Illusions of Godliness
Whether we know it or not, we are all attempting some form of godliness. Of course, religious people are blatant and forthcoming in their attempts, but the secular world is also making a valiant effort at attaining it. Talk of morality saturates public discourse, so much so that wherever we turn, some sort of moral agenda is being pushed. Its prevalence in society causes us to conclude that innate in each one of us is a desire to be morally upright, or to put it in biblical terms, to pursue godliness.
However valiant and energetic our attempts at godliness are, most fall short of the goal. We could say that they are illusions of godliness. They are merely outward displays, whether biblical or manmade. In particular, there are three illusions we are prone to accept and attempt in order to achieve godliness.
The first is basic morality. This is the pursuit of biblical ethics and obedience to the commands of God. The problem is not the pursuit, but the heart behind the pursuit. Charles Spurgeon once pointed out that a man of the world will not do what is right or refrain from evil unless he sees some advantage for himself. However, the Christian is different. Spurgeon continues:
“But with the child of God, there is no motive at all; he can boldly say, "I have never done a right thing since I have followed Christ because I hoped to get to heaven by it, nor have I ever avoided a wrong thing because I was afraid of being damned. For the child of God knows his good works do not make him acceptable to God, for he was acceptable to God by Jesus Christ long before he had any good works; and the fear of hell does not affect him, for he knows that he is delivered from that, and shall never come into condemnation, having passed from death unto life. He acts from pure love and gratitude, and until we come to that state of mind, I do not think there is such a thing as virtue; for if a man has done what is called a virtuous action because he hoped to get to heaven or to avoid hell by it, whom has he served? Has he not served himself? and what is that but selfishness? But the man who has no hell to fear and no heaven to gain, because heaven is his own and hell he never can enter, that man is capable of virtue."
True biblical morality is not about the action itself, but the motive behind the action. Take Moses' sermon from Deuteronomy 6 for example:
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates." Deuteronomy 6:4-9
The overarching message here is that the command to love God is directed to the whole person. The heart first, then the soul, and then the physical. Immediately following is further emphasis on the obedience of these commands to come from the heart. But what did the Israelites understand? They missed the point of the centrality of the heart. Instead, they went on to direct their focus to the teaching of the commands by binding portions of Scripture to their hands and foreheads, and writing them on their houses. They ignored the internal because their focus was on the external. All these forms of remembering the commands were instead meant to saturate the people in the word of God so that they might have a true love of God.
We can see in Moses that Jesus was not bringing a new aspect to the law, but rather explaining its true meaning. In the case of murder and hatred, or adultery and lust, Jesus never says anything more than Moses. We are to pursue biblical morals and ethics as Christians, but we are not to pursue them apart from a true love toward God. Instead, it is our true love toward God that compels us to be morally upright.
Next to moralism, we find its sinister counterpart, legalism. Legalism sets its sights particularly on Christians to seduce them back to the law. Most Christians accused of being legalistic will immediately deny it with the excuse that they are simply concerned with obedience. Paul dealt with the Galatian Christians infected with legalism, and his diagnosis was harsh. Since legalism has a way of calling Christians away from the gospel to a new gospel, and making them believe this new gospel truly is a biblical gospel, he writes, "O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?" (Galatians 3:1-3).
Legalism is the attempt to replace the salvific work of God in our lives with our own works. If we believe that God saves us by Himself, Christ is our only righteousness acceptable to God, and the Spirit is the one producing fruit in our lives, we will not be legalistic. However, if we believe the opposite, legalism is our only resort. If God doesn’t save us by Himself, we must play a part in saving ourselves. If Jesus is not our only righteousness, we must produce good works for righteousness on our own. If the Holy Spirit is not producing the fruit associated with Him (Gal. 5:22-23), we must do our best to produce those qualities on our own. We are prone to legalism because we are prone to sin. Sin's desire is to be in control, legalism's desire is no different.
Asceticism and Rituals
The third illusion is the attempt to become godly by asceticism and spiritual rituals. Of course, in our day this applies more to Eastern religions, but Christians have been prone throughout the ages to resort to practices and rituals that appear godly. Although we do not physically mutilate our bodies in the same fashion as the ascetics of the past, we adhere to many rituals and those things that are visually pleasing in order to appear mature in godliness. Rituals are necessary for the Christian life. There are disciplines we adopt such as daily prayer and Scripture reading, weekly attendance at church and Bible study, or baptism and communion. Others are slyer such as certain hand gestures, repetitive prayers, fasting, and the like. Paul states that these cannot produce godliness.
“These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Colossians 2:23 ESV).
It is good to discipline our bodies and to observe certain rituals, but they have no value in and of themselves unless they are motivated and accompanied by an inward work of God. They cannot produce godliness. Furthermore, God is not pleased with particular actions, but with a heart that loves Him and hates sin. Therefore, we must not rely on our actions to produce godliness within us, but on God who works in us.
In chasing illusions of godliness, we will always come up short. George Whitefield gives us needed council when he states, "Religion consists not in external performance, it must be in the heart, or else it is only a name, which cannot profit us, a name to live whilst we are dead." If we are to be godly people, we must be of the heart, for any external work of religion divorced from an internal love toward God is merely an illusion of godliness. Moralism, legalism, asceticism, and rituals do not please God, nor do they assist us in pressing on in our maturity. Let us then forsake all our efforts, and rest solely on Christ.
 Spurgeon’s Sermons, The Fatherhood of God