Vital Godliness: A Treatise on
Experimental and Practical Piety

By William S. Plumer


In practical piety, there is no greater mistake than the persuasion that if we are pleased with ourselves—that God is also pleased with us. Vain-glory, self-delight and pride—blind, bewilder, and intoxicate. In no form or degree do they make us fit for the inheritance of the saints in light. On the other hand—shame for our own vileness, sorrow for our shortcomings, self-loathing for undeniable turpitude of soul are profitable. Yes, "it is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting; for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better." In this present life, God's people may expect much weeping and mourning. Waters of a full cup are wrung out to them. But the word of God puts limits to the griefs of the godly: "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning." "Blessed are those who mourn; for they shall be comforted." "You now have sorrow; but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice." Psalm 30:5; Matt. 5:4; John 16:22.

Though the righteous shall not weep always, yet they may weep bitterly. The bare shedding of tears is not the only kind of weeping, nor the uttering of sighs the only mourning. Many who shed no tears and utter no sighs or groans—feel more deeply and painfully than those who manifest the usual signals of distress. There are states of mind far beyond the power of tears to relieve, far beyond the utterance of groans to alleviate. There is no pain of mind like that "dry sorrow, which drinks up the blood and spirits."

Moreover, tears are often shed, and sorrow often felt—which God abhors. Tears of anger, of jealousy, of wounded pride, of detected wickedness—are all abominable to God. Jonah displeased the Lord by all his grief about his gourd. Amaziah was grieved for the loss of a hundred talents of silver, but God took no account of that.

Each one can determine the character of his sorrow, if he will but observe whether it improves his heart and temper, and whether it weans him from the world. That sorrow of the world which works death—is always to be repented of.

One class of evils bringing sorrow to the righteous is made up of the common calamities of life, such as sickness, poverty, the failure of hope, the lack of friends, the lack of means, the lack of success, the death of friends, and the change of friends into enemies.

Another class of evils over which good men weep, are such as the sins of the times—ignorance, profaneness, lewdness, drunkenness, covetousness, lukewarmness, heresies, contentions, whisperings, and revilings. When God's cause languishes, the righteous must be sad. When iniquity abounds, he whose love is fervent, must be grieved. When the foot of pride is on the neck of the saints, there will be mourning. David cried, "Let the wickedness of the wicked come to an end." Psalm 7:9. "Rivers of waters run down my eyes, because men keep not your law." Psalm 119:136. "Horror has taken hold upon me, because of the wicked who forsake your law." Psalm 119:53.

So strong was this feeling in the mind of Paul, that he said to the Thessalonians, "Now we live, if you stand fast in the Lord." 1 Thess. 3:8. This was equivalent to saying—If all things go on well in the church, I shall rise superior to all other trials; but if the church wanders into error and folly, my heart will die within me. So highly does God prize such dispositions, that when he was about terribly to punish Israel of old, he sent an angel with an ink-horn by his side through the midst of the city, to set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that did sigh and cry for all the abominations that were done in Jerusalem. Ezek. 9:4.

Other evils over which godly men weep, are found in themselves, such as error, ignorance, prejudice, pride, self-righteousness, worldliness, levity, uncharitable tempers and dispositions, censoriousness, envy, sinful anger, hatred, a proneness to remember wrongs, to indulge complaints, and to forget mercies. There is no plague like the plague of an evil heart! There is no misery like the wretchedness of 'conscious vileness'! There are no sighs so long and so deep-drawn as those caused by indwelling sin. Job said, "I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes." "Behold, I am vile!" David said, "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." Isaiah said, "Woe is me, for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips." And Paul said, "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?"

Besides these things, God's people are subject to seasons of great spiritual darkness, which cause them long and loud and bitter weeping. These times of darkness and depression are more or less lasting and afflicting, according to the wisdom of Him who knows when, how, and how far his chosen servants need suffering. These seasons of darkness sometimes come on very suddenly, but more commonly they are gradual in their approaches. There is first the little cloud. This spreads and thickens, until the whole heavens become black and angry. As in the natural world the elements of storm are often gathering when we perceive them not, so in the spiritual world, sins are often separating between us and God, and we know not our sad estate. Many think all is well, until to their surprise their day is turned into night, and their mirth into heaviness. Then to their grief they find their enemies upon them, and themselves shorn of the locks of their strength. Any sin may lead the mind to deep depression—may shroud it in terrible darkness.

This darkness consists of several things. Commonly it is attended with a loss of comfortable evidence of personal piety. Hope grows dim. Marks of piety become obscured. The troubled soul feels unable to claim the promises. It has some perception of their sweetness and faithfulness, but says they are not for me. Then thoughts about the mercy of God yield no comfort, for the soul says, "I have abused all his kindness. I have rendered myself abominable by my base ingratitude."

Reflections on past seasons of joyful experience but render the present trial the more painful. They show what has been lost. Or perhaps all former comforts are counted delusions. Once the man thought he never could question God's love to him; but now he is ready to turn away from all that is cheering, and look only on the gloomy side of his religious state. Reading the Bible rather depresses than refreshes him; for although glorious things are there spoken of God's people, yet he discredits his claims to discipleship. Finding that in some things he has been sadly deficient in godly sincerity, he is much inclined to pronounce himself in all things hypocritical. The view he takes of his sins is—that they are so fearfully aggravated that they cannot be forgiven, even through the redemption that is in Christ. He does not see how one who loves God can be guilty of so heinous offences. Tears are his food day and night. As with a sword in his bones, his enemies reproach him; while they say daily unto him, "Where is your God?"

Hope seems ready utterly to forsake him, and terrible darkness to take its place. His soul is cast down and disquieted within him. It is with feebleness that he utters the self-exhortation, "O my soul—hope in God—for I shall yet praise him for the saving help of his presence." He can no more confidently say, "The Lord will command his loving-kindness in the daytime, and in the night his song shall be with me."

He is dejected, despondent, discouraged. He needs a guide, a friend, a counselor, a comforter. Many fears now torment him. He remembers God, and is troubled. Every divine perfection is contemplated with dread. God's truth, and mercy, and power, and holiness, and justice, and majesty become sources of terror. The King eternal, immortal, and invisible—becomes the dreadful God. The love of Christ itself increases apprehensions lest the slighting of his mercies should hasten everlasting damnation. Fears of having grieved and vexed, and even quenched the Holy Spirit, so that he is turned to be an enemy—have now a sad prevalence. The threatenings of Scripture against such as have sinned against much light and many warnings spread dismay through his soul. Even the promises and invitations of Scripture, because they have been slighted, produce alarm rather than hope and peace. In this state of mind, he is terrified at the thought of coming to the Lord's supper. To him it is indeed the dreadful "table of the Lord." In contemplating it, he sees far more of Sinai than of Calvary. Fierce flames shoot out where once he saw but the bright beams of unparalleled love and mercy, truth and faithfulness. Even the gospel becomes to him a dispensation of terror, a ministration of wrath. Singing the songs of Zion is to such a one an unusual exercise. It brings no pleasure, unless it is of a mournful kind. Plaintive hymns and tunes best suit this state of depression. Sometimes they bring the relief of tears. And this is often considerable. Though we may weep without having our hardness of heart really cured, yet to one thus exercised, it is a luxury to be able to have any evidence that all sense and feeling are not clean gone.

And yet prayer is hardly undertaken, or if attempted, is found impossible. Instead of regular prayer to God, the heart ventures only to express wishes, but not accompanied by much hope that they will be gratified. If he asks anything of God, he seems to himself to have little or no faith either in God's ability or willingness to grant his petitions.

Satan will now probably roar like a lion over his prey. He may suggest to the soul that God is its irreconcilable enemy, that Christ will surely deny it at last, and that the Holy Spirit is fighting against it. He says, "Your prayers are sin, your efforts are vain, your case is desperate, Christ has been rejected, the day of grace is past, salvation is impossible, heaven is lost, hell must be your portion." He thrusts a thousand fiery darts at the soul. He labors to arouse to the utmost some unsubdued lust, or suggests blasphemous thoughts, tempting the soul to curse God, or bid defiance to his wrath. Such thoughts are shocking; but the more they are resisted merely in human strength, the more powerful they may become.

All the while the soul is like the troubled sea, which cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt. His bones wax old through his roaring. He is consumed by the terrors of the Almighty. He finds no access to the mercy-seat, no cordial to revive his drooping spirit. Sometimes apprehensions of certain and speedy wrath become firm and fixed. At times it seems as if the pains of hell have already got hold upon him. The arrows of the Almighty stick fast in him. Something so much like despair, that you can hardly tell the difference possesses him, and he will hardly allow that he is making any effort to flee from the wrath to come. He thinks, and perhaps speaks familiarly, of reprobation and hell. Sometimes the adversary pours in his horrid temptations in an almost perpetual stream. He suggests the great crime of self-murder, and assigns as a reason, that longer continuance will but aggravate a condemnation already felt to be exceedingly terrible.

Sometimes one whose heart is thus smitten and withered like grass, hears the gospel preached publicly or privately, and for a season seems relieved, at least partially. But often this deliverance is only temporary, and the mind is apt to sink down again into gloom and wretchedness. To such a soul nothing is charming. Nature, in her gayest hues and dress, seems covered with a pall of sadness. The blue heavens wither. The green mountains look hoary. Even the flowers look drab. Well might he now sing,

"Sweet prospects, sweet birds, and sweet flowers,
Have lost all their sweetness with me;
The mid-summer sun shines but dim,
The fields strive in vain to look mirthful."
Sleep departs, or is broken by frightful dreams. He forgets to eat his bread. Psalm 102:3.

Probably in the midst of all this suffering, when he most needs the sympathies of God's people, they will seem cold and distant; or perhaps they will judge him harshly, and regard his present distress as the fruit of some special sin. Perhaps trumpet-tongued slander will open wide her mouth, and proclaim falsehoods concerning him. Or perhaps sickness, or death, or financial distress will invade his habitation; and thus he has sorrow upon sorrow. If God's word gives any relief in this state of mind, it is only those parts of it which

describe his present state or express his present feelings. The complaints of Job or the mourning prayers of David show him that others before him have been in deep water, and so he sees that possibly he may yet escape; but "a horror of great darkness has fallen upon him." "The spirit of a man sustains his infirmity; but a wounded spirit, who can bear?"

His soul sinks, and it seems as if all was lost. He may have days or weeks or months of apparently tideless, waveless, shoreless, fathomless woe. But when God's purposes are accomplished, then comes relief. This may approach suddenly, but more commonly it comes gradually. Sometimes sudden and transient joy is given to prevent despair, before a settled calmness and quiet of soul is obtained. Generally the first step towards a return of joy, is an increase of hope. Paul directs that we should take for a helmet the hope of salvation. We are saved by hope. Hope excites to action; and to the comfort of this distressed soul, he finds that with God's help he can do something. He can resist the devil, and cause him to flee. The sword of the Spirit is God's word, and Satan finds its edge too keen for him.

When this man finds he can stop the mouth of the old lion, or discovers that he is a chained enemy, and that there is One stronger and mightier than the prince of the power of the air—he is very encouraged, and fights against him lustily. This encourages hope, and faith begins again to lay hold of the promises. Confidence in God—in his power, wisdom, truth, and mercy—reassures the soul. The tongue of the dumb is loosed. The silent man begins to pray. The mourning soul begins to sing of mercies. Portions of Scripture begin to be brought home to the heart with heavenly sweetness. His views of the Savior become refreshing and ravishing. He sees God in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. He glories in the cross of Christ. He esteems all things but loss, for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus his Lord. The Holy Spirit dwells in him, takes of the things of Christ, and shows them unto him. The Sanctifier becomes the Comforter. He now takes root downward, a sure pledge that he will yet bear fruit upward.

No precept of God's word is too strict for him. No promise is without its sweetness. No hours are so pleasant as those spent in devotion. He can now say in truth, "I had rather be a door keeper—perform the humblest service—in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness." His prejudices against men subside, his enmities are all buried, his heart-burnings give place to a spirit of love which embraces all mankind. He has a special delight in all God's people. He now knows that he has passed from death unto life, because he loves the brethren. His heart is full of gratitude. His mouth is full of praise. His thoughts burn within him. They are of salvation. Gladly does he offer all to Him, who has brought him up out of the horrible pit and the miry clay, and set his feet upon a rock. Now his meditation of God is sweet. And although sin is still at work, it no longer prevails against him. He looks forward with confident expectation to the period not distant, when he shall be done with temptation forever, behold Christ in the fullness of his glory at God's right hand, and take up his abode on the banks of the river of life! He now takes just and profitable views of the nearness of eternity, of the shortness of time, of the worthlessness of things which perish, and of the priceless value of heavenly things.

And now the bent of the soul is towards God. The believer discovers the end of the Lord in his late trials. He sees how they were designed to prepare him for more abundant supplies of grace, strength, and enjoyment. He is therefore ready to say, "It is good for me that I have been afflicted!" He is now like a child weaned of his mother. He is filled with the peaceable fruit of righteousness. Such a view of one's experience is instructive. It teaches many lessons. It specially warns us to beware of the beginnings of sin. Neglect of duty, levity of mind, low views of God, a fretful temper, deceit, a lack of the spirit of forgiveness, or any other sin, may plunge us into darkness.

'Fear of man' is a great foe to grace. "He has begun to be a bad man—who fears to be a godly man." We cannot be too vigilant over our own hearts. We cannot too tenderly love our Master and his people. We cannot be too zealous in the Lord's cause. "Sin's joys are but night dreams.'' If at any time we should be overtaken with darkness, let us make diligent search for the cause. Our besetting sin is that sin which we find ourselves averse to dealing with, or disinclined to hear faithfully reproved. In times of darkness we should be very diligent in reading the Scriptures. Possibly we may have slighted some portion of God's word, while it contains the very truths whose cleansing, comforting power is most needed in our case. Especially labor to know the full import of those portions of Scripture which treat of experimental religion. The heavens themselves shall pass away, but God's word is forever stable.

In darkness and perplexity consult, if you can, an experienced minister or Christian. Do not count them enemies if they probe your wounds and deal faithfully with you. Those who do but prophesy smooth things, will be found unprofitable in the end. The advice of weak, ignorant, or prejudiced people is apt to be injurious. Consult not those who are not fit to be advisers. Labor to obtain clear views of the freeness and sufficiency of the salvation which is in Christ Jesus. Remember how in millions of cases where sin abounded, grace has much more abounded. "Nothing can satisfy an offended conscience, but that which satisfies an offended God," said Matthew Henry. "And well may that which satisfied an offended God pacify an offended conscience." Well did Cromwell in a letter to a friend say, "Salute your dear wife from me. Bid her beware of a bondage spirit. Fear is the natural issue of such a spirit; the antidote is love. The voice of fear is—'If I had done this, if I had done that, how well it had been with me.' Love argues in this wise—'What a Christ have I; what a Father in and through him, what a name has my Father—merciful, gracious, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth; forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin! What a nature has my Father. He is love—free, unchangeable, infinite!' The new covenant is grace, to or upon the soul to which it is receptive."

Your salvation does not depend on your comfortable or uncomfortable frames—but on the grace and power of God. Remember the word, the oath, the covenant of God. Fight against despair. It is a great sin—as well as a great misery. Be conscientious in the performance of every duty. "He who loses his conscience—has nothing left worth keeping." It would be no token for good to have your affliction pass away while you are indulging in either sins of omission or of commission. "If you would not have affliction visit you twice—listen at once to what it teaches." God will never desert one who keeps a conscience void of offence. He may be weak as water, but God will gird him with strength. Leighton says, "When we consider how weak we are in ourselves, yes, the very strongest of us, and how assaulted; we may justly wonder that we can continue one day in a state of grace. But when we look on the strength by which we are guarded, the power of God, then we see the reason of our stability to the end; for Omnipotency supports us, and the everlasting arms are under us!" A good old English bishop had for his motto, "Serve God, and be cheerful."

Beware of unnecessary expressions of your feelings in the presence of wicked men, lest they stumble at your temptations; or in the presence of weak brethren, lest you offend against the generation of God's children. Some men do not know that "a diamond with some flaws—is still more precious than a pebble that has none." David kept his mouth with a bridle while the wicked was before him. He held his peace even from good. Do not wound Christ in the house of his friends by any exposure of your trials which will not be understood by others. Rather bear your sorrows in secret. In your darkness call to mind the years when the candle of the Lord shone upon you. Former joyful experiences of our Father's love are not so to be relied on as to make us careless about our present state. Neither are they to be forgotten.

In meeting Goliath, David encouraged himself by calling to mind God's goodness on former occasions of great peril: "The Lord who delivered me out of the paw of the lion, and out of the paw of the bear—he will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine." 1 Sam. 17:37. When your darkness begins to be removed, do not rest satisfied with small attainments. Some good men think that one of the errors of our day is preaching a low level of pious experience. However this may be, let us beware of resting in few and small victories. "Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it," says God.

One of the best ways to dispel fears for our personal safety is to labor for the salvation of others. Professed Christians often get into a morbid state of mind about their religious prospects. They are afraid they shall not be saved. Perhaps they will not be. If that is their chief mind set, they can hardly expect comfort. It is selfish always to be thinking of their own future happiness, and in their terrible fears they are paying the just penalty of their low aims. But let them go out of themselves, and try to secure the salvation of others, and their fears are gone. Then they are doing God's work, and they have no doubt of his love.

Restored to spiritual comfort, beware of sin in every shape. Especially beware of spiritual pride and carnal security. In recounting God's dealings with you, praise not yourself, but glorify God. Extol his free, sovereign grace. Let all God's people remember that soon all their sorrows will be gone, and the days of their mourning ended. How different the character, experience, and destiny of the righteous from those of the wicked. Here the righteous mourn—but they shall be comforted. Here the wicked have their good things—but they shall be tormented. At death the sorrows of the righteous end forever—and eternal joy begins. At death the joys of the wicked terminate—and eternal sorrow begins. The righteous cry to God daily—even in prosperity. The wicked commonly do not begin to pray until God has ceased to hear.