Vital Godliness: A Treatise on
Experimental and Practical Piety

By William S. Plumer


"It is a good thing to be zealous in doing good." Galatians 4:18

"Zeal is the fire of love,
Active for duty, burning as it flies."

Zeal is ardor, and is good or bad according to the principles from which it flows, and the end to which it is directed. Zeal is the life of every cause, which is dependent on human exertions. The habits and tempers of men control its modes of operation. In religion its importance is very great, and its nature should be well understood. The Scriptures give precepts and examples, motives and encouragements on the whole subject. So soon as the word zeal is pronounced, some seem alarmed. Men of the world and formalists speak much and feel more against all ardor in religion. "The natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God."

Others say—If the Christian religion is true, why do its avowed friends manifest so little zeal in maintaining and propagating it?" This solemn inquiry admits of but one solution, namely, The best of men are but half awake. Imperfection mars all human virtue here below. In all things we come short. Yet the very men who start such questions will, upon a turn, put the brand of fanaticism on all who manifest a lively interest in the salvation of men. Cecil says, "The world will allow a vehemence approaching to ecstasy on almost every subject but Christianity, which above all others will justify it."

The real temper of wicked men is unchanged from generation to generation. As in the days of John the Baptist and of Christ, they are still like the children in the market-place. If we play music, they will not dance. If we mourn, they will not lament. We must look elsewhere than to the world for rules of pious living, for guides to holiness. Even the visible church of God falls far below the true standard of holy fervency demanded in religion. It is readily conceded that there is false zeal manifested for religion. The word of God so teaches. "They show a deep interest in you, but their intentions are not good." Gal. 4:17.

In some things, zeal may be strict and zealous. In other things, no less important, zeal may be lax and cold. Zeal may be partial, and so deficient. In our Savior's day, many showed much ardor in tithing mint, anise, and cummin; they passed over faith, justice, mercy, and the love of God. They strained at a gnat, and swallowed a camel. They made much ado about little things, but had no zeal for weighty things. What they did was in itself right, but what they left undone was indispensable. The religion of hypocrites is never symmetrical. It despises divine rules. its code of laws is selective. It never submits to the whole will of Heaven. All zeal which has for its object anything forbidden in the oracles of God, as all will-worship and uncommanded austerities, is a false zeal. Something of this nature often enters largely into false religions. Human inventions in religion are multiform, and always dangerous. Admit one human invention into any part of true piety, and there is no end to error and man's devices.

God's word condemns a superstitious zeal. Before his conversion, Paul was "more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of his fathers" than "many his equals" in other respects. The world has always been and still is overstocked with a blind veneration for much that has been devised by man. The more of this superstitious zeal any one has, the worse man is he. The priests of Baal "cried aloud, and cut themselves with knives and lancets, until the blood gushed out upon them." They were very zealous, and yet abominably wicked. Many a man is the worse citizen, neighbor, husband, father, brother, and friend—because his spurious zeal has perverted even the generous instincts of his nature.

The Scriptures condemn all blind zeal. They require every man to be fully persuaded in his own mind. Hooker says, "Zeal needs a sober guide." He who has no "reason for the hope that is in him" is self-deceived. The terrible rebuke of Christ to the Samaritans, "You worship you know not what," should alarm fiery zealots. Ignorance was a radical fault in the ardor of the Jews in apostolic times. Paul gives witness to their zeal for God, but adds that "it was not according to knowledge." "For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves to the righteousness of God." They put the law where they should place the gospel. They ignored the merits of Christ.

Sometimes zeal is contentious, and so betrays its spurious nature. Some build churches, endow charities, defend the truth, yes, "preach Christ out of contention—but not sincerely." Good to man, and glory to God, may be brought out of their labors; but they shall have no divine reward. Their works shall be burned up, and they shall suffer loss. Alas, how many forget that the wrath of man, does not achieve the righteousness of God. The greatest error of Paul before his conversion was, that "concerning zeal, he persecuted the church." No darker sign can attend a religious profession than a cruel, haughty, denunciatory spirit. "Bless, and curse not." "As we have opportunity, let us do good unto all men." "In meekness instructing those who oppose themselves."

Sometimes zeal is ostensibly for religion, but really for selfish ends. It will serve itself or a party—but not Christ. Men have compassed sea and land to make one proselyte, who, when made, was worse than before. His conversion was not to God, to holiness, to obedience. Those who plied him with arguments never desired his sanctification; they wanted his name and influence. In every age are found some professors of religion who rejoice more at making a proselyte than a convert; who are more pleased at seducing an unstable soul out of another into their own church—than in plucking a brand from the everlasting burnings. This is indeed sad. Let such learn what manner of spirit they are of.

Zeal is often boastful and ostentatious. Jehu said, "Come with me, and see my zeal for the Lord." The old Pharisees sounded a trumpet before them when they were about to give alms; and for a pretense, they made long prayers. Even in pious men there is often a mixture of motives; and vanity comes in to mar their good works. Sometimes zeal which otherwise appears well is but temporary, and so proves its spurious nature. At one time the Galatians would, if possible, have given their eyes to the man who was the means of their conversion. They seemed to begin in the spirit, but they ended in the flesh. They were soon turned aside. Their zeal did not last. They did run well for a time, but by and by they were hindered. They counted as an enemy the man who told them the truth. With their ardor, they lost also their comfort in religion, so that Paul says to them, "Where is the blessedness you spoke of?"

In some cases zeal betrays its spurious character by the self-righteousness which it engenders. Christ taught his disciples, saying, "When you have done all these things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants; we have done only that which it was our duty to do." But some come away from the most solemn acts of devotion puffed up with pride, and ready to say to others, "Stay away! Don't touch me! I'm holier than you are." Of such God says, "I cannot stand people like that—-my anger against them is like a fire that never goes out.

I have already decided on their punishment, and their sentence is written down. I will not overlook what they have done, but will repay them for their sins." Isa. 65:5-6. "What do you have—that you have not received?" "Not unto us, not unto us—but to your name give glory." "From me is your fruit found."

But there is a true and scriptural zeal. All fervor in religion is not rash, blind, boastful, contentious, superstitious, temporary, or self-righteous. Genuine zeal is "the wisdom that is from above," and "is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy." Jas. 3:17. True zeal has no self-serving ends. Its principle and its aim are holiness. It leads to purity. For peace—it will give up everything but truth and a good conscience. It wars not after the flesh. It rejects carnal weapons. It is full of courtesy, candor, and kindness. It forbears. It forgives. It pities. It yields to reasonable arguments and suggestions. It is not obstinate. It hates malice. It loves mercy. Its fruits are wholesome and healthful. It pours blessings both on its friends and its foes. It cares not for vain distinctions which men of the world regard; but without partiality, without respect of people, it does good to all men, especially to the household of faith. It is sincere. It feels all it professes, and more. It dotes not "about questions and strifes of words whereof comes envy, strife, railings, evil-surmisings, and perverse disputings." Its zeal is for the simple truth.

True zeal is not light without heat; yet it is modest. If God is glorified and his cause advanced, it is willing to remain unnoticed. It is ready to contend earnestly, but not bitterly, for the truth. If it falls into error, it is not incorrigible. It is moved with alacrity, but not hurried by impetuosity. It leaves a sweet savor on the minds of all the pious. It seeks not its own. Its glory is to glorify God. Its happiness is to make others blessed. It loves rich and poor, and delights in blessing the slave and the free. It weeps over human wickedness. It rejoices in all truth, in all goodness. Though mild and meek, it is not timid and cringing. When the enemy comes in like a flood, the Lord lifts up a standard against him in the person of his humble people. Then "the righteous are as bold as a lion." The zealous servant of God is firm, not by his natural strength, but through the grace that is given unto him.

This zeal lasts; it is not fickle. It is a fire fed by the oil poured into the heart by the Holy Spirit. It loves its toils, and even its sufferings for Christ and his people. Its food and its drink is to do and to suffer the will of God. It is different from any principle which governs the men of the world. It is enlightened; it is "wisdom." It hates pride and vain-glory. It is strongest when self is most out of view. It finds its nourishment in a living faith in the living word of God. It hopes against hope. Because it springs from love to Christ, it fears not self-denial. In no case is it indeed perfect. This keeps the most zealous godly men in an humble frame.

There is probably more true zeal in the church of God than is sometimes supposed to exist; yet there is far less than the miseries of men, the love of Christ, and the glory of God imperatively demand.

The ways in which a genuine zeal may exert itself are many. It does not forget its own immortal interests. He whose heart is warmed with fire from heaven, does not neglect his own soul, but keeps his heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life. Like Henry Martyn, he says, "My first great business on earth is the sanctification of my own soul." The first step towards doing good is to be godly. It is a sad spectacle when we see men busy here and there, but caring not to make their own calling and election sure. It is mournful when a man is constrained to take up the lamentation, "They made me the keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard have I not kept." We are never more mistaken than when we imagine ourselves called upon to do some duty, which interferes with the cultivation of personal piety.

Our blessed Savior has set us a good example in this respect. Though his purpose was that of redeeming a world, and though he knew that his personal ministry on earth would be very short, yet he never neglected communion with God. He spent whole nights in devotion. The zeal for God's house consumed him. None walked with God so closely as he. Indeed his personal devotedness to God, was the nourishment of all his holy fervor. Be wise for yourself. But true love looks not only on its own things, but also on the things of others. It takes the beam out of its own eye, but it is then ready to take the mote out of its neighbor's eye. It first weeps for its own sins; it then mourns for the iniquities of others. Thus Jeremiah said to his nation, "If you will not hear it, my soul shall weep in secret places over your pride, and my eye shall weep sorely and run down with tears." Ezekiel also tells us that when God was about to send his messengers to destroy the land and to consume its people, he sent before them an angel with an inkhorn, to "set a mark upon the foreheads of the men who sighed and cried for all the abominations that were done."

Often all that the righteous can do is to weep in secret, and cry, "Oh that the wickedness of the wicked were come to an end!" Matthew Henry says, "The sight of sin either makes a man sad or guilty. If we see it, and are not sorrowful—we are guilty." Blessed is the man who weeps for the wickedness of men, and as he has opportunity testifies against it, and warns men of coming judgments.

Another proper field for pious zeal is the sanctuary. There it makes and there it performs many holy vows. There it swells the voice of joy and praise. There it beholds the King in his beauty. There it is delighted with memories of past mercies, and ravished with visions of future glories. The prayers appropriate to the sanctuary are sure to meet with a hearty response from all who have heavenly zeal. The anthems of praise belonging to the courts of the Lord's house animate the humble soul, and awaken longings for heavenly glories. True zeal also delights in sustaining sober, practical, and benevolent institutions, whose aim is to enlighten mankind, elevate public sentiment, and bring sinners to Christ.

Nor will a true zeal forget the family. A zeal which is warm and active abroad, but cold and formal at home, is not of the genuine kind. He who lets the fire die out on the domestic altar cannot be a useful member of the church of Christ. Could we once see a generation of the friends of Christ duly attentive to the duties of piety at home, it would be a better sign of the approach of the latter day's glory than has yet appeared. Oh that God would now turn the hearts of the parents to the children; and the hearts of the children to the parents.

Another fit work for true zeal is found in direct personal efforts for the salvation of impenitent men around us. Genuine religious ardor watches for souls. Above all things, it delights to win souls. It seeks, yes, it makes occasions to speak a word for God. It is ingenious in devices to, do good. It will try a thousand ways and a thousand times. It sows its seed in the morning; in the evening it withholds not its hand. If successful, it greatly rejoices, and gives God all the glory.

In our age and country there is special need of unquenchable zeal in religion. Everything is now active in our world. Evil grows apace; iniquity comes in like a flood. The wicked sleep not, except they have done some mischief. Population and wealth grow as by magic. Enterprise is unparalleled. While godly men sleep, the enemy is sowing tares. Error is rife and restless. Nothing but mighty efforts, owned and blessed of God, can save millions of our people from a worldly spirit, which will, if it prevail, drown them in destruction and perdition. Lord, increase our faith. If a man could say but one sentence to his generation in the assured hope that it would be heard and heeded—he could hardly say anything better than this: "It is a good thing to be zealous in doing good." The interests of society in its present state call for our best efforts. The earth is filled with violence and with the habitations of cruelty. There is no answer beyond the pale of the church of God and the sphere of her influence. Jewish prejudice, Mohammedan delusion, Popish superstition, Pagan idolatry, and 'baptized worldlings' are crushing alike the best feelings and the brightest hopes of men. General happiness in nations ruled by maxims of wickedness and by men of impiety never has been and never can be secured. The little knowledge and liberty and virtue now on earth are the fruit of the tears and toils and blood of men of whom the world was not worthy.

From the temporal miseries of men who are without God in the world, we readily pass in thought to a death without comfort, a judgment without mercy, an immortality without the everlasting life, an eternity without light, without hope, and without change—but from bad to worse. There is indeed something dreadful even here in "That cloud of mind which cannot, dares not see the light;" in those dark and gloomy apprehensions and contemplations which fill the minds of the guilty and superstitious. But it is still more true that bones of iron and sinews of brass will not be able to endure the weight of that eternal punishment which will fall on the wicked in a future world.

There is something glorious in the peace and joy of a pardoned sinner on earth; but something ineffably grand and ravishing in the thought of a soul saved, disenthralled, perfected in heaven. Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, the heart of man has not conceived—the good things which God has prepared for those who love him—nor the evil things which he has treasured up for those who hate him. Infinite joys and infinite woes, fathomless mercy and fathomless misery, heavenly bliss and eternal wrath depend on the course men's souls pursue in time. That course is often determined by means of things which at the time seem trivial. "Behold how great a matter, a little fire kindles."

Surely every act of human life may draw after it consequences so vast as to defy all powers of computation, and even of conception. A word may subvert an empire. A word may save a soul. "A word fitly spoken, how good is it. It is like apples of gold in a network of silver." Nor is anything in religion more conducive to our happiness than liveliness in the cause of God. Holy ardor is as oil to machinery; it makes everything work smoothly. God meets him who rejoices and works righteousness. His most arduous duties refresh his spirit. He comes to them and from them not as a hireling, but as a child who delights in the law of God after the inner man.

Nor should we ever forget that God abhors all services in religion where the heart is lacking. A religion without zeal is offensive to God. Duly considered, it is monstrous to all right-minded men. God will smite the insincere, and there shall be no healing. A wise man said, "It is better to do a little good—than a great deal of mischief." Very few will attempt a logical refutation of this saying. It is better to inspire one man with the love of truth—than to bring a whole generation under the power of error and delusion. It is better to convert one sinner from the error of his ways—than to make all Israel to sin. It is better to fill one heart with joy at an act of love—than to fill every valley with wailing by deeds of malignity.

Besides, it is the plan of God that great results should follow apparently small beginnings. That mighty oak whose trunk has become the keel of the enormous ship was once a small plant, which the tread of a lamb or fawn might have crushed. To plant an acorn is better than wantonly to slay a forest. The necessity of doing even a little good, when we can do no more, arises from the fact that so many and so mighty evil influences are abroad, and from the further fact that life is made up of deeds, the effect of any one of which may be apparently trivial. The enemy is always at work; therefore should we be ever diligent. If the friends of truth are inactive, the world will soon be ruined. Destruction wastes at noon-day.

Publicity is not to be sought, but neither is it to be shunned—if God calls his people to testify before kings and courts and crowds. And as wickedness distills its influences secretly, so let wholesome truths be taught privately.

The enemy has some advantages. One is, that it is easier to pull down than to build up, to destroy than to create, to corrupt than to purify, to kill than to make alive. The foes of God are also lively. Their industry is worthy of a better cause. It is high time that all right-minded men should awake. For though they are few and feeble, God is on their side. Nothing is too hard for him. None can resist him. None can deceive him. He can bind the strong man, and then take his goods. "If God is for us, who can be against us?" If he makes bare his arm, all nations shall tremble before him. Let none of the friends of God forget that a little done every day will in the end amount to much. Sands form the mountains. Minutes make the year. This is the secret of a life of usefulness. He who is faithful in the least, is the man whose virtue will not fail him on great occasions.

Christians should endeavor to do good in the least objectionable way. "Let not your good be evil spoken of." "A good action indiscreetly performed, is little better than a prudent piece of mischief." The carnal mind sufficiently opposes holiness without our needlessly irritating it. Deceit is indeed odious and wicked; but prudence is a duty. Trick is despicable. Sincerity is obligatory. Paul's life affords many admirable examples of consummate wisdom in allaying prejudices, in quelling storms of human passion. "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might." "No man lives to himself." What a blessing to thousands it would be, if all who can would lend or give good books to those who will read them. Milton well says that "books are not absolutely dead things; but do contain a progeny of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. As good almost kill a man—as kill a good book: who kills a man, kills a reasonable creature; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself. A good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life."

I had rather be the author of a little gospel tract, than of Homer's Iliad. To spread the knowledge of God by good books has long been a favorite method of doing good. Another excellent method of usefulness is giving good advice. Almost all the practical good in this world is the result of good counsel, no small part of which is offered without solicitation, but on a proper occasion and in a right spirit. In giving advice, beware of dogmatizing and of all pride. In all plans of usefulness, pay due attention to the young. They are alike the hope of the church and of the state. Their habits are not yet inveterate; their sensibilities are not yet blunted. By kindness you may win their confidence. By perseverance you may make an impression on their minds and hearts. Abound in prayer. Many a time it has opened heaven. Many a time it has opened prisons, opened doors of usefulness, opened the hand of stinginess, and the heart of severity. It has both opened and shut the mouth of the grave. By it the cause of righteousness has success and stability. By it the feeble gain the victory and the slow win the race. "What we win by prayer we wear with comfort."

Do all you can to stir up a spirit of zeal in your own heart. Get the strongest conceptions you can of the value of eternal things, especially by visiting dying beds and deserted souls, and then flee to your closet and cry mightily to God for his blessing on the perishing. "He who has God's heart, shall not lack his arm." God has closely united our duty and our happiness in a thousand ways.

The highest motive which can be presented to a pious mind in favor of a life of zeal and devotedness is, that thus we do what we can to glorify our God and Savior. To be allowed to honor the Father of our mercies, the God of all grace, and the Savior of sinners, is one of the highest privileges ever bestowed on mortals. So the righteous have always esteemed it. The wants, the woes, the weal of mankind may properly be thought of as motives to a life of labor and usefulness. But they are as nothing compared with the glory of Him who has made all things for himself, who is before all, above all, over all, through all, and in us all. That his name may be hallowed, his kingdom come, and his will be done, are three of the seven petitions in the Lord's prayer; and they are the first three. Before all things—we should endeavor to honor God.