Religiosity is not religion, and piety untethered to the Bible, wafting to the heavens for both God and man to admire, is not true piety. It is saccharine piety, a sickly sweet religiosity that impresses the sentimentally superficial but earns the scorn of the godly and, more significantly, of God himself. It is a mark of the sinful human condition, but in large scale it was imported into Western Christianity with the medieval Sacred Heart of Jesus and later with Revivalism (crisis experience is the chief criterion of true religion) and Romanticism (feelings and emotions and subjective experience trump all else). Saccharine piety now pervades even the most conservative sectors of Christianity.
The Piously Saccharine Jesus versus Inferior Old Testament Law
Atlanta megachurch pastor Andy Stanley writes that Jesus Christ came to offer a new and higher ethic, replacing God’s revelatory moral law of the Old Testament: “We need to stop mixing the old with the new, because God has given us something better in Jesus Christ and his new command.” This is classic antinomianism (lawlessness). There’s no other or better name for it. The fact that Jesus’ blood-shedding inaugurated the new covenant in no way invalidates the moral law, whose insertion into the hearts of Christians is one of the chief benefits the new covenant was instituted to impart (Heb. 8:7–12). Stanley may personally live a godly, exemplary life, and I am sure he does, but his teaching is contra-biblical and is leading thousands of Christians astray. Jesus Christ does not lead his people to a “higher” (or “deeper”) morality than the moral law of God found in both Old and New Testaments, and following this antinomian teaching is not true piety but merely saccharine disobedience.
Piously Saccharine Prayers
Danish existential Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard declares that giving thanks to God is superior to petitionary prayer. This is a common assumption, despite the fact that the Bible says nothing of the kind. How pervasive is the saccharine piety that to ask God to provide blessings for his people is at best second-level spirituality, inferior to worshiping or thanking God, and at worst positively “carnal” and self-centered. In radical contrast, Jesus promises his disciples (and by extension, us), “[W]hatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in My name, I will do it” (Jn. 14:13–14). To ask the Father in the Son’s name is to glorify the Son. To refuse to ask under the guise of saccharine piety is to deny glory to the Son, whom the Father delights to honor in answering his people’s prayer.
More Spiritual than the Bible
In the 90s I wrote a review of Jim West’s delightful Drinking with Calvin and Luther!, which details the Protestant reformers’ drinking preferences. I pointed out in my review that while the Bible strictly forbids drunkenness, it by no means prohibits the moderate consumption of alcohol. I had a dissenting letter from a lady asserting that while it’s true the Bible doesn’t forbid drinking alcoholic beverages, God “holds his people to a higher standard,” i.e., than the Bible. But there is no higher standard of righteousness than the Bible, which is a partial description of God’s holiness.
Peace that God Doesn’t Give
I once counseled a young married woman trying to convince me to endorse her divorce from her husband, despite the fact that, though sinful, he’d done nothing to violate his marital vows. Finally, in exasperation, she declared, “Well, I’ve prayed, and God has given me peace in my heart about it.”
I replied, “You might have peace in your heart, but God didn’t give it. God never granted internal peace to one person to do one thing contrary to his written will.” In this case, as in others, the “inner light” of saccharine piety is a quick way to the outer darkness.
Piously Robbing the Pastor
I have known churches served by faithful, sacrificial pastors who must work outside the church to support their family, while the church had the resources to support him yet were enamored of supporting more missionaries or other outside ministries, or erecting a new sanctuary. They lean on their saccharine piety to obscure their disobedience. In radical contrast, the Bible demands that faithful ministers be compensated double for their labors, that is, twice what would normally be paid to a worker (1 Tim. 5:17). But this requirement would likely not be sufficiently “spiritual” to the saccharine Pietists, for whom the trappings of religiosity trump obedience to God’s word.
The Evil of “Unconditional Forgiveness”
One of the great mantras of modern evangelicalism is “unconditional forgiveness.” It is thought a sacrificial act of piety to forgive those who have wronged us, even if they’ve not repented. This is not piety, but disobedience, making a mockery of the Cross. As Ardel Caneday has written, since we’re commanded to forgive in the manner in which God forgives, and if he demands repentance as a condition of forgiveness and we do not, we have wrongly forgiven. We create the impression that God does not demand repentance. God demands repentance, but we are more pious than God. This tack is lawlessness under the guise of grace. Yet the one who insists on biblical standards of forgiveness is often deemed heartless by the denizens of saccharine piety. They are the heartless ones, considering the Cross so trivial as to reduce its standards to conform to sinful man’s comfort.
The Pious Legalists
Often saccharine piety, like that of the old Pharisaic party, abandons God’s law in order to install its own, new standard of piety. Jesus states: “For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men . . . . All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition (Mk. 7:8–9). Emergent evangelical pastor Doug Pagitt is scandalized that so many evangelicals have made the pro-life cause a cornerstone of their political agenda:
These conservative leaders [supporting Trump and the Republican Party] are willing, at all costs, to make a moral trade — anti-abortion laws and court decisions in exchange for basic human dignity…. pursuit of the common good means taking time to stand with women, people of color, immigrants, refugees, the poor and the sick.
By “standing with women,” the article refers to attacking the judicially innocent and unjustly pilloried Brett Kavanaugh. By “people of color, immigrants, refugees” he means an immigration policy that subverts the rule of law and imports multiculturalism. By “stand[ing] with the poor and sick,” he denotes socialism and nationalized health care. What he does advocate violates God’s moral law, or is not addressed by it. What he marginalizes (the life of preborn children) divine law treasures and protects. Pagitt substitutes saccharine, heart-string-tugging piety for God’s holy, life-giving law.
We read in 1 Samuel 15 of God’s command that Israel’s first king, Saul, annihilate the Amalekites and their prized possessions for that nation’s vicious treatment of his people. Saul instead preserved their king as well as the best of the possessions as war booty. When Samuel the prophet rebuked him for his flagrant disobedience, Saul, good saccharine Pietist that he was, replied that “the people” confiscated the best of the animals for the purpose to sacrificing to the Lord. Samuel’s reply should ring forever in the ears of all other saccharine Pietists (vv. 22–23)
“Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, [a]s in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, [a]nd to heed than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, [a]nd stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, He also has rejected you ….”