We have heard the parable of the Good Samaritan many times, but do we listen to what it says? The problem with knowing things well is that we might stop listening. The same is true of mercy. We have heard many times to show mercy to our neighbor, to love them as we love ourselves. But like the lawyer, we might confuse knowing something with doing it. Let us not love in word or talk, but in deed and in truth. Luke 10:23-27
Biblical piety lives in the Word.
As noted in the previous section, piety begins and ends in knowledge. However, knowledge is not an empty concept, as if one could know something without content. Knowledge deals in particulars, even if knowledge is never complete.
The fountain and source of the knowledge of God is what He has said about Himself. Absolutely nothing else can say the same. We do not know God fully through His self-revelation in His creation. It is not because this revelation is imperfect; indeed, Paul says that it is perfect (Romans 1:19). Rather, sinful suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18). Creation declares clearly and perfectly that the Lord is the Creator, but men do not honor Him as their Creator. This self-revelation therefore leaves them without an excuse in the day of judgment. It is not imperfect, though it is incomplete, because it does not speak of Christ. The two ideas are not synonymous.
We do not know God through any kind of private revelation. We are called to test the spirits “to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). A prophet whose word does not prove to be true is not from God, no matter how impressive it seems (Deuteronomy 18:22). Should a revelation pass the test, it is only repeating what has already been said in the Scriptures. If it does not pass, it is not from God. If it refuses to be tested, it shows itself by its fruits (Luke 6:46). These things have not been done in a corner (Acts 26:26). “Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached” (1 Corinthians 14:36)?
We also do not know God through any writing other than the Holy Scriptures. This is true of any writing which claims to say something about God. There is no other Gospel than the one delivered through the prophets and the apostles (Galatians 1:6-9). There is salvation in no one other than Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12; John 14:6). Such writings must be tested against the Scriptures, and anything which must be tested is no authority.
Something worth noting, however, is that even those writings which are rooted in the Bible are not a means by which we know God. I need to clarify that so that I am not misunderstood. All human writings, no matter how venerable or orthodox, are not the Bible. They all without exception speak about the Bible. If they accomplish their task well, they will lead back to the Bible. If they fail in this respect, they will wander off into myths or draw attention to themselves. Such works about the Bible are like a sign by the road, which help us to go the way that others have gone before. It would be a strange piety indeed that spent more time looking at the sign than travelling along the road. Metaphors are imperfect, but men should listen to human authorities when they agree with the Word of God. “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
Therefore, we know God through what He says about Himself in His holy Word. “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:14-15). “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). “Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3).
The Scriptures also form the basis for all of the other forms of piety. Preaching, for example, is a proclamation of the Word. The Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper flow out of the Word which attaches the promises to them. Prayer, worship, and the other forms are grounded in the Word itself. Apart from the Word, there is no foundation for Biblical piety. “If you abide in My Word, you are truly my disciples” (John 8:31).
The Bible, of course, clearly identifies Jesus Christ as the Word (John 1:1-5). It is entirely possible to read the Bible and miss Jesus who is the whole point (John 5:39; 2 Corinthians 3:12-16). But one must not draw a sharp distinction between the Bible as the Word of God and Jesus as the Word of God for that reason. Such a division, however well-intentioned, tends to disparage the Bible. But how will we know about God in any other way? The Bible is the very Word of the living God to His people, the way through which we know Him. To use an metaphor, it would be strange to receive a letter from the king, only to protest that the letter is not the king himself. Would an earthly king be impressed with such an argument? But the Bible is more than a letter from a king. It is the very voice of God the Holy Spirit.
In the next article, we will focus on practical suggestions regarding the Scriptures. This will be the pattern for the other forms of piety as well.
Biblical piety begins and ends in knowledge.
There is a tendency to locate piety either in the emotions or in the will. It is attractive to make piety part of emotion, because of the power of human feeling. Piety is not the same as the feeling of being content in the Lord or being happy or even “being on fire for God.” If that is the case, piety becomes man-centered rather than God-centered. Human emotion is certainly part of this creation, and a feeling of contentment is a good gift of God, but we should not confuse the two. Piety can certainly exist even in trying times.
Likewise, piety is not part of the will. This too is a man-centered approach. While the will of the regenerate man is certainly engaged and desires to please God, placing piety there makes it the work of man. Man does not act so that God may react. Rather, God is the one who gives and sustains faith, so that the regenerate man responds to what God has already done.
Rather, piety is located in knowledge. For who can worship the Lord if they do not know Him to be their God? As Paul says, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard” (Romans 10:14)? Likewise Jesus said to the Samaritan woman: “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7). “And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
This knowledge is divided into two parts: (1) the knowledge of God, and (2) the knowledge of one’s condition before God. Both of these must be held together, because if one is lacking, the other is invariably skewed. To know God but to not know oneself is to walk the way of self-righteousness. To know oneself but not to know God is to walk the way of despair. But to know God and to know oneself rightly is to fear God and give him glory and to worship Him who made heaven and earth.
The knowledge of God consists in confessing what He Himself has revealed to us. Though we are but creatures who cannot comprehend God as He is, yet God has lowered Himself in love to us to proclaim clearly who He is. He is the holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He is the creator and sustainer of all that is. He is almighty, all-knowing, perfect, present everywhere. The Lord is righteous, holy, faithful, just. “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it” (Numbers 23:19)? God depends on nothing, yet His creation depends wholly on Him. While this description hardly covers everything, it must be said that to deny anything which God has said about Himself is to worship something other than God. The Lord is who He says that He is, not what men presume to say about Him.
The knowledge of oneself consists in recognizing the depths of our own sin. Though Adam was created in perfection, yet he sinned. As he was our head, so the body of the human race suffers together with the head. “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me” (Hosea 6:7). “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared” (Psalm 130:3-4). “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12).
Further, knowing our own condition rightly also points us back to the knowledge of God. To know that you are a sinner is to know that you need a Savior. And to know Jesus Christ as your Savior is to be brought out of darkness into light, out of death into life. This too is part of a right knowledge of God, because God has revealed Himself not only as our Creator and our Judge, but also as our Redeemer. “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:22-23).
Piety also ends in knowledge, because we are pressing forward to the goal of being before God in righteousness and purity forever. “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). “For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy” (Romans 15:8-9). “Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations! Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed” (Revelation 15:3-4). “All the nations you have made shall come and worship before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name” (Psalm 86:9).
Beginning with the next article, we will discuss the Biblical forms of piety and their basis. Now that the foundation is laid, we need to look at the structure of the temple, so to speak. Once that is completed, we will look at practical questions, which may be likened to the outward appearance of the building.