Conservative Christian churches wish to weather the winds of secularism and pass on authentic Christianity to the next generation. This means conserving the gospel itself, conserving a robust, consistent and thorough body of Christian theology, and conserving biblical worship. An offshoot of the conservation of biblical worship is the matter of Christian piety.
In some ways, piety describes the individual Christian’s worship. Worship has a public dimension, as well as a private dimension. We are to offer up our love for God when we assemble, but we are to love Him at all times. This life of love for God is variously called piety, spiritual growth, sanctification, Christlikeness, and Christian maturity. All point to the same thing: a life of knowing and loving God which results in resembling and reflecting Him.
You might think that Christian piety is the most elementary of matters and hardly something worth splitting hairs over. Certainly, it is possible to overcomplicate it. However, not long after our conversion, we soon find a bewildering number of competing visions of the Christian life.
Wesleyans tell us to seek perfection. Reformed Christians tell us to restrain the flesh and put on Christian character. Confessionalists tell us to trust in the churchly means of grace. Pentecostals tell us to seek the baptism of the Spirit. Quietists tell us to stop striving and rest entirely on Christ. Pietists tell us to strive for deep inward affections. Keswicks tell us to crucify the old life and surrender entirely to Christ’s life. Revivalists tell us to confess our backsliding and re-consecrate ourselves. Chaferians tell us to be filled with the Spirit, disagreeing between themselves on what that means. Some mystics tell us to pursue a kind of beautific vision of Christ in the form of illumination. These examples do not exhaust the possibilities along the spectrum of views of the Christian life.
Within these visions of the Christian life, there are different views on the priorities of the Christian life, and what means should be used to reach those goals. They view prayer, the Word, and the church differently. They have varying views on how Christians are to live in the ‘secular’ realm.
To read through some of the classic devotional works of the church is to see these views clash. Compare The Imitation of Christ to Holiness (J.C. Ryle). Compare The Practice of the Presence of God to Communion With God. Compare The Pursuit of God to A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. Compare The Practice of Piety to Confessions. Compare The Dark Night of the Soul to Religious Affections. Compare Spiritual Progress to My Utmost for his Highest. To read these works is to be confronted with quite disparate views of the priorities and posture of a Christian. And yet, to do so is to be exposed to what is catholic in Christian piety. It’s in hearing Christians from the past and present describe the Christian life that we come closer to understanding what a life of love for God is.
Obviously, these competing visions of the Christian life cannot be equally correct on their points of difference. Like our doctrinal views, we will have to decide which vision, or combination of visions of Christianity most fully represents the Bible’s view of piety. Next, I would like to consider some practical means of encouraging and developing true Christian piety in our churches.