What Became of Luther’s German Church (A Book Review of Philipp Jacob Spener, Pia Desideria)

Pia Desideria. By Philipp Jacob Spener. Leipzig: Karl Franz Köhler, 1841. 211 pages.

Philipp Jacob Spener was a Lutheran parish minister in Frankfurt on the Main, Germany. He was born near Strasburg in 1635. Devout from childhood, Spener devoured Puritan classics and lived a careful and strict life. He pursued an extensive education culminating in a Doctorate of Theology. His pastoral career was unanticipated: he had intended to teach. He is the father of German Pietism, and Pia Desideria is the chief exemplar of his spiritual program.

Seventeenth-century Protestantism was a turbulent environment. In England, religious dissent prompted a civil war in which Oliver Cromwell deposed and executed Charles I. In America, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was persecuting and exiling Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, John Clarke, and Obadiah Holmes. Germany suffered the tragedies of the Thirty Years War. The constant conflict of warring sects focused the energy and creativity of many Christians upon doctrinal disputes.

Spener witnessed a decline in the vitality of Lutheranism during his lifetime. He believed that spiritual and ecclesiastical vitality came when individual Christians pursued the simple spiritual disciplines of personal piety. In a passage from the introduction Spener contrasted his spiritual priorities with those he perceived in the culture:

Let us consider that we will not be asked in the last judgment how we were taught and have offered our learning to the world, in what favor men loved us and how much we knew how to keep their love, for what things we were exalted and how great a name we left behind in the world, or how much we collected our treasure in earthly goods and thereby have drawn the curse upon ourselves. Instead, we will be asked how faithfully and with how much of a simple heart we sought to expand the Kingdom of God, with how pure and godly a teaching and worthy an example in the disdain of the world, denial of ourselves, taking up of the cross, and following our Savior, we sought to build up our hearer, with what zeal we set ourselves against not only error but also godlessness of living, or with what consistency and joyfulness we endured the persecution or adversity put upon us by the openly godless world or by false brothers and in such suffering have praised our God.1

Pia Desideria is more sermon than treatise. It calls German Lutherans to action. As a call to action, its effectiveness lies not in its originality or even its accuracy, but in the response of its readers. The title, which simply means “pious desires,” was not original: Herman Hugo had published a book under the same name in 1624. The content of the book broke little new ground. Jean de Labadie’s La Reformation de l’Église par le Pastorat covers many of the same themes, and Spener himself never tried to assert the work as a piece of original thought. More significant is the fact that Pia Desideria sparked a reform and revival movement in Germany.

Spener wrote the work in three sections. The first is his “Overview of the Corrupt State of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.”2 Spener addressed his critique to all conscientious Christians. First he surveyed the faults of the worldly officials. Spener was no Baptist: he envisioned no separation of religious and civil authority. Instead, he called upon the civil leadership to embrace and encourage adherence to the first table of the law as well as the second. Spener did note a problem that had earlier led Roger Williams to advocate religious liberty for all. Spener complained that those civil authorities who did possess zeal for the first table of the law tended to encourage dead, formalistic compliance rather than promoting true religious sentiment. He surmised that many of these authorities enforced religious laws only out of political self-interest. Spener linked these officials with the Papists who had opposed the German Reformation, and in doing so he leveled an accusation that any Lutheran would have received soberly.

From his brief indictment of civil authorities, Spener promptly moved to a much lengthier critique of spiritual authorities in Germany. The appearance of outward moral scandal among the clergy was rampant and debilitating, yet Spener was not calling for mere outward moral reform. He feared that many of the clergy were unacquainted with “true Christianity (which entails more than abstaining from vices and remaining in an apparently good life).”3 Essentially, Spener is claiming that the Evangelical Lutheran clergy are no better than the German Catholic clergy were before the Gregorian reforms. He offers the same catalogue of complaints that one would expect in the day of Henry IV: the clergy are corrupt; they clamor for powerful and lucrative offices; they neglect pastoral duties in favor of personal pursuits; they undervalue personal piety. Spener did add a distinctively post-Reformation complaint when he alleged that the German Lutheran clergy were largely unaware of the true nature of salvation. They prized outward conformity over earnest, inward godliness. Most significantly, Spener accused the clergy of devoting their time and energy to theological disputations (with the Calvinists) rather than inculcating personal faith in their charges. He called for Lutheran ministers to focus once more on building Christians rather than defeating Calvinists.

Consequently, the heads of households,4 lacking regulation from the civil authorities and edification from the spiritual authorities, were ill equipped to build godly homes. Spener primarily faulted the common people for defects in their morality. Drunkenness, lawsuits, heartless mercantilism, and a neglect of spiritual service are too prevalent among the Germans. The people did not adequately attend to the sacraments. They did not grow spiritually.

Spener designed Pia Desideria to appeal to Lutherans. He argued that the German people had squandered the spiritual heritage of the great Reformer. They had left Roman Catholicism, which Spener compared to the Babylonian Captivity, but they had not pressed forward to build the godly church that Luther had envisions. In Spener’s analogy, they had returned to the Promised Land but had not bothered to reconstruct the temple.

The second section, “On the Hope of a Better State of the Church,”5 directly counters those who acknowledged the corrupt state of the Evangelical Lutheran Church but did not believe that a better church was humanly possible. Such people advocated a resigned ambivalence toward German spiritual decline. Spener countered on two fronts. First, he invoked some optimistic eschatological passages in the Bible to imply that God had promised the potential of widespread renewal. Specifically, Spener believed that a mass conversion of German Jews might be imminent. Second, he reasserted the validity of paraenetic passages in the Bible, calling upon the church to recognize the real authority of scriptural injunctions to live a godly life. The Bible would not command such things if we were not justified in pursuing obedience.

The heart of Pia Desideria is the final section. Here Spener detailed six concrete proposals for Lutheran reform. First, he called Evangelical Lutherans back to the scriptures, demanding intensive Bible study in the church. In this section Spener sanctioned regular assemblies for the study of the scriptures. This proposal led to the establishment of the collegia pietatis. Second, Spener asserted the priesthood of all Christians. He assailed the stronghold of clerical privilege and advocated a greater role for the laity. Third, he reminded the Lutherans that true Christianity consists of practice, not knowledge alone. Fourth, he requested an end to destructive theological controversies. Fifth, he posited universities as a key institution to effect the spiritual reform of the clergy.

The Pia Desideria forms a critical juncture in the history of German Christianity. In composing this work, Spener drew from the German mysticism that had held sway in the Rhineland for several centuries. Pia Desideria, with its strident tone and emphasis upon clerical reform and lay piety, is reminiscent of Hildegard of Bingen’s Scivias. Perhaps its widespread popularity is at least partially dependent upon the Germanness of the book. August Hermann Francke succeeded Spener and brought Pietism to an even greater state of maturity.

Spener’s style is complex and unwieldy, even for a work in German. Kurt Aland’s critical edition of the text is the most dependable, although no serious textual difficulties plague the work. Most editions include a helpful array of notes. The apparatus will be especially useful for the reader who is unfamiliar with the literature, personalities, and events of seventeenth-century Germany (added note for the blog: “, but not at all helpful for the reader who is blessedly unfamiliar with German”).6

1Spener, 6: “Lasset uns gedenken, daß dermaleinst nicht werde gefragt werden, wie gelehrt wir gewesen, und solches der Welt vorgelegt haben; in welcher Gunst der Menschen wir gelebt, und dieselbe zu erhalten gewußt; in was für Ehren wir geschwebt und großen Namen der Welt hinterlassen; wie viel wir den Unsern Schatze von irdischen Gütern gesammelt, und damit den Fluch auf uns gezogen haben: sondern, wie treulich und mit wie einfältigem herzen wir das Reich Gottes zu befördern getrachtet, mit wie reiner, gottseliger Lehre sodann und würdigen Exempeln in Berschmähung der Welt, Berleugnung unsrer selbst, Aufnehmung des kreuzes und Nachfolge unsers heilandes wir unsrer Zuhörer Erbauung gesucht; mit welchem Eifer wir uns nicht nur ben Irrthümern, sondern auch der Gottlosigheit des Lebens widersezt; mit welcher Beständigkeit und Freubigkeit wir die beswegen von der offenbar gottlosen Welt oder von falschen Brüdern zugestoßene Berfolgung oder Ungemach getragen und unsern Gott in solchen Leiben gepriesen haben.”

2Spener, 8: “Übersicht des verderbten Zustandes der evangelischen Kirche.”

3Spener, 15: “ welche das wahre Christentum—das ja nicht bloß in Enthaltung von außerlichen Lastern, und einem sittlich guten Leben bestehet—recht verstehen und üben.”


5Spener, 49: “Von der Hoffnung eines bessern Zustandes der Kirche.” Some older German texts only divided the text into two sections; therefore, this section appears as the sixth chapter of section one in these editions. The Aland text rightfully divides this into a separate section.

6Yes, this is nothing more than my reprinting an old book review that I wrote back in 2003. Yes, posting it amounts to the laziest form of blogging out there (second only to my not posting anything). But it nonetheless seemed relevant in this season, and so I decided to post it.

Talk Amongst Yourselves: What Is Going on in the SBC?

Would that it was not so, but controversy drives SBC blogs.

We try to write on a variety of topics here. I am doing a series of posts on the Holy Spirit, which is not exactly breaking records – but I forge ahead! We write devotional posts, theological posts, political posts. We write about sports (if the Yankees come back against Houston, just wait to see how I blast Barber and Blosser. If it keeps going bad, sports will be banned). But when there is some kind of denominational brouhaha, our traffic explodes. We set records earlier this year due to some of the controversies going on in the spring.

But right now, there seems to be a quiet settled over the SBC. Are things slow everywhere or am I just out of the loop?

Admittedly, my life has been distracting recently and I have been less engaged here. Plus, I made a choice a couple of years ago to simply ignore the blogs I felt were strife-mongers. People would come to be breathless with horror at what this person or that wrote. Someone gave some good parenting advice years ago. Ignore children when they throw tantrums. It works with blogs, too.

But I am not interested in hearing about controversies today. Let’s not rake muck. In fact, I am just wondering what is happening in the SBC. Up here in the soon-to-be-frozen Iowa, I often have no idea what is going on. How are things in your association, your state? What do you see that is good? That could be better?

Boiled down, what I really want to know is simple. Statistically, the SBC isn’t doing that great. But in your neck of the woods…

How are things going in the SBC? 


Will (should) tax reform reform the clergy housing allowance?

Guarranteed to stir the clergy masses into paroxisms of righteous indignation would be if congress, as a part of a comprehensive tax reform, attempted to make changes to our Sacred Clergy Tax Break, the minister’s housing allowance.

It’s a little early to speculate but, as pundits are want to do, there is speculation afoot: Tax Breaks Could Kill Tax Reform

There are special tax breaks for ministers and veterans and life insurance companies and blind people and gamblers. If you’re robbed or you have huge medical bills or you’re in a shipwreck or you ride your bike to work, you get a tax break.

There may be more than one tax break for ministers but the big dog tax break is our housing allowance which allows ministers to exclude a significant portion of their income from income taxes. (There are two types of this: one applies to ministers who live in church owned housing, parsonages, and another where ministers live in their owned or rented housing and receive a cash HA. The current HA lawsuit and most discussion centers on the cash HA.)

I’ve seen estimates that the cash housing allowance costs the U. S. treasury around $800 million. Some think it is higher but my CPA tax blogging friend, Peter Reilly, far more of an expert than I on this, convincingly argues that the total would be much lower. I’ll go with him on this. If the total savings is half or less of that, why bother? If the goal of reform is to address the more costlier tax breaks then the HA is chump change. The mortgage interest deduction and the state/local tax deductions are in the $70 billion range. Would congress think it to be worth the rancor to go after the humble parson for half a billion or so dollars? Probably not.

If we are apt to make changes to the status quo, I have yet to meet a SBC ministerial colleague who would not trade their cash HA for being considered an employee under Social Security whereby their church would pay them like any ordinary employee and make a matching FICA contribution of 7.65%. This would cut most minister’s SECA quarterly tax bill by half, although it would mean shifting that to their church. Churches, especially small ones, may object to being forced to pay these taxes but I’d guess most would adjust. They may adjust by cutting their pastor’s pay by an equivalent amount but that would be shabby. Some churches know how to be shabby, though. But all this would be Social Security reform, not tax reform and isn’t on the table. Besides, it is odious to some churches to be taxed even if it is a matching contribution for their minister. Complications would abound.

All of this tax reform discussion is with the backdrop of the federal court suit and decision that the HA is unconstitutional. In the suit “our” side, not the aggressive atheists as the Freedom From Religion Foundation has been called, sniffs that the tax break is a freedom of religion matter, not a mundane and pedestrian tax break. Ministers that live in their owned or rented housing, should not be taxed on their housing expenses because they are expected to live close to their employer and to use their housing in part for church purposes. I’m not fully persuaded that this is a winning argument.

I favor the housing allowance and have always used the housing allowance tax break. I did so while living in parsonages, while owning my own housing, and now in my retirement. All is done perfectly legally and properly according to GuideStone’s tax advice.

My stance for some years now has been that the HA is a nice tax break for ministers. It has been called our most important tax break and no one argues with that. The fact that a small proportion of very highly paid ministers are able to exclude hundred of thousands in income from taxes presents a problem, sometimes such is an embarrassing shame to us all. This could be solved by placing a cap on the HA. It is often noted that ministers aren’t the only ones to receive an HA, military personnel do also but their allowances are limited. Clergy housing allowances have no cap. If an enterprising evangelist bought the Biltmore House and raked in enough millions in his or her ministry to put in housing expenses there would be no problem excluding it all.

For now, churches are preparing their 2018 budgets. I recommend that all of my SBC ministerial colleagues review their housing expenses and work with their churches to be sure they are taking full advantage of it.


Baptist in the Spirit, Part 4: Old Testament Pentecostal Power?


“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

Those were the last words Jesus spoke before he was taken up into heaven, a promise of power that was fulfilled ten days later at Pentecost when the Spirit baptized the church with the promised power and its Great Commission work commenced. We focus on certain words in Acts 1:8. Power. Witnesses. The Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and the ends of the earth progression. But our focus here will be on two words in the first clause – “come on.”

This wording that Jesus uses to describe the Baptism of the Spirit that was awaiting them is plucked out of the pages of the Old Testament. It was used commonly when the Spirit would enter a servant of God to speak a message for God, perform a task for him, or serve him in some other capacity. When there was a special work that God was going to do, he would send his Spirit to fill a human servant and accomplish that task.

There are both similarities and differences between the phenomenon in the Old Testament and the New. But as we see what happened in the Old Testament we can better understand the work of the Spirit on Pentecost. Perhaps the most complete description of this took place in the life of the first king of Israel, Saul, and is recorded in 1 Samuel 10:6-7.

5 “After that you will come to Gibeah of God where there are Philistine garrisons. When you arrive at the city, you will meet a group of prophets coming down from the high place prophesying. They will be preceded by harps, tambourines, flutes, and lyres. The Spirit of the Lord will come powerfully on you, you will prophesy with them, and you will be transformed. When these signs have happened to you, do whatever your circumstances require because God is with you.”

Notice the wording in verse 6. “The Spirit of the Lord will come powerfully on you.” Sounds very similar to Acts 1:8, does it not? The power of God is transferred to human beings when he “comes on” us – indwelling us, filling us, and working through us. None of us can accomplish the work of God without the power of God and the power of God works in us when the Spirit comes on us.

There are three key things happen in this passage that are also true in the New Testament phenomenon of Spirit baptism.

Notice that in verse 6 Samuel tells Saul that when the Spirit comes on him he will be transformed. A person cannot remain the same when the Spirit of the Living God indwells him or her. The very idea of a person coming to Christ for salvation and remaining unchanged until the day he goes to heaven is absurd. When we are “born from above” God sends his Spirit to work in us. We are new creations and the most powerful force in the universe dwells within us. Transformation is going to happen! The Spirit transformed Saul and the Spirit will begin to transform us to conform to the image of Christ.

The second aspect of the Spirit’s work in Saul has already been mentioned. He received power. The Spirit is God’s enabler. Perhaps the dumbest thing people say is, “God will never give you more than you can handle.” In the Bible, every assignment God ever gave anyone was far beyond their ability to handle. God ALWAYS gives you are able to do. But the Spirit of the Living God gives you “dunamis” – the enabling power of God – to do all that God has called you to do. No Christian can say “but I can’t” when it comes to the commands of God. Because of the indwelling Spirit of God, we can.

Finally, and perhaps most controversially, Saul prophesied. The Spirit of God is also the voice of God. He is the means by which God speaks to the human heart. The open communication that Adam and Eve had with God in the Garden was broken by sin, but when the Spirit quickens the human soul, he is able to communicate the word of God to us.

We all agree that the word of God is the source of truth that the Spirit communicates to us. The question is whether the Spirit also communicates details, directions, and specifics to us beyond what is written in Scripture.

But to summarize, the Spirit here had three great works. He transformed God’s people, empowered them for God’s work, and he communicated God’s truth to those people.

There is one key aspect to this story that must be noted here – a difference in the Old Testament and New. We know that Saul received the Spirit, but we also know that later the Spirit left him. In the Old Testament, the Spirit came on a man for the performance of a task and then could leave when that task was finished. Or, in the case of Saul, when a man fell into sin and rebellion, the Spirit would leave.

Remember Psalm 51:11?

Do not banish me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.

That was not hyperbole for David. He had seen it happen in his predecessor’s life and was terrified that God might shelve him as he had Saul. He was begging God not only for forgiveness but for the continuation of the presence of the Holy Spirit in his life and in his work as king. He prayed that because he knew it was a very real possibility that God might remove the Spirit from him.

I have never prayed that prayer, even in my most sinful moment. I have prayed verse 12. “Restore the joy of my salvation.” But I have never begged God not to remove the Spirit because we have the comfort in the New Testament era that the Baptism of the Spirit brings the Spirit at our salvation and he does not leave us or forsake us. That is a motivation to holiness, not an excuse for laziness.

The Spirit Empowered Important Tasks

What were some of the tasks God’s Spirit-empowered? There are many, but a few of them stand as examples.

In Exodus 31, God ordered Israel to build him a house, a tabernacle which would house his presence, a place of worship. Building a tent was not a big deal, but building a tabernacle to house the presence of the Living God was a huge task. So, God set aside two men, Bezalel and Oholiab, to lead the work. In Exodus 31:2-5, Bezalel is filled with the Spirit to empower him to accomplish the task.

“Look, I have appointed by name Bezalel son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. 3 I have filled him with God’s Spirit, with wisdom, understanding, and ability in every craft 4 to design artistic works in gold, silver, and bronze, 5 to cut gemstones for mounting, and to carve wood for work in every craft.”

The Spirit of God empowered them and they did everything just as God commanded, and in Exodus 40:34 it says that the, “glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” The Spirit of God empowered the people of God and the work of God succeeded.

In Numbers 11, Moses was finding the burden of leading God’s people overwhelming, so God helped him out, as recorded in verses 24-25.

Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord. He brought seventy men from the elders of the people and had them stand around the tent. 25 Then the Lord descended in the cloud and spoke to him. He took some of the Spirit that was on Moses and placed the Spirit on the seventy elders. As the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied, but they never did it again.

God took the Holy Spirit who had been working in Moses, empowering him to lead the people of God and placed that Spirit on the seventy elders who were working with him. They were empowered to help him lead well. Why would anyone try to lead God’s people without the fullness of the Spirit of God? It is pointless.

Micah had a tough job to do, proclaiming to the house of Israel their sin and the judgment of God. It was not well-received and did not make him popular. But in Micah 3:8, we read this.

As for me, however, I am filled with power
by the Spirit of the Lord,
with justice and courage,
to proclaim to Jacob his rebellion
and to Israel his sin.

The Spirit of God filled him for the task at hand, strengthening him to preach what needed to be preached to honor God in spite of what anyone in the crowd thought. The courage to obey God when it evokes hate and opposition is a work of the Spirit within.

The work of God is empowered by the Spirit of God. It was true in the Old Testament and it is true today. Our tendency to avoid talking about the Spirit, much worse, to resist spiritual things because of charismania and charismaphobia hamstrings us in the service of God. We need not go to unbiblical extremes but we must not forget that no work of God can be accomplished without the power of God working inside the man or woman of God.

The Spirit Spoke

Both the Hebrew and Greek words for Spirit mean “wind” or “breath” – air in motion. By his very nature, the Spirit is the breath of God, the one who speaks the word of God to us. In the New Testament, we learn that he is the one who inspires and reveals the word and illuminates it to us. But in the Old Testament and Acts, he also speaks to God’s people in a variety of ways.

The question as to whether any of those ways continue or have all passed away will await a discussion after we have looked at the Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles. But the evidence cannot be denied that the Spirit spoke in a wide variety of ways throughout Scripture.

      What the Spirit Said

Holy is not the Spirit’s first name, it is his job description. Even in the Old Testament, he worked to instruct God’s people in holy living and convict them of sin.

In Nehemiah 9, the Levites were recounting goodness of God in Israel’s history and in verse 20 said, “You sent your good Spirit to instruct them.” Verse 30 goes on to say, “You were patient with them for many years, and your Spirit warned them through your prophets, but they would not listen.” The Spirit of God was warning Israel of its sin, convicting them, but they hardened their hearts and didn’t listen. In Psalm 143:10, David cried out, “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. May your gracious Spirit lead me on level ground.” It was the Spirit who would lead David on the level ground of obedience, honoring God every day.

While Amos 3:7 does not mention the Spirit specifically, his work is clearly implied. “Indeed, the Lord God does nothing without revealing his counsel to his servants the prophets.” We say that God works in mysterious ways, and we often cannot understand him, but he revealed himself to Israel and Judah through the prophets and made clear what he was about to do. He did that through the work of the Spirit of God speaking to and through the prophets.

When God had something to say, he used a prophet, or he spoke directly to one of his people by the Spirit. Obviously, there were anomalous moments when he sent angels, but those were the exceptions, not the rule.

       How the Spirit Spoke

God spoke in many ways, but it was the work of the Spirit that was behind them.

He spoke in dreams and visions. In Genesis 41 and Daniel 4, God spoke first to Joseph and later to Daniel to reveal the interpretation of dreams. The kings to whom they shared their revelation recognized that this ability came from “the spirit of the holy gods.” Should that be a capital s and should it be translated “God?” Those are interpretational, not grammatical questions. Either is possible. The fact that pagan kings spoke the words may lead us to the small letters. But clearly, it was God’s Spirit behind this, revealing God’s truth to Joseph and Daniel. Ezekiel repeatedly credits the Spirit for his visions.

He spoke directly to the human mind. It would be nice if this were better defined, but it is not. “God said,” is a phrase used commonly in both the Old Testament and New, but we are never told how that happened, except perhaps on the mountain when God’s finger wrote on the tablet. Did they hear an audible voice? I believe it was more of an “inner voice” in which the Spirit spoke to the mind of man. But it was clear – not some kind of charlatan fortune-teller’s “impressions.” God spoke clearly, so clearly that quotes can be put around what he said! He revealed detailed plans (the Ark, the Tabernacle and Temple, battle plans) and made the details of his will very clear.

The people of God were never left to figure it out on their own. God not only told them what he was doing, but he gave them specific, details instructions about their part in the plan.

He spoke through prophecy. When God’s people or the nations around them needed a message from God, the Spirit of God spoke a prophetic word directly to those people – specific, targeted, and convicting, calling them to repent and return to God.

As Hebrews 1:1 says, there was a great variety in the ways that God spoke through his prophets, by his Spirit.

A Concluding Thought

Consider this point as we conclude this topic. In the Old Testament, the Spirit of God came on believers to empower them for special and important tasks. If someone received the Spirit, God had something big in store for him! So, if God has given us the Spirit permanently, does that not mean that our Great Commission work is special and important every day? There is not a day or moment of your life that doesn’t matter. Since God has given you the Spirit for every second of your life, every second counts!

Never take for granted the constant presence of the power of God that dwells in you!



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