be obedient to the doctrine of the gospel, to “the truth which is after godliness” (Titus 1:1).

(b) Power to effect

By power, we mean efficacy, so that true godliness has the efficacy to enable to perform and make practical what it commands. In power means effectual (1 Corinthians 2:4; 1 Corinthians 4:20). Where there is power, there is efficacy through the power of God that accompanies, when the Lord pleases, the preaching of the gospel. Some men may have fine and flourishing expressions without efficacy in preaching, while others may have a more unpolished style of language, yet with a great deal more life, power and efficacy. So there is a form of godliness that never effectually shows itself in practice or by putting any sin to death. But true godliness commands, it exercises dominion and reigns over a person; it directs and commands them and they give willing and hearty obedience to it. It not only brings them to profess religion, but it also works inwardly in the heart and has efficacy in subduing sin within.

Where true godliness is, the Spirit is, and where the Spirit is, there is power (2 Timothy 1:7). The Spirit brings along with Him power, inward life and efficacy. Where true godliness is, there is faith, and faith has power with it. There is the exceeding greatness of the mighty power that works effectually in those that believe (Ephesians 1:19). Faith has power in it, enabling us to overcome the world (1 John 5:4). It has the power to purify the heart (Acts 15:9). All things are possible to those that believe (Mark 9:23; Philippians 4:13).

2. Real Godliness Has a Convincing Power

It has a convincing power, that where the hearts of men and women are naturally proud and defiant against God, godliness makes the Word pierce deeply and strike through. It makes convictions penetrate and the person to accept them, bringing his heart under deep impressions of the awe and dread of God.

3. Real Godliness Has a Transforming Power

It has such a renewing, changing and transforming power that makes a new creature and old things to pass away and all things to become new (2 Corinthians 5:17).

4. Real Godliness Has a Restraining Power

It has a restraining power on corruptions and lusts and does not allow them to reign and exercise dominion as previously (Romans 6:14).

5. Real Godliness Has a Constraining Power

It has a constraining power, impelling us forward to that which is good, and well-pleasing in the sight of God. It is impossible where godliness is in power, that men can be unconcerned in their duty. It makes them yield themselves to be servants unto righteousness, as it is in Romans 6:16. It leads captive high thoughts and imaginations to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:51). It makes us so that we dare not, will not, cannot (willingly at least) resist any commanded duty, no more than we dare or can dwell contentedly with any known sin. It makes us dare not resist or reject any of God’s commandments, nor regard any iniquity in our heart (Psalm 18:22 and Psalm 66:18).

6. Real Godliness Has a Mortifying Power

It has a mortifying power towards anything that seeks to compete with precious Jesus Christ in the person’s esteem. It blackens the beauty and splendour of them all in this competition. It demotes them to the very lowest degree of baseness and vileness so that in comparison of Him, they are reckoned but as loss and dung (Philippians 3:7-8). It breaks off the delight we once had in idols (Hosea 14:8; Isaiah 30:22].

7. Real Godliness Has a Calming Power

It has a heart-quieting, calming, composing and fixing power. The mere form of godliness never has this, but it leaves a person still unfixed and the heart not established. “It is a good thing,” says the apostle in Hebrews “that the heart be established with grace, not with meats” (Hebrews 13:9). Grace is opposed to meats here, that is to questions and debates about meats and other such things. Those things have a show of godliness and do not profit those who are occupied about them. Only grace establishes the heart.

8. Real Godliness Can Be Distinguished from False Godliness

If many could be prevailed with to examine our godliness according to these marks, it would be found that there is but little true godliness among us. Where is the power of godliness! Yet wherever true godliness is, it has power with it. This power reaches to a very great extent, reaching our spirit and walk, our thoughts, words and actions. It even affects our very looks in some way. It made Job to make a covenant with his eyes (Job 31:1). It orders everything, not by fits and starts, but constantly in some measure as our desire, purpose and honest endeavour. And if at any time the influence of its power is not felt or weakened, that becomes our burden and affliction.

(a) Real godliness has much self-denial while false godliness has its source in self-love. It denies self in relation to our own righteousness, it humbles us under a conviction and sense of our sin and misery. It makes us deny ourselves in excessive self-love, submit to God’s will in all things. It makes us love God more than our own pleasure, profit or preferment, or anything else in the world. False godliness cannot bear anything in godliness that crosses its corrupt inclination. They will not humbly suffer any injury, but true godliness teaches the Christian to turn the other cheek. False godliness is all for action and doing in the outward things of religion, but not at all for suffering. True godliness commends and commands both, to do for Christ and be also ready to suffer for Him if we are called to it.

(b) Real godliness makes us focus on religious duties that are more inward and spiritual, as well those that are more outward. It inclines us to repentance, faith in Christ, putting sin to death and self-examination. The life of religion consists mainly in these. False godliness neglects inward and spiritual duties and is more concerned with keeping up the show and appearance of religion.

(c) Real godliness stirs us up to exercise grace. Natural conscience stirs us up to outward duty, but real godliness stirs us to exercise patience, submission, humility, sincerity, love to God and the saints. These are fruits of the Spirit and of the new creation that evidence life.

(d) Real godliness makes us engage in duties in the right way. It makes us pray and praise in the Spirit, sorrow for sin in a godly way, hear the Word so as to be edified by it etc. False godliness only considers whether the duty is done rather than whether it is done in the right way. It is only challenged for not praying or not going to church rather than whether prayer is wholehearted and they hear the sermon with benefit.

(e) Real godliness makes us wrestle against shortcomings in our spiritual growth and sins. Weakness in faith and coldness in love are a grief to us. Hypocrisy is as grievous to us as open sin. False godliness piles up outward religious practices and profession but does not lay a sure foundation. It is like someone who sows much seed but does not take care to weed it and remove what obstructs its growth. True godliness digs deep.


These considerations should not discourage us but rather encourage us to seek true godliness. In a culture that is obsessed with image and appearance, we are easily and subtly drawn to give an emphasis to outward more than inward things in terms of faith. Both are necessary but it is dangerous to let one crowd out the other.  Since it has value and benefit for everything in this life and the life to come, true godliness should be our greatest pursuit (1 Timothy 6:6; 1 Timothy 4:8).



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