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Word-Centered Piety

Resident Faculty, W. Robert Godfrey   |   December 14, 1992   |  Type: Articles

The piety of any Christian tradition must have a center. For Roman Catholics the liturgical activity of the priest is central. For many Pentecostals the experience of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit is central. What is the center of piety for Reformed people? Clearly our piety has been a Word-centered piety.

Personal and family devotions have centered on reading and meditating on the Bible and then praying out of what has been read. I still remember vividly an early experience as a teenager in a Christian Reformed home. The Bible was being read after dinner and was suddenly interrupted with a hand hitting the table and the mother asking one of the children, “Last word?” Bible reading was taken so seriously that the child who did not listen attentively was in trouble. I remember a very serious discussion in young people’s society as to whether we ought to read the Bible on our knees for devotions since the Scriptures were so holy. We may smile at some of these practices and regard them as “old fashioned,” but they point to an earnest desire to have a Bible-centered personal piety.

For the Reformed, public worship also has been radically Word-centered. We often divide - very mistakenly - worship into preliminaries and preaching. That distinction is wrong, but points to the importance of the preaching of the Word in our Reformed heritage. Those “preliminaries” have also always been Word-centered. The Reformed have listened to the word read, have sung the word (the Psalms) and in many ways have prayed the Word. (Calvin recommended that the pastoral prayer include a long paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer.) The Reformed have stressed the sacraments as the visible Word of God.

Our Reformed Word-centered piety has set us off significantly from other Christian traditions and absolutely from the world. I remember hearing unbelievers in the secular college I attended - both in class and out - chuckling at the Bible’s account of creation and of miracles and of the resurrection of Jesus. They found the Bible to be primitive, old-fashioned, irrelevant and therefore humorous. But for Reformed people, the Bible never evokes chuckles, but reverent attention.

That Word-centered piety is in decline in our time in many Reformed circles. Many of us do not read the Bible together as families and individuals as we once did. The sermon is not as central in many services or as focused on the exposition of the Word as it once was. The “preliminaries” are not regulated by the Word as they once were.

We seem to be caught up in a vicious circle. The leadership of the churches is less certain about the meaning and application of the Word. The people are more interested in hearing the new uncertainties than they were in hearing the old certainties. To renew interest, the leadership experiments with everything from videos to pie-throwing. The new experiments move the people even farther from the Word. The strong meat of the word is driven out by the junk food of entertainment.

As Reformed people we need to recapture the spirit of our Word-centered piety. The Scripture must evoke a sense of reverent submission in the heart of every true believer. Calvin in his catechism taught that we should regard the Scripture as “nothing less than certain truth come down from heaven.” In his Institutes he wrote, “...above human judgment we affirm with utter certainty (just as if we were gazing upon the majesty of God Himself) that it (the Bible) has flowed to us from the very mouth of God by the ministry of men” (I,vii,5).

A basic conviction of classic Reformed piety is summed up in Ephesians 5:15, “Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men, but as wise.” The Reformed have always held that the living of the Christian life takes care. It does not happen automatically. One must seek wisdom and strive to live according to it. That wisdom is not found in my head or in my heart. It is not found in any human reflection or consensus. The Reformed have always insisted that wisdom is found in the Bible.

For that reason another text has been precious: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness: that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16,17). We have used this text so often to defend the inspiration and authority of the Bible that we may miss the message of this text about the usefulness of the Bible. If we must walk carefully, it is the Bible that will teach and train us how to walk. It is the Bible that will rebuke and correct us when we go astray. The Bible is so complete that all the direction we need for holy living and holy service is contained in it.

We need that confidence in the Bible’s clarity and usefulness today. Such confidence will rescue us from the vicious circles in which we tend to find ourselves. The Bible will be back at the center of Reformed piety as we are renewed in the sense that God has spoken plainly and helpfully there. Then we will not chuckle at the Bible as the world does. But we will hear the certainties of God’s Word and know how to live for Him.

Originally published in The Outlook, December 1992, by Reformed Fellowship, Inc.  Used with permission.

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