Christ-Centered Piety

Dallas Willard

A contribution to the book Where Shall My Wond’ring Soul Begin?

My approach to the subject of piety rests on the assumption that one of the great engines of individual and social transformation has been evangelical thought and experience. My interest in evangelicalism is not simply in its power as a social phenomenon, which has ebbed and flowed, but also, and mainly, but also its power over human existence. For various reasons, a great deal of that power has been lost.

Piety refers to the inward and outward states and acts that constitute a life of devotion—chiefly to God, but commonly also to parents (such as when we speak of “filial piety”) and, by a further extension, to any relationship appropriately similar to that of child to parent (when we speak, for example, of a school as our “alma mater”). Externally viewed, piety consists of the routine activities carried out in a sustaining relationship that honors those who give us life and well-being.

In his report for the academic year 1986-87, former Harvard president Derek Bok wrote, “Religious institutions no longer seem as able as they once were to impart basic values to the young. In these circumstances, universities, including Harvard, need to think hard about what they can do in the face of what many perceive as a widespread decline in ethical standards.” President Bok went on to say,

[T]oday’s course on applied ethics does not seek to convey a set of moral truths but tries to encourage students to think carefully about complex moral issues . . . The principal aim of the course is not to impart “right answers” but to make students more perceptive in detecting ethical problems when they arise, better acquainted with the best moral thought that has accumulated through the ages, and more equipped to reason about the ethical issues they will face in their own personal and professional lives.

At the end of the report, he concluded,

Despite the importance of moral development to the individual student and the society, one cannot say that higher education has demonstrated a deep concern for the problem . . . especially in large universities, the subject is not treated as a serious responsibility worthy of sustained discussion and determined action by the faculty and administration.

I am a great admirer of Derek Bok, and I regularly use his book The Cost of Talent (1993) in a course I teach on the professions in American life. At the conclusion of that book, he notes the quandary over what to do about the unequal distribution of income among the professions, since many of the most important ones (especially teaching and public service) are “starving” on the scale of remuneration. He can only say that we need to change our values.

Where do we go to accomplish that? It is understandable that we should not pay much attention to moral development if there is no basis in knowledge upon which to deal with it. Bluntly put, that is where we stand today. Many intellectuals don’t even think of morality as an area of knowledge. Some of the most important books written on the subject of moral values regard it as an area of systematically false or meaningless statements.

The Christ-centered piety of the evangelical tradition provides both the knowledge and the community within which people can find a basis for moral development, because in it they find a solid basis for human life.

We do not claim that evangelical piety is the only Christ-centered piety. That would be historically mistaken and harmful in many respects. There are many others. One of the first books that Wesley published, for example, was a little version of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis that was called The Christian Pattern. Nevertheless, a clearly identifiable tradition of Christ-centered piety characterizes the evangelical movement, and I want to outline its major aspects.

The three substantive elements of evangelical piety are conviction of sin, conversion, and testimony. Conviction of sin is no longer a popular topic among evangelicals. It has disappeared for the most part, but that is a recent development. Mordecai Ham, the evangelist who converted Billy Graham, preached for weeks before he would give people an opportunity to receive Christ. Often their suffering would become very great. In Savannah, Georgia, it drove Christians to become so burdened that they went downtown and rented empty store buildings in order to hold meetings themselves where they could invite people to receive Christ.

Wesley’s famous statement, “I must preach law before I preach grace,” was the standard; now it is disregarded. Yet the foundation for evangelical piety remains not only conviction of sin, alienation from God, condemnation, and a sense of eternal loss, but bondage to sin—the inability to stop sinning. The evangelical tradition, in such figures as Wesley, Richard Baxter, Charles Finney, and many others, deals at great length with this. Sometimes the tradition verges on perfectionism, one of the ghosts that haunts some forms of evangelicalism. But it is conviction of sin that remains a standard part of Christ-centered piety in the evangelical tradition.

The second basic element is conversion. This involves both reconciliation and regeneration. The loss of the concept of regeneration characterizes much of evangelical theology today. Often all that is stressed is reconciliation or forgiveness. Sometimes the doctrine of regeneration is totally absorbed in the doctrine of justification. But that is not characteristic of the tradition generally. If you read not only the popular sources but also the standard theologies, you will see that regeneration, or coming to have a new kind of life, is as central to conversion as is forgiveness. Perhaps, indeed, forgiveness is even subordinate to it. You are given new life, and in that process, your sins are, of course, forgiven. You can’t go along with God without forgiveness.

The third element, testimony, lives on in many quarters of the evangelical movement, but not, by and large, the way it did traditionally, when testimony was often treated as an integral part of conversion, and belief and confession were inseparable.

Beyond these three foundational elements of Christ-centered piety in the evangelical tradition, there are some disciplinary aspects—disciplinary because they are thought of (to use Wesley’s phrase) as “means of grace” or ways of sustaining and developing one’s life, not, certainly, as modes of punishment. Primary among these are the public ministry of the word of God, individual Bible study, prayer, and the ideal of a whole-life discipline and holiness. Our entire life, no matter what we are doing, is a part of our faith in Christ.

This was a valid transmission of the Lutheran idea of the priesthood of the believer. It did not mean that any believer could do priestly or religious things, but rather that whatever any believer was doing was a priestly act unto God. This belief does descend very clearly through much, but not all, of the evangelical tradition.

Finally, piety involves making “the fields white unto harvest.” This notion has several meanings, including the giving of money and goods. One of the great strengths of Wesley’s early little groups was that everyone was supposed to give something, no matter how small. You gave something when you met with your group, and it was used for the benefit of the church as well for those who had needs of any kind.

Making the fields white unto harvest also requires witness. That means speaking individually to others about their condition before God and God’s provision for them, as well as involvement in pubic efforts of evangelization including missionary outreach across the world. Evangelical piety requires presenting the gospel in all of its connections to life as well as in special public efforts to reach out.

The final aspect of making the fields white unto harvest is standing for the truth. This broad category includes “earnestly contending for the faith, once delivered.” But it also means standing for what is right and just and good in society, including “speaking truth to power” and political efforts of various kinds.

Those who are living thoughtfully in evangelical circles throughout the generations will very likely believe they have no quite measured up if they are missing any of these areas of activity. For evangelicals, Christ-centered piety must always be from the heart and unto the Lord. It is not for the benefit of appearance. It is not to impress people. It is not to impress even God. It is a matter of an honest and transparent heart standing before God and simply calling out, “Just as I am without one plea.”

That hymn beautifully expresses this area of transparency, of not trying to make adjustments or impress, but just being who I am and saying that Christ’s death on the cross means that now I don’t have to be anything other than I am. Since I come to God on such a basis, then I can come to you also and say, “Just as I am without one plea.” We deal with one another on that basis. That is evangelical piety at its best. It is not entirely evangelical without qualification, however, and one must include in this definition people like Dietrich Bonheoffer and others who displayed this attitude of piety. But evangelicals and others do emphasize this kind of transparency as a part of the gospel life.

In evangelical piety, discipleship to Jesus is a process of learning. It means living interactively with his resurrected presence (through his word and through other people) as we progressively learn to lead our lives as he would. One of the primary problems for contemporary evangelicals is that we have lost the concept of discipleship. Among evangelicals generally, it is now assumed that you can be a Christian without being a disciple of Jesus. In fact, this is widely assumed far beyond evangelical circles. To be a disciple is to be an apprentice or student. We even farm discipleship out to parachurch organizations and assume that the local church is not necessarily in that business.

In fact, we now are somewhat at a loss as to what discipleship is. That is partly related to some theological developments. The teaching of salvation by grace through faith has, in many quarters, brought people to a condition where they really don’t know what they are supposed to do. This is no wonder. My background is Southern Baptist. We may preach to you for an hour that there is nothing you can do to be saved, and then sing to you for a half-hour trying to get you to do something to be saved.

We not only saved by grace; we are paralyzed by it. There is deep confusion. I like to say that grace is not opposed to effort; grace is opposed to earning. Earning and effort are not the same thing. Earning is an attitude, and grace is definitely opposed to that. But it is not opposed to effort. When you see a person who has been caught on fire by grace, you are apt to see some of the most astonishing efforts you can imagine. Of course, the evangelical tradition is filled with effort—for example, the great missionaries (Judson and Carey and others) who went out. Some would say to them, “Don’t you believe God is going to save who He is going to save?” And they would reply, in effect, “Yes, that’s exactly why I am going. I want to be there when it happens.” Grace is a tremendous motivator when you understand and receive it rightly.

Another confusion is that evangelicals often fall into legalism when they try to obey Christ. That is due in large part to the fact that we have emphasized “trying” but not “training.” When you try to “bless those who curse you,” for example, trying will prove never to be enough; you have to be trained for that. Such training comes under the area of discipleship, but today, generally speaking, we have separated faith in Christ from obedience or fulfillment. There is no bridge to get from one to the other. That bridge is discipleship.

We have lost discipleship largely because in the evangelical tradition we have lost Christ as teacher. The idea of Christ as teacher no longer means much. This has historical roots in the modernist-fundamentalist controversy, when fundamentalists and conservatives began to understand talk of Christ-as-teacher as code words for “he is just a man.” There was an inward arming against this idea of Christ as teacher. But, of course, if you don’t have a teacher, you can’t have any students or disciples.

The idea of spiritual discipline is very rich in the evangelical tradition. Discipline is something we do to enable ourselves to do what we cannot do by direct effort. Yet the idea of discipline disappears in evangelicalism because the teacher has disappeared.

Evangelicals have a long series of problems reclaiming for our time the power of evangelical tradition, thought, and experience as a primary engine to drive the moral transformation of individuals and society. These are tied to the problem of the use of reason and understanding, a problem that also comes to us, in part, as a reaction to the controversies at the end of the last century and the first part of this century. Reason and knowledge were set on the side of the Devil by many evangelicals and by nearly all people who would be called fundamentalist. It was thought that somehow what went wrong with those people over there (the modernists) was that they started thinking. And perhaps they read too many books, possibly in German or French. There was an armament against the idea of reason.

Today we must return to this issue in order to capture Christ as teacher and begin to think of him as an intelligent person, which is for many people. If you ask someone to list the smartest man in the world, very few people will list Jesus Christ, and that is sad. (If he was divine, would he be dumb?)

Some years ago, there was an ecumenical evangelical effort that went under the heading of “Jesus as Lord.” It didn’t succeed very well because the whole person of Jesus, which is crucial to any Christ-centered piety, was not involved. If you don’t think Jesus was smart, what can you mean by calling him Lord? We have to recapture that element.

As we do that, the ideal character of evangelicalism as a life-transforming force will begin to reemerge. Then we will have reason to think that there might even be some answer to the questions of moral development raised by important leaders such as Derek Bok. He is not alone, of course, in raising those kinds of questions. But where are we to go, if we cannot provide a knowledge of reality and virtue and goodness at a practical level, as has been provided by people in the evangelical tradition?

At the end of his book The Field of Ethics (1901), based on his William Belden Noble Lectures for 1899, Harvard philosophy professor George Herbert Palmer listed the names of leaders in the field and concluded, “Ethics is certainly the study of how life may be full and rich, and not, as is often imagined, how it may be restrained and meager,” which, unfortunately, is often the picture that we get from evangelical life today. “Those words of Jesus—of which Phillips Brooks was so fond—announcing that he had come in order that men might have life and have it abundantly, are the clearest statement of the purposes of both morality and religion, of righteousness on earth and in heaven.”

Evangelical thought and tradition supply us with a content that can be brought into today’s world to yield life that is abundant and full. I trust and hope and pray that the occasion of this colloquium, under the leadership of people at Harvard, will open the way to a renewal of that kind of depth of life and thought.

Dallas Willard. “Christ-Centered Piety.” In Where Shall My Wond’ring Soul Begin?: The Landscape of Evangelical Piety and Thought, edited by Mark A. Noll and Ronald F. Thielmann, 27-35. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000.