Essay / On This Day

Gerhard Tersteegen (1697-1769), Pietist

Today is the anniversary of the death of Gerhard Tersteegen (born 1697, died April 3, 1769), the most pious pietist of pietism’s piousness.

Somehow, the words “pious” and “pietism” have been turned into dirty words in contemporary usage. I don’t know how that happened to perfectly good words. Maybe where you live, you are suffocating in a Christian culture that is marked by otherworldliness. Maybe you’re surrounded by people who are so detached from the values system of a sick and dying culture that they seem out of touch with current events and the contemporary mind. Maybe the greatest threat to the church in our day is that Christians are spending so much time in prayer and communion with God that they don’t have enough time to acquaint themselves with the latest fascinations and entertainments. I keep hearing warnings to that effect, but I can’t remember the last time I met somebody “so heavenly-minded they were no earthly good.”

As for pietism, it seems to me that it has been a force for renewal in the life of the church for centuries. Even after the passing of the golden age of the Pietist Movement, the modes of spirituality it introduced have continued to feed christian devotion, action, and reflection across a broad range of traditions. I think the abiding promise of Pietism can be seen in three strengths of the movement which are especially applicable to contemporary evangelical Christianity:

1. Individual Application of Scripture,
2. Spiritual Diligence, and
3. Humility

These things are what Pietism was classically all about, and could be illustrated with reference to almost any major Pietist figure, but the figure who best exemplifies the harmony of all three elements is Gerhard Tersteegen.

Individual Application of Scripture

The Pietist ability to bring the power of the Bible to bear on the particular situation of the individual person presupposes that Pietism has a high estimate of Scripture. Historian of Pietism Ernest Stoeffler rightly lists an emphasis on the Bible as one of the four marks of Evangelical Pietism. But the Pietist emphasis on Scripture must be distinguished from the way other groups used the Bible. The genius of the Pietist use of Scripture lay in its application to individuals. Tersteegen exemplifies this tendency in his sermons, when he takes up a biblical theme and shows its meaning for the listener. His sermon on “The Out-Pouring of the Holy Ghost for instance, traces three special manifestations of God: first on Sinai, second at pentecost, and finally at the last judgement. The Sinai appearance, the giving of the law, is binding on all people, as will be the final judgement. Tersteegen exhorts his hearers, in between these two events, to experience “the second Pentecost,” the coming of the Holy Spirit into the believer’s life for sanctification. In this way, Tersteegen sketches out a large perspective on biblical history, and situates the individual within it, showing how God’s historical covenants impinge on present-day life. He goes on to describe in detail how to prepare for this Day of Pentecost; we are to “give place to the first motions of the Holy Spirit,” and yet “not stop short at these first motions, but continually advance further.”

The application of Scripture to individual circumstances, however, is best seen in the letters of spiritual counsel, the voluminous correspondence which Tersteegen maintained with so many people throughout his life. Any one of these letters could be cited to show Tersteegen’s pastoral insight into the complexities of God’s dealings with souls in personal histories. The Pietist attention to the responsibilities of the pastor, and the idiosyncratic reception of grace by each individual heart, comes out very clearly here.

This Pietist distinctive can, when it degenerates, turn into a psychologizing obsession with negotiating the steps in a spiritual process. When this happens, a complex and rigid series of spiritual crises and plateaus are diagrammed, and the spiritual progress of each person is measured against their place in the elaborate ordo salutis. This leads to all sorts of problems within congregations, including the perception that some members are “second-rate” while others are “true saints,” and the forming of spiritual class distinctions.

Tersteegen, like other good Pietist pastors, refused to carry out his work in this way. As he warns,

I have always believed it impossible to draw up any general system of the particular leadings of God, as one might write up the description of a journey. When enlightened souls have written about it, they have generally described their own particular way, for which one can glorify God, but to which one should not conform too rigidly. We must let the spirit of grace have a free hand in us and others.

Thus Tersteegen exemplifies the Pietist use of Scripture; applying it to the lives of individuals, but avoiding its pitfalls by refusing to define a system of psychologized spiritual growth.

Spiritual Diligence

Pietists tend to work hard, both in their outward and inward pursuits. There is room here for the question, which is the cause and which is the effect? That is, are industrious personalities attracted to Pietism, or does Pietism make people industrious? Whichever is the case (and it is probably a combination of both), there is certainly a correlation of some sort between the two. This diligence in all things springs from the awareness that all of life must be lived unto God, and that the claims of Christ on the life of the Christian are total. Tersteegen emphasizes this in his sermon “The Believer, The Temple of the Holy Ghost,” in the section where he describes “The Great Obligation of a True Christian” as contained in the words, “Ye are not your own, for ye are bought with a price.” It is because Christ has a claim to all parts of the human person, body and soul, that the Christian must employ all his energies to no other end than to glorify God. The powers of the intellect belong to Christ, and thus, Tersteegen says, “I must employ my understanding in contemplating God as present.” The mind cannot be allowed to wander or to dwell on vain thoughts.

Tersteegen, whose labors in study, ministry, and medicine are described at length by his biographer Frances Bevan, worked very hard in his spiritual life. In “The Out-Pouring of the Holy Ghost,” he describes how the soul awaiting Pentecost should prepare by “giving place to the first motions of the Holy Spirit.” In sentence after sentence, he hammers home the need for diligence in this task, apparently bent on excluding all notions of quietistic waiting:

…we must not lightly pass over it and think that all this in due time will come of itself; we will wait for it until we have experienced the pentecostal day; we will then be more fit for such virtuous exercises. No, my dearest friend! We must strive, particularly at the commencement, to co-operate with the divine assistance. …we must not lay our hands in our lap, but faithfully, and as far as we are able, co-operate with the grace which prevents us and seeks to carry into effect the divine requirements.

Pietism is synonymous with diligence in devotion; prayer and Bible Study must be pursued alone and in fellowship with other believers.

In the best Pietists, there is no possibility of confusing this spiritual assiduousness with justification by works. Tersteegen is so good at eliminating any such notion from his spirituality that he is often accused of exactly the opposite error; quietism. The charge of quietism is scarcely credible in the case of Tersteegen. The reason some critics would think to accuse him of it can be traced to the many passages in which he describes divinely-given moments of grace. When God in his own timing grants such an experience, he brings about in an instant what no human effort could ever produce. So powerful, healing, and redemptive are these moments for Tersteegen, that he develops a kind of spirituality of patient waiting: “We must stand at the door of God’s grace and wait until we have received what we ask for,” because “such a moment sufficiently repays and rewards a hundred years of waiting.” Tersteegen’s hard work in the spiritual life amounts to patient, active waiting and preparation for the work of God, and thus he guards against any idea that his work merits him anything.


Closely connected to this understanding of the relationship between our work and God’s work is the Pietist emphasis on humility. It is amazing how consistently the theme of humility runs through Pietist literature, from the first to the last. There are several reasons for this, but chief among them must be that everyone involved has sensed the same truth: Pietism without humility is pure poison. Because Pietists are committed to the pursuit of a very high standard of practical holiness, and work hard to attain it, the temptation to spiritual pride is ever present. The quest for completeness, or perfection, in the Christian life, which Ernest Stoeffler called Pietism’s “religious idealism,” simply must be tempered by profound heart humility if it is not to become the foundation for boasting about spiritual accomplishments. This temptation is so close at hand that countless Pietists latched on to humility as chief among the virtues. Tersteegen is no exception; in fact he may have spoken more eloquently on the subject than any other Pietist. When he describes the observable change in character which Christians can experience in this present life, he insures that no such saint would be able to boast about it, because any Christian who had genuinely been given the grace to make such progress has a heart which is “always deeply penetrated by the words, ‘Which ye have of God.'” In his 62nd Letter, he advises his correspondent to eschew any merely ornamental meekness, and find instead true “heart humility,” which is a safeguard against the snares of Satan, as well as the source of peace with God and with others.

In this same letter, Tersteegen pushes the virtue of humility to a rather extreme point: he offers seven pieces of advice, including the admonition to think of yourself as “topsy-turvy, poor, blind, and unfit in body and in spirit,” especially as compared with those who live with you. Further, you should “desire that they would despise, hate, and forget you…believe firmly that you deserve nothing else.” While this may be very practical advice for people living in close quarters, it is expressed in very strong language, and one can only wonder about the circumstances of the correspondent to whom it was addressed. In its self-negating harshness of formulation, it seems almost to veer toward a psychological aberration which can be observed in spiritualities that take pleasure in self-hatred for its own sake, the kind of mindset that gave rise to flagellants and other such excesses. Pietism has not always been above giving legitimation to such movements.

That Tersteegen’s humility was in no danger of becoming morbid in this way is made clear by the fact that he anchors it at all times to an awareness of the majesty of God. Thus it is not for the sake of self-negation as an end in itself that Tersteegen describes the radical casting-down into the dust of the human soul; it is for the sake of acknowledging the glory of God. When the soul is in such a state, there is no misery or pity, but an all-consuming awareness of God’s presence. This numinous perception is in fact one of the primary effects of the event of Pentecost: “The more the Spirit of Jesus Christ enters into the heart, the more will the world and the creature be cast down in it, by the power, as by a mighty wind.” The laying low of the self in the presence of God is the foundation of Tersteegen’s heart humility. This is far from being a psychological aberration; only a twisted, hardened soul could respond differently.

The promise of Pietism for contemporary Christian life and spirituality has been described with reference to three characteristic emphases of the movement. First, Pietism is committed to applying Scripture to the lives of individual believers. Secondly, Pietism stresses diligence in the spiritual life; and third, Pietism sees humility as one of the most important virtues. Each of these three characteristics can be, and has been, perverted and distorted by becoming overemphasized or ingrown. Tersteegen’s distinctive spirituality exerts a corrective force against any such possible imbalance. Thus Tersteegen uniquely preserves the promise of Pietism, highlighting its strengths and disabling its weaknesses.

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