Transformational Piety



The word piety or pious seems at times to have a bad connotation to it, leaving that awful bitter aftertaste in the mouths of Christians and non-Christians alike. It is a thought of one who is so heavenly focused that they ain’t no earthly good. It is a view of a person who is holier-than-thou in their attitude trying to show how great they are in their humility. Sadly, this view has a good reason to exist. But that is not the piety I speak of here.

Piety is a contemplative art on the holiness of God through Jesus Christ. It is achieved through the continual practice of the spiritual disciplines–prayer, solitude, studying of Scripture, fasting, worship, seeking Godly wisdom, and the like. The focus is a true personal walk with Jesus in daily life. This is what piety is about.

And in all fairness, in my faith walk, I focus on piety and the contemplative arts of spirituality.

And then there is Christian social justice or transformationalism. I first encountered Christian social justice in 1998 when I went to Calvin College…and met Canadians for the first time (word be known, my 6th grade teacher was wrong, apparently Canada is NOT the 51st state). Social justice was something pushed by the liberal elite, a form of government and social activism that belittled people into submission (I didn’t have a high view of it since I got a lot of it crammed on me by teachers in high school and some in community college). Christian social justice was similar but different.



As I listened and tried to learn it seemed that Christian social justice stemmed from a heaping serving of a turn of the century (this was the ’90’s) Dutch theologian/politician and sprinkled with 19th century American Social Gospel. From what I gathered, the goal was to tear down oppressive systemic causes for poverty, racism, and other social ills facing society. From what I understood from listening to my brothers and sisters in Christ, that in order to truly be a follower of Christ, one must fight for justice as Jesus did, as God called the people of Israel to do. The goal was to transform the world into the Kingdom of God today.

In my pietisitc focus, that became legalism accompanied by an antagonistic anti-witness. Many of the transformationalists I met focused on this way of being a follower of Jesus. From what I witnessed and saw, in order to be a true follower of Jesus, one must be a transformationalist in every way.

Yet for me, this took away from one’s focus on the holiness and otherness of God and ones connection to the incarnation of Jesus Christ. In response, those of the transformationalist persuasion stated that true incarnation ministry (that of being the presence of Jesus amongst others) needed to have hand stained in the mud of kingdom work, living amongst the poor, aiding those in need, fighting for justice of the oppressed.

That word “justice” gets tossed around a lot by transformationalistis if you ask me. The definition isn’t always nailed down but it’s used anyway.

So I began, in my own pious tradition, to study Scripture. I saw many times Jesus retreating to pray. I read how we are told by God that if we seek Him, we will find Him. I read about the call to be humble before the Lord, for He will lift you up. I read about the focus on grace being the only means of salvation. But then in my readings of the minor prophets, of Leviticus and Deuteronomy (the Torah or Law), of the letter of James, and even in the gospels, I began to see the call for a form of Biblical justice (not a social justice, but I’ve written about that before…you can read that here).

I had seen piety and transformationalism as being mutually exclusive. I’ve heard transformationalists speak of piety and transformationalism being mutually exclusive. The twain shall never meet…right?

restorationAs I have tried to seek God, to walk in the presence of Jesus and abide in Him through prayer, through solitude (which is really hard for me to do…I have to talk…even to myself), through the reading of Scripture, through fasting (which isn’t as hard as solitude for me), and through seeking wisdom, I began to see a connection between the two.

Many times we try to see the one against the other. Those who focus towards the contemplative arts of seeking holiness and piety can become so wrapped up in it that they are removed from the world around them and truly ain’t no earthly good. Yet at the same time, those who become so focused on transformation of society as one’s drive in faith, can seem to become so earthbound, the connection to the Kingdom of God they so desire to see realized in the now is forgotten about in the future.

Both have their pluses and minuses. Both have great rewards and horrible pitfalls.

I’ve come to see how a solid piety can lead to transformation in the world around us. Not by tearing down systemic oppressors but by living in such a way to lift up others in the name of Jesus because they are made in the image of God. A strong life of prayer and a devout meditation on Scripture leads to a living out of both, a life of prayer and work. Of prayer and response to grace.

Since I am not a transformationalist (nor an adherent to that Dutch theologian mentioned earlier), I struggle with the transformational view. I have begun to learn that a strong solid piety, a living out of the spiritual disciplines and contemplative arts, leads to a desire to live out the life of Jesus both helping those in need–as the Bible says, the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the foreigner within our gates–but also leads to a desire to seek the face of God and of our savior more and more. Does the Christian social justice/transformationalist view reciprocate? I do not know.

As for now, I will continue to pray, to meditate on God’s word, to focus on abiding in Jesus…in being present with Him, in seeking wisdom, in personal worship, and see where the Spirit takes me.

What about you? How do these two work together or separately?

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3 Responses to Transformational Piety

  1. Dave Gifford says:

    You say “I focus on piety” and “I am not a transformationalist” so it appears you take a definite side over against the other. I started out heavily on the piety side of things. But I have changed quite a bit. While I definitely focus on the piety side of things in my work and studies (I teach Bible and philosophy and preach and train church leaders), I also have come to appreciate the global, cosmic emphasis in the Bible.

    My logic, as concisely as I can state it, is that

    We were made to bring order to the creation (Gen 1).
    We screwed up, which then affected the earth (Gen 3).
    God is going to transform the creation into a new creation (Rom 8, Col 1).
    So now in Christ God has started a new human race, the church (Eph 2),
    which grows through the piety part (Bible, prayer, worship, etc)
    with two goals in its growth:
    1) we grow in piety in order to be equipped to go out into the world and pull others into that new human race (evangelism, Mt 28, Acts, etc),
    and 2) we grow in piety in order to work together as the new human race to begin bringing order to creation, society, etc the best that we can (finally getting back to Gen 1).

    Our desire gets kindled by the Lord’s prayer, praying for world transformation – that the worship of God’s name, the extension of his kingdom and the doing of his will to become a reality here, just as it is in heaven, and asking for the food, forgiveness and protection necessary to do our part in making that happen. So when I think of evangelism, I don’t limit myself to wanting the person to go to church. I also want them to come back out from church to the world each week and become the full image of God that they were always created to be, caretakers and menders of creation.

    Traditional missions is the means for the piety and church, and ultimately the piety and church are the means for the transformation. The problem comes, as I mentioned on Facebook, when piety minded people confuse means and ends, and get comfy reading their Bible and attending church and leaving it at that, and don’t get to the point of making things better around them. And the other problem comes from transformational minded people becoming impatient or losing their taste for piety, and trying to get to the end (transformation) by other means and crowding out the piety and church from the equation.

    Sorry for the length! But I have thought a lot about this important issue you raise, and wanted to offer a perspective that affirms both sides but anchors them in the Word of God. Blessings, Josh.

    • Josh says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Dave.. and don’t worry about length. The thing about blogs is that blog etiquette (blogiquette?) is that they are to be short and opinion based (maybe with actual references and truth to it too). Yes, I lean more towards piety rather than transformationalists, but I believe that piety needs to lead to biblical justice (as I mentioned earlier in the post… there’s a link to an older blog post up there too about my view on that). I agree that there are many who hide behind piety in order not to Biblical justice. I think there are many who hide behind transformationalism in order not to fully engage the holiness of God…in fact, there are some that will chide pietists for that very thing. I believe that solid true contemplative piety leads to living out biblical justice. My question though still remains–can/will living out a transformatinalistic spirituality lead to contemplative piety. Thanks again for your thoughts and looking at a middle ground.

      • Dave Gifford says:

        To answer your question, Josh, I can’t speak for the piety of those in the CRCNA who actually are squarely in the transformational camp. I am fairly far removed from them here in Mexico City. But I think being involved in helping others outside the flock and doing Good and instigating healthy change forces us to face thorny issues and sitiuations we don’t know how to handle, and the questions and objections of other belief systems we don’t know how to answer. And the inadequacy we feel at facing those things ought naturally to push us to lean on the grace of God, engage in prayer and other spiritual disciplines, dig into his Word for light, and unite in Christian fellowship for support and strength. In that kind of scenario, doctrine becomes a strategic response to our need rather than something we just dabble in by going to conferences. So yes, while the piety is supposed to lead to the transformation, the transformational work should also tend to throw us onto the altar as humble servants who desperately seek provision and strength from the One who sends us out.

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