Vital Godliness: A Treatise on
Experimental and Practical Piety

By William S. Plumer



Some account has been given, of a soul beginning to shake off its guilty slumbers, and to turn its thoughts to the unspeakable concerns of sin and duty, immortality and glory, salvation and perdition. One who has had the exercises of mind thus described is certainly under the teachings of the Holy Spirit. Yet he may have many such thoughts and emotions without knowing their origin or Author. In giving this history of the mind's operations and discoveries, it is proper to state that before this, a suspicion, if not a conviction, that God's Spirit is now at work in the heart, takes possession of the mind. Nor is this without foundation. The fact is, that none but the Holy Spirit could have brought about this great change of views and purposes.

It is not easy to tell what a solemn awe fills the mind when first a man is persuaded that he is the subject of supernatural and divine influences. The soul, like the patriarch, says, "Surely God is in this place—and I knew it not!" Such a view hushes the soul into stillness. It remembers God and is troubled. He who feels thus, is inclined to silence, lest he should do something wrong; and is afraid lest he should be deceived, or lest by thoughtlessness he should grieve the Spirit far from him, and relapse into former carelessness and iniquity. In this state of mind he will cry, "Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Uphold me with your free Spirit."

He will now give a decided preference to pious company. He looks on the children of God as the excellent of the earth. Yet fellowship with them deepens discoveries of sinfulness in his own heart. When they speak of joys, he longs for the same. He feels as if he had nothing whereof to rejoice. The review of his past life affords him no pleasure. It is all a dark, unillumined retrospect. It is gloomy, like the shades of death. He sees how vain and empty has been everything which he once called happiness. He has now found out that the world is a cheat! His impression is that true religion would make him a happy man—and he is right. Sometimes his expectation of a speedy change becomes strong. He hopes he shall soon be a Christian. He has an inextinguishable thirst for something—which he has never had before. To keep him from despair, a little light sometimes beams upon his path. Then again, all his hopes of deliverance seem to forsake him. His affections seem to grow cold. Even his desires for anything good appear to be languid. He is a mystery to himself! He exceedingly doubts whether he shall ever be a child of God.

Thus hope and fear alternate. He is restless and unhappy. He deeply regrets that he did not long since become a Christian, when his heart was less depraved and his will less stubborn. It cuts him to the heart to remember that all this sorrow over time misspent and opportunities lost, is unavailing. He fears lest his present call should pass away unimproved. Nor are his apprehensions wholly without foundation, for notwithstanding all his efforts—his sins hang over him in all their guilt, number, and aggravations. Nay, they seem to be multiplied and magnified! The mote has become a beam, the molehill a mountain, the rivulet a torrent! These things incline him to solitude, and he goes mourning all the day.

He has no heart for the mirth of the wicked, for he sees something of the evil of sin. He is not a partaker of the joys of the righteous, and therefore he feels not as if between him and them, there was any warm or close fellowship. Go where he may, he feels wretched and self-condemned. He wonders that God has not long since destroyed him. He marvels that he does not now cut him down. Yet he hopes that this drawing of the Spirit is a token for good. He knows that his case is hopeless only when God totally and finally abandons him to the power of his sins, and to the guilt of his iniquities. Thus every motion of the Spirit in his heart is an argument against despair.

Should his wicked companions discover or even suspect his state of mind, some of them will shun him, others will be alarmed, and yet others will scoff at him. These will raise the old cry, "Will you also be his disciple?" Some will ask him if he is willing to give up all his pleasures; others will seek to allure him into forbidden paths; others will say that he is beside himself. But if God intends to bring him to a settled and renewed state, these things will deepen his distress and his views of the state of sin and misery into which he is plunged.

At the commencement of his seriousness concerning spiritual matters, he had many crude opinions. Perhaps he thought he never would become a member of the church, but that he would be pious in a private way. Now he wishes that he was fit to be numbered among God's people. Or he once thought that if any great change ever came over him, it must be either very suddenly—or very gradually. Now he would be happy to be converted in any way that the Lord might choose. He now probably supposes his failure is owing to the lack of more system in his plan of proceeding. And so he adopts a rule for reading so much every day, or he determines to pray with more frequency, or with more outward signs of humiliation. But all proves unsatisfactory: he finds he can no more chain his thoughts than he can bind the wind; that he can no more bend his will than he can grasp the sun; that he can no more repent or believe than do the most impossible thing, if he is wholly left to his own energies. He is now experiencing what Paul felt: "I was alive without the law once; but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. And the commandment which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me." Rom. 7:9-11.

The law, like a lamp brought into a dark and filthy room, has disclosed the wretched state of the soul. What the law requires is found to be lacking. What it forbids is seen to be present. Sin begins to be regarded as sinful. It alarmingly abounds. One thus distressed, feeling the bitterness in his own soul, is almost sure that others must know his sad state. He wonders that Christians do not speak to him of his spiritual interests. He says, "No man cares for my soul." Like the prodigal, he is ready to perish, and no man gives anything unto him. He is amazed that some professors should be so absorbed with trifles and vanities of earth, while things of eternal moment press on his mind with such weight. Should he fall in with a bigoted sectarian, more intent on making a proselyte to a party than on saving a soul from death, he may for a while be perplexed; but unless God should forsake him, he will not in the end be much influenced by him. The necessities of a soul thus pressed with guilt, are too urgent to permit it to be absorbed with religious forms and names and pomps and shadows. The fiery sectary will soon be shunned. He was asked for bread, and he gave a stone. He was asked for a fish, and he gave a serpent.

A poor soul, like the hunted deer on the mountain, is thirsting for living, waters, and cares not for the strifes of words and the disputes of proud reasoners. He who is dying of thirst needs water—and nothing else. It is a glorious sight when God's Spirit triumphs over the efforts of bigotry and formalism and fanaticism—and brings a soul safely through their enticements.

One thing is now apparent: it is that God's word is no longer a dead letter. It has power and pungency. There is a disposition to apply the truth. Texts which once exerted no power over the mind have a keen edge. It seems to this man strange that he should not long since have yielded to the force of considerations which now have so vast an influence over him. Preaching has great pointedness. Indeed, it seems to him that sermons are laying open the secrets of his heart. Sometimes he suspects ministers of indulging in personalities, when they know nothing of his sore distress. He will now seek any book that he hears of as suited to his state of mind. But if it is sound and discriminating, while it enlightens it also distresses him. He wishes he could be exempt from worldly cares, that he might give undivided attention to more important concerns. When he hears of others obtaining a joyful hope in Christ, he is tempted to have hard thoughts of God because he finds no relief. But if God intends to bring him to a saving experience, he will show him the wickedness of all such charges against his Maker and his Sovereign. "Be still, and know that I am God." "The Lord is greatly to be feared."

He now finds himself involved in doubt and darkness. He knows nothing as he ought to know it. He longs for a guide, yet through unbelief rejects the only infallible teacher. He says, "I am brought into darkness, and not into light; I look for light, but there is none; I feel after God, but I cannot find him." He asks the watchman to direct him, but he is still lost and bewildered. He finds that his case is wholly unmanageable by human skill and efforts. His heart, which until lately he regarded as good, he finds to be hard, corrupt, and stubborn. The cry of the Shunamite's child was, "My head, my head!" but the lament of this man is, "My heart, my heart!" He finds it so unfeeling that he readily joins with the poet, and says, "Of feeling all things show some sign—but this rebellious heart of mine. My heart, how very hard it is, How heavy here it is. Heavy and cold within my bosom, just like a rock of ice!"

To remove this hardness, he will bring before his mind images and denunciations of God's displeasure against the wicked. But it "shakes not at the wrath and terrors of God." When he would melt it by tender reflections on God's love, he finds it still full of revolt; and even the scenes of Calvary often make it the more stout and defiant. A sense of personal vileness may be strong and painful, and he may cry, "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me." Yet oftentimes this prayer seems to have no heart in it. He does indeed long for purity of nature; but perhaps it is only that he may have something whereof to boast before God, or some righteousness of his own to come before God with a price in his hand.

The author of these new views and emotions is the Spirit of God. These are the strivings of Him who was promised to convince the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment. He is now calling the soul to forsake sin and turn to God. The fears which torment his soul are the natural result of recent discoveries of God's amazing mercy and holiness, justice and power, which have all been slighted and despised. Though no terrors will change the heart, yet they may be useful in driving the soul out of itself and away from its false refuges. He who is thus exercised ought to know that the kingdom of God has come near unto him; that now is his time to turn and live, while the Spirit strives. Should he withdraw, all is lost. Without his influences, we can no more move heavenward than we can sail a ship without wind. That God's Spirit may call men to repentance, and be resisted, and take his final departure, is clear. The Scriptures say, "My Spirit shall not always strive with man." Gen. 6:3. "Ephraim is joined to idols; let him alone." Hos. 4:17.

The word of God also gives us cases in which men have been greatly affected by divine things, and have had awful and pungent distress, and yet have drawn back to perdition. In the Old Testament, Saul and Ahab, in the New, Herod, Simon Magus, Felix, and Agrippa—are illustrations of the fearful abandonment of God. Men thus left to their own corruptions will inevitably perish. They will work out their own damnation with greediness.

One of the greatest points of danger is found in the fact that a man may grieve away the Spirit without any fixed purpose of bringing his soul into such guilt. Obstinate resistance, continued unbelief, and refusal to obey the call when given—are often all that is necessary to quench the heavenly fire within us, and consign us to the coldness of death.

Hardly anything is more offensive to God than an all-absorbing engagedness in worldly pursuits. This often causes the Spirit of God to forsake a man and leave him to the power of evil. "If any man loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him." "They that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition." 1 John 2:15, and 1 Tim. 6:9. If a man prefers the present to the future, earth to heaven, riches which perish to riches which endure to eternal life—he offers an insult to God of so aggravated a nature as itself to justify God in leaving him to himself forever.

Others indulge in a dangerous levity of mind. They are too frivolous to take hold of eternal things with any earnestness. To them solemnity is torment. They might be truly pious—but they retain a light and trifling state of mind. They regard the heavy demands made on their sobriety as enormous and unreasonable. So they lose their souls in a laugh! They jest and make a mock of solemn things. They trifle with Scripture. Even their prayers do not partake of any profound awe.

Some men perish through a wild conceit—a fancy of their own, a whim that they will not surrender. On no subject are men so full of crotchets and quibbles as on true religion. They sport themselves with their own deceivings. They are often better pleased with a phantom than with a reality. Error is sweeter than truth to the carnal mind! If men will prefer anything to God's word, they must go down to eternal death. The angry passions, envy, hatred, malice, spitefulness, resentment, are all exceedingly offensive to God's Spirit. Pride and fretfulness are no less his abhorrence. He who hates his brother is a murderer. He who will not forgive, shall not be forgiven. The only visible shape in which the Holy Spirit ever descended was that of a dove; and a dove is the very emblem of peace and gentleness, and flies from strife and noise and war. Therefore Paul says, "Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God;" and adds, "Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil-speaking be put away from you, with all malice; and be kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God, for Christ's sake, has forgiven you." Eph. 4:30-32.

Too much company, and even too much attention to the public means of grace, may be unfriendly to the continued presence and power of God's Spirit in the heart. He loves to allure the soul, and bring her into the wilderness. In solitude, the Spirit often pours his clearest light into the mind. It has been observed that meetings long protracted, often exhaust the energies of the mind, and leave it in a state of apparent callousness. Bad company must of course be avoided. It has destroyed many. It ruined Herod. For his oath's sake, and for the sake of those who partied with him, he took the life of the very man whose ministry had so deeply impressed him.

Sins of the appetite, such as gluttony and drunkenness, though they be not carried to the greatest lengths—have a brutalizing and hardening effect on the mind. All sensuality is followed by like consequences. He whose God is his belly cannot choose the God of heaven for his portion! He who is given to the bottle may have redness of eyes, but cannot have a penitent spirit. A devotion to the carnal—is closely allied to the pursuit of the devilish! The sensual easily break all their good resolutions. They pamper the flesh. They grieve the Spirit. They yield to temptation, and are soon plunged into many dreadful sins!

It is to be feared that some allow their religious impressions to run too much in the way of sentimentalism. It is possible for men to weep away all their convictions. It is natural for distress to pass away in floods of tears. The Spirit strives not merely to induce men to shed some tears—but to lead them to forsake sin and turn to God. Until this result is gained, nothing is effectually accomplished. To come short of this, is to resist Him who calls us to a new life, to new hopes, to salvation.

Others harden themselves in sin by refusing the means of grace. They will not read and study God's word; they will not pray; they avoid pious conversation; they conceal the state of their minds; they are careless or irregular hearers of the gospel. Above all, they refuse to practice what they already know, and so they make no progress. They do nothing except as they are moved by fears or remorse. They seem quite inclined to religion when pangs are upon them. They cry, and even roar under the terrors of God; but they never frame their doings to please him. If God leaves such to utter hardness, it will be no wonder.

Sometimes men seal their doom by resolving to give their chief attention to outward things and external reformations, neglecting the religion of the heart. Some years ago a wicked man, in great distress about his soul, said, "I have made up my mind to amend my speech, and afterwards to attend to my heart." It was the signal of his ruin. His seriousness forsook him. He lived several years a hardened, foul-mouthed man, and then died a violent death. The Scripture rule is, first make the tree good, and then the fruit shall be good; purify the fountain, and the stream shall be sweet. He whose main desire is to cleanse the outside of the platter, even if he were successful, might yet die without hope. Continued unbelief and impenitence, under any conceivable circumstances, may and must cause us to be given over to blindness of mind and hardness of heart.

Many whose morals were blameless, who fully intended to lead a pious life but never did, who shed many tears and bore many terrors, have at last uttered the cry, "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and I am not saved!" He who called them suddenly forsook them. Wicked men are often surprised at finding themselves deserted by their serious thoughts, and unmoved by any tender impressions. Against an issue so fatal there is no protection until one casts himself at the feet of Jesus. The longer this is deferred, the worse will be the sinner's state and the more imminent his peril. Already sin, like a gangrene, has spread its roots into every vital part. Unless there is a sovereign remedy—all is lost. Unless that remedy be applied, it were as well for him that it had never been provided.

Whoever is the subject of divine influences is in a fearfully critical state. To use a figure understood by all, he has come to the fork of the road. The right way is narrow, steep, and difficult, but it leads to God and glory. The other leads to death. Nor does any man know whether a soul once forsaken of God will ever be called again. Thousands have succeeded in stifling convictions and shaking off impressions, which proved to be the last effects of the Spirit's strivings. There is no more fearful state than that of a soul meditating the rejection, for what proves to be the last time—of the blessed Spirit of God. As God has no other Son to give for our salvation if we reject the Lord Jesus—so he has no other Spirit to send into our hearts and call us to repentance if we reject the Holy Spirit. And if any man fails to secure illumination, regeneration, and sanctification by this divine Agent—those mercies will never be his.

Every good thought, every right affection, and every holy desire come from the Spirit alone. A ship may have ten thousand yards of sail spread out, but that will never carry her into port unless the wind blows. Let none forget that the Spirit of God is most loving and merciful. This is proven by all Scripture and by all the Spirit's work. None is more kind, none is more gentle.

A young lad had been resisting the calls of mercy. At last he opened the door and admitted the heavenly Stranger. His soul was so overcome with a sense of his vileness in so long resisting such mercy, that he said nothing had ever seemed to him so wicked, so ungrateful. He was right. Urge all inquirers to make immediate submission to Christ, immediate application to the Savior for mercy.

Many years ago, a young man in distress for his soul revealed the state of his mind to an eminent minister, and then said, "If I should die tonight, do you think I would be saved?" The minister replied, "I have no sufficient reason for supposing that you love Christ; and if you do not, then you cannot be saved." Then," said the young man, "I will sleep no more this night;" and he went out and spent the whole night in prayer. As the day began to break, he returned to the house where the minister was, rejoicing in hope of the glory of God, and saying, "I have found Christ precious to my soul." Oh that all men were in good earnest in seeking their own salvation.