The book that started the Pietist renewal: Johann Arndt’s True Christianity

Johann Arndt, True Christianity (Classics of Western Spirituality, Paulist Press)

What follows is a summary and commentary I created while reading this famous pre-Pietist book during the course “The Pietist Renewal” with Dr. Richard Lovelace at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, 1994-5. Arndt’s book was a touchstone for the whole Pietist movement. Spener, Francke, and other Pietist leaders were raised on it. It expressed key concerns for holiness and the Christian life that characterized the whole Pietist movement–in reaction to trends within state-church Lutheranism toward “cheap grace” teaching and a hyper-focus on doctrinal dispute. For other posts on Pietism and the Pietists, you can use the “search” box on this blog. I have posted similar summary/commentaries on works by Philip Jakob Spener and August Hermann Francke:

This is a reactive work.  It is reacting to a brand of Christianity that majors on doctrine and dispute and minors on Christian practice (prayer, morality, the “works of repentance”).

The first twenty chapters of Book I—Liber Scripturae, although quite broad, tend to stick with the theme of original sin and its effects on man, and thus the need for ongoing, strenuous vigilance for, repentance from, and mortification of the “Adamic nature”—which prevents us from receiving God’s grace and enjoying his fellowship.  These chapters tend to state their main theses negatively, and so seem at times dour and forbidding.

The remaining chapters of Book one are also thematically broad, but deal most extensively with the positive Christian virtues—that is, those virtues to be desired and practised by all who wish to be “True Christians.”  Even some of these, however, are stated negatively (as #23, “A man who wishes to grow and mature in Christ must reject all worldly company,” or #31, “Self-love and self-honor corrupt and bring to nothing the highest and most beautiful gifts of man.”)  Even in these largely positively descriptions of Godly virtues, Arndt seems to continually have one eye on an image of a disgracefully deceived “Christian,” in name only, who sins continually before the Father.  Surely he must have had many “life models.”

He caps this section on positive virtues with # 40, “Some Beautiful rules for a Christian life,” which offer a gleam of comfort and relief from the heavily convicting picture of mortification and moralism he has painted in his first, and to some degree his second section.  He draws us back from despair with statements such as:  “God does not demand more from you than his grace works in you and you cannot give him more than he has given you.” (180), and “Your sins and manifold trespasses ought indeed to make you very sorrowful but not dejected…If they are great, remember that Christ’s merit is greater.” (180)

In his summation of Book one, he again comes back to his main concern:  that Christians should not make their first and last spiritual effort in their initial repentance and conversion:  “A man…[newborn in the faith] is not yet, however, a perfect man, BUT A CHILD WHO MUST YET BE TRAINED BY THE HOLY SPIRIT AND BECOME CONFORMED FROM DAY TO DAY WITH CHRIST JESUS.” (184)

What is required for that training?  A VERY ACTIVE cooperation with the Spirit of God:  Given your sinful state even after salvation, you must “…pray, weep, wail, seek, knock, and the Holy Spirit will be given to you, who will daily renew the image of God in you and extinguish the image of Satan.  Thus, you will learn to trust and build not on yourself, but on God’s grace…” (194)

Your job is not only to repent in the most heartfelt way possible, but to GO ON repenting daily, in cooperation with the renovating work of the Holy Spirit.  In his typically cheerful manner, Arndt concludes:  “…a true Christian life is nothing other…than a continual mortification of the flesh.” (196)

Book Two goes on to flesh out the nature of Life in Christ, focusing more on Christ’s role than our role.  In a more mild and comforting vein, Arndt assures us that “We are moved to repentance, because God is gracious, merciful, patient, full of great goodness, and will not punish us from the moment we are sorry for our sins.”  (305)

Book Three returns to the interior life.  This book is “intended to point out how you are to seek and find the kingdom of God in yourself.” (221)  In describing a “path” to true Christianity he eschews the way of the Doctos (man who learns through learning and disputation), and holds up the way of the Sanctos (man who learns through prayer and love) (222).  He stresses the need for a “refined, silent and peaceful soul,” (223) and a turning from too much company and towards the “inner Sabbath of the heart.” (224)

Book Four deals with the witnesses God has left of himself, in the world and man.  Parables, sacraments, provision for our physical needs were all intended by God as “natural” witnesses of his goodenss, intended to lead us to him.  He expounds on the six days of creation, drawing out with loving care some of these natural witnesses.

personal comments and questions for class discussions

I have scattered questions and comments through the following interaction with the text.  A lot of my reactions however, are either (1) things I’ve often wondered about in my own spiritual life (intended for devotional reflection) or (2) things I’ve noted for my nascent PhD thesis direction (which falls under the impossibly broad concept of what I’ve called “Experiential Apologetic.”  I know, it’s an oxymoron…)  So, to summarize a few comments for class discussion:

Human agency in repentance

Does Arndt place too great a stress on human agency in the work of repentance (particularly on the interior “sorrowing” he feels must precede repentance itself)?

Does the act of mortification always predeed the birth of virtue in our spirit?

Secondly, whether the agency is primarily God’s or primarily humans’, does the practice of renewal or sanctification always proceed by the pattern of:  we mortify a sin, and God provides a virtue to take its place?  Arndt says, ‘If pride dies in you, humility will be awakened through the Spirit of God.  If wrath dies, meekness will be planted in its place.  If covetousness dies, trust in God will be increased in you….As a result, a man must deny himself…’ (83)

I’m not sure things always necessarily happen in this order.  I think God by his grace sometimes reverses the order.  Or to put it differently, if I take hold of the words of the Sermon and the Mount about trust in God, and allow them to operate in me by the grace of God, covetousness will die, or if I take hold of Jesus’ example of humility, and by his grace allow it to operate in me, the Holy Spirit will flood that area, and pride will be flushed out, etc.  Granted in most areas the act of practicing the positive trait involves pushing out the negative (or ‘killing it’ in ourselves).  He has grounds for this order:  many scriptures tell us to ‘rid ourselves’ of this or that sin.  I just think the box is too small for God’s sanctifying Spirit, which often works in surprising ways.  It is too strenuous and too negative.  It might therefore (and this is the worst thing about this approach) dissuade Christians or non-Christians from following Arndt in his many positive contributions.  Having found him to be “baptized in pickle juice,” they may not stick around to find out the wonderful truths in what he says.

For a seeming contradiction to the “mortification-then-grace” picture, how about this:  ‘The man who practices love is truly free in his heart and is no servant of wrath, envy, covetousness, usury and mammon, pride, lying or slander, nor does he owe his body to these.’ (129)  Here he seems to affirm that the positive practice of love automatically drives out many sins.

Interrelationship of God’s agency and man’s agency in sanctification

More broadly, I’d like to ask:  How do the agency of God and the agency of man interrelate in the sanctification of a Christian, according to Arndt? (Book I, Chapter 11, and many other places)

Anabaptist connection

Was there some connection between Arndt and the Anabaptists?  I ask this because they both have this stress on discipleship, or continuing post-salvation transformation through holy living.

Divine image lost completely at the fall

In describing the effects of the fall on humanity, Arndt is adamant (no pun intended), that humans lost the image of the divine entirely, and took on the image of Adam, which is sin.  He says that after the fall, we are all “completely carnal and diseased.”  My question:  does nothing remain of the image of God?  If not, whence the good acts of ungodly men and women towards their families, the poor, etc.?  (Book I, Chapter 2, also pp. 80, 82)


Does Arndt believe that Christians can lose their salvation by lacking a repentant lifestyle, and thus heading into darkness? (Book I, Chapter 7)


Is Arndt apt to be too ascetic, for example, in teaching that we should “consider pleasures as worthless, and draw [ourselves] away from all that is…beautiful in the world.” (p. 67)  Or again, that ‘A true Christian…knows well that a man has no right to anything that comes down from above…Therefore, he makes use of everything with fear and trembling…ONLY FOR WHAT IS NECESSARY AND NOT FOR PLEASURE…’ (Book I, Chapter 15)

This seems to make God dour and demanding—a contrast to Christ at the Cana wedding, or the God of creation who declared all things Good.  We have no evidence that pre-fall Adam lived like this.  When God made the world for Adam to enjoy, he said it was GOOD.  He didn’t say anything about being careful, Adam, not to take pleasure in any of this stuff.

And why was Christ called a winebibber and a glutton if he “mortified” his own flesh to the extent that Arndt and his Catholic antecedents conclude he did?  As Arndt claims, “What is Christ’s life other than holy poverty, external rejection, and the highest pain?” (67)  If Christ’s life was as he describes here, we have a few stories to explain about Jesus eating fish sandwiches on the beach, or partying with the tax collectors!

My feeling about this is that Christ did suffer all things as the result of man’s sin—he suffered them in identification with us.  But he did not intend to model such sufferings as normative for the Christian.  Now, a possible reconciliation with Arndt and other ascetics is to say that we must commit ourselves to not SEEKING first these fleshly pleasures, as the carnal person does, but rather seeking God first, then enjoying his world and his provision.  The sin of a carnal person is NOT, after all, that he seeks pleasures, but that he rejects God.

So, if we seek God first, and also enjoy the pleasures that he bestows on us (good food, family, sunshine and the beauties of nature, and all these things that the flesh undeniably enjoys and yearns for), then are we guilty of an incomplete or inadequate repentance?  I think not!  Scripture says, ‘seek first the Kingdom of God and his Righteousness and all these things will be added to you.’  We are culpable if we seek all those things first, rather than God.  We are NOT culpable simply for enjoying the things of the flesh, or for looking forward to enjoying them!

a seeming “internal dualism”

Regarding Chapter 16, which suggests that we have within us two persons (“men” in his non-gender-neutral language), always at war—the “inner” and the “outer”:  Can the “flesh” be properly said to be a fully-formed “man” within us, always at war with the goodness and virtue of our renewed spiritual nature?  Is this what Paul meant to imply by the “other law” within him?  Leaving aside the question of whether Paul was referring to Christians or non-Christians (although I am convinced he was referring to himself as a Christian), do we need to accept this kind of dualism, or are we really made over completely in salvation, with only a set of fleshly HABITS remaining, a remnant of our old thoroughly rotten nature?

God’s condition for forgiveness, and our position as members of a body

I just think the following is so great, I have to comment on it:

“…why does the Lord not forgive us, if we do not forgive our brother?  Not for His sake, for the sins of the whole world were done away with at once, and perfect forgiveness was achieved through the death of Jesus.  But FOR OUR BROTHERS’ SAKE!…If we thought about this, we would never become angry with our fellowman and would not allow the sun to go down on our wrath (Eph 4:26) (130)

Yes indeed!  We are made for community, and God does not deal with us as if we were separate from others.  He has ‘bound us to the love of our neighbors.  He does not wish to be loved by us, aside from the love of our neighbors.’  Our atomized, individualist North American culture (and church!) needs to hear this in a big way.  This single statement (that we are made Christians in community) is also a huge and strong foundation for much of Christian ethics, as Hauerwas has observed.

Overall personal response

I appreciate Arndt’s reintegrative aims—that is, to reintegrate for the Christian affections with reason, and theology with life.  I do feel that in the effort to achieve balance in these areas he has tended to overbalance on the other side of the boat:  that is, intense focus on interior, emotional repentance as a human work, and on asceticism as the only road for us as Christians, since we retain our complete “Adam-natures” even after salvation.  More specifically:

I still wonder after reading Arndt whether he has really succeeded in reconciling practical, interior, affective, repentance-centered Christianity with the message of justification by faith alone.  Arndt seems to make repentance the precondition for almost everything in Christian life, and to portray repentance in terms of human emotion and effort.  Whether technically this amounts to a compromise with justification by faith alone, it certainly has the practical effect of focusing the reader’s attention on our works in the practice of the faith.  In other words, frequent protestations of orthodoxy do not necessarily keep Arndt out of works-righteousness trouble, particularly when he paints the progression:  self-wrought sorrow precedes true repentance, and repentance precedes the fits of grace and faith from God through Jesus.

From Arndt’s almost claustrophobic focus on original sin and its effects in the fallen nature of man, he proceeds almost inevitably to the doctrine that there is nothing good—that is nothing remaining of the divine image—in fallen man.  This causes at least a phenomenological problem, as we then must account for the many apparently good, loving actions of the non-Christian people we know.  I do not think he makes his case adequately here.  In fact, he admits that mother-love, for example, is a direct gift of God without which society would crumble.  But how could such a gift remain and operate in a wholly corrupt person?

Related to this point, it seems to me that Arndt gives up too much of the goodness of creation, and God’s intention that creation should be enjoyed by people, as long as their focus is first on Him.  To Arndt, it is a sin for a Christian to take pleasure in anything, because [he argues] Christ lived a life of complete misery, and we are to follow Christ’s example.  I don’t buy the assumption about Christ, and I don’t buy the argument.  This dour, forbidding God does not seem to be the same one who said “I came that you might have life, and have it more abundantly.”

On the positive side, I find his stress on such cardinal Christian virtues as humility and meekness refreshing in this time of born-again arrogance.  Through Arndt, I can reclaimed in a [more] balanced way the good points of Catholic morality as lived by the Francis’s and A Kempis’s.  Certainly, renewed respect for these virtues today would throw a much-needed searchlight on the self-satisfying, comfortable “Bless-me-anity” of today’s American church.  I would say the same about Arndt’s ascetic tendencies.  Though I think he is too sweeping and categorical about mortification, he does recapture self-denial as a valid spiritual tool, and a prerequisite for certain kinds of Christian growth [to be tempered with the knowledge that God desires not sacrifice but obedience!]  In a culture built on capitalist pandering, and a church less and less separate from that culture, this is a refreshing message.

This man Arndt, for all his moralist/ascetic/works-centered tendencies, has the right medicine for a world of comfort-centered Christians hung over after a long binge on cheap grace—which is about as healthy and fulfilling and lasting as cheap sherry glugged in a back alley.  (Compare this to the wine of the wedding feast enjoyed eternally in the fellowship of divine love—made possible by the outworking of righteousness and holiness in our lives in community, by the Holy Spirit)!

Finally, I find Arndt’s stress on Christian practice versus disengaged doctrine absolutely priceless and necessary.  As he says, “No one can know what love is, except the person who does it and has it himself.  Thus the knowledge of each thing arises out of experience, out of the act and discovery…He who does not practice love does not know what love is, even if he speaks much about it.” (164)

It is like John 7:17, “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own…”  If you want to know if my words are true, DO them!  Christianity is so PRACTICAL, it’s hard to see how people can be so scared of works, on the mere technicality that they cannot themselves buy salvation.  Of course they can’t!  Let’s get over that!  But the terrified works-righteous monks of the middle ages were probably, many of them, better Christians than most of us, because they were willing to give their lives away to Him in the intense pursuit of DOING his word!  It is nice to be able to approach some of the wisdom of the Catholics through a writer like Arndt.  Like the scholastic Lutherans, we are in danger of becoming a generation who have built our houses on the sand.  We tend to Hear his words, but don’t do them.

The corrective to Arndt’s imbalance in the direction of works is probably to remember the role of the Holy Spirit, and trust in Christ to take the lead in sanctification, rather than “mortifying our flesh” and thrashing ourselves with threatened doom and separation from Christ when we fail (as we will again and again.)  The open door of forgiveness is always there.  Arndt is perhaps afraid to point the way to that door, fearing that those who see it and know how to walk through it will fall back into Antinomianism.

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