Vital Godliness: A Treatise on
Experimental and Practical Piety

By William S. Plumer

General Remarks on Religious Experience

The test of real character is to be sought in each man's experience. He who has never exercised faith, repentance, love, humility, hope, and joy, cannot be profited by his mere theories and speculations on these subjects. All knowledge which is unfelt and inoperative, puffs up the mind and hardens the heart. It is better to have the workings of gracious affections than to be able to define them, or to speak ever so learnedly respecting them. The great use of a large part of divine truth is rightly to affect our minds and hearts, and so to control our practice. It is often doubted whether the present age is remarkable for depth of religious feeling. In many cases ministers preach a low experience.

The consequence is painful laxity in pious practice. Among many professors there is a manifest disinclination to converse on vital subjects in experimental and practical piety. This is a great evil. Although hypocrites may babble on such topics, yet true Christians should not thereby be deterred from telling what God has done for their souls, or from diligently seeking to discover and commend the highest style of holy living. Perhaps on all branches of these subjects there is less preaching than formerly. A minister of this generation said that he had received many hundreds of printed sermons sent out by his brethren, and that among them all he remembered but one on the subject of experimental religion. Yet it is noticeable that when a preacher of ability and sound discrimination discusses any branch of this subject, he is always highly acceptable to the best class of Christians. The testimonies to the necessity of experimental piety are exceedingly numerous. Almost every fit form of expression is employed by inspired writers to teach us this great truth. Thus says David, "O taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who trusts in him." Psalm 34: 8. "Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will declare what he has done for my soul." Psalm 66:16. So Elihu said, "bear with me a little, and I will show you that I have yet to speak on God's behalf." Job 36: 2.

Often in the Scriptures religious experience is expressed by hungering and thirsting, by eating and drinking. Isa. 55: 1; Matt. 5: 6; Song 5: 1 John 6: 53-58. Job, David, and Isaiah all inform us of the power of religious experience in their own case. Job 42:5, 6; Psalm 51; Isa. 6:5. Nor is the testimony of uninspired men on this point less harmonious.

Richard Baxter says, "The way to have the firmest belief of the Christian faith is to draw near and taste and try it, and lay bare the heart to receive the impression of it; and then, by the sense of its admirable effects, we shall know that which bare speculation could not discover. Though there must be a belief on other grounds first, so much as to let in the word into the soul, and to cause us to submit our hearts to its operations; yet it is this experience that must strengthen it and confirm it. If any man will do the will of Christ, he shall know that the. doctrine is of God. John 7: 17. The melody of music is better known by hearing it than by reports of it, and the sweetness of food is known better by tasting than by hearsay, though upon report we may be drawn to taste and try. So is there a spiritual sense in us of the effects of the gospel on our own hearts, which will cause men to love it and hold it fast against the cavils of deceivers or the temptations of the great deceiver."

John Owen says, "Experience is the food of all grace, which it grows and thrives upon. Every taste that faith obtains of divine love and grace, or how gracious the Lord is, adds to its measure and stature. Two things therefore must briefly be declared:

1. That the experience of the reality, excellency, power, and efficacy of the things that are believed, is an effectual means of increasing faith and love.

2. That it is the Holy Spirit which gives us this experience."

John Newton says, "Experience is the Lord's school, and they who are taught by him usually learn by the mistakes they make—that they have no wisdom; and by the slips and falls they meet with—that they have no strength."

Charles Buck says, "The report of the blessings of the religion of Christ, or the intelligence that provision is made for guilty man, can be of no avail without a real participation of them. We must not perceive only, but we must feel; and feeling, of course we experience."

Jonathan Edwards says, "A gracious experience arises from operations and influences which are spiritual, from an inward principle which is divine, a communication of God, a participation of the divine nature: Christ living in the heart, the Holy Spirit dwelling there in union with the faculties of the soul as an internal vital principle, exerting his own proper nature in the exercise of those faculties. Now it is no wonder that that which is divine is powerful and effectual, for it has omnipotence on its side."

The late John M'Dowell says, "If we are Christians, we shall delight to meet with our fellow-Christians, and engage with them in conversation on experimental piety. And true religion must either be very low or be entirely lacking in the heart of that person who seldom speaks on the subject, or extends not his conversation beyond the doctrines and forms of religion, or speaks in an uninterested or heartless manner. The Scripture saints, as appears from their history, engaged much in religious conversation."

Yet it is to be regretted that but few modern books treat of this subject. Doctrinal discussions, treatises on the history of the Bible, on branches of Scripture morals, and on church government, are numerous. But rarely do we find able men turning their attention to the work of God in the soul. It was not always so. In the seventeenth century the ablest productions of the greatest minds were on experimental religion. The exceeding popularity of a few books, first published in our own age, shows that so far as there is piety, such reading is in great demand. This will be more and more so as true religion shall prevail. It is admitted that the subject of experimental religion is not free from difficulties. But most of these are theoretical, rather than practical.

Yet those which grow out of the deceitfulness of sin and the temptations of the great adversary, should be carefully studied by all people, by godly teachers in particular, and the consolations of God sought out and administered accordingly. It is also worthy of notice that the best treatises in this department of religious literature are often narratives of the dealings of God with particular people. Religious biography constitutes a very useful and popular part of a well-chosen library. If the time shall come when the memoirs of Halyburton and Brainerd shall be unwelcome to the great body of God's people, then indeed the glory will have departed. John Newton remarks that "it is to be lamented that in this enlightened age, so signalized by the prevalence of the spirit of investigation, religion should by many be thought the only subject unworthy of a serious inquiry; and that while in every branch of science they studiously endeavor to trace every fact to its proper and adequate cause, and are cautious of admitting any theory which cannot stand the test of experiment, they treat the use of the term experimental, when applied to religion, with contempt."

The tendency of this age is to become vague and superficial. In giving an account of the work of God on one or many, there is a proneness to deal in generals and avoid particulars. In some cases there may be reasons of delicacy for saying little; nor is it necessary to present individuals by name or description of person before the community. But how refreshing it would be to meet with a recent narrative like that which Edwards has given of one who is now understood to have been the person who afterwards became his wife. In their narratives of revivals of religion, the old magazines often present quite a contrast to many of our modern journals. This deficiency has sometimes been noticed and a desire for a change expressed, but we seem to be getting further and further from the old paths. Yet let us not be discouraged. Let us labor to banish unreasonable prejudices against this subject as a proper topic of familiar or religious conversation. This will be no easy task. So many ignorant men have spoken things which they ought not, so many weak men have uttered folly, and so many bad men have obtruded their erroneous views upon the attention of others—that some have been quite disgusted with the whole matter. Thus it has come to pass that even in the free church of Scotland a candidate for the ministry is not examined as to his acquaintance with experimental piety, or his motives for seeking the sacred office. But it is never safe to argue from the abuse of anything against its use.

Not only in preaching, but in their private walks, pastors might exert a happy influence on this subject. Let them converse freely and fully with those seeking admission to the Lord's table. In their pastoral visits let not this subject be forgotten. Sometimes it may be well to leave particular questions to be answered or talked over on a subsequent interview. It would also be well if all that class of able works which have handled the different branches of this subject were brought into general use in our churches. John Newton has long been a favorite. His writings on experimental religion contributed much to the revival of piety in the latter part of the eighteenth and the early part of the nineteenth centuries. John, Owen on 'Indwelling Sin' is more profound than anything Newton ever wrote. One of the best works on the whole subject is Guthrie's Trial of a Saving Interest in Christ. Archibald Alexander on 'Religious Experience' is admirably suited to awaken a fondness for this kind of reading.

But more than anything else, we always need in the church a copious outpouring of God's Spirit on the hearts of his people, giving them a zest for spiritual things and a great desire for a full assurance of understanding, of faith and of hope. Many real Christians have made but low attainments, and are too little dissatisfied with their present state. One who should speak and act with the zeal and ardor of Paul, of Knox, of Welsh, of Whitefield, or of Henry Martyn—would by the thoughtless world, be esteemed mad. But wisdom is justified of her children. The truly regenerate and growing Christian will not be offended at sound views on this subject. It may encourage us to study this subject, to remember that, though in unessential particulars there is an endless diversity in the experience of men—yet in all that necessarily belongs to vital piety, there is a substantial agreement. Perhaps a more striking contrast could hardly be found between two men, than between John Newton and Occum the Indian preacher. Yet Newton says of the latter, that "in describing to me the state of his heart, when he was a blind idolater, he gave me in general a striking picture of what my own was in the early part of my own life; and his subsequent views of the gospel corresponded with mine as face answers to face in a mirror." John Owen also says, "As sin works in one, so does it in another; as grace is effectual in one, so is it in another; as he that prays longs for mercy and grace, so do they that join with him. Of the same kind with his hatred of sin, his love to Christ, his laboring after holiness and conformity to the will of God, are also those in other believers. And hence it is that people 'praying in the Spirit' according to their own experience, are oftentimes supposed by everyone in the congregation rather to pray concerning their condition."

Nor is there any way of preserving men from falling into error respecting the true nature of religion, but by bringing them to feel its power. "The head may be strengthened—until the heart is starved." Indeed, infidelity itself will be sure to gain a footing in a community where vital godliness is not experienced. John Owen truly says, "The owning of the Scripture to be the word of God bespeaks a divine majesty, authority, and power to be present in it and with it. Therefore, after men who have for a long time so professed, do find that they never had any real experience of such a divine presence in it by any effects upon their own minds, they grow insensibly regardless of it, or to allow it a very common place in their thoughts. When they have worn off the impressions that were on their minds from tradition, education, and custom, they do for the future rather not oppose it than in any way believe it. And when once a reverence unto the word of God on account of its authority is lost, an assent unto it on account of its truth will not long abide. And all such people, under a concurrence of temptations and outward "occasions, will either reject it or prefer other guides before it."

There is not a doctrine of revelation the power of which ought not to be felt in the human soul. If God is revealed to us in a trinity of persons, as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—it is that we may love and serve and worship him just as he is revealed. If Jesus Christ made a vicarious atonement—that great doctrine is revealed to us that we may rest the whole weight of our salvation upon it. If men are totally depraved—that truth ought to be known and felt, that the whole salvation of the gospel may be sought and secured. Nothing therefore can be more unphilosophical than to charge that experimental religion and wild enthusiasm are synonymous terms.

If men dead in sin are ever to be restored to spiritual life, they must be the subjects of a mighty work of grace; they must be taught of God; they must be born from above; they must be called out of darkness into God's marvelous light; they must be renewed in the inner man. The advantages of experience are felt in all the affairs of life. The truths we know by experience are worth more to a wise man than all he can learn from the demonstrative sciences or the reasonings of others. In all the departments of life, he who has experience has qualifications denied to the mere theorist or scholar. Religious experience puts us on our guard against the snares of the world, the flesh, and the devil. It teaches us sincerity, self-distrust, and humility. It causes us to abound in all prudence. It gives us a delightful confirmation in the truth. It fits us for doing good to an extent far beyond what we could ever attain by instruction in the letter of God's word.

All the friends of true religion ought carefully to guard against the abuses of religious experience. They should be very careful to avoid all vain boasting, a sin into which men easily fall. They should learn wisely to discriminate between the genuine and the spurious, between effects produced by divine truth on the one hand and by nervous temperament on the other. They should be especially careful not to rely on any past attainments which do not produce present good fruit. Any exercise of the mind which leads us to dullness in devotion, to carelessness about holy living, to lack of zeal for the salvation of men, is not gracious.

It may be well here to state that there is nothing gained by substituting, as some seem disposed to do, different terms for that of experience. There is no word better explained in pious literature than the word experience, and such a change of terms is likely to induce confusion.

The early exercises of a soul turning to God have unusual interest, because they are connected with the setting up of Christ's kingdom in the heart. The mind of man has a peculiar delight in contemplating the origin of things, and in seeing them rise to vigor. This is so in the growth of grain, plants, and trees, in the beginning of revolutions, in the founding of empires, and in the early struggles of mind to rise to worth and greatness. But the early history of pious impressions has vast interest—from the fact that it is the soul that is then saved and restored to communion with God. Cecil says, "The history of a man's life, is to himself the most interesting history in the world, next to that of the Scriptures." The reason is that it is a detailed account of what he has learned in the school of experience.