How did the Reformers and Puritans view Christian piety?

2 Min Read

NICHOLS: Sometimes the Puritans are seen as overly zealous in their piety. We have this understanding of introspection associated with the Puritans.

We have these urban legends of the Puritans with four-hour sermons and we hear, “Why can’t you sit there for thirty minutes?” Or we say things like, “The Puritans would pray for hours on end, and I can’t even pray for five minutes in the morning.” J.I. Packer called the Puritans “the redwoods of the forest.” So, we have this image of the Puritans as almost super-Christians.

One thing we’ve got to be aware of is how they understood piety because I think it can help us see them, not as some example we’re unable to follow, but as actually helpful to us.

I’ll come back to Edwards. Edwards was a very pious person. But he also recognized that he could worship God as he went on horseback rides through the Connecticut River Valley. Today it’s one of the most beautiful places, so in Edward’s day in the 1700s, with the pristine nature of the Connecticut River Valley, it had to be beautiful. There was an earthiness to Edwards’ piety and to the Puritans’ piety that we miss sometimes.

The other thing we want to say is that this isn’t a development from Calvin—this is Calvin. We think of Calvin as only this rational figure, but all you have to do is read the Institutes of Christian Religion. There are portions in the Institutes that are like what we would put in books today on the Christian life.

One of my favorite portions in the Institutes is the section on prayer towards the end in Book Four. Calvin has this beautiful discussion where he says something to the effect of, “Imagine you’ve got a treasure chest in your yard and you never bother to dig it up. You just leave it there. You know it’s there, but you don’t even bother to get a shovel and dig it up.” He says, “That’s what prayer is like.” As you neglect prayer, it’s like leaving the treasure unearthed right at your feet. Why would you do that?

So what can we learn from the piety of the Reformers and the Puritans? We need to recognize that piety is ultimately godly living. That’s all it is. It’s recognizing that the call to being a Christian is a holistic call to all areas of our life. There is no area of our life that is outside the view of worshiping God. It’s either going to be done to advance our self-interests and our own well-being, or it’s going to be done to advance God and in worship of Him.

The Puritans grasped that. It wasn’t, “Okay, I’m going to spend four hours in prayer, four hours in Bible study, and neglect life.” It was: “I’m going to pray and study my Bible. I’m going to dig into this Bible. But in all of life, I’m going to worship God.” And they had a capacious view of what serving God meant.

Sometimes I think we bifurcate these things. We say, “This is spirituality, and that’s the church stuff. Then there’s my job, my family, and my hobbies, and I don’t know how they fit. So, they don’t.” The Puritans would not get that. So, I think they help us.

Let’s get back to that. Let’s have that capacious view. Let’s recognize what worshiping God and serving God in all of life really means.

BINGHAM: Not just Sunday, but Monday to Saturday.

NICHOLS: That’s right, absolutely.

This transcript is from a live Ask Ligonier event with Stephen Nichols and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, email or message us on Facebook or Twitter.