The word “piety” has had an unfortunate history. It has picked up many evil associations in its lifetime. So suspect has this perfectly worthy word become that we are almost afraid to use it. People may think of religious sham when they read this word. They think of phrases like “pious fraud” and “false piety” when this word is mentioned. With a frown the reader or hearer calls to mind words like “pietism” or “pietistic,” and he will have none of it.
This is regrettable. But we will not argue with this unfortunate history. If the word “godliness” is preferred, we are happy to accept it in place of the word piety. Our title could be “What Is True Godliness?” It could also be “What Is the Christian Life?”
We will not quibble in this matter. ‘We have a more serious concern. What are the marks of the Christian’s walk with God? That is our concern. And we want to be contemporaneous. We are not living in some delightful yesteryear. Our life as Christians is here and now, in today’s world with today’s tensions, today’s pitfalls, today’s challenges. At the same time our desire to be contemporaneous may not take our eyes From God’s eternal and changeless standard of righteousness, God’s moral law, God’s sufficient Word.
Our problem must be refined a bit more. Not all who call themselves Christian think alike, either on points of doctrine or on points of Christian practice and life. We are committed to a specific and distinctive doctrinal point of view. We are Calvinists. We are Reformed in our outlook.
Does this doctrinal point of view carry with it a distinctive approach to the question of the Christian life? Do we have the true piety—in principle—in practice? Do our principles accord with the Word of God? Do they lead to godly living? What is Reformed piety?
We face a complex question. We are not looking for ready and easy answers. We do not want merely traditional answers. We do not care for answers that stem more from social custom than from thorough and open-hearted study of God’s infallible guide for faith and life.
In order that we may open up this large question in this initial article, we shall present a number of instances of conduct found among Christians. Then we shall ask a few pertinent questions about each of these illustrations taken from real life. By this presentation of illustrations taken from real life, we hope we may stir our readers to think seriously upon a theme that ought always to be one of great concern to the child of God. We would add that we present these illustrations factually, though altered in some details for obvious reasons, and without prejudice so far as personal salvation is concerned.
The lady we are talking about had gained a considerable reputation for godliness. She was regarded as being deeply pious. Even ministers came to her to be inspired by her pious talk and conduct. This woman would never say, “It is raining.” She regarded this manner of speech as dishonoring to God. She would rather say, “God is sending rain today.”
On such a rainy day this woman would meet a friend of hers on the street. The friend would be carrying an umbrella. The pious soul would say to her umbrella-carrying friend, “Don’t you believe God will take care of you? Why are you carrying that umbrella? Look, I’m not carrying one.”
One day the door to the house of the pious soul remained shut. It did not open for two days. Neighbors guessed something was wrong. They made their way into the house and found that the “saintly” woman had committed suicide.
Was this “pious” lady really pious? (We are not here entering into the question of suicide in the case of a professing Christian.) Was there something wrong with her celebrated “piety”? Did it violate some principle of true godliness? If so, what principle(s) did it violate?
The “Magnanimous” Spirit
The local congregation is being stirred by a debate. There is a piece of property adjacent to the church that certain ones in the congregation want to buy. They are the boosters in the church. They want it to grow. They want a big church. But there is another group in the church who object to the purchase of this piece of property. They know that interest in this piece of ground first developed after a Mr. Moneyman in the church had been approached by a realtor friend or his regarding it. It is also well known that the real-estate agent had had difficulty disposing of the parcel of ground. Hence the opposition group feels that the primary interest of those wishing to buy the ground did not rise from a genuine concern for the furtherance of the Church of Jesus Christ. They feel. therefore, that the honor of the Head of the Church is at stake in this matter.
One Sunday, while the debate is still raging at a high pitch, the church has a visiting minister in the pulpit. He is known as a man who gets along well with everybody. It is also said of him that he isn’t too fussy about fine points of Christian doctrine. He inevitably hears about the debate. His opinion is asked. In his most suave and gracious manner he suggests that possibly the opposition group “ought to be magnanimous” toward the other group in this matter. After all, the church was bound to grow in time, and this piece of properly might stand them in good stead.
What are we to think of the advice of the visiting pastor? Is concern for the spiritual integrity of the church of less importance than a spirit of magnanimity toward fellow-men? Is this sound godliness?
The Holy Spirit at Work?
John is rather sure that he is a good Christian. Others are not so sure. He sits in judgment on other Christians very readily. He is always sure that he is right. His ideas on points of Scripture interpretation must not be questioned. He insists that the Holy Spirit guides him at all limes. He says his conduct is not governed by the Ten Commandments. As a Christian he says he is through with the Ten Commandments. If you ask him how he knows he is doing wrong in any instance, he says the Holy Spirit convicts him of sin.
Is John’s piety sound? He thinks it is. Is it? If it is not sound, what principle or principles of godliness does it violate?
Beautiful Christian Life?
A young woman who is not well adjusted to life is speaking to her pastor about a friend of hers. She is speaking in enthusiastic terms.
She says, “I have a friend who is a wonderful Christian. She lives a most beautiful Christian life. Do you know what she does? I think it’s just wonderful. She reads the Bible and prays almost all of the time. I have always admired her so much and have often wished that I could live a beautiful life like that. Don’t you think that’s a wonderfully spiritual life? She’s a real Christian, don’t you think?”
The pastor replies as follows: “Please do not misunderstand me as I try to answer your questions. Naturally, I believe in much Bible reading and in much prayer. Please do not think I am going to say anything against either of these necessary practices. But I do not think a person who is able to get around and who is able to perform some useful service, be it ever so humble, has a right to spend all or almost all of her time reading the Bible and in prayer. There is much work to be done. Sick people must be cared for. Poor people need help. The Red Cross needs women to fold bandages. Some bedridden soul very much wants company. The hospitals are literally crying for help of all kinds. God requires of us that we be busy in works of love and mercy. He requires of us that all things must be done for his glory. Really, I don’t think your friend leads a fine Christian life at all. As a matter of fact, I think it is a very poor Christian life.”
Shall we agree with the girl’s estimate of her friend? Or shall we concur in the pastor’s judgment? For what reasons of principle do we accept the one opinion in this matter and reject the other?
Calvin Van Holland
Calvin Van Holland has always had high and worthy objectives in life. He is generally regarded as a successful business man. He entered business with the determination to glorify God in it. He would make all of life part and parcel of the Kingdom of God. Sometimes one got the impression that Calvin spoke of these high ideals a bit too easily. But his sincere determination seemed beyond question. He definitely seemed to have the real thing, the best and highest possible motivation in life.
But something seemed subtly to go wrong. More and more Calvin became wrapped up in his business. Even as he still insisted that he would conquer this area of life for God and for his Christ, he was letting business matters interfere with responsibilities in the home and in the church. Luncheon dates with business associates, trips, conventions, and deals were taking more and more of his time and attention. There were even increasingly persistent rumors to the effect that his growing financial strength was gained by ethical short-cuts in his dealings. Yes, he was even traveling on Sunday now and then in order to be on hand for an attractive business deal on Saturday or Monday. All the while he was giving generously to Kingdom causes.
What is wrong with Calvin Van Holland? His objectives were high enough and sound enough. But the devil has subtle ways of perverting the best. Possibly he was not humble enough before the grandeur of the objective he had chosen for his life. Possibly awareness of the natural depravity of his own soul had lost its keen edge. What went wrong here? Did the conqueror become the conquered? Calvin Van Holland is a man to think about.
Living by God’s Will
“He’s going to make such a fine minister.” Comments like these were often made about Philip. He was very sincere. He had high ideals. “Serious-minded” was a term frequently applied to him.
Philip was a college student. He planned to enter the ministry. He was indeed very serious-minded. He definitely wanted his life to be guided by God’s will at every step. He wanted to be sure that he was always keeping the will of God.
This is how Philip thought about this important matter. Philip was sure that in every decision he had to make there was only one possible choice that was good in God’s sight. If he had to choose between a blue suit or a brown one, he wanted to be sure to choose the one that God willed he should choose. The other alternative would be contrary to God’s will. If he should buy a car and the choice lay between a Plymouth and a Chevrolet, one choice would be in harmony with God’s will and the other contrary to it. In every instance he would pray earnestly to discover what God’s choice was for him. He would also be guided by what he would consider to be the indications of God’s providence.
Thus Philip lived. Every decision was for him a grim choice between what God willed and what God forbad. No decision was for him a choice between two things that might be equally good before God, with the determining factor resting in human convenience or preference.
What shall we think of Philip’s piety? It does seem to have certain marks of spirituality. Yet, is it true spirituality? Is it a healthy piety? If it is not a true spirituality, and if it is not a healthy piety, at what point does it go wrong? Is not the desire to be controlled by God’s will wholly praiseworthy? Then where did Philip’s piety err?
In conclusion we present five marks of what we believe to be true piety or true godliness. These five marks will be further developed in subsequent articles. They are here presented only in summary.
1. True piety or godliness is governed throughout by an objective rule and standard, namely, the changeless moral law of God. True piety is first of all a piety of law. Human convenience, desire, pleasure—all such must bow before this all-important factor. True piety is marked by an overwhelming sense of the awful, majestic holiness of God the Lawgiver.
2. True piety is inward, spiritual. It is the expression of a regenerated heart. It is not externalistic. Central in true godliness is the heart of man in redeemed fellowship with his God and Savior through the inner working of the Holy Spirit. This central element in the godly li fe may not be encrusted and choked by a load of external things and merely social customs.
3. True piety is free—because governed alone by God’s altogether perfect law and because true piety is inward and spiritual in its essence. In short, in true piety the liberty of the sons of God. comes to expression. True piety is not a matter of legalistic coercion. It is a matter of a genuinely free love of that law which is “holy, and just, and good.”
4. True piety expresses itself in rapport with life in God’s world. True godliness is not a matter.of separation or isolation from life. True piety is marked by naturalness, not by an artificial “spirituality” gained at the expense of splitting the spiritual apart from the natural in life. There is no escapism in Reformed piety. It is a piety, not of escape or isolation, but of heart-searching challenge.
5. True piety is positive, not negative. Godliness is not first of all a matter of what one does not do, but rather of what one does for God and his glorious Kingdom. The negative form of expression of some of the Ten Commandments docs not discredit this point. Profound positive principles of life are involved in the “Thou shalt not” of the Decalogue. True piety is not a matter of pinched negation. It is rather a positive living for Christ and his Kingdom in every aspect of life (See Matt. 25:31–46).
(To be continued)