Vital Godliness: A Treatise on
Experimental and Practical Piety

By William S. Plumer


"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." (Matthew 22:37)

That love to God is a pressing duty is manifest from all the Scriptures. By Moses God said, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." Deut. 6:5. "And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul?" Deut. 10:12. "You shall love the Lord your God, and keep his charge, and his statutes, and his judgments, and his commandments, always." Deut. 11:1. "It shall come to pass, if you shall hearken diligently unto my commandments which I command you this day; to love the Lord your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul." Deut. 11:13. "If you shall diligently keep all these commandments which I command you, to do them, to love the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, and to cleave unto him; then will the Lord drive out all these nations from before you." Deut. 11:22. "If you shall keep all these commandments to do them, which I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, and to walk ever in his ways." Deut. 19:9. "The Lord your God will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your seed, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, that you may live." Deut. 30:6. Again, "Know therefore that the Lord your God, he is God, the faithful God, who keeps covenant and mercy with those who love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations." Deut. 7:9.

The same duty is clearly and repeatedly urged in other parts of the same book. Thus it appears that in his early revelations, love to God was greatly insisted on as a high duty; that its nature was well explained; that men were taught that it well agreed with the fear of God; that it always produced the fruit of obedience; that great blessings, temporal and spiritual, were connected with it; and that it was one of the promises of the covenant that God would implant this grace in the hearts of his people.

When our Savior came, he dwelt much on the love of God, declared it the greatest and first duty of men, essential to true religion, and incapable of being substituted by outward observances. His apostles taught the same doctrine. It may be well to observe that love to God includes the three Persons of the Trinity. Love to the Father is not different from love to the Son or to the Holy Spirit. In each case it is the same. He who loves him who begat, also loves him who was begotten of him. He who loves the Son loves the Father, for he and the Father are one. One person of the Trinity is no less lovely than another. All the persons of the Godhead are the same in substance and in attributes, though having different offices in man's salvation. Love to either person is love to God. Love to God is love to all the persons of the Godhead. Let this view be retained in mind. It will prevent many painful and perplexing doubts respecting our duty. He who honors the Son, honors the Father and the Spirit. He who loves the Spirit is sure to love the Father and the Son.

It should be stated that love to God is sometimes spoken of in Scripture as properly expressive of an affection of the mind, and sometimes it is used figuratively as a fit term to designate the whole of true religion; or all the fruits of genuine love to God. In most cases there is little difficulty in learning the precise sense in which it is to be taken. Nor is this variation in the sense of a term confined to the word love, nor to the modes of speaking adopted by the inspired writers. Several of the Christian graces are spoken of in the same way in Scripture. And in all the best writers of our language—a part is often put for the whole.

It is also proper to say that the phrase, the love of God, as used in Scripture, has two senses. Sometimes it expresses our love to God. Thus our Savior said, "Woe unto you, Pharisees! for you tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God." Again, "I know you, that you have not the love of God in you." John 5:42. In like manner Paul says, "Hope takes not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given unto us." Rom. 5:5. John also says, "This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments." 1 John 5:3. In like manner Jude says, "Keep yourselves in the love of God." Jude 21. In all these and many other places, by "the love of God," is to be understood love to God.

But in the following texts, "the love of God" means God's love to us. "Neither height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." Romn. 8:39. "God commends his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." Rom. 5:8. The same sense attaches to the phrase elsewhere. But this variation produces no confusion. The meaning in any single passage of Scripture is clear. We have just the same form of speech when we discourse of the love of a father or mother, where we may either intend the love of a parent to a child, or that of a child to a parent.

Love to God is commonly spoken of under three distinctions.

1. There is the love of GRATITUDE. As ingratitude is one of the basest vices, embracing almost all others, so gratitude is one of the noblest virtues, and is never found but with many others in its train. The judgment of mankind fully sustains this view. A celebrated writer says, "He that calls a man ungrateful, sums up all the evil that a man can be guilty of." Yet how common is this vice. Seneca says, "If it were actionable, there would not be courts enough in the whole world to try the cases in." On the other hand, gratitude is a noble virtue. It carries much that is just and amiable with it. A deaf mute is said to have defined it to be "the memory of the heart." It is wonderful that some refining philosophers and divines, who have been thought very fond of distinctions, even where there was no difference, have not been able to discriminate between love to the gift and love to the giver, and so have made gratitude a sordid affection.

This is the more marvelous in theologians, as the Bible always speaks well of gratitude to God. If this be not so, we have no safe rule for interpreting such texts as the following: "We love him, because he first loved us." "I love the Lord because he has heard my voice and my supplications. Because he has inclined his ear unto me, therefore will I call upon him as long as I live." "Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little." He who loves God as David, Mary, and John, has the genuine affection demanded by the word of God.

There is, on earth, no love to God without warm and lively gratitude. The unconverted rejoice in the gifts of God, and often pervert them to their carnal gratifications. Such have no genuine holy gratitude. They even despise his chief gifts, his unspeakable gift, his Son, and his precious gift of the Spirit. Holy gratitude would never leave men to such daring wickedness. It would mightily draw them to God. Alas for us: "We inscribe our afflictions upon a rock, and the characters remain; we write our mercies in the sand of the sea-shore, and the first wave of trouble washes them out."

2. There is the love of DELIGHT. This consists in delight in the character of him whom we love. The entire nature and perfections of God are amiable and admirable. Mere power, separated from wisdom and goodness, is not amiable, though it may be amazing. But we never separate God's attributes, though we distinguish between them. Infinite power, guided by infinite love and infinite skill—is a rock of delight. That was a great revelation to the patriarch, "I am the Almighty God." In it the saints have ever since rejoiced. To a wicked man the omniscience of God is a source of terror and aversion. To him who loves God, it is a fountain of delight. He heartily invokes the scrutiny of him who knows all hearts. He cries, "Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts, and see if there be any wicked way in me." So that those who love God delight even in his natural attributes. Without these he would be no God to them.

Yet the moral perfections of God are special objects of direct delight. All the saints delight in that proclamation which Jehovah made of himself to Moses: "The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty." No regenerate person would think the character here drawn improved by the omission of a single trait. All is lovely. This love of delight in God is mighty in its power. Show me a child of God, and I will show you one who loves to sing, "Whom have I in heaven but you? and there is none upon earth that I desire besides you."

The highest point of holy delight in the character of God is reached when his glorious attributes are seen harmoniously uniting in the production of some vast and happy result. This is a chief part of our pleasure in contemplating the plan of salvation. There mercy and truth; righteousness and peace; wisdom and power; goodness and severity; wrath and love—wonderfully and illustriously meet and embrace each other. They unitedly produce glory to God in the highest, and at the same time peace on earth, good-will to men.

This scheme will form a perpetual study to men and angels. I am not surprised that angels desire to look into it. I wonder not that heaven is filled with thundering hallelujahs to God and the Lamb forever and ever. In this plan of mercy, as in a lens, all the rays of the divine glory meet. Yet their brightness may be endured. The flesh of the Son of God is a veil which hinders the radiance from being intolerable. Yet on earth he was seen "full of grace and truth." "The fullness of the Godhead" dwelt in him bodily. The great attraction of the moral law is, that it is a copy of God's character. The great source of pious delight in Scripture is, that it is the word of God. Creation and providence are never so exalted themes of delightful contemplation, as when we most fully regard them as the results of God's matchless excellence. Redemption gets all its glories here.

3. There is also the love of good-will, or beneficence. It manifests itself in pity to the miserable, in forgiveness to the injurious, in compassion to the weak, in pleasure at the good estate of those whom we love. God is infinitely above us, and never needs our compassion. Even Jesus Christ, the sufferings of whose human nature once held the inanimate creation in strange sympathy, suffers no more. He has overcome, and has set down on his throne. He was dead, but he is alive for evermore. God is holy, and has done us no wrong. We may in our pride—complain of him, and dream of forgiving him; but the Judge of all the earth makes no mistakes, and is never unkind or unjust. Neither is Jehovah accountable to us. We cannot without presumption revise his decisions, or find fault with his judgments. Though we greatly need forgiveness from him, he has no need of ours. Nor can we be profitable unto God, as he that is wise may be profitable unto himself, or as he that is kind may be advantageous to his friend. It is no gain to the Almighty that we cleanse our ways.

But we can express our good-will to those who are quite beyond the need of our aid. Towards God we can manifest it in many ways. We can show benevolence to his people, especially those of them who are greatly afflicted. Indeed, he has constituted them the receivers of our bounty in his place. Whatever is done to them is done to him. We can show our good-will towards God by honoring him, by rejoicing in the worship which others render to him, and by delighting in the advancement of his glory. This love is the great animating principle in heartily praying, "Hallowed be your name: may your kingdom come; may your will be done in earth as it is done in heaven." This love is wonderful, passing the love of woman. It fills the heart with all gladness when God is glorified and his name exalted.

Though we thus distinguish the acts of love, yet they are all performed by the same person. They all proceed from the same pious affection. In many respects they all agree. They all strengthen a gracious character. All love to God has for its object the same Being, the Three in One—Him who is infinite, eternal, unchangeable in his wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.

All the exercises of love are refreshing. They awaken not painful emotions. All the kindly affections produce pleasant effects. Whoever enjoys the luxury of having his heart drawn out to God in gratitude, delight, or good-will, would gladly continue in that state always.

It is not of the nature of true love to God to count the cost, or to make much of its services. Even as Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days for the love he had to her; so the true friend of God is sustained through a life of trial and sorrow by his love to God.

"While duty portions out the debt it owes
With scrupulous precision and nice justice,
Love never measures, but profusely gives;
Gives, like a thoughtless prodigal, its all,
And trembles then, lest it has done too little."

True love is not selfish, cold, and calculating. "Love does not seek its own." "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." Here was the soul of martyrdom. The labors of love would be impossible, if they sprang from any other principle. Because they are the fruit of love, they are esteemed as nothing.

Where the love of delight exists, there will be a desire to be like the object beloved. No praise is so great, as that which we render by imitating another. Therefore all who delight in God do hunger and thirst after righteousness, and are wholly pleased with God's law, and are deeply pained when they find their hearts inclined to corruption. They never will be satisfied until they awake in God's likeness. To be like him is their highest aim.

Those who love God, desire also to please God. This is very natural. Above all things, the righteous wish to please God. His will is their law. His favor is their life. His smile is their joy. Love to God is a powerful principle. It becomes the master-passion. It is "strong as death." "Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be contemned." Love roused and sustained Paul in all his toils and sufferings. It made the confessors joyfully endure the confiscation of their goods. It has made heroes of babes, and martyrs of the most timid. No principle of human action is more efficient.

Love to God is indeed not always of the same strength. Some love so little that they are constantly kept in doubt about their state, and are uncertain whether they love God at all. In some, love is but a spark with some smoke. In others it is a strong, steady flame. If genuine, it will finally gain the victory over all opposing influences. Love to God GROWS, so that in due time it sways every power of the mind, every inclination of the heart. Love to God promotes the happiness of all whose hearts it rules. Believers know what Paul means by "the comfort of love." "He who dwells in love dwells in God, and God in him." Solomon says, "Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox, and hatred therewith." This he speaks of love in a family. But how much more true is it of the love of God. It turns all bitter into sweet, converts all sorrow into joy. "All things work together for good to those who love God."

Nor is our love to God a well-spring of life merely to the living: it wonderfully cheers and animates the dying, and keeps the best of them in a delightful strait. It makes them triumph over death. It goes still further: "Herein," says John, "is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment." Of all things promised by God, nothing has surprised me more than this. Oh wonderful, wonderful love, to give "boldness in the day of judgment." True love seeks union and communion. "How can we expect to live with God in heaven, if we love not to live with him on earth?" Aversion puts away its object, or withdraws from it; but love draws near its object, and rejoices to know and be known. Those who love God are looking for and hastening unto the coming of the day of God. They wait for him as the watchmen wait for the morning; as the thirsty land waits for the rain. He is their life. His coming will be their coronation-day. After that they shall be forever with the Lord. Christ is the magnet which lifts up their hearts to God. To be with him and to behold his glory will be the grand reward.

But even in this life, the soul, by means of faith in God's word and through the agency of the blessed Spirit, has sweet communion with God. In this it greatly joys. Paul offered a very benevolent prayer when he asked that his brethren at Philippi might "abound in love more and more." Love is a chief fruit of the Spirit. It is greater than faith or hope. It shall last and increase forever. No wonder Jude, in the warmth of his affection for God's children, cried, "Keep yourselves in the love of God." This is the great business of the Christian. He who does this, acts well his part. He who keeps himself in the love of God needs to know no other secret of happiness.

The QUALITIES of the love which God requires are,

1. That it be SINCERE, not feigned, not in pretense. Here is the point where sad deficiency is found in the love of many. It is not hearty. Its professions are mere pretenses.

2. Genuine love to God is SUPREME. It puts him before and above all others. It admits of no rivals in the heart. It does not hesitate to prefer him to every other object. Others may be means of good to us, but God is the portion of his people, the lot of their inheritance.

3. True love to God regards all his character, laws, and judgments. It does not find fault with his justice. It does not cavil at the strictness of his law. It approves of the purity of his ordinances, of the simplicity of his worship, and of the sovereignty of his authority.

4. There is, in genuine love to God, CONSISTENCY. It is not fitful. It loves always; not indeed with equal vigor, but yet with constancy. It is both an affection and a principle. Like other affections, it is liable to ebb and flow; but as a principle, nothing can change it while God upholds it. We may know that we love God by our cheerful, sincere obedience to his will. "Now are you my disciples, if you do whatever I command you." "Love is the fulfilling of the law."

We may also prove our love to God by our love to his people. "We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren."

We also express our love to God by our possession of a childlike temper towards him. The Spirit of adoption always goes with love to God; so that all believers may say, "We have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear." This love to God is essential to Christian character. None can be admitted to the heavenly mansions without it. We may be saved without science, without literature, without wealth, without genius, without renown, without family, without health, without the favor of man. But there is no admission to heaven without sincere love to God. "We must be baptized in the fire of love, or burned in the fire of hell." "If I speak the languages of men and of angels, but do not have love, I am a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so that I can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I donate all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but do not have love, I gain nothing." (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

John Angell James says, "Let the love we bear to God pervade and influence every thought and word and action. We shall then abhor that which he abhors, and depart from evil. We shall subdue our own will, and find our best happiness in doing his."

The importance of this love to God is seen at every step in the Christian life. Without it men are continually perplexed concerning their duty and their liberty. It is a remark of John Newton, that "love is the clearest and most persuasive casuist; and when our love to the Lord is in lively exercise, and the rule of his word is in our eye, we seldom make great mistakes." Cold reason can never safely settle questions which must chiefly be determined by the heart. Logic is a poor substitute for love. Right affections are often a better guide than all the rules of reasoning. This is so with the mother, in her sleepless care of her babe. It is so with the devoted husband, in his ceaseless watch over his helpless wife. It is so when filial piety sits down to watch the last flickerings of life in a venerable and beloved parent. It is eminently so in the love of a child of God, to his Father who is in heaven.

He who finds his heart warmed with love to God need not trouble himself respecting his election. Leighton well says, "He who loves God, may be sure that he was first loved by God. And he who chooses God for his delight and portion, may conclude confidently that God has chosen him to be one of those who shall enjoy him, and be happy with him forever; for that our love and electing of him is but the return and repercussion of the beams of his love shining among us." "Love begets love." This is most true of God's love to us. All our love to him, is engendered by his love to us. And so if we choose him, we may know that he has chosen us, and ordained us, that we should bear much fruit to his glory.

He who thus loves God will surely be provided for. His temporal needs shall not be forgotten before God. Chrysostom says, "If you have a concern for the things which are God's, he will also care for you and yours." "Seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you." Matt. 6:33. Nor are the blessings of love confined to our bodily needs. "God is love; and he who dwells in love dwells in God, and God in him." It may not be given to mortals to know all that is thus promised; but surely such language implies very much. To all who love him—God is a rest and a refuge, a strong tower and a hiding-place, a portion and an eternal all.