Christ-Centered Piety

From the McDonald Professorship Colloquium Harvard Divinity School, 2/14/98. Published in Where Shall My Wond'ring Soul Begin? : The Landscape of Evangelical Piety and Thought, Grand Rapids, MI.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000), pp. 27-36. Also available in The Great Omission, San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006, pp. 159-170.

"Piety" refers to the inward and outward states and acts that constitute a life of devotion--chiefly to God, but commonly extended to parents, as when we speak of "filial piety," and by further extension to any relationship appropriately similar to that of child to parent. Thus, externally viewed, it consists of routine activities carried out in sustaining a relationship that honors those who give us life and well-being.

The piety of Anglo-American Evangelical tradition is "Christ-Centered" in that it us a life of devotion to God through interaction with Jesus Christ. (I Peter 1:21-23) Of course it is not the only Christian form of piety that has valid claim to be Christ-centered. But its focus upon Christ, historically developing and changing from period to period, does have a distinctive character, and one that is arguably of great significance for God's people and purposes in human history.

Some of the major aspects of Evangelical piety, centered on the Evangel, the Good Word, of Christ as Saver:


A. Conviction of sin:

Alienation from God (condemnation)
Inability to stop sinning (bondage)

B. Conversion:

Reconciliation (forgiveness, acceptance with God, entrance into heaven after death)
Regeneration (new kind of life, deliverance from domination by sin, sanctification)

C. Testimony:

Of acceptance with God, inward transformation (love, joy, peace), freedom from domination by sin (not perfection), and ability to persevere in deeds of righteousness (individual, social) beyond any natural talents and strength.— AN INTEGRAL PART OF CONVERSION. BELIEF AND CONFESSION ARE INSEPARABLE PARTS OF ONE THING.


A. Living under public ministry of the word

  1. Continually hearing "The Old, Old Story" preached
  2. In the family and in groups of friends

B. Individual bible study:

  1. Regular (daily) reading
  2. Memorization

C. Prayer

  1. Public
  2. Regular special times of private prayer
  3. "Continuing constant in prayer"

D. Traditional Evangelicalism held the ideal of a whole life of discipline and holiness


A. Giving of Money and Goods:

  1. To the Church--gifts and tithes.
  2. To those in need regardless of their status.

B. Witness:

  1. Speaking individually to others about their condition before God and about God's provisions for them.
  2. Involvement in public efforts of evangelization, including Missionary outreach across the world.

C. Standing for truth:

  1. "Earnestly contending for the faith once delivered."
  2. What is right and just and good in society, including "speaking truth to power" and political efforts.

My point is that those thoughtfully living in Evangelical circles throughout the generations will very likely believe they do not quite measure up if they are missing out on any of these areas of activity. (The ones under "Substantive" are of course foundational.) Anything beyond this modest claim would, I believe, be a venture into what is more or less peripheral to Evangelical piety.

We must add that, for Evangelical piety, all of these activities must be "from the heart" and "unto the Lord." That means in particular that they are not done to appear right before God or man, and not to earn God's favor, but as acts of faith in the reality of God and his Son, and as ways of standing with, being a part of, what God through Christ is now doing in this world. At its best, Evangelical piety is transparent identification with the kingdom of God, as spelled out in Christ, and with abandoned service to human beings in agape love.

Discipleship to Jesus ideally means, in Evangelical piety, living interactively with his resurrected presence (through his word and people) as we progressively learn to lead our lives as he would lead our lives if he were we.

In recent decades much of the ideal character of Evangelical piety has, arguably, been lost in favor of emphasis upon believing the right (Evangelical) things and associating with the right (Evangelical) communion (local, denominational), tendency, or even para-church movement. In particular, inward transformation of personality and outward conformity to moral strength and purity has been weakened to the point of disappearing, except for a "remnant." Those with Evangelical identification generally differ little from the whole population in these matters, as can be statistically verified.

Over the last century, Evangelicalism's commitment to the intellectual side of piety has dwindled--a mistaken response to "Modernism." Compare, by contrast, Richard Baxter and John Wesley, or even the original writers of the "Fundamentals".

Currently, strong currents within Evangelicalism are returning to a focus upon discipline/character and upon intellectual responsibility. Will Evangelicalism have something substantive to offer in response to the awesome need currently revealed in such comments as those by President Derek Bok in his "President's Report" of 1986-1987?

"Filial piety" = [transl. of Chin (Pek) hsiao]: reverence for parents considered in Chinese ethics the prime virtue and the basis of all right human relations. (Webster's Third International, unabridged.)

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