Vital Godliness: A Treatise on
Experimental and Practical Piety

By William S. Plumer


It is not uncommon for people to have some experience in religion which is highly unsatisfactory to themselves. They have distressing and prevailing apprehensions that they may have never have been truly saved; nor has a good hope through grace ever filled their hearts to overflowing with joy and peace—and yet they are not careless on the subject. At times they are deeply exercised and sore vexed. The case of such calls for the tenderest concern of those who care for souls, as well as the liveliest interest on their own part. Their views of their lost and undone condition are not too strong. Their hearts are as unclean, their guilt is as great, their enemies are as numerous as they have ever supposed them to be. They are beset with difficulties. They see the way, but are unable to walk in it. They approve but do not relish the things that are more excellent. Their hopes are crossed; their souls are grieved.

To meet such cases in all their variety, is a binding and difficult part of ministerial duty. To state all the shades of grief and temptation, is not possible. But there are general principles of piety which are more or less suited to many cases. Besides, religious biography has shed much light on this whole subject. It is greatly to the relief of many minds, to find that no temptations have befallen them but such as are common to men. Sometimes one is full of fears lest he may have committed the unpardonable sin. Not infrequently this apprehension is distressingly impressed on the mind by means of some portion of Scripture. Often will you hear cited that text, "For you know that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected; for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears." Heb. 12:17. As this is a very important case, and often causes deep anguish of mind, it should not be lightly dismissed.

Some have thought that the unpardonable sin could not be committed, since miracles have ceased. But the Scriptures will not bear out such a statement. It is true the sin was no doubt often committed, when the truth was visibly demonstrated by undeniable signs and wonders. But it may also be committed when these miracles have passed away. Others have thought that, though the sin may possibly be committed in our day, yet the cases in which this is actually done are very few. Whatever definition is commonly given of this sin, this opinion seems to be without good foundation. Sound writers are pretty well agreed that the unpardonable sin is an act of one who is much enlightened, and at the same time highly malicious against God. Light and malice are both essential to its existence. The light here spoken of respects spiritual things. The malice is directed against the person, work or offices of the Holy Spirit. Thus by the power of the Holy Spirit, which was given him without measure, Jesus Christ wrought miracles. The Jews, who beheld these wonders, knew that they could only be the product of divine power. But they so hated the Lord Jesus that they ascribed his miracles to a Satanic influence, and thus committed the sin which never has forgiveness, neither in this world, nor in that which is to come. Matt. 12:22-32.

If this view be correct, it follows that no reason can be given why this sin may not be committed in this day. We may not have all the occasions for its commission which the Jews of Christ's day had; but we never lack occasions when we have dispositions to commit this kind of sin. Indeed, as the present is an age when the light of truth in many places shines very clearly, and as the minds of many thus enlightened seem very bitter and malicious against religion, it is to be feared that many commit this sin. Some have thought that there never was an age when the unpardonable sin was more common. But this cannot be proved. Yet in wonderful displays of grace and mercy in revivals of religion, how many who witness the most affecting scenes, and are themselves powerfully wrought upon—yet harden their hearts until they even scoff at sacred things, laugh at the work of the Spirit, and call all vital piety 'fanaticism' and 'the work of Satan'.

If such have the light which in many cases they profess to have, how does their case differ from that of the Pharisees when they saw Christ's miracles? In many ways men may commit the unpardonable sin; so that he who would not sin beyond forgiveness, must take heed how he trifles with holy things. This thought should produce in men a salutary alarm. As to the question whether a distressed soul has actually committed this sin, it is proper to enter into several inquiries. Let one thus distressed look at the state of mind in which he did that act which he now fears was the unpardonable sin. Was it done willfully, spitefully, knowingly? Did he intend to renounce God's Spirit forever? To explain a little. Peter denied his Master, knowing that he was thus uttering falsehood. But he did it through fear of man, and not through malice against Christ. Therefore his denial of Christ was not the unpardonable sin. On the other hand, Saul persecuted the church maliciously. He breathed out threatenings and slaughter. He was exceeding mad against all Christians. But he did all this "ignorantly in unbelief." He knew not what he was doing. Therefore his zeal against Christians was not the unpardonable sin. But if Peter had, together with his knowledge of the matter, denied his Lord with the malice with which Saul persecuted the church; or if Saul, with all his malice, had persecuted the church with the knowledge with which Peter denied his Lord, then in either case the unpardonable sin would probably have been committed. Therefore let any one who fears his guilt in this matter, ask himself if the deed which brings such terror to his mind was accompanied with this light and malice. If not, there is no evidence that the soul has sinned beyond repentance.

Again, let one inquire what state of mind followed the act that creates such apprehensions. Was it "a certain fearful looking for of judgment?" Did the door of hope seem to be quite closed? Did the desire of reconciliation with God fully leave the soul; or was the dreadful act followed by utter insensibility, stupidity, and a seared conscience? Did you become wholly indifferent to salvation? Did you have no wish to be made pure and holy, humble and penitent? Such desires are not given to the God-forsaken. He who has committed this sin never after hungers and thirsts after righteousness. Such a state of mind shows that the Holy Spirit has not finally deserted the soul. Good desires are as truly from heaven as any other good thing ever enjoyed.

It is proper to add, that unworthy partaking of the Lord's supper, unless done with despite to the Spirit of grace and with contempt of all sacred things, cannot be proven to be the unpardonable sin. Although unworthy communion is a sin to be repented of, yet it may be and often has been forgiven. It is doubtless sometimes in our power to know when one has sinned beyond forgiveness. This is implied in the words of John: "If any man sees his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death; I do not say that he shall pray for it." I John 5:16. Yet we should use great caution in such a matter. Some one expressed the belief that Bunyan had committed this sin. This statement had an exceedingly dreadful effect on his mind for a long while; but God would not let him perish, and made him a chosen vessel in his church. Yet cases may occur in which good men will feel no liberty in praying for an offender. The number of such is larger than some suppose. The last remark on this point is, that if you desire salvation through the blood of Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit, it is clear that God has not given you up, though your sins may be both numerous and aggravated.

The air we breathe, the water we drink, is not more free than is gospel grace. The cry is, "Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters, and he who has no money, come—buy and eat; yes, come, buy wine and milk, without money and without price." Isa. 55:1.

Another state of mind, accompanied with great depression and much difficulty, is where one stoutly argues from his own wickedness of heart that his salvation is impossible. A man sometimes says, "I would go to Christ, but he is so holy and I am so sinful; he is spotless, and I am all pollution and guilt." In dealing with one thus afflicted, several things may be said. One is, that evil imaginations are the natural product of the carnal mind. "Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. Matt. 15:19. There is no form of wickedness too strange or dreadful for an unsanctified heart. He who now complains so bitterly of his corrupt thoughts and affections, is not a worse man than he was formerly—but God is teaching him how wicked he always has been. The great difference between present and past states of mind is this, that now the man sees how vile his heart is, whereas once he took no notice of the swarms of evil thoughts which passed through his bosom.

The present is not the only sinful state to be repented of. The prayer should ascend, "Remember not against me the sins of my youth; make me not to possess the iniquities of former years." It may also be stated that the exercises of such a one may now be less criminal than formerly, and this for two reasons. One is, that he now offers a sincere though inadequate resistance to evil thoughts, whereas formerly he welcomed them. Another is, that from his manifest distress at them, it is evident that they are the temptations of the wicked one. We are guilty in so far as we entertain the suggestions of the wicked one, and not merely because we are made to feel the annoyances of his temptations. But grant that any man's heart is far worse than it ever was before, or than he even now sees it to be, this is a good reason for applying to Christ. It is no reason for staying away from him. When one sees the wickedness of his own heart, it is evident that God has not yet delivered him up to ruin—for he is showing him his sins. These heart troubles show that nothing short of a thorough, internal, powerful change of nature can ever fit the soul for the abodes of the blessed in heaven. And this very corruption, so much lamented, should be a powerful argument for making speedy application to Christ for pardon and peace, for reconciliation and purification.

But from such a state of mind to conclude that one may not come to Christ and plead for mercy—is wholly unscriptural. It is entirely opposed to the gospel offer. This very state of mind and heart calls for the interposition of almighty power and amazing grace; and to exercise these is the delight of the redeeming Son of God. Though one be more vile than tongue can express—though the heart be a sink of sin, a fountain of iniquity, yet he may safely trust his cause with Jesus Christ. He came to set at liberty those who are bruised, to give life to the perishing, and salvation to the lost. Let every soul be persuaded to come to Jesus Christ. He who thus complains of the wickedness of his heart, may the next hour complain that he has no just sense of his great sinfulness in the sight of God. This state of mind is not inconsistent with that last spoken of, though an ignorant person might so think.

One reason why many a sinner is desirous of seeing more of his wickedness, is that he thinks there is some merit or profit in having distressing views of his undone condition. But this is surely a mistake. There is no more merit in a bad man seeing his vileness, than there is in a good man seeing his own uprightness. But suppose a man should see the worst of his case, and view his depravity as God views it, would it not drive him to despair? With the clearest views of the fullness and freeness of Christ ever attained on earth, it would probably be impossible to keep any man from giving up all hope if he saw his sins in all their guilt and number, baseness and aggravations. God is therefore very merciful in permitting us to see enough of our lost condition to make the gospel offer glad tidings to us; but he is no less merciful in withholding such views of our sins as would drive us to despair. And if anyone would have a clearer and more salutary view of his own wickedness, let him repent of all the sin he sees chargeable to him, and obtain pardon through the blood of Christ—and in due season his wish shall be gratified.

No man will make very rapid and profitable attainments in the knowledge of his own wickedness until he has fled to Christ, and in good earnest begun the work of "mortifying his members which are upon the earth." Col. 3:5. In good earnest begin this work, and you will soon find that you are carnal, sold under sin, and that all former views of your lost estate were very defective.

Another distressing state is where there is a continual tendency in the mind to despair. Satan would have all men presumptuous or desperate. In the human heart are many elements which favor his designs. The language of total despair is, "There is no mercy for me; others may be saved, but my case is peculiar; my soul is lost." But there are various degrees of hopelessness, or of tendency towards it. To drive away all hope, Satan often greatly terrifies one by a view of his sins, points him to the holiness and inflexible justice of God, and tells him that he ought to know that with such a God there is no mercy for him. He reminds him of the length of time he has been seeking the Lord, and has not found him. He reminds him of others who in less time have attained a comfortable hope and settled peace.

These and many other things does the adversary urge, that he may cut off all hope and leave the soul palsied with despondency. Sometimes he has fatal success. Sometimes he but harasses it for a season, and then follows deliverance. When he succeeds entirely, the soul becomes stubborn, hardened, and fearfully rebellious; and a less degree of the temptation of the adversary may be highly injurious for the time. When the prisoner of hope, becomes the prisoner of despair, he is gone; and when he sees things in a very gloomy light, he may be sore vexed. Let all who are tempted to despair well weigh the following things: Unbelief is the only sin by which a hearer of the gospel will seal his own ruin, and despair is the consummation of unbelief. To refuse to rely upon Christ's finished work is to reject the sinner's only hope. Unbelief is a great sin. The greater its power, the greater our guilt. As despair is unbelief consummated, it is superlative wickedness. If any man fears sin, let him chiefly fear this sin. It takes hold on destruction. No man can be justified or sanctified in whose heart this principle of pride, darkness, and stubbornness reigns. There may be a voluntary humility in despair, but that is only another name for pride.

Despair also goes upon the ground that men are saved either by their own deservings, or because they have not greatly offended, and thus it excludes the salvation of the gospel, which is for the chief of sinners. And despair is full of stubbornness. What is a greater sin than to refuse to trust God when he bids us believe him; to decline to lean upon him when he extends to us his hand? We cannot have too low an opinion of ourselves, or too high an opinion of Christ! "It is the great design of the Scriptures to teach the best to despair of being self-saved; the worst not to despair of being saved by Christ, and to offer to all, the help they need.

The foregoing are examples of the distresses and difficulties which often beset a soul in its endeavors to turn to the Lord. There are many cases like them. And there are others of an extraordinary kind, which cannot be anticipated. If any man is overcome by the adversary in these matters, the fault is his own. He has procured these things to himself. Such fruits never grow but in depraved hearts. For the direction of such as are truly desirous of being guided in the right way, the following suggestions may be profitable.

Beware of a spirit of questioning, complaining and impatience towards God. With yourself you cannot be too much dissatisfied, until you believe in Christ and cease from sin. But with God and his ways you have no right to find fault. He is righteous altogether. Every sentiment of impatience towards him is highly criminal. During long years of rebellion, God waited on you for your return; and will you not let him judge the fittest time to grant you the light of his countenance and the joy of his salvation? "I waited patiently for the Lord; and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry.' Psalm 40:1. God will not be dictated to. Impatience is both a sin and a hindrance. It speeds no deliverance. It must be laid aside.

Be not asking the advice of many, in your sore perplexities. One good adviser is worth a thousand others, who know nothing thoroughly. And yet the most ignorant are often the most ready to offer their services. Your counselor in all religious inquiries and trials should be God's precious word. Human advisers are apt to say, "Lo, here is Christ;" and again, "Lo, there is Christ." But the Bible always speaks a uniform, consistent language. It always points to one star, that of Bethlehem; to one garden, that of Gethsemane; to one sacrifice, that of Calvary; to one sepulcher; that of Joseph of Arimathea.

Do not believe that your convictions are too deep and too strong ever to leave you. They are perhaps not stronger than those of Felix when he trembled, of Herod when he heard John and did many things gladly, of Ahab when he humbled himself, or of king Saul when he lifted up his voice and wept. Conviction of itself, is not a saving grace. It is itself no pledge of salvation. It may leave one midway between carelessness and conversion, just as Lot's wife was left between Sodom and Zoar. If your convictions do not lead to Christ, and that speedily, you may become familiar with them, and their effect be lost upon you. Conviction of itself, is not conversion. Conviction can save no man. Misconceive not the terms of salvation. On this point there is much danger. Be specially guarded that you do not attempt to substitute your own distress of mind for the sufferings of Christ. Sin is neither pardoned nor expelled, by the anguish of any sinful worm. The more distressed men are, the stouter is the rebellion of your sins. Your own sufferings, in this world or the next, cannot save you. No tears, no blood, no cross, no death, no intercession but those of Christ can avail for any! Never lose sight of the blessed truth, that salvation is wholly by grace, through faith in Christ Jesus.

Guard against false hopes. If the adversary sees you determined not to live without hope, he will earnestly endeavor to persuade you to build upon the sand; to lead you into mistakes respecting the nature of true conversion and the ground of justification. He is the arch deceiver. He is full of all subtlety. If it were possible, he would deceive the very elect! A sinner under conviction is in great danger of being more anxious to be comforted than to be converted. The world is full of popular errors on this subject. Nor can any man be too careful in counting the cost—in looking well to the foundations—in testing his own exercises by Scripture. Sometimes anxious souls are told that they must believe. When they ask, What must we believe? they are told that they must believe that their sins are pardoned and their souls converted. If some to whom such counsels are given should adopt them, they would believe a lie. We must believe the gospel—then we shall be saved. But to believe that we have an saving interest in the salvation of Christ is a very different thing. The truth to be believed is, that Christ is able and willing to save our souls from sin and death—not that he has already done it. On this subject the Bible is explicit. It always holds up Christ—and not ourselves, nor our pardon, nor our conversion, as the object of saving faith. "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved." Acts 16:31.

Be not led into the discussion of dark, abstruse, and therefore useless questions; and enter into no heated discussion of any subject. Such an exercise is well suited to put a stumbling-block in the way to heaven. If any endeavor to divert your mind to a matter of no importance, or to undue interest about anything not essential to salvation, withdraw from such. Your great business is reconciliation with God. Whatever hinders this is hostile to your best interests. Stifle not convictions; grieve not the Spirit by going eagerly after a thing of little or no importance. Keep constantly in mind that no pains, no distress, no tears, no prayers of your own—will be of any avail, unless you are soundly converted, being turned from darkness to light, from sin to holiness.

"Our nature's totally depraved,
The heart a sink of sin;
Without a change, we can't be saved;
We must be born again."

How much or how little you may feel, whether you have many or few thoughts, whether you are happy or miserable, in hope or despair, in carelessness or under conviction, will avail nothing—if you live and die without genuine holiness. But this cannot be obtained without a renewal of our whole nature. Holy views, holy frames of mind, holy tempers, holy affections, and holy purposes—must take the place of our spiritual ignorance, our wicked prejudices, our carnal affections, our sinful plans—or we cannot go to the Father. Oh that men everywhere would cry mightily, "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me." Let all men know that, until they surrender themselves into the hands of the Savior, they are throwing away all their opportunities. Christ is full of kindness and tenderness. None is so full of pity as he. Look at his sorrow as he beheld the city of his enemies and murderers. "When he was come near, he beheld the city, and wept over it." Luke 19:41. History tells us that Marcellus wept over Syracuse, Scipio over Carthage, and Titus over Jerusalem some forty years after Jesus entered it in the triumph decreed to him in prophecy. But all these wept over those whose blood they were about to shed. Jesus wept over those who were about to shed his blood.

Cannot you trust your soul with a Savior whose compassions are so free, so large, so divine? Behold him on the cross, lingering, bleeding, dying for the sins of men—and say if you are justified in longer resisting his claims and his charms! John says, "We love him, because he first loved us." 1 John 4:19. What could be more proper? Surely such love as his should beget love in us. That same Jesus who wept over Jerusalem, will surely have compassion on souls who weep for their sins, and forsake them, and flee to atoning blood for pardon, and to Christ's glorious righteousness for acceptance. Oh that men would believe and live. Through Christ alone, there is hope. By him all our sins may be buried in the depths of the sea! By him the darkness flees away. Through his mediation we are brought to sing the song of Moses and the Lamb.

Finally, let no man take the word of any uninspired man as of binding force—in any matter of religion. If such a course is dangerous in doctrinal religion, it is no less so in experimental and practical piety. If anything that has been said shall guide or comfort any soul, to God be all the praise and glory. Meantime, "Out of the spoils won in battles, have I dedicated these things to maintain the house of the Lord." 1 Chron. 26:27.