What is Pietism?

Sometimes Lutherans will throw “pietist” around like it’s a four-letter word (most of the time it is).  Historically, it’s a movement to reverse what was seen as “dead orthodoxy” and a sort of doctrinal legalism that sucked the life out of true religion.  It emphasized conversion, private Bible study, and de-emphasized corporate worship, the Sacraments, and objective means of grace.  It favored the subjective experience of the believer.  We have that historical movement and its successors to thank for Confirmation as we know it, as well as pretty much the entire way we view Christianity in America today.  (Again, read D.G. Hart’s The Lost Soul of American Protestantism for a broader view of pietistic impulses in the United States.)

But lest this be simply an historical and academic irrelevancy, see the Hauge Lutheran Innermission Federation (C.P. Krauth is obviously correct when he says that not all who claim the Lutheran name are Lutheran–btw, that’s another must-own: The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology).

I was given their publication “Morning Glory” by a relative of a parishioner, and it seems like a nineteenth century relic of the revivalist frontier.  Let me first say that the inclinations of these Christians and others like them is completely understandable.  As a pastor, I see first-hand the complacency and a seeming nominal Christianity.  You wonder if the Word of God is having any effect, and you doubt whether you’re preaching strongly enough, and you’re tempted, above all, to preach solely the Law “to awaken souls.”  But the Law will never awaken souls, and that’s what separates the pietists from the Lutherans.  No amount of banging on people with commandments, requirements, and what God wants will convert sinners.

In the first article, from 1895, the author writes,

A follower of churchianity uses the Lord’s means of grace only to rest securely in his impenitence and sin, in a sleep that can never be blessed.

But the question is always begged, how can anyone determine whether someone is “resting securely in his impenitence and sin”?  I have no doubt that people do, but there’s no way for anyone else to know, unless the person says so.  And then this:

With God’s Word as light and law for discerning the spiritual condition, we must get all believing men and women to work to gether for the salvation of sinners. We must totally turn away from the old traditional ways of thinking, and (I am sorry that this needs to be said even
among God’s children) stop promoting the notion that it is enough when the pastor regularly preaches God’s Word during the congregation’s public worship services. For then sinners will not be converted, because there is no cry in it; then they will remain lost.

The problem is not necessarily with the preaching, but with the fact that the people in the congregation remain sinners.  The problem might be with the preaching, but the fact that there are “unconverted” people in the congregation (again, only God can know) may be in spite of the preaching (it always is), rather than because the preaching is weak.

But what I really wanted to get to was this: “Do the Baptized Need Conversion?”

There is a popular emphasis in much of Lutheranism (and some other church bodies as well) that if an infant or a young child has been brought to Christ in baptism, and never leaves that covenant established at their baptism, that they are Christians solely because of God’s Grace. If they confess their faith at their confirmation and are regular in church and at the Lord’s Supper, they are in fact faithful Christians and have no need for conversion. Is this, in fact, what the Bible teaches?

Besides the fact that the whole article could not be more distant from Luther’s Small Catechism on baptism, notice how close it is to a Baptist position.  Just because someone says he’s Lutheran doesn’t mean he is.  Notice how astounding that first sentence is: “There is a popular emphasis in much of Lutheranism…that if an infant or a young child has been brought to Christ in baptism, and never leaves that covenant established at their baptism, that they are Christians solely because of God’s Grace.” That is about as clear a statement of the anti-Lutheran doctrine of these pseudo-Lutherans (indeed, pseudo-Christians) as one could possibly find.  The pietist temptation is to move so hard against those who appear to be resting securely in their impenitence that they cannot handle the radicality of God’s grace in Jesus Christ: that it is completely free, completely apart from works or decision or your holy life.  Holiness contributes nothing to your salvation.  And if the pietists trust that “holiness of life” shows whether someone is not resting securely in impenitence, those good works and perceived holiness could be the very thing that contributes to the dreaded secure resting.

But it gets worse: doing violence to Paul’s letter to Titus, the author writes,

However, notice in the very same verse that it states that there must also be a “renewing by the Holy Spirit.” Thus, following the order stated in Titus 3:5, it is baptism first and then a renewing by the Holy Spirit. This is how God saves us. To have baptism alone, with out the renewing of the Holy Spirit, is not salvation.

This is the same terrible exegesis that leads to saying that repentance must precede baptism, because that’s how Peter says it.  But Matthew 28 is conveniently ignored by these same people because it puts baptism first, and then teaching.  The only way that this quote makes sense is if one has a priori separated renewal from baptism.  If, on the other hand, one believes that baptism is renewal (as Luther clearly does in the Small Catechism), then the argument literally makes no sense.  In fact, the Small and Large Catechisms provide the very antidote against carnal security: a return to baptism!  I.e., repentance.

We speak of this renewing after baptism as conversion, which means turning. When the baptized person becomes old enough to understand the issues of sin, condemnation, and the wrath of God under the Law, and then forgiveness of sins through Jesus under the Gospel, then the person must make a conscious choice by an act of their will on two things: 1) What will I do with my Sin?, and 2) What will I do with Jesus Christ? The Holy Spirit will bring each soul to this point of decision, like a fork in the road.  After baptism, the soul must repent of their sins before God by an act of their will. This did not take place in baptism. After baptism, the soul must come to personal faith in Jesus by an act of their will. This also did not take place at baptism.

Any Lutheran should have alarm bells ringing at words like “choice,” “decision,” and “act of their [sic] will.”  Yes, everyone must repent, but this repentance is not something that the will can accomplish, nor can “the soul…come to personal faith in Jesus by an act of their [sic] will.”  They either make baptism into some sort of prevenient grace (in fact, it’s prevenient, postvenient, and everything in between) or they make it of no account whatsoever.  Personal faith in Jesus and repentance come solely from God, by God, and not apart from God’s working by His Holy Spirit.  Pietists rob Christians of their comfort because they make salvation depend upon something the Christian does.  And if it depends on something the Christian does, then there can never be certainty that the Christian has done all that is required.

Everyone claims “by grace, by grace,” but how a person views baptism will show what they really believe.  If they say that baptism is not enough, they either do not understand what Lutherans really teach (that it is the Holy Spirit converting a sinful creature by bringing it to the cross and grave of Jesus and raising it in the resurrection of Jesus) or they do not believe in grace alone.  If someone denies infant baptism because infants can’t “believe,” they deny grace alone.  If someone puts any requirement on a person for salvation, conversion, repentance, etc., they deny the work of God by His Law and His Gospel.  It’s as simple as that.

More robbing consciences:

Even if a young person has never gone off into open and coarse sin, he is still in need of conversion. This conversion will involve a real conviction of sin. This means that they will
realize that they have sinned against the Lord and the fact that they were once baptized will no longer cover that sin. They will also realize they need to come to Jesus in a personal, living way. It will no longer be enough that they believe in Jesus, but they will have to make a definite act of appropriating Christ for themselves.

If baptism no longer covers sin, then Christ’s death and resurrection no longer covers sin–because baptism is nothing more than the personal appropriation of Christ’s death and resurrection.  If baptism were something else, then it would also be something other than by grace through faith.  True belief in Jesus saves because it is simple trust that Christ died for me.  Anything else is not faith in the Biblical sense.

But enough.  Not Christian (see Sir Cuthbert’s remarks below) and, hence, not Lutheran.



4 thoughts on “What is Pietism?

  1. “Not Lutheran and barely Christian” This is incorrect. Jesus said, “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved.” (Mark 16:16) Anyone who rejects this is not only not Lutheran, but not Christian. Not even barely.

  2. WAIT! That’s not what it means! Lutherans are not the only Christians. Dr. Walther says of this, “The Word of God is not rightly divided when a person’s salvation is made to depend on his association with the visible orthodox church and when salvation is denied to every person who errs on any article of faith.” (The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, Thesis XX) Later on, he says, “It is, therefore, an awful mistake to claim that men can be saved only in the Lutheran church.” To make that claim “involves a fatal confounding of Law and Gospel.” This error is one of the errors of Rome. It is as great an error as the one you rightly condemn. Do not fall into it!

    The people you quote are not un-Christian because they are un-Lutheran. They are un-Lutheran because they are un-Christian. They are un-Christian because they want to make salvation depend on works. They are un-Christian because they reject Christ’s statement, “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved.” (Mark 16:16)

    They reject this statement openly when they say, “This means that they will realize that they have sinned against the Lord and the fact that they were once baptized will no longer cover that sin… It will no longer be enough that they believe in Jesus, but they will have to make a definite act of appropriating Christ for themselves.”

    Thus they reject Christ’s atoning work, and the free salvation He offers: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9) Those who want to earn salvation want to make God their debtor. They do not want to accept this free gift which is the only salvation God offers. They worship their works (and therein themselves) rather than Christ. That is why they are not Christian.

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