Vital Godliness: A Treatise on
Experimental and Practical Piety

By William S. Plumer


A writer who flourished more than a thousand years ago reckons up two hundred and eighty-eight opinions of the ancients respecting the way of happiness. The fact is that man's lack of happiness results from the most powerful causes—causes not capable of being removed but by an almighty Friend. So long as man and society remain in themselves what they are, more or less misery is inevitable. For wise purposes God denies us any cup of pure, unmixed pleasure in this life. Every generation endures a vast amount of misery. Poverty, disease, bereavements, commotions, make many sigh. Many, like Job, are weary of life. Yet mere suffering, without the grace of God, is unprofitable. One of the most painful thoughts connected with a sight of the woes of many is, that present sorrows are but preludes to those which shall be eternal. Most men mourn their lack of health, wealth, honor, or success. How few deplore their unconverted state and their multiplied offences against God.

But here and there one seeks deliverance from sin, which ought to be felt as the most grievous of all burdens. Indeed, how few have any deep, settled conviction of their own vileness. While this is so, they will not cry for mercy. But now and then we find an exception. At first, indeed, the oppressiveness of the heart may not be great; but he who has just views of the nature of sin, will hardly stop short of great concern in seeking salvation. A slight view of ill-desert, united with a conviction of personal depravity, may awaken the first uneasiness. But divine grace has a tendency to develop clear views of spiritual things; and he who begins with very indistinct views, will find out by degrees, great wonders in himself.

At such a time a man easily discovers also that this world is a very unsubstantial good. It is not a saving lesson, but to one rightly affected it is a profitable lesson—that all in this world is vanity of vanities. Men may indeed see the emptiness of earthly things, and sink into despair. But men wholly satisfied with this world will hardly seek a better country. Right views of one's real character and standing in God's sight as a sinner must be more or less painful and mortifying! So God says of Ephraim, "I have surely heard Ephraim bemoaning himself thus: You have chastised me, and I was chastised as a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke—turn me, and I shall be turned." Jer. 31:18. This bemoaning one's self is the same state of mind elsewhere described in God's word as a weariness, an oppression of the soul. God often subjects those whom he would save to a training and discipline none the less beneficial, because very grievous. They are made to smart for their follies. They are sensible that they are out of the right way. They are disconsolate, and have no comforter. Things which lately attracted them are stripped of their bewitching splendor, and the heart is emptied of all that once charmed it. Such will soon be found writing bitter things against themselves. Everyone thus exercised will say, "I am more brutish than any man, and have not the understanding of a man. I neither learned wisdom, nor have the knowledge of the holy." Prov. 30:2, 3.

A sense of his own weakness and blindness takes possession of him. He is not hard to be persuaded, that others know more than himself. He has learned that so many of his views are erroneous, that he has lost confidence in his judgments of religious matters. Such a discovery is to him of the highest importance. Had he remained in his former self-ignorance—he would have utterly perished in his own corruptions. Such things are attended with a perception of his vileness and unworthiness, and like some of old, he arises in his heaviness and falls on his knees, and spreads out his hands unto the Lord, and says, "O my God, I am ashamed, and blush to lift up my face to you; for my iniquities are increased ovdr my head, and my trespass is grown up unto the heavens." Ezra 9:5, 6. Or he feels as David once did: "Innumerable evils have compassed me about: my iniquities have taken hold upon me, so that I am not able to look up; they are more than the hairs of my head: therefore my heart fails me." Psalm 40:12. The number of his sins is so great, that he sees it is quite beyond his power either to subdue them or wash them away. Nor is he mistaken. Unless God undertakes for him, his undoing is everlasting. Like the publican, he stands afar off, and does not so much as lift his eyes to heaven, but smites on his bosom, and says, God be merciful to me a sinner!

Nor is it only the number of his sins, but also the evil nature of sin itself—which deeply affects him. He now sees that sin is a horrible evil, a deadly poison, a desperate malignity, an incurable wound, a foul leprosy! In this state he will be sensible of his lack of proper feelings towards God. His efforts to work himself up to a proper regard for his Maker are entire failures. His heart refuses to do anything which his conscience declares obligatory. He finds his affections all disordered. He can love his friends, his family, his country—but he is amazed to finid that he cannot love God. His heart is an iceberg for coldness, an adamant stone for hardness, a cage of unclean birds for vileness! Sometimes his affections seem somewhat enkindled, but they do not go forth to his satisfaction. When he weeps, it is soon over. His tears seem not to flow from a penitent spirit. Frequently his external circumstances perplex him. Everything goes wrong. His attention is distracted by various calls. Everything seems to conspire against him. To release himself is impossible.

To obtain help from God is his wish, but he knows not how to find him. In reading the Scriptures he finds difficulties. Some things are hard to be understood. Others, though plain, are in his view stern and severe. Against some his heart stoutly rebels. Although this alarms him, yet his efforts at repressing such wicked thoughts are quite unsuccessful. Things forbidden in God's law he lusts after. For many things sinful—he finds in himself intensely longing for—which seems to himself both strange and unnatural. Divine prohibitions seem only to inflame his unholy desires. Things commanded he has no heart for. The more he tries to control his desires, the more they torment him. The law commands; but his nature, in spite of him, leads him into disobedience. Temptations are strong, and he is weak. He is a helpless captive! All his efforts are in vain. His prayers seem to him a mockery. His strength is utter weakness. Now his soul is "like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt." He has no might to do good. He cannot still the agitations of his own bosom. To peace he is a stranger. He remembers God, and is troubled. He has no access to the Father of spirits. He says, "Oh that I knew where I might find him; I would come near to his seat; I would order my cause before him; I would fill my mouth with arguments." He pleads for mercy and pity. His moisture is turned into the drought of summer. His bones wax old through his roaring all the day long. Day and night God's hand is heavy upon him. He forgets to take bread. His appetite fails him. His sleep is short and disturbed. God holds his eyes awake. At midnight he is sometimes heard sighing, or found weeping. Or "dry sorrow is drinking up his blood." His spirits and energies begin to fail. He mourns sore like the dove, and chatters like the swallow.

He greatly fears that he is about to perish in his sins. In real distress he says, "What shall I do? What shall I do to be saved? I die with hunger here—I starve in foreign lands." It seems to him that none pities his case, and that God has forgotten to be gracious. Yet he chides himself for such unbelief. His impression is that his own heart defers the relief he needs. Oh, who can tell what days—what nights he spends of tideless, waveless, sailless, shoreless woe! To one in this sad state, the cheerfulness of God's people but brings increase of wretchedness—while the thoughtlessness of the wicked but reminds him of the heathenish or brutish character of his former life. To exhort him to embrace the offered grace of God, but dejects him. He says, "The promise meets my eye—but does not reach my case." Sometimes it seems to him that he must give up all as lost forever; but something holds him back from utter despair. He is led and upheld by an invisible hand! One, of whom he has yet no saving knowledge, is dealing with his soul, and will not let him go!

Yet he sees no use in all his pains and efforts, for every struggle seems to sink him the deeper in sin and misery. He wishes his load of sin were gone, but it presses harder and harder. He is weary of his way, weary of heartless efforts, weary of his own lack of stability, weary of his burdens, and sometimes almost weary of existence!

Now if any one is in such a case as this, let him turn his longing eyes to the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Let him look to Jesus, the author and finisher of faith, the author of eternal redemption—the only physician who can do a sinner good. Let sinners come to him. Come and welcome, you perishing. Hospitals are designed for the sick, the lame, the mangled, the homeless. Water is for the thirsty, bread for the hungry, and a couch for the weary. Jesus Christ is the very Savior man needs, and he is exactly suited to our needs. He is chosen of God, and precious. He was set forth to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. He is the one Mediator between God and man. To him all the condemned and dying should resort. His mission into this world was that he might seek and save those who are lost. To that end he lived; to that end he died; to that end he rose again; to that end he intercedes above; to that end he sends the Spirit of all grace to convince the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment. Should the Lord Jesus fail to save sinners, he would lose his reward; his sufferings would be without fruit; nothing would be left him but—the shame, the spitting, the cross, the spear, the crown of thorns, and the total failure of the hope that was set before him, when he endured the cross, despising the shame.

WHAT IS IT TO COME TO CHRIST? What is faith in him? How does one feel when he lays hold of the Savior? "Justifying faith is a saving grace wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and word of God, whereby he, being convinced of his sin and misery, and of the inability in himself and all other creatures to recover him out of his lost condition, not only assents to the truth of the promise of the gospel, but receives and rests upon Christ and his righteousness—for pardon of sin and for the accepting and accounting of his person righteous in the sight of God for salvation." As a definition, this is full and clear.

True saving faith receives Christ, and rests on him to the exclusion of all other ground of confidence in the matter of salvation. It may aid some minds to have this truth illustrated by several figures drawn from Scripture. A soul under a sense of its lost condition may be compared to the dove which Noah sent out of the ark. It feels itself unhoused, unsheltered, unsupported. It wanders up and down, sometimes thinking it sees before it a spot where it may rest, but on trial its expectations are disappointed. At length, wearied almost beyond endurance—its false hopes all disappointed, its energies enfeebled, its spirit humbled—it resolves on seeking the ark. It seeks and finds it; and to its great joy the spiritual Noah puts forth his hand and takes it in. Then instead of weariness—it finds rest; instead of a waste of troubled waters—a sure abode; and instead of howling tempests—settled quiet.

Or suppose one out in a vast desert. He sees a little cloud rising. At first it gives him no apprehensions. But it continues to spread and to blacken. It mutters heavy thunders; it shoots out its forked lightnings; it seems exceedingly dark and angry, and wraps up everything in gloom. Every minute makes it more and more manifest that exposure to its peltings will be distressing and dangerous. The weary traveler looks around for shelter. Sometimes he thinks he spies a place of protection. He tries it, but finds it will answer no good purpose. He tries another and another; but they are all insufficient. Meanwhile his apprehensions of danger increase. The storm seems ready to rend everything in its fury. Now his eye is directed to a shelter that is near him. It seems inviting. It is capacious. In it is room for all that will come. It is not hedged about nor barred. Jesus says, "Behold, I have set before you an open door." It is just such a refuge as he needs. Just as he supposes the storm is about to pour its fury upon him, he runs into this shelter and is safe. This newly discovered refuge is Christ. Thus "a man"—the divine man Christ Jesus—"shall be as a hiding-place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest, as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land." Isa. 32:2.

The man sees this place, and wonders that he saw it no sooner. It is so near, and so accessible. "Say not in your heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? that is, to bring Christ down from above; or who shall descend into the deep? that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead. But what does it say? The word is near you, even in your mouth and in your heart; that is, the word of faith which we preach: that if you shall confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus, and shall believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you shall be saved." Rom. 10:6-9. But the soul thus affected has many difficulties. The author of "Quiet Thoughts, for Quiet Hours' gives the following questions and answers respecting one in the state just described: "How shall I come to God, for I am a sinful creature?" Jesus said, 'I am the way; no man comes unto the Father but by me.' John 14:6. "But how can I feel sure that Jesus will receive me?" 'The one who comes to me I will never cast out.' John 6:37. "I have nothing that I can bring to him." 'I will give unto him who is athirst, of the fountain of the water of life freely.' Rev. 21:6. "But should I not first endeavor to purify my soul from sin?" 'Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? not one.' Job 14:4. 'Without me you can do nothing.' John 15:5. "How then shall I come?" 'By a new and living way, which he has consecrated for us through the veil, that is to say, his flesh.' Heb. 10:20. "Is God sure to receive me? Can he love me?" 'I will receive you, and will be a Father unto you, and you shall be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.' 2 Cor. 6:18. "What should be the object of my life?" 'You are bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's.' 1 Cor. 6: 20. "Can my unimportant actions in any way glorify the everlasting God?" 'Herein is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit.' John 15: 8. "What do you mean by fruit?" 'The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.' Gal. 5:22, 23. "Does God then take notice of my daily conduct?" 'I know the things that come into your mind, everyone of them.' Ezek. 11: 5. 'He who planted the ear, shall he not hear? He that formed the eye, shall he not see? He who teaches man knowledge—shall he not know?' Psalm 44:10.

"I am very ignorant; who shall instruct me?" 'Search the Scriptures.' John 5:39. 'The holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise unto salvation, through faith which is in Christ Jesus.' 2 Tim. 3:15. "But I have so many evil habits to combat; what shall I do?" 'Gird up the loins of your mind.' 1 Pet. 1:13. 'Fight the good fight of faith.' 1 Tim. 5:12. 'For he has said, I will never leave you, nor forsake you.' Heb. 13:5. "But there are trials and temptations in my way which others have not." 'There has no temptation taken you but such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted above that you are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that you may be able to bear it.' 1 Cor. 10:13. "I wish I had some friend who could understand all the trials of my spirit." ' We have not a High priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.' Heb. 4:15. "It is my desire to walk uprightly, but I feel I have no strength." 'He gives power to the faint, and to those who have no might he increases strength.' Isa. 40:29. "May I go and ask him, then?" 'If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all men liberally and upbraids not, and it shall be given him.' Jas. 1:5. "How will God give me wisdom?" 'I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and you shall keep my statutes and do them.' Ezek. 36:27. "When trouble comes, what shall I do?" 'Call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.' Psalm 51:15. "Need I not fear the hour of death?" 'When you pass through the waters I will be with you.' Isa. 40: 2. "Nor the day of judgment?" 'Who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? It is Christ who died.' Rom. 8:33, 34. "Oh, I will cast in my lot with God's people, for they only are happy." 'We are journeying unto the place of which the Lord said, I will give it to you; come you with us, and we will do you good.' Num. 10:29. 'The Lord bless you, and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you, and be gracious unto you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.' Num. 6:24-26.

Truly it is kind to invite men to Christ. Let them come boldly, in the confidence of faith, at once, without delay. Well and wisely did Paul desire that he might "be found in Christ, not having his own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith." Phil. 3: 9. Only thus can the soul be set at liberty.

If you will come to Christ you shall have rest—rest to your souls, however weary, however burdened—a holy rest from the servitude of sin and Satan—a rest from tormenting fears, from corroding cares, from an accusing conscience. The unholy quietness of unrenewed nature is but the precursor of wrath, as an unusual stillness precedes the earthquake. But the rest of the soul in Christ is like that of the Israelites when, after their long journeyings and wars and troubles, they were settled in Canaan.

Vespasian the Roman emperor gave a great reward to a person who came and professed a great love for him. Come to Christ, thus proving that you love him, and he will give you blessings whose value can never be adequately estimated by a finite mind. He will receive you. "Him who comes unto me I will never cast out." He will give you an indisputable title to imperishable glory. Let no one hesitate what choice to make. No man can afford to sustain the loss of his soul, the loss of the divine favor, the loss of the smiles of Christ. Men must be saved in him, or they will be ruined forever. You can but die if you come to Christ—and you must die if you do not come. Every man is naturally like the four leprous men spoken of in 2 Kings 7:3-11. Let him but arise and go trustfully to Christ, and all will be well.