When trying to define pornography and obscenity Justice Potter Stewart famously said: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” —Justice Potter Stewart, concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio 378 U.S. 184 (1964). While the difference between godliness and obscenity could not be greater the “I know it when I see it” test also applies to godliness.
To refresh where we are at in case you are just joining us – “Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:5–8, NASB95)
Godliness is one of those mystery words in the Bible. We think we understand what it means but we would be hard-pressed to define it. One Greek lexicon defines it as – “awesome respect accorded to God, devoutness, piety, godliness”. We learn in an earlier verse that “His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence.” (2 Peter 1:3, NASB95) But, a review of other verses with the word godliness reveals that it can be faked, “holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; Avoid such men as these.” (2 Timothy 3:5, NASB95) Examining again 2 Peter 1:5-8 we see that our perseverance must be guided by godliness and that godliness must lead to brotherly kindness and ultimately love.
In the history of the church, the externals of godliness have been expressed through robes and vestments, extreme self-deprivation, magnificent cathedrals, plain and unadorned walls, suits and ties, blue jeans and sneakers. All of these can be legitimate expressions of godliness or simply going along with the fashion of the moment, tradition, or community. Real godliness is not about the externals but the internals. Each of the cited examples began as a means of glorifying God, but each morphed from a symbol of piety to become a definition of godliness. The form becoming more important than the genesis. Godliness must first and always be a reality in our heart. My generation called it being “sold out”. You could call it downsizing. We are downsizing ourselves in order to magnify God and walk in this world as Jesus did. The form of godliness is inconsequential, the reality of godliness – a life that respects and honors God in all things – is what really matters. How do we discern real godliness? To quote Justice Stewart, “I know it when I see it.”