Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
If we were to understand Christian piety merely as decent behavior, we would have to say that the sixteenth century Reformation of the church did not have piety as its purpose. This is startling because the conduct of the members of the church was scandalous. Both laity and clergy were worldly and immoral. The holiness the church boasted of was foolish and worthless: pilgrimages, crusades, worship of relics, celibacy (rejection of marriage for fornication and concubinage), and indulgences.
The Reformation was not a reformation of morals. The Reformers themselves made this clear. In his early work, The Freedom of a Christian, Martin Luther wrote:
I have, to be sure, sharply attacked ungodly doctrines in general, and I have snapped at my opponents, not because of their bad morals, but because of their ungodliness…. I have no quarrel with any man concerning his morals but only concerning the word of truth.
John Calvin agreed. Writing to the Roman Catholic cardinal, Sadolet, Calvin stated:
It is scarcely possible that the minds of the common people should not be greatly alienated from you by the many examples of cruelty, avarice, intemperance, arrogance, lust, insolence, and all sorts of wickedness, which are openly manifested by men of your order, but none of those things would have driven us to the attempt which we made under a much stronger necessity. That necessity was, that the light of divine truth had been extinguished, the word of God buried, the virtue of Christ left in profound oblivion, and the pastoral office subverted (Reply by John Calvin to Cardinal Sadolet’s Letter).
Rome understands well that the purpose of the Reformation was not improvement of morals. In his history of the Reformation, Roman Catholic historian Henri Daniel-Rops correctly declares concerning Luther:
Nor did he make his protest in order to reform ecclesiastical morals. Luther himself roundly asserted that such had never been his aim…. The problem of reform, in the sense understood by so many men of the age, was of secondary importance to Luther…. The revolution he desired to effect was neither social, nor political, nor ecclesiastical, but theological (The Protestant Reformation, vol. 2).
This is not to say that the Reformers had no concern for the lives of Christians and for the reformation of life. Certainly they did. But their concern was deeper. It went to the root of the immorality. The Reformation was radical. Its radical purpose was a restoration of the right worship and service of God by man and thus the glory of God in His church. The right worship and service of God is the activity of the man who knows and reverences God. This reverential knowledge of God is Christian piety. It issues in a holy life. And this was the purpose of the Reformation.
Although the word piety occurs only once in the King James Bible—in I Timothy 5:4—it would be a mistake to conclude that the Bible does not teach piety, that Reformed Christians need not be pious, and that piety is a characteristic of odd cults, fundamentalists, and little old ladies of both sexes. The Bible teaches piety in other words. The fear of Jehovah in the Old Testament is piety. The Israelite’s fear of Jehovah was his reverence for and love of God as the one who redeemed him from Egypt. This fear of Jehovah motivated the Israelite to keep Jehovah’s commandments. Everyone who has read the book of Proverbs knows how practical the fear of Jehovah was, and is.
In the New Testament, piety is called “godliness.” I Timothy 4:7calls every Christian to “exercise thyself unto godliness.” Verse 8 makes the astounding claim for godliness, or piety, that it is “profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.” This is powerful incentive for vigorous exercise of oneself unto godliness. In I Timothy 3:16, the apostle refers to the central confession of the Christian faith, and the very foundation of the church, as the “mystery of godliness.” The coming of the eternal Son of God into human flesh had to do with godliness, or piety. It had piety as its goal.
Biblically, piety is loving reverence for, or, as I should prefer to say, awed love of, the triune God, the Father of Jesus Christ. Piety is such an adoration of this God as grips and possesses a man. Piety is not one part of the Christian’s life, which he puts on, and then puts off, with his Sunday suit. Piety is not even the most important part of his life. Piety is his life. The pious man is simply the man who lives coram Deo, ‘in the presence of God.’
Piety is a matter of the heart. It is, therefore, willing, free, unconstrained, unforced. The pious man delights in God. Ask him why, and he will answer: “Because God is delightful.” The pious man enjoys God, because God is enjoyable.
Piety necessarily works itself out and manifests itself in all of everyday life in the world—in every aspect of the earthly life of the pious, in every human activity and relationship, and in every sphere. Piety cannot be “awed love” of God without any change in one’s life. Piety is always active.
To be pious is Reformed, unless the Reformed faith and life are not biblical Christianity. It is an error to suppose that piety is un-Reformed, as though piety were the possession of fundamentalists and mystics. It is a bad sign that we are embarrassed to appear, or be thought, pious. It is ominous that we use the word pious only in a bad sense, to describe one who hypocritically affects piety by trivial, external acts and by an outward appearance of black suit and somber countenance. We should call such appearance and such actions “pietistic.”
It is the need of the hour for Reformed churches and Reformed church members that we exercise ourselves unto piety. Impiety abounds, the same impiety that disfigured the pre-Reformation church: corruption of the public worship of God as regards preaching, administration of the sacraments, discipline, and liturgy; formalism in worship; refusal to worship, as is evident in the poor attendance at the services of worship; disinterest in the things of God, as manifested by the forgetting of the Sabbath Day, to profane it; worldliness; the love of money; the love of pleasures rather than the love of God; wicked unfaithfulness to God’s marriage ordinance by divorce and remarriage; drunkenness and debauched partying; the amusing of themselves by professing Reformed Christians with vile songs, corrupt movies, depraved books, and rotten television programs; and living, year after year, in hatred of and enmity with a neighbor.
Even for the congregation, believer, and child of believers who are living piously, being pious is a constant battle.
It is important, therefore, to know that piety comes from the Spirit of Christ. We cannot produce it in ourselves. To think so is disbelief of the Reformation’s message that salvation is by grace alone. As we use the Spirit’s means—preaching and sacraments—we must beseech God for the presence and power of the Spirit with and by these means.
Although piety is a gift of the Spirit, true piety is not a “piety of the Spirit,” that is, mystical experiences, ecstatic feelings, and strange behavior supposedly due to the direct influence of the Spirit. The Reformation condemned this false spirituality as another form of un-Christian impiety (read Luther’s diatribe, “Against the Heavenly Prophets”).
Genuine piety is a “piety of the Word.” If a man is to love and reverence God, he must know God as the great, good, glorious God of his salvation in Jesus Christ. God gives this knowledge of Himself only in the doctrine of Scripture. This doctrine is the gospel of grace, at the heart of which is the promise of the forgiveness of sins, in the mercy of God, on the basis only of the cross, for every sinner who believes for righteousness, and believes only.
By the preaching of this gospel, the Spirit works piety. The preaching of sound doctrine—this is what we need, if we are to be pious. This is not the same as dry, abstract, theoretical discourses on doctrine. There is a preaching of doctrine which, although orthodox, or at least not heterodox, is of no real use to God’s people: arid discussion of dogma; bitter, endlessly sustained polemics against errors that are no danger to the congregation; and brilliant speculation about points of theology far removed from the people. Such preaching is invariably the occasion for pietism.
The Reformation wanted nothing of this kind of theology and preaching. Luther wrote: “True theology is practical, and its foundation is Christ whose death is appropriated to us through faith…. Accordingly speculative theology belongs to the devil in hell” (which Luther promptly applied to Zwingli) (“Table Talk”).
Calvin was one with Luther in insisting on edifying preaching. In his commentary on I Timothy 6:3, particularly the phrase “the doctrine which is according to godliness,” Calvin blistered preaching “that is hypocritical and altogether framed for the purposes of ostentation and of idle display.” He added:
Doctrine will not be consistent with godliness, if it do not instruct us in the fear and worship of God, if it do not edify our faith, if it do not train us to patience, humility, and all the duties of that love which we owe to our fellowmen. Whoever, therefore, does not strive to teach usefully, does not teach as he ought to do; and not only so, but that doctrine is neither godly nor sound, whatever may be the brilliancy of its display, that does not tend to the profit of the hearers (emphasis added).
What the church needs is lively, profitable, practical doctrine, doctrine that aims at the godliness of the congregation.
The Spirit gives piety by means of doctrine in the way of the congregation’s embracing this doctrine by faith.
Piety is born and nourished by faith.
Piety is the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit in a man or a woman is a pious Spirit. We receive the Spirit by faith, as the apostle teaches by his question in Galatians 3:2: “Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?”
Piety is the awed love of God that arises from the knowledge of God in His Word. It is faith that knows the Word, and the God revealed in the Word.
Out of the faith that knows and trusts God as one’s own gracious heavenly Father in Jesus Christ, one is pious. Just as one is righteous by faith only, so one is pious by faith only. No one is pious by works, by the law, or by dreadful threats and slavish fear.
In his The Freedom of a Christian, Luther asked: “What man is there whose heart, upon hearing these things, will not rejoice to its depths, and when receiving such comfort will not grow tender so that he will love Christ as he never could by means of any law or works?”
Let us apply this to ourselves. Am I disturbed by my own impiety, my formal Christianity, my worldliness, and my lack of spirituality? Do I desire piety? I must hear and believe the Word of the cross. I must pray that the Spirit will increase faith in me, apply the gospel to my heart and life, and thus Himself dwell in me more intimately.
As ministers and elders, are we desirous that our congregations be pious? Let us preach Christ crucified, the gospel of sovereign grace, in season and out of season. We are not to preach the law, good works, social reform, or the latest liberal or evangelical fad, but Christ crucified. We are not to proclaim a godliness attained by the people’s strenuous efforts as they read, and exert themselves to carry out, as many “how to” religious manuals as possible. Nor are we to teach a godliness achieved by the people’s preparing themselves scrupulously for a wonderful second blessing of the Spirit. But we are to preach and teach the godliness that is received by believing, and by believing only.
We must be bold and searching in our preaching. We must bring the gospel home to believers, especially fearful, faint believers, with careful, personal application. In the interests of doing this, we must dare to attack impiety, not only out there in the world and in other churches (which is quite safe), but also in our own congregation (which can become quite dangerous). Preaching grace does not imply that there is never any admonition, never a “sharp sermon.” Luther, who abhorred legalism, preached “sharp sermons,” as his 1539 sermon “Soberness and Moderation,” illustrates.
Aiming at godliness, the Word that we bring is the sworn foe of all ungodliness. It destroys impiety, in order to create piety.
For this kind of preaching, we ourselves must be pious men, not only of unblamable conduct outwardly, but also living and working in the presence of God, with awed love of Him.
“Take heed,” the apostle commands, “unto thyself” (I Tim. 4:16).