Vital Godliness: A Treatise on
Experimental and Practical Piety
By William S. Plumer
Early religious impressions--INQUIRY
Religious inquiry naturally succeeds reflection. The
three thousand converted on the day of Pentecost were all honest and earnest
inquirers: "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" Acts 2:37. The same was
true of Saul of Tarsus: "Lord, what will you have me to do?" Acts 9:6. So
also the jailer cried, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" Acts 16:30. It
cannot be otherwise with the truly awakened. Any man in deep distress and
ignorant of the true method of deliverance, will naturally and earnestly
desire instruction. The truly anxious soul will cry to God for divine
guidance: "Teach me your statutes; lead me in a plain path; let me not err
from your ways; my Father, be my guide." He will also search the Scriptures
with a sincere desire to know their teachings. He will ask the pilgrims to
Zion and the ministers of the gospel to show him the way to the hill of the
Lord. Sometimes he finds poor counselors, who but perplex or mislead him.
But the best directions that can be given him are either not understood or
not followed, until he is led by the Spirit of all truth. I have known an
intelligent man to send seven hundred miles for a printed sermon which had
been useful to one of his friends, in the hope that it might show him also
the way of life.
The chief ingredient of this inquiry, when it is likely
to result in saving good, is its SINCERITY. The young ruler asked our
Lord a very weighty question and in a very earnest manner; but as soon as he
got the full answer, he went away exceeding sorrowful. Saul of Tarsus cried,
"Lord, what will you have me to do?" As soon as he received the answer, he
obeyed the voice of Christ. There is no substitute for genuine sincerity.
The lack of it spoils everything.
True, hearty inquiry is soon followed by GOOD
RESOLUTIONS. Within the present century some have taught that a change
of the governing purpose was the great essential of salvation. The practical
result on many was a belief that if they resolved to be Christians, they
were Christians. This greatly damaged the cause of Christ and injured men's
souls. In opposing it, perhaps some went to the opposite extreme. It is not
consistent with the laws of the human mind to undertake and execute any
great work without a purpose of heart so to do. Accordingly he whose case we
are considering, resolves to forsake some known or open sins, to avoid
profane language, company, and practices, or to perform certain known
duties. But he now learns how difficult it is for him, who is accustomed
to do evil, to learn to do well.
The usefulness of forming resolutions depends very much
on the state of heart accompanying them. When made in a spirit of
self-righteousness, or under a vain persuasion that we may thus commend
ourselves to God, they are of no use. Purposes formed in a spirit of
self-dependence vanish before temptation—as walls of snow melt away before a
spring sun. Resolutions formed in gross ignorance, in thoughtlessness, or in
vain-glory, profit not. We should never resolve to do an impossibility. Yet
no man amends his ways without forming a purpose to that effect. A sound
mind first lays its plan, and then executes it. Only madmen live without
The prodigal's return to duty and the home of his youth
was preceded by the resolution, "I will arise and go to my father." The
resolutions of the Jonathan Edwards doubtless exerted a happy influence on
his subsequent life. They are remarkable for sobriety. John Caspar Lavater,
an eminent servant of Christ, died at Zurich in Switzerland, in 1799. He has
left some sober and practical resolutions, which are but little known. They
"I will never, either in the morning or evening, proceed
to any business, until I have first retired, at least for a few moments, to
a private place, and implored God for his assistance and blessing."
"I will neither do nor undertake anything which I would
abstain from doing if Jesus Christ were standing visibly before me, nor any
of which I think it possible that I shall repent in the uncertain hour of my
"I will, with the divine aid, accustom myself to do
everything without exception in the name of Jesus Christ; and as his
disciple, will sigh to God continually for the Holy Spirit to preserve
myself in a constant disposition for prayer."
"Every day shall be distinguished by at least one
particular work of love."
"Every day I will be especially attentive to promote the
benefit and advantage of my own family in particular."
"I will never eat or drink so much as shall occasion to
me the least inconvenience or hinderance in my business."
"Wherever I go, I will first pray to God that I may
commit no sin there, but be the cause of some good."
"I will never lie down to sleep without praying, nor,
when I am in health, sleep longer than eight hours at most."
"I will every evening examine my conduct through the day
by these rules, and faithfully note down in my journal how often I offend
The Scriptures tell us of many who formed solemn
resolutions. Joshua said, "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."
The Psalms abound with solemn purposes: "I will love you, O Lord, my
strength;" "I will call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised." "I
said, I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue." "I will
hope continually, and will yet praise you more and more." "I will remember
your wonders of old. I will meditate also of all your work, and talk of your
doings." "I will call upon him as long as I live." "I will keep your
If you form resolutions, there can be no valid
objection against writing them down. If formed, they should be intelligible,
humble, well weighed, well understood, practical—and adopted with caution,
prayer, and deep solemnity. When a resolution is made, it should be kept.
"Vow and pay unto the Lord. He has no pleasure in fools."
But a soul, in its first drawings towards divine things,
finds it easier to resolve than to execute. Its resolutions
seem in a great measure to fail. One washes himself in snow-water, but God
plunges him in the ditch, and his own clothes abhor him. He finds that an
external remedy will not cure an internal disease! Under the pointed
preaching of the truth, his sins appear fearfully numerous and heinous. He
loses the boasting spirit of self-exaltation which he once had. His eye
gives way when you speak to him of serious matters. Even with his kindred,
his chief thoughts relate to salvation. If any of them are pious, he will
seek an opportunity to disclose his state of mind. If they are ungodly, he
will be pained by their wickedness. His thoughts on the lessons of piety
taught him by his parents deeply affect him. If any of his friends have died
in faith, he thinks of their example, and would gladly follow their
footsteps. Meanwhile the world recedes from his view, and his
prospects for the future seem to be under an eclipse. Once all seemed
mirthful and dazzling before him; but now the 'things of time' are growing
less and less.
As the coast of his native land fades from the view of
the mariner going out to sea—so the scenes, the business, the attractions of
earth are one by one lost to the view of a soul under the growing influence
of divine truth. Such a process awakens feelings of sadness and desolation.
By night, on his bed, he is restless and uncomfortable. His sleep is neither
sound nor refreshing. Sometimes he is afraid to go to sleep, lest he should
not awake in this world. He is troubled in visions of the night. And when he
awakes, his heart is still heavy. The subjects of sin and salvation still
press upon him and hold his attention. At night he wishes it were morning,
and in the morning he wishes it were night. Sometimes he is suddenly
surprised into sin, and finds that all his hopes of being already beyond the
reach of evil are vain. He is amazed at his own weakness and inability to
resist temptations. He mends his wall and daubs it with untempered mortar as
before, and the Lord again rends it, and makes his soul sick at its own
But it is almost impossible to cure him of the belief
that he can yet do something to purpose. In this state of mind he wishes the
pious would converse with him on his soul's affairs—and yet he has a dread
of such a thing. He is willing to be instructed—and yet he is reluctant to
walk in the way when he knows it. Sometimes he thinks he would give anything
for a new heart, and yet he will not make a full surrender. He would like to
wear the linen white and clean—but he will not cast away the filthy rags of
his own righteousness. In fine, his mind seems to be in a very contradictory
state. He seems greatly humbled—but he will not take upon him Christ's yoke.
He seems much inclined to the service of God—and yet he is led captive by
If any asks what will be the result of all these thoughts
and exercises, the answer is that they will either lead to peace with God—or
to deeper guilt than ever before rested on the soul. These thoughts will
either lead the soul to Christ—or they will leave it oppressed with
unutterable criminality. He who thus feels will soon be a child of God—or
twofold more the child of evil than ever. He will soon have a broken
heart—or a heart fearfully hardened. He will soon have a will
sweetly submissive to God—or fearfully perverse and obstinate. Such
influences as he is now under cannot be felt—and the soul remain unaffected.
They will produce vast good—or exceeding evil. Nor can anything but great
wickedness prevent a sound and speedy conversion to God. Self-murder,
self-murder will be the awful sound that will ring forever in the ears of
such as are moved in the manner described, and yet shall die impenitent. "O
Israel, you have destroyed yourself; but in me is your help."
It is always safe and scriptural to urge people thus
exercised to make direct and immediate application to the Savior. Let them
come, though blind and naked, vile and guilty, helpless and miserable. Let
none wait in an idle expectation that the terms of salvation will be
altered. God draws all his true people, but he will drag none
to heaven contrary to their wills. The promise is, "My people shall be
willing in the day of my power." The invitations of the gospel are to the
needy, the wretched, the lost. But let no man who is still in his sins
suppose that he is willing to come to Christ, and that Christ is not willing
to receive him. The reverse is the truth. Let not people thus concerned
about eternal things be scared away from the whole matter of piety, if they
find their own hearts desperately wicked. Every man's heart has always been
more wicked than he ever thought it to be. He who will not permit his wounds
to be probed, must expect to die.
Henry Martyn tells us that when awakened to divine
things, he refused to read Doddridge's 'Rise and Progress of Religion,'
because he found the first part of it so humiliating. A discovery of one's
sinfulness will not make him more sinful; but it may lead to salvation.
Let all beginning a pious life expect sore trials.
Satan is always most busy with those who are struggling to escape from his
dominion. Men see their own lack of heart, and Satan would persuade them
that all religion is hypocrisy. It is to be regretted that people who are
seeking salvation should be brought too much into public notice. It is to be
feared that many talk away their pious impressions, or allow others to do
it. It is when one "sits alone and keeps silence" that he is likely to "put
his mouth in the dust; if so be there may be hope." Lam. 3:28, 29. In the
twelfth chapter of his prophecy, verses 9-14, Zechariah describes the effect
of a general outpouring of God's Spirit as inclining all classes to weep
Let inquirers after salvation beware of bad company. "If
sinners entice you, consent not." "The companion of fools shall be
destroyed." Even in good company there may be excess. But all bad company is
dangerous. To avoid all commerce with the wicked is neither obligatory nor
practical. But between civil fellowship and companionship there is a wide
It would be a great thing if those who are not Christians
could be led to entertain some just sense of the evil of sin. Oh that
the wicked knew the import of those words of Francis Spira: "Man knows the
beginning of sin, but who can fathom the results of sin!" It is easy to do
mischief, but who can undo it? To sin is natural; but to escape from it
requires atoning blood, and the supernatural agency of God's Spirit.
It is always a duty to urge men to immediate faith and
repentance. "Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of
salvation." Call on men to do with their might, whatever their hands finds
to do. In his lives of great men, Plutarch says of Hannibal, that when he
could have taken Rome, he would not; and when he would have taken Rome, he
could not. It is true of many, that when they can secure a title to God's
favor, they will not; and when they wish to do it, they cannot, because they
have misspent all their days of grace.