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Volume 16, Issue 3: Presbyterion

The Evils of Pietism

Douglas Wilson

Ambrose Bierce once defined ritualism as a "Dutch Garden of God where He may walk in rectilinear freedom, keeping off the grass." Those of us involved in trying to restore liturgy to the Church (not to mention a sense of dignity in worship) should always keep taunts like this one in the forefront of our minds. In our sinful hands, we can twist anything out of the shape God gave it.

I think it was Jaroslav Pelikan who defined tradition as the living faith of the dead, as opposed to traditionalism, which is the dead faith of the living. A lot of poison is contained in the ism of those three small letters. Reason is good; rationalism is idolatrous. Ritual is inescapable; ritualism is refusal to think about what you are doing. And though piety is nothing more than simple godliness, pietism is a thorough-going sentimentalist idolatry. It is evil.
Of course, in our culture, as ethical standards continue to deteriorate, it is perilously easy for ethical slackers to dismiss as "pietistic" anyone who takes the Bible seriously. "And a legalist must be someone who loves God more than I do." We want to have nothing to do with this sort of slanderous attack on godly character. Simple, devout piety is of great worth in the sight of God. But we must also remember that in a deteriorating culture, there are many who are attracted to the form of godliness without understanding the power of it (2 Tim. 3:5). Any port wiil do in a storm.
Over many years of pastoral counseling I have seen this phenomenon many times. A family has really tight standards in a host of dubious or debatable areas: hair, dresses, rock music, movies, language, and you probably can finish the list. But as time goes on, it becomes apparent to the pastor who is seeking to help the family that inside this particular whitewashed sepulchre are heaps of dead men's bones. And we are not talking about an odd quirk or two—rather, we are talking about basic Ten Commandments stuff, including (but not limited to) adultery, incest, covenant breaking, lying, disobedience, and rage.
In short, pietism leads directly and inexorably to impiety. But we have to take care; pietism should not be defined as having tight standards, but rather a problem of having inverted standards. Someone who tithed out of his spice rack was not necessarily a pietist. Jesus said that this was something they ought to have done (Matt. 23:23). But the reason He attacked them and gave them no quarter was that they neglected the weightier matters of the law—judgment, mercy, and faith. When this happens, there is moral inversion and a great deal of woe (Is. 5:20). This kind of inversion cannot happen without perversion following after.
The more time I spend in pastoral ministry, the more I hate pietism. This monstrous system devours families, husbands, wives, sons, and daughters. And when the family first begins diligently whitewashing the tomb—before the corpse has started to stink—and you try to question what they are doing, their reaction is to think you are attacking white wash per se.
Paul teaches us this principle clearly. The commandments and doctrines of men are worthless when it comes to restraint of the sinful flesh (Col. 2:23). Our only Savior from sin is Jesus Christ, and the benefits of His salvation are mediated to us through His means of grace—Word and sacrament—and the blessing of this grace is appropriated by faith. It is not appropriated when we decide to scurry around inventing rules like good little Christians.
To spell it out. A daughter may have read every Elsie Dinsmore book ever written and still have a problem with masturbation. A son may never have seen an R-rated movie, and still be up in his bedroom drawing pictures of women being abused and raped. A father might not let his daughters go to a ball because it is a "worldly" activity and yet fly into fits of rage at the dinner table every other night. A wife might be wearing a head covering the size of a small tablecloth, and still be the most unsubmissive woman in three counties.
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. When we put on tender mercies, when we put on Christ, then and only then is it safe to put on a homeschool jumper or a classical Christian school uniform. Then and only then is it safe to have an opinion of rock and roll. Then and only then is it appropriate to think about whether there were too many deaths in that action movie. Then and only then is it wise to teach your children anything at all.
Sin comes from Adam. It arises in our hearts, unbidden. It does the same thing in the hearts of our children. It cannot be fixed by means of quarantine. When we keep our children away from the government school cooties, we are sometimes astonished when our kids figure out how to lie all by themselves. Only Christ can save us, and when He does this, He does it His way.

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