Training for Godliness

A marathon runner who wants to win doesn’t just show up on race day. They train in order to win. A Christian who wants to live a life of long-term faithfulness needs to take the exact same approach.

Anson Kroeker on December 8, 2019
Training for Godliness
December 8, 2019

Training for Godliness

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Passage: 1 Timothy 4:1-10
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Last week was a real joy, having Marvin Brubacher join us and speak to us about mentoring. Intentional mentoring is one of the most deliberate ways we can put Ephesians 4 into practice: building up the body of Christ as we speak the truth in love to one another. I trust you are still thinking about those two questions he asked us as the end of the message, and planning how to put them into practice.

Today, we’re going to pick up where we left off in 1 Timothy. You’ll remember that two weeks ago we asked the question “Why? Why does all of this instruction about the structure and organization of the truth matter?”

And the reason it matters is because the church is a pillar and buttress of the truth. We declare and defend the great truth of the gospel. And we need to be a strong and a healthy church so that we don’t collapse under the pressure of bearing witness to the gospel in a hostile world.

It’s like that bridge they’re working on over there across the river. It needs to be strong so that it can hold us up as we drive over it. And elders and deacons and the proper roles of men and women are kind of like the rebar. We might get away without them for a short time, but eventually the whole structure will fail.

What our passage today does is take this discussion and carry it forward at an individual level. A strong church is made up of strong Christians. And so each of us has a part to play in making the church strong. We need to be strong. We need to pursue our own godliness so that we can be a strong church together. And that’s where we’re headed today.

Not Everyone Will Make It

The passage opens up with a sobering reminder that not everybody is going to do this. Not everybody is going to make it. Not everybody is going to survive the relentless attacks on the gospel. Listen to these heartbreaking words from verse 1: “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith.” Some are going to start off well, but never finish. They will leave the faith and leave the church.

And this will happen through false teaching. They will depart from the faith “by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared” (1 Timothy 4:1b-2). False teaching has been a constant theme in this letter, and we know that one of Timothy’s main jobs in Ephesus was to combat it. And once again we’re reminded of why and just how important it was for him to do this.

False teachers who have had their consciences seared, perhaps through years of hidden personal sin, will speak lies without batting an eye. And in so doing they will be become pawns of Satan to lead people astray from the truth. Because that’s what verse 1 says. These false teachers are ultimately spokesmen for the forces of darkness. “Deceitful spirits and teachings of demons.”

What Is This False Teaching?

Now what comes in to your mind when you hear these words? If you were asked to give an example of demonic false teaching, what would you suggest? We might be tempted to think about the rise of Satanism or the occult.

But one of the things that makes false teaching so dangerous is that it usually doesn’t look scary or spooky. In fact, much of the time, it looks sincere and genuine and even holy. Just look at what verse 3 says. What do these false teachers do? They “forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created.”

We know that with the coming of Jesus and the New Covenant, marriage is no longer a requirement for God’s people. Jesus was single, Paul was single, it’s very likely that Timothy was single, and we know from 1 Corinthians 7 that Paul encouraged people to consider the benefits of living the single life.

And the false teaching just took it a step further. They took this good idea of singleness and turned it into a demand. They took something the Bible describes as a good option and prescribed it as necessary for everyone.

Church history is littered with people who have done this kind of thing, by trying to be holier than the Bible. And people are so often sucked in by this false teaching because it plays on our consciences and it can sound so good. But it’s wrong. Dangerously wrong. Because it goes beyond what God Himself has said, and prohibits what God Himself has not prohibited. And it can end up totally wrecking our faith.

The false teachers did the same thing with food. They “require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:3–5).

Do you see what Paul is doing here? He’s explaining to Timothy why this false teaching is wrong. And he’s going it by referencing Genesis chapter 1. “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). That includes whatever food these people were prohibiting. God said that it was good, and He made it to be received and enjoyed by His children.  it and said it was good.

This is why Christians usually pray before we eat. We’re recognizing verse 4—that God created this food so that we could receive it with thanksgiving. We’re practicing verse 5—that through prayer this food actually becomes holy, devoted to God’s purposes.

What About Weed?

Now just a quick word here, without getting too distracted from the main point: verse 4 says “Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected.” And some of you may have heard this verse used to say that Christians should be okay with marijuana, for example. God made it, and we should receive it with thanksgiving.

My response, in brief, is that God also made poison ivy. And all kinds of dangerous plants. And I think it’s fair to say that verse 4 is not encouraging us to use substances which will harm us or make it harder for us to obey the commands of God.

Here in the Western world we should also acknowledge that verse 4 is not condoning gluttony. God may have given us everything to enjoy, but not all at once in one sitting.

So we have to take verses like this in context with the rest of Scripture. But to get back to the main point, let’s not miss the way that this passage reminds us of the goodness of creation, and the danger of inventing man-made rules that end up prohibiting things that God has never prohibited.

God’s word is enough, and whenever we move past it we’re moving into Satan’s territory whether we know it or not. And we might even end up sowing the seeds which lead to people falling away from the faith entirely.

Timothy’s Responsibility

And Paul’s warning to Timothy is that in later times, in the “last days,” this kind of false teaching will be sadly effective in sidetracking people and causing them to depart from the faith entirely.

And let’s not forget that these later times, the last days, began with the resurrection of Jesus. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1–2).

So this end-times false teaching is an imminent threat to Timothy. He has to do something about it now. And that’s why we read, in verse 6, “If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 4:6). Timothy had to tell, teach, and warn his church about this threat.

But more than this, like we’ve already seen, Timothy himself had to be vigilant about this false teaching. And that’s what’s really interesting about verses 6-10. Because after this initial statement about putting these things before the brothers, almost everything that follows is not about Timothy’s church. It’s not about these false teachers. It’s about Timothy.

If “some will depart from the faith,” like verse 1 says, couldn’t that include Timothy himself? How is Timothy going to stay strong? How is Timothy going to ensure a strong and godly church by being a strong and godly Christian himself? And that’s the direction these next few verses go.

We see that verse 6 reminds Timothy of what he already knows. He’s been “trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that [he has] followed.” He’s off to a good start. But he needs to keep going well. And so verse 7 warns him to “have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths.”

That’s what all this stuff about forbidding marriage and certain foods was: silly and irreverent myths. Made-up stories. And Timothy was just supposed to stay away. Not to let himself get roped in.

But more than this, more than just resting on his knowledge and avoiding the bad stuff, Timothy had work to do. If Timothy was going to make it long-term in Christian faithfulness, he had to do what verse 7 goes on to say. He had to train himself for godliness.

I just love this phrase. Because the word here for “train” is borrowed from the athletic world. It’s the word γυμνάζω. It’s where we get our word “gymnasium” from. Like an athlete training himself for his sport, Timothy was to train himself for godliness.

A marathon runner who wants to win doesn’t just show up on race day. A football player who wants to win doesn’t just show up on game day. They start training months and years beforehand. They prepare and practice and pummel themselves.

And Timothy—and you and I—need to do the same thing. We don’t just decide to be godly and—poof!—it happens. Godliness comes by training.

This is the simple reason why so many Christians are ungodly. This is the reason so many Christians are vulnerable to false teaching. Because they’ve never trained. They like the idea of being godly, but not enough to get up off the couch and actually do something about it.

And this passage tells us that if we’re going to make it, if we’re going to be strong and healthy in our faith long-term, we need to train ourselves for godliness the same way that an athlete trains their body.

What Does This Look Like?

So, let’s ask a question. What does it actually look like to train yourself for godliness?

As we think about this phrase, I’m sure that many of our minds go to the spiritual disciplines. Reading and studying and memorizing and meditating on the Bible. Intentional, deliberate prayer. Fellowship with God’s people as we speak the truth in love to one another.

These are all things you’ve heard me talk about lots. Right now Brad is teaching our adult Sunday school class about some of these spiritual disciplines. And you know that they are important.

What this passage does is give us is a very helpful metaphor to understand why these disciplines are so important. Your devotional time—when you spend time in God’s word and prayer—is like going to the gym for your soul. Coming to church on Sunday or heading to your small group mid-week is again just like hitting up the gym for your soul.

The spiritual disciplines are one of the most important ways that we train ourselves for godliness.

But it doesn’t stop there. Training ourselves for godliness means deliberately applying ourselves to growing spiritually in all areas of our life. It means that if there is a sin that we’re struggling with, we don’t just do nothing. We approach that sin with the same deliberateness that an athlete would approach some problem in their game. We go at it proactively and intentionally.

When an athlete knows that they are up against a tough competitor, they study their opponent and watch game footage and prepare to face them well in advance. And having that same proactive approach is one of the secrets to overcoming ungodliness in our lives. Be killing it or it will be killing you, like John Owen so famously said.

And it goes out from there to our whole Christian life. Spiritual growth will not happen accidentally or automatically. It will happen as we train ourselves for godliness with the mentality of an athlete.

Why Should I Do This?

So, let’s allow ourselves to ask another question. Why should we do this? Maybe you’re someone who doesn’t enjoy physical exercise. The thought of hitting the gym strikes dread into your heart. And the more I talk about approaching your faith like an athlete, you’re thinking, “I’m not sure I like this.”

What can I say to convince you that this is crucial? I could point you back to verses 1-6 and warn you about the risk of falling away. I could warn you that of you choose to be lazy in your Christianity you may be proving that you are no Christian at all.

That was a part of Jesus’ point when he said “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29). If you don’t take this seriously and do what’s necessary, you just might be proving that you’re not actually on your way to heaven at all.

So there’s that side of things. But what verse 8 does it hold out to Timothy—and us—the allurement of the benefit of training ourselves for godliness. Here’s the reward that’s in front of us: “for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8).

Bodily training is important. You know all the reasons why you should exercise. But it’s only of some value. It only helps us out here in this life. But training for godliness is way more valuable. “…godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8).

Godliness does have value in this life. The happiest people I’ve known have been the godliest people. Right thinking and right belief very often translate into a rich and satisfying life.

But beyond this life, you and I have eternity ahead of us. Eternity was on the line in Timothy’s engagement with the false teachers and in his own pursuit of godliness. The same goes for you and I. Our godliness—which means both our right belief and our right living which flows out of that belief—is a matter of eternal significance.

Just think about the matter of rewards, for example. God has promised to reward us for our godliness. Just think of Matthew 6:6: “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Godliness has an eternal reward in store for it. It “holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8).

So, is it important to train your body? Yes it is. Is it even more important to train yourself for godliness? Yes, yes, 100 times yes. Because so much is at stake. And that’s why Paul finishes this statement in verse 8 by underlining and bolding it with verse 9: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance” (1 Timothy 4:9). That’s his way of saying, “What I just said is really important.”

“To This End”

And this brings us to verse 10, the crucial verse in this passage, which sums up Paul’s challenge to Timothy with these encouraging words: “For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:10).

This idea of toiling and striving are very common descriptions for ministry in Paul’s writings. These words mean what they say—they are talking about really hard work.

Paul was giving everything to his ministry and to his life of godliness. Holding nothing back. Working as hard at it as he had worked at anything. This is what it looks like to train yourself for godliness.

And what kept him going? What kept him motivated? What kept him from quitting? “For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God” (1 Timothy 4:10).

Hope means that you are looking ahead to something that you don’t currently have. Hope is confidence in something you don't yet see.

And so what keeps Paul going is everything God has promised to him—and us—in the future. The return of Jesus. The resurrection from the dead. Eternal life on a new earth. The promised reward for godliness. That’s what fuelled everything Paul was doing.

Like a farmer planting his crop, like an athlete competing for the prize, he toiled in hope. But he didn’t toil in blind hope. He toiled because he had his hope set on the “living God.” A God who is active, alive, working, potent.

His hope was not set on the effectiveness of a certain method, the correctness of a certain set of doctrines, or our own passions and inclinations and strengths—even if all these things are true and good and necessary. That’s not where our hope lies.

We are dealing with the living God here—a real person. And our hope is in Him.

Notice specifically what Paul says here about this living God. He is the “Saviour of all people, especially of those who believe.”

This brings us back to chapter 2, where Paul urged that we pray for all kinds of people, because Jesus died to save people from every tribe, tongue, nation and language (1 Timothy 2:1-6, Revelation 5:9-10).

It reminds us of chapter 3, where we read that not only did Jesus die and rise again, but that he was “proclaimed among the nations” and “believed on in the world” (1 Timothy 3:16).

See, Paul understood that God was actually in the business of saving people. And that hope in the saving power of the living God is what fuelled and enabled Paul’s life of godliness and ministry. It wasn’t about him or his efforts. It was about the living God who was actually saving people.

Faith Works

So make this connection here, because it's a connection that you will see all over the New Testament and the Pastoral Epistles. Hope in the living God fuels hard work.  Paul's confidence in all of God's promises didn’t make Him lazy, they made Him work as hard as he can.

Yesterday at the Men’s Breakfast we looked at 1 Samuel 14 and saw Jonathan perform one of the most courageous acts in the whole Bible, going alone with his armour bearer, uphill, against a whole garrison of Philistines. And what fuelled Jonathan’s courage? “Jonathan said to the young man who carried his armor, ‘Come, let us go over to the garrison of these uncircumcised. It may be that the Lord will work for us, for nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by few’” (1 Samuel 14:6).

Jonathan’s faith in the living and saving God fuelled his courageous actions. He didn’t kick back and say, “God will save us, so pass me another drink.” He knew God could save them, so he picked up his sword and made himself available to be used by God as an agent of salvation.

And it was the same with Paul and Timothy and it’s the same with us. We toil and strive in the cause of godliness because we have our hope set on the living and saving God.

If you don’t believe that God is alive, if you don’t believe that God is powerful and actually saves people and can actually intervene in our world in tangible ways, then you’re going to live a safe, comfortable Christian life. You’ll never put yourself out there, you’ll never do anything dangerous or risky, because you’ll never be quite sure of how it will turn out.

But if you really believe in God’s promises, if your hope is set on the living God, then you’re going to toil and strive. You’re going to take some risks. You’re going to do what’s right instead of what’s safe. You’re going to face the Philistines because you know your God is alive and all things are going to work for your good.


So, that’s our passage this morning. We started with the warning that some are going to fall away from the faith by following false teaching, and we’ve seen the responsibility that Timothy had to ensure his own long-term faithfulness by training himself for godliness.

We saw that training for godliness has benefits both for our life today and into eternity, and that we can and must apply ourselves to this training because we trust the living God who works and saves and will rewards us as He promised.

So in response to all of this, I’m going to ask us a series of evaluation questions. Do you believe in God? The God of the Bible. Do you believe that He is alive? Do you believe that He sees you when you get up in the morning to read His word, when you go off to pray by yourself, when you say no to temptation? Do you believe that He sees your efforts and your hard work and your ministry to others?

Do you believe that He is going to reward you in eternity for all this? In other words, do you believe that godliness is worth pursing and worth training for?

If so, what are you doing to train yourself for godliness? This very week, what are you going to do to train yourself for godliness?

One final comment. Let’s remember what this is ultimately about. It’s not about us. Our hope is set on the living God who is the saviour of all.

We must train ourselves for godliness for the sake of those who still haven’t heard. Will not one of our greatest joys in eternity be looking around and seeing others who are there, giving Jesus the worship He deserves, because God used us to communicate the gospel to them? So that’s why, after we pray here, we’re going to sing “May the Peoples Praise You.” That is the end that we toil and strive for.

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