Godliness Requires Discipline
Passage: 1 Timothy 4:6-10
Most of you know that I really enjoy sports. I really enjoy rooting for my teams including the Chicago Cubs and Bears and the Iowa Hawkeyes. But I just love sports in general. I love to compete in sports, I loved coaching basketball for several years, and I also enjoy learning about sports. I like to understand the strategy within the game or even about how athletes prepare to compete.
It’s fascinating to me how elite athletes train for their competition. This week as I was preparing to preach, I got on Google and looked up the training regimens of some Olympic athletes. I came across an article that describes a regular day in the life of Olympic swimmer Katie Ledecky. At only 19 years of age Katie Ledecky walked away from the Olympics last summer with 4 gold medals and 1 silver medal. Her performance in the 800-meter was especially incredible as she beat a field of the best swimmers in the world by 11 seconds. That’s pretty incredible, but it doesn’t happen accidentally. Six days a week, she wakes up at 4:00 a.m, eats a lite breakfast before swimming 6,000-6,500 yards, which takes about 90 minutes. Then later in the afternoon she swims an additional 7,000-8,000 yards. That means that she swims between 78,000 and 87,000 yards or roughly 15 miles per week. As well, 3 days a week she does additional weightlifting, and other physical training. And every day, her diet is carefully managed as well. On top of all of this, she is going to college at Stanford.
The time commitment and really life commitment that is required to compete at that level is truly remarkable. It’s not just something that is tagged onto life; it dominates your life. And in the passage we just read, God commands us to make a similar commitment to training for godliness because the reward for godliness is not a mere Olympic medal but the eternal prize of life in heaven with Christ. And so we want to talk today and next Sunday about the need to pursue hard after godliness because it is the only pursuit worth chasing.
You may have noticed that Paul’s tone becomes more personal in v. 6 as Paul gives a fatherly challenge to his son in the faith. Therefore everything Paul says is framed by Timothy’s role as a Christian minister, though there is great significance in what he says for all Christians. This is especially true in vv. 6–10. Notice first that in v. 6 Paul describes…
The Model of a Good Minister (v. 6)
The heart of v. 6 is the goal that Timothy is to pursue. He is to strive to be “a good minister of Jesus Christ.” Paul knew that Timothy wanted to fulfill his task in the Ephesian church well. And all of us should long for our Savior’s approval of how we have lived our lives and fulfilled our stewardship. We want to hear Jesus say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” So how do we get there? Paul brackets this goal with two conditions that will make Timothy a good minister. I’d like to begin with the second one because it is foundational to the first condition.
A good minister feeds his soul on Scripture and sound doctrine.
Of course Timothy didn’t have a complete Bible like we do. But he did have access to some Scripture and to other materials that contained doctrinal teaching, and Paul urges him to feed his soul on this truth of God.
In our day, we should be so thankful that the Scriptures are complete, and that we have such easy access to the Bible and biblical resources. Most of us have several Bibles, and I have hundreds of books about the Bible. We can listen to the Bible, or we can download thousands and thousands of good sermons from the Internet. We have incredible access to truth.
And we need to take advantage of that access and “nourish” our souls. This verb is just a general term for training or teaching, but just about every translation uses nourish, because it gives a vivid picture of what Paul has in mind. God is urging us to feed our souls on the Bible and to make the Bible the loudest, most dominant and constant voice in our ear.
We sometimes say, “You are what you eat.” And this is very true when it comes to your heart. What you feed your soul will determine who you are. We like to think that that stuff can pass through our eyes and ears and just go out the back of our heads like it never entered. But that’s simply not reality. Your heart is a filter that is always catching particles of dust. The more you feed your soul on secular entertainment, the more you will think like the world. If you feed your soul on trivial things, even if they aren’t necessarily evil, you will be a trivial, small Christian who can’t experience big, godly affections. But if you feed your soul on God’s Word and rich gospel doctrine, you will grow strong and godly.
Can you say with Job, “I have treasured the words of His mouth more than my necessary food” (Job 23:12)? That’s a powerful statement to me because I love food. Some of you will occasionally forget to eat, but that never happens to me. The next meal is always on my mind. Think how much stronger my desire for food would be if I were starving, if my next meal were truly necessary to my life. That’s how Job says that he desires God’s truth.
Do you realize that you cannot really live and fulfill the purpose for which you were created without God’s Word? And do you seek God’s Word with a sense of urgency that reflects this reality? If someone were to evaluate the influences in your life, would your patterns reflect the fact that you really believe God’s Word is necessary food?
This is where godliness begins. You cannot be a healthy Christian who pursues hard after godliness and is willing to sacrificially serve Christ if you are feeding your soul junk and especially poison.
And so I want urge you today to remember how precious God’s Word is, and based on this motive, commit to intentionally feeding your soul a healthy diet. Cut out the junk food, and even keep a close guard on the stuff that just deadens your soul. And then commit to feeding your soul. Read the Bible and read Christian literature. Be with God’s people as much as possible. When you are in your car or have quiet moments at home, turn off the radio and listen to the Bible, or listen to good preaching. Nourish your soul on truth. This will allow you to meet the second condition.
A good minister speaks the truth.
The phrase “these things” comes up three times in vv. 6–16 because Paul is urging Timothy to follow through with teaching the truths of this epistle. Timothy had a really hard job. There was real evil at work in the Ephesian church, and it was producing real tension. Timothy was in the hornets’ nest, but he couldn’t run or compromise; he had to speak the truth. That may have meant that his ministry didn’t look very successful. Imagine Timothy goes to the local pastors’ fellowship and someone asks him how the church is doing. All Timothy can say is “Well, I recently disciplined several false teachers out of the church, and 30 people got angry and left the church.” The pastors listening in look at Timothy with blank stares, and none of them are ready to offer Timothy a book deal or invite him to speak at their church.
Timothy’s ministry did not appear successful to men, but Paul said that if he faithfully taught the truth, he would be a good minister of Christ. He would have God’s approval, which is the only approval that matters.
We all need to remember this often because being a people pleaser will drive you insane. Do you remember what junior high was like, when people’s opinions dominated your life? Don’t be a people pleaser. Be a God-pleaser because if you have God’s approval, and you can look forward to his eternal reward, nothing else matters.
Now that’s simple, but it’s not always easy. It is never fun to confront error or to take an unpopular stand. But if you want to make difference in your family, at church, or at work, you must be prepared to do so.
So how can you prepare? How can you become a good minister of God who is satisfied in the approval of God more than in the approval of people? The answer is that you must feed on the Word. If you want God’s approval to drive your life, you must live in this book and let it nourish your soul. Paul then builds on this idea in vv. 7–8 where he gives…
The Charge to a Good Minister (vv. 7–8):
I’d like to summarize this charge in two commands, though we will only get to the first one today. First…
Exercise godly discipline (v. 7).
The only two imperatives in this paragraph are in v. 7,; therefore, v. 7 and especially the commands to “discipline yourself to godliness” is the center of what Paul has to say.
But he sets up that this positive command by first urging Timothy with the negative command to reject “profane and old wives’ fables.” Paul already brought up this issue in 1:4. Remember that in Paul’s day, the Jews loved to debate all sorts of useless questions like how many angels can fit on the head of a needle. But these debates were worthless and endless because the Bible doesn’t answer them. They would also come up with all sorts of fanciful tales about the people in OT genealogies. Again, there was no real value to this speculation, and so in our passage Paul again urges Timothy to stay away from useless and ultimately ungodly myths and speculation because they only distract us.
We talked in v. 6 about the great danger of distraction. But v. 7 adds that we can even become distracted from godliness in how we study the Bible. When we study a Bible story, we can easily get caught up in speculating about all of the little details of the story rather than hungering to hear from God and to become like him. This also happens in theological studies. We can get so wrapped up in debates about free will or end times events that we fail to see God’s glory and worship him. We must always be careful to make sure that we come to God’s Word looking to meet God and not merely to satisfy our curiosities or to fill our minds with facts.
But this prohibition is not just important for what I do on my own time. Paul’s primary concern is the conversation that would come up when the church was assembled. They were talking more about trivial things than godliness. And so when we are assembled as a church, we need to make sure our conversation is dominated by godliness. Sadly we often miss out on opportunities for rich conversation about the things of God because it’s easier to talk about hobbies or politics. There is a certainly a place for light conversation, but it must never become the main thing. What’s even worse is when we get into a rut of gossip or complaining when we could be building each other up in godliness. And so Paul commands us to reject useless and ungodly distractions, and to instead “exercise yourself toward godliness.”
Of course godliness summarizes the ultimate goal of the Christian life. To be godly means that you have a mature knowledge of God that leads you love him, worship him, and to view all of life from God’s perspective. And then it means that you live your life in conformity to his character.
I want to really emphasize that Paul is not talking about a hobby here that you can just tack onto your life. No, pursuing godliness means radically transforming everything about myself. Second Peter 1:4 says that we are striving to become “partakers of the divine nature.” God wants to mold your heart into the form of his own heart so that you become something different from what you once were.
I also want to emphasize that there is nothing else going on in your life that is more important than the pursuit of godliness. Verse 8 tells us that it is “profitable for all things” because only godliness has eternal significance. It is so important to God that the Bible says he is willing to put us through severe trials to form godliness. Godliness was worth giving Paul a thorn in the flesh. It was worth causing some in the Corinthian church to become sick or even die over their abuses of the Lord’s Supper.
From God’s perspective, godliness is more important than life itself. It is more important than your job, your health, your finances or even your ministry to your family and other people because you can’t impact others if you are not walking with God yourself. That’s not to say that those other things don’t matter. You can’t actually be godly and neglect those things because that would be disobedience. But we must not forget that godliness is the most important thing.
Therefore, God commands you to “exercise yourself toward godliness.” The word translated exercise in vv. 7 and 8 is gumnasia. We get our word gymnasium from it. Gyms were very common in Greek culture, and physical education was a big part of training the youth. Paul uses the analogy of athletic training a number of times in his epistles because it is a helpful picture of how we must approach the Christian life. We must approach the pursuit of godliness with the discipline of an athlete. I’d like to highlight several important implications of this command.
First, pursuing godliness is intended to be really hard work. An athlete will never reach his peak fitness unless he trains hard. It’s fascinating whenever the Olympics come around to hear how hard the gymnasts, swimmers, and track athletes train. It’s a full time job that controls where they live, how they eat, and every other pattern of life. If swimming is just a hobby for a particular swimmer, he will never make it to the top. The same is true of the Christian life. If your Christianity is more of a hobby than a way of life, then you are not living it appropriately, and you will never be godly. Godliness requires commitment and really hard work.
A second implication is that godliness requires self-denial. Most of us have experienced the pain of physical training. Your chest feels like it’s going to explode. Your muscles become numb with exhaustion, or they ache with soreness. Sometimes you get dizzy or nauseous. All of those feelings are your body’s way of telling you to stop, but you have to deny them and go on.
And self-denial is also essential to godliness. I said last week that God wants us to enjoy his creation and that asceticism is a false path to godliness, but that doesn’t mean that godliness equals indulging the flesh or practicing hedonism. Galatians 5:17 says that the flesh lusts against the Spirit. Your heart is full of evil desires that you must deny in order to be godly.
Even innocent bodily drives like fatigue or hunger can work against godliness. If you want to be godly, you can’t live your life just doing what you feel. Now hopefully as you become godlier and your affections are transformed, certain lusts will diminish, but it will always be a battle. Self-denial is essential to godliness.
A third implication is that godliness requires a strategy. High-end athletes always have a plan to get their bodies where they need to be. They don’t train aimlessly. Training in godliness also requires a strategy. You must work smarter, not just harder. You need to have a plan for how you will nourish yourself on truth? You need to know where you struggle against sin, and you need to have a strategy for overcoming. You need to have clearly defined standards about what entertainment will be allowed in your home. You need to set up roadblocks that will prevent you from indulging in particular sins or from filling your mind with evil? You need a strategy; otherwise, you may exert a lot of energy but go nowhere. And other people can be a huge help here. If you would like help building a strategy, ask someone. I’d love to visit with you and help you build one, and there are lots of other people in our church who would be glad to do the same.
A fourth implication is that godliness requires building habits of holiness. When I coached basketball, there were certain drills that we did every day because we wanted the boys to perform certain skills instinctively without having to think about them. That way the game became simpler, and they would continue to play it the right way even under pressure.
Habits are also very important to godliness. If you have to think about every act of obedience, your Christian life will be very hard. Whereas, the more that godliness becomes second nature, the easier it will be. For example, some of you wake up every Sunday morning and ask yourself if you are going to church today. The very fact that you ask yourself that question makes getting here harder, and it affects your mood once you are here. I promise that if coming back for Sunday night is optional, you will never make it. It will always be easier to stay on the coach, or there will always be something else to do. But if it’s a habit, getting here will be much easier, and you will enjoy it much more.
This principle is true across the board. You need to develop habits for nourishing your soul. You need to train yourself to respond with grace when people do things that would typically make you angry. You need to build habits into your marriage that will make it healthy and allow you to build each other up. And all of this ties in closely to what I just said about strategy. Take time to evaluate what habits you need to build, and then go through the process of disciplining yourself to build them.
You must “exercise yourself toward godliness because it is worth more than every other pursuit.” You need to work hard at the Christian life, but let’s also not forget the warning of the previous paragraph because discipline that is not rooted in grace will fail every time. You will either turn into a self-righteous Pharisee who boasts in himself rather than in Christ, or you will fail miserably and get discouraged because you are not looking to Christ for help. Rather, you must heed the words of Philippians 2:12–13 where we are commanded to work out our salvation because God is at work in us to will and to work for his good pleasure. What a blessing it is to know that when we exercise the right kind of discipline, God’s grace stands behind us and will strengthen us to do what we can never do ourselves.
And I do want to really emphasize the role of grace today because someone here may think that I am simply describing a form of moral reformation that can earn you the favor of God and a place in heaven. And I want to emphasize that godly discipline is not about earning salvation. The Bible is clear that you can never be good enough to earn God’s favor. Rather, godly discipline is rooted in grace. It is rooted in the fact that God already accepts a true Christian because he stands in the finished work of Christ. And that finished work now strengthens the Christian to grow, and the Christian wants to grow because he loves God and wants to glorify his Father. If that sounds foreign to you, then you probably don’t truly have a relationship with Christ. You probably don’t fully appreciate why Jesus came and what he accomplished on the cross. I hope that you will seek answers. Someone from our church would love to share with you the true significance of Christ so that you can know Jesus as your Savior and so that you can experience his grace and power.