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."
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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.