The Pia Desideria or “Heartfelt Desire for God-pleasing Reform” is the classic statement of Pietism. First published in 1675 by Philip Jacob Spener of Frankfurt on Main, it is both a devotional work and a textbook on church renewal.

The churches in Germany in the century following the Reformation were weakened by sacramentalism and confessionalism and the clergy frequently engaged in endless theological disputes. Morality and spirituality among individual members were at a low ebb.

Influenced by earlier Pietistic writers in England and Germany, Spener took advantage of a Frankfurt publisher’s invitation to write a preface for a new edition of Johann Arndt’s True Christianity. As was his custom, Spener discussed his assignment with his fellow ministers and submitted his manuscript in 1675. His remarks, dedicated to all officials and pastors won immediate acclaim and within six months he published the preface separately under its own title, “Pious Desires.” In this seminal work, Spener responded to the spiritual conditions he observed with a sixfold program of church renewal. His principal concern was the “scandalous worldliness” of the churches and his hope for renewal was based on the conversion of Jews to Christianity in the first century churches.

The work is divided into three sections. In the first, Spener comments on the prevailing political, economic, and religious conditions in German Lutheranism. He is especially critical of the contemporary view of the Lord’s Supper, confession, and absolution. He notes the disregard among Christians for the rising problems of drinking and adultery. In a second short section, Spener outlines his hope for the improvement of the church. While it might not be possible to realize the ideal, the author is convinced that the church must seek it earnestly and always try to approximate the ideal.

In the third and key section of the Pia. Spener sets forth six concrete measures for church reform. In brief these are:

1. A more serious attempt to spread the Word of God. Pastors should preach from the entire Bible and Christians should meet in small groups to study the Bible.

2. The Lutheran doctrine of the priesthood of all believers should receive a new emphasis. The differences between the laity and clergy should be minimized. The clergy in particular should recognize that their calling involves Bible study, teaching, reproving and consoling and a personal, holy life.

3. More attention should be given to the cultivation of individual spiritual life. Love for God and man should take priority over theological disputes. Knowledge is secondary to practice.

4. Truth is not established in disputes but through repentance and a holy life.

5. Candidates for the ministry should be “true Christians.” Their training should include small groups for devotional life and personal Bible study.

6. Sermons should not show the preacher’s erudition, but attempt to edify believers and produce the effects of faith.

In the section reprinted below from his fourth proposal, Spener discusses a proper attitude to religious disputes. It was an age of religious controversy, and opponents were usually treated with invective and insult. In sharp contrast, Spener affirmed that truth is established not in disputes, but through through repentance and a holy life.

We must beware how we conduct ourselves in religious controversies with unbelievers and heretics. We must first take pains to strengthen and confirm ourselves, our friends, and other fellow believers in the known truth and to protect them with great care from every kind of seduction. Then we must remind ourselves of our duty toward the erring.

We owe it to the erring, first of all, to pray earnestly that the good God may enlighten them with the same light with which he blessed us, may lead them to the truth, may prepare their hearts for it or, having counteracted their dangerous errors, may reinforce what true knowledge of salvation in Christ they still have left in order that they may be saved as a brand plucked from the fire. This is the meaning of the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, that God may hallow his name in them, bring his kingdom to them, and accomplish his gracious will in and for them.

In the second place, we must give them a good example and take the greatest pains not to offend them in any way, for this would give them a bad impression of our true teaching and hence would make their conversion more difficult.

In the third place. if God has given us the gifts which are needful for it and we find the opportunity to hope to win the erring, we should be glad to do what we can to point out, with a modest but firm presentation of the truth we profess, how this is based on the simplicity of Christ’s teaching. At the same time we should indicate decently but forcefully how their errors conflict with the Word of God and what dangers they carry in their wake. All of this should be done in such a way that those with whom we deal can see for themselves that everything is done out of heartfelt love toward them, without carnal and unseemly feelings, and that if we ever indulge in excessive vehemence this occurs out of pure zeal for the glory of God. Especially should we beware of invectives and personal insinuations, which at once tear down all the good we have in mind to build. If we see that we have made something of a beginning in this fashion, we should be so much the more energetic in advancing what has begun, perhaps with the assistance of others. On the other hand, if we see that they have been so captivated by their preconceived notions that, although we perceive in them a disposition to serve God gladly without being able for the present to comprehend what we have said, they are to be admonished at the very least not to slander or speak evil of the truth which they have heard from us, to reflect further on the matter in the fear of the Lord and with fervent prayer, and in the meantime to try seriously to advance in the truth and to serve their God according to the practical principles and rules of conduct which most people who call themselves Christians have to some extent in common.

To this should be added, in the fourth place, a practice of heartfelt love toward all unbelievers and heretics. While we should indicate to them that we take no pleasure in their unbelief or false belief or the practice and propagation of these, but rather are vigorously opposed to them, yet in other things which pertain to human life we should demonstrate that we consider these people to be our neighbors (as the Samaritan was represented by Christ in Luke 10:29–37 as the Jew’s neighbor), regard them as our brothers according to the right of common creation and the divine love that is extended to all (though not according to regeneration), and therefore are so disposed in our hearts toward them as the command to love all others as we love ourselves demands. To insult or wrong an unbeliever or heretic on account of his religion would be not only a carnal zeal but also a zeal that is calculated to hinder his conversion. A proper hatred of false religion should neither suspend nor weaken the love that is due the other person.

In the fifth place, if there is any prospect of a union of most of the confessions among Christians, the primary way of achieving it, and the one that God would bless most, would perhaps be this, that we do not stake everything on argumentation, for the present disposition of men’s minds, which are filled by as much fleshly as spiritual zeal, makes disputation fruitless. It is true that defense of the truth, and hence also argumentation, which is part of it, must continue in the church together with other things instituted to build it up. Before us are the holy examples of Christ, the apostles, and their successors, who engaged in disputation—that is, vigorously refuted opposing errors and defended the truth. The Christian church would be plunged into the greatest danger if anybody wished to remove and repudiate this necessary use of the spiritual sword of the Word of God, insofar as its use against false teachings is concerned. Nevertheless, I adhere to the splendidly demonstrated assertion of our sainted Arndt in his True Christianity. “Purity of doctrine and of the Word of God is maintained not only by disputation and writing many books but also by true repentance and holiness of life.” The two preceding chapters are also related to this insight: “He who does not follow Christ in faith, holiness, and continued repentance cannot be delivered from the blindness of his heart but must abide in eternal darkness, nor can he have a true knowledge of Christ or fellowship with him. An unchristian life leads to false doctrine, hardness of heart, and blindness.”

I therefore hold (1) that not all disputation is useful and good. What our sainted Luther said holds at times: “Truth is lost not by teaching but by disputing, for disputations bring with them this evil, that men’s souls are, as it were, profaned, and when they are occupied with quarrels they neglect what is most important.” How often the disputants themselves are persons without the Spirit and faith, filled with carnal wisdom drawn from the Scriptures, but not instructed by God! (For all knowledge which we take from the Scriptures with our own natural powers and merely human efforts, without the light of the Holy Spirit, is a carnal wisdom, else we would have to say that reason is capable of divine wisdom.) What is to be expected from such disputants? How often is unholy fire brought into the sanctuary of the Lord?—that is, an unholy intent, directed not to God’s glory but to man’s. But such sacrifices are not pleasing to God. On the contrary, they call forth his curse, and nothing is achieved by such disputing. How often is the principle of such disputation not investigation and discovery of truth, but rather obstinate assertion of what has once been proposed, reputation for a shrewd intellect and for ingeniousness, and conquest of an opponent, no matter how this is achieved? An opponent is so annoyed by this that, although he may not be able to answer, the manner of proceeding against him, the carnal emotions, the insults, and the like, all of which are observed and all of which savor of natural man, hinder the hoped for conversion. If one were properly to investigate the disputing which has been going on, one would find now this and now that to be at fault. One may well believe that this is the reason why all that was expected has not been achieved by this method. Disputation has in fact become so distasteful that an unseemly loathing of it has developed, and what is the fault of its abuse tends to be ascribed to disputation.

Just as all disputing is not praiseworthy and useful, so (2) proper disputation is not the only means of maintaining the truth but requires other means alongside it. Even if one resolves to limit debate to occasions in which everything is well arranged and confine it to that which is the sole and entire purpose of disputation (namely, the defense of true teaching and the refutation of the false opinions which are opposed to it in order that human reason may recognize that the former doctrine, as it is stated, conforms with the Word of God and the latter opinions do not conform), God may not add his blessing, nor will he always allow the truth to prevail. This is the case with those whose thoughts hardly extend beyond making many people Lutheran and do not deem it important that with this profession such people become genuine Christians to the very core. They therefore regard true confession of faith merely as a means of strengthening their own ecclesiastical party and not as an entrance upon a life of zealous future service of God. If the glory of God is to be properly advanced, disputation must be directed toward the goal of converting opponents and applying the truth which has been defended to a holy obedience and a due gratitude toward God. Such a convictio intellectus or conviction of truth is far from being faith. Faith requires more. The intention must be there to add whatever is necessary to convert the erring and remove whatever is a hindrance to him. Above all, there must be a desire, in promoting God’s glory, to apply to ourselves and to all others what we hold to be true, and in this light to serve God. The glorious sayings of Christ belong here: “If any man’s will is to do his will (namely, the Father’s who sent him), he shall know whether the teaching is from God’ or whether I am speaking on my own authority” (John 7:17). Here our Savior says that nobody is really assured in his heart of the divine truth of his own teaching unless the will is also there to do the Father’s will, and so it is not a matter merely of knowledge. “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31–32). “He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me: and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (John 14:21).

From all this it becomes apparent that disputing is not enough either to maintain the truth among ourselves or to impart it to the erring. The holy love of God is necessary. If only we Evangelicals would make it our serious business to offer God the fruits of his truth in fervent love, conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of our calling, and show this in recognizable and unalloyed love of our neighbors, including those who are heretics, by practicing the duties mentioned above! If only the erring, even if they cannot as yet grasp the truth which we bear witness to, would make an effort (and we ourselves should point them in this direction) to begin to serve God, in love of God and fellow man, at least to the extent of the knowledge which they may still have from Christian instruction! There is no doubt that God would then allow us to grow more and more in our knowledge of the truth, and also give us the pleasure of seeing others, whose error we now lament, alongside us in the same faith. For the Word of God has the power, if it is not viciously impeded either by those who declare it or by those who hear it, to convert men’s hearts. Thus holiness of life itself contributes much to conversion, as Peter teaches (1 Pet. 3:1–2).