Vital Godliness: A Treatise on
Experimental and Practical Piety

By William S. Plumer



Just before he laid down his life, our Lord Jesus Christ said to his disciples, "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another." John 13:34. In explaining this passage, critics have found difficulty from the use of the word new. They say that love to God's people as such is no new thing under the gospel. This is certainly true. Saints have always esteemed each other the excellent of the earth, in whom was all their delight. Psalm 16:3. David says, "I am a companion of all who fear you, and of those who keep your precepts;" and "my eyes shall be upon the faithful of the land, that they may dwell with me." Psalm 119:63; 101:6. Solomon says, "He who walks with wise men shall be wise: but the companion of fools shall be destroyed." Psalm 13:20. So in the days of Malachi, "those who feared the Lord spoke often one to another." Mal. 3:16.

It is impossible for two children of God to not to love each other. This was as true three thousand years ago as it is now. Many regard the friendship between David and Jonathan as based in this love. If this is correct, we have a very strong case of brotherly love furnished under the old dispensation. The word new is not then to be taken in the sense of novel or unheard of. Christ does not intend to say, "I give you an additional commandment." Some have thought that the difficulty might be removed by supposing that the word new here signifies superior, better, or excellent. Now although the word might have this sense, and in some cases has it, yet this command is not better than that which binds us to love God with all the heart, and our neighbor as ourselves; and so this sense cannot be here admitted.

Sometimes the word new seems to mean uncommon, and so some would read it, "I give you an uncommon commandment," meaning thereby a precept that will seem uncommon to the masses of men, being so unusual in human history. But this is hardly the sense of the word here. We are not driven by any necessity to such a construction. The meaning is not that the duty of love to godly men, is now first taught—but that we are called to love godly men as Christ's disciples, and because they are such, and that in a previously unknown degree and for an unusual motive, namely, Christ's love to all his people. We are to love Christians as Christians. We are to love them after the pattern of Christ's love to us. And we are to love them because he thus loved us. In these senses and in no others is this commandment new or novel. In these senses it was new until Christ came.

Fifty-seven years after Christ uttered these words, John wrote respecting this commandment of love to Christian brethren, "Not as though I wrote a new commandment unto you, but that which we had from the beginning—that we should love one another." John Brown of Edinburgh thus paraphrases these words: "Though the commandment to love one another cannot now be called a new one, as if just issued forth—for from the beginning of the gospel it was announced as the distinctive command of our one Lawgiver—yet it may well be called new so far as he is concerned, for no one gave it until he did it; and so far as you are concerned, for it was a law to which you were strangers, until you assumed his easy yoke and light burden."

Jesus Christ differed from all the philosophers and teachers among the ancients, because he inculcated love among his disciples, and so in the sense explained he gave them a new commandment concerning love to their brethren. It is worthy of notice that other portions of Scripture urge the same duty. Thus Christ says, "This is my commandment, That you love one another, as I have loved you." John 15:12. Paul says, "Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love." Romans 12:10. Again, "The Lord make you to increase and abound in love one toward another." 1 Thess. 3:12. Again, "We are bound to thank God always for you, brethren, as it is fit, because that your faith grows exceedingly, and the love of everyone of you toward each other abounds." 2 Thess. 1:3. Peter says, "Be all of one mind, having compassion one of another; love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous." Again, "Above all things have fervent love among yourselves." 1 Peter 3:8, and 4:8. John says, "This is the message that you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another." 1 John 3:11. The same is taught in many other places.

The first essential quality of this love is that it should be sincere and real—not pretended. Thus John says, "My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue, but in deed and in truth." 1 John 3:18. So also Peter speaks of "sincere love of the brethren." 1 Pet. 1 22. Every Christian grace may be counterfeited. Not all love to the people of God—is what the Scripture requires. John Newton well says, "There is a natural love to our friends and family. People may sincerely love their relations, friends, and benefactors—and yet be utter strangers to the scriptural love the apostle speaks of. So Orpah had a great affection for Naomi, though it was not strong enough to make her willing with Ruth to leave her native country and her idol-gods. Natural affection can go no further than to a personal attachment; and they who thus love the brethren, and upon no better grounds, are often disgusted with those things in them, for which the real brethren chiefly love one another.

"There is likewise a love to others, which is based on self-interest. The Lord's people are gentle, peaceful, benevolent, swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to get angry. They are desirous of adorning the doctrine of God their Savior, and approving themselves followers of him who pleased not himself, but spent his life in doing good to others. Upon this account, those who are selfish, and love to have their own way, may like their company because they find more compliances and less opposition from them, than from others. For a while Laban loved Jacob: he found him diligent and trustworthy, and perceived that the Lord prospered him on Jacob's account; but when he saw that Jacob flourished, and thought that Jacob was likely to to leave him, his love was soon at an end; for it was only founded in self-interest.

"A party-love is also common. The objects of this are those who are of the same sentiment, worship in the same way, or are attached to the same minister. They who are united in such narrow and separate associations, may express warm affections without giving any proof of true Christian love; for upon such grounds as these not only professed Christians, but Jews and Turks may be said to love one another: though it must be allowed that believers being renewed but in part, the love which they bear to the brethren is too often debased and alloyed by a mixture of selfish affections." It is a great matter when sincere love to God's people fairly gets possession of the man.

Again, our love to the brethren should be continual, and not occasional or temporary. "Let brotherly love continue." Heb. 13:1. The reasons which should lead us to brotherly love at one time, are of perpetual force, nor can we innocently deny their power or refuse their control. All affections which seem to be of good quality, but are temporary in duration—are spurious. This is as true of temporary faith or sorrow for sin, as of love. True grace is not like Jonah's gourd, which "came up in a night and perished in a night."

Our love to the brethren should also be fervent. Well did Peter say, "See that you love one another with a pure heart fervently." 1 Pet. 1:22. Love wholly without fervor cannot exist. There is no such thing. But love without considerable fervor will make many of our duties to our brethren, become dull and irksome. Besides, we are naturally timid. Pride might embolden us, but pride is officious and offensive. On the other hand, love is as humble as it is diligent, and begets a sweet and accommodating disposition, and prepares us to do good on a large scale.

Nor can differences of nationality hinder this. I have heard of a Hindu and a New Zealander who met upon the deck of a missionary ship. They had been converted from their heathenism, and were brothers in Christ, but they could not speak to each other. They pointed to their Bibles, shook hands, smiled in one another's faces, but that was all. At last a happy thought occurred to the Hindu. With a sudden joy he exclaimed, "Hallelujah!" the New Zealander, in delight, cried out, "Amen!" Those two words, not found in their own heathen tongues, but given them by the gospel, were to them the beginning again of "one language and one speech."

The true basis of love to God's people is not merely the gratitude we may owe them for their kindness, or the good-will we bear to them in common with others—but it is especially the image of God that is in them. We love them in the Lord. It is loving them because they are disciples of Jesus. One Christian loves another chiefly because he has a likeness to Christ, and lives for the glory of Christ. Nothing can dampen the ardor of true love. For a while Joseph of Arimathea was a disciple secretly, for fear of the Jews; yet at the crucifixion he goes and begs for the body of Jesus. The terrible persecution which broke out three or four years after Christ's resurrection, could not so intimidate the church but that "devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him." Acts 8:2.

Trying occasions do commonly draw out this pious affection in a surprising manner. My brother in sorrow is still my brother, and the heavier his grief, the more fitness is there in my loving him and refusing to let him go unnoticed. Charnock says, "At the last day, the trial of men is by their acts towards God's people in time of their persecutions." And in proof, he refers to Christ's account of the final judgment as given in Matthew 25. He is right. If we are ashamed of the bonds of God's people, it is idle for us to pretend to love them after a godly sort when they are in prosperity.

In the early history of the Christian religion, nothing was more remarkable than the love which one disciple bore to another. This was noticed by friends and foes. Lucian scoffingly says of the Christians of his time, "Their Lawgiver has persuaded them that they are all brethren." Another heathen says, "Christians do love one another before they are acquainted—if they but know that they are Christians." Indeed it was often said among the heathen, "See how these Christians love one another, and how ready they are to die for each other." Tertullian says, "This surprised them beyond measure, since they are accustomed to hate one another—that one man should be ready to die for another."

The proper proofs of our love to the brethren are found in our making common cause with them in all their sufferings for righteousness' sake; in being very slow to take offence at their conduct; in abhorring all bigotry and haughty exclusiveness; in embracing all the friends of God of every rank and condition, of every name and nation; and especially in loving most fervently those who give the highest proof of having been born again. For this, brotherly love supposes that our brethren have their hearts drawn out to us just in proportion as they see us wear the image and manifest the spirit of Jesus Christ. True love to our brother will make no man a bigot. John Foster thus describes a bigot: "He sees religion not as a sphere, but a line, and it is a line in which he is moving. He is like an African buffalo—who only sees forward, but nothing on the right or left. He would not perceive a legion of angels or devils at the distance of ten yards on the one side or on the other."

This love to Christ's people is among the best EVIDENCES of a renewed state. "We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love other believers. The person who doesn't grow in love remains in death." 1 John 3:14. "The more believers love God, the more they will love one another; as lines, the nearer they are to the center, the nearer they are to one another." Charnock.

Perhaps there is no method of teaching the true nature of any grace so well, as by example. Take then for your consideration and imitation the case of John, the disciple whom Jesus loved. Respectable historians say that, after the ascension of our Lord, he remained in Judea fifteen or twenty years, and was present at the Council at Jerusalem. After that he spent most of his time in Asia Minor, and particularly at Ephesus. He survived all the other apostles, and lived to be a hundred years old. He has been celebrated for two thousand years as a very loving brother. Yet his love was not blind and sentimental. It did not make him pretend brotherly love to those enemies of righteousness who had crept into the church under false pretenses. "Love rejoices in the truth." "It rejoices not in iniquity."

John was now the only living apostle. Heretics were industriously spreading the contagion of their false doctrines. John loved his Lord, he loved the souls of men, he loved his Christian brethren too well to favor or seem to favor heresy, by voluntarily companying with the enemies of his Lord and Master in any way that seemed to sanction their errors. John practiced as he taught. In his second epistle he says to the elect lady, "If anyone comes to you, and doesn't bring this teaching, don't receive him into your house, and don't welcome him, for he who welcomes him participates in his evil works." 2 John 10, 11. John would have us cease from the instruction that causes to err. His threatening language concerning Diotrephes, in his third epistle, verses 9, 10, shows that he never regarded it as proof of brotherly love to permit bad men to destroy or even disturb the flock of Christ.

It is reported that in a tour through the churches he became much interested in a young man, who was soon brought into the Christian church. Very soon the young man fell into temptation, was much in evil company; became idle, intemperate, and dishonest, finally heading a band of robbers. John, hearing of the sad change, went near his haunts, and allowed himself to be taken by the robbers. "Bring me," said he, "to your captain." As soon as the leader saw John coming, and knew who he was, he was filled with shame, and fled. The apostle pursued him, crying, "My son, why flee from your old and unarmed pastor? Fear not; even yet there is hope of salvation. Believe me, Christ has sent me." The young man stopped, trembled, and wept bitterly. The apostle prevailed on him to forsake his sins, brought him back to the society of the Christians, and had the pleasure of seeing him leading a pious and blameless life.

"Brothers, if any among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death, and will cover a multitude of sins." James 5:20. Brotherly love never willingly leaves one to perish in his ignorance, errors, or vices. It goes after the lost sheep. It pities the wanderer. When John was very old, and unable even to walk to the places of public worship, he was still carried to the Christian assemblies, where, when he could not say much, he at least cried out, "Children, love one another." "Being asked why he told them but one thing, he answered that nothing else was needed." The truth of this narrative is, I think, generally admitted. And surely it presents to the mind one of the most lovely examples and lessons of brotherly kindness that we have on record. Who can refrain from expressing his admiration of so exalted worth? The Lord grant that we all may love as John loved.

In this subject there is furnished us very great help in the work of self-examination. Love to the brethren is as essential a mark of true piety, as is faith. So teaches God's word. "This is his commandment, that we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment." 1 John 3:23. It is not easy for us to press this matter too much on our own attention. Do we love the disciples of Christ because they learn of him and are taught of God? Do we study to promote their usefulness, comfort, and honor out of a special delight in their character? When we see a brother or a sister naked and destitute of daily food, do we say, Depart in peace; be warmed and filled; and yet decline to give them those things which are needful to the body? Do we put away from us all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and evil-speaking, with all malice? Are we kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake has forgiven us? Do we walk in love? Do we sympathize with John Wesley in his prayer, "Lord, if I must dispute, let it be with the children of the devil; let me be at peace with your children." Do we limit our warm charities to those of our own communion; or do we fervently love all who love our Lord Jesus Christ?

The MOTIVES presented in Scripture for Christians loving one another are such as these:

1. In the world they have tribulation. They weep and lament and are sorrowful. John 16:20. To him who is afflicted, pity should be shown. To him who is persecuted by the enemies of God, great friendship should be manifested by the friends of God, lest his sorrows should overwhelm him.

2. The world hates God's people, and nothing but the love of the brethren can compensate for so much malignancy from others. Christ said, "If the world hates you, you know that it hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love his own; but because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you." John 15:18, 19. All this is spoken by Christ to enforce brotherly love.

3. Love to the brethren is to the world a powerful proof of the divinity of the Christian religion. Jesus says, "By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one to another." John 13:35. No other founder of a sect or religion ever made love a test and mark of belonging to him. And it is a fact fully sustained by church history, that whenever the gospel has unusual power over men's minds, it is always preceded or accompanied by much love to the brethren.

4. We are urged to brotherly love by the sweet and solemn authority of Jesus Christ: "A new COMMANDMENT give I unto you, that you love one another." Even advice from Christ we should be bound to follow; but his command none may innocently forget. "These things I command you, that you love one another." John 15:17. To rebel against such authority must be truly perilous.

5. The love of Christ towards us should constrain us to love our brethren. Christ himself urged this consideration: "As I have loved you, even so you must love one another." Let us love our brethren, not for our own sakes, nor chiefly for their own sakes, but for Christ's sake. This consideration binds, and is felt to be powerful by all who love our Lord Jesus Christ. "Let brotherly love continue." Heb. 13:1.

In this and the three preceding chapters, the subject of love has been brought before the attention of the reader. A more heavenly theme could not be found. God is love; heaven is love. Christ is love incarnate; true religion is love in exercise. Nothing is of more importance to any one's happiness, usefulness, or salvation—than that he be filled with love. True, men are not saved for their love, but they cannot be saved without it. Nor can any mortal utter a kinder wish for all to whom he wishes well, than to say with Paul, "This I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and all discernment; so that you may approve the things that are excellent; that you may be sincere and without offense to the day of Christ; being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God." (Philippians 1:9-11)