A Heart Aflame: Understanding Presbyterian and Reformed Piety
by Dr. Sean Lucas
When believers today speak about the Christian life, they don’t often use the term “piety.” Far more common is “spirituality,” a term that originated sometime around the seventeenth century but has since become the dominant way of describing how people approach religious things. Spirituality is seen by many as a means of connecting with some higher power, religious truth, or even ourselves. Consequently, some people use the phrase “Reformed spirituality” as a means for understanding how Presbyterian believers enjoy communion with God.
Historically, however, Presbyterians have preferred to talk about piety. Piety refers to a whole realm of practices—such as worship, prayer, singing, and service—that help shape and guide the way our reverence and love for God are expressed.
We can say, then, that Presbyterian piety is nothing less than how we believe the Christian life should be lived. I believe that our confessional documents themselves—the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) and the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms (WLC and WSC)—in their concise reflection of the teaching of Holy Scripture, provide excellent guidance on what Presbyterian and Reformed piety is and what it should look like. Presbyterians (and other Reformed folk) have always understood that our practices are based squarely on our beliefs about who God is, who we are, and what Christ has done for us and in us. In sum, then, only as we embrace orthodoxy (healthy doctrine) can we demonstrate orthopraxy (healthy practice).
The Root of Reformed Piety: Union With Christ
Though the Westminster Confession of Faith has no separate heading for “union with Christ,” the language of union and communion with Christ can be found throughout our confessional documents. We believe that those whom God the King has chosen to save are, as the Westminster Larger Catechism says, “spiritually and mystically, yet really and inseparably joined to Christ as their head and husband” (WLC 66). This does not mean, as the Eastern Orthodox Church teaches in its concept of “theosis,” that by participating in the divine communion by union with Christ, believers are somehow made divine themselves. Rather, the confession plainly and biblically proclaims that this union with Christ is spiritual, or mystical, as the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:17.
Spiritual Union With Our Savior
The favored picture to depict this union with Christ is marriage, an image that the Westminster Standards draw upon by utilizing Ephesians 5:23. Christ is our head and husband, and we are His bride. Indeed, in biblical thought, we are “members of [Christ’s] body” (Eph. 5:30 ESV; cf. 1 Cor. 12:27). Hence, we are united to Christ singly as individuals and corporately as the Church (WCF 25.1). Because we are united to Jesus, God sees us as holy, viewing us as having been crucified with Christ, buried with Him, raised in newness of life, adopted as His children, and seated in the heavenly places in Christ (Rom. 6:1–4; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 1:3–14; Col. 3:1–4). Hence, we have a new status—that of being “right with God.” Indeed, our very persons are “accepted through Christ,” and, in the same way, our good works “are accepted in him” (WCF 16.6) and not through any merit in them. As a result, those who are united to Christ will be preserved in grace and will persevere to the end.
Our union with Christ also means that we have intimate communion with Him—a communion that is the restoration of what our first parents experienced in their original created state (WCF 4.2; 6.2). But we must keep in mind that our communion with God is always through our mediator, Jesus Christ. Indeed we believe that we “have no access into [God’s] presence without a mediator” (WLC 181; WCF 21.2). Moreover, after we die, we have communion in glory with Christ, which results in having our souls made perfect in holiness and being welcomed into the heavens while we await the resurrection of our bodies and the consummation of God’s reign at the end of the age (WLC 86).
Spiritual Union With Other Believers
We must also recognize that our union and communion with Christ are the basis for our union and communion with other believers—both in our local congregations and in the church at large (WCF 29.1). Because we are individually united with Jesus by Spirit-wrought faith in Him, we enjoy communion “in each other’s gifts and graces, and are obliged to the performance of such duties, public and private, as do conduce to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man” (WCF 26.1). That is why it is so distressing when fellow church members withdraw from our worship (Heb. 10:25) or when there is a breakdown of love and trust among believers (1 Cor. 3:3–9). It fractures our common union and makes a lie of our very claim to be united to Christ (Eph. 4:1–4).
The Root of Reformed Piety: Means of Grace
We believe that the way in which Christ communicates the benefits of His mediation to those who are united with Him “are all his ordinances; especially, the Word, sacraments, and prayer” (WLC 154). That is to say, the means of our spiritual growth—the very engine of Presbyterian piety—is worship. And at the heart of Presbyterian worship, and hence of our piety, is the reading and preaching of God’s Word.
God’s Voice in His Word
We confess that God’s Spirit makes “the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation” (WSC 89). Thus, in order to progress in our communion with God, we must attend regularly to the preaching of the Word of God. As we hear God’s Word preached weekly, we prayerfully prepare ourselves to be diligent in listening, not allowing ourselves to become distracted but focusing our hearts on what Christ is saying to us through the minister of His Word. We are also called upon to examine what we hear, comparing it with the rest of the Scriptures to ascertain whether this is truly God’s Word, and if so, to “receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind” (WLC 160), meditating on it and hiding it in our hearts. We seek to “bring forth the fruit of it in our lives” (WLC 160).
God’s Blessing in the Sacraments
The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are also us used by God to teach us reverence for and love of God and to remind us especially of our union with Christ. Baptism serves as “a sign and seal of ingrafting into himself ” (WLC 165). In fact, every time we see a baptism, we are reminded of “the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed thereby” (WLC 167). This happens as we give thoughtful consideration to what baptism means and to our own sinfulness.
One of the greatest blessings sealed to us in baptism is the possibility of “drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ” (WLC 167). We were baptized into Him—into His death and resurrection—by the Spirit (Rom. 6:1–4; 1 Cor. 12:12–13). As a result, we have power “for the mortifying of sin, and quickening of grace” (WLC 167). Finally, we use baptism in our lives by endeavoring to live holy lives by faith in Christ as we walk in brotherly love with one another, recognizing that we have been “baptized by the same Spirit into one body” (WLC 167).
In a similar fashion, as we feed upon the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, the sacramental meal reminds us that we belong to Jesus, and it serves as God’s “bond and pledge” of our “union and communion with him” (WCF 29.1). The visible signs of bread and wine serve to comfort us, for we are prone to forget or to doubt that Christ died for us and cherishes us in particular. In the Supper, we gain assurance, confidence, and boldness in our faith as we trust in the promise of grace and rest in that Gospel grace for our salvation.
God’s Will in Prayer
A third means that God uses to make us more like Him is prayer. For many believers, however, this is the most challenging aspect of living in communion with God. Perhaps part of the problem is our tendency to make prayer more difficult or more “sanctified” than it needs to be. As Presbyterians, we believe that “prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, in the name of Christ, and with the help of the Spirit; with confession of sins, and with thankful acknowledgement of his mercies” (WLC 178). The real issue for most of us is not the content of our prayers but the way in which we pray. We are called upon to pray with a full apprehension that God is our King and with an intense realization that we are sinners who would be totally and completely lost without the initiative of His grace. Our prayers are thus filled with profound gratitude to God for His mercy toward us and with wholehearted belief in and fervent sincerity toward Him. We offer our desires up to God with a humble submission to His will, recognizing that He is the King who governs all His creatures and all their actions in accordance with His perfect will. So, in offering up our weighty desires to God, we offer up ourselves to Him as well so that we might know what is good, acceptable, and perfect in God’s sight (WLC 185; Rom. 12:1–2).
Word and Worship in Family and Community
Presbyterians believe that “God is to be worshipped everywhere, in spirit and truth; as, in private families daily, and in secret, each one by himself; so, more solemnly in the public assemblies” (WCF 21.6). These three spheres of private, family, and corporate worship are mutually reinforcing; we are called upon to pray, read Scripture, and sing praises individually, in our families, and as a church. Although not everyone is equipped for the public reading and preaching of God’s Word, it is still the case that “all sorts of people are bound to read it apart by themselves, and with their families” (WLC 156). Indeed, family worship—which consists of prayer, Bible reading, and singing praises to God—is a necessary and vital part of instructing our families in the principles of religion. Thus, when believers gather together in church for corporate worship on the Lord’s Day, they are not simply gathering as individuals but as households who have worshipped together all week long.
Other Means of Growth in Grace
While these are the particular means to which our confessional standards point for spiritual growth and communion with God, our Presbyterian and Reformed forefathers utilized other means as well. For example, our confession talks about “religious oaths, vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings” which could be corporate, familial, or individual times of communion with God (WCF 21.5).
Another major part of our worship in every sphere is singing praises to God. For Presbyterians, singing the Psalms as well as hymns and other spiritual songs is an important means for enjoying communion with God. When we sing to the Lord, we engage in a type of prayer that offers up our desires to God through the mediation of Jesus Christ.
Serving the Saints
In addition to communion with God and the saints in corporate worship, Presbyterian piety is concerned with service to one another. Our communion with other believers commits us to “such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification” (WCF 26.2). This type of communion, in which believers care for each other in times of need, is clearly epitomized in the church office of deacon. People who want to see what our communion with one another looks like should be able to watch a church’s deacons and follow their example. Even if a church doesn’t have deacons—or has poor deacons—we still have a basic responsibility to express our communion toward each other in deeds of love and mercy.
Thus, our financial support of a church’s work is not merely a means for paying the salaries of the ministerial staff, funding local and global evangelization projects, or supporting theological education. It is also a means for providing benevolence to those inside and outside of the family of faith (Gal. 6:10). We must therefore be involved in deeds of mercy within our own congregations, but we are also called to work with our congregations and presbyteries to assist in providing financial, material, and spiritual assistance to others who are in need and to bring transformation and hope to our cities and the world. As we work together, we will express our common union with Jesus and strengthen our bonds to one another in the gospel of grace which transcends race, gender, and class distinctions.
The Root of Reformed Piety: Grateful Growth in Grace
Presbyterians recognize that as Christians we are a pilgrim people on a journey home. We believe that some “remnants of corruption” still abide in every part of believers, and this condition brings about “a continual and irreconcilable war” between our remaining sinfulness and the indwelling Spirit (WCF 13.2). Thus, the goal of our piety is not to achieve perfection or even momentary sinlessness but rather to promote growth in grace, progress in communion with God, and a “practice of true holiness” (WCF 13.1). Any progress we make in the Christian life is due solely to the sovereign work of God’s Spirit motivated by God’s amazing grace and rooted in God’s glorious gospel.
This article was adapted from Dr. Lucas’s book On Being Presbyterian: Our Beliefs, Practices, and Stories (P&R, 2006) and originally appeared in the Fall 2007 issue of Covenant magazine. Dr. Lucas currently serves as senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Prior to that, he taught church history for six years at Covenant Seminary and also served as dean of faculty and vice president of academics.