Pietism’s Grave Danger to Christianity

By Graham Glover

I am generally immune to the antics of Christian pietists. Their self-righteousness is more silly than offensive and their claim to represent some kind of authentic Christianity is as ridiculous as the theology the espouse. They are found throughout Christendom, from Roman Catholicism to your garden variety non-denominational community church, and yes, they even make their presence known in my own Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

The best way to deal with their heresy – and yes, they are heretics, in a most vile and horrendous way – is to pretend they don’t exist. If they want to look to what they perceive to be their good works – some asinine way of “righteous” living – as that which earns them favor and subsequently salvation with our Lord, then so be it. I’d rather deal with a non-Christian, who essentially believes the same thing, and in so doing, share the freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, than try to reason with a pietist who is convinced that grace is not enough, that Christ’s blood is not the only thing that warrants forgiveness, and that our works are the true measure of our faith and our standing before God. At least with the non-believer, there is the possibility of them embracing the free gift of salvation given to us by our Savior.

The pietist however wants nothing to do with Jesus. They may tell you otherwise. They talk a lot about Jesus. They think what they preach is what Jesus taught and preached. For them, Jesus is the ultimate role-model, the perfect leader they think can transform their lives. On the later point they are correct. Jesus radically changes lives. But what Jesus did – what Jesus continues to do – is seldom, if ever found in their words or deeds.

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Pietists know little about an incarnate Lord that makes Himself present in the gifts of His Church. The Holy Scriptures are rule books of what we should do for God, instead of God’s revelation about what He does for us. Worship is a way for us to show God that we love Him, instead of a means for God to literally give Himself to us. Prayer consists of a lot of praise for the Lord’s glory and majesty, instead of petitions that proclaim how this same God became flesh to forgive us for our many trespasses. For the pietist, Christian living takes it shape in meeting a standard set by their local congregation or an ever-evolving para-church organization, instead of reveling in the various vocations to which each of us have been called. On so many levels, pietism is steeped in the “I”, instead of the “I am”.

So why not do what I note above and simply ignore them? Why not treat them as the insignificant afterthoughts they should be to those who hold the catholic faith?

I wish we could. Few things would please me more than to see our churches ignore the treachery that pietism teaches. Don’t kid yourself, pietism is dangerous. It’s more dangerous than most heresies, because is disguises itself as Christian. It uses words that Christians are familiar with and ideas that are found in our doctrines and teachings. But pietism is not Christian – at all. It’s all about the self. It’s only and exclusively about what we do. Christ’s crucifixion – His resurrection – His constant intercession on our behalf to the Father is alien to the pietist. This should make any Christian cringe. To think that our faith could turn into something that focuses on us rather than on Christ is frightening. This concept is antithetical to everything authentically Christian.

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Sadly, however, I’m pretty sure pietism is here to stay. It remains because Satan wants nothing more than for us to look inward to ourselves. Looking to the cross. Looking to the empty tomb is exactly what Satan does not want us to do. The evil one wants us to trust in ourselves. He wants us to find satisfaction in our works. For when we do this, Christ becomes an afterthought. His grace – His forgiveness becomes insignificant. Consequently, we don’t need the Church. We only need ourselves. And when we do this, Satan has won.

Thankfully we know that our faith is not about us. It’s about Jesus. Our works are meaningless and insignificant. Don’t fool yourself otherwise. It’s only about Jesus’ works. It’s not about our righteousness. It’s only – today and forever – about Christ’s righteousness.

Yes, pietism is dangerous, but so too is Satan, and Christ defeated Him as He will one day this most ancient of heresies.

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27 thoughts on “Pietism’s Grave Danger to Christianity

  1. This was a well stated read that I do believe is often overlooked by all Christians. Of course the opposite of a piety nature is a community that lives with no bounds and believes that grace is an open arrangement for all things to be consumed. Thanks for a strong read and a reminder that balance must exist!

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    1. Ron, thanks for the comments and for pointing out the danger of lawlessness. I hope my article didn’t suggest there is no goodness or purpose for the Law of God. As you rightly note, it’s a matter of balance: a right use of Law and Gospel!

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    2. What I think is ironic about pietism, is they start with the basic premise that salvation is by grace through faith in Christ, and that one aspect of our salvation, regeneration, leads to a changed life. Up to this point, they are completely spot on.

      The error that they make comes when they look at their fellow congregants and they say, “Hey, I don’t see the change of life that I would expect from regeneration, what gives?” They believe the solution to this problem is to preach more law, to create additional checklists of dos and don’ts, and to tell their congregants that they can only be sure that their faith is real if they see steady and constant progress in holiness and service. Faithful church attendance and faithful living in vocation isn’t “enough” to show that your faith is real. Inside the church, there is the inner circle of true servants who can be assured that they are also part of the invisible church. Many, many Christians burn out in this context.

      The irony is that they start with a correct premise, but they don’t exercise faith and stick to that premise when push comes to shove. If the gospel is the power of God to salvation, then we can preach the gospel and trust that God will change lives. If we don’t see clear and visible evidence that change is taking place, the solution is to stay the course by faith, rather than adjusting our doctrine and teaching to faith plus works equals salvation. God is conforming us to His image, whether we see it or not. We must believe this about ourselves and our brothers and sisters in Christ, and we must believe this by faith, not by sight. We must not doubt the promises of God.

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      1. Ken, I like how you point out our desire to see results. Somewhere between our culture and the human race’s tendency to pharisaism, we want to see change in others.

        Robert Capon, in approaching the parable of the pharisee and the tax collector challenges the reader not to expect to see the repentant tax collector come back to church less sinful the following week, just to simply come back and repent, even if he hasn’t toned down his behavior.

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  2. I’d be interested in hearing about the source of this frustration. Pietism has been hanging around the Church for a long time – cloisters, eremitic and anchorite orders, desert theology, mystics, enthusiasm. All attempts to forge a personal holiness acceptable to God or draw attention to those attempts as being superior acts of faith have turned many from a theology of the cross. We face much civil/ syncretic religion which acknowledges Christ as teacher and attempt to place all faiths on an equal footing as having moral value.

    Perhaps more importantly, we face it in synergistic tendencies. Cooperative salvation is part of Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, Pentecostal, and Methodist practice. It finds traction among Episcopals and Arminian Reformed types. Against this, we are a tiny sliver of the Church and it is comfortable to be a good American and nod to civil religion, to be a good neighbor and appreciate the other Christians around us. It’s inevitable that this comfort will lead to these tendencies among us. All I can say is that my little congregation has had it’s greatest growth rescuing many from these other strains.

    One word of disagreement: “Our works are meaningless and insignificant.” No, they are not. They are the works prepared for us as we walk in faith. Our works do not save, but they are part of our sanctified life in Christ, they are part of loving our neighbor, they are God’s work in and through us, they are His intention for us, and that makes them significant. We have to trust that our lives in our vocations, in our day-to-day activities and the loving things we do proclaim Christ’s love for the world. It is only because of what Christ has done that our works, as Christians, are good.

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    1. HLewis, the source? I guess you could say some/many of my peers in the Chaplain Corps have recently been front and center with their pietisic tendencies. This isn’t an official stance of the Corps and certainly not a sanctioned one, just a vibe that has been increasingly prevalent around those close to me.

      Point taken on the works quote. You are absolutely right. Mine was a frustrated response to those that look almost exclusively to their works. A good correction to offer the proper balance I was trying to make in the article.

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      1. My reaction to the works thing is because of too many Lutherans who dismiss works.

        I get what you’re saying. Our pastor works with clergy from several denominations for effective local ministry – keep the food pantries from overlapping, help those in need. I know he has to keep a delicate balance to keep the group together and retain his identity. As an outreach person, I go through the same thing. We work with other churches to provide opportunities to serve alongside the “heterodox.” Still, it isn’t a competition, you live the truth and let God do the rest.

        You have a tough job.

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  3. Pietism affects every aspect of the lives of Christians who are involved in “pietistic” churches. It affects how they view (and judge) other Christians. It affects how they define their relationship with Christ. It affects their approach to politics and public discourse. I can speak from experience. Having left a “pietistic” and “puritan” church, it takes a while to even readjust to life outside of that mindset. Its poison for the soul, and it is so sad, because, as you have pointed out, they use the words of Jesus to justify their positions.

    Many Christians in those churches believe they are living faithfully to what Christ calls them to. They think they are moving more and more towards a “pure” church, and that it is their responsibility to ensure that there is no chaff growing up alongside the wheat. Rather than trusting Christ to separate the wheat from the chaff at the end of the age, they take that responsibility to themselves. For them, the Reformation was a step in the right direction, but the church must always re-evaluate its doctrine and practice to become more and more pure.

    Having spent 10 years in a pietistic church, I hated the person I had become. I was so self-righteous and judgmental, but at the same time I was depressed because even I wasn’t living up to the standard of a “true Christian.” Righteousness was divorced from the idea of vocation, so that righteousness became all about me, my Bible, and my ministry in the church. I chose a career that I didn’t want, because I would only have to work 40 hours per week and I could spend my free time doing something that really mattered (i.e. serving the church). I judged my parents, even my father who is a Christian, rather than honoring them. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t have the words for it. They would probably reject the label “pietistic,” but I think many American Churches have fallen into this error.

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  4. All I can say is that in your article, Graham, you do go a little too far in lambasting “pietism” and without sufficient evidentiary proof, you even allege it exists in the LCMS too. I am no expert on theology, an area where many others could teach me things I have not understood after reading my Bible over the past 40 years or so. However, I believe we must go point by point in looking at scripture, and we must agree that Jesus made many undeniable and plain statements and remarks about striving to live righteously, never making a mockery of Grace. There are likely degrees of pietism, rather than pure pietism, being practiced. The pietists are, in most cases, your brothers and sisters in the Lord, and they seek to obey God. In going to extremes, we can agree it is easy to venture into cultish behavior, isolationist attitudes, and hyper religious fanatacism. Therein lies the problem in religious observance…maintaining a balance while not giving in to fanaticism or failing to empathize with the lost. We should continue to preach law and grace, and the sacraments and means Jesus has given us, but we must remember to measure our criticism and consider the arguments used by pietists to urge us to be real about seeking obedience to God and not confine it to a rhetorical debate disconnected to the way we actually live as Christians.

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    1. I think you’re right, John, to point out that while we disagree with “Pietism,” we should also make it clear that we are not opposed to piety. Those are two distinct things. Pietism is a confusion of Law and Gospel. Piety is a genuine desire, born out in actual efforts, to love, honor and obey God. The error of Pietism is that is goes to such lengths in encouraging personal piety that it often makes our personal piety the grounds upon which we are accepted by Christ. It leaves the Christian in the same position he would have been in under Medieval Catholicism. Pietism proper, leaves the Christian in slavery to the Law. “Pietistic tendencies” may not go to such extremes, but they lead us in that direction.

      Any of us can be tempted at any time to bring our works before the throne of grace and say, “God, give me my due,” so maybe we shouldn’t be too hard on the Pietists. Calling them heretics may cross the line, but we should clearly call out their error, since it is a very serious thing.

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      1. Ken, I’m certainly not above reproach on this topic, but I stand by my claim that pietism is heresy. It teaches that works save. It focuses on the Law, at the expense of the Gospel. Again, I’m guilty of peitism too, but that doesn’t mean we don’t call a heresy for what it is.

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    2. John,
      The Pharisees sought out to “please God” with their works. Paul denounced his own righteousness. Yep – grace is enough. I couldn’t begin to list my “good works” but I will tell you this – I’ve got them! I refuse to “navel gaze” to find them. I’m being reminded tonight why I can’t stand reading blogs – eventually the pietists show up in the comment section.

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      1. Mitchell, keep reading them…especially The Jagged Word! We mix it up well and I pray do an adequate job of resisting navel gazing!

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    3. John, what is it about pietism that you like? I listed several examples of where I think it fails and where I think it speaks contrary to the Gospel.

      Do you really think the LCMS is above reproach here? I love my Synod, but it too has its share of pietists, probably less than most denominations, but they are still there. Do you disagree?

      I don’t mock righteous living. Nor do I mock the Law. They are both given to us by our Lord. But they do not save. Pietists think they do. The Christian faith does not.

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  5. Great article Graham… till the comment section. Why is it when a “well thought out and prepared meal” is placed before a gathering of family and friends the first words out the mouths of idiots is “this is a gift but don’t overindulge – we must approach this with some “(expletive) balance.” Come on…

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  6. Dear Brother… Did you get up on the wrong side of the bed the day you wrote this? Do you have some kind of anger issue? Or what? That is the only thing I take away from this article.
    To be heresy don’t you actually have to have articles of faith? What you describe is usually not (though sometimes is) an article of faith. Most of the time Pietism is the natural tendency of the human – even the preacher unfortunately. Heck, when I read Luther’s sermons it seems THEY are often very pietistic. Pietism is a reflection of the natural world around us. It is most definitely from Satan himself, no doubt. But unfortunately Christians are not immune from its clutches. Oh that is right! Christians are sinners too! Who is it that saves us from this body of death? Oh that is right! Jesus! Praise the Lord he even saves the likes of me you and me who are so “right” and “pure” all the time!

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    1. Kristian, as I noted above, I am most certainly not immune to pietism. I am guilty as well. We all are. Yet this shouldn’t preclude me (or you) from noting the dangers of pietism to the Christian faith.

      As an Active Duty Army Chaplain, I work with Christian clergyman on a daily basis from across the denominational spectrum. Lately, it seems, my peers have been spewing pietism on a increasingly more frequent basis, hence, the reason for the article. But, as you rightly note, we in the LCMS, or anyone in the church, is not above reproach.

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  7. I somehow get the impression that each of you responding to this issue, pietism, has a different definition in your own minds. I suppose we must realize there are degrees of pietism, as there are shades of colors of apples. It is the same type of fruit, an apple, but differences abound in color, taste, flavor and usefulness, whether for cooking,baking or simply eating. If we are talking about an absolute pietist, we must consider the puritanical and fanatical Salem congregations of early American history which placed violators in stocks, dunked offenders in wells and lakes, hanged those accused of being witches, actively persecuted Quakers, and preached a form of Christianity alien to what Jesus taught. I would consider such similar people who claim to be doing God’s will as fanatical, worse than pietists, heretics who subvert the Gospel of salvation into a ruthless religious system. If there are degrees of pietism practiced in the LCMS and by some pastors, we must specify exactly and precisely what we are talking about before we can condemn the practice. I have not heard any LCMS pastor preach in a way seemingly legalistic with a gospel of works being advanced.

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  8. Curious, what practices are you saying are the basis of pietism?

    In the early 20th century, those attacked were things like

    Frequent, even daily desire to receive the Lord’s Supper
    Frequent Confession and Absolution
    Frequent prayer and study of scripture, including doing so regularly with other Christians.
    Helping the poor, and reaching out to those who didn’t know Jesus.

    Eventually, there were extremes, which took marks of spiritual growth and made them sound as if they merited salvation, But the beginning, like the renewed interest in spiritual disciplines today, are not about meriting salvation at all, but in growing in awareness of that salvation, and indeed in the presence of God.

    In today’s church, 1 in what 100?1000 LCMS churches offers regular confession and absolution.
    How many still are locked in an anti-sacramental attitude towards the Lord’s Supper, saying if you want it weekly, you’re a pietist?
    How many churches offer regular Bible Study, or help guide the prayer lives of their people?
    How many enable people to share their faith, or help them learn how to serve the poor, or the shut-in, or eencourage and support assisting those on the mission field, or in the chaplain’s corps.

    You are railing against the idea of practicing piety, of living the baptised life, set apart to walking with God. That’s not the same as extreme pietism by a long shot.

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    1. Justifiedandsinner, I think you and I are talking past one another. The things you list are gifts our Lord has given to us, to His Church. We are called to receive them often and in so doing, look to them as the basis for our righteousness.

      I’m not railing against piety. I’m railing against those who think their piety saves.

      My concern is with those Christians who don’t look to the means of grace, but rather to themselves, to their righteous living. For example, those that if they keep a particular commandment their righteousness will be rewarded. Oftentimes, what they think is righteous is simply silly.

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      1. Graham,
        Baloney. Your entire article exemplifies the self-righteousness you claim to despise.

        For instance, “The best way to deal with their heresy – and yes, they are heretics, in a most vile and horrendous way – is to pretend they don’t exist.” Yes, your heterodoxy is somehow less vile than theirs. Only you and those who believe like you do are truly holy and orthodox? If that is your claim (and it is based on your original arguement, than you have slipped into Gnosticism – righteousness by what you believe.

        In some of your responses, you negate this, but in others you claim again that “those” people are the evil ones. Those people are the ones that will be condemned, and aren’t saved by Christ.

        Have a nice day:

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    2. I don’t hear that from Graham, at all. As my church is often in social alongside local Methodist congregations, I know there is a difference between a sanctified life (Lutheran) and a sanctifying life (Pietism). When acts of mercy and piety, the doing of such things is believe to be a means of grace and/ or necessary in advancing toward salvation, the cross of Christ as the full work of salvation, is diminished. In the hands of many non-denoms and evangelicals, such pietism requires that these outward marks be plainly evident to all in order for there to be a true Christian. But justification and sanctification is not always visible. while we have been saved and sanctified and are encouraged to live our sanctified lives, now, we will always fall short. It does not mean that God’s work for our salvation is incomplete. rather, that our realization of it in this world is incomplete. We have to accept that His work is often not visible to us.

      Further, we can and should accept that we have tendencies to weigh worldly works and evident holiness in grading our fellows as Christians or even the strength or our own faith using works as evidence. We also can accept that the pietism of others with erroneous doctrines and the pietism in us with our erroneous judgments do not mean that we are not all Christian. I am confident that, by virtue of baptism, pietists are saved just as we are.

      We can learn much from people with a passion to actively follow Christ and should be admonished, not by their doctrine, but by their behavior. Take it as encouragement. My first reaction to Graham’s piece was his belittling of works. something I knew he didn’t mean exactly as he wrote it. But Lutherans are way too wary of the slippery slope of coming to value works as contributing factors. We can go too far in the opposite direction and treat the Holy Spirit as a lesser person in the Godhead and ignore God’s intention that we do good works, in fact we ignore that He is the one making the works good. We ignore piety for fear of falling into pietism. We could go into the desire of many German Lutherans to appear more American and conventionally protestant – doing things in the early 20th century like forsaking German for English, no longer giving their children German names, flying a flag up front in the church to prove they were on the right side of the war, removing crucifixes and kneeling rails or building churches without them, teaching us not to do things like make the sign of the cross. Seems only natural that they’d absorb some wrongheaded notions about piety and, then overcompensate to right the ship.

      None the things you mention churches offering/ not offering, doing/ not doing, are marks of pietism, they are marks of piety and, having read enough from Graham, I think it’s safe to say that isn’t what he’s thinking, at all. BTW – you can visit my little congregation in the hills of northern NJ and see that all the things you mention are supported and being done, here. they have been for decades.

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  9. Justifiedandsinner, sorry that you are taking my comments the way you are. I most certainly am not saying that I have got it right or that I am without error on the issue of pietism (note, pietism, not piety).

    And to be clear, I never put stock in what I believe, only in what the Lord has revealed to us. It’s not about me. It’s only and always about Christ.

    Thanks for your input!

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  10. Wow – terrible comments section. Graham fricking great article – I get your point. Keep the articles coming man! Loved it – and not once did I think (after reading it) “Hell, I can cheat on my wife and abandon my family.”

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