Tuesday, December 12, 2023


“Piety,” like the word “religion,” is not an especially popular word today. Both words strike some as overly formal and sanctimonious and get unfairly associated with hypocrisy or formalism. It is possible to have the appearance of piety but to lack its power, but that is a distortion. Like religion, piety is a good word and concept. To others, piety is simply another word for private devotions or Bible reading and prayer. But piety is more and deeper than this.

Now, where do you find it in the Bible? If you looked in your Bible and you just searched for the word piety, you might not come up with a lot, and that is due to a matter of translation. The Greek word for piety is εὐσέβεια. In our English translations, it is usually translated as "godliness." So when you see the word godliness or godly in the New Testament, that is the Greek word, εὐσέβεια, which is the Greek equivalent of the Latin pietas, which is where we get our word piety. As with most concepts in English, we have two words for the same basic concept, one Latin-based (piety) and one Anglo-Saxon-based (godliness). You can use either word, godliness or piety, but the concept is the important thing.

What Is Piety?

So what is εὐσέβεια? What is piety? People have talked about this over the years. John Calvin uses the word a lot in his Institutes of the Christian Religion and he defines it too. He says, 
I call ‘piety’ that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces. For until men recognize that they owe everything to God, that they are nourished by his fatherly care, that he is the Author of their every good, that they should seek nothing beyond him - they will never yield him willing service. (1.2.1)
From a knowledge of God and his benefits, we therefore revere and love him. This reverence and grateful love producing willing service. Noah Webster in his 1828 dictionary has a similar definition of piety. He says, 
1. Piety in principle, is a compound of veneration or reverence of the Supreme Being and love of his character, or veneration accompanied with love; and piety in practice, is the exercise of these affections in obedience to his will and devotion to his service. 
2. Reverence of parents or friends, accompanied with affection and devotion to their honor and happiness.
Like Calvin, Webster describes piety as a combination of reverence and love and as the exercise of these affections in obedience and service. Webster also speaks of what is called filial piety, piety directed toward one's parents. 

Building on these other definitions, piety can be briefly defined as dutiful devotion that springs from gratitude and reverence. Reverent fear and grateful love unite to produce dutiful devotion. A godly, pious life is marked by a devout diligence to fulfill your God-given duties, fulfilling them with gratitude and reverence. 

As a side note, while there is not a Hebrew word exactly equivalent to εὐσέβεια, the Old Testament does speak of these elements of piety: wholehearted love and godly fear of God, resulting in devoted service and obedience (Deut. 10:12-13). 

Piety in 2 Peter and 1 Timothy 

There are several books of the New Testament where godliness/piety is especially prominent, such as 2 Peter and 1 Timothy. In 2 Peter, we are taught that we have received all things that pertained to life and godliness through the knowledge of him who called us (1:3). Then Peter goes on to exhort us to make every effort to supplement our faith with several virtues, including godliness (1:5-6). Near the end of this epistle, after speaking of the second coming of Jesus Christ, he exclaims, "Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness...!" (2 Peter 3:11). 

Paul speaks of godliness throughout 1 Timothy. For example, in 4:6-8 he writes, 
If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.
There is, first of all, a connection between the good words of the faith and its outworking in godliness. The truth "accords with godliness" (1 Tim. 6:3, Titus 1:1). There is also a connection between being trained in the words and training yourself in godliness. Two different Greek words for training are used here. In verse 6 the sense is “being nourished/fed/educated in the words of the faith,” while in verse 7 the sense is “train/exercise yourself for godliness.” Just as you eat properly and exercise your body to be healthy, so spiritual health is produced by being fed by good teaching and by exercising yourself in godliness. Notice that just as in 2 Peter, you are called to activity. You are called to train yourself for godliness. Just as you also train your body in physical virtue, so train yourself in the spiritual virtue of piety. Piety is of value in every way.

In 6:5-6, Paul speaks of false teachers who imagine that godliness is a means of gain. They are just practicing it to get some money out of you. Then he says in verse 6, "but godliness with contentment is great gain." And so, there is promise in godliness. In fact, that is what he had spoken of in 4:8, that godliness is a value in every way as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. It is a win-win situation. Win now, win later. But this is true of godliness with contentment, not hypocritical godliness as a means to money, because the love of money is not godliness, but the root of all kinds of evil. And then in 6:11, exhorting Timothy, he says, "But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness." Flee vices, but pursue after true piety.

Piety Described 

Piety is preeminently directed toward God. It is expressed in dutiful devotion to him, springing from grateful love and reverent fear. Piety is directly expressed in worship, but it is also expressed in willing obedience in everything. As Cicero put it, “piety gives both duty and homage.” It is also an inner attitude that is expressed in these ways. Do not neglect the inner attitude, its expression in worship and devotions, or its expressions in obedience throughout life.

Piety toward God is born of faith. It is by faith that we learn gratitude and reverence, beholding the grace and majesty of God. 

Piety shows reverence rather than flippancy and irreverence. The false teachers described in 2 Peter were impious: they carelessly despised authority, blasphemed, and despised God’s judgment.

Piety shows gratitude rather than self-centeredness and ingratitude. Those who receive much from God but do not give thanks to him or serve him are impious. Secularism is thoroughly impious. 

Piety is exercised by dutiful devotion rather than unfaithfulness and lawlessness driven by sinful passions. In 2 Peter, Peter uses the word “ungodly” to describe: (1) the world of the ungodly destroyed in Noah’s flood, (2) Sodom and Gomorrah as an example of what will happen to the ungodly, and (3) the destruction of the ungodly on the day of judgment. But those who are rescued, like Lot, are “the godly” (2:9). Today there is a great temptation to adopt an attitude that is irreverent, ungrateful, and lawless. The atmosphere we breath is impious. Swim against the stream! 

In a secondary way, piety is also directed toward other superiors to whom you have reason to be grateful, such as your parents and country. They have given you much, so be grateful and reverent toward them and therefore dutiful and devoted to them, giving back by your service. This is called filial piety (or patriotism in the case of your country). This is part of our piety toward God, especially in light of the fifth commandment. Paul spoke of piety/godliness in this way in 1 Timothy 5:4, “But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God.” Make return - in other words, as you received life from them, as you were brought up by them, as they cared for you when you could not care for yourself, so show this reverence and gratitude toward them by caring for them in their old age. We also show this filial piety for our parents by also honoring their children (your siblings). You show this piety towards your country by also honoring your fellow citizens for its sake.

Two Examples of Piety: Aeneas and Cornelius 

A popular example of piety in the ancient world was pius Aeneas, the hero of the Aeneid, the legendary founder of Rome. In that story, Aeneas demonstrates pietas by his devotion to the gods and his father by showing reverence to them and embracing the duty they gave him of founding the city of Rome for his people and descendants. The classic image of Aeneas was of him carrying his father and household gods out of the fall of Troy, leading his young son by the hand behind him. He introduces himself in the Aeneid by saying, “I am Aeneas, duty-bound. I carry aboard my ships the gods of house and home we seized from enemy hands. My fame goes past the skies. I seek my homeland - Italy - born as I am from highest Jove.” (The Aeneid, 1.457-460). The force that is opposed to pietas in the Aeneid is not only impiety, but furor (the Latin word for passion, frenzy, or rage). In the Aeneid, this frenzy and passion is personified by Juno who stirs up storms, the lust of Dido, the Trojan wives who seek to burn the ships, and the hostile forces and civil tumult in Italy, all of this to turn aside pious Aeneas from the path of duty. 

As in the Aeneid, the Bible describes εὐσέβεια in opposition to impiety and evil passions. The passions of the flesh “wage war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11) much as they waged war against Aeneas to turn him aside from his duty and destroy him. But this deliverance from frenzy comes through Christ, who is “the grace of God” who “has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness [impiety] and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly [pious] lives in the present age…” (Titus 2:12).

It is interesting that Luke, a Gentile, recounts the healing of a lame man named Aeneas (Acts 9:32-35) just before introducing a pious Roman centurion (Acts 10) in a book that ends with the gospel of the kingdom coming to Rome (Acts 28). Perhaps Luke included the account of Aeneas’ healing to indicate that pagan Rome and its piety was helplessly disabled, in need of Christ the Savior. 

In any case, in Acts 10 we come to a good example of a pious man who served the true God. Cornelius, the Roman centurion from Italy, is described by Luke the same way Aeneas is described by Virgil: “a devout [εὐσεβής] man” (Acts 10:2). Consider how Luke described this pious man. 

Cornelius feared God (10:2). I have already mentioned that the fear of God is an essential element of piety. And not only did he fear God, but he did so with all his household (10:2). That is, he practiced it with them in family worship, cultivated it through instruction and by example, and applied it in their way of life. This influence extended to the soldier who attended him, who is also described as pious (ESV: “devout,” 10:7). 

Cornelius gave alms generously to the people (10:2). Alms were gifts to the needy and were given in the synagogue and on the street (Matt. 6:2). Cornelius also prayed continually to God (10:2-3). Not that he prayed every minute of the day, but consistently throughout the day (such as at “the ninth hour”). His alms and prayers were like sacrifices to God (10:4, see also Heb. 13:15-16).

Cornelius was a just man (“upright,” 10:22). Piety itself is an aspect of justice - God deserves our reverence and devotion - and it moves a person to justly fulfill the rest of his obligations to God and man as service to the Lord (Col. 3:23-24). Piety is not only practiced in worship, but also in dutifulness before God in all of life. 

Cornelius sent for Peter so that he might hear Peter's message from God and he invited his household and friends to hear it (10:7-8, 24). His piety was evident by his regard for God's word. Cornelius received the gospel that Peter preached (10:44-48, 11:17-18). I believe Cornelius was already regenerate, believing in God's old covenant promises, but here he and his household received the gospel of Christ's finished work and were brought into new covenant blessings, being filled with the Spirit and baptized. A pious man receives the word of God, repents of his sin, believes the gospel, and receives baptism with his household. 

Cornelius is a biblical example of a pious man. We should all be training ourselves in piety. May we live in this way, living before the face of God. May we remember what we have received from God - his generosity and  kindness - that we might be loving and grateful to him. May we remember his presence and power and authority, that we might revere him. And with this gratitude and reverence, may we therefore live lives that are devoted to him, attending to our duties, turning aside from evil passions, and repenting when we go astray.

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