Vital Godliness: A Treatise on
Experimental and Practical Piety

By William S. Plumer

Early religious impressions--AWAKENING

The work of God for the recovery of the soul of man begins in what is fitly spoken of, as an awakening. A revival of religion a century ago was often so called. It was a good name. It described an effect produced both on saints and sinners. The term seems to be scriptural. "It is high time to awake out of sleep." "Awake to righteousness, and sin not." "Awake you who sleep, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light." Rom. 13:11; 1 Cor. 15:34; Eph. 5:14.

The peculiar fitness of this mode of speaking arises from the fact that the stupor of a sinful state is aptly compared to sleep. That sleep is guilty. It is also profound. It is like the sleep of death, from which none awake but by the power of God. Indulged a little longer, it will prove fatal. There is a time when every subject of divine grace is awaked from spiritual lethargy. This awakening is sometimes so gentle, that its commencement can hardly be fixed to any date. Again, it at once arouses the whole soul. It has often been noticed, that in some cases it is preceded by peculiar thoughtlessness, or even by outbreaking wickedness. But when God's time has come, he effectually arouses the soul, and makes his arrows sharp in the heart of the King's enemies.

The MEANS employed to this end are various. God often puts great honor on the very words of Scripture. "The word of God is living, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart." Heb. 4:12. "The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul." Psalm 19:7. Sometimes the mere reading of God's word is blessed to this end; and if men could be prevailed on to examine and ponder its truths more than they do, they would oftener begin the search for a Savior. Even of the most mysterious book of the New Testament it is said, "Blessed is he that read, and they that hear the words of this prophecy; and keep those things which are written therein." Rev. 1:3.

Some writers of the seventeenth century notice the fact that God honored the phrase, "And he died," which occurs so often in the fifth chapter of Genesis, to the awakening of a great sinner. It is an interesting exercise in which little circles, composed of pious people, sometimes engage, to inquire what portion of God's word was thus first deeply impressed on the mind of each one.

The word of God preached is still more frequently blessed to the same end. Thus many thousands were awakened on the day of Pentecost. Modern times give us instances of many hundreds impressed under one gospel sermon. The church of God still sings, "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things." "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." Rom. 10:15, 17.

Uninspired writings, which contain sound Bible principles and urge divine things on the attention with great tenderness and solemnity, are often greatly blessed to men's salvation. They awake them out of sleep, and bring into exercise all their faculties. It is therefore a good thing to circulate good books. The author has known five people in one neighborhood brought to deep concern, and finally to a hope in Christ, by reading the first part of Doddridge's "Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul."

Sometimes God arouses men from their guilty slumbers by some startling providence or some awful judgment. The sudden death of some loved one starts in the mind of the survivor the question—Where would I now be, if I had been called so soon or with so little warning? "When your judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness." Isa. 26:9.

Personal affliction is sometimes sanctified to the same end. In a respectable Christian church, not long since, every official member was known to have been a thoughtless worldling until God's hand was laid heavily upon him. Many a child of God now says, "Before I was afflicted I went astray; but now have I kept your word. It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn your statutes." Psalm 119:67, 71. "In their affliction they will seek me early." Hos. 5:15. Manasseh went heedlessly and brutally on in a course of crime and cruelty until dreadful calamities overtook him. Then he "prayed, and God was entreated by him." 2 Chron. 33: 13.

Sometimes a pious conversation, a kind and friendly admonition, a hint dropped in love, a word fitly spoken, has the same effect. A profane oath, an act of injustice, a debauchery, or some other vile sin, has filled a man's soul with such horror that he has had no peace until he fled to Christ. To show his power, God may make any of our sins to flash condemnation in our face, thus fulfilling the scripture, "Your own wickedness shall correct you." Jer. 2:19.

A powerful means of arousing men to attend to their souls' affairs is the conversion of their fellows, and especially of notorious sinners. Our Lord himself speaks as though he regarded this as the loudest kind of call: The publicans and the harlots believed John; and you, when you had seen it, repented not afterward, that you might believe. him." Matt. 21: 32. When rightly considered, the conversion of a fellow-creature is well suited to call up the attention of every candidate for eternity.

Frequently, however, men can give no minute and specific account of the causes or beginnings of their increased attention to true religion. Nor is it necessary that they should. A man may not know the steps or causes of his recovery from sickness, and yet he may now be a well man. Often too there is at first nothing very clear in the state of mind of one who is beginning to turn to God. Nothing indeed so much interests him as the general subject of salvation. He sees its importance; he owns its necessity. The mind also often spends its chief thoughts for a season on one sin, or one point of truth, and this serves as a key to many others.

In this state of awakened interest, the course of thought pursued is as much in accordance with the laws of mind, and is in this sense as natural, as in any period of one's history; so that the man greatly wonders that he never before saw things on this wise. He greatly marvels, and well he may, that his mind could so long be utterly dead to the things of salvation. Although he may not yet be the subject of a saving change, yet the frame of his soul is very different from what it was. Never before was he in such a state, for he has now fairly entered upon a course of PIOUS REFLECTION.

The power of reflection is that which chiefly distinguishes a man from a brute; and the habit of reflection, more than anything else, distinguishes a wise man from a fool. He must be given over to folly who never looks at the remote bearings and consequences of his actions. Things may easily be done which can never be undone. The silliest may plunge himself into ruin. There is no wise man who is not considerate. The rash, light, heedless must expect in all weighty matters to go astray. Reflection is important in proportion to the gravity of the matter on which we are called to exercise it. As religion is the most important theme on which the human mind is ever fixed, so above all other topics human salvation calls for thought, care, reflection.

True religion is as reasonable as it is necessary. To be pious without thoughtfulness is not possible. No one acts so wisely as he who counts the cost, looks well to his state, and entirely consecrates himself to God. In their most solemn appeals, the Scriptures address man as rational: "O, that they would consider." "Thus says the Lord Almighty, Consider your ways." "I speak as to wise men—judge what I say." Dent. 32:29; Hag. 1:7; 1 Cor. 10:15. Every stage of serious reflection is liable to many interruptions. Yet where God has begun a work of grace in the soul, the mind will not fall into continued thoughtlessness. God will employ suitable means to keep the attention awake. Perhaps he will make the example of the righteous at once a reproof and an encouragement, and that of the wicked a warning and a cause of alarm to the soul ready to settle on its lees.

The conduct of the worldly or profane is often held before the mind as a mirror, in which one sees reflected the wickedness of his own life. If God has not yet shown to the soul the beauty of holiness, he at least enables one to see that the truly pious possess many advantages, and awakens a desire to secure them. It is a point gained when one clearly perceives that the servant of God is the better and more truly happy man. So that in the midst of company and lawful employments one often finds his thoughts eagerly turned to everlasting things. This is proof that God has not abandoned him to the power of all evil. Under such circumstances the talkative man will be inclined to silence and seriousness. He will look at the past, think of the life he has led, recount God's mercies to him, review many parts of his conduct with pain, and say—"If I had my life to live over again, I would not do as I have done. I am an unhappy man. My state is sinful. Possibly I may be near to a miserable death or an undone eternity. I cannot justify my present course of life. I am not fit to die. I am not holy. Sin is deeply rooted in my nature. Without a great change of character, I shall never be what I ought."

Looking at the future, he remembers that he must live forever, that before long death will summon him into the presence of his Maker, and that without a change in his character and prospects, he must pass from the solemnities of his solitary interview with God to the retributions of an unblessed eternity. By this time he has probably become a habitual reader of the Bible and of other religious books. Although sinful shame has still much power over him, yet he thinks prayer useful and obligatory. A fit place of retirement, suitable words to be used, and more than all, a suitable frame of mind, seem to him to be needed. It will be well for him if Satan does not prevail on him at first quite to restrain prayer. A young man under serious impressions once retired to his room, locked his door, closed the shutters, and was about to pray, when he thought someone might see him through the keyhole. He went to cover that, when a band of music began to play outside his window. His attention was drawn off. He offered no prayer then. His seriousness left him. Let men be warned by such a case. Men must call upon God or perish. "Let sinners learn to pray." He who is effectually diverted from prayer, is hopelessly involved in guilt.

Led by God's Spirit, a soul thus awakened and brought to reflection, finds out much of the vanity of earthly things. His sense of their fleeting duration, and of their unsatisfying nature—is deep and strong. Once he called them the chief good. Now he sees that they are vain, empty, deceptive. He sees that his pursuit of them has been both foolish and sinful. The merriment which once filled him with delight now grieves him to the heart. By this time he begins to wonder what these things mean, and how they will terminate.

Preaching has a strange effect on him. The words of truth have a peculiar sharpness. He is surprised to find another exactly describing his thoughts and feelings. Sometimes he suspects that someone has informed the minister of Christ of his unhappy state. At times he feels a momentary anger that the secrets of his heart should be thus exposed; but a good conscience will show him that the fault is in himself.

Not unfrequently one in this state is beset with skeptical thoughts. They are a great annoyance to him; but his efforts to get rid of them are unsuccessful. They are the natural fruit of his corrupt and unbelieving heart. Nothing belongs more properly to an unregenerate state. He has wickedly cherished them for a long time. The habit of unbelief has grown inveterate. The best means to be used for overcoming these infidel temptations will be hearty prayer and the simple reading of God's word. The gospel is its own witness. The word of God is life and spirit. Nothing so directly and forcibly attacks sin. Yet no means possess inherent and adequate efficacy. God alone can cast out this devil of uncleanness and scepticism. Hence the necessity of fervent prayer. If the Lord should leave one in this doleful state of unbelief, his destruction would be inevitable, but it would be just.

One who has been brought thus far may be sorely tempted to give up both the hope and the pursuit of salvation. Seeing himself very far short of what he ought to be, he fears that he may never become a Christian. Should such fears prevail, he will sink into the inertness of despondency. Yet if God purposes to grant him salvation, he will not allow him to consent to the tempter. A kindly influence in his heart will urge him to flee from the wrath to come. He will feel that he cannot turn back. Nor can he stand still. He is afraid of the avenger of blood. He has hope that he shall yet be in the city of refuge. Sometimes fears almost overwhelm him; but yet they are not allowed quite to prevail against him. This state of mind is followed by religious inquiry.