Thursday, April 19, 2007

Outward Signs of Inward Godliness - Part I

I haven't posted in a while, but I am trying to get cranked back up. I hope to be more diligent in the future. For those of you who have checked my blog for new posts over the last few months, I thank you for your interest, and I apologize for the intellectual void you have encountered.

I was recently involved in a discussion about the nature of certain activities in which Christians often engage such as prayer, fasting, Bible study, and so forth. The main question that we were addressing was: What is the true nature of biblical self-discipline? During the course of the discussion, I argued that discipline was neither developed nor exercised in the actual performance of the activity. I defended the position that the biblical concept of self-discipline has more to do with the rejection of one's sinful heart and desires rather than any positive engagement. That argument developed into a paper that I would like to share with you. The paper, while not excessively long, is a bit much for a single post, and I do not really want to post it as a downloadable document. I have decided to post it in four parts over the next few days. I hope you will take the time to read it. I also hope that it challenges your traditional way of looking at self-discipline, and I look forward to any comments that you might have.

Part I . . .

Thesis: Godliness is not achieved through the performance of any activity or set of activities but by turning away from the old sinful nature, turning toward the new godly nature, and submitting the heart to reorientation by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

Consider the following list of activities: Scripture study/memorization, prayer, fasting, worship, evangelism, service, stewardship, the pursuit of solitude, journaling, and the pursuit of education. Suppose that someone presented us with the following claim:

(1) Godliness will be the end result of performing any or all of the activities listed above.

How should we respond to this? Is it true that the end result of performing these activities is a state of godliness? I am quite certain that a godly man engages in many (if not all) of these activities, but the question I have is this: Is a man godly because he performs these activities or does a man perform these activities because he is godly? At the very least, I do not believe that any of the activities listed above entails an inherent capacity for producing godliness; and I believe that I can demonstrate this in a fairly simple and straight-forward manner:
  • There are men in the world who read the Scriptures everyday and never come to know God. In fact, there are individuals who once claimed to be Christians but have now renounced the faith altogether. They continue to read the Scriptures diligently, but their efforts never bear fruit. One example might be biblical scholars that read the Scriptures for purely academic reasons. Bart Ehrman is one of the finest New Testament scholars in the world. He graduated from Wheaton University, which is widely considered to be an evangelical institution. He once advocated the doctrine of inerrancy as a foundational belief. He has now publicly renounced his faith, but as a New Testament scholar, he still studies the Scriptures diligently even though it may be in a forensic and academic way (an issue I will address below).
  • People all over the world practice various acts of worship. They worship pagan gods. In fact, their zeal for worship would put many Christians to shame. They exhibit an unyielding dedication in their efforts, but they are not godly people.
  • The same argument that was made for Bible study and worship can be made for each of the activities in question. People in all places and in all ages have practiced the activities, but they were not necessarily godly people.
The most obvious objection to what I have argued so far is this: Yes, but they weren’t reading the Scriptures for the right reason. They weren’t fasting for the right reason. They weren’t pursuing the one true God. Their hearts were not properly oriented, and their motives were incorrect. In other words, something must be added to these activities if they are to produce godliness. They have to be performed with the proper attitude, the proper motive, and with the proper end or goal in mind.

The key element is a properly oriented heart, which leads me to the first of four critical maxims:
Maxim 1: No activity entails any inherent capacity for producing godliness.

If godliness factors into these activities at all, it can only do so if they are performed in the right way, that is, with a properly oriented heart. In fact, anyone who wishes to claim that they will result in godliness should add this stipulation to the original claim in order for it to have any chance of being true. The claim should be modified in the following way:
(2) Godliness will be the result of performing the activities listed above if and only if they are performed with the proper motives, that is, with a properly oriented heart.

It might be beneficial for us to restructure proposition (2) such that it is in the form of a hypothetical (or conditional) proposition:
(3) If the activities listed above are performed with a properly oriented heart, then the end result will be godliness.

In other words, a right heart must be in place in order for the desired results to be achieved. It is critical to note that the heart is primary in the formulation above. The heart cannot be properly oriented after the activity is performed because its orientation is necessary in order for the activity to be performed correctly. The evidence for this claim is the same as that by which I argued that the activity itself cannot make you godly. The people who perform these activities daily and with improperly oriented hearts (members of any other religion) would eventually develop properly oriented hearts and then become godly people. I conclude, therefore, that if there is any chance for the activity to make us godly, then the heart must be in order from the start.


Alan Knox said...


I'm glad that you decided to post this paper. I hope that mnay people take the time to read this and interact with you on this. I know that you have helped and challenged my thinking in this area.


Lew A said...


Thanks for posting this paper. It is a work that definitely needs to be considered and discussed today. I, like Alan, hope that people interact with you on this and that it will challenge them as much as it has challenged us.

God's Glory,

Maël said...

Thanks Gary, I've enjoyed Part 1 and I look forward to the rest of your paper.

Gary Harris said...

Thanks for reading Maël, and thanks for the words of encouragement. I really appreciate it!


Juan said...


Growing up in a legalistic church this really hit the nail on the head. Thanks for posting the paper and looking forward to the whole series

Gary Harris said...

Thanks Juan. I really appreciate your taking the time to read it. As you continue to read, feel free to point out any areas where you think my argument is weak or even downright bad. I'm sort of on new ground with this one.



paige said...

I thank God for your post. I have been praying and seeking God's answer for a way to help others to understand the importance of intimacy with God. This evening I read a couple of the requirements for becoming a Spiritual Formation Director. Then the Spirit of God lead me to your article. Please continue the work you have begun. I am looking forward to reading more.