A Summary of Reformed Piety

Every Christian tradition has unique facets to its spirituality. The one I belong to, Reformed Presbyterianism, has long emphasized the centrality of piety in the Christian life. Consider the subtitle to John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion: Containing the Whole Sum of Piety. It was said of John Owen, the Prince of the Puritans, that “his aim in life was to promote holiness.”

What is It?

How might we summarize the nature of Reformed Piety? Sinclair Ferguson says the Reformed view emphasizes two central features: “Jesus Christ himself is our sanctification or holiness (1 Cor. 1:30); and it is through union with Christ that sanctification is accomplished in us.” Ferguson further writes that Reformed spirituality concentrates on the Spirit because “union with Christ is the purpose and one of the foci of the ministry of the Spirit.”

Whole books have been written on Reformed spirituality. Joel Beeke’s Puritan Reformed Spirituality is one of the best. An entire series highlights the various contours of such piety as modeled in the writings of mighty saints of old. The most succinct definition of Presbyterian holiness comes from the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which defines sanctification as “the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.”

If we wanted to point to a passage of Scripture that captures the essence of Reformed piety, I submit that few verses are more compact—yet gloriously complex—as 2 Corinthians 7:1. There Paul says, “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.

Five Points for Spirituality

Reformed piety feasts on God’s covenant promises. In his commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith, B. B. Warfield said, “The architectonic principle of the Westminster Confession is supplied by the schematization of the Federal theology, which had obtained by this time in Britain, as on the Continent, a dominant position as the most commodious mode of presenting the corpus of Reformed doctrine.” Translation for 21st-century Christians: Reformed theology is covenant theology. Therefore, Reformed piety is a promise-driven and promise-dependent piety.

We confess that God’s relation to mankind is covenantal. We speak of the Covenants of Redemption, Works, and Grace. The whole system concentrates, as it must, on Jesus Christ. Sinclair Ferguson summarizes this point: “God’s covenant with his people is not only found in Jesus Christ; it is Jesus Christ. The new covenant, the final covenant, the covenant in which is experienced the fullness of God’s promise ‘I will be your God and you will be my people’ is made in him. In him all the (covenant) promises of God find their ‘yes!’ So when we rightly speak of ‘Christ and the covenant,’ this is ultimately the same as speaking of the ‘Christ who is the covenant.’”

When Paul says “Since we have these promises . . .” he has in mind the covenant promises of 2 Corinthians 6:16–18. There Paul writes,

We are the temple of the living God; as God said,

“I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them,
    and I will be their God,
    and they shall be my people.
Therefore go out from their midst,
    and be separate from them, says the Lord,
and touch no unclean thing;
    then I will welcome you,
and I will be a father to you,
    and you shall be sons and daughters to me,
says the Lord Almighty.”

No feature of our spirituality is without the spiritual food of God’s covenant promises. Since God has given them to us, we have love, hope, comfort, assurance, and strength. Few things are as sweet as God’s promises toward His children. They are solid meat and sweet honey for the soul. They are “precious and very great promises” and through them we “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4).

You need only survey Puritan manuals on sanctification to see the priority of God’s promises for growing in Christ. Consider Andrew Gray’s “Great and Precious Promises,” Edward Leigh’s A Treatise of the Divine Promises, or William Spurstowe’s The Wells of Salvation Opened: Or, A Treatise Discovering the nature, preciousness, usefulness of Gospel-Promises, and Rules for the right application of them.

Reformed piety revels in God’s electing love. Paul says, “Since we have these promises, beloved . . .” The language of love is Pauline shorthand for God’s electing grace (see Rom. 9:25, 11:28; Eph. 1:6, 5:1; Col. 1:13, 3:12). Paul’s love for the Corinthians comes from God’s gracious adoption of them into His family.

J. I. Packer, in his classic Knowing God, said, “Adoption has been little regarded in Christian history. Apart from two last-century books, now scarcely know, there has been no evangelical writing on it, nor has there been at any time since the Reformation.” Admittedly, much 19th-century theology downplayed the glory of adoption into God’s family. Yet, Joel Beeke has demonstrated how pervasive adoption was for Puritan piety in his work, Heirs with Christ: The Puritan on Adoption. The Westminster assembly defined adoption as “an act of the free grace of God, in and for his only Son Jesus Christ, whereby all those that are justified are received into the number of his children, have his name put upon them, the Spirit of his Son given to them, are under his fatherly care and dispensations, admitted to all the liberties and privileges of the sons of God, made heirs of all the promises, and fellow-heirs with Christ in glory” (LC, 74).

What peace and comfort, experience of God’s love, liberty and readiness, as well as victory over Satan come from meditation on our adoption in Christ. William Perkins, the father of the Puritans, offered several marks that signify one’s welcome into God’s family:

  • “An earnest and hearty desire in all things to further the glory of God.”
  • “A care and readiness to resign ourselves in subjection to God, to be ruled by his word and spirit, in thought, word, and deed.”
  • “A sincere endeavor to do his will in all things with cheerfulness, making conscience of everything we know to be evil.”
  • “Upright walking in man’s lawful calling, and yet still faith to rely upon God’s providence, being well pleased with God’s sending whatsoever it is.”
  • “Every day to humble a man’s self before God for his offenses, seeking his favour in Christ unfainedly, and so daily renewing his faith and repentance.”
  • “A continual combat between the flesh and the spirit, corruption haling and drawing one way, and grace resisting the same and drawing another way.”

Reformed piety engages in mortification. Paul exhorts the Corinthians to put off sin by saying, “Let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit.” A spiritual slaying of sin is vital for growth in Christ. No individual has more renown in teaching on the necessity of mortification than John Owen. In his classic work On the Mortification of Sin in Believers, Owen says Christ has poured out His Spirit to “bring the cross of Christ into our hearts with its sin-killing power.” The Spirit’s centrality in mortification is a vital point. If a believer tries to kill sin in his own power, he will find himself in a losing battle. Owen says forcefully, “Mortification from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, to the end of a self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world.”

Reformed piety, then, has always emphasized the necessity of dying to sin (e.g., WSC 35). Cooperating with the Spirit, we must kill sin or sin will be killing us. Mortification, Owen wrote, must happen “every day, and in every duty.” Holy violence must mark our piety. We cannot coddle our bosom sins, nor be lazy towards our lusts. Mortification of sin means three essential things:

  1. A habitual weakening of the sin.
  2. A constant fight and contention against the sin.
  3. An increasing degree of success in killing the sin.

Reformed piety emphasizes sanctification in head, heart, and hand. The Shorter Catechism defines sanctification as God’s work of grace in renewing “the whole man after the image of Christ.” Heidelberg Catechism 115 says we need God’s law “so that we may never stop striving, and never stop praying to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, to be renewed more and more after God’s image, until after this life we reach our goal: perfection.” In the language of 2 Corinthians 7:1, we are to bring holiness “to completion.”

By His Spirit, Christ forms and fashions His people into His very image—see Ephesians 4:24 and Colossians 3:10.

As such, Reformed piety is after the thorough godliness. Such spirituality emanates the holiness of Christ. We prioritize holiness precisely because our Lord does (see 1 Pet. 1:15–16).

When Robert Murray M’Cheyne lay in bed with a fever that would take his life, a letter was delivered and placed on his desk. It went unopened until after M’Cheyne’s death. The writer penned, “I hope you will pardon a stranger for addressing you a few lines. I heard you preach last Sabbath evening, and it pleased God to bless that sermon to my soul. It was not so much what you said, as your manner of speaking, that struck me. I saw in you a beauty in holiness that I never saw before.”

Reformed piety also places particular emphasis on ministerial holiness. The following passages offer proof:

  • Richard Baxter: “If it be not your daily business to study your own hearts and to subdue corruption and to walk with God, if you make not this a work to which you constantly attend, all will go wrong and you will starve your hearers. . . . We must study as hard how to live well as how to preach well.”
  • John Owen: “If a man teach uprightly and walk crookedly, more will fall down in the night of his life than he built in the day of his doctrine.”
  • Thomas Wilson: “Our ministry is as our heart is. No man rises much above the level of his own habitual godliness.”
  • Robert Murray M’Cheyne: “Oh! study universal holiness of life. Your whole usefulness depends on this. Your sermon on Sabbath lasts but an hour or two—your life preaches all the week.”
  • Horatius Bonar: “Nearness to Him, intimacy with Him, assimilation to His character—these are the elements of a ministry of power.”
  • Archibald Alexander: “Aim at high attainments in evangelical piety. Nothing so much as this will be a pledge of eminent usefulness.”
  • Samuel Miller: “The true reason, then, why we have so little good and profitable preaching, is that, among those who attempt to perform this service, there is so little deep, warm, heartfelt piety.”

Reformed piety lives in the fear of God. 2 Corinthians 7:1 says we are to pursue holiness “in the fear of God.” One commentator on 2 Corinthians writes, “Only believers fear God truly, since only those who have already begun to enjoy his presence can taste the horror of what it would be like to be without it. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, just as it is the beginning of the passion for holiness among God’s people.”

Fear of God is the meat and marrow of biblical piety. As John Murray declared, “The fear of God is the soul of godliness.” To fear God is to revere and adore His name, desire to please Him, and fear His chastisement. In his first catechism, Calvin writes, “True piety consists in a sincere feeling which loves God as Father as much as it fears and reverences Him as Lord, embraces His righteousness, and dreads offending Him worse than death.”

The more we love God, the more we fear Him, and thus the more we become like Him.

William S. Plumber, a leading nineteenth-century Presbyterian preacher, wrote a wonderful chapter on “The Fear of God” in his work, Vital Godliness: A Treatise on Experimental and Practical Piety. For a good idea of the Nadere Reformatie‘s ideal for fearing God, meditate on Wilhelmus A’Brakel’s sermon on the subject. John Bunyan’s treatise on The Fear of God is a useful entry-point into the Puritan ideal.

Putting It Together

Here then are the five facets of Reformed piety that 2 Corinthians 7:1 captures so beautifully: Reformed piety 1) feasts on God’s covenant promises, 2) revels in God’s electing love, 3) engages in mortification, 4) emphasizes sanctification in head, heart, and hand, and 5) lives in the fear of God.