Summary: We must rely on grace alone, through faith alone. Works fail, grace produces Christ life in us.
The title of this message out of Romans chapter 3 is “The Pitfall of Pietism.” For the sake of clarity and sharp delivery of this message, allow me to offer a working definition of what I mean by pietism. According to the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology pietism is: “A recurring tendency within Christian history to emphasize more the practicalities of Christian life and less the formal structures of theology or church order. Its historians discern four general traits in this tendency: (1) its experiential character – pietists are people of the heart for whom Christian living is the fundamental concern; (2) its biblical focus – pietists are, to paraphrase John Wesley, “people of one book” who take standards and goals from the pages of Scripture; (3) its perfectionist bent – pietists are serious about holy living and expend every effort to follow God’s law, speak the gospel, and provide aid for the needy; (4) its reforming interest – pietists usually oppose what they regard as coldness and sterility in established church forms and practices.”
Perhaps upon hearing that very good concise definition you say “Well pastor, that doesn’t sound so bad. Pietists are concerned with living the Christian life, they are focused on the Bible, they are serious about holy living, and they oppose cold dry religion in favor of a lived faith.”
Indeed, there are many things that can be learned from pietists of old and the present day. Yet, there remains one central pitfall of a pietistic outlook which is highlighted in our text today.
“God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood… he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” (Romans 3:25-28 NIV)
The pitfall of pietism is the tendency, of individual believers and Christian movements collectively, to mistake their own work for genuine holiness.
In other words, the pitfall of pietism is the pitfall of focusing on what we do rather than what God has done. How easily we forget that we are saved by faith when we turn our faith into righteous, self-righteous, activity.
In what follows, we will walk through this text, comparing the difference between saving faith and works; lived grace and trying to earn grace; the fruit of salvation and the pietistic assumption that we can somehow save ourselves.
Lord, give us ears to hear, hearts to received, and eyes to see.
At least in my experience, I would suggest that there are two basic types of pietists. There are the “holy pietists” and the “unholy pietists.” To be sure, there is probably a little of each in all of us, though some fall squarely in one category.
The holy pietists are those folks who struggle genuinely out of a terrible burden, either to please God and / or to alleviate their own perception of personal guilt.
I knew a woman once that I sometimes referred to as the puritan. I never did this in front of her of course, but jokingly, half-affectionately, I would call her this. She was a young woman and attractive but her extreme pietism would have never allowed anyone to know how beautiful she actually was. She always wore long sleeve, very plain clothing, long jean dresses, plain shoes, and never, never, did she wear any makeup or fix her hair in anything other than a very simple braid.
When I first met her I was very impressed by her modesty and even remarked of how more young women could use to emulate just a little of the way that she presented herself. Indeed, modesty seems to be a bygone virtue which could use a healthy resurgence. However, the more I got to know this particular pietistic woman, the more I heard her speak and observed her interaction with the world, the more I realized, to some extent by her own admission, that she had no peace, no joy in her life. On the outside she exhibited a godly appearance but inwardly she wondered if she was good enough to please God. While on the outside most of us would have said, “Now there is a Christian young woman.” On the inside, she wondered if she was even saved; even a child of God.”
Recently someone remarked to me of how there had been some vandals perhaps about five or six years ago who had marred several headstones at a local cemetery. The man’s remark after telling me this was “There’s a sure way to get sent to hell.” On one level his comment may seem innocent enough; however, I think this comment belies a radical misunderstanding about the nature of grace.