Reformed Piety And Practice

When Martin Luther (1483–1546) entered the Augustinian convent at Erfurt in 1505, it was a considered decision and the fulfillment of a vow he had made when he cried, “St. Anne, help me! I will become a monk.” So he did.

Luther entered one of the most rigorous and observant orders; the rule of the Augustinian monks was demanding. It required them to have all food and clothing in common. They were committed to a life of poverty and severe self-denying piety. Required hours of prayer included predawn services and services at 6 a.m., 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m., just before dark, and before bed, and finally a night vigil. There was meditation, chores, auricular confession, acts of penance, and even at times self-flagellation.

Luther was a devout and busy monk. When, however, he was sent to Rome in 1510 on business for his order, the corruption he saw there among the monks and priests gave him reason to reconsider monastic piety and the theology that underlay it.

Christian monasticism is usually traced to Antony of Egypt (c. 251–356), who as a teenager, according to a misguided interpretation of Matthew 19:21, gave away his possessions and withdrew to the desert for decades. He was perhaps the first hermetic monk and became a celebrity in his own lifetime. The great premise of Christian monasticism was that withdrawal from the comforts and temptations of the material world was necessary for piety because the material world is inherently corrupt and corrupting. This conviction owes more to Plato than to Scripture, which declares creation good (Gen. 1:10, 25), but it was deeply influential and fueled the medieval flight from the material world for a millennium. It also helped to foster the notion that there are two classes of Christians in the church: the ordinary and the extraordinary (or the spiritual). That notion would propel thousands of earnest Christians into monasteries in a quest to become truly “spiritual.”

As we celebrate the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, much is rightly made about the recovery of the biblical doctrines of salvation sola gratia, sola fide. The recovery of a biblical piety and practice is less well known but no less essential to the Reformation. When Luther left the monastery, he left behind Antony’s assumptions about the world, grace, and the Christian life. He recovered the biblical and ancient (anti-Gnostic) Christian doctrine of the essential goodness of creation. He recovered the biblical and Christian doctrine that every Christian, not just the priest and the monk, has a vocation from God. According to Luther, we are not called to flee the material world. We are called to flee sin but to serve Christ in God’s world as sinners freely forgiven for Christ’s sake alone.

As a monk, Luther had been taught grace is a medicinal substance with which we are infused and with which we must cooperate for sanctification and salvation. Rome established an elaborate sacramental system and saw the five sacraments she added to the two that Christ had instituted as automatically (ex opere) communicating grace to the recipient. Rome turned grace (divine favor) into magic. In the Reformation, the Protestants rejected the five Roman-added sacraments along with the medieval view of their nature and efficacy. They did so on the authority of God’s Word (sola Scriptura), affirming that God’s Word is sufficient for Christian worship and the Christian life.

The Reformation called Christians out of monastic cells and into corporate public worship as the center of the Christian life and from there, back into the world. There were disagreements among the Protestants, however. Where the Lutherans were content to do whatever is not forbidden by Scripture, the Reformed confessed that the second commandment means that the church is authorized to do in worship only what is commanded by God’s Word. Thus, where organs and hymns proliferated in Lutheran churches, the Reformed, like the patristic church, rejected instruments because they believed that they belonged to the period of types and shadows. The Reformed embraced the Psalms as sufficient for public worship, so they worked diligently to produce the first metrical psalters, which Reformed Christians used in public and family worship for centuries.

They also thought of the preaching of the gospel as the means of grace by which the Spirit brings His elect to new life and true faith. Just as by His Word God spoke creation into existence, so too by the preached Word the Holy Spirit calls His elect to new life and to true faith in Christ. So, the sermon became the centerpiece of the Reformed worship service.

In place of the Roman sacramental system, the Reformed returned the two sacraments to their rightful place as visible signs and seals of the promises of the gospel. The Reformed described them not in magical terms but as means of grace, instituted by God, so that in baptism believers and their children should be recognized as members of the covenant of grace and admitted to the visible church. Likewise, in the Lord’s Supper, professing believers, by the work of the Holy Spirit, are renewed in their profession and mysteriously nourished with the body and blood of Christ, received through faith alone. Calvin hoped to administer communion weekly, at the end of the morning Lord’s Day service, but he was prevented by the Geneva city council, which worried that weekly communion might lead to a return to Romanism.

Because the Protestants rejected the notion that there are two classes of Christians, both Luther and the Reformed produced catechisms in order to instruct the children and to prepare them for the Lord’s Table, so that all of Christ’s people would be spiritual. For most of three centuries afterward, Reformed children memorized the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) or the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1648) in preparation for their first communion.

Following Luther’s translation of the Greek New Testament into German, the Reformed theologian William Tyndale (c. 1494–1536), a martyr for the gospel, translated the New Testament into English in 1525. Ten years later, Robert Olivetan (1506–38) produced a French translation of Scripture. The Reformed devoted themselves to this work so that God’s people could have Scripture in their own language that they might read it, pray over it, and teach it to their children at home. These translations also enabled families to hold devotions during the week, and the metrical Psalters gave them God’s Word for singing at home.

Both the Renaissance and the Reformation were somewhat delayed in En-gland, but William Perkins (1558–1602) and William Ames (1576–1633) developed the piety of Luther, Tyndale, Martin Bucer (1491–1551), Calvin, and Heinrich Bullinger (1504–75) into a warm theology of pastoral practice. As a refugee, Ames carried that theology and piety to the Netherlands, which would inspire Gijsbertus Voetius (1589–1676) and others to form a movement known as the Nadere Reformatie(Later Reformation), which combined the classically Reformed emphasis on Word and sacrament ministry with the strong Reformed emphasis on personal sanctity and piety.

By the late seventeenth century, however, there were those who were discontented with Reformation piety. They worried about nominalism in state churches and longed for an immediate experience of the risen Christ. Led by the Lutheran Philip Jacob Spener (1635–1705) and others, the Pietists favored small-group prayer meetings (conventicles) over Word and sacrament ministry. They spoke of themselves as the “little church within the church.” Unwittingly, the Pietists established a trajectory that would eventually lead evangelical Protestants back to a sort of monastic, subjective piety of the Second Great Awakening, the Higher Life Movement, neo-Pentecostalism, and more recently a fascination with “spiritual disciplines” in lieu of a piety organized around the Word, the sacraments, and prayer.

When, in 1517, Luther complained about the abuse of indulgences, he began a movement back to Scripture and toward a biblical understanding of piety in which Christ’s grace received in public worship overflows into private prayer and family devotions. He repudiated the error that there are two classes of Christians, and he repudiated their spiritual exercises. The Reformed followed him back to Scripture. But history tells us that there is a monk within each of us, continually looking for new ways to corrupt Christian piety, seeking to draw our eyes away from Christ, His grace, and His piety.

Reformed Piety and Practice.” By R. Scott Clark. Reproduced with the permission of Ligonier Ministeries. ©2017 Ligonier Ministeries.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. The heirs and defenders of the Reformation, as well as proclaiming its strengths and achievements, should also be honest about its weaknesses. The Pietist movement should not be seen as regressive but as a response to things such as the polemical and doctrinaire tone of 17th century Protestantism and also the focus on formal orthodoxy and observance over issues of the heart, sanctification etc. The doctrine of justification (and, in Lutheranism, of the Lord’s Supper) came to eclipse all other doctrines – to the detriment of the church. The key text for Pietism presents six entirely worthy proposals for the church. Many of these same emphases can be found in the works of the Puritans and also in Jonathan Edwards.

    • Russell,

      I take a rather different and rather more critical approach to the Pietists. We do need to appreciate why Pietism arose and we do need to sympathize with some of their motives. Further, I think now that defining Pietism is more difficult than I thought when I wrote Recovering the Reformed Confession. Nevertheless, it still true that most all of the liberals, beginning with Schleiermacher, were the children of Pietism and that movement both ill-prepared the Pietists (e.g.m Schleirmacher) to address modernity and paved the way for it by elevating subjective religious experience over the objective truths of redemptive history and the Christian faith. In my book (literally), I connect Edwards to Pietism and criticize his subjective turn and his Platonism,

      As to the centrality of justification in Lutheranism, the old “central dogma” approach to interpreting the Lutheran and Reformed traditions has been rightly criticized for a long time as simplistic. Warfield did it at the turn of the 20th century and Muller has been showing the futility of this analytical scheme for 40 years.

      Take a look at RRC.

      More resources on pietism.

  2. This is where church history is important. The greatest threat to the church in the first three centuries was Gnosticism. Its effect upon the church has lasted even to this day. In fact, Neo-Gnosticism is very problematic. Gnosticism, being ecclectic, used dualism, allegorical interpretation, mysticism, etc., to propagate their heresy. It is no accident that the Hermetic and Monastic movements began in Egypt. The largest center of Gnosticism was located in Alexandria, Egypt. Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Augustine all used allegorical interpretation. The dualism that was taught was an extension of the terms used by John, but taken to extremes (the first commentary on the Gospel of John was by Valentinian). Licentiousness and Legalism were two extreme tendencies of the gnostics. The mysticism of the leaders led to anti-authoritarianism against the pastors and bishops of the church. Even their own writings would contradict each other; let alone the teachings of the church (see Irenaeus and his insistence on “the rule of faith” (canon). Furthermore, the gnostics were highly anti-semitic.

  3. This is very good, of course. But I find it somewhat ironic when paired with yesterday’s excerpt from Mr. Miller’s TAR piece criticizing both Orthodoxy and Anglicanism. Here Luther is praised as liberating the church from the burdening of Roman piety. However, it is noticed that the Reformed went further than the Lutherans on the matter of worship. Here Luther is our ally, and rightly so. But, what kept coming to me yesterday when I went back and re-read TAR article is that there is nothing he said about Anglicanism which cannot be said about Lutheranism. I suppose it can be said, “He dealt with the two temptations he experienced – to Orthodoxy and to Anglicanism, not the ones he had not experienced.” Fair enough I suppose, But it seems to me you have to be willing, when writing such and article, to ask, “Now if I say x then to whom else does x apply?” The answer would be, “Well, I am condemning Lutheranism also.” Then he does not deal with the real temptation – again perhaps because he did not experience it – for the Reformed, which is that form of Reformed experimentalism that pulls one towards the the Baptists, and makes one in preaching and practice essentially a Baptist in experimental piety, sacramentology, and ecclesiology. Lloyd-Jones or Stott? Al Martin or Packer? Iain Murray or Philip Hughes? Herbert Carson or Leon Morris?

  4. “Thus, where organs and hymns proliferated in Lutheran churches, the Reformed, like the patristic church, rejected instruments because they believed that they belonged to the period of types and shadows.”

    What is it that musical instruments typified?

    • Ritchie,

      I get this question frequently. There are a couple of answers:

      1. What did the holy wars typify? We see nothing of that in the New Testament and no explicit renunciation of them and yet no one ever says to me, “holy wars are not explicitly rejected in the New Testament, therefore we should keep having them.” I think we know from the movement of redemptive history that holy wars ended with the death of Christ. They typified divine judgment. We can do something similar with musical instruments.

      2. Under the Mosaic-Davidic types, the instruments are very closely connected to sacrifices. The church in the first six centuries and Reformed churches in the 16th and 17th centuries, saw instruments as part of the ceremonial religious system and as part of the sacrificial system. They regarded them as fulfilled along with the other ceremonies and sacrifices.

  5. Thanks.

    That doesn’t really do it for me in all honesty. It appears too speculative a reason to base wiping out i feel is a God glorifying element of worship. Granted there is much subjectivity in my reason but here i stand ( or listen)

    Does the presence of instruments in Rev do anything your argument? Rev 5:8 has harps in heaven. (mind you i’m not that keen on the harp…)

    • Richie,

      You seem to be skating over a fair bit of evidence.

      1. The early church did not use instruments for 6 centuries. That’s a remarkable degree of consensus in principle and practice,

      2. Even in the 13th century Thomas Aquinas declared that to use them in public worship was “Judaizing” (his word).

      3. Instruments only became predominant after the 16th century.

      4. Read 2 Chronicles 29 carefully. They were closely associated with the ceremonial system. They were closely associated with the sacrificial system.

      5. No, the presence of symbols in the Revelation doesn’t instruct me to use them now. It’s the Revelation. It’s symbolic imagery of heaven. Yours is not a sustainable approach to the Revelation. On that approach we should require city officials to pave our roads with something other than asphalt and our taxes would become worse than they are.

      6. Feelings are important but not definitive for Christian piety and practice. Scripture is (sola scriptura). The Scripture principle protects your Christian liberty from my feelings and mine from yours.

      7. If you can have instruments in public worship why I can’t I kill lambs?

      Here are additional resources on the rule of worship.

      Here are resources on instruments in public worship.

  6. Dr. Clark,
    What of the idea of ‘discipleship’ in Reformed piety? It also seems to be another buzzword today…

  7. Dr. Clark,

    Taking this a step further, can you comment from an Historical Theology perspective on how or to what degree the particulars Luther’s doctrine of Vocation (as has been recently recovered by folks like Gustav Wingren and Gene Veith) were adopted by the 16th and 17th century Reformed?

    • Great question.

      Yes, Luther’s doctrine of vocation was basic to the Reformation view of the Christian life. It was inherited by the reformed theologians and churches.

  8. “It also helped to foster the notion that there are two classes of Christians in the church:
    the ordinary and the extraordinary (or the spiritual).”

    I would have to disagree with you on this, though monkery be wrong & not the means
    by which a person either attains spirituality (ie; the new birth) or is shown to be spiritual,
    this is the work of the Gospel, Blood of Christ & the Holy Spirit alone, within the external professing Church of Christ there does exist 2 classes of christians, the mere unregenerate outward professing adult &/or ignorant underage hypocrite & the both at once outward/-
    inward regenerate christian, that this is brought out by the Apostle Paul in the 2nd chap of
    the book of Romans when speaking of the Jewish
    Church he says in verses 28-29 ” 28For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is
    that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh:
    29But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit,
    and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God. ”
    and also in his references to Jacob & Esau, who were both in the Church of Christ, in
    Rom 9 when speaking of the Election of God, the Elect Jacob was foreknown or Loved,
    thus Predestined, Called (or Regenerated) & Justified, thus making a difference by Divine
    Grace, one remained an outward jew whilst the Predestined, Called (or Regenerated) &
    Justified Jacob was an inward or a true Israelite indeed! this pattern still persists in the
    Christian Church if the Reformed (Abrahamic) Covenant view is held .
    The presupposed or presumptive regeneration view is unscriptural and to be rejected,
    so we cannot have a one class Christianity as we did not have a one class Old Testament
    Judaism, notwithstanding the external priesthood not being relevant to the discussion,
    likewise the credobaptist view which holds to a regenerate membership only with the
    obvious exception of hypocrites, infiltrators and such like within its ranks is not the
    Reformed view, neither fits the Scriptural verses that have been mentioned.

    I’m just arguing the point that one of any type of class does not exist, Though I am
    not under the illusion that you do hold to an entirely one class regenerate Christian
    Church for that matter, but in what sense are you referring too one class?

Comments are closed.