Vital Godliness: A Treatise on
Experimental and Practical Piety

By William S. Plumer


I once asked a great general what proportion of men might be regarded as naturally brave without training and discipline? He said it was impossible to answer the question with precision, but that the number was very small. If the inquiry had related to the tempers of men in the performance of their moral and religious duties, the number of the naturally courageous might have been stated as still less. Sin has made cowards of us all. Without the grace of God no man has heroism enough left to enable him to do his duty to God or man. We are not only averse to holiness, but we have a very peculiar dread of those things which by the wicked are inflicted on the conscientious. We have need of constant support and encouragement in the path of rectitude. Accordingly no small part of all good writings, inspired and uninspired, are designed to give boldness in the profession and practice of that which is right. Thus in Psalm 27:14 we read, "Be of good courage, and he shall strengthen your heart;" and in Psalm 31:24, "Be of good courage, and he shall strengthen your heart, all you who hope in the Lord." When Joshua sent away the spies, his chief exhortation to them was to "be of good courage." Num. 13:20. Among the dying counsels of Moses to Israel, in view of the conquest of Canaan, was this: "Be strong and of a good courage, fear not, nor be afraid of them: for the Lord your God—it is he who goes with you; he will not fail you, nor forsake you." Deut. 31:6. The same exhortation is given by God himself through Joshua. Josh. 1:6, 9; 10:25. A part of David's dying advice to Solomon was, "Be strong and of good courage; dread not, nor be dismayed." 1 Chron. 22:13. Again, "Be strong and of good courage, and do it; fear not, nor be dismayed, for the Lord God, even my God, will be with you; he will not fail you, nor forsake you." 1 Chron. 28:20.

Words of similar import have often been addressed to armies about to engage in battle. 2 Sam. 10:12; 1 Chron. 19:13. Indeed, so surely as the spirit of piety revives among any people, there will be a great revival of courage. See Ezra 10:4, and many other places, especially Acts 4:13, 29, 31. In like manner Paul exhorts the Corinthians: "Watch, stand fast in the faith, be courageous like men, be strong." Of like import are those numerous exhortations in both Testaments to "be strong," to "be strong in the Lord," etc.

In fact the Scriptures often speak in tones of high commendation of doing things courageously, and greatly censure such as are not valiant for the truth. Indeed, when sin is impudent and brazen-faced, it is not right that piety should be timid and sneaking. Accordingly the genuine people of God have in all ages manifested more or less intrepidity in the cause of truth. And as inspired men, so also uninspired men, who have gained a just influence in the church of God, have always commended this virtue. Indeed what can be done without it? A timid, discouraged, despondent, cowardly person is ill prepared to meet the rough assaults of the enemies of virtue. He will yield the citadel of truth, and flee as one ashamed. He will betray the best interests of his cause. He will defend nothing, and uphold nothing good. He will be a poor help and a poor reliance in the day of trouble.

But what is the COURAGE which the Scriptures commend? This is a question of great importance. There are in our language four words which are often used confusedly. These are, bravery, courage, valor, and fortitude. Bravery belongs to the animal part of our nature; gourage to the mental. The former depends on physical temperament; the latter on the reason. BRAVERY is an instinct; courage is a virtue. One may be brave without thought. He cannot be courageous unless he calmly reflects. Bravery is often headlong and headstrong; courage is cool and reasonable. The former acts upon an impulse; the latter upon conviction. By delay bravery dies away; by delay courage gains strength. Bravery is blind and furious; courage is far-seeing and prudent. Men are brave in common with the war-horse; they have courage in common with the great patriots and bleeding martyrs of all ages. A man may be brave without courage, and courageous without bravery. He may be unmoved because he has no sense of danger. Or his nerves may be upset by apprehensions of peril, and his constancy of mind be wholly unshaken.

VALOR is supposed to have all the best qualities of both bravery and courage. It glories in risking all upon a just cause and occasion. It looks far ahead and is wise. But its counsels would be madness in the timid. Men are never valiant except as they are moved by the higher aims and passions of our nature. No man can be valiant for a trifle or a sordid end. The love of country, the love of truth, the love of God—or something high and noble must always actuate the valiant man.

There is also, in strict propriety of language, a difference between courage and FORTITUDE. Courage faces and resists danger; fortitude endures pain. Courage is sometimes used in a bad sense; fortitude never. Courage is for action; fortitude for suffering. In this sense fortitude differs little from constancy and patient endurance. Yet by many good writers these words are used. interchangeably. Indeed all these words are at times used in a good sense and synonymously. In this chapter the word courage will be used, and in a good sense only. There is a Christian grace of that name. It is of great value. It is the quality Peter points out when he says, "Add to faith, virtue." So highly did the ancient Greeks and Romans esteem courage, that often in their classics the word by which they express it is the word by which they express the idea of virtue generally; as if they would assert that it was either the sum or the index of all virtue.

In the sense of courage, it is by many held that Peter uses it in the words just quoted. Merely to believe is not the whole of our work. To our faith, we must add courage. We have great need of this grace. But like all other Christian virtues, courage has its counterfeits. It is therefore very important for us soundly to discriminate. True courage is wise and calculates. It thinks soberly, and is not inconstant rashness; but virtue fighting for a truth. It has that prudence which foresees the evil, and hides itself. It looks well to its ways. It chooses the best ends and the best methods of attaining them. It never cries, "There is no danger," but is suspicious of mere appearances. It admits the real difficulties in its way, and provides for their removal. It is full of wisdom and forethought. In this it wholly differs from fanaticism, which is blind and furious, and commonly blind in proportion to its fury.

The Bible everywhere commends "a sound mind." It is as truly at war with folly as with sin. Would you have a courage quite dauntless? Choose such a course of life as God unquestionably approves, such a course as you know you will yourself approve when standing before God in judgment. Thus you will always be supported by your own understanding and conscience. Having no mental misgivings, you will not grow pale at the shaking of a leaf or of a spear. This true courage seeks worthy objects and noble aims, and is seen in great exploits that justice warrants, and that wisdom guides; all else is towering frenzy and distraction. It is not low and base in its aims and plans. It is expansive in its desires. It lives for God's glory and man's happiness.

True Christian courage is also HUMBLE. It does not boast, and is not puffed up. It greatly boasts in God—but not at all in the flesh. It empties itself—but finds its fullness in God. Just so surely as one trusts in himself that he is strong and can do exploits—just so surely is he a poor, weak, cowardly thing. Look at Peter. He cries out, "Though all men forsake you, yet I will not." It is but a few hours until he denies his Lord with oaths. Boasters are like clouds and wind without rain. When we lay hold on God, we are girded with omnipotence; but when we are left to ourselves—we are as weak as water. Evans says, "Courage in general is a temper which disposes a man to do brave and commendable actions without being daunted at the appearance of dangers and difficulties in the way." Buck says, "Courage is active fortitude, that meets dangers and attempts to repel them." Seneca, whose mind was unenlightened by Christianity, yet says, "Courage is properly the contempt of hazards according to reason; but that to run into danger from mere passion, is rather a daring and brutal fierceness than an honorable courage."

Cicero, in some respects the greatest of the heathen philosophers, says, "That sort of courage which disregards the rules of justice, and is displayed not for the public good, but for private selfish ends, is altogether blamable; and so far from being a part of true virtue, it is a piece of the most barbarous inhumanity." Plato says, "As that sort of knowledge which is not directed by the rules of justice, ought rather to have the name of deceit, than wisdom and prudence; just so that bold and adventurous mind which is hurried on by the stream of its own passions, and not for the good of the public, should rather have the name foolhardy and daring, than valiant and courageous." The Duke of Sully says, "That which arms us against our friends and countrymen, in contempt of all laws, as well divine as human, is but a brutal fierceness, madness, and real cowardliness."

Another says, "That hardy rashness which many account valor is the companion of ignorance; and of all rashness, boldness to sin is the most witless and foolish." Addison says, "Courage that grows from constitution very often forsakes a man when he has occasion for it; and when it is only a kind of instinct in the soul, it breaks out on all occasions without judgment or discretion; but that courage which arises from a sense of duty and from a fear of offending Him who made us, always acts in a uniform manner and according to the dictates of right reason." He also says courage "is that heroic spirit inspired by the conviction of our cause being just, and that God will not forsake us." Mr. Burke says, "The only real courage is generated by the fear of God. He who fears God fears nothing else."

Indeed the Scriptures justify the remark that no man has true courage except so far as he is a godly man. "The righteous are as bold as a lion; but the wicked flee when no man pursues."

"Stand but your ground, your ghostly foes will fly:
Hell trembles at a heaven-directed eye.
Choose rather to defend than to assail;
Self-confidence will in the conflict fail.

When you are challenged, you may dangers meet
True courage is a fixed, not sudden heat;
Is always humble, lives in self-distrust,
And will itself into no danger thrust.

Devote yourself to God, and you will find
God fights the battles of a will resigned.
Love Jesus. Love will no base fear endure.
Love Jesus, and of conquest rest secure."

Collier says, "True courage is the result of reasoning. A brave mind is always impregnable. Courage lies more in the head than in the veins, and a just sense of honor and of infamy, of duty and of piety, will carry us further than all the force of mere enthusiasm." From all this it appears that true courage is calm, rational, firm—controlled by a sense of justice, free from raving and madness, from hatred and malignity. It is truth, justice, and honor sitting on a throne of virtue. Because it fears God, it has not that fear of man which brings a snare. Trials do but express and manifest it. "True courage never exerts itself so much as when it is most pressed; and it is then we most enjoy the feast of a good conscience when we stand in the greatest need of its support." One well says, "The courage which Christianity requires, is to bravery what fortitude is to boldness—an effort of the mental principles rather than of the spirits. It is a calm, steady determinateness of purpose, that will not be diverted by allurement, or awed by fear." And he very properly cites as an illustration of his meaning those immortal words of Paul: "Behold, I go bound in the spirit unto Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall befall me there; except that the Holy Spirit says that in every city—that bonds and afflictions await me. But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself."

So much for the general. nature of courage. It may be either active or passive. Active courage leads to bold deeds; passive courage is not moved by fears in times of peril and suffering. By active courage Jonathan and his armor-bearer captured the strong-hold of the Philistines; by passive courage Joseph sustained himself in the dungeons of Egypt. By the former David performed the great exploits of killing the lion, the bear, and the giant of Gath; by the latter he endured the revilements of Shimei as—he was retreating from the holy city. Daniel was passively courageous when in the lions' den; he was actively courageous when, in unfaltering tone and with great solemnity, he pronounced sentence of death on Belshazzar.

Active courage bestirs itself, and uses all its resources to avert, remove, or diminish evils; passive courage defies the worst evils that can come, and preserves equanimity in the midst of convulsions, disasters, revolutions, and death in all its frightful forms.

The principle of all courage is the same. He who is possessed of the genuine virtue in one set of circumstances, will not lack it when circumstances change. Perhaps no historical book of equal length gives more instruction as to the nature and obligation of active courage than that of Nehemiah. It contains an account of one of the greatest and most difficult enterprises ever accomplished. There was peril at every step; yet Nehemiah was never daunted. "Shall such a man as I flee?" was the short but stern reply he gave to those who would tempt him to cowardice. But one must read the whole book with care in order to understand the heroism of that great governor. Verily he obtained a good report, and on the best grounds.

Leighton well says, "It is the battle which tries the soldier, and the storm the pilot. How would it appear that Christians can be not only patient but cheerful in poverty, in disgrace and temptations and persecutions—if it were not often their lot to meet with them?" It is a great thing for us when we know our calling, and understand why we are made to suffer severely. One of our capital errors is, that we often fall into a dreamy state, and forget that life is full of severe realities.

"I slept, and dreamed that life was beauty;
I woke, and found that life was duty.
Was then your dream a shadowy lie?
Toil on, sad heart, courageously,
And you shall find your dream to be
A noonday light and truth to thee."

Let every man say with Romaine, "My time is short; I must be up and doing; I must go briskly on with my work, leaving it to my Lord to find me strength for it and success in it. His blessing I expect here and forever; not for anything I have done; and yet I would labor as hard as if heaven was to be the reward of my labors."

True Christian courage is loudly demanded in our day. Every duty may bring it to the test. It is not possible for us to be too entirely and intrepidly devoted to the service of God. Yet we cannot be too guarded as to our motives in undertaking any service for Christ. Let us not seek our own ease, our own honor or advantage; let us not be moved by any unholy bitterness, nor by party-spirit; let us not follow blind impulses, nor indulge in temporary excitements; let us not neglect the duties of the closet for those of the platform; but still let us boldly and earnestly serve the Lord day and night.

Important as is a stirring, active courage, a passive courage is no less so. This we commonly need in all our Christian course. The world is never pleased with the people of God. The son of the bond-woman still strives with the son of the free-woman. Opposition to all that is godly—is stern, constant, and determined. Nothing but divine grace can ever enable a child of God to endure the fearful hostility of the enemy. Our Savior's word is still fulfilled: "I have come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man's foes shall be they of his own household." The offence of the cross has not ceased! It never can cease but by the conversion of the soul to God. "If you were of the world, the world would love his own; but because I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you." Men of the world have no better attitude towards Christianity than when they crucified its Author, and cast his followers to the wild beasts! He who would be a Christian must be so at the risk of all he counts dear in this life. The world will heap odium upon him, will vex his righteous soul from day to day; and if possible, turn him away from his tender walk with God.

Of three devices the enemies of the saints are very fond: one is seduction; another is scorning; the third is bloody persecution. The first is used at all times. To seduce God's people from the path of rectitude is the business of thousands. Whether they really design it or not, their principles and their practices are alike evil and corrupting. They are always spreading snares for the feet of the unwary. They tempt and allure by every flattering deceit. They use cunning craftiness. They profess great friendship for the very objects of their deceits; but they regard Christian principle as unnecessarily strict and severe. They glory in not being bound by the unbending laws of God's people; yet their example makes them uneasy. Besides, having no love to God and holiness, they cannot endure the exemplary life of consistent Christians. Yet they are not prepared to show all their adversarial venom—and so they satisfy themselves with attempts to seduce God's servants.

Others go further, break friendship with consistent professors, treat them fanatics, and vent upon them the utmost virulence of their scorn. They practice those "cruel mockings"of which Paul speaks; those cruel mockings, of which nothing is harder to be borne with an unruffled spirit. Many take delight in subjecting to all kinds of vileness—those whose minds seem made up to walk in the paths of scriptural piety. In every age, the world has exhausted its vocabulary of abuse against the people of God. Narrow-minded, obstinate, bigot, Puritan, enthusiast, fanatic—are but a few of the terms of reproach used by the world towards consistent Christians. I have known a man told to his face that he was a fanatic, because he would not go with a man of the world to view his earthly possessions on the Lord's-day, and he professing a warm friendship all the time.

There is cruelty in the scorning of the scorners. They delight in their trade. They love to afflict the people of God. They shoot out the lip.

When seductions and scornings fail, the world will, as it can, try more formal persecutions. For three centuries together, at the first preaching of Christianity, the blood of the martyrs rarely ceased to flow. Although the laws of some countries, and the public sentiment of the world, do much oppose bloody persecutions in our day, yet even to this present time dungeons and death are the portion of some of God's people. It is but a short time ago, in one year—eight thousand people were doomed to death on the island of Madagascar, because they professed to love the Lord Jesus Christ. The Inquisition still has its dungeons and its tortures and secret deaths and burials.

A large body of men in the nominally Christian world are by profession trained to regard themselves as doing God service when they violate all the laws of charity towards those who differ from them in religious doctrine and practice. Whether much of the blood of the saints is likely again to be shed on the earth, is a point on which good men differ. But prophecy does seem to foretell days of great trial yet to come on the church, and that before her final triumph and universal dominion. Should that day of trial come, who is prepared? who is full of courage? who is ready to be offered upon the sacrifice and service of the church's faith? Such a day will demand the faith and fortitude of martyrs. That many cherish the principles of persecutors is evident, by the malice they show in many forms, and by their open, bold avowals. The Shepherd of the Valley, a Roman-catholic paper in our country, says, "If the Catholics ever gain, as they will do, though at a distant day, an immense majority—we will end religious freedom." It also says, "Heresy and unbelief are crimes which should be punished—that is the whole of the matter. In countries, as Italy and Spain for instance, where all the people are

Catholic, and where the Catholic religion is an essential part of the public law of the land, they will be punished as other crimes." This is but the echo of the dogmas of Romish doctrines for centuries past. Let not Christians wrap themselves up in the cloak of indifference, and say that there is no danger. Every bishop and archbishop in the apostate Catholic church, is a sworn persecutor to the utmost of his power.

Ungodly men everywhere may suddenly have all restraints removed, and then they will be wild beasts who devour the people of God. If any would have examples of high Christian courage both in doing and suffering the will of God, let them study the history of the church in all ages. Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, Ehud, Stephen, Paul, Peter, and John—in inspired history; with scores and hundreds in later ages, stand forth as bright patterns of the grace here commended. They "through faith subdued kingdoms, worked out righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, grew mighty in war, and caused foreign armies to flee. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, not accepting their deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Others were tried by mocking and scourging, yes, moreover by bonds and imprisonment. They were stoned. They were sawn apart. They were tempted. They were slain with the sword. They went around in sheep skins and in goat skins; being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts, mountains, caves, and the holes of the earth." (Hebrews 11:33-38)

Nor were examples of great courage confined to the days of inspiration. The pious Flavel has collected several striking instances of this grace of courage. When Valens the emperor in a great rage threatened Basil with banishment and torture, he replied, "As to the first, I little regard it, for the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof; as for tortures, what can they do upon such a poor thin body as mine, nothing but skin and bones?" Luther had such a courage in the cause of truth, that in his last sickness he expressed sorrow that "he must carry his blood to the grave," and so not be permitted to die a martyr's death. Tertullian testifies of the Christians of his day, "Our women and children—not to speak of men—overcome their tormentors, and the fire cannot fetch so much as a sigh from them."

In conclusion, take the following PRINCIPLES and OBSERVATIONS for guidance in this duty. The Scriptures enforces courage both by precepts and examples. Our circumstances urgently demand that we should possess and practice this grace. It is not probable that we shall have courage in any high degree—unless we set a high value upon it. Mere natural courage is of no use in enabling us to resist spiritual foes and fears. We must therefore seek true courage by faith in Christ Jesus. He who is readily discouraged cannot rise to great eminence in anything, surely not in the divine life. Scriptural modes of arguing are the best to inspire courage. They are such as these: "Because I live, you shall live also;" "As your days, so shall your strength be;" "I will never leave you, nor forsake you;' "If God be for us, who can be against us?"

All true spiritual heroism is based in the precious blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ. "Time will neither wear out the guilt of sin, nor blot out the records of conscience." But the blood of Christ CLEANSES from all sin. It speaks better things than the blood of Abel. His righteousness is enough for us all. Nor should we hesitate to look at anything in the most serious and solemn manner. "Those who cannot bear to hear their duty, may prepare soon to hear their doom." Those who will not permit their thoughts to travel beyond the bounds of time, will be, must be greatly surprised by eternal things. The thoughtless and frivolous must expect eternity to flash damnation in their consciences. It is mournful that in a world like ours, it should be said of but one here and there, "He is a thoughtful man." It is as shocking as it is dangerous, for those who possess the powers and responsibilities of men, to aim at no higher end than is attained by the brutes which perish! Those who would grow wiser and better, must not turn away their minds from any subject simply because it excites painful emotions. The thoughtless die as soon as others—yet not as safely.

Would you have dauntless courage in all coming trials and persecutions? Die unto sin, hold fast the covenant and promises of God, and let Christ be all in all to you. He who would not be filled with shame, must first count the cost of all he undertakes. God's word and Spirit are always on the side of truth and duty, and may be infallibly relied on. The enemy has no arts nor devices that have not been thwarted a thousand times. He can be beaten. He has been vanquished. Never do evil—that good may come. Choose your weapons. Maintain a good conscience. Pray to know the wiles of Satan and the cunning sleight of men, whereby they lie in wait to deceive. If it were possible, they would deceive the very elect. Divine desertion will make cowards of the bravest, and fools of the wisest. As soon as the Spirit of the Lord deserted Saul, an evil spirit rested on him. Leave your reputation, as well as soul and body—in the hands of God. Clamor and falsehood cannot harm you—if truth is your shield, and God your refuge. Set your face as a flint. Trust in the Lord, and do good. "Nothing but cowardice ever finally lost the victory in the cause of God."