Church history tells us that the charge pietistic reformers level against the church is that the church practices “dead orthodoxy.” Some years ago I hosted a pastor’s meeting at which pastors could discuss theological ideas. Position papers were presented and then critiqued by the group. Some of the pastors came from the Charismatic movement (also pietistic). A common theme from the Charismatic pastors was their distain for doctrine. Because theirs was a reform movement, they were fighting “dead orthodoxy.”

I spoke after one of our meetings with a pastor who told me that when he was a Lutheran, reciting creeds and doctrines caused him to be spiritually dead. I responded, “So believing that Jesus Christ is God Incarnate, who lived a sinless life, who died for sins and was raised on the third day and bodily ascended into heaven killed you spiritually?” He said, “I didn’t really believe those things.” He had assumed that the cause of his unbelief was not sin, but a church that recited creeds. I believe that it is much better to preach those doctrines from the pulpit and call for people to repent and turn to Christ than to make recitation part of a liturgy. But nevertheless the creeds were not the problem, unbelief was.

Christian orthodoxy simply means holding to the true beliefs revealed in Scripture. These beliefs are often systematized as topical teachings such as the doctrine of Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of justification, and so on. Genuine faith in the truth of the gospel is saving faith. No one having saving faith is “dead.” In Ephesians 2:1-8 Paul teaches that we were dead, but that God made us alive, and that He did so by grace through faith. It is also true that where genuine saving faith exists, it produces evidence in the lives of those who have it as Paul asserts in Ephesians 2:10. So when James says that faith without works is dead, he refers to something other than the type of faith that Paul says is a work of grace. It is the type of faith demons have (see James 2:17-19). In the gospel of John, John uses the term “believe” in two ways.24 There are those, for example, who “believed” in John 8:30 but when confronted with their need to be set free began to debate Jesus and later accused him of sin (see John 8:31-47). Jesus told them they were definitely not from God. But in many other places in John those who believe are true believers who have eternal life.

My conclusion is that “dead orthodoxy” is orthodoxy that people might fight for because of parochial reasons (“this is our tradition and no one is going to change it”) but in which they put only mental assent faith. I gave mental assent to creeds when I was 12 years old because it was my duty to join the church at that age; but I was a dead sinner. But it most assuredly was not the truth contained in the creeds that killed me; it was my unbelief. Those “believers” in John 8 proved themselves to be unbelievers by refusing to become Jesus’ disciples, learn the truth, and be set free.

Pietism misdiagnoses the problem and creates a false solution. It sees a compromised church that is apparently caught in dead orthodoxy. The real problem is not dead orthodoxy but spiritually dead sinners who give mental assent to orthodox truth but show no signs of regeneration. If indeed such a church existed (if truth really is there God has His remnant there as well), that church would be characterized by worldliness and sin. This is the case because dead sinners do not bear spiritual fruit. There was a church in Revelation that Jesus called “dead.” Pietism that holds to the true gospel but goes beyond it imagining that the dead sinners who are church members are Christians. When some of them become regenerate through the efforts of the pietists, they assume they have now entered a higher class of Christianity. They posit two types of Christian: “carnal” Christians and “spiritual” Christians. But in reality there are only Christians and dead sinners.

Furthermore, pietism sees the lack of good fruit in the “dead orthodox” churches to be a sign that teaching doctrine is of no value and that what really matters is practice and not doctrine. So they gravitate to works righteousness. This is precisely the mode of the Emerging Church. It has been the approach of pietists throughout history. But works that do not result from a prior work of grace (which is the result of God’s work through the gospel to convert dead sinners) are in fact “dead works” no matter how pious they look. Mother Theresa did good works but denied the exclusive claims of the gospel. That “piety” is of no eternal value if those who were the recipients of the good works never hear or believe the gospel and thus end up in hell.

God’s revealed truth is never dead, but sometimes it falls on dead ears. In John 6 multitudes who were interested in following Jesus for bread left Him when He spoke the truth to them. The few who did not have dead ears were asked if they would leave too. Peter answered for the group: “Simon Peter answered Him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. And we have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God’” (John 6:68, 69). Genuine faith like that is not the domain of higher order pietists who learned the secrets of the deeper life, it is characteristic of every one of Christ’s true flock who ever exists. Pietists think that adding some man made process to what Christ has provided for all Christians throughout the centuries can cure a problem that never existed: being “dead” because of believing the truth. Instead of a cure, they create an illness as they lead people away from the finished work of Christ.

This article was excerpted from How Pietism Deceives Christians, an excellent and comprehensive article on pietism and its dangers.