Vital Godliness: A Treatise on
Experimental and Practical Piety

By William S. Plumer



1. CONVICTION. Attention has been directed to the earlier stages of religious concern the first thoughts, purposes, temptations, failures, relentings, burdens, sorrows, and struggles of a soul in its attempts to flee from the wrath of God. It may be proper here to make a few general remarks, explanatory of what is often the state of a sinner's mind immediately before conversion. He discovers that the Bible is a revealer of the secrets of his soul, a discerner of the thoughts and intents of his heart. He is ready to say, "Come see a book which has told me all things that ever I did." At such times God's word is as a mirror, in which a man beholds his natural face. It reflects his image, and shows him his sad deficiencies and his great deformity. He finds his heart to be exceedingly depraved. He is convinced that the imaginations of the thoughts of his heart are only evil continually.

In this state of mind David compared his pains to "broken bones." If you have ever had a broken bone, you may have an idea of his meaning. Thoughts of it occupy the mind day and night. For a moment company may seem to create a diversion of the thoughts, but soon they revert to the fractured limb. Such a one awaking at a dead hour of the night, immediately thinks of the injured part. All attempts to shake off reflection concerning it are fruitless. In another place David says, "My sin is ever before me." His mind dwelt upon his transgressions. Like a vast army of men, they were continually passing in solemn review. In this state of mind, one feels that God has a right to have mercy on whom he will have mercy, and to have compassion on whom he will have compassion. Whatever may be his theory on the subject, his heartfelt conviction is, that without wrong to him, God may withhold all the blessings of salvation. Yes, he feels that God would be justified in condemning him forever, and be clear in driving him to outer darkness! He says,

"Should sudden vengeance seize my breath,
I must pronounce you just in death.
And if my soul were sent to hell,
Your righteous law approves it well."

Sometimes one in this state is greatly annoyed with wicked and even blasphemous thoughts. The object of the tempter seems to be, to banish all hope of reconciliation with God. It sometimes happens to such a soul as to that young man of whom we read, "And as he was coming, the devil threw him down and tore him." Luke 9:42. When his prey is about to be taken from him, the old lion is greatly enraged. He cannot bear to witness the escape of a single soul. One thus exercised will discover that the belief which he has hitherto had of the Bible is unavailing. It has been merely historical, theoretical, cold, and powerless. Or it has been the faith of devils, and has merely filled his soul with terrors. He now feels the need of a faith which is "of the operation of God." And even in the surrender which he is about to make, there is so much timidity and such a sense of unworthiness, that commonly the most he can say is, "Lord, I believe—help my unbelief."

Boldness in coming to the throne of grace is seldom enjoyed even by young converts. One who has advanced thus far will probably be more than ever beset by the evil one. The Hebrews never fared so hard as just before they left Egypt; and never were so hated as after they began to march towards Canaan.

He is sadly disappointed that the measures he has adopted for relief have but sunk him the deeper in misery. Like that woman in the gospel, he has spent all his substance on physicians, and is no better, but worse. Prayer, hearing the word, reading, inquiring, and resolutions have all been found ineffectual, and even worse; they have brought more wrath on the soul, because of the sin attending them. In this state one might adopt the language of the psalmist: "My soul is full of troubles... I am as a man who has no strength... You have laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the deep. Your wrath lies hard upon me, and you have afflicted me with all your waves... I am shut up, and I cannot come forth... My eye mourns by reason of affliction. Lord, why do you cast off my soul? Why do you hide your face from me? Your terrors have cut me off." Psalm 88.

He feels that God must help him, or he must die in his sins. Like Peter sinking, he says, "Lord, save me." Or like Hezekiah he exclaims, "My eyes fail with looking upward. O Lord, I am oppressed; undertake for me." Isa. 38: 14. Such a man will grieve because he cannot grieve, and mourn because he cannot mourn, and weep because he cannot weep. He is astonished at his guilt and at his hardness of heart. He is convinced that an entire change of heart is in his case necessary—for happiness here and hereafter. He also sees that if he shall ever be saved, it must be by an act of free, rich, sovereign grace. His boasted ability is found to be nothing. His strength is utter weakness. His merits are now not named. He feels that he deserves no good thing. His righteousnesses are as filthy rags. He is ready to come before the Lord with the language of self-condemnation. He feels like Benhadad's servants, when they put sackcloth on their loins and ropes upon their heads, and went to the king of Israel, thus confessing that their lives were in his hands and at his mercy. 1 Kings 20:31.

This state of mind is CONVICTION, which involves always a sense of five things: sinfulness, guilt, ignorance, helplessness, and misery. This conviction is of course not alike pungent and painful in all cases; nor is it necessarily accompanied with extreme agitations or terrors. But it is a clear view of one's state as demanding the remedy provided in the gospel. If the work of conviction should proceed, and hope never comes to the relief of the soul, the result would be the impenetrable gloom of despair—as in the case of the damned. Let a man see his lost estate, and not see the Savior as he is freely offered, and he will be in a desperate situation.

Often the sinner desires that his convictions may proceed, because he looks upon them as punishments for sin—as punishments richly deserved. If he had his way, he would not even now come to Christ. If he could weep and mourn and grieve and be melted as he wishes, he would be satisfied without any other atonement than that which he could thus make. At least, he would seek no other. In all his dealings with him, God's plan is to shut him up to faith in Christ; that through the law he may be dead to the law, that he may be married to Christ. Ask such a one if he thinks he is under conviction—and he will probably reply in the negative. His views on that subject are very vague and erroneous. Indeed, he has no distinct idea of what conviction is, except that he believes it is a step towards salvation. He thinks he has no such feeling as in any way prepares him for a change. It seems to him that he is losing instead of gaining ground.

The nearer he approaches to salvation, the further does he seem from it. The darkest hour is just before day. It was midnight when Pharaoh dismissed Israel. Exod. 12:30, 31. In his 'Almost Christian,' Matthew Meade gives a salutary warning: "Never rest in convictions until they end in conversion. This is that wherein most men miscarry; they rest in their convictions, and take them for conversion, as if sin seen were therefore sin forgiven; or as if a sight of the need of grace were the truth of the work of grace.'

Conviction, however deep or distressing, is not saving. This brings us to consider—

2. CONVERSION. On this subject, let a few things be premised.

1. All conversions are not alike in their circumstances, though they produce like results. They lead to the forsaking of sin, to the acceptance of Christ, to holiness of life, and finally to glory. But the steps by which this is done are various. Some conversions are extraordinary, as that of the thief on the cross and that of Saul of Tarsus. Even in ordinary conversions there is a great variety. Some are sudden, some are gradual; some are preceded by many terrors, some are marked by extraordinary views of the tenderness of God. No one therefore will here expect an account of the peculiar exercises of any one person, but rather such statements as may suit most cases of ordinary experience.

2. Nor will the reader expect an account of the MANNER in which the Spirit of God operates on the heart. No man has this knowledge. Of course an attempt to give it is presumptuous. Solomon says, "You know not the way of the Spirit." Eccl. 11:5. Paul says, "What man knows the things of a man—but the spirit of man which is in him? Even so, no one knows the things of God—but only the Spirit of God." 1 Cor. 2:11. God has not informed us how he operates in any matter; but his methods of proceeding are wisely and necessarily concealed from human ken. So our Savior clearly taught, John 3: 8.

3. If what has been said be true, then in speaking on the subject of conversion, the greatest modesty becomes us, lest we should hastily lay down principles' which might on the one hand discourage some of the true children of God; or on the other, encourage false hopes in the unregenerate. To guard against both these extremes is no easy task. Many ignorant people are forward in such matters. But let us distrust ourselves where we have not a "Thus says the Lord" to guide us. Let no man lay down anything as essential, unless in his word God has made it so.

4. It is not uncommon for one to think, that if he shall obtain relief, it will be in some particular manner, such as he has devised in his own mind, or heard of in the case of others. One under conviction is ready to fall into superstitious imaginings. But when the Lord intends to grant deliverance, he will save from fatal delusions. Naaman had a plan of being cured of leprosy; but his was not God's plan. Conversion is always different from the conjectures of a carnal heart. It is well it is so. The Scriptures fairly teach us so. Isa. 42:16. When the soul is duly humbled in its own eyes—when it has renounced self-will and self-righteousness, and despaired of helping itself, and God's Spirit is savingly at work—some glimpses of Christ are afforded. The soul has a desire to lay hold on him, but unbelief is too strong for reason or for conviction to cure. The soul now sees, approves, and accepts some of the truths of the gospel in a way it never did before. It gets some glimpses of Him who is the way, the truth, and the life. The clouds begin to break, and a star of hope appears—"It is the Spirit's rising beam of light." As the natural sun does not from midnight darkness—in a moment burst upon the world; so in most cases the Sun of righteousness rises gradually upon the soul. "His going forth is prepared as the morning."

At first, he who has been sore troubled is comforted by his new discoveries. Hope begins to gild his path, and he is for a time relieved of a great burden. But often this state of mind does not last long, and he begins to fear that his deep impressions are leaving him. He is alarmed to find himself becoming cheerful. He tries to recover his painful feelings, but often fails. Sometimes he has his wish, and then his soul drinks in the wormwood. He then cries anew to the Lord for mercy, and the light of God's countenance begins to shine upon him more fully and clearly. He may soon be more than ever at a loss respecting the work of grace within him. He cannot be sad as he was, because the Lord is making him joyful. He is afraid to rejoice, except with trembling, for his soul has not forgotten his late experience. An interruption of the pleasant view of divine things he had enjoyed awakens great desires for its return. But, to regain lost comforts is not always easy. Once gone, the soul fears lest it has offended God by not more highly prizing them.

But when the light returns, it is commonly with increased brightness. Thus light and darkness often alternate, until at length the soul is brought to a more settled peace. Fears no longer prevail. Hope is in the ascendant. The soul sees salvation flowing from the cross of Christ, and begins to apprehend the spiritual import of such phrases as, "through Christ," "in Christ Jesus," "by Jesus Christ," "in the name of Christ." The plan of redemption now delights him, though his views are very imperfect; yet he wishes no other prophet, priest, or king than the Lord Jesus. He rests upon Christ alone for salvation. He trusts the whole weight of his soul on Him who bled and died on Calvary.

Were you to ask him whether he supposed he was converted, he would probably say, No. Yet he thinks he is getting into the right way. Or perhaps he would say, "I do not know whether I am converted or not; but one thing I know, that whereas I was blind—now I see. Behold, all things are become new." He looks on time and eternity, sin and holiness, truth and error, the Bible, the Savior, the pious, the world, life and death, things present and things to come, in a new light. In particular, he is pleased with the fulness, freeness, power, kindness, and glory of Christ. He loves and admires the Savior for what he is, for what he was, for what he shall be, for what he has done, for what he is doing, and for what he shall yet do to save perishing men. He loves what Christ loves, and hates what Christ hates.

He can look back a short time, when such and such portions of Scripture were brought home to his soul with power and sweetness. He is greatly surprised and mortified at a review of his past life. He wonders with unutterable wonder how he could have remained in sin so long. And then he weeps tears of joy and gratitude that He who made him, has had mercy on him. The peace now found is solely in the merit of Christ. The soul wholly rejects all thoughts of salvation by another. The gospel way is so honorable to God, and so safe for the sinner; it so perfectly satisfies the demands of the law for a perfect satisfaction and a perfect righteousness, that the most enlightened sinner says, "Here I end my quest; I need no other Savior; now by faith I enter into rest!"

In the same way the soul obtains purity. God has inseparably united pardon and purity; justification and sanctification. No man is freed from God's displeasure without being cleansed in his own nature also. Only this difference should be noted: pardon and acceptance are perfect at once; purification is gradual and progressive. When the soul is thus sheltered in Christ, how pleasant it is to consider that this is the hiding-place of the penitent; that on this refuge, two thousand years ago, beat the dreaful tempest of God's wrath—and even at the height of the storm, the dying thief here found shelter and salvation!

The soul that is thus in Christ cannot perish. It was weary and heavy-laden; it has now found rest. It was exposed and doomed; it is now shielded and saved. Such a soul would gladly recommend Christ to others. He wishes that all might know him and find refuge in him. His spirit is tender and benevolent. "When the Holy Spirit descended upon the Son of God, he did not take the semblance of a bird of prey, but of the mourning and tender dove." And when he now descends to stamp his image on the heart, the impression which he leaves is not that of fierceness or bitterness, but of gentleness, tenderness, and good will to all men.

To such, the Sanctifier becomes the Comforter. "As the dove conveyed to Noah's ark the news of the subsiding of the waters, so will the heavenly Dove convey to the soul the glad tidings that the tempest of eternal wrath no longer sweeps over her path." Every soul that comes to Christ, receives the pledge of the Spirit. Terror has given way to heavenly peace; fear has yielded to hope; distress has been followed by tranquility; darkness has fled before the brightness of the rising of the Sun of righteousness.

As to the question whether a man knows the time of his conversion, it may be stated that some have known it. The thief on the cross, Zaccheus, the jailer, Paul, and the three thousand converted on the day of Pentecost, evidently knew the time of their great change. So in modern times men may be able to point out the day of the happy saving change. If so, very well. But it should be observed, that many who think they know the time—are mistaken. This is true of those boasting hypocrites who never were converted at all, as their wicked lives show. It is also true that many humble, timid people had met with a saving change long before they ceased to write bitter things against themselves, or ventured to cherish the hope that they had already passed from death unto life.

Let not any who know not the time of their conversion be cast down, if they now have evidence that they do truly love the Lord Jesus, if they now keep his commandments. It is nowhere said in the Bible, you must know the time of your conversion; but it is said, "You must be born again!" The change, not the time of its occurrence, is the essential thing. If we pass from death unto. life by the power of God's Spirit, it cannot endanger our salvation to be in doubt or in ignorance of the exact time when that happy event occurred.

Again, one must judge of his own state by the fruit he bears; and fruit that is ripe in an hour will perhaps be rotten as soon. A godly life is the infallible evidence of conversion. When our fruit is unto holiness, we know that the end shall be everlasting life. Everyone who hopes that he is converted to God, should examine himself and prove his own work, and then he shall have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another. In judging of piety, there is no substitute for a holy life. The great peculiarity of God's people is that they are "zealous for godly works." In spring many a tree is covered with beautiful blossoms, which are not in autumn followed by any good fruit. We are Christ's disciples if we do whatever he commands us. We are the servants of the wicked one if we do the works of the flesh. We may boast of discoveries, of raptures, and ecstasies, but all is in vain if a consistent life be not the result.

So that many who say that they know the time and place of their conversion are unquestionably deceived. Whether a man understands all the precise facts of his conversion, is a matter that admits of similar remarks. If anyone knows that he is converted, let him be humble, not proud. If God has favored him with unusually bright evidences, let him not despise his brethren who are in painful doubt about their state. Humility is an excellent virtue. There is indeed a sense in which a man cannot be converted without knowing it experimentally. He cannot undergo any change in his views and affections without being conscious of the exercises and emotions of his mind and heart thus changed. But surely one may have the exercises of a new-born soul, without knowing that these are the exercises of a renewed nature.

The miser knows what passes in his own mind, but he does not know these things prove him a wretch. The self-conceited man is conscious of all his mental exercises, but is far from seeing that they mark him out as a poor weak creature. So the convert cannot know that his views and feelings prove him a child of God until he is correctly informed by the Bible what constitutes piety. So that a man must first search the Scriptures to see what they require to prove piety, and then search himself to see whether he has what is thus required by God's word.

The result of such examination may be satisfactory. If so, a good foundation is laid for permanent peace of mind. In corroboration of this view, it may be stated that with cautious minds nothing is harder than to believe as one wishes. With what difficulty did the disciples believe that Christ was risen from the dead. Luke 24:41. How often do we hear the saying, The news is too good to be believed. It was so with the Jews released from Babylon: "When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like those who dream." Psalm 126:1. Should any say, "Is it possible for one to have his chains taken off, the prison doors opened, himself brought out and set free, and he not know it?" The answer is, Yes! This may be done literally and materially. Peter was sleeping in prison between two soldiers, and bound with two chains, when the angel of the Lord smote him on the side and awaked him. His chains then fell off, and he girded himself, and put on his sandals, and cast his garment about him, and followed the angel, as he was bid to do. And yet Peter "knew not that it was true which was done by the angel; but thought he saw a vision." Nor did he come to himself, nor was he satisfied of his deliverance until they were past the first and second ward, until they had passed the iron gate which led unto the city, and which opened to them of its own accord, and until they had passed through one street, and the angel had departed from him. Acts 12:6-11. Here we have a man going through the entire process of being awaked out of sleep, of hearing the angel's words, of dropping his chains, of girding himself, of putting on his sandals, of throwing his garment about him, and following the angel, and yet doubting the reality of the whole matter. The release was so marvelous that he could not believe it to be true.

Much more then, may a soul be brought out of its prison-house, have the chains of its terrible condemnation removed, come out of darkness into the marvellous light of the gospel, and yet doubt whether the change is not an illusion, a phantom, a dream. He says, "But yesterday I was a wretched outcast, a child of wrath, forlorn and guilty. Can I now be a child of God, an heir of glory, with my sins all pardoned, and myself accepted and regenerated? It cannot be so. The thought is too pleasant to be indulged." He who is truly enlightened and converted has had his eyes opened to see the exceeding excellence and importance of divine things, and if he is to be assured of his interest in them, he must have solid grounds of hope. If any asks for the infallible signs of a saving change, a sound conversion—we must again refer them to a godly life.

But there are some very strong points in which a genuine conversion is always distinguished from a spurious change. Guthrie notices three particulars in which all are deficient unless they are real Christians:

1. They are not broken in their hearts, and emptied of their righteousness.

2. They never took up Christ Jesus, as the only treasure and jewel that can enrich and should satisfy, and therefore have never cordially agreed to God's device in the covenant, and so are not worthy of him, neither has the kingdom of God savingly entered into their heart: 'The kingdom of heaven is like unto a treasure hid in the field; which when a man has found, he hides, and for joy thereof sells all that he has, and buys that field.'

3. They never in earnest closed with Christ's whole yoke without exception, judging all his will just and good, holy and spiritual, and therefore no rest followed on them by Christ: 'Take my yoke upon you, and you shall find rest unto your souls.'

If anything else needs to be added, it is that the self-deceived are as much unlike Christians at the first as at the last. They do not grow in grace—for they have none. They may increase in outward manifestations and professions—but never in a godlike temper. "True grace is a growing principle." Where conversion is genuine, it will manifest itself more and more. Especially do the Scriptures insist much on the possession of a childlike temper and disposition.

Thus a little child is HUMBLE. The child of the king and of the beggar, left to themselves, would meet on the same level and freely mingle together. So the true convert has such a sense of his own vileness that he readily esteems others better than himself. A proud Christian is a contradiction.

In like manner he is MEEK. So far as he is like Christ, he is not disposed to strive, or cry, or lift up, or cause his voice to be heard in the streets. He is not boisterous nor clamorous nor contentious. To this his previous spiritual training has brought him. God has dealt with him as he has, that he may remember and be confounded, and never open his mouth any more because of his shame—for all that Lord has done. His soul is even as a weaned child. Ezekiel 16: 23; Psalm 131:2.

So also a child is TEACHABLE. It is not inflated with self-conceit. It claims not to be wise in things it knows nothing of, but sits at the feet of teachers and learns its lessons. So the true convert sits at the feet of Jesus and learns from him the lessons of heavenly wisdom. God's word binds his conscience, and he calls no mere man his master. None is more free from drinking in notions and forming opinions without good cause—but on the veracity of the word of God he rests with entire confidence.

In the same spirit a child looks to its parent for PROTECTION, for food and clothing, and for comfort in distress. So the child of God casts his care upon an almighty arm, hides himself under the shadow of the Lord's wings, and trusts him for all. He calls upon the Lord. "Behold, he prays!" It is not more natural for a living child to breathe than it is for a living Christian to pray.

Little children must also OBEY their father. So all true converts sincerely and heartily do the will of God. Neither personal desire, nor pleasure, nor habit, nor convenience, nor ease, nor public opinion must be our guide—but only God's will, as made known in his revealed word. After conversion it is our guide. Every true convert says, "Lord, what will you have me to do?" "Faith must obey her Father's will—as well as trust his word."

He who has met with such a change shall not perish, but shall enter into the kingdom ot heaven! No power in heaven will hinder him, and no power in earth or in hell can hinder him in achieving a final victory. Speaking of such, Paul says, "I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." Rom. 8:38, 39. The change thus described is essential to salvation. Unless we are turned from sin to holiness—iniquity will be our ruin! We are naturally sunk down into sin; yet "without holiness no man shall see the Lord." It is only by a sound conversion—that we acquire any genuine Christian virtue. This is a very solemn and weighty truth. It should alarm the wicked. It should make all men diligent in working out their salvation with fear and trembling.

He who is to be the final Judge of the living and the dead has said, "Except you be converted, and become as little children, you cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven." Here is something declared to be absolutely necessary. Less wealth, less public honor, less pleasure, less health—than men now possess may fall to their lot, and yet they attain to the highest end of existence. A dying man called his son to him, and said, "Hold your finger in the blaze of that candle for one minute." The son refused. Then said the father, "Do you refuse to hold your finger there for one minute for me?—while I, because I have spent my life in heaping up riches for you, shall endure the flames of hell forever!" Men must be converted. Without that great change they are eternally undone. There is no safety outside of Christ. There is no salvation without true conversion to Christ. Personal dignity, natural amiability, external religion—will save no man.