What’s So Mysterious About Godliness?
For years I wondered what Paul meant by godliness in 1 Timothy 3:16, where he said, “And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness…”
It’s not an obscure word. Paul used it a lot. He always used it to describe a certain kind of behavior and lifestyle.
But whenever he described this lifestyle, there is nothing mysterious about it. Godly behavior is not even a mystery to nonbelievers. Even people who have never uttered the word know what it looks like when Christians are not manifesting godliness—and they are usually quick to point it out.
But what really threw me off in 1 Timothy 3:16 was the way Paul went on to describe the mystery of godliness. He doesn’t talk about Christian behavior or lifestyle. He doesn’t talk about Christians at all. He talks about Christ:
“God was manifested in the flesh,
Justified in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Preached among the Gentiles,
Believed on in the world,
Received up in glory.”
It’s a great poem. It’s glorious and wonderful. But it’s not what Paul usually calls godliness. It’s about doctrine and history and the gospel message.
But I don’t think Paul was using the word godliness any differently than he always used it. It’s still a word that refers to good conduct. It’s still about behavior and lifestyle.
The great mystery is not what this behavior looks like, but how it is produced. The mystery is in the connection between an individual Christian’s godliness and the story of what God did in and through Jesus Christ, and how the former is produced by the latter.
Help from an Old Puritan
I came to this conclusion when I read Walter Marshall’s The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification. It’s an old book (1692) that pretty much makes that point over and over again.
It’s a book that preaches as much as it teaches. One of its lessons is that holiness is produced by the gospel. So it proclaims that gospel. It explains and proclaims.
Walter Marshall wrote not for the intellect, but for the spirit. His teaching is more like training—or retraining, rather. He retrains the mind to think differently about holiness by pointing to the same truth from many angles.
That truth is that we are made holy by union with Christ, which happens by faith. This is the Gospel Mystery that Marshall referred to in the title of his book.
This mystery is the secret of holiness, he said. So if you want to be made holy by faith in Jesus, don’t tame the mystery.
Theology can help explain things to a certain degree and to defend against critics. But we run into problems when we attempt, whether on purpose or not, to tame the mystery.
It can’t be tamed. It’s awe-inspiring and undomesticated; and it works just the way it is.
So Marshall teaches with this goal in mind: to unleash the mystery of union with Christ. He teaches, and preaches, as a steward of the mystery.
The Mystery of the Holy Frame
Union with Christ changes the heart. To do what it takes to consistently produce the fruit of holiness, you have to have the right kind of heart.
This is what Walter Marshall called a holy frame and disposition. Marshall used the word “frame” 17 times in the third chapter of his book, seven of those instances are in the second paragraph. The idea of a frame is a key to his argument.
We don’t use that word in quite the same way today. But we can figure out what he means.
Look at Marshall’s use of the word in some of the phrases in which it appears:
“holy frame of heart”
“holy frame of spirit”
“holy frame and disposition”
“holy frame and qualifications”
“new holy frame and nature”
“wonderful frame of holiness”
Now, in modern terms, what would we call this frame? In reading Marshall’s book, I have come to think he means all of following, and more, when he says “frame”:
It’s a natural inclination to holiness, an intuition about what is holy and what is not. It’s a natural preference for certain things and a natural disgust for other things.
It’s also a perspective, an outlook on life, a way of seeing the world.
It’s an attitude and disposition.
It’s clear vision and right priorities.
It’s a set of values—values that have been tested and proven and are not going to change when challenged.
It’s confidence—not a naïve hope for victory, but an informed confidence borne out by experience.
The above definition is not complete, but it is good enough for us to be able to recognize that we don’t have this frame.
We definitely don’t have it.
And having this frame is not the final goal. This is what it takes to begin to live a holy life.
This is why, when the mystery is lost or forgotten, holiness becomes not only difficult, but impossible.
Here is the mystery in Marshall’s words:
“One great mystery is that the holy frame and disposition, by which our souls are furnished and enabled for immediate practice of the law, must be obtained by receiving it out of Christ’s fullness, as a thing already prepared and brought to an existence for us in Christ and treasured up in Him.”
Christ has the frame we need. He’s got the whole thing. He’s got it according to our entire definition of it, and He’s got it in ways that we haven’t thought of yet.
He was born with it. He grew up with it. He brought it to maturity. In Him this frame was test and tried in every way. It worked. It passed every test.
It’s a purity of heart that’s been tested by experience, proven through suffering, vindicated by God, and proclaimed to you—given to you as a gift.
You get the whole frame. You need the whole frame.
You don’t get a bit of it to meet the challenge of the moment and then another, different bit of grace for tomorrow.
For every challenge you face, every temptation to sin, big and small, you get Christ’s holy disposition in its entirety. You get His pure heart. You get His heavenly perspective. You get His frame. You get all of it, every time, because you need all of it, every time.
This is how you win: by receiving from the fullness of Jesus Christ. It’s all of Christ for you against every particular challenge you face.
This is the gospel mystery of sanctification. And, as far as I can tell, this is one of the key takeaways from Walter Marshall’s The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.
Five Key Chapters of Walter Marshall’s The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification Updated to Modern English