A Reformed and Confessional View of Piety

When one hears the word “piety” you might think of stuffy, holier-than-thou Christians who seem to suck the joy out of life. The word piety, however, need not carry such a negative connotation. Piety simply means a life of devotion in view of God’s love in Christ. John Calvin writes,

I call “piety” that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces. For until men 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. Nay, unless they establish their complete happiness in him, they will never give themselves truly and sincerely to him.[1]

Note the key phrases here: “love of God,” “his benefits,” “fatherly care,” and “complete happiness.” This is not sour spirituality. It reflects a life where man lives to the glory of God, enjoying him forever.[2] Such a joyful life, basking in the benefits of the Father’s love, can never be experienced without Jesus. Reformed piety recognizes man’s miserable state apart from Christ due to Adam’s fall.[3]

Adam’s original sin, imputed to all men, wholly inclines us to evil[4] and then proceeds to actual transgressions in us. Thereby we are “bound over to the wrath of God, and curse of the law, and so made subject to death, with all miseries spiritual, temporal, and eternal.”[5] That is depressing, and if God left us to this dejected state, piety would only be polluted by pervasive idolatry and rendered pointless. Yet, as Paul says, “But God…” (Eph 2:4).

Our gracious Father—out of His indelible love and according to His predetermined plan (Eph 1:4–5)—took action in both sending a Redeemer, Jesus Christ (John 3:16), and in making His people alive with Christ (Eph 2:5). Therefore “we are taught by Scripture…to embrace [God’s] benevolence and fatherly love in Christ alone.”[6] Jesus, the last Adam, through His sacrifice, satisfied God’s justice and purchased reconciliation for his people with the Father.[7] “If, then, we would be assured that God is pleased with and kindly disposed toward us, we must fix our eyes and minds on Christ alone.”[8] For Christ is our righteousness and sanctification and redemption (1 Cor 1:30). Every blessing we have comes in Him; that is, through our union with Him (Eph 1:3).

By this union with Christ, through the working of God’s grace, the elect are “spiritually and mystically, yet really and inseparably, joined to Christ as their head and husband.”[9] And having been joined to Christ, those now declared righteous[10] and sons of God in Christ,[11] have a daily communion in grace whereby we are conformed to the image of Christ.[12] Yet through what means does this daily communion occur yielding renewal in Christ’s image?[13] The means whereby Christ communicates His benefits are “the Word, sacraments, and prayer.”[14] The Spirit of God is pleased to make these outward and ordinary means effectual so that believers “come to enjoy Christ and all his benefits.”[15]

The Holy Spirit, through these means—especially the preached Word[16]—enlightens our hearts to see our Father’s tenderness; namely, the benefits He has lavished upon us.[17] He makes us see that Christ is all together lovely,[18] and that he is our Comforter and the Agent of our sanctification.[19] The Spirit produces faith and nurtures faith.[20] He takes the Word of the cross, which saved us, and continues to sanctify us through it (1 Cor 1:18). For the Spirit convicts of sin and draws us to Christ. He strengthens the believer against temptations and establishes us in holiness.[21] As the Word is daily read and repeatedly preached to us, our earnest faith[22] beholds Christ’s glory, and the Spirit transforms us into Jesus’ likeness.[23] We increasingly see the horror of sin and the riches of our Redeemer. Thus, we yearn to reverence our God, to give him our lives in loving obedience to His revealed will. The crux of Reformed and confessional piety is a craving for Christ, through the Word,[24] that leads to godly living.[25]

But that pursuit of piety is also propelled by the sacraments. When the sacraments are administered, the Spirit is at work in the faithful to confirm our interest in Christ.[26] A reverence and love of God develops as we behold the exhibited privileges of being new in Christ[27] and nourished through Christ.[28] Thus the sacraments are used by the blessed Spirit to engage the believer to the service of God in Christ.[29] Faith is thereby increased and strengthened, so that we cherish our Savior and yearn to obey him.[30]

In addition, prayer, through the Spirit’s help,[31] also fosters piety. For it enables us to “dig up…the treasures that were pointed out by the Lord’s gospel.”[32] Due to our remaining corruption, we are tempted to forget God. But our Father would have us see that all His fullness is in Christ,[33] and in him there is “happiness in place of our misery [and] all wealth in place of our neediness.”[34] As we seek him in prayer, His hands are ever open to help us,[35] strengthening our hearts in temptation,[36] supporting our weakness,[37] and fostering submission to His will.[38] As a result, we continually behold God’s fatherly goodness[39] producing zeal “to seek, love, and serve him.”[40] Piety—fueled by the Word, sacraments, and prayer—presses us to flee every defilement in the fear of God,[41] and we purify ourselves out of love until the fullness of our sonship arrives.[42]


[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics 20-21 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1.2.1.

[2] Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC) #1.

[3] Calvin, Institutes, 2.1.1.

[4] Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) 6.4.

[5] Ibid, 6.6.

[6] Calvin, Institutes, 2.16.2.

[7] WCF 8.5.

[8] Calvin, Institutes, 2.16.3.

[9] Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) 66.

[10] Ibid 70.

[11] Ibid 74.

[12] Calvin, Institutes, 3.2.24.

[13] Ibid 77–78. Sanctification, due to the remnants of sin abiding in believers, is imperfect in this life.

[14] WSC 88.

[15] Calvin, Institutes, 3.1.1. See also Westminster Larger Catechism 154–155, 161, 178.

[16] WLC 155.

[17] John Owen, “Communion with God” in The Works of John Owen, vol. 2, ed. William H. Goold, (Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), 32.

[18] Ibid, 77-78.

[19] Ibid, 226. See 2 Thess. 2:13.

[20] WCF 14.1. See John 1:12-13; 3:8; 16:13–15.

[21] WLC 155.

[22] The hearing of God’s Word requires diligence, preparation, and prayer. The believer must receive the truth with faith. See WLC 160.

[23] WCF 13.3

[24] 1 Pet 1:18–2:3.

[25] The grace of God in Christ saves us and trains us in godliness. See Titus 2:11–14. We were delivered to serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness all our days. See Luke 1:74–75.

[26] WCF 27.1, 3.

[27] WLC 167. We improve our baptism by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized. Rom 6:1-11.

[28] WLC 168, 174. The faithful are nourished as we feed by faith on the body and blood of Christ thereby confirming our union and communion with Jesus. We affectionately meditate on Jesus’ death and sufferings and stir ourselves up to a vigorous exercise of our graces.

[29] WCF 27.1

[30] WLC 162.

[31] WLC 178.

[32] Calvin, Institutes, 3.20.2.

[33] Col 1:19.

[34] Calvin, Institutes, 3.20.1.

[35] Ibid, 3.20.3.

[36] Eph 3:16–17.

[37] Heb 4:14–16.

[38] WLC 185.

[39] See WLC 189 on the Preface to the Lord’s Prayer.

[40] Calvin, Institutes, 3.20.3.

[41] 2 Cor 7:1.

[42] 1 John 3:1–3.