Confessional Lutherans for Christ’s Commission: Pietism v.s. Piety, by Kari Anderson

(The Confessional Lutherans for Christ’s Commission is one of the many confessional groups that regularly posts on this website. Like BJS they seek to equip laymen to know and support Confessional Lutheranism. CLCC posts are archived on the Regular Columns page of this website.)



Pietism vs Piety

How can two such closely related words mean such different things? I’ve been thinking lately about what the differences are between pietism and piety. One seems to be a good thing, the other bad. As Christians we are supposed to live pious lives in which we show love and honor to our neighbors. In order to do that, we should obey laws, be polite, respect authority, try not to use offensive language, etc. We want to try to be good members of society, for when we aren’t, it can reflect poorly on Christ and that could be a stumbling block for some people.

Piety can also be shown by using reverence in the Lord’s house, folding our hands for prayer, and by making the sign of the cross at certain times if we want to. Our life hopefully includes private and/or family devotions. It’s also good and right to be in the Word on a regular basis, and attend Divine worship and the Lord’s Supper regularly and often.

Piety looks to Jesus and what He did for us. It looks outside self to see where our hope comes. We are able to better appreciate what has been done for us, and realize how we feel about these things don’t matter! What really matters and what is most important is what Jesus willingly did for us through His suffering, death, and resurrection. For that we give thanks to God!

Pietism, on the other hand, is more focused on what we do. Pietists live their life “doing” much the same sort of things, serving the neighbor, being good citizens, etc, but they look at themselves and say, “I’ve been good today.” They look inward to what they do in order to find out whether they are really saved or not. It’s a very natural thing for all of us to do at times. It’s part of the sinner in us. We have to keep squashing that pietist that dwells in us. We can’t let the devil and our own sinful nature deceive us into thinking it’s about us. It’s not. It’s all about Him. Jesus Christ came and died for us. Because of the love He gave and gives us through His Word and Sacraments, we respond by living pious lives, lives that please Him.

When the burden of thinking what we need to do is transferred to looking to Christ and what He did for us, we know true Christian freedom. Free to be who we are created to be. Free to confess our faith to others without shame. Free to know that Christ dwells in us, and in spite of us being sinners, we by His undeserved love are also saints, made His sons and daughters by the sacrificial death of our Savior on Calvary’s cross and His resurrection from the dead! He can use even the messes we make for His will to be done.

To that I say, “Thanks be to God!”

Hebrews 12:2 “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Kari Anderson, PR CLCC- March 11, 2010



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About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He's responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord,, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

More of his work can be found at


Confessional Lutherans for Christ’s Commission: Pietism v.s. Piety, by Kari Anderson — 8 Comments

  1. The way I think about it is: Piety reflects belief in Christ. Pietism reflects belief in piety.

  2. That’s a good way to see it, Caleb. I had to sort the two words out because I’d read papers and notice both words, so similar, yet totally different meanings. Maybe others have wondered about the differences, too.

  3. When I was being adult-catechised back in 1991 I didn’t know the difference.
    One time I brought up the need for “pietism” and my good pastor corrected me right away.
    I never forgot that, though I am sure that I still struggle with my own pietism and lack of piety.

    Nice article.

  4. I am assuming that you would still include the kind of self-examination we would expect from I Corinthians 11: 28-32 under piety? While I have no doubt that what you say is beneficial in clarifying the difference between the two words, yet in real life the distinction is often blurred because it really is a matter of intent.

    The disposition of the heart – its habitual focus – determines to a greater or lesser degree where the person places their faith for salvation. So, if I have understood you rightly, your purpose was to show that piety trusts Christ’s finished work for salvation while the pietist (in spite of all other claims) actually trusts his own piety for salvation. This distinction is sometimes shown in the ease with which a pietist makes a distinction between ordinary Christians and those who have attained a “higher level” of holiness.

    In sanctification there is, of necessity, some focusing on oneself but the trust remains where it should – on Christ. Unless we recognize the sin in our lives we feel no need to follow the Spirit’s prompting to change our behavior and thus grow in piety (or holiness). True piety seldom places us in any “higher level of holiness” we are far more likely to feel we are not making the progress we wish and that we are often a trial to our (never-failingly) gracious Lord and Savior.

  5. @Hone Phillips #4

    You make some valid points, but in the LCMS, Pietism takes on a somewhat different form. Perhaps the clearest explanation of this assertion was written by Klemet Preus, “PIETISM IN MISSOURI’S MISSION: FROM MISSION AFFIRMATIONS TO ABLAZE.” I’m sure you can request this paper from him. It is insightful and very revealing. It should help us to understand the mindset of the current administration.

    The LCMS version of Pietism may be found in many of the members of JesusFirst, for instance. It has been my experience that a characteristic of many trained in the higher critical method seem to migrate to very pronounced Pietistic tendencies. A good friend (CSL 60’s) once told me, “Jesus saved you. So what?” In effect saying, “Where’s the evidence” or “Where’s your works.” Another common manifestation of this is “Jesus saved you, so get to work.” This is the inherent message of the Lutheran version of TCN, for example.
    You can hear it in the “Law-Gospel-Law” sermons that are all-too-prevalent these days. The Pietism I have encounted seems to treat the Gospel as a “given”, focusing almost entirely on a Law-based sanctification, not necessarily to attain salvation or perfection, rather, just to “get out there and do something.”

    I wonder what the rest of us have encountered. Rev. Preus, are you out there? Could a link to your paper be posted?


  6. Didn’t David Lueke actually overtly defend Pietism in “Lutheran Substance, Evangelical Style”–or am I mixing up a bunch of vague remembrances?

  7. I know the “Hammer of God” shows us what happens when pietism takes over. I think the Sacraments seem to mean less for pietists, since they look to what they “do”.

  8. Excellent article.

    Pietism is the direct result of denying or being ignorant of the means of grace. The infusion of grace replaces the imputation of grace for the means of justification. The inner working and indwelling of the Holy Spirit becomes the ultimate measure of any individual’s salvation – not faith in the Christ revealed in the Word and the Sacraments.

    People in pietistic theology have two measures that they typically use to judge themselves and others – first is personal experience of the working of the Holy Spirit (stressed by having a personal testimony, etc), and second is improved or improving moral conduct. Pietists don’t look to their works to save them – they look to their works as evidence that they are saved. Pietism mixes sanctification with justification on a secondary sense. One knows they are a Christian because of their own experiences and right walk or relationship with God. The inner nudgings of the Holy Spirit are on par, or exceed the revelation that God has given in the Bible. Hence Martin Luther called them “enthusiats,” not because of their gusto for the Gospel, but because they got carried away went beyond what is in the Word. They are always looking to some new revelation from the Holy Spirit given directly to them, or are always looking for some new out-pouring of God to associate themselves with.

    Pietism is incredilby popular, but bankrupt. If anyone actually tries to live it, and goes beyond just looking good to themselves or other people, then it leads them into one of two ends, first despair and becoming a quibbling mass of indecision and doubt – because everything we do is tainted with sin, or becoming prideful and puffed-up in ones own self righteousness.

    This is not to say that God does not give us fruits of the Spirit, and that we can never take heart in noticing that our faith has grown stronger. These gifts are not always constant, both from Christian to Christian and within each individual. Because they vary, Spiritual gifts shouldn’t be made the standard or measure of Orthodoxy as is done with all Pietists no matter what forms of piety they practice.

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