The Slow Death Of Pietism (Transcript)

Listen to Episode

Jimmy Buehler: Hi, this is Jimmy. On today’s episode of Theocast, we are able and blessed to sit around the same table to discuss and meet with our old friend pietism. The other night, we were discussing how pietism dies a very slow and painful death. We also talked about the damage it can cause to our assurance and what we see when we look at ourselves in Christ. In this podcast, we discuss the slow and painful death of pietism and how it can harm us.

In the members’ podcast, we get a little bit more punchy as we talk about the dangers of pietism as it relates to the gathered saints in the local church and the damage that it can cause. We hope this conversation is beneficial to you as it was to us. We look forward to you listening.

Here at Theocast, we define pietism as this extreme focus and concern for the interior of the Christian life: that is the feelings, affections, and the things that I do for God and His kingdom. Pietism has a very intense focus on how I feel for Jesus, how I feel when I wake up about Jesus, and other spiritual things. If you’ve been listening to us for a while now, pietism and our battle against it with this podcast is something that’s always on the back burner simmering.

However, we also recognize that pietism dies a very slow and painful death. It is very difficult to walk away from a pietistic approach to the Christian life.

I’m going to throw this out to you guys to help flesh this topic out: why does pietism seem to die very slowly and very painfully?

Jon Moffitt: First of all, it’s not like we’re talking about a diet or some other temporal matter of our life that has zero significance when we die. What pietism does is it trains your brain to think about eternal matters and where you stand with them. It’s a serious matter. Pietism is always looking at the end, which is your eternity with God, and looking at the journey of how you get there. If, from the moment you are born, you are being trained to think about your participation in this end goal, which is how you do or don’t perform well as the determining factor of being with God in the end, this is not something that will die easy; especially if how you have learned to think and live your actions, or that what you refrain from, are all determined on that.

We get comments all over or the place where people are wrestling with so many questions under pietism. “What about this verse? What about this passage? What about this sermon? What about this book?” It seems their entire world has been under this canopy of pietism. When you pull that person out from underneath the canopy, they feel exposed. There is no longer safety because in pietism you have a form of control. Then you pull them out from underneath that canopy and they feel exposed and out of control. It’s scary.

Justin Perdue: I’m going to add one or two things to what pietism is: it’s a hyper-focus on what we should be feeling and a hyper-focus on what we should be doing. It’s a hyper-focus on my feelings about Jesus and the things of God, and it’s a hyper-focus on my performance in my obedience. How well am I doing at fulfilling my duty?

Pietism tends to invert the relationship of identity and duty. That matters because what we end up doing is we determine whether or not we are legitimate children of God, whether or not we are legitimately in Christ, based upon what we’re doing or not doing or what we’re feeling or not feeling.

Jon Moffitt: I would say, are we deserving of this relationship with God?

Justin Perdue: Exactly. Like so many other things in life, the switch doesn’t happen immediately. It’s like a detox season that people have to go through where you have to reprogram the way you think and operate in the way you look at the Christian life. This is hard for us. Why? Because pietism naturally jives with the way we operate.

We may talk more about this in a minute, but we all have a legal spirit. It’s as natural to us as breathing. We think about obedience in certain ways: the motivations for obedience must be merit, or they must be the escape of punishment. What else could there be?

Jimmy Buehler: Or keeping myself in.

Justin Perdue: Sure. We naturally operate on a Law economy: I need to do certain things in order that I might receive certain things. We’re working against all of that, and that’s why it takes a long time. That is why pietism dies a slow and painful death.

Jimmy Buehler: If you are in the United States, we have said this before that American evangelical Christianity is pietistic. At its core, it is inherently pietistic.

Jon Moffitt: They would be just evangelical enough to say that you’re in by faith but pietism then says you are kept in by works.

Jimmy Buehler: Perfected by your own works.

Justin Perdue: You’re justified by faith, and then in one sense you keep yourself there through what you’re doing or how you’re feeling.

Jon Moffitt: Because it sounds right enough because, of course, we’re saved by faith alone.

Justin Perdue: What’s worse is if you’re not doing enough or you’re not feeling the right things, then maybe you’re not legit.

Jimmy Buehler: To use some terminology here, justification is being declared righteous in God’s sight, not based off of your own works or merits but solely based off of the works or merits of Christ, applied to you by grace, through faith.

Jon Moffitt: Given the label, but not the substance.

Jimmy Buehler: Sanctification is the process by which God employs in our lives to conform us further into the image of Christ. What happens in pietism is there is an intense focus on the latter: justification is what gets you in but the manner by which you are sanctified or how far you are sanctified is how you stay in the game.

Sanctification becomes synergistic: God does his part and I do my part. This is a pietistic approach to the Christian life. God gives me grace and I need to cooperate with said grace in order to maintain my righteous status before God.

What sorts of things does that mindset do to the average everyday Christian?

Jon Moffitt: We look for requirements that are achievable and we can do that through what we refrained from and what we can find ourselves disciplined in. I’m going to refrain from particular actions that are clearly wrong. But in this, we miss the whole letter of the Law, which is why we go after pietism all the time. Jesus doesn’t come in and tell us not to steal, instead he tells us not to envy. He doesn’t tell us not to kill, instead he tells us not to hate. He doesn’t tell us not to have relationships outside of marriage, instead he tells us not to lust.

Jimmy Buehler: How measurable is that?

Jon Moffitt: You’re guilty. Period. Then we think greater effort will produce greater righteousness. The reason it’s a slow and painful death is that you have what’s called phantom fear where you are walking away from pietism, then all of a sudden you have that midnight fear that you wake up and your heart is pounding and thinking, “Wait a minute. What if I didn’t do enough yesterday? What if I really did prove that I’m not God’s child?” That’s phantom fear. The gospel comes in and says Christ is enough, but pietism comes in and says there’s still some left for you to do.

Justin Perdue: Not only is there still something left for you to do, but pietism might even say that Christ is enough but you must do these things in order to prove that you’re in him.

Jimmy Buehler: Or you must do these things in order to prove that you actually believe that.

Justin Perdue: Or that you actually love him or know him. There’s this constant project of having to prove oneself in pietism. That’s why we’ll refer to it often as bondage and slavery, and not freedom and not rest. It’s not restful. How could a person ever rest under that kind of schema and framework?

One thing that I think is confusing for many is this: even in the New Testament, we’ll see language like we have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved. We have been justified, we are being sanctified, and we will be glorified. But what we do with our human brains – because of how we think because we’re finite, we live in time and space, etc. – is we think that something that is in the future must mean that there is either doubt or uncertainty about it because it hasn’t happened yet, or we assume that because it’s in the future, there must be something left to do.

This just blows our brains up. How could something in the future already be accomplished, over, and done? I must have to do something to assure myself of that future reality. Then the preaching, teaching, and writing that we’re all exposed to only reinforce those assumptions.

Jon Moffitt: It’s a prove-yourself theology. We just finished an introductory series on covenant theology. The reason why this theology is so important is that the covenant of grace is what we call an unconditional promise; it’s an unconditional covenant, meaning that God is the one who does all of the work. Those who are the elect who receive it by grace receive it unconditionally. If you are a child of God, there is no condition by which you must receive that or maintain it. That is very hard to hear because we hear verses that say “prove yourself” or “examine yourself if you’re of the faith”. It’s fruit language, meaning you better be producing fruit. We hear this without explaining what’s going on in the context. That’s where you start to think that the reason why you’re not with God in heaven right now is that He has left me here to prove that God truly has saved me. I need to prove to God that I’m saved – which is to think that God doesn’t know His own.

Jimmy Buehler: Pietism within the realm of the Christian life constantly moves the goalposts. It constantly moves the goal. As soon as you are in this sermon series and the application is greater this, or better that, or more affections around this, you move on to the next series and it’s a new thing.

I think another reason why pietism dies a slow and painful death is essentially like this: we have some listeners in the UK and our dear brethren over there drive on the wrong side…I mean… on the other side of the road (smile). If you’re from the States, imagine moving to the UK and you have to completely switch everything that you are used to. Right turns are not treated like left turns, and left turns are not treated like right turns. What side is the passenger? I would imagine that for those of you who are listening who have had this experience, you would always approach your vehicle in your new country on the wrong side every time. Pietism is like that. When you are coming out of it, you have a very clear set pattern of roles and behaviors. It’s almost like a reward system. You have trained your brain that if you do a certain spiritual activity to a certain level, you will receive this kind of reward. If I have my quiet time devotionals to this degree and have these sorts of feelings, today will go well for me; if I do not, God will be punitive towards me, or God is backing away from me and out of His commitment.

We often think that it’s like a mirror image with God that as I back away from God, He backs away from me. That is what a pietistic brain teaches. Again, to reemphasize the reason why it’s a slow and painful death, it’s because you are relearning how to drive a vehicle that you’ve been in before, which is the Christian life, but it’s completely on a different side.

Jon Moffitt: To use that analogy, people email us all the time and say, “I’ve always thought this button was for the lights. You’re telling me it’s the gas? I’ve always thought this was to turn on the radio. You’re saying it’s for the heater?” It feels that absurd to them when they hear this.

A good example of this is the armor of God. People think that if they don’t put on God’s armor, they become vulnerable – and they assume the armor is action, whether it’s prayer, devotion, or meditation. If you’ll pay attention to the armor of God, they are all centered around Christ and the work of Christ.

The one thing that we are told to do is to put faith in Christ and in doing so, Paul is saying, that is what becomes our protection. Our faith in Christ or Christ becomes our protection. Pietism tells you your performance becomes your protection.

Justin Perdue: Thinking more about Ephesians 6 and the armor of God, if you ever hear sermons preached on it, the emphasis is on us. Ephesians 6:10-20 is a great expose on pietistic thinking because the sermons preached about the armor of God are all about us and how we are going about the putting on of the armor. That is the complete emphasis. Whereas what is the emphasis of Paul in describing the armor itself? The belt of truth is clearly God’s truth and Christ’s truth for us. Breastplates guard us from mortal injury. The breastplate of what righteousness and whose righteousness? Yours? No, it’s the righteousness of Christ. It’s not about your holiness; it’s about Christ’s righteousness for you. “As shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace.” Is what we’re standing on is our performance? No, what we’re standing on is the gospel. It’s the good news of Christ. Finally the shield of faith, not the shield of obedience or the shield of works; it’s the shield of faith that says trust in Christ.

Jon Moffitt: If you have never heard that, most likely you’ve grown up at in a pietistic context. We just told you that your blinker is the gas pedal.

Justin Perdue: Lastly, the helmet of salvation, not that you will accomplish but that’s been accomplished for you, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. It’s bananas that we would go to that text and make it about us.

Jon Moffitt: Can I add one thing? What are the first three chapters of Ephesians about?

Jimmy Buehler: God’s work toward His people throughout redemptive history.

Justin Perdue: Chosen before the foundation of the world in Christ, sealed by the Holy Spirit, redeemed by Jesus by grace, you’ve been saved through faith…

Jon Moffitt: Now we turn it on its head and say it’s all about you.

Jimmy Buehler: What pietism wants to say is that you need to accomplish and finish the work that God has begun before the ages began.

Justin Perdue: We’re not saying Ephesians 6 has nothing to say to you. Look at Ephesians six and say, “Because I have been chosen by God, because I’ve been redeemed by Christ, because I’ve been sealed with the Holy Spirit, because God has made me alive with Jesus, this is my protection, surety, safety, and rock. This is what will protect me from the enemy. This is what will protect me from doubts and fears and attacks of all kinds.”

Jimmy Buehler: I’ve seen it on Twitter and some blogs where people come at Theocast and say we hate the Bible, we hate that people read their Bible, and we don’t want Christians to read their Bible. One, that is a straw man; two, it’s ridiculous; three, it’s not that we don’t tell people to read their Bible. How blessed we are in this day. Read your Bible. Enjoy it. But what we say and what we mean is we do not read the Scriptures in a personal sense to generate God’s affections for us.

Jon Moffitt: Or for protection or blessing.

Jimmy Buehler: Right. We read the Scriptures because it helps us to create an awareness of God’s preexisting affections for us, and it benefits those that we live life with in the local church.

Justin Perdue: In one sense, you’re reading your Bible for the good of your neighbor, for the good of your brother and sister. You’re going to Scripture and reading it, not because it’s a part of a personal improvement plan, but to be reminded anew of God and His faithfulness to you, to be reminded of God and what He has done for you, to be reminded of Christ and his sufficiency for you, to be reminded that Jesus will never lose you.

Go to Scripture and see the certainty of your salvation. We go to be edified in Christ as we look to the word.

Jon Moffitt: Pietism highly individualizes everything. Everything becomes about you and God as if you’re an only child. In the New Testament, when it comes down to the interaction between you and Scripture, there are two commands given to the local church over and over again: faithfully preach the word in season and out – this is to the preachers and teachers of God’s word – and consider how to build one on love and good works. That is what the receivers of God’s word have to do with that.

In Acts, as soon as people would receive God’s word, they went into the homes and talked about the apostles’ teachings and encouraged it. What we do with Scripture is we turn it into me-and-God time. What the Bible does is it says, “Take this holy word and use it to build each other up.” Not yourself. In Ephesians 4, it says that when the body functions the way it is designed to function by the Holy Spirit, then it builds itself up in love. Nowhere in Scripture does it say your personal Bible reading is a guarantee to build you up in love.

Jimmy Buehler: We are unbelievably blessed in our day and age to have the Bible in reliable translations, beautifully made and crafted with fine leathers, paper, ribbons, and whatnot. So by all means, we encourage people to read their Bibles. But what we’re saying is we read it with a different mindset.

Jon Moffitt: Remove the chains.

Jimmy Buehler: It is a gift that cannot produce guilt. Why? Because it is the gift that keeps giving you the joy of realizing that what God has done for you in redemptive history through Christ is secure. As you read that and become more acquainted with God’s grace that you look to in faith, that benefits those around you.

Jon Moffitt: Scripture always promises the church is the means by which you grow through the means: the public preaching of God’s word, sacrament, and prayer. What we do is we flip that and we prioritize ourselves. Many feel guilty because they have gone five days without spending any time in the word. My I’ll stop them and say, “Are you going to receive the means this week? Because if you are, take heart; you shall be encouraged.”

Justin Perdue: To pick up on what you guys have been saying, in pietism, we think that the real stuff of the Christian life happens when we’re by ourselves because again, we think this is an individual pursuit. We think it’s a project of personal improvement. We think the real stuff happens when we’re by ourselves with the Holy Spirit, Jesus, and the Bible in my prayer closet. Those things are all good when rightly understood.

But looking at the New Testament, it’s impossible to deny that the real stuff of the Christian life happens when we’re together, when we’re gathered and assembled. Christians did not have their own Bibles for 1600 years of the church’s existence. Clearly, even when the New Testament talks about the ministry of the word, it is talking about a corporate context and a corporate reality where we sit under the word and we read the word and we understand the word and grow together as a result of the ministry of the word to us.

For 1600 years, the church primarily grew through the ordinary means and, I trust, through the fellowship of the saints even during the week. If we’re going to talk about our life from Monday to Saturday, the corporate reality of the Lord’s Day drives that. We scatter from the corporate gathering and we go about loving our families, being good employees, and all of these things. But then even in our interaction with one another, as brothers and sisters in Christ, we’re reminding one another of what the word of God has revealed, namely that Christ is our salvation.

Jimmy Buehler: Sometimes pietism sounds really, really nice. It can sound very gracious. Pietism can sound very nice because it could be the ten steps to become a better husband or the ten steps to become a better parent. Who doesn’t want to do that?

Frankly, many times that stuff continually falls short.

Jon Moffitt: Pietism makes a lot of promises that it cannot fulfill. This is also why Paul says in Philippians that it’s not only been granted to you to believe, but also to suffer for are for his sake. Christianity is not about the improvement of your life; it’s actually about the death of your life. The only way that you can find true joy and be sustained while we await our final hope is to be reminded of the hope that is in Christ.

We’ve had people in our congregation recently that have lost loved ones through cancer. Do I go up to them and tell them to read their Bible more and all will be well? No, this is why Paul says we weep with those are weeping and we long for the day of Christ’s return because then all will be made well. But now we look to Christ as our hope. We cannot look to anything that would cause us to be morally better or improve our circumstances because there is a long history. Scripture is pretty clear.

Going back to Jimmy’s analogy of the slow death, it is really hard to be peeling back these layers. It’s like the habits of pietism. It’s really hard to get rid of those habits.

Justin Perdue: I think a great theme song for positivism, or rather a theme hymn, is I Come to the Garden Alone. It goes, “I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses, and the voice I hear, falling on my ear, the Son of God discloses. And He walks with me, and He talks with me, and He tells me I am His own, and the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.”

None other has ever had a relationship with Christ-like you do. Think about how we speak in evangelicalism: it’s all about this utterly unique relationship that you by yourself have with Christ.

Christ died personally for every one of his sheep. No doubt. He saves you individually and he saves you to a people. He saved us, he died for us, and we are his. We do have a very personal relationship with him but it is not private. It’s so unhelpful to talk in these terms because this makes it seem like what really matters is when I’m in the garden by myself, it’s just me and Jesus, and I’m meditating and listening for his still small voice.

Brother and sister, what you need is to gather with the other sheep, with the other saints, and sit under the preached word and come to the table to have that preached to you, to be reminded of what Christ has done for you, and to sing and pray together. This is how Christ ministers to his people. Most pointedly, it is promised in the New Testament.

Jimmy Buehler: How many times have we stood in a corporate worship gathering and the worship leader says this time is just between you and the Lord. Why am I here? Why can’t I just listen to these tunes in my car? Frankly, I would save some gas money and some time.

Justin Perdue: What we’re told in the New Testament is to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to one another so that we might be built up.

Jon Moffitt: An email we ever get here at Theocast says, “You guys are my church.” We won’t allow that.

Justin Perdue: Or, “You guys are my pastors.” If you’re members of our respective churches, we are – and that’s not meant to be a slight to anybody.

Jon Moffitt: No, but it’s just to help us understand that God has designed his covenant people to be with each other in the community.

Justin Perdue: Another thought here. Where we lose our senses in evangelicalism is when it comes to the question of sanctification. Why does pietism die a slow and painful death? A lot of it really comes down to this issue of sanctification and how we think about it.

We are so prone to think that our sanctification is uncertain, which is not biblical because we’re promised that it will happen: we’ll be conformed to Christ’s image, all those whom have been justified will be sanctified, Christ has perfected for all time all those who are being sanctified, and so on.

We think that sanctification has everything to do with our effort – how we are processing things, what we plan for ourselves, and then what we go about doing for ourselves. How are we sanctified in the faith and what is real sanctification? A lot of it is we are shown more and more the depth of our weakness, inadequacy, and insufficiency, but we are driven anew over and over again to the sufficiency, the strength, the power, the mercy, and the grace of Christ.

We are depending upon him more and more. That’s part of it. But how does it even happen often? It happens through trial, suffering, and calamity that we never plan, that we would never ask for, nor do we sign up for. The marvel and the miracle of that is that we are actually grown through suffering. We don’t punt the faith. We don’t leave Christ. We stay, we trust him, and we grow. That’s because God is doing that. The way we talk about sanctification doesn’t square with Scripture. It makes no sense that we have to do something; no, God does it.

Jon Moffitt: Paul says, when I am weak, then I am strong.

Justin Perdue: But we don’t think that way.

Jon Moffitt: That’s right. Philippians says, “And I am sure of this, that he would begin a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” We retranslate that in pietism: “I am sure of this, that he who began to go work in you, if you do your best, will come to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”

Justin Perdue: If you are faithful enough. If you do your part.

Jon Moffitt: He then goes on to say, “It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.”

Justin Perdue: Punchy and I’m sorry but I’m not, but Philippians 1:6 is retranslated to: “He will bring a good work to completion in you, as long as you don’t prove yourself to be an unbeliever.”

Jimmy Buehler: We falsely create that self-discipline and sanctification are the same thing.

Justin Perdue: We see them as basically one-to-one.

Jon Moffitt: Those who are called of God are called to discipline, and those who are called of God are called to be sanctified. When he says, “Sanctify yourselves,” we confuse the theological term with the action. Sanctification means setting apart. The actions of the world says, “Listen, you’re of God. Separate yourself from that.” But that and sanctification under glorification are not the same thing.

Jimmy Buehler: When we think of self-discipline or self-control in a pietistic sense, what we often mean is we have a rigorous schedule and personal holiness life. The New Testament talks about how self-control benefits those around you – and I’m not talking about personal holiness life. What I’m talking about is treating one another and loving one another in a self-controlled manner. Look at one another with grace and with patience. Don’t become frustrated with your fellow sinners around you.

Justin Perdue: It’s all in the language of: “Here’s who Christ is. Here’s what he has done for us. Here’s who we are in him now. Here’s how we live together.” That’s the tone and posture of the New Testament. We just do what the redeemed do. That’s it. Imperfectly, we’re just going to live like the redeemed live because that is who we are.

To illustrate the slow and painful death that pietism dies, you know how you say things to people sometimes and they look at you like, “Bro, you have lost your ever-loving mind.”

One of the things that I’ve said to a number of people at our church when they come, or maybe they’re newer with us, and in particular, when I see that people that are really geeked up about discipleship or doing things for God, I will say to them in basically these words: “Your primary ministry in this church and your primary ministry before God is to just show up here. Just keep coming on Sunday. Show up.” And people say to that, “There has to be more to it than that. Are you kidding me? I just mainly need to concern myself with showing up on Sunday?” And I say yes. You know why? Because that corporate reality on Sunday morning will drive everything else in our Christian life. It will propel us forward. It drives that corporate reality, it drives your private life, your family life, your work life, etc. Just keep coming because this is how you’re going to be edified. This is how you’re going to learn and grow. This is how you’re going to be pointed to Christ over and over again. This is how you’re going to experience the fellowship of the saints. It will drive everything else so yes, just come.

Jon Moffitt: In Galatians, he says, “Bear ye one another burdens,” you can’t have your burden carried if you don’t come. We come together so that those struggles, trials, and burdens are carried together. When we’re entrapped in sin, Galatians 6:1, we have the loving, kind, and gracious brothers and sisters who pull us out because we’re not capable. This is what saddens my heart about pietism is that people assume they have the capacity to pull themselves out of sin if they try hard enough. Why would Paul tell someone if they’re trapped and enslaved into it to go free themselves from it? This Christian life is not designed to be lived alone.

Jimmy Buehler: Before we head into the members’ podcast, I’m going to throw this on the table as always. We’re talking about how pietism dies a slow and painful death at an individual level, but how does pietism destroy a local church?

Jon Moffitt: We need a whole episode for that.

Jimmy Buehler: We’re going there. Meet us there.

Jon Moffitt: Thank you for listening. I got a little excited here and I think mostly because we ourselves feel the pain of pietism dying daily in us. It’s a real thing where we are putting off the flesh, we’re putting off pride, and we’re putting off arrogance where we think God has approval of our lives. God has never approved one of our sermons, meaning that it’s acceptable in his eyes and He has never approved one of our righteous acts in and of themselves. I know that’s mind-blowing for people. The only reason we could ever be accepted in the eyes of God is because of Christ and Christ alone on our behalf.

Justin Perdue: It’s good for the listener to understand that we have not arrived.

Jon Moffitt: What is arrival? It’s called glorification.

Justin Perdue: We can talk about the arrival fallacy, but we have not arrived. We are still men who are learning what it is to rest in Christ. We are men who are still battling against our own positivism. One of the reasons we get excited is because we’re talking to each other and we’re reminding one another of what’s true and of what Christ has done. If you hear passion or emotion or excitement in our voices, it’s because this stuff is landing on us too.

Jon Moffitt: We deal with it every day. We deal with it in our own churches, our own lives, our own hearts, and we even hear it constantly through Theocast.

Thank you for listening. If this is your first time listening, we want to encourage you to come over and participate with us in the members’ podcast. This is really the easiest way for me to say this: these are our supporters, these are the people who join in and help Theocast continue through all the different books, media, and education material that we put out. So thank you for that. You can go to our website to join us there. We’ll see you in the members’ podcast.

Members Transcript
Members Podcast

Visit Us
Follow Me


Lost your password?

Join the

Help Christianity rediscover REFORMED THEOLOGY!

Receive updates about all of our new books, videos, and special events.  

You have successfully join The Reformation! Check your email to confirm your subscription.