Pondering on a Pietistic Week

One dictionary’s first definition of pious is “having or showing a dutiful reverence for God, or an earnest wish to fulfill religious obligations.” Another is “sacred rather than secular.” It is unfortunate, however, that two definitions in that same dictionary treat the word pious as a pejorative term: “practiced or used with real or pretended religious motives, or for some ostensibly good object” and “characterized by a hypocritical concern for virtue.” Sadly, too often when we refer to a woman as being a pious individual, many would not perceive that remark to be a compliment to her. For that reason, I am thankful to have had the opportunity to read and reflect on Dr. Christopher Gehrz’s excellent essay on how a Pietist follows Jesus.

One of my earliest encounters with pietistic movements took place some time ago when I read a series of biographies of John Wesley. One biographer described Wesley’s fear and apprehension during a rough storm as he and his company crossed the Atlantic; John realized how terrified he was of death. The author explained that “a terrible screaming began amongst the English. The Germans [Moravians] calmly sang on.” After the worst had passed, Wesley asked one of the Moravians, “Were you not afraid?” He replied, “Thank God, no. . . . Our women and children are not afraid to die.” “Wesley rejoiced to be in the presence of such Christians,” the author added. “The Moravians’ conduct seemed to confirm the strength of beliefs built on Primitive Christianity.” For the greater part of the voyage, Wesley “agonized about the best way to pursue the pattern of holiness which at the time he thought was the most certain road to redemption.” (Roy Hattersley, A Brand from the Burning: The Life of John Wesley, 2003, 104, 105.)

I appreciated reading Jakob Spener’s comment that “It is by no means enough to have knowledge of the Christian faith, for Christianity consists rather of practice.” This intrigues me. I have discovered that far too often the depth of one’s Christianity seems to depend far more on orthodoxy than orthopraxy. In my own case, the ever-present attack on my own faith and way of life seems always to be centered in what one believesrather than what one does or, more importantly, what one is or is becoming. I do not encounter many assaults on my faith and my people for being strongly family conscious; for having a welfare program that cares for members of our Church who cannot meet their financial obligations; for a humanitarian center that responds quickly to victims throughout the world, to those not of our faith, in times of disaster—hurricanes, tornados, tsunamis, earthquakes. Too often the test of a person’s Christianity is not an examination of one’s heart, by the way he or she deals justly and charitably toward others. Instead, it is determined by one’s acceptance or non-acceptance of rational theological propositions. I love the words of a later paragraph: “[S]he worries that right belief too easily decays into a ‘dead orthodoxy.’”

I appreciate Christopher’s observation that “while our Pietist might repeat the words of a creed or nod along with the theology presented from the pulpit, she has come to church this Sunday primarily to experienceGod through practice, not just to have her belief in God reaffirmed. . . . [S]he is here to meet Jesus, not just to think about the idea of Christ. . . . [S]he might admit that the most important part of the service is a simple hymn.” I particularly identify with this last sentence. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I am now in my 75th year of life, but I find myself weeping during the singing of a hymn far more often than I did as a 40-year old. That is especially the case with hymns that focus on Christ and what He has done for each of us. The chorus of one beloved hymn that stirs my soul is “O it is wonderful that he should care for me enough to die for me. O it is wonderful, wonderful to me!” Another hymn, in which Jesus is the speaker, is:

Reverently and meekly now, let thy head most humbly bow.

Think of me, thou ransomed one; think what I for thee have done.

With my blood that dripped like rain, sweat in agony of pain,

With my body on the tree I have ransomed even thee.

The same is true when the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is passed to the congregation. Partaking of the emblems of the body and blood of the Savior—reminding ourselves what it cost to win our salvation—is deeply moving to me.

Dr. Gehrz wrote that our “modern-day Pietist can’t shake her desire for something more: the new life that starts with new birth; grace that doesn’t just declare sinners just, but regenerates and sanctifies them.” About a decade ago I decided that I no longer believe in imputed righteousness—that justification is merely a statement of my legal standing before God, that I was not righteous myself but rather the righteousness of Christ had been imputed to me. I simply can’t buy that notion any longer. I believe the scriptures teach us that through exercising faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and by repenting of our sins, we can become truly righteous by virtue of the Lord’s atoning sacrifice. I believe we can be worthy. We can become righteous. We can become holy people. I believe that this is not juridical, but is actual.

I identify with Dr. Gerhz’s statement that “our Pietist knows that her relationship through Christ must intersect with her relationship with other followers of Jesus.” I am fully persuaded that the Christian life must be lived out in community. A person whose heart has been changed, whose soul has been transformed, comes to love God in a whole new way. He or she lives a life of thanksgiving, in a state of gratitude, acknowledging always the hand of God in all things. We come to know the love of God by receiving and accepting his Only Begotten Son as Savior and Lord (John 3:16)—that is, when our vertical relationship (with the Almighty) is put right. Being enlightened and cleansed by the Holy Spirit, we are in a much better position to reach out and bless the lives of others. That is, the love of God we have enjoyed can now be extended to others by us. In this way, our horizontal relationship (with the children of God) is put right. John the Beloved wrote: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16, NIV). I like the comment of Don Fisk that Dr. Gehrz referred to, that our new life in Christ consists in “following Jesus by following him into the world.”

I really like Christopher’s thought that to be truly converted is to “see the world through the eyes of Christ, to share his compassion, to perceive his will for the world, and to strive to follow it.” I believe this is what the Lord had in mind when he spoke of a woman or a man having “an eye single to the glory of God” (Matthew 6:22). For one who’s eye is single to God and His glory, it’s the kingdom of God or nothing. I believe this is what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote to the Corinthians that those who seek for and maintain the Holy Spirit in their lives gain “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16). To think like the Master, to feel like the Master, to act like the Master—that is the grand goal, the path on which true followers of Jesus press forward.