Piety and Religion

If I had to choose only two concepts from John Calvin’s vast theology to teach my spiritual heirs, I’d choose piety and religion.

Perhaps my choices surprise you. The word piety has fallen on hard times. Nowadays, most people think piety has to do with a show of exaggerated religious emotionalism. It smacks of affected—artificial?—external spiritual devotion. Religion doesn’t fare much better. Most folks view it as something that forces people into an institution or organization, corralling them within imposed beliefs and practices.

But for Calvin, piety and religion are good words—very good words! They’re shorthand for describing all that goes into living life as God intends, becoming more and more the person that God wants us to become in Christ. Taken together, piety and religion form the entire dynamic of the Christian life.

Do me a favor and read this article to its very end with an open mind toward what Calvin meant by piety and religion. Then I’ll let you decide whether these concepts are worth keeping.

Says Calvin: “I call ‘piety’ that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces. For until [people] 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” (Institutes, I.ii.1).

Religion, though slightly different in feature and purpose from piety, is her joined-at-the-hip twin. “Here indeed is pure and real religion: faith so joined with an earnest fear of God that this fear also embraces willing reverence, and carries with it such legitimate worship as is prescribed in the law” (Institutes, I.ii.2).

But how to understand the interrelation of all these heavy words—piety, religion, faith, fear, reverence, love, knowledge? My teacher, Ford Lewis Battles, an esteemed Calvin scholar who “Englished” Calvin’s Institutes in 1960, helped me to understand with the diagram above.

Pay attention to the lines, the brackets, and the direction of the arrows. God is at the very top. All arrows point toward God. To God alone is due the entire devotion of a person’s life—thus, both worship and service.

The act of giving God daily service arises from and flows out of the work of cultivating piety, which is the rousing of one’s spirit toward God daily in both reverence and love. The act of giving God daily worship, on the other hand, arises from and flows out of the work of cultivating religion, which is the rousing of one’s spirit toward God in faith and fear (awe and respect). Thus, as a person works daily—hourly and by the minute—to grow in reverence and love, in faith and fear toward God, he or she generates and offers God both worship and service.

And where does the whole dynamic of my living before God’s face with the awareness that I am his favored child begin? It begins, says Calvin, with summoning to my mind “the knowledge of [God’s] benefits.” When I make it my daily calling, my chief aim, to remember my Lord’s goodness toward me, then, in turn, my heart will be moved with gratitude and my lips will long to tell God, “Thanks, Lord, thanks, thanks, thanks!” In response, I’ll set my sights on worshiping and serving my good and faithful Father with all that I’ve got—with my hands, my feet, my lips, my will, my emotions, my conscience, my everything.

It all starts with paying careful attention to God’s goodness toward you, and then telling God “thanks.”

I did my best. It’s your move.

FOR DISCUSSION:
  1. Are you a pious person? Why or why not?
  2. Are you a religious person? Is that good or bad?
  3. How do you give “daily worship to God”? How should you?
  4. According to Calvin, piety and religion flow from “the knowledge of God’s benefits.” What are those benefits? Where do you find them in your life?
  5. Cooper leaves us with this challenge: “It’s your move.” He wonders if Calvin’s use of the words “piety” and “religion” have convinced you that they should continue to be in your vocabulary. Are you convinced? Why or why not?

About the Author

Rev. Dale Cooper is chaplain emeritus of Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich. The Banner thanks him for writing a special series this year on highlights from John Calvin’s teaching.

X