Calvin on Heart Piety
Pietas (piety), which was one of Calvin’s major themes, designates the right heart-attitude of man toward God, including true knowledge, heartfelt worship, saving faith, filial fear, prayerful submission, and reverential love. Knowing who and what God is (theology) informs and leads to right attitudes toward Him and the right conduct that pleases Him (piety). Calvin wrote, “I call ‘piety’ that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces.” This love and reverence for God is a necessary concomitant to any knowledge of Him and embraces all of life. According to Calvin, “The whole life of Christians ought to be a sort of practice of godliness.”
Thus, for Calvin, the pious man lives coram Deo, in the presence of God. He delights in God because God is delightful. Piety is a matter of worshiping God from the heart in every relationship, activity, and area of life. The heart longs to actively reverence and love God consistently and always, willingly and without restraint.
For Calvin, then, as for Paul in 1 Timothy 4:7, piety is godliness, and godliness is piety—and both are synonymous with the filial fear of God. One might say that the major descriptive phrase for piety in the Old Testament is “the fear of the Lord,” and in the New Testament, “godliness.” Interestingly, in his sermon on 1 Timothy 4:7, Calvin translates this text as “exercise thyself in the fear of God.” Timothy, Calvin stresses, is to exercise himself in piety, godliness, and the fear of God. This is to be Timothy’s main and “proper occupation, his main concern and his chief care.” No outward forms of religion—even rigorous ones such as monasticism, or any kind of secular activity, including physical exercise—can take the place of genuine piety. Calvin concludes that Paul is saying to Timothy, “There is no reason why you should weary yourself with other matters to no purpose. You will do the thing of greatest value, if with all your zeal and ability you devote yourself to godliness alone.”
Remember, Paul goes on to say to Timothy in verse 8 that piety, godliness, and the fear of God are “profitable for all things.” Of this phrase, Calvin writes: “This means that the man who has godliness lacks nothing. . . . Godliness [or piety] is the beginning, middle, and end of Christian living and where it is complete, there is nothing lacking. . . . Thus the conclusion is that we should concentrate exclusively on godliness, for when once we have attained to it, God requires no more of us.”
Calvin goes on to say in his sermon on 1 Timothy 4:7 that the goal of heart reformation, true piety, and the filial fear of God, as well as the entire Christian life, calls for “such a reverence [that] God may be honored among us.” In a word, the goal of everyone is the glory of God—acknowledging and magnifying the glory that shines in God’s attributes, in the structure of the universe, and in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Glorifying God supersedes personal salvation for every truly pious person. The pious man, according to Calvin, confesses, “We are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him. We are God’s: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal.”
But how do we glorify God? Calvin wrote, “God has prescribed for us a way in which he will be glorified by us, namely, piety, which consists in the obedience of his Word. He that exceeds these bounds does not go about to honor God, but rather to dishonor him.”
The Five Important Graces of Piety
For Calvin, such piety lies at the core of heart reformation. It is the heart, as well as the beginning and the end, of Christian living. Such piety must be exercised and done, that is, lived out, in subjection to the Word. This involved, for Calvin, numerous practical dimensions of daily Christian living, but with a particular emphasis on five important graces exercised from the heart: prayer, repentance, self-denial, cross bearing, and obedience. None of these areas can be lacking if one is to experience genuine reformation of the heart.
First, heartfelt prayer is the principal and perpetual exercise of faith and the chief element of piety, Calvin says. Prayer shows God’s grace to the believer even as the believer offers praises to God and asks for His faithfulness. It communicates piety both privately and corporately.
We must be disciplined and steadfast in prayer, for prayer keeps us in fellowship with Christ. Prayer is the channel between God and man. It is the way in which the Christian expresses his praise and adoration of God as well as the way that he asks for God’s help in submitting to His Word.
Second, genuine repentance is the fruit of faith and prayer. Luther said in his Ninety-Five Theses that all of the Christian life should be marked by repentance. Calvin also saw repentance as a lifelong process that is inseparable from heart reformation. Repentance is not merely the start of the Christian life; it is the Christian life. It involves confession of sin as well as growth in holiness. Repentance is the lifelong response of the believer to the gospel in his mind, heart, attitude, will, and life.
Third, God-centered self-denial is the sacrificial dimension of piety. Genuine piety is always rooted in the believer’s union with Christ. The fruit of that union is self-denial, which for Calvin includes three important things: first, the realization that we are not our own but belong to God. We live and die unto Him, according to the rule of His Word. Second, self-denial includes a desire to seek the things of the Lord throughout our lives. Self-denial is the opposite of self-love because it is love for God above ourselves. The entire orientation of our life must be toward God. Third, self-denial includes the commitment to yield ourselves and everything we own to God as a living sacrifice. We then are prepared to love others and to esteem them better than ourselves, not by viewing them as they are in themselves but by viewing the image of God in them.
Fourth, while self-denial focuses on inward conformity to Christ, Christlike cross bearing centers on outward Christlikeness. Calvin taught that those who are in fellowship with Christ must prepare themselves for a hard and difficult life filled with many kinds of evil. The reason for this is not simply sin’s effect on this fallen world, but also because of the believer’s union with Christ. Since His life was a perpetual cross, ours must also include suffering. In this we not only participate in the benefits of His atoning work on the cross, but we also experience the Spirit’s work of transforming us into the image of Christ. In this way, cross bearing tests our piety, according to Calvin. Through cross bearing we are roused to hope, trained in patience, instructed in obedience, and chastened in pride.
Finally, for Calvin, unconditional obedience to God’s will is essential to piety. Obedience to God’s Word means taking refuge in Christ for the forgiveness of our sins, knowing Him through His Word, serving Him with a loving heart, doing good works in gratitude for His goodness, and exercising self-denial to the point of loving our enemies. This response involves total surrender to God Himself, His Word, and His will. The motto inscribed on Calvin’s seal said, “My heart I offer to Thee, O Lord, promptly and sincerely.” That is the desire of all who are truly pious. Piety links love, freedom, and discipline by subjecting all to the will and Word of God. Love is the overarching principle that prevents piety from degenerating into legalism. At the same time, law provides the content for love.
Prayer, repentance, self-denial, cross bearing, and obedience—according to Calvin, each of these must be studied carefully so that the heartbeat of genuine piety is maintained. Only then will we avoid falling into legalism on the one hand or antinomianism on the other.
Exercising the piety of heart reformation was Paul’s imperative to Timothy and to the churches of his day, and it is the great need of our day. We must exercise ourselves unto piety by the grace of the Spirit based on the atonement of the living Word, Christ Jesus, and according to the sound doctrines of the written Word, the Bible. We can’t do this ourselves, and even with the Spirit’s grace, it remains a constant battle. By continually looking to Jesus and diligently exercising ourselves in the five graces outlined above, we can pursue piety and express our thankfulness to God.
Calvin strove to live the life of pietas himself. Having tasted the goodness and grace of God in Jesus Christ, he exercised himself in piety by seeking to know and do God’s will from the heart every day in accordance with His Word. His theology worked itself out in practical Christ-centered heart reformation—a heart reformation of genuine piety that profoundly affected the church, the community, and the world. May God grant that same blessing to us and His worldwide church today.
Editor’s Note: This post was first published on October 16, 2017.