Godliness and Religion—What’s the Difference?
The Greek word for “godliness” in the Bible is not the same as the Greek word for “religion.” The former is eusebeia (yoo-SEB-ee-ah) whereas the latter is thréskeia (thrays-KIH-ah). Notice how Greek scholar E.W. Bullinger distinguishes the two words:
Eusebeia [godliness] relates to a real, true, vital, and spiritual relation with God while thréskeia [religion] relates to the outward acts of religious observances or ceremonies, which can be done in the flesh. Our English word “religion” was never used in the sense of true godliness. It always meant the outward forms of worship. (335)
So godliness refers to genuine spiritual relationship with the LORD as opposed to religion, which refers to outward religious acts. Godliness cannot be performed by the flesh whereas religion can.
Godliness could simply be translated as “like-God-ness.” In other words, it’s behaving and speaking as the Lord would behave and speak. You could say it’s imitating God, which we are plainly instructed to do in the Bible
Be imitators of God, therefore, as beloved children,
If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.
1 Peter 4:11
There are two ways we can imitate God. One is to find out what the Word of God instructs and simply put it into practice. The other is simply the result of loving the LORD in a relational sense. How would this make a person godly; that is, like-God? Simple: The more time you spend with a person, particularly someone you love and respect, the closer you’ll become and the more like him or her you’ll naturally be. It’s the same thing with your relationship with God. The more time you spend with Him, the closer you’ll become and the more like Him you’ll be. The LORD will “rub off” on you and you’ll thus be increasingly like-God or godly.
With the understanding of what godliness is, we are encouraged to pursue it in the Bible:
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
(11) But flee from these things, you man of God, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance [and] gentleness
1 Timothy 6:10-11
We are also encouraged to train ourselves to be godly:
Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. (8) For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.
1 Timothy 4:7-8
NOTE: Both “godly” in verse 7 and “godliness” in verse 8 are the same Greek word, the aforementioned eusebeia.
I’m citing these two passages to stress that godliness—which is an active and increasingly intimate relationship with the LORD (or the natural result of such a relationship)—won’t automatically happen; it must be pursued and you have to “train yourself” to habitually walk in it. This is understandable when you consider that all good relationships take time, energy, attention and discipline. It’s no different with your relationship with God.
Godliness Vs. Religion
So godliness and religion are altogether different. Godliness refers to an active relationship with God and the corresponding “rubbing off” effect where you become increasingly like-God whereas religion relates to outward acts of service and devotion. Religion in this sense is good as long as the person balances it out with godliness. However, religion without godliness devolves into sterile go-through-the-motions religiosity.
Godliness involves both simple communion with the Lord and praise & worship. This is understandable when you grasp that praise & worship (adoration) are forms of communion. With this in mind, I have to be careful how I word the following because I don’t want to be taken the wrong way, so please read with discernment:
Of course it’s better to enter into praise & worship once or twice a week in the assembly of the saints than not at all, that’s a given. But celebration and adoration of God should become more of an everyday thing as the believer grows. Praise & worship should flow out of us as naturally as water from a spring (Hebrews 13:15). This is the way it should be for growing believers and more seasoned ones alike. But something’s seriously wrong if praising and worshipping God becomes mere outward antics at church services. When this happens, the believer is essentially just putting on an act because he or she is around other believers, but it’s not a reality in his/her personal life. Beware of falling into this mode because it’s a form of legalism—counterfeit “Christianity”—which Jesus denounced when he quoted Isaiah:
“These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
It’s possible to praise & worship God with our mouths and yet not really mean it with our hearts. Please be careful to never slip into such a legalistic mode!
Believe it or not, churches sometimes unknowingly facilitate this problem. They put so much stress on coming to every church service and being involved in the assembly that believers end up running around like headless chickens doing this or that for the ministry, which leaves very little time for the most important thing, their relationship with God. This is especially so when you factor in other life essentials like work, kids, education, shopping, cooking, physical fitness, rest and recreation.* In other words, believers are so pressured to run around doing this or that so their pastors will deem them faithful and godly that they don’t have time and energy for the very things that create true godliness—personal time spent with the LORD and his Word.
* Yes, some measure of recreation is essential: “There’s a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:4).
This could just as easily happen to pastors and worship leaders or musicians, even deacons (workers in the assembly). Such people become so involved in the work of the ministry that they forsake the core of all Christian service, the Lord himself. The story of Mary and Martha applies here:
As Jesus and the disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. (39) She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. (40) But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
(41) “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, (42) but only one thing is needed, Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken away from her.”
Martha was so focused on the busy-ness of working for the Lord that she unintentionally forsook what was most important—spending time with him and “listening to what he said,” which is an obvious reference to spending quality time with the LORD, personally and His Word. In fact, Martha was so involved with the work of her service—her ministry—that she got mad at someone else who was free of such concerns and spending personal time with the Lord. So mad, in fact, that she started demanding things from the very One she was supposed to be serving! She TOLD the Lord, “Tell her to help me!” This is what religion without godliness does to people: It corrupts them to the point that they end up having the very opposite attitude they should have.
Serving God is a wonderful thing, but don’t be foolish like Martha and get your priorities out of whack. Think about it, the Living Lord was AT HER HOUSE—the amazing miracle-worker—and all she does is run around in a whirlwind of activity? Mary chose what was more important on this occasion and Jesus even commends her for it. There’s a time for doing works of service for the Lord, of course, but there’s also a time for your relationship. The latter’s more important because our service for the Lord must spring from our love for Him. Otherwise it’s just religious works or, worse, putting on a show.
In his aforementioned quote E.W. Bullinger noted that godliness in the sense of communion with the Lord and worship cannot be performed by the flesh, whereas religious acts can. The flesh gets uncomfortable during praise & worship or intimate prayer. Why? Because it can’t handle godliness. But it’s perfectly fine performing religious works, including going to church, taking notes, etc. Not that there’s anything wrong with these activities, as long as they’re balanced out by godliness. The flesh is comfortable working for the Lord or doing things in the name of being devotional rather than spending relational time with Him, which was the case with Martha.
Bullinger, Ethelbert W. A Critical Lexicon and Concordance to the English and Greek New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1975
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