Piety is an old word which means holiness. Pietism, on the other hand is a system which stratifies Christians into different classes, some being more spiritual than others. It produces elite Christians.
There are no extraordinary Christians; we are all ordinary. Pietism can be boiled down to a practice that is intended to lead to an experience that claims to make one an elite Christian, one with a special status compared to ordinary Christians. Pietism is such a slippery, multi-faced thing, that one must always be on one’s guard against it.
Even during the days of the Apostles we find pietism rearing its ugly head in Colossae. Paul labors in his epistle to them to show that they are complete in Christ (Col. 2:10). If you are complete, then you have no need for some extra work to do to make you even more complete! There is no such thing as ‘more complete’.
Pietism virtually always comes off under the guise of a secret. Hence, thousands of Christian books contain the word “secret.” This also demonstrates that another frequent feature of pietism is mysticism. Pietism, like mysticism, comes in a million varieties. So how do you recognize it? If you are told that after trusting in Christ’s finished work, you still lack something: you are being taught pietism.
Church history is littered with pietism. There was the asceticism of the Desert Fathers, the mysticism of Boehme, the Methodism of Wesley, the Keswick movement, the Latter-Rain/Manifest Sons of God teaching, the Charismatic movement, and a host of others. What they all share in common is the assertion that there is something you can and should do after having trusted in Christ’s finished work, which will make you a deeper, more spiritual Christian.
Actual churches, as well as parachurch organizations, can be guilty of pietism. There is often the demand for strict and unquestioning submission to leaders who claim to have a special status with God, thus conveying an elevated spirituality upon those under his/her care. As one who spent many years in such an organization, I can personally attest to this fact. The leader does not even have to claim superior status for the group to be pietistic. It is a common phenomenon in parachurch organizations to see themselves as performing a duty or ministry that ordinary Christians can’t or won’t do. Leaving such a group is usually viewed as tantamount to backsliding. But, I digress.
Here is Paul’s response to pietism:
“Therefore suffer no one to sit in judgement on you as to eating or drinking or with regard to a festival, a new moon or a sabbath. These were a shadow of things that were soon to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one defraud you of your prize, priding himself on his humility and on his worship of the angels, and taking his stand on the visions he has seen, and idly puffed up with his unspiritual thoughts. Such a one does not keep his hold upon Christ, the Head, from whom the Body, in all its parts nourished and strengthened by its points of contact and its connections, grows with a divine growth. If you have died with Christ and have escaped from the world's rudimentary notions, why, as though your life still belonged to the world, do you submit to such precepts as "Do not handle this;" "Do not taste that;" "Do not touch that other thing" — referring to things which are all intended to be used up and perish—in obedience to mere human injunctions and teachings? These rules have indeed an appearance of wisdom where self-imposed worship exists, and an affectation of humility and an ascetic severity. But not one of them is of any value in combating the indulgence of our lower natures. Col 2:16-23, Weymouth New Testament
These statements strike at the heart of everything that pietism entails in any of its incarnations: asceticism, legalism, and “spiritual disciplines.” You name it, it is here and Paul labels it all “self-made.” Notice also that he says that there is an appearance of wisdom. This is where it is important to differentiate between piety, which simply means holiness and pietism. There is such a thing as the progressive work of sanctification in the life of every believer. This growth in godliness is called piety. But when someone claims that there is a secret way to attain piety: that is pietism. Make no mistake: pietism is always dangerous – ALWAYS.
So let’s be clear. God does desire true piety in the lives of His children, but it is a bunch of papistical merit-earning to think that God is more pleased with you because you read 10 chapters a day. To say that Christians aren’t experiencing a higher degree of holiness because they don’t desire it enough is a lie. This leads one directly into the elitist pietism Paul rebuked in Colossae. “God is more pleased with me because I fast twice a week.” Is He? “I sold everything I own and joined a Christian commune, therefore I am not like the rest of these wimpy wuss Christians who don’t have what it takes to sacrifice for God.” Really? Paul says that these practices “are of no value in combating the indulgence of our lower natures.”
God desires holiness and is committed to making us holy. But He doesn’t accomplish it through the use of secret disciplines. He uses His ordained means of grace. There is no secret to be discovered that ushers one instantly into the “higher life.” “For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:14) Pietism is dangerous because it is an attack on Christ’s finished work. If it is true that Christ has already done it all – then all Christians are all already complete in Him. God sanctifies all His children by the same means.