Few people enjoy being called pietistic today. The word piety has become a pejorative term today. Classifying someone as “pietistic” most often connotes excessive religiosity, self-righteousness, or a holier-than-thou attitude. The etymology of the word piety, however, is more positive. The Old Testament term for this word means “the fear of the Lord,” and its equivalent in the New Testament, eusebeia, means “reverence for God” and “godliness.” The Latin term for piety (pietas) indicates conscientiousness and scrupulousness with regard to one’s duty to God, to family, and to the fatherland (patria). As such, pietas is rooted in love and shows itself in loyalty, kindness, honesty, and compassion. The German word (fromm) signifies “godly and devout” or “gentle, harmless, and simple.” The English word implies pity and compassion.
We don’t use the word piety very much today. Nowadays, the word spirituality is used far more often. This latter term originated from Roman Catholic sources during the seventeenth century, but has since become the dominant term for describing how people approach religious things. Pop culture figures as diverse as Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, and Oprah Winfrey talk about spirituality as a means of connecting with some “higher power,” religious truth, or even themselves.
But many in the Christian tradition, particularly Protestants, have preferred the term piety. Part of the reason for this is that piety often communicates “reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces” (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.2.1). But piety also stands for a whole realm of practices that shape our reverence and love for God. Practices such as worship, prayer, singing, and service help form and guide the way our reverence and love for God express themselves. These practices also remind us of Christ’s benefits granted to us through faith in him; they thus become a means for inducing piety. As might now be obvious, a discussion on piety is also a discussion on how the Christian life should be lived. On piety, Calvin wrote, “The whole life of Christians ought to be a sort of practice of godliness”—or, as the subtitle of the first edition of his Institutes states, “Embracing almost the whole sum of piety and whatever is necessary to know of the doctrine of salvation: A work most worthy to be read by all persons zealous for piety.”
So, why is piety important? The goal of piety is to recognize and praise the glory of God—glory that shines in God’s attributes, in the structure of the world, and in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The desire to glorify God supersedes even the desire for personal salvation in every truly pious person. We were created that God might be glorified in us, and the Christian should yearn to live out this purpose. Furthermore, God redeems, adopts, and sanctifies his people that his glory would shine in them and deliver them from impious self-seeking. As a result, the pious person’s deepest concern is God himself and the things of God—God’s Word, God’s authority, God’s gospel, God’s truth. A Christian yearns to know more of God and to commune more with him.
Much of what passes for an evangelical understanding of the Christian life separates knowledge about God (doctrine) from knowing God personally (life). But the Christian life is a way of life that is based on doctrine; or, to put it another way, our practices are based squarely on our beliefs. Whether it was sixteenth-century theologian John Calvin writing his Institutes as a manual of piety, nineteenth-century theologian Charles Hodge spelling out the basics of the Christian life in his The Way of Life, or twentieth-century theologian J. I. Packer leading people through a well-wrought discussion of the attributes of God in his Knowing God—many have stressed that the means for “experiencing God” in our lives is through a proper understanding of who God is, who we are, and what Christ has done for and in us.
This dual emphasis of nurturing the mind and the soul is sorely needed today. On one hand, we confront the problem of dry, Christian orthodoxy, which correctly teaches doctrine but lacks emphasis on vibrant, godly living. The result is that people bow before the doctrine of God without yearning for a vital, spiritual union with the God of doctrine. On the other hand, Pentecostal and charismatic Christians propose emotionalism in protesting a formal, lifeless Christianity, but this emotionalism is not solidly rooted in Scripture. The result is that people put human feeling above the triune God as he reveals himself in Scripture. What is needed is a marriage of theology and piety that marries head, heart, and hand to motivate one another to live for God’s glory and our neighbor’s well-being.
Piety understood in this sense is not something to be despised or shunned; rather, we are called to promote it in the Reformation teaching of holy, dependent, loving, and godly living. Being called “pious” or “pietistic” in its true sense is a compliment! If we think otherwise, we need to reconsider our definition of piety.
Does our definition stem from its proper use in Scripture or from its improper application in much of contemporary society? Godliness, spirituality, or piety is not a means to an end (i.e., eternal, felicitous life), but an expression of this life merited by Jesus Christ. For this reason, the cultivation of piety is preeminently connected to the means of grace. In short, piety means experiencing sanctification as a divine, gracious work of renewal expressed in repentance and righteousness, which progresses through conflict and adversity in a Christ-like manner for all of a believer’s life, anticipating the day when piety will be perfected in eternal sanctification in heaven.
Matthew Dowling is a former biologist turned preaching minister who is broadly interested in systematic theology, particularly theology proper, Protestant Scholasticism, confessional Protestantism, the English and New England Puritans, and the work of Stephen Charnock. He is the preaching minister at the Plymouth Church of Christ in Plymouth, Michigan. He blogs at www.matthewdowling.org.