Vital Godliness: A Treatise on
Experimental and Practical Piety

By William S. Plumer


"I give you a new commandment: love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:34-35)

We need line upon line and precept upon precept. Although one clear and undeniable revelation of God's will binds the conscience and moulds the character of a child of God, yet it is with peculiar pleasure that the pious mind finds a duty inculcated in various forms, at different times, and by different men. This remark applies to the whole matter of love to our neighbor. In Leviticus 19:18, Jehovah says, "Do not take revenge on others or continue to hate them, but love your neighbors as you love yourself. I am the Lord." And in the thirty-fourth verse of the same chapter he says, "

Let him be to you as one of your countrymen and have love for him as for yourself; for you were living in a strange land, in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God."

The evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, inform us that Jesus Christ repeatedly called attention to the command, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," and pronounced this saying as the great pillar of morals. See Matt. 19:19; 22:39; Mark 12:31-34; Luke 10:27-37. In his epistles to the Romans and to the Galatians, Paul also quotes with high commendation the same law. Rom. 13:9, and Gal. 5:14. The apostle James does the same. Jas. 2:8. So that there is no room left for any doubt as to the importance and obligation of the duty enjoined. That great prophet Moses, Jesus the Son of God, Paul the great apostle to the Gentiles, and James the near relative of our Lord, all in the name of Jehovah give us this command to love one another. It is distinctly repeated nine times in God's word. Such a command is far from being unnecessary.

We are naturally slow to open our hearts in a comprehensive love and good-will. We are all by nature prone to narrow-heartedness. Carnal men are never in a mood to be pleased with a widely diffusive benevolence. They may admire its fruits as exercised by others, but its practice is irksome to the unrenewed mind. We love like snails to crawl into our little shells and there abide. The plan of God is to call us out and make us banish these contracted views. All the noble sentiments of the human heart are, like the widow's oil, increased by pouring out. God is as kind as he is holy in so ordaining that no man shall be strongly selfish and truly happy. If God gives you bread enough and to spare, and then brings to your knowledge the case of the poor and needy, he does you a great kindness; and you will be a better and happier man for having your soul drawn out to the hungry.

The Bible says, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." And here we are met with the old question, "Who is my neighbor?" When a carping lawyer, who wished to justify himself, asked this question, Jesus Christ answered him thus: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him, beat him up, and fled, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down that road. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way, a Levite, when he arrived at the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan on his journey came up to him, and when he saw the man, he had compassion. He went over to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, 'Take care of him. When I come back I'll reimburse you for whatever extra you spend.' "Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" "The one who showed mercy to him," he said. Then Jesus told him, "Go and do the same." (Luke 10:30-37)

Without dwelling on the striking incidents here brought out in detail, the great truth clearly taught is that any man is our neighbor to whom we can show a kindness. Although one, in remarking on Psalm 15:3, says, "A neighbor is everyone with whom we have any dealing or conversation;" yet in the days of our Savior the Jews regarded themselves as bound to love none except their own people. Their rule was, "You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy." Between Jews and Samaritans there was no fellowship that could possibly be avoided. Yet Christ teaches that they are neighbors in the eye of God's law. No man who admits that God gave the command to love our neighbor, will deny that it obliges us to love our friends, our kindred, and our countrymen. Even the scribes and Pharisees always admitted thus much. Yet this is a very low standard of virtue. Christ said, "If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?" (Matthew 5:46-47)

While he whose love does not go beyond his own little sphere, has but little deserving of the name of right affections; he who goes not thus far, is a monster of wickedness, and without natural affection. It is also evident from Scripture that even our enemies are to receive the tokens of our good-will. Jesus Christ said, "Love your enemies; bless those who curse you; do good to those who hate you; and pray for those who despitefully use you and persecute you; that you may be the children of your Father which is in heaven." Matt. 5:44, 45. Again, "Love you your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and you shall be the children of the Highest." Luke 6:35. Paul and Solomon teach the same doctrine: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head."

Rom 12:21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." Rom. 12:20, 21; Proverbs 25:21, 22. With these agree all the inspired writers.

Now all consent that we should love our friends, and the Scriptures teach that we should love our enemies; and these two classes comprehend the whole human race with whom we have social fellowship or dealings. Besides the foregoing explanations, it may be stated that the 'love of gratitude' is confessedly binding on all the human race. There is no man so depraved as not to see gross iniquity in a flagrant act of injustice. It is a truth no less commonly confessed, that if men have great moral excellence, they ought to be loved on that account. But when we enforce the obligations of a pure and high benevolence to all the race, there is apt to be a withholding of the hearty consent of the mind. Yet from Scripture nothing is clearer than that such good-will is due to all, as we have knowledge of them and opportunity to do then good. This leads us to consider what are the proper proofs and uniform fruits of such love to our neighbor as is enjoined in Scripture.

In the nineteenth chapter of Leviticus there are many things specified as duties to our fellowmen, all of which are so fitly joined with love to our neighbor, that they may be properly mentioned here. One was this: "When you harvest your fields, do not cut the grain at the edges of the fields, and do not go back to cut the heads of grain that were left. Do not go back through your vineyard to gather the grapes that were missed or to pick up the grapes that have fallen; leave them for poor people and foreigners. I am the Lord your God." Verses 9, 10. Another was in these words: "You shall not steal, neither deal falsely, neither lie one to another." Verse 11. Again, "You shall not defraud your neighbor, neither rob him: the wages of him that is hired shall not abide with you all night until the morning." Verse 13. One still more striking was, "You shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling-block before the blind." Verse 14. In other words, you shall take no advantage of the afflictions and powerlessness of men. Another precept was, "Be honest and just when you make decisions in legal cases; do not show favoritism to the poor or fear the rich." Verse 15. Another rule of great importance was, "You shall not go up and down as a talebearer among your people." Verse 16. Nothing could be more inconsistent with love to our neighbor than such a practice. Another precept forbade any man to give false testimony, or to refuse to give true testimony. Verse 16. Another was in these words: "You must not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor directly, and you will not incur guilt because of him." Verse 17. Then immediately comes the command, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

From all this it is evident that love to our neighbor is the same in its fruits as the fulfilment of the second table of the law. And we have the authority of Christ for saying that on love to God and to our neighbor hang the law and the prophets. Matt. 22:40. Paul teaches the same when he says, "He who loves another has fulfilled the law. For this, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, You shall not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this—You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love works no ill to his neighbor: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law." Rom. 13:8-10.

The fruits of love to our neighbor are, first, benevolent wishes concerning him and his affairs. Hearty good wishes are far from being vain either in the sight of God or of good men. Oftentimes good wishes are the best, the only proof we can give of our good-will. Only let us see to it that they be sincere. Again, we can express kind thoughts and charitable judgments of men and their conduct, and so prove that we love them. Towards ourselves we are at liberty to practice severity of judgment; but to others there must be lenity. "Do not judge, so that you won't be judged. For with the judgment you use, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye but don't notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' and look, there's a log in your eye? Hypocrite! First take the log out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye. (Matthew 7:1-5)

Some express contempt for kind words; but they really mean such as are hypocritical, or they know not what they say. Words of genuine kindness are of the highest value. Without them society is a source of constant misery. When our love leads us to the throne of grace, and we are drawn out in fervent prayer for men, then the fruit of love is very pleasing. "Bless those who curse you, and pray for those who despitefully use you and persecute you." So says Paul, "I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men: for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, in all godliness and honesty." 1 Tim. 2:1, 2. What mode of expressing good-will could be more appropriate than that commended in Psalm 20:1-5: "May the Lord answer you when you are in trouble! May the God of Jacob protect you! May he send you help from his Temple and give you aid from Mount Zion. May he accept all your offerings and be pleased with all your sacrifices. May he give you what you desire and make all your plans succeed. Then we will shout for joy over your victory and celebrate your triumph by praising our God. May the Lord answer all your requests." Let us often search and try our ways, and see if by our prayers we prove that we love our fellow-men.

True Christian love will of course lead us to FORGIVE those who have injured us. This is a point on which our blessed Savior laid the greatest stress. There is no dispensing with it. "If you don't forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins." Matt. 6:15. "Forgive, and you shall be forgiven." Luke 6:37. Perhaps there is no better evidence of a renewed heart than a cordial forgiveness of injuries; nor a surer sign that we are yet in our sins, than carrying old grudges about with us. He who will not forgive—must soon have his heart filled with hatred. He who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. Of all the holy arts possessed by Christians, none is more admirable than that whereby they turn injuries to their own profit and to the divine glory.

Mather says, "The injuries of life, if rightly improved, will be to us as the strokes of the sculptor on his marble, forming us to a more beautiful shape, and making us fitter to adorn the heavenly temple." Genuine love to man will not only seem to forgive, but it will do that very thing. "It is the glory of a man to pass over a transgression." Proverbs 19:11. Merely to pretend to such a thing, and not to do it, is but miserably to mimic goodness, while we are filled with all hypocrisy. There are upon earth no worse and no more unhappy men than those who carry about old grudges, and retain a lively memory of wrongs long since committed against themselves. The Persians have a pleasing proverb: "The man who returns good for evil is as a tree which renders its shade and its fruit to those who cast stones at it." South says, "Love is never so blind as when it sees faults in others. It is like the painter who, drawing the picture of a friend having a blemish in one eye, would picture only the other side of his face."

"Love your enemies." "This is the most sublime precept ever delivered to man. A false religion dared not give a precept of this nature, because, without supernatural influence, it must be forever impracticable."

Another good fruit of love to man is MERCIFULNESS. "The righteous are ever merciful." Psalm 37:26. "Blessed are the merciful; for they shall obtain mercy." Matt. 5:7. "Be merciful, as your Father also is merciful." Luke 6:36. A habitual unrestrained inclination to harshness, cruelty, and oppression is one of the worst signs in the character of any man. On the other hand, an enlarged prevailing disposition to pity men's sorrows, alleviate their miseries, and promote their happiness is one of the best signs in the character of any man. There is in some men a fitful and variable tenderness to others, which seems to be a mere instinct. It sometimes burns with great heat, and soon subsides into indifference or aversion.

But genuine love forms habits of kindness in the heart, and brings them forth in the life. The dispositions we display to the helpless, the guilty, the forsaken—are often the best tests of our real character. Nor is there any surer prelude of wrath, than cruel dispositions. "He shall have judgment without mercy that has showed no mercy." James 2:13. Tyrants, in any sphere of life, are hateful not only to all virtuous men, but also to God himself. Love to man will always produce kindness to the poor and needy, the friendless and afflicted. "Blessed is the one who has concern for helpless people. The Lord will rescue him in times of trouble. The Lord will protect him and keep him alive. He will be blessed in the land. Do not place him at the mercy of his enemies. The Lord will support him on his sickbed. You will restore this person to health when he is ill." Psalm 41:1-3. "Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this—To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world." James 1:27. "Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said—It is more blessed to give than to receive." Acts 20:35.

These portions of Scripture form a basis broad enough for any sober scheme of genuine charity that has ever been devised. The word of God uniformly lays the greatest stress upon kindness to the poor and afflicted, as evidence of a heartfelt charity. "Whoever has earthly possessions and notices a brother in need and yet withholds his compassion from him, how can the love of God remain in him? Little children, we must stop loving in word and in tongue, but instead love in action and in truth." (1 John 3:17-18). The Scriptures deny the genuineness of all love, which is without good fruits. Nor is any act of our lives more sure of reward than kindness to the needy. "He who has pity on the poor lends unto the Lord; and that which he has given will he pay him again." Proverbs 19:17.

But love is never at a loss for some way to express itself. If it can do no more, it will cheer with a smile, it will rejoice or weep with those it loves, it will soften a pillow or smooth a bed, it will watch with those to whom nights of vanity are appointed, it will whisper encouragement to the faint, it will in some way make itself felt for good. A preacher once said, "If you know anything that will make a brother's heart glad, run quick and tell it; but if it is something that will only cause a sigh, bottle it up, bottle it up."

God's word requires that you should "love your neighbor as yourself." The measure of love due to our neighbor is a matter of chief importance. Very few people in a Christian country will deny that it is our duty to bear some good-will to those around us. But many deny the extent of the obligation. Some respectable writers have expressed great difficulties on the subject. But surely it is no presumption to prefer the plain teachings of God's word above those of any mortal. Here is a command repeated in by Moses, Christ, Paul, and James, in all nine times, without any variation, and in very plain terms. Nor is it pretended that there is any difficulty in understanding the meaning of the verses. The translation is correct. There is no room for doubt in this respect. What right therefore has any man to say that the command so often repeated means no more than that we should love our neighbor generally and indefinitely as ourselves? To clear the matter, the following remarks are offered, with confidence in their entire justice:

1. It is evidently the design of the inspired writers to fix the degree in which we are bound to love our neighbor. They distinctly require us to love God supremely, above all others, admitting no rivals, no comparisons. They as distinctly say that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. There is no reason why inspired men should so often have added the words "as yourself," unless they thus designed to determine how far we should love others.

2. In alluding to our love of self, the inspired writers did not refer to such love of ourselves as is inordinate, and therefore sinful. All inordinate affection, whether towards. ourselves or others, is contrary to God's word and will; and its excesses in one case cannot justify its excesses in another. Besides, it is simply impossible, in the nature of things, that the human mind should love God supremely, and at the same time go out inordinately both towards one's self and one's neighbor.

3. There is a difference between selfishness and self-love. Selfishness is the excess and immoderate indulgence of self-love. Selfishness is wicked, and consists in a persistent looking on our own things and a constant caring for ourselves, let others do as they may. Self-love is an enlightened and lawful regard to our own welfare, and is the standard and measure approved of God for regulating our affections towards others. "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

4. It is not denied that in a sense we may care and act more for the immediate good of ourselves and families than of others more remotely connected with us. We are urged by the instinct of self-preservation to protect from harm our own bodies more than those of others. But the commandment relates not to instincts, but to moral affections. So also by natural affection the mother is led to forget the rest of the world for a season, that she may watch her own languishing babe. But the law we are now considering does not relate to natural affection, which is more or less discoverable even in brute animals. It is a moral law, given to moral agents. And so there is no violation of its spirit in a man's providing for his own, and especially for those of his own household. Not to do so would prove him "worse than an infidel."

5. There is nothing in this law which requires us to do a natural impossibility. Thus it is commonly in our power to do much more for ourselves and families than for others. Most people are commonly not within our reach. They are out of our sight and beyond the compass of our voice. But we can reprove, exhort, warn, and encourage ourselves when we will. We can often do the same to those near us. But this does not prove that we may love ourselves and families more than all others. The mother may not lawfully love the child at her side more than she may love his little brother captured by savages and carried into the wilderness. Yet a man would not be esteemed sane who should assert that this same mother was bound to do as many acts of daily kindness for one child as for the other. It would be literally impossible.

6. The law of love to our neighbor has an excellent practical exposition in what has long been called the golden rule, which is in these words: "Do for others what you want them to do for you: this is the meaning of the Law of Moses and of the teachings of the prophets." None can deny that this law binds us to all the acts of love to our neighbor which we may lawfully desire him to perform towards ourselves. If therefore we are bound to yield the fruits of love to others, as we seek them from others, why should we not love our neighbor as we do ourselves? Where is any flaw in this reasoning? This golden rule affords an excellent test by which to judge both of our selfish and of our benevolent feelings. When we wish others to do something for us, let us ask first whether, in an exchange of circumstances, we would be ready to do the same for them.

7. The Scriptures do commend a very high degree of love to men. They say that "perhaps for a good man some would even dare to die." Rom. 5:8. This is evidently spoken not in censure, but in praise of the self-sacrificing man. John is yet more explicit, and says that in certain cases "we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren." 1 John 3:16. Paul furnishes us with an example of what John here teaches when he says to the Philippians, "If I be offered upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice with you all." Phil. 2 17. Now Paul did not love others more than the law requires; yet he was willing to suffer martyrdom, if thereby he could be most useful to his fellow-men. Surely this is loving our neighbor as ourselves. The thing is therefore not impracticable. Greater love than this is not required.

8. We do most effectually promote our own happiness, when we cultivate the most benevolent affections towards our neighbor. Nor is there any limit to this remark. Who that ever hoarded up wealth was as happy as John Howard? What lazy, selfish minister ever enjoyed life like Paul, who rejoiced even in tribulation?

"The truly generous, is truly wise;
 And he who loves not others lives unblest."

I have never known an unhappy philanthropist. I have never had a doleful letter from a foreign missionary. It is on the selfish—that boredom and overindulgence and discontent and anguish prey. Wilcox says,

"Would you from sorrow find a sweet relief?
 Or is your heart oppressed with woes untold?
 Balm would you gather for corroding grief?
 Pour blessings round you like a shower of gold."

Thus it is clear that we ought to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves; we ought to be as ready to give as to receive justice, kindness, truth, pity, and bounty; in our dealings with others, we should be as careful to fulfill to all men the duties required, and to avoid the sins forbidden in the second table of the law, as we are free to regard them bound to do and to avoid the same. In some things, we may even give others the advantage. "In honor preferring one another;" and, "Let each esteem other better than themselves," are forms of speech which show that where there seems to be a conflict between our love to ourselves, and our love to our neighbor—there are cases where he is to have the benefit of the doubt, and to take the precedence.

This love will make us put a proper estimate upon the worth of our neighbor; construe all his conduct in as charitable a manner as truth will permit; offer assistance whenever it is required and we can afford it; be careful to say nothing contrary to "the royal law;" take pleasure in the welfare of others; and especially with diligence seek their spiritual and eternal good. The highest charity is that which aims at men's salvation. "He who wins souls is wise."

It remains that a few words be said in presenting MOTIVES for the performance of this duty. The motive twice presented in the nineteenth chapter of Leviticus, is the solemn authority of God: "I am the Lord." "I am the Lord your God." A due consideration of God's authority, and a due regard to it, are sufficient to command the assent and the consent of all who have the love of God in them. But this saying, 'I am the Lord,' may mean more than this. It may call us to a large benevolence, corresponding in our measure to the love manifested by God himself. Thus Paul says, "Be imitators of God, as dear children; walk in love, as Christ also has loved us, and has given himself for us." Eph. 5:1, 2.

God "makes his sun to shine on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust." Matt. 5:45. Even where whole nations have forsaken God, practiced idolatry, and walked in their own ways, "he left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave them rain from heaven, filling their hearts with food and gladness." The Lord's mercies are "new every morning." Lam. 3:23. "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another." 1 John 4:10, 11.

The example of our blessed Savior is often presented as a powerful motive to this very duty. He went about doing good. We should walk as he walked. He has set us an example, that we should follow his steps. You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, that we through his poverty might be made rich. In this way we can also best commend our religion to others, and put to silence the ignorance of foolish men, and win those who are of a contrary opinion.

Nothing more fatally hinders our prayers than the want of love to men. All correct moral feelings are shocked—at prayer mingled with malice. Who ever heard of a happy or thriving church where the spirit of love was not? Leighton says, "To pray together, hearts must be consorted and tuned together; otherwise, how can they sound the same petitions harmoniously? How unpleasant in the exquisite ear of God, who made the ear—are the jarring, disunited hearts that often seem to join in the same prayer, and yet are not set together in love! And when you pray alone, while your heart is imbittered and disaffected to your brother, although upon an offence done to you—prayer is as a mistuned instrument; the strings are not accorded, are not in tune among themselves—and so the sound is harsh and offensive.

Try it well yourself, and you will perceive it; how much more He to whom you pray. When you are stirred and in passion against your brother, or not lovingly affected towards him—what broken, disordered, contemptible stuff are your prayer requests! Therefore the Lord will have this done first-your heart tuned. "Go your way," says Jesus; "leave your gift, and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift." Every enlightened conscience must approve this method. No other consists with sincerity or holiness. One of the great excellences of love to our neighbor is, that it is an immortal principle. "Love never fails." "It will survive the wreck of worlds," says John James, "out-time time itself, and be forever the work of the servants of God."