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 method.

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 are:

"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 certain death."

"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 against them."

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 statutes."

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 follies.

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 sin.

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 alone.

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 difference.

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.