Is “Pious” a Dirty Word?

In recent years the term “pious” has fallen from popular favor and with it the notion of piety. The term conjures up unwelcome images of stuffy old clerics dressed up in musty old cassocks, or frumpy old ladies having a good old gossip after bible study—and there’s nothing like a juicy bit of news about the organist to sweeten the tea.

Pious—nobody likes to be called that anymore.

Google tells us the word fell from favor rather precipitously after 1840. These were the years after the industrial revolution had given mankind a new self-confidence, a belief that we could do anything, and that human beings were marching ever upwards, evolving to ever-higher levels of sophistication. The machines gave us this idea long before Darwin’s epiphany, nineteen years later.

These were also the years after the Second Great Awakening had effectively burnt itself out. Within a few more years, German Liberalism and all of its profoundly anti-supernatural, anti-dogmatic dogmatism would sweep through Europe and into America, finishing the job Deism had begun. People no longer felt the need to listen to their pastors, businessmen were the new power brokers of society, the new High Priests of knowledge and of wisdom that actually works for a living.

As a result, with deadness creeping over the Church, many turned instead to the romantic ideals of art, literature, and music to restore a sense of beauty and vitality amidst the clicking and clacking of the Industrial life’s daily grind. To their enlightened ears, “pious” sounded tired, old, irrelevant, and a bit sanctimonious—what we might call: inauthentic.

It was not that way for our father’s in the faith. Paul’s term for piety was εὐσεβῶς, which means godly, or the kind of lifestyle that honors God. Paul urges Timothy to train himself for the purpose of godliness (1Tim. 4:7). To his mind, “godliness with contentment is great gain” (1Tim.6:6). Piety, you might say, is the art of living unto God.

Piety was also central to Calvin’s theology. Indeed he viewed such a lifestyle as a prerequisite for any sound knowledge of God. As such, his magnum opus, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, can in many ways be read as a manual of piety. Early in the first book of his Institutes Calvin says,

I call “piety” that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces. For until men recognize that they owe everything to God, that they are nourished by his fatherly care, that he is the Author of their every good, that they should seek nothing beyond him—they will never yield him willing service. Nay, unless they establish their complete happiness in him, they will never give themselves truly and sincerely to him.
— Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin

Piety is what happens to a person’s life when they establish their complete happiness in God. Until that happens, we will always spend at least part of our lives looking for happiness outside of God, in the bypath meadows of ungodliness.

The 19th century Northern Presbyterian, Gardiner Spring (whose Resolution, requiring all Presbyterian Churches to pledge allegiance to the Federal Government at the start of the civil war, led to the North/South split in Presbyterianism) said, “What is piety, but that state of mind and moral feeling which regards God as God: which loves him as God; which obeys him as God, and honors him as our lawgiver and our redeemer?”

That is marvelously simple and it is searching. Does the way you think, speak, and act reflect the belief that God is God?—or do you need to have a listen to Doug Wilson’s song, “Hold your peace, you rebellious pot, the Lord is God, and YOU… ARE…NOT!”

Jerry Bridges, a modern day reformer and author of countless books, describes such godliness from the opposite side of the fence, “Ungodliness may be defined as living one’s everyday life with little or no thought of God, or of God’s will, or of God’s glory, or of one’s dependence upon God….For the godly person, God is the center and focal point of his or her life. Every circumstance and every activity of life, whether in the temporal or spiritual realms, is viewed through the lens of this God-centeredness. However, such a God-centeredness can be developed only in the context of an ever-growing intimate relationship with God. No one can genuinely desire to please God or glorify Him apart from such a relationship. The question we should honestly and humbly ask is, “How ungodly am I? How much of my life do I live without any regard for God? How many of my daily activities do I go through without any reference to God?”

These are nagging questions we all must answer? This is what the gospel of God does to a man, the message of blood-bought mercy, of full, free, final, and forever forgiveness. Here is Truth that leads to godliness (Titus 1:1-33). Is it leading you that way?

Christ Covenant Church