Secularism and Pietism: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Secularism and Pietism: Two Sides of the Same Coin

As I’ve been thinking and reading about Christ’s reign being extended throughout the world and God’s kingdom advancing, I’ve realized that secularism and Pietism are two sides of the same coin. That might seem strange given the former is completely anti-religion and the latter is passionately religious, but both lead to the same thing: a secular society devoid of Christian influence. The realization I’ve had, and learned from others who’ve thought through these things for a lot longer than I have, is that because of the influence of Pietism, secularism triumphed as Christianity became primarily inward and personal.

Secularists love Christianity as long as it stays inside the four walls of the church or home, in the proverbial closet. Religion cannot be allowed to mar the sacred secular public space. I use the word sacred purposefully and ironically because secularism is a religion, another form of paganism whose gods just look different. The problem is that Christians who effectively embrace Pietism, as do most Evangelical Christians in our day, believe their faith belongs within those four walls and not in public. Therefore, secularism has free reign to dominate society and culture just as it has since World Word II in the once Christian West.

I’ve been thinking along these lines since my “conversion” to postmillennialism. The critical component of this optimistic eschatology is that it teaches us from Scripture, not speculation, that Christ did not come only to save our souls so when we die we go to heaven, nor to add personal holiness to that. His mission was far more expansive and far reaching. Specifically, he came to address the curse of sin for his fallen people, and the effects of sin on, in, and through us. For me, that latter preposition was what I didn’t get or discounted my entire Christian life until my “conversion” a year and a half ago. I heard a young Christian Twitter friend of mine, Joshua Haymes, say becoming postmillennial was like a drop of ink in a clear glass of water. It looks pretty cool and psychedelic for a bit, then in due course it colors every drop of water. Postmillennialism is like that; it colors everything I see because Christ came to win, here, now, in this life in this fallen world.

Christ’s Victory Over the Devil
Just as he frustrated the devil in the wilderness (Matt. 4), Jesus has been frustrating him for 2,000 years through His people whom he came to save (Matt. 1:21). I never knew that Isaac Watts’ Christmas hymn, Joy to the World was postmillennial:

 No more let sins and sorrows grow,
nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
far as the curse is found,
far as the curse is found,
far as, far as the curse is found.

There is a lot of wonderful theology in those words! Just as the curse is ubiquitous, so are the blessings that flow through us to overcome the effects of the curse. Every square inch of reality is Christ’s, and he has commissioned us to take it back from the devil.

We sell Jesus’ victory over Satan and evil short when we think it is solely for the consummated state when he comes again to judge the living and the dead. I used to believe Satan and evil had the upper hand down here in this fallen world. I thought, isn’t it obvious? But it’s not obvious at all for those with eyes to see beyond the obvious. I use that word three times to highlight how easily we interpret reality by what we see and feel, rather than by the word of God. For example, we’re told Jesus came to reign and rule until he has put all his enemies under his feet (I Cor. 15:25), the last enemy being death which will happen at the resurrection. Who and what are his enemies prior to the resurrection? Anything that is contrary to the law-word of God. That’s happening whether you think you can see it or not, and in due course it will become obvious too. We’re playing the long game here, pushing back the curse not just for now, but for generations to come.

Unfortunately, we give far too much credit to sin and the devil. God told us in Genesis 3 that the seed of the woman would strike or bruise the serpent’s head. We may think the devil is a formidable foe, but every scheme he can conjure up in that head of his will fail. Jesus (through his church, us) is in fact frustrating him; he cannot frustrate Jesus. And no matter where the curse is found Jesus is conquering it, pushing it back, transforming what the devil intends for evil into good. If we think this process of conquering evil is only for the church, or only to be done inside the church or our houses, we are missing the mission of God in Christ, why he came: to redeem and restore all creation by the nations being discipled. That indeed is a Great Commission!

I recently relistened to the James White sermon that initially cracked open my closed mind to postmillennialism in August of 2022. In it he said there are far more professing Christians alive today than lived on earth in the first century. Could anyone alive then have imagined such a thing? Now we need to help more of these Christians escape from the clutches of Pietism and bring King Jesus to every area of their lives to disciple their own nations.

Why Pietism Came to Dominate the Modern Church
As with any movement among peoples and cultures there are a variety of complex factors that cannot be neatly packaged as a cause. The same is true with these two isms, and it is important to realize how they grew symbiotically together as a poisonous weed in Christian Western culture.

Initially, Pietism was a response to a type of dry scholasticism that grew out of the Middle Ages tending to make faith a merely intellectual exercise. The early Reformers were products of that scholastic culture, and as such were profoundly intellectual. The Reformation was built on those intellectual efforts, but over time some saw those efforts as tending toward a dry formalism. Pietists were specifically looking for a more dynamic, experiential faith, and built a contrasting, non-intellectual version of Christianity. This developed initially among German Lutherans in the early 17th century. In due course through some strains of Puritanism and the First and Second Great Awakenings, it made its way into American fundamentalism, and became the default faith of modern Evangelicalism.

Needless to say, God made us in his image, therefore our intellect is not in any way opposed to or contrary to our feelings or emotions. God made us so our emotions primarily flow from our thinking, and our thinking not dominated by our emotions. This orientation of the rightly ordered man started to change in Western culture as the two isms made their way into the modern world. An excellent explanation of what this means is in C.S. Lewis’s classic book, The Abolition of Man. He starts with a withering assessment of a book intended for, “boys and girls in the upper forms of schools.” Keep in mind the book was written in 1943, some three hundred years after the two isms had come to dominance in Western culture, but not enough to dominate. That would come in what we affectionally call, “The ‘60s.” The authors of the textbook are addressing a work by English poet and literary critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). The authors address a depiction of two tourists discussing a waterfall. Lewis quotes from the textbook:

“When the man said, That is sublime, he appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall. . . . Actually . . . he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings. What he was saying was really I have feelings associated in my mind with the word ‘Sublime,’ or shortly, I have sublime feelings.’ Here are a good many deep questions settled in a pretty summary fashion. But the authors are not yet finished. They add: “This confusion is continually present in language as we appear to be saying something very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our feelings.”

Lewis then shreds this perversion of thinking in his own indomitable way, but it doesn’t take having the towering intellect of C.S Lewis to realize what a disaster this shift entails. Here’s my take: Feelings are what count, what is important, and sublimity or beauty doesn’t exist objectively in God’s created world. The saying, beauty is in the eye of the beholder became absolute. As the 20th century showed us, ugliness could now be proclaimed beautiful.

Lewis called such people, “men without chests.” That is the title Lewis gives to the third section of his little book. In the classical understanding of anthropology, human beings are made up of three parts, the head, the chest, and the bowels. The head is the seat of the rational, the bowels the emotional, and the chest negotiates between the two. If the head through knowledge and faith doesn’t train the chest to manage the bowels, you get, well, the modern world, which is a feminized world where feelings and emotions through empathy dominate rather than rational calculations of the tradeoffs necessary to living in a fallen world more common to men. God created man, male and female he created them, that their two natures would compliment each other toward true human flourishing, or in biblical terms, blessing.

How do We Escape the Two Isms?
This is the question confronting every Christian in our time. It’s not difficult to convince Christians they need to escape secularism, but if you tell them they need to escape Pietism, they’ll wonder what you’ve been drinking. Unfortunately, most Christians are as ignorant of history as most Americans, so they will think Pietism just means being pious. They need to be educated about the 17th century German Lutheran movement of the name, and its influence on how they live out their faith in the modern world.

The fundamental fact Christians must learn is that Pietism has made their faith irrelevant to the culture in which they live. The church effectively has zero impact on Western culture, and that must change because it is that to which we have been called. The Great Commission and the Lord’s Prayer make it abundantly clear the “culture wars” are not an option. Some Christian leaders think they are, and worse, are a distraction. I’ve heard more than one say, being involved in the “culture wars” is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. And we wonder why American culture is such a hell hole.

Few people understand the culture is simply a people’s religion externalized. Because secularism is the dominant religion of the West, we have a secularized culture that treats Christianity as a threat to societal order. Aaron Renn says we are now in “negative world.” In an influential January 2022 article in First Things called, “The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism,” Renn argues that we’ve come to negative world through positive and neutral world. Prior to the 1990s, Christianity was seen in American culture as a positive thing. In the 1990s that changed, and the culture treated Christianity as neutral, neither good nor bad. Now, our cultural elites see Christianity as a threat to all that is decent and good, like abortion, homosexual “marriage,” and transgenderism.

I believe the issue is theological, specifically eschatological. What we think about how things will end determines what we see as our mission as Christians today. That is, we are his body to bring everything in submission to his kingship, including the nations. From the very beginning, God’s covenant promises of salvation were to the nations, a word used well over 600 times in the Bible. In the Old Testament, it is clear he blesses nations as nations who honor and obey him, and curses, even destroys, those that don’t. America was blessed because as founded its leaders and most of its people believed their success as a nation depended on honoring God as a people, as a nation. And Jesus said plainly, nations are to be discipled. I will end with a verse, 2 Chronicles 7:14, that applies to every nation on earth:

If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.

The context is the dedication of the temple by Solomon and the people of Israel. God’s people now inhabit every nation on earth, and we are called to pray for God to heal our lands. The temple no longer resides in Israel and belongs to one people, but Jesus is now the living temple of God as we are the temple of the Holy Spirit. This promise of God healing our land if we pray, seek him, and walk in his ways, is to us! It is why I pray most mornings for our land, America, what I call “the four R’s”: for Revival that will lead to Renewal to Restoration and finally Reformation. The goal isn’t just saved souls, but transformed people who will transform everything they put their hands to.

 

The Lord is Our Righteousness

The Lord is Our Righteousness

The most important truth of the Christian life for me, the one that has had the most enduring impact is learning through time and experience, that Christ is my righteousness. In a dry and struggling time in my Christian journey, I decided no matter how I felt, I was going to read the Bible and get on my knees and pray every morning. That was somewhere in the 2010-2012 range. That made all the difference in the trajectory of my Christian life. It is not for nothing that Jesus tells us to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness,” and all the other stuff we might want will be added as well. Somewhere as I began doing that, I rediscovered a verse where Paul communicates what Christ is to us in a way I seemed to have missed for over three decades as a Christian (I Corinthians 1:30).

And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.

It’s not that I didn’t understand the theology behind this, having studied it all in depth in seminary and beyond, but for whatever reason in my lived experience, the deeper meaning of imputation wasn’t mind blowing enough to me. That’s a strange theological phrase (I made it up just now so I want credit when it’s used!), but being blown away is central to the dynamic of the exhilarating Christian experience I now live. If it’s going to be real for us, it is because we constantly marvel at it.

Philosophy Begins in Wonder
Going from experience and theology to philosophy might seem like a strange connection, but not as the Ancient Greeks Plato and Aristotle understood it. This phrase, philosophy begins in wonder, was a primary motivation of their lives. To them, because they didn’t have the revelation of God in Scripture or Christ (having lived BC), the most important thing to them was philosophy because it was about understand truth and the nature of things. Philosophy in Greek means the love (philos) of wisdom (Sophia).

Both men started their philosophies in observation of nature and human nature, which leads to wonder. How could it not! Especially nature. It also assumes human ignorance, and revelation, although being pagans they wouldn’t have a category for that Jewish and Christian concept. To wonder is to cause to be astonished in admiration and amazement of something. We can’t help but wonder when we see a beautiful sunrise or sunset, a full moon, a newborn baby, or marvelous work of art or music. God, the master artist and engineer, made it that way; it’s called creation. But given we live and swim in the suffocating atmosphere of secularism, wonder doesn’t come easy. It’s beaten out of us in a life focused on the mundane, the here, the now. So Plato and Aristotle said we have to be taught how to wonder, to learn how it’s done to make it an habitual part of our lives. It is the same in our relationship to God in Christ.

Coming out of my dry and struggling period, I realized being aware of the depth of my sin, and my shame for it, was a blessing. Putting it crassly, the job of the Holy Spirit is to convict us of sin, as Jesus explains to his disciples prior to his crucifixion (John 17):

8 When he comes, he will convict the world in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because people do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; 11 and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.

There is a theological tsunami for good in those verses revealed in the gospel we cannot explore here, but the word convict is central to the flourishing of good in our lives and in this world. The Greek word means to expose, convict, reprove. It’s extended meaning is to convince with solid, compelling evidence, especially to expose (prove wrong, connect).

Given we are born rank sinners, haters and enemies of God, and deeply evil, this shouldn’t be a tough job for the Holy Spirit, but we’re duplicitous self-delusional little buggers. We’re very good at denial, especially self-denial. We’re also living in a spiritual war we can’t conceive, and Satan is good at feeding our ego, so becoming fully aware of the true nature of our sinful state isn’t easy. In fact, it can be quite painful, which is why I Corinthians 1:30 is so important. For me it was life changing.

A Life Altering Relationship with God Also Begins in Wonder
I learned through this process that grace is a difficult thing to wrap our minds around, and sinners that we are, we easily tend to disfigure it into something it is not. On one side of the divide we can turn it into a license to sin, as if obedience is somehow optional when we’re under God’s grace. On the other is believing we have to merit his grace, which is a contradiction in terms; you can’t merit what cannot be merited. Often we go like ping pong balls between the two. For me, I subconsciously thought if I do certain things, and don’t do other things, God will like me just a little bit more.

The revelation that changed everything was that this was a lie. God can’t love me any more or less than he loves me in Christ. Nothing I do or don’t do, have done or haven’t done, can change that. At the same time what I do or don’t do matters very much, but more on that below.

The reality of God’s total acceptance of me finally hit home when I heard a pastor I know say, God’s wrath was fully satisfied in Christ. I knew this. I went to seminary and studied this. What was different? Life! After more than three decades buffeted by the headwinds of existence in a fallen world among fallen people in a fallen body, things looked different. Everything had a different shade of meaning to it, a different texture, a different feeling. It was kind of like Dorothy in Kansas before the storm, everything was in black and white. Then the tornado comes, blows the house off the ground, and it eventually lands in the technicolor land of Oz. In the gospel land of Oz, however, the man behind the current is the living God!

You might wonder how exactly this works. Unfortunately there’s no step-by-step gospel manual because it’s a relationship with a real person, but one who happens to be invisible and communicates to us primarily through a book, and also somehow through His presence living in us. It starts, though, with acknowledgment of our sin. We call that repentance, and because we are naturally adept at sinning, both sin and repentance are daily features of the Christian life. And going back to what I said above, if we’re not reading Scripture and praying daily, how in the world are we going to repent.

The word repent in Greek, metanoeó-μετανοέω , means to change one’s mind or purpose. It requires deep thinking and assessment of our lives and actions. The extended meaning is literally to think differently afterwards. After what? Giving thought, or contemplating our actions and how they reflect our sinful selves, and determining by the grace of God we will not be that kind of person anymore. Because we are not very good at not being sinners, we repent daily. Then we put on Christ’s righteousness, and revel in God’s acceptance of us in spite of who we are. That is called love, and as Paul describes it in I Corinthians 13, keeping no record of wrongs.

As this process and dynamic became habitual in my life (I start my daily morning prayers with praise, repentance, and thanksgiving), everything looked and felt different, as I mentioned above. At various times, be it at church services or reading or talking to someone, I get emotional, as in tears emotional. These times come when I seem to grasp that Christianity and God are real, that what we believe is true, and not some made up stuff by a rag tag bunch of first century Jews. In other words, as Paul declares, they were not liars. If it is real, and we really grasp what it means as sinners to have a relationship with our infinitely holy almighty Creator God, how could we not get emotional! As I said, we’ll be continually blown away as we realize He really does love us even though He ought to condemn us.

The Christian Life of Wonder Leads to Obedience
This love will then naturally flow out into love and service to others. That’s the entire point of the gospel, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength, and, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. I’ve always thought God commanding love is a strange thing because I subconsciously fell for love being an emotion, and emotions can’t be commanded. But biblical love is a verb, or actions born of decisions to love God and others, and ourselves. If we truly love we will act, and one of the most important of those actions is forgiveness. John tells us in his first epistle that we can love because God first loved us, and God loved us in Christ on the cross in the ultimate act of sacrifice imaginable, the Creator himself becoming one of us to die for us to pay the penalty we deserved. It’s absurd! Which is one of the many reasons I believe it’s true. And If He loved us so absurdly, so to speak, how could we not love others!

We can read I Corinthians 13 and contemplate what that means in relationship with others. There are many directions and exhortations in the epistles to help us put the puzzle pieces of love and service together. We must never, though, be under any illusion that loving others, or ourselves for that matter, will be easy. It’s the hardest thing we’ll ever do because we are absolutely self-centered, but it is also the most rewarding. We also, if we claim the name of Christ, have no choice. It is the perpetual imperative of the Christian life: Thou shalt love, whether thou likes it or not! But that shouldn’t be all that difficult if we really buy into God’s promises of blessing for obedience to Him. I got a glimpse of this last time I was making my way through the Old Testament, and came upon these, sorry, mind-blowing verses in Jeremiah 23 that perfectly connect with I Corinthians 1:30:

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch,
a King who will reign wisely
and do what is just and right in the land.
In his days Judah will be saved
and Israel will live in safety.
This is the name by which he will be called:
Yahweh our righteousness.

I changed the capitalized version of The Lord in my NIV to Yahweh because anytime you see that in the Old Testament it is the name of Israel’s personal covenant God. And putting two-and-two together, this means that Jesus is Yahweh! We know and are taught this because we are Christians and thus Trinitarians, but if we’re to lead a Christian life of obedience that is honoring to our Savior God, it will begin in the wonder and marvel of God himself coming to rescue us from the wages of sin, death. And that isn’t just eternal death with a resurrected body, but living that eternal life here and now, spreading salvation through love and service to all those we meet.

As I said, knowing we will benefit by our obedience gives us the motivation to do it, or at least try, and God will give us the ability. Yes, it’s mostly baby steps, three forward, two back, but we can by his grace and Holy Spirit in us (convicting us), make progress. What makes these verses so beautiful in this regard is the promise of blessing we see in them.

The Lord through Jeremiah is not speaking about physical land or places. God’s covenant promises to Abraham and the Patriarchs were never about a mere plot of land in the Middle East. They were always for the entire earth, and the peoples who inhabit them. Because our King Jesus is now sitting at the right hand of God with all authority in heaven and on earth, he reigns wisely in our lives and in the world. He is in control of all things, as Paul says in Romans 8:28, for our good which is His glory. We, His church, are now Judah and Israel who are living in safety.

The guide to living in safety is His law-word, and our obedience to it. When we stray, as we always will as sinners, He guides us back through loving discipline as a father lovingly disciplines his children. His wrath fully satisfied, He can no longer punish us, so nothing He does to or for us is in anger. We must believe in the message of the entirety of Scripture that the love of God lavished on us in Christ can never fail because He himself in Christ is our righteousness.