Vital Godliness: A Treatise on
Experimental and Practical Piety

By William S. Plumer


"And not only that, but we also rejoice in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance, endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope. This hope does not disappoint, because God's love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us." (Romans 5:3-5)

With some it is common to speak slightingly of hope. Surely such do not draw their views from the word of God, nor from the experience of his people. These well agree in giving it a high place, among the Christian graces, and in declaring its excellence and usefulness. "We are saved by hope." We are rescued from the cruel influences of despair, we are aroused and animated in our whole course, and are finally made victorious by the power of hope. This is one of the great bands which holds together the church of God. As "there is one body and one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all," so also "you are called in one hope of your calling." Hope consists of desire and expectation. It is the opposite of fear, which is composed of aversion and fearful expectation. Richard Baxter says, "Hope is nothing but a desirous expectation." It is also the opposite of despair, which, though it desires, does not expect.

When we regard anything as impossible, we cannot hope for it, although we may greatly wish for it. As to the general nature of hope, there is no dispute. The hope of the Christian is a longing expectation of all good things, both for this and the next world. It embraces all the mercy, truth, love, and faithfulness promised in Scripture. It lays hold of the perfections and government of God as the sure foundation of its expectations. It has special reference to the person, offices, and exaltation of the Lord Jesus Christ. In Scripture the word not only means the sentiment already described, but sometimes it is used for the thing hoped for. Thus Paul speaks to the Colossians of "the hope which was laid up for them in heaven," where he plainly designates the good things hoped for. The hope of a Christian relates to the whole of what is promised in God's word. There grace is promised. And on every child of God comes the blessing: "Behold, the eye of the Lord is upon those who fear him, upon those who hope in his mercy."

In like manner hope finds nourishment in all the divine perfections. It looks for them to be continually exercised for its good. Thus it expects bread and water, clothing and shelter, guidance and protection during life, with a blessed victory in death. It goes further. Each Christian can say as Paul, "I have hope towards God that there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and of the unjust." Yes, more, he is always "looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of our God and Savior Jesus Christ." Yes, more, the souls of believers are sustained "in hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised before the world began."

1. The living agent, who is at once the author and object of pious hope, is God himself. Accordingly pious men cry out, "Why are you cast down, O my soul? and why are you disquieted within me? hope in God: for I shall yet praise him for the help of his countenance." One of the dearest names by which God is known to his people is that of "The hope of Israel, the Savior thereof in the time of trouble." To the end of time "the Lord will be the hope of his people, and the strength of the" true Israel. There is none like him. He is "the God of hope." All genuine Christian hope is a fruit of the mercy of God to sinners. It comes from heaven, and not from men.

Vain, carnal hopes spring up spontaneously in the human soul. But truly pious hopes have a heavenly origin. Therefore when Paul would have the Romans abound in this grace, he prayed, "Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Spirit." Rom. 15:13. God "has given us everlasting consolation and good hope through grace." 2 Thess. 2:16. This is the first great difference between a true and a false hope in religion. The former is from above; the latter is from beneath. One is God-inspired; the other has Satan for its author.

2. The second mark of true pious hope is, that it is no vain persuasion, no idle dream—but a sure expectation. It rests upon an immovable foundation, God's unchanging word and oath and covenant. "We through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith." We shall not be disappointed. This "hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters into that within the veil." His word is pledged in every form. "I will be a God to you." "I will never leave you, nor forsake you." "Because I live, you shall live also." "Those who sleep in Jesus, will God bring with him." These are but samples of his word. To these he has added his oath: "I have sworn that I will not be angry with you, and will not rebuke you. For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed." Isa. 54:9, 10. Here we have his covenant as well as his oath. Indeed it is a covenant established upon promises and oaths. Elsewhere God says, ""Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord." Jer. 31:31, 32. Behold here are the sure mercies of David. God bids us rest our all on him, and take his veracity for the basis of all our hopes.

The wicked have no such foundation for their delusive expectations. Their hopes are all like a dream when one awakens. They vanish before the realities of life, before any right test of truth. But the hope of the righteous endures. It is the anchor, the sheet-anchor. It holds all steady, and enables the soul to outride the storms of sorrow which God permits to beat upon it. Behold here the excellent use of Scripture. "For whatever things were written beforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope." Rom. 15:4. Therefore a favorite form of prayer is that of pleading the promises: "Remember the word unto your servant, upon which you have caused me to hope." Psalm 119:49. This blessed hope, more than most things, makes Christians helpers of each other's faith and joy. "Those who fear you will be glad when they see me; because I have hoped in your word." Psalm 119:74.

3. A third difference between a true and false hope is, that the former is the fruit of the mediation of Christ, and has special regard to him as a Redeemer; while the latter quite neglects his finished work. Many hope for impunity, and yet despise gospel grace. But a truly good hope always has a chief reliance upon Christ. Therefore Paul says of our Lord Jesus Christ, that he "is our hope." I Tim. 1:1. If you ever have a genuine "hope of glory," it must spring from "Christ in you." Col. 1:27. Legal hope is just the opposite of evangelical. The former springs from supposed personal obedience to the law; the latter relies upon Christ's obedience unto death. These two cannot agree. You must look to Christ exclusively, or not at all. If this be so, some may ask, What is the difference between faith and hope? To this question the answer is, that though they are distinct, yet they are similar exercises of the mind. Haldane says, "By faith we believe the promises made to us by God; by hope we expect to receive the good things which God has promised; so that faith has properly for its object the promise, and hope has for its object the things promised and the execution of the promise. Faith regards its object as present, but hope regards it as future. Faith precedes hope, and is its foundation. We hope for eternal life, because we believe the promises which God has made respecting it; and if we believe these promises, we must expect their effect."

Leighton says, "The difference of these two graces, faith and hope, is so small, that the one is often taken for the other in Scripture; it is but a different aspect of the same confidence, faith apprehending the infallible truth of those divine promises of which hope does assuredly expect the accomplishment, and that is their truth; so that this immediately results from the other. This is the anchor fixed within the veil which keeps the soul firm against all the tossings on these swelling seas, and the winds and tempests that arise upon them. The firmest thing in this inferior world is a believing soul."

But like faith, hope admits of degrees, varying from a faint expectation, Psalm 42:5, to a "full assurance." Heb. 6:11. Like faith, it always keeps Christ in view. Like faith, also, it will last until death, and then give place to enjoyment; "for what a man has, why does he yet hope for?" Let us therefore "hold fast the confidence, and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end." Heb. 3:6. "Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ." 1 Pet. 1:13.

4. A fourth difference between a true and false hope is, that the former is operative, and produces powerful, happy effects; while the latter is inoperative and dead. The hope of the Christian is expressly said to be "living." 1 Pet. 1:3. It has life in itself, and communicates animation to the soul. It arouses, awakens, and gives vigor to the mind. It produces the grandest effects, making the people of God triumphant over all their foes and fears, and bearing them up when all appearances are discouraging. But a dead hope is without any abiding effect. It does no good in the day of trial.

5. A fifth difference between a true and a false hope is, that the former leads to holiness, while the latter begets carelessness. Of genuine Christian hope it is said, that "every man who has this hope in him purifies himself, even as Christ is pure." 1 John 3:3. The stronger it is, the greater is the soul's aversion to evil. But the hope of the deluded makes him reckless. To him sin is a trifle, and holiness a thing of naught. This indeed is the great difference between all genuine and all spurious hopes. If any of our pious affections or mental exercises do not tend to holiness, we may surely know that they are not of God.

6. A sixth difference is, that a spurious hope gives no support when we most need help; but a genuine hope bears up our souls above all our foes. Leighton says, "Hope is the great stock of believers. It is that which upholds them under all the faintings and sorrows of their mind in this life, and in their going 'through the valley and shadow of death.' It is the 'helmet of their salvation,' which, while they are looking over to eternity, beyond this present time, covers and keeps men's heads safe amid, all the darts that fly around them."

According to God's word, genuine Christian hope has many and important USES. It does great things for the soul.

1. Genuine Christian hope makes us patient in tribulation. "If we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it." Accordingly Paul alike commends in the Thessalonians "the work of faith, and labor of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ." 1 Thess. 1:3. To this happy effect of this grace Jeremiah refers when he says, "It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him; let him put his mouth in the dust—there may yet be hope." (Lamentations 3:26-29)

All Scripture and all experience show, that through much tribulation we must enter the kingdom of God. We can purchase no exemption from troubles. Patience must have her perfect work. Patience is fed by hope. It is thus we are supported in trials. What but this can give strength in the day of trouble? The church of God has often waded through rivers of blood; she has often been bound in affliction and iron; the fiercest onsets ever made upon her have often threatened something still worse; yet hope has begotten patience, a patience that could not be worn out. Despondency is unquiet, dissatisfied, and full of pain; but hope cries, "Be faithful unto death, and Christ will give you a crown of life."

2. Hope also gives courage in facing danger, and fortitude in enduring pain. "Hope makes not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given unto us." Brom. 5:5. Unless we have "for a helmet, the hope of salvation," 1 Thess. 5 8, we shall but play the coward in the day of battle. Here is the great difference between the real child of God and the selfdeceiver. The former has an expectation of future glory which makes present ignominy to be esteemed as nothing. The latter has perhaps some vague hope of future good, but he has never relinquished his hold of present good. So when he finds he must let go either the present or the future, he always cleaves to the present, vainly purposing hereafter to seize upon the things to come.

Every man who knows anything at all of his own heart, is painfully convinced of his sad timidity and wicked shame as to all that is good, until God by his grace gives him the hope of the gospel. Indeed, such is the fearful sway of shame over many minds, that some people have seemed to think that almost the only hinderance to men's salvation. Our blessed Savior was not beating the air nor giving a vain warning when he said, "Whoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father, with the holy angels." Mark 8:38. You will never be able to overcome your natural shame of true piety, but by a "good hope through grace."

3. The great animating principle in labor is hope. This encourages the mariner, the farmer, and every industrial class. This is no less the animating principle in labors for the spread of the gospel, the good of men, and the glory of God. Thus Paul argued: "It is written in the law of Moses—'You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.' Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop." 1 Cor. 9:9, 10. What would the apostles have effected—had they not had a hope that entered within the veil? They had regard to the reward in a future life. God never puts and keeps his people at work for him without adequate motives, without influences suited to their nature as men.

4. Christian hope is the great nourisher of Christian joy. "We rejoice in hope of the glory of God." Rom. 5:2. Our present circumstances have in them much to make us sad and desponding. But hope looks to the future, when the glory of God shall be revealed in us. So steadfastly does hope take hold on what is future, that both Haldane and Hodge propose to read the first clause of Rom. 8:24, "We are saved in hope;" meaning thereby that we are saved in prospect, in expectation.

No Christian in this life, is in full possession of all the blessings of salvation. He has indeed foretastes and pledges of good things to come, but not the very things themselves. Yet his title to eternal life is good, is perfect. Nothing could be more so. In due time deliverance shall come in all its fullness. As "rejoicing in hope" is a duty, Rom. 12:12, so it is a great privilege. Charnock says, "'Desired' happiness affects the soul; and much more does 'expected' happiness encourage the soul. Joy is the natural issue of a well-grounded hope. A tottering expectation will engender but a tottering delight; such a delight will madmen have, which is rather to be pitied than desired. But if an imaginary hope can affect the heart with some real joy, much more a hope settled upon a sure bottom, and raised upon a good foundation; there may be joy in a title as well as in possession."

5. It is Christian hope which makes death easy and comfortable. God's people know that their flesh shall rest in hope. They know who it is that has said, "Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead. " Isa. 26:19. Job disarmed death of all his terrors by being able to lay hold on this very truth. So did Paul also, and so have thousands of the humble people of God.

In short, we may well unite with Owen in saying that "hope is a glorious grace, whereunto blessed effects are ascribed in the Scripture, and an effectual operation unto the supportment and consolation of believers. By hope we are purified, sanctified, and saved. Where Christ evidences his presence with us, he gives us an infallible hope of glory; he gives us an assured pledge of it, and works our souls into an expectation of it. Hope in general is but an uncertain expectation of a future good which we desire. But as it is a gospel grace, all uncertainty is removed from it which would hinder us of the advantage intended in it. It is an earnest expectation proceeding from faith, trust, and confidence, accompanied with longing desires of enjoyment. The height of the actings of all grace issues in a well-grounded hope; nor can it rise any higher." "And not only that, but we also rejoice in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance, endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope. This hope does not disappoint, because God's love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us." (Romans 5:3-5)

So that if what has been said be true, there is no force whatever in the infidel objection respecting the lack of certainty as to eternal things. They are as certain as the existence and perfections of God—as certain as eternal truth and justice can make them. If our hope is weak, it is yet sure. What there is of it will never be disappointed. Nay, its largest expectations will be infinitely more than realized. God will do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think. Our hope is uncertain in no other sense than that it lays but feeble hold of things which it ought to seize with the utmost tenacity. Therefore to say that the Christian's hope is full of uncertainty is an untruth, unless men simply mean to say that the virtuous principle, even in good men, is weak. This all good men confess and bewail.

Nor do wicked angels and men offer us anything worth our attention when they invite us to forego spiritual for carnal hopes, to give up the hope of eternal glory, and lay fast hold of perishing worldly hopes. For what is this mortal life—without the hope of the gospel? Is anything more uncertain? What is more delusive than worldly hopes? The conqueror of yesterday is the prisoner of today. The rich man of today is the beggar of tomorrow. Pleasures bring pains. Honors provoke envy—and what is more malicious or mischievous than that? Riches vex us while we have them, and may leave us any moment. He who forsakes heavenly for earthly hopes, prefers the chaff to the wheat; he labors for the wind, and delivers himself over to vanity.

Christians should therefore labor to be rid of all sinful despondency. True, our frames change, but God's nature and counsels are immutable. Our salvation is made sure, not by our strength, but by the strength of God; not by our goodness, but by the merits of the Redeemer; not by our wisdom, but by the wisdom of God. God sometimes withdraws—that we may learn our utter helplessness. John Newton says, "If I may speak my own experience, I find that to keep my eye simply upon Christ as my peace and my life, is by far the hardest part of my calling. Through mercy he enables me to avoid what is wrong in the sight of men; but it seems easier to deny self in a thousand instances of outward conduct, than in its ceaseless endeavors to act as a principle of righteousness and power." Yet to yield in this point is ultimately to sink into despondency.

All good and lively and enduring hope springs from the cross alone. "Let Israel hope in the Lord: for with the Lord there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption." Psalm 130:7. And how rich an inheritance have all the saints in God. He is their hope and their portion, their refuge and the rock of their inheritance. Hall said, "O my God, I shall not be worthy of my eyes if I think I can employ them better than in looking up to your heaven. And I shall not be worthy to look up to heaven if I allow my eyes to rest there, and not look through heaven to you, the almighty Maker and Ruler of it, who dwells there in all glory and majesty. And if, seeing you, I do not always adore you, and find my soul taken up with solemn and admiring thoughts concerning you. While others look at the motions, let me look at the Mover, and adore that infinite power and wisdom which preserves those numberless and immense bodies in such perfect regularity."

While others grow wiser—let us grow more holy. While they trust in the creature, and make flesh their arm—let us set our faith and hope in God. Let us think upon his name. If we are really his, we shall ever be with him. You cannot dwell too much on future glory. Nor can you overestimate the value of your future inheritance. It is worth ten thousand worlds. It is worth a thousand times more than any man ever endured for it. Men of the world often congratulate each other on their prospects. But Christians may well give each other joy in view of their bright future, their sure and certain hopes. "Hope, like a star in the skies, shines the brighter as the shadows of sorrow darken. A new view opens to us. We live in the prospect of another and a happier world," says John James.

How dismal are the prospects of the poor guilty sinner! Scripture describes such as "without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world." Eph. 2:12. Could more dreadful destitution exist? The question has sometimes been raised, What will be the ingredients of future misery? No man may be able to give a full answer. But it is certain that a poor soul, as destitute as sinners are here, and then shut out from all that now renders existence tolerable, must be dreadfully and eternally undone. "The day comes" Oh how soon it will be here!—which "shall burn as an oven—and all the proud, yes, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble, and the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord Almighty, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch." And as the wicked die without true hope, without Christ, without God—so shall they continue without them forever.

Unconverted sinner, ask your soul a few questions of great weight.

1. What shall it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and loses his eternal soul?

2. Did ever any harden himself against the Lord, and prosper?

3. Can your hands be strong, or your heart endure, when he shall deal with you?

4. What will you answer when he shall punish you?

5. How can you escape—if you neglect so great salvation?