Vital Godliness: A Treatise on
Experimental and Practical Piety

By William S. Plumer



In addressing the strangers scattered abroad throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, the apostle Peter admits that they had never personally seen Jesus Christ. He himself had often seen the Lord. He had seen him walking by the sea of Galilee. He had seen him walking on it. He had been with him on the holy mount, in the judgment-hall, and on the top of Olivet, when he ascended to glory. He had been his companion for years, had tasted of his mercy, had beheld his miracles, had been an eye-witness of his agony, of his betrayal, of his trial, of his resurrection, of his ascension, and of his glory and majesty. He had seen him in the depths of his humiliation. He had seen him in the first and second stages of his exaltation. Yet the apostle does not assert that those who had not been so highly favored as himself were destitute of right affections to the Redeemer, but says, "Whom having not seen, you love." 1 Pet. 1:8.

What a rich provision of mercy is that which so far puts all God's people on a level as to permit the saint of these latter days to love the Lord Jesus as fervently and as acceptably as if he had seen his blessed person, and spoken with him face to face! Though love to Christ is not different from love to God, yet it is worthy of distinct consideration. It is much spoken of in Scripture. It enters very fully into the experience of all saints. Love to Christ is one of the strongest of all affections, and one of the most powerful principles. If the time shall ever come when such a theme shall be distasteful to professing Christians, then indeed the glory will have departed from the visible church.

Yet the theme is always unpleasant to carnal men. Some satisfy themselves with not caring for these things; but others rail at the whole doctrine of love to the Son of God. The efforts of such are commonly directed to the denial of the reality of everything vital in religion. Accordingly they make light of sin, they speak of human guilt as a trifle, they think a depraved nature a theological invention, they look upon heaven as a fantasy and hell as a dream. They deny all Christian graces, and in particular they regard all love to Christ as romance, confined to the weak and ignorant.

But the word of God rebukes all such wickedness. If God does not teach us the reality of love to Christ in all his people, he teaches us nothing. Else what shall we do with such scriptures as these? "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—for his love is better than wine. Your name is as ointment poured forth, therefore the virgins love you. We will remember your love more than wine: the upright love you. Behold, you are fair, my beloved, yes, pleasant: also our bed is green. A bundle of myrrh is my beloved unto me; he shall lie all night between my breasts. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. He brought me to the banqueting-house, and his banner over me was love. Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick with love. His left hand is under my head, and his right hand embraces me. My beloved is mine, and I am his. I am my beloved's, and his desire is towards me. I found him whom my soul loves; I held him, and would not let him go. Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal on your arm. I charge you, O you daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, that you tell him I am sick with love. Come, my beloved, let us go up early to the vineyards, let us see if the vines flourish. There will I give you my love. Make haste, my beloved, and be like a roe, or a young deer on the mountains of spices."

Such is some of the language of one of the short books of the Bible, which abounds indeed in imagery borrowed from the East, but which also abounds in the richest stores of Christian experience. Other portions of Scripture fully accord with the proofs already quoted. Christ himself said, "He who loves me shall beloved of my Father, and I will love him, and manifest myself to him. If any man loves me, he will keep my words, and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; continue you in my love." Other portions of God's word are of like import. It is then undeniable that God's word calls for love to Christ as an essential proof of Christian character.

Infidelity teaches nothing more dangerous, than that we can have pious affections, without any love to the Lord Jesus Christ. And God's people have the best ground of love to Christ. He is "the chief among ten thousand, and altogether lovely." He is perfect God and perfect man in two distinct natures and one person forever. He is the author of eternal redemption, the Savior of the world. To him we owe both our being and our well-being. His grace is rich, free, and unchangeable. His love to us has in it heights and depths, lengths and breadths, which can never be measured. It passes knowledge. None ever loved us as Christ, who gave himself for us. Well do Solomon and Paul unite in calling him the Beloved. All the righteous do the same. We owe him all gratitude, all good-will, all delight.

The first essential quality of love to Christ is that it be SINCERE. In it there can be admitted no double-mindedness. Paul closes one of his epistles with the solemn words, "Grace bet with all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. Amen." Eph. 6:24. Insincerity spoils any profession; but a profession of love, not founded in the depths of the heart, is exceedingly hateful to God and man. When even the worst of men see deception and guile in matters of friendship, their abhorrence is awakened. Let every man see to it that his love is real and genuine.

Love to Christ is a PURE and HOLY affection. It is the reigning principle among the redeemed in glory. It is the bond of union among believers on earth.

Love to Christ has for its object his glorious person. And yet it is not at all like the admiration and fondness we have for the lovely appearance of men upon earth. There is nothing carnal or gross in the affections of a creature towards the Lord of life and glory. When upon earth, his pious followers loved him, although "his visage was marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men." And it is so still. After his resurrection and before his ascension, he said to Mary, "Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father; but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father and your Father, and to my God and your God.' John 20:17. Some think our Lord thus intended to remind Mary that it was not by touching his body, but by believing on him; not by handling him, but by spiritually laying hold on him, that he would have her approach him. Whether this passage bears such a construction or not, there is no doubt of the fact that thousands saw him, heard him, and touched him with their bodily faculties, and were never a whit the better for it all.

Paul says, "Though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more." 2 Cor. 5:16. To his disciples no less than to his enemies Jesus said, "You shall seek me; and as I said unto the Jews—Where I go you cannot come, so now I say to you." John 13:33; compare John 8:21. "He is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God." Rom. 2:29.

True love to Christ is always grieved at having its sincerity seriously questioned. "Jealousy is cruel as the grave; the coals thereof are coals of fire, which has a most vehement flame." Song 8:6. "Peter was grieved because Jesus said unto him the third time—Do you love me?" John 21:17. That question is never earnestly brought home to the bosom of any genuine follower of the Savior without awakening the deepest concern; and until it can be satisfactorily answered, the soul is in deep waters. This must ever be the case. It is not possible for any to love the Lord Jesus without seeing something of his infinite excellency, without at the same time wishing to love him more; or without seeing that lack of love to him would be the eternal undoing of the soul.

It should also be noted that there may be much imperfection even in genuine love to the Savior. To deny this is to cut off the whole Christian world from a participation in the favor of Christ. If no man loves the Savior, except he loves perfectly, then none but the redeemed above have any evidence that they are his. How sadly imperfect even genuine love may be, is seen in the case of David and Peter and many other Bible saints. At times their conduct was sadly opposed to the belief that they were godly men. So now all the best men in this world are among the foremost to cry out, "In many things we all offend!" "Iniquities prevail against us!" "We abhor ourselves, and repent in dust and ashes!" "Unto us belong shame and confusion of face."

Yet true love to Christ is not fitful. It is constant, not occasional. Like the fire of old kept burning on the altar, which at some times was much brighter than at others, yet at no time was entirely extinct, so the love of Christ never totally vanishes from the heart of a godly man, although it is not always glowing. A gold dollar may be as genuine metal, as a gold eagle. A live coal is as truly fire, as the burnings of a glowing furnace. The new-born infant is as truly a human being, as the full-grown man. Let us beware how we grieve whom God does not grieve by denying them the rights and privileges of the sons of God. He who can give power to the faint, and increase might to him that has no strength; he who can hold up the weak brother, and make the feeble among his people like David, will not forget his covenant nor quench the smoking flax. It is a good sign when we can humbly and reverently appeal to Omniscience for the sincerity of our love.

Appearances are sometimes against men, very godly men. When this is so, they are deeply abased; but they will not therefore let go their hold on the divine mercy, nor deny their allegiance to Christ. This was the case with Peter. He had denied his Lord, and brought great reproach on the cause of God, and had deeply bewailed his wickedness; yet when thrice interrogated by Christ, his answers were, "Yes, Lord: you know that I love you." "Yes, Lord: you know that I love you." "Lord, you know all things—you know that I love you." Every true child of God can sincerely pray, "Lord, if I am deceived, I beg you to undeceive me." To our Master in heaven we stand or fall; and when we can truly say, "Lord, to whom shall we go but unto you? you have the words of eternal life," we have a right to rejoice and be glad.

Genuine love to Christ does not regard any service it can render, or any sacrifice it can make, as too great for the honor of Christ. True love to the Savior, so far from being a dormant principle, is wonderfully active, and delights in paying the largest tribute it can possibly render. It is not of the nature of supreme love to begrudge anything. Under the sway of such affection for Christ, Paul said of bonds and afflictions, "None of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry which I have received from the Lord Jesus—to testify the gospel of the grace of God." Acts 20:24. Again he says, "But everything that was a gain to me, I have considered to be a loss because of Christ. More than that, I also consider everything to be a loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Because of Him I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them rubbish, so that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own from the law, but one that is through faith in Christ—the righteousness from God based on faith." (Philippians 3:7-9). It was the same mighty principle of love to Christ that sustained the martyrs of all ages, made them rejoice in the confiscation of their goods, and in all tribulation, and finally caused them to triumph over death in its most horrible forms.

True love to Christ is supreme. "If any man comes to me, and hates not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yes, and his own life also—he cannot be my disciple." Luke 14:26. That is, if a man does not put Christ above all these, and love them less than him—he is not a true Christian. Gregory Nazianzen said, "If I have any possessions, health, credit, learning, this is all the contentment I have of them—that I have something I may despise for Christ, who is the all-desirable and the everything desirable." Augustine said, "How sweet it is, to deny these sinful sweets."

It is worthy of special notice that the exercise of love to Christ is not only pleasant, but is so in a high degree. The same may indeed be said of other pious affections, but this is so peculiarly true of love to the Savior, that it deserves special consideration. The very first motions of this grace are so delightful, that even young converts regard a day of holy exercises of mind as worth more than years of sinful pleasure. They greatly wonder that they never had a just estimate of these things before.

To love Christ is the very height of wisdom. Every Christian has the demonstration of this truth in his own blessed experience. The natural language of the renewed soul is—Who would not love Jesus? The 'wicked passions' of our nature commonly bring with them great pain. Under their influence men grow pale, tremble in their whole frame, lose their appetite, become wakeful and restless, and often pine away. But the love of Christ produces none of these miseries. It opens fountains of joy before sealed up, and makes rivers to break forth in the wilderness.

In love to Christ, nothing is more pleasing than to witness its increasing strength and mellowness. At first, in all its feebleness it may yet manifest some rather fiery qualities; but when it becomes strong it acquires much of the gentleness of Christ. Our first love is often like new wine. Our matured love is like wine on the lees well refined. The former may burst even new bottles; the latter would not injure old ones. This matter may be well illustrated by the difference between a loving young groom and bride and the same people after they have been partakers of each other's joys and sorrows for half a century. When young, there is a peculiar ardor and fondness not at all diminished by the novelty of the affection; but in old age, the heart and life of each are bound up in the other. If one of those young people had died, the survivor would have been filled with grief, and perhaps have fallen into paroxysms; but in a few years at most, all would have seemed to pass away. But let one of those loving old people die, and the survivor, however strong and healthy at the time, will soon show signs of decay, and in a short time will sink into the grave. The young couple, with all their affection, were sometimes a little irritable, perhaps jealous or moody; but the old ones had a confidence in each other, and a natural tenderness which nothing could disturb. So the young disciple, though he loves Jesus sincerely, has but little stability compared with what he will have, if he shall serve God until he has a large experience.

There is also in true love to Christ a genuine modesty, which grows with all other right affections. This modesty leads even the babe in Christ to be dissatisfied with the amount of his devotion to the Savior. More experience leads to yet more profound self-renunciation. Every fall into sin followed by recovery—but deepens self-distrust. And although the child of God may not be ready to renounce his integrity nor deny his love, yet he is very willing to speak of himself and his love to Christ in the most unpretending manner. It is also true, that he who loves Christ delights in commending and honoring him, and in seeing others do the same. It is impossible to love that which is not excellent or beautiful in our eyes. And so surely as anything seems so to lovely us, we wish others to unite with us in admiring it. Could therefore a converted man be found who was indifferent whether others were brought to love Christ or not, he would be such a monster in the spiritual world as has never yet made his appearance.

True love to Christ is to his whole person, to his human and his divine natures. He who hates or rejects either his divinity or his humanity hates and rejects him. Chrysostom says, "When you hear of Christ, do not think him God only or man only—but both together. For I know Christ was hungry, and I know that with five loaves he fed five thousand men, besides women and children. I know Christ was thirsty, and I know Christ turned water into wine. I know Christ was carried in a ship, and I know Christ walked on the waters. I know Christ died, and I know Christ raised the dead. I know Christ was set before Pilate, and I know Christ sits with the Father. I know Christ was worshiped by the angels, and I know Christ was stoned by the Jews. And truly some of these I ascribe to the human, others to the divine nature; for by reason of this he is said to be both together."

Of course he who loves Christ loves his Sabbaths, his worship, his truth, his laws, his people, and all that brings him to mind. To such the Sabbath is a delight, the holy of the Lord, and honorable. There is no uncharitableness in supposing that he who hates holy time hates a holy God and a holy Savior. And if any man loves not the worship of Christ on earth, surely he cannot love the temper of the redeemed above; for nothing is more clearly revealed than that Christ receives the highest adorations of heaven.

The same man, when he finds the words of Christ, will keep them and rejoice in them. They are to his soul food and drink. They are to him a fountain of life, a well-spring of salvation. Even Christ's laws, with all their binding force, are the rejoicing of his heart. And to him God's people are the excellent of the earth, in whom is all his delight. Whoever loves God's image anywhere, will love it in his people. He who loves not his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love his Savior, whom he has not seen.

One of the miseries of man is that he is apt to set his affection on unworthy objects. The more he loves such things, the more unhappy he is. But in loving Christ we know that the object is worthy of our supreme regard. Yes, he is worthy. Lady Huntington expressed common Christian experience when she said, "I am nothing; Christ is all. I disclaim as well as disdain any righteousness but his. I not only rejoice that there is no wisdom for his people but that from above, but reject every pretension to any but what comes from himself. I want no holiness he does not give me; I would not accept a heaven he did not prepare for me. I can wish for no liberty but what he likes for me, and I am satisfied with every misery that he does not redeem me from; that in all things I may feel that without him I can do nothing."

Either Christ will be all our salvation—or he will leave us to perish. The righteous consent that it shall be so. Would you have fervent love—labor for lively faith. Ardent love is sure to accompany strong believing. An old writer says, "Believe, and you shall love; believe much, and you shall love much; labor for strong and deep persuasions of the glorious things which are spoken of Christ, and this will command love. Certainly, did men believe his worth, they would accordingly love him; for the reasonable mind cannot but love that which it firmly believes to be worthiest of affection.

Oh, this mischievous unbelief is that which makes the heart cold and dead towards God. Seek then to believe Christ's excellency in himself, and his love to us, and our interest in him—and this will kindle such a fire in the heart as will make it ascend in a sacrifice of love to him. Love to Christ is sure to be requited by the love of the Father, of the Son, and of the Spirit. Christ himself said, "He who loves me shall be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him." And the Spirit is as loving as the Father and the Son. And although that expression used by Paul, 'the love of the Spirit,' is by many understood to mean "the love of which the Holy Spirit is the author," yet even that shows his loving nature perhaps no less than if thereby we understood his direct love to his people.

Love to Christ is a mighty principle. Let it control us, and we shall be able to meet all the storms of life with firmness, and do all the duties of life with alacrity. It will bear us up and on and through. John Newton says, "The love of Christ was the apostle's chief motive; it constrained him; bore him along like a torrent, in defiance of labor, hardship, and opposition." As for us, what are we without it—but reeds shaken with the wind? But with it we become heroes, pillars, martyrs, victors, yes, more than conquerors. This is true at all times. On one occasion Doddridge interested himself in behalf of a condemned criminal, and at length obtained his pardon. On entering the cell of the condemned man, the pardoned man fell at his feet, and with streaming eyes exclaimed, "Oh sir, every drop of my blood thanks you, for you have had mercy on every drop of it. Wherever you go, I will be yours." How natural was all this.

And how surely will one who feels that his soul is saved from wrath by the blood of the Lamb, be ready to give all—all to him. It is this love to Christ that makes God's people so dissatisfied with all their present attainments, and so long to depart and be with Christ. That eminent servant of God, Samuel Davies, on recovering from a dangerous illness, wrote to a friend, "Formerly I have wished to live longer, that I might be better prepared for heaven; but this consideration had but very little weight with me, and that for a very unusual reason, which was this: after a long trial, I found this world is a place so unfriendly to the growth of everything divine and heavenly, that I was afraid if I should live longer, I would be no better fitted for heaven than I am. Indeed, I have hardly any hopes of ever making any great attainments in holiness while I live, though I should be doomed to stay in it as long as Methuselah. I see other Christians around me making progress; but when I consider I set out about twelve years old, and what optimistic hopes I then had of my future progress, and yet that I have been almost at a stand ever since, I am quite discouraged. Oh my good and gracious Master, if I may dare to call you so, I am afraid I shall never serve you much better on this side the region of perfection. The thought grieves me; it breaks my heart; but I can hardly hope better. But if I have the least spark of true piety in my bosom, I shall not always labor under this complaint. No, my Lord, I shall yet serve you, serve you through an immortal duration, with the activity, the fervor, the perfection of the seraph that adores and burns. I very much doubt this desponding view of matters is wrong, and I do not mention it with approbation, but only relate it as an unusual reason for my willingness to die, which I never felt before, and which I could not suppress."

The only thing very remarkable in this extract is that its learned and experienced author should have supposed that some strange thing had happened to him. All God's people long for perfect deliverance from sin; nor does their experience lead them to expect it here. They would be made perfect in love to Christ. Child of sorrow, come and welcome to Jesus Christ. He will give you rest. His peace shall rule your heart. Blunt says, "Are you travailing with sorrow? Are you heavy-laden with the burden of oppression or woe? Christ will give you rest. Doubtless the heavy-laden with the burden of sin are first invited, but they exclude no other sufferers. There is no exception of age or rank or climate, the extent of the travail, or the weight of the burden; the childish sorrows of the weeping school-boy are as much the subject of the Savior's sympathy as the matured wretchedness of the aged man; all come within the Savior's invitation."

Oh that all would receive him. How soon should the waters of bitterness be changed into fountains of joy, and the mournful dirge be given up for the song of triumph. We can now see something of the force of that solemn declaration of Paul, "If any man loves not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be anathema, Maranatha." The world hurls its anathemas after those who despise its follies and denounce its vices. The Council of Trent cries anathema on "whoever shall affirm that a true and proper sacrifice is not offered to God in the mass." But Paul says, "If any man loves not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be anathema, Maranatha." That is—let him be accursed when the Lord comes!