As biblical counselors and disciplers, we speak often about living like Christ and being transformed into the image of Christ and cultivating godliness. Those synonymous ideas all reflect the need for the believer to grow in sanctification. But we might also ask, “what does the righteous life look like? How will we know when one is living a holy life?”
This question is not a new one. David also articulated that desire in Psalm 15:1 when he asked,
“O Lord, who may abide in Your tent?
Who may dwell on Your holy hill?”
Those two questions are a poetic structure called parallelism — they are asking essentially the same thing to denote the importance of one thought. And here David is affirming the need for holiness to be in God’s presence. With those questions, David is echoing a common refrain in both testaments — God requires people who come into his presence to be holy (e.g., Ex 3:5; 33:20; Isa 6:3, 5; 1 Jn 3:3; Rev 1:17). And because he wants to be in God’s presence, David is thus asking what a holy life looks like. He’s saying, “I don’t want to live in the world or like the world; I want to be with God and like God.”
A Note of Caution
One might read David’s questions wrongly and assume that David is attempting to merit his position with God by his good and moral conduct. But David is not suggesting that by doing the things he identifies in verses 2-5 that he can justify himself to God. No, salvation in both testaments is and has always been by grace through faith. It was that way for Abraham (Gen 15:6). It was that way for all Old Testament believers (Hab 2:4). And it is that way for all New Testament believers (Rom 4; Heb 11:6, 39-40; Gal 3:23-24). David is not talking in these verses about a meritorious salvation.
Rather, these verses are David’s way of saying, “This is what life looks like for the one who is a true worshipper of God. This is what God does to change an individual who has been saved by God. This is the kind of man who is consistently faithful to and in fellowship with God.”
So what does the life of the believer look like? What does God do in the lives of his people who trust in him by grace through faith? David suggests 11 aspects of transformation in Psalm 15, and while there are several different ways to categorize them, I have found it helpful to think of them in three large categories of change.
God Transforms One’s Character
In verse two, David identifies three characteristics of a transformed inner life. Before addressing some aspects of what righteousness does, David identifies some ways that righteousness changes thoughts and desires.
When David says this one “walks with integrity” he is referring to his morality and internal character. Internally, he is sound, wholesome, and complete. He is living in accordance with the truth of God. This quality is not unlike the elder who is “above reproach” (1 Tim 3:2). It refers to the general character of his internal life. His thoughts of his mind and desires of his heart are consistent with what God demands.
He also “works righteousness.” He does right in all his relationships and activities (4:1; Ezek 18:5-9). Those acts of righteousness are also the overflow of righteous desires and thoughts. And in that righteousness, he is demonstrating God-like character (Isa 51:1).
And this one also “speaks truth.” Not only does he speak truthfully to his neighbors, but he also speaks truthfully “in his heart” — internally and in his mind. Before words pass over his lips they have passed through the filter of biblical truth in his mind. What he thinks and meditates on inwardly is truthful and in accord with God’s truth. There is no inconsistency between what he thinks and says. From the inside out, this is a truthful man.
This verse is a reminder that when God changes a man, he does more than just change his behavior. There is more to holiness than simple morality. Good and godly external actions count, but they only count when they are matched by internal yearnings and desires that are informed by God’s Word. What we are internally is important because, as Solomon noted, “as he thinks within himself, so he is” (Prov 23:7). The internal produces the external. So God starts the transformation with the source of our actions — our inner man.
God Transforms One’s Communion
The Lord is also concerned about the way we live and how we conduct ourselves in daily life. So in verses 3-4, David identifies five ways his relationships — his communion and fellowship with others — are changed. And it is worth noticing that David is speaking of every kind of relationship one might have — strangers, acquaintances, and intimate friends.
David first speaks about one’s closest relationships — the neighbor and friend (v. 3). So he does not slander the one who lives next to him. He doesn’t spy on his friends and then take those reports around town, using what he has observed against his neighbor. He does not speak when it is inappropriate or even questionable. He is known for being cautious and careful with his words; he likely has a good reputation as being “close-lipped.” Nothing accidentally slips off his tongue because he chooses each word with care before he speaks.
This godly man also never “does evil to his neighbor” (v. 3b) Both his words and actions are under control. He is not enticed by evil (or the Evil one), and he is not enticed to do evil (contrast that with the characterization of the wicked in 10:2). The godly man never intentionally hurts anyone.
Further, this man never “takes up a reproach against his friend” (v. 3c). He thinks so highly of others that he would never bring shame to them. He does not rejoice in their difficulty but empathizes with their hurt (and doesn’t listen to the negatives about others). He is always thinking best of his friends and loved ones.
In verse 4, David broadens the relationships of the godly man to include his relationships to those who are acquaintances, or to culture in general: He hates what God hates and he loves (honors) what God loves.
So when he considers the life of the reprobate — one who is not a casual sinner, but one who despises and rejects God — he “despises” him. That is, he does not value a worthless life. He understands the emptiness of the reprobate’s lifestyle and is not enticed by it. He does not find his camaraderie and fellowship in the world. The world system is undesirable to him.
Instead of loving the world, the godly man gives honor (weight) to the one who fears God (v. 4b); his intimate friends are those with whom he is able to worship. He values those who respect, revere, and worship, and are in awe of God (see Ps 112:1; 115:11, 13; 118:4; 128:1). He honors God in what and whom he prioritizes and values. And all his relationships are conformed to God’s perspective of those relationships. He protects and guards his friendships and does not embrace anyone or anything that God rejects.
So these verses are a reminder from David that relationships matter. The godly man pursues communion and fellowship with others who also want to honor the Lord. As has been advocated elsewhere, “find the man who follows hard after God and attach yourself to him.” That’s the kind of relationship the godly man cultivates.
God Transforms One’s Contentment
David identifies one more area of transformation for the godly man — and for some this might be the most difficult transformation of all three mentioned here — it is his finances.
At the end of verse four David identifies a scenario where a man swears something (he makes a vow), and when he makes that vow he is anticipating a particular outcome, but something changes and to keep the vow will be really costly to him — it will hurt financially. But despite the cost of keeping the vow, he still keeps it. His word is more important than his wallet. Because he believes that God is faithful and will care for him, he is faithful to keep his word.
Even more than that, He does not put out his money at interest (v. 5a). He is so disinterested in accumulating material wealth that he is willing to lend his money without concern for collecting interest on his money. This was a particularly radical idea in that culture because in the ancient Near East, interest rates of 50 percent were not uncommon. And we must remember who would pay those kinds of rates — people who are desperate and in significant trouble. Only people who are out of options will pay “loan sharks.” But the psalmist says that the godly man doesn’t want to profit over someone else’s trouble. He doesn’t want wealth that results in the financial ruin of others.
A third statement about money is made in the middle of v. 5 — “nor takes a bribe against the innocent.” Often the poor were taken to court and taken advantage of by the wealthy who could pay a bribe to assure that they received the outcome they wanted in court. But the godly man will neither oppress the poor nor abuse his position/wealth (Jas 2:1-13). Rather, he realizes that his resources are a means that God has given him to bless others and advance the cause of the gospel (1 Tim 6:8-10, 17-19).
The godly man is not a slave to his money or power, but has mastered his money so he is content with his position (and gives freely and liberally). He might possess money, but his money does not possess him.
The Consequence of a Transformed Life
Is such a life worthwhile? Is the quest for godliness worth the cost of disciplining our minds, being picky about our friends, and being content with having less financially?
David thinks so. His conclusion in v. 5 is that the one who live this way, “will never be shaken.” He is secure in his standing with God — “He stands fast, being upheld by [God],” one writer has said. That does not mean that problems will never come his way, but that when they do arise, they will not defeat him because he is in God’s protective presence (Ps 1:3; 16:8; 37:30-31; 46:1-3; 2 Tim 4:17-18). And this final statement is also an affirmation that while the godly man is pursuing God, even more importantly God is with him.
What’s the end result of a godly and transformed life? Peace, security, and stability.
So what does a godly life look like? What should we look for in our counselees (and ourselves) to see if Christ is progressively transforming them (and us)? While David’s list isn’t exhaustive, it’s a good place to start. The quest for holiness will include a transformed way of thinking, changed relationships, and altered financial practices. Will this transformation be difficult and costly? Undoubtedly. Is it worth it? Only if we want stability and peace with God.
Terry Enns is the pastor of Grace Bible Church in Granbury Texas. He has over twenty years of pastoral counseling experience, and is a certified counselor with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC, formerly NANC). In addition to his preaching and pastoral duties at Grace, Terry maintains an active blog at Words of Grace.
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