Christians are often the worst sort of advertisement for the Christian life. Professing to have been redeemed from sin by a Savior who gave himself to the bitter death of the Cross, they respond by a service which is either grudging or antagonizing. In the first instance the non-Christian is convinced that our profession is merely a bitter duty; in the latter he is so aggravated by the unreasonable superiority of Mr. Christian that he can’t resist calling him something close to a hypocrite.
It is important to notice that in both instances the power of a Christian witness to the Gospel and the Christ is lost. If we are to speak effectively as Christians to our neighbors with word and deed we must use a language simple and attractive—
The language at a positive piety.
We need to learn that language.
“If I must…”
Albert is a good, steady fellow, and not so stupid either. His skill at woodworking is recognized by everyone in town. When the new dominie took over he was asked by the building committee to make new cabinets for the parsonage kitchen. And on Sundays he is usually in his pew at the worship services.
One thing about Albert, however: he doesn’t like to be bothered with church work unless it’s absolutely necessary or unless it happens to be something which suits him exactly. Spontaneous, joyful service he does not know. Still worse, Albert is quite convinced that enthusiastic service is improper for “us ordinary folks.” That is something for preachers, missionaries, Christian School teachers, and maybe elders…but not for Albert.
Here is a sample of a piety choked by a spirit of grim unwillingness to do more than the minimum requirement. Such a spirit, shrewdly, calculatingly measures the amount of time, effort, goods required to be “saved” and then grudgingly doles it out.
Obviously this is a negative rather than a positive piety.
The Conscience-Stricken Playboy
Bill is one grand guy. Tall, good-looking, athletic, friendly—everyone likes him. A successful salesman, he loves the opportunities for meeting and influencing people which his position affords. He knows very many people all over town, and he moves easily on the private country-club level. For Bill life is a lot of fun. He enjoys sports, going out to dinner, travel, and all the other things which make for creature comfort.
Bill, too, is a professing Christian and a member of an excellent church. Thanks to the prodding of a rather serious-minded wife he gets to go to church most every Sunday. Bill isn’t a member of the men’s Bible study group, however, nor does he attend such meetings as the Christian School association, etc. In fact, no one really expects him to show that kind of interest in Kingdom activity.
Why not? Not because Bill thinks he shouldn’t be “more religious.” His conscience actually troubles him when he thinks of his disinterest and spiritual inactivity. Well, why doesn’t Bill do something about it?
The reasons which he gives are the same old excuses: not enough time, not qualified to serve, too many conflicts with my work, etc. But none of them or the sum total of them constitute the real reason. The real answer is that it isn’t worthwhile in his estimation to give up so much fun for what he considers the dull, stuffy, uninteresting things which make for spiritual health and growth. Imagine! meeting with fellow Christians for prayer and Bible study compared with the excitement, the hilarity of an evening’s bowling with the fellows…who would really think of doing the one in preference to the other?
One can scarcely blame Bill for such thinking, provided that the genuinely pious life is as unattractive as he seems to think. Fortunately, however, Bill is dead wrong. Piety is not a cantankerous kill-joy, a purely negative way of life. If it were, the Christian faith would be a painful bondage…rather than a joyful liberation.
Taking Advantage of Circumstances
Clarence, sad to say, was a polio victim during his boyhood. The effects of this dread disease compelled him to restrict physical activity, to avoid football and basketball, to turn his attention to reading, handicraft, music. His class-mates at school were often thoughtlessly cruel toward him, ridiculing him for getting top grades on his report card, and taunting him for his disinterest and inability with respect to those things which were not “sissified.”
We can hardly expect anything else but that Clarence would react strongly against such inexcusable treatment. What did he do? He did that which seemed to be the only real possibility for an effective reply: he became more studious, more pious than ever. In fact, he became very self-righteous. His teachers and his preacher thought he was wonderful because he knew every answer, was obedient to every request. But his school mates hated him.
Must we condemn Clarence? Yes, even though his is an aggravated case, we must. Clarence’s piety was not a healthy, positive spirituality, but an occasion for personal superiority. As such it was a divisive force, pitting robust against the weak, the physical against the intellectual, the natural against the spiritual.
Examples of this type of negative piety abound. It is so easy to take refuge in a spiritual superiority when we ought to forgive or to repent. Our personal limitations must never become the occasion for erecting a pious barrier behind which we console ourselves with the thought that “we are not as other men are.” This attitude will result in a piety which antagonizes those around us, rather than one which draws them unto him whom we must serve. This attitude is based upon the assumption that a true piety is possible only if we are denied health, wealth, marriage, education, etc.
Over against the prevailing notion that piety by definition is something unpleasant, uninteresting and unattractive, we would stress that a Reformed, biblical piety is challenging, compelling, and appealing.
Not that self-denial, affliction, duty, and hardship are unnecessary elements in the Christian life. John Calvin was right when he stressed the indispensability of self-denial to the Christian life. Nevertheless the dominant feature of true piety is its preoccupation with that highest possible motive: the glory of God!
The grandeur and immensity of this highest motive means that the Christian finds in his godliness the unifying principle for all his life, and that his life is in its totality a divine service.
The Devil’s World
A positive piety will have nothing to do with the very common idea that this world is altogether in the hands of the Evil One. This is not to minimize the reality of the Devil’s influence in this age. But it does mean to serve notice on those who act as if God were not the Creator and Sustainer of all things that we will recognize no other titIe to the world than his.
This brings our discussion up to a very serious matter. Christians have had considerable difficulty to overcome the temptation which would induce us to leave this world and flee to God. An example of this is at hand in Emile Cailliet’s biography entitled:
Pascal, Genius in the Light of Scripture. Notice the following descriptions of Blaise Pascal’s spirituality:
He who can no longer swallow except with the greatest difficulty not only takes the most repugnant medicines with smiling serenity. but he does not want anyone to feel sorry for him. He does not even want to be cured any longer, saying of the sickness of the body that it is the natural stale of Christians. Meanwhile he encircles his bare flesh with an iron belt studded with sharp points . . . and he thrusts them into his flesh to remind him of duty as soon as he feels himself touched by a pleasure to his mind illicit, like that of conversation.
The saintliness of Pascal is henceforth that of a man who hopes for nothing from the world, who fears nothing from it, nor wishes anything from it…Blaise even goes so far as to discourage by his coldness the attentions of his family.
Extreme asceticism is not limited to past periods in history. On July 10, 1952 the Milwaukee Journal carried the following news story:
St. Paul, Minn – (U.P.) – A member of a religious “whipping cult” has been sentenced to 30 days in jail for burning her father-in-Iaw’s furniture and clothing because “they were spiritually unclean.”
Mrs. Pearl Christensen was sentenced Wednesday after her father-in-law, Charles J. Christensen, complained that she had been burning and giving away the family furniture for some time.
The sect to which Mrs. Christensen belongs received widespread publicity last winter when one of its members, Curtis Lennander, was sentenced to prison for beating two women members to death. Lennander said he administered the floggings to rid the women of “evil spirits.”
T.R. Egan, Ramsey county deputy sheriff, said Mrs. Christensen admitted burning the articles “because they were conceived in harlotry.”
Meanwhile, an automobile belonging to a member of the cult was recovered from the Mississippi river. It had been dumped because “it contained evil spirits” which caused its owner to “forsake his family obligations,” a sect member said.
This is My Father’s World
The problem of the Christian and his sinful imperfection is no trifling matter, as is well attested by these examples. Sin must be resisted, the old man of sin must be mortified! But, the way to do it is not the way of Pascal’s iron belt, nor the way of destroying the instruments of evil, whether they be persons or things.
True piety will never so acknowledge the right of the Devil to control this world. Nor will it allow the negative aspect of the Christian struggle to take the pre-eminence. Its attitude toward sin will be ruthless, but its methodology will not be that of self-vindication through the destruction of those things with which we associate evil, but rather that of sorrow for sin, repentance, daily conversion, humbling of oneself before God because his glory and honor have been besmirched.
No, I do not sin because this is the den of iniquity Satan has designed. So easy an explanation and excuse for my sins is not available. Fact is that “this is my Father’s world.” And I am happy that with his grace I can live in this world the pious life to his glory.
The Pious Christian’s Resources
A favorite professor used to repeat often that Christian people ought always to be encouraged to use diligently the “big three:” prayer, Bible study, and meditation. Surely these three are very dear to the child of God. By means of them he finds strength and encouragement for the battle, light upon his way, and great delight for his soul.
Central to the technique of spiritual strengthening is the proper use of the Word. Not that prayer or meditation is inferior, but under no circumstances should we divorce our inner, experiential spiritual life from God’s revelation in the Bible. The positively pious Christian will study the Word privately and with fellow believers, and he will never neglect the preaching of the Word in the church.
This emphasis upon the importance of the Word of God is desperately needed today. Many earnest Christians seem to believe in the infallibility of their feelings and emotional experience rather than in the infallibility of the Scriptures. A positive piety will anchor itself to the Bible as its chief source of instruction and inspiration. Doing that, prayer and meditation will surely follow, and will certainly bless.
The Pious Christain His Objective
Positive piety is active piety. The goal of its activity is to perform good works.
The importance of good works is properly appreciated by the Reformed confessions. Please read and ponder these quotations:
The certainty of perseverance. however, is so far from exciting in believers a spirit of pride, or of rendering them carnally secure, that on the contrary it is the real source of humility. filial reverence. true piety, patience in every tribulation, fervent prayers, constancy in suffering and in confessing the truth, and of solid rejoicing in God; so that the consideration of this benefit should serve as an incentive to the serious and constant practice of gratitude and good works, as appears from the testimonies of Scripture and the examples of the saints. (Canons of Dort, V, 12)
We believe that this true faith, being wrought in man by the hearing of the Word of God and the operation of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a new man, causing him to live a new life, and freeing him from the bondage of sin. Therefore it is impossible that this holy faith can be unfruitful in man; for we do not speak of a vain faith, but of such a faith which is called in Scripture a faith working through love, which excites man to the practice of those works which God has commanded in his Word. (The Confession of Faith, art. 24)
86. Q. Since then, we are delivered from our misery by grace alone, through Christ, without any merit of ours, why must we yet do good works?
A. Because Christ, having redeemed us by his blood, also renews us by his Holy Spirit after his own image. that with our whole life we may show ourselves thankful to God for his benefits, and that he may be praised by us; then, also, that each of us may be assured in himself of his faith by the fruits thereof, and that by our godly walk our neighbors may be won for Christ. (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 32)
The objective of the child of God is to do good works. Not that which he does not do, but that which he does is the real evidence of his piety. Earnestly striving to “do good to all men,” he lives a Christian life of effective witness to and praise for his Lord.
The Pious Christian His Life’s Pattern
Positive piety calls for the Scripturally re-organized life. This means that the pious Christian seeks to reform every sphere of life in agreement with his faith. Thus at this point, too, he is genuinely antithetical, i.e., he seeks to build a distinctive Christian life over against the vain attempts of the unbeliever to regulate and to mould a godless society.
Positive piety calls for truly Christian education from the kindergarten to the university. It demands distinctively Christian homes, where fullest opportunity and encouragement is given for the development of Christian character. Ideally, it calls for a genuine Christian witness and action in the spheres of labor and management, government, etc. and it certainly implies a sound, biblical church, vigorously carrying out the triple work of the church: preaching, administration of the sacraments, and discipline.
The point we wish to make in conclusion is that a sound, Reformed piety has a real program consistent with its high motive—the glory of God. The demands of the Christian program call for a positive piety, one that will actively enter in upon the Christian calling to stake out the claims of our Lord everywhere!1. pp. 341, 342