Vital Godliness: A Treatise on
Experimental and Practical Piety

By William S. Plumer



"A person who suspected that a minister of his acquaintance was not truly orthodox, went to him and said, 'Sir, I am told that you are against the perseverance of the saints.' 'Not I!' answered he; 'it is the perseverance of sinners that I oppose.' The other replied, 'But that is not a satisfactory answer, sir. Do you think that a child of God cannot fall very low, and yet be restored?' The minister answered, 'I think it will be very dangerous to make the experiment.'"

Whether the minister was orthodox or not, it is certain that his sentiments, so far as expressed, were quite consistent with the Bible. He who is determined to see how far he may decline in religion and yet be restored, will lose his soul. "The soul that does anything presumptuously shall surely be cut off." He who regards sin with so little abhorrence as willingly to commit it, cannot be walking in the way of holiness. He who allowedly and habitually departs from God, proves that sin reigns in his mortal body, and that he is the slave of corruption.

The sins, backslidings and spiritual declensions of godly and ungodly men are unlike in several particulars. When the wicked depart from God, they cry, "Peace and safety." When the righteous no longer maintain a close walk with God, they say, "Oh that it were with us as in months past." In their wanderings, the wicked call themselves happy. Having forsaken God, the righteous lose enjoyment, and are filled with sadness. The wicked backslide perpetually. Jer. 8:5. The righteous err from God's ways, but only for a season. The wicked are bent to backsliding. Hosea 11:7. The righteous are betrayed into sin. The wicked are as the sow wallowing in the mire. It is their nature to work iniquity. The righteous are as the cleanly sheep. If they are in the slough, it is their calamity. "No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God." (1 John 3:9) The wicked fill up their sin always. They cannot rest until they have done some mischief. They dig into hell. The righteous is not so. Even when he sleeps, his heart wakes. When he falls, he shall rise again. When he sits in darkness, the Lord shall be a light unto him. A just man falls seven times, and rises up again. All his backslidings are healed.

The DANGER of declension is very great. Many think not so. Their words and lives prove that they think it a small matter to offend God and grieve his Spirit. They are cold and heartless in his service. Their fear of offending God is a weak principle. It controls them not. It has not the force of law. We are always in danger when we have slight thoughts of the evil of sin, and are not ready to fight it. To depart from God is to seek darkness.

Let us then inquire WHO are backsliders. This is a point of high importance. Like all matters of practical religion, it demands forthrightness, seriousness, and discrimination. He who wishes to deceive himself, can usually do so. It is no conclusive evidence that one is not a backslider—just because he is not himself convinced of the fact. A truly pious man in a state of declension usually has some fears respecting himself; but many grievously depart from God without being fully convinced of their wrongdoing. It is a sad truth—that all sin blinds the mind and hardens the heart. It is very difficult to convince any man of his guilt. We have an account of a primitive church that was in a sad declension, neither cold nor hot, and ready to be spewed out; and yet, far front having any just sense of her state, she said, "I am rich, and increased with goods,-and have need of nothing; and knew not that she was wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked." Rev. 3:16, 17.

Many are kept from owning their backslidings, because they are mercifully restrained from open sins. Had they publicly fallen into overt iniquity, they would blush, and be ashamed; they would bewail their wickedness before God and men. But as yet all is secret. They are merely backsliders in heart. No man knows of the extent of the spiritual wickedness of another person. No man can accuse them of living in coldness or in iniquity. Hence they conclude that all is well. But they are mistaken. It may all come to the knowledge of men in a short time. It was so with David. To him God said, "You did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun." 2 Sam. 12:12.

It should also be stated that it is EASY to backslide from God. We go astray from the womb, speaking lies. It is as natural for us to do wrong as for the sparks to ascend upwards. In our voyage heavenward, both wind and tide are both against us. If we do nothing to overcome their action, they will carry us away. We can go to hell without intending to do so, without putting forth any efforts to that effect. But to go to heaven requires prayer, self-denial, vigilance, violence, running, wrestling, fighting.

All serious declension in piety begins in negligence of closet duties. These are, meditation, self-examination, reading the Scriptures, praise, and prayer. A close walk with God insures regularity and alacrity in performing these duties. But an indisposition for them is one of the first signs that spiritual health is failing. This symptom should produce alarm. Sometimes it does; and then the enemy gains no permanent advantage. But often the soul is made quite at ease, is thrown quite off its guard, and allows the public duties of religion to supersede the secret closet duties. A true Christian can hardly live without any secret prayer; but he may be in such a state as sadly to slight the means of personal communion with God. Seasons of pious meditation may be few. The Scriptures may cease to be to the soul the lively oracles—honey and the honeycomb. Self-examination may prove a hard task, and a revealer of unlooked-for wickedness. Praise and thanksgiving may become strange things, and He who gave songs in the night may leave the soul to sighings and tossings. Then prayer will be regarded rather as an exaction to be granted, rather than as a privilege to be enjoyed.

When piety flourished in the soul, it was not enough to perform closet duties statedly and formally. Without having set a particular time for them, the soul would occasionally pursue its pious reflections, its self-examinations, its earnest inquiries, its grateful trains of thought. It would sing some notes of praise. It would cry out after God, even when removed from the usual place and circumstances of devotion. Yes, in the midst of worldly business, devout aspirations would ascend to the Father of mercies; the events of providence successively occurring would be piously contemplated; the tear of penitence would often trickle down, and hope would rouse the soul to great animation.

But when such a one backslides, heart religion is gradually excluded from a place in the common affairs of life. Its duties are shoved into a corner, and not constantly delighted in as before. Then one will go from his closet, quieting his conscience with the reflection that he has spent some time in the set observance of secret duties, and now he feels more free to welcome the affairs of the world. He follows the Lord, but not fully nor heartily. Here the sad work of declension begins. Sin advances rapidly. Thraldom and bewilderment commence. The soul is already entrapped in the net! Blessed is he who now takes the alarm, returns to duty and to the Savior, and is restored to peace, a good conscience, and the light of God's countenance. Sometimes this is done. In every case it should be attempted. But often sin gains strength. The backslider proceeds to greater lengths. The next step is the neglect of family and social religion. This may not soon be taken; but it is well-near impossible to be cold and formal in the closet—and remain lively and punctual in the social duties of devotion.

Hypocrisy may go very far, but rarely as far as this. Men are affected by temptations to slight or omit family worship or social prayer, according to the state of their hearts. To the lively, growing Christian the adversary comes, but has nothing in him. His allurements take not effect. But to the neglecter of his spiritual duties, the enemy approaches boldly. He finds his reasonings vainly resisted, and finally yielded to. The stones of the domestic altar begin to be loose and ready to tumble down, and the little praying circle is quite forsaken. How sad a state is this.

How blind the mind becomes under the power of sin! None but God can effectually check this painful declension. In this state, before long one feels uneasy and guilty. Therefore, to quiet conscience and keep up appearances with himself, he may for a long time be unusually strict and punctual in some of the public duties of religion. So his seat will seldom be vacant in the public worship of God. For like reason, he will become quite zealous about some of the externals of religion. Or he may insist much on the system of doctrine which he has embraced—having learned the art of holding the truth in unrighteousness. Or he may talk of experimental religion, deceiving himself with the belief that if he talks on the subject it is a sign of some right feeling.

He is now sadly blind to his own wretchedness. If he has gone thus far, it will probably not be long until he will be detained from the house of God by causes that once could have had no hindering effect. His zeal even for forms and externals will probably soon betray weakness, or fierceness, or a spirit of contention. His love for the gospel will be substituted by a desire for controversy. Practical and experimental religion will engage but few of his words or thoughts. His heart has gone after other things. Sometimes indeed one acquires the evil habit of speaking fluently of things not felt nor loved. In this case recovery is less and less to be expected. All insincerity is uncongenial to our recovering ourselves out of the snare of the devil. Such a soul will find duties and ordinances unprofitable. He will go away from prayer, from reading, from preaching, and even from the Lord's table—and be no more holy, no more humble, no more watchful, no more spiritually minded, no more able to resist temptation than before.

Sometimes he hopes that he is receiving profit; but his conduct soon shows that he is mistaken. His expectation deceives him. "He looks for salvation, but it is far off from him." Isa. 59:11. He says, "What profit is it that I have kept his ordinance, and that I have walked mournfully before the Lord?" Mal. 3:14. It is with him even "like a hungry one who dreams he is eating, then wakes and is still hungry; and like a thirsty one who dreams he is drinking, then wakes and is still thirsty, longing for water. " Isa. 29:8. Sometimes the ordinances are like the fruit which Milton's serpents ate. To the eye it was beautiful and inviting—but in the mouth it turned to ashes, was bitter, and increased thirst. Or they are like the book the prophet ate, sweet in the mouth—but bitter afterwards. So sin often embitters the most precious privileges.

Backsliders are made miserable by an approach to God. They are not prepared for it. As piety thus dies in the soul, charity diminishes, and censoriousness takes its place. A backslider will be more than formerly disposed to doubt the good motives, the upright intentions, and sincere professions of others. He will not be slow in entertaining severe judgments of others. Sometimes he will express harsh opinions of his fellow-men. Attaching great value to any 'little shreds of piety' still about himself, he expresses surprise that others have not his seeming virtues. He wonders how a Christian can act so and so—while he himself is doing worse! His heart does not lead him instantly and spontaneously to cast a cloak over the faults of others.

This spirit marks also his treatment of the unconverted. Reproach rather than persuasion, contempt rather than affection—mark his conduct towards the unconverted. It cannot now be said of him that he "thinks no evil," and "is kind." He shows much of the temper of those who make a man an offender for a word. Soon you may find him vain and trifling, in his plans and conversation. He prefers vain company. He selects unprofitable reading. He seeks amusement, not those things which are profitable to his soul.

Things must be found to suit 'his taste'. When lively in religion, his conversation was seasoned with salt; but now anything rather than piety is congenial to his feelings. On that topic he is cold. On worldly things he speaks with zest and animation. He may not wholly forsake the society of spiritual Christians—but he will not always shun the fool and the scorner. Books of 'taste' or 'fiction' will very much supersede the sound and solid treatises on piety, which once feasted his soul. The Bible does not refresh his spirit as once it did. His pious friends are often alarmed at his state, and weep over it in secret; yet he often thinks this is the usual way to glory. In this state he will often exhibit a painful degree of indifference to the honor of Christ. An apostasy which once would have cost him bitter tears, hardly awakens a transient pang. He may not grossly profane the name or the word of the Lord, but he is far less than formerly grieved at such sins in others. When he sees people sunk in sin, his spirit is not stirred within him. He is not grieved for the affliction of Joseph. He does not weep between the porch and the altar as he once did, crying, 'Spare your people, O Lord!' Nor does he rejoice as formerly in hearing of the spread of truth, the conversion of sinners, the progress of the gospel. Once his soul was inflamed with love, and leaped for joy, when he heard of the revival of religion. Jonathan Edwards says that when he first obtained settled peace of conscience, he felt irrepressible desires for the salvation of the world, and had peculiar delight in hearing of the progress of religion in any part of the earth. This is common Christian experience. A lively Christian unites with angels in rejoicing over even one sinner who repents. But the backslider has little interest in such events.

It is doubtful whether he loves himself or his Savior the most. It grieves him more to hear himself reviled—than to hear his Savior blasphemed. It rejoices him more to hear himself praised—than to hear his Savior commended. Such things render it doubtful whether he ever knew the Lord—whether he ever was born again. And it is a bad sign if these things do not shake his confidence in his own conversion. These things lead to a great diminution of solid religious comfort. He has few songs of holy joy. His heart is too cold to relish religious duties. He looks on the past with no real pleasure. It reminds him of time wasted, of vows broken, of opportunities lost, of comforts decayed, of mercies slighted. Of the future he is much afraid. He remembers God—and is troubled. He is afraid of evil tidings. He is expecting some sore chastisement. His old besetting sins revive with great power. Levity takes the place of seriousness; fretfulness expels gentleness. Ambition begins to burn in the bosom—where formerly dwelt humility, lowliness and contentment. Covetousness resumes her iron despotism; or extravagance breaks out afresh. The heavenly racer takes up one by one the weights which he had formerly laid aside. He runs, but as uncertainly; he fights, but with great feebleness.

Those who have thus departed from God, are left to see what they can do alone. God permits them to try their own power and resources. Of such the Comforter says, "I will go and return to my place, until they acknowledge their offence and seek my face; in their affliction they will seek me early." Hos. 5:15. Samson is now shorn of the locks of his strength. It will be well if he be not forced to make amusement for the Philistines.

How long one may remain in this state none can tell. To escape from such error and sinfulness is no easy thing. It pleased God at once to restore Peter after he had denied his Lord. But it seems to have been months before David shed for his crimes the tears of true repentance. It is no easy matter to escape from the snare of the devil, when we have once been led captive by him at his will.

Yet to all God's people, his promise stands sure: "I will heal their backsliding." Hosea 14:4. In fulfilling his promise, God will choose his own time. He heals when and how he pleases. None can hasten, none can retard his work. The good Shepherd restores the soul of his servants, and does not leave them to perish in their errors. He commonly begins the healing process by convincing the soul of its sad departures from him. This is done by calling the mind to reflection on its own evil doings. Sometimes God sends 'Nathan the prophet' with a pointed message, charging home guilt upon the transgressor. Sometimes he employs 'affliction' to humble the soul. "In their affliction they will seek me early." God is not confined to any class of means to restore his backsliding people. The crowing of the rooster brought home to Peter Christ's words of warning, with as much power as any truth that ever reached a man's heart. God sometimes uses the derision and persecution of the wicked to awaken his people out of sleep. The word of God is, to such, quick and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword. The Spirit reproves. He convinces of sin; he reveals the baseness of the heart; he makes one see his folly and ingratitude in departing from the living God.

Now is fulfilled that scripture: "The backslider in heart shall be filled with his own ways." Prov. 14:14. He forsook God, the fountain of living waters. This was his first error. The second was like unto it: he hewed out to himself broken cisterns—which could hold no water. God may now let loose his corruptions upon him, or send a messenger of Satan to buffet him. He is afflicted; he is tossed with tempest, and not comforted. He is so "ashamed that he cannot look up." He is convinced that he deserves rejection. God often seems to fulfill the threatening: "I will attack them like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will rip open their chests. I will devour them there like a lion, like a wild animal would tear them apart." Hos. 13:8. Instead of comforting, God now speaks words of terror. The afflicted soul says, "Oh that I knew where I might find him! that I might come even to his seat! I would order my cause before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. Behold, I go forward, but he is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive him: on the left hand, where he does work, but I cannot behold him: he hides himself on the right hand, that I cannot see him." Job 23:3, 4, 8, 9.

Sometimes despairing thoughts enter his mind, and he cries, Why has my pain become unending, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? You truly have become like a mirage to me—water that is not reliable." Jer. 15:18. Sometimes he cannot see anything good implanted in his heart by God's Spirit. He almost concludes that no real child of God would be left to fall so low as he has done. The promises do not comfort him, though the threatenings often terrify him. He feels the force and justice of the charge God brings against him: "Have you not procured this unto yourself—in that you have forsaken the Lord your God? Your own wickedness shall correct you, and your backslidings shall reprove you! Know therefore and see that it is an evil and bitter thing—that you have forsaken the Lord your God, and that my fear is not in you." Jer. 2:17, 19. He now has continual sorrow. He drinks wormwood and gall. His conscience makes his soul like the troubled sea. None can tell his griefs. "The heart knows its own bitterness."

It is said by some that David seems never to have fully recovered his joyousness after his backsliding. However this may be, we know how the arrows of the Almighty stuck fast in him, and his waves and his billows passed over him. The pangs of a backslider's recovery often exceed those of a first conversion. Such views lead one to a hearty confession of sin. "I acknowledge my transgression, and my sin is ever before me." Psalm 51:3. This confession may be minute and particular. It will go back and deplore original sin. Psalm 51:5. It will humble itself for sins committed before conversion: "Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions." Psalm 25:7. But sins committed since a profession of piety, justly seem to call for deep abasement. They are against vows and promises, illumination and ordinances—against all that is solemn in the public profession of Christ. The fountains of the great deep are broken up. Witnesses of one's sinfulness arise on all hands. The stone out of the wall cries, and the beam out of the timber answers it. Thus his confession is not vague and general, but definite and particular.

He sees good cause in many a misdeed why God should contend against him. Sins against man are not forgotten; but sins against God are fearfully multiplied and aggravated. Sometimes it seems as if the soul was made to see all the evil that ever it did, and then it cries, "I am undone!" "O wretched man that I am!" "God be merciful to me a sinner!" "Enter not into judgment with your servant; for in your sight shall no man living be justified." "If you, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?" "I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes!"

Sometimes a soul thus convicted is so troubled and restless, that he rages like a wild bull in the net. And now his bones wax old through his roaring all the day long. It is a great thing to have the heart subdued, and the soul made like a weaned child. When the soul is thus humbled, quiet, and submissive, when proud looks are brought down, and proud thoughts abased—then God grants a spirit of true believing prayer and of strong crying. He says, "Take words of repentance with you and return to the Lord. Say to Him—Forgive all our sin and accept what is good, so that we may repay You with praise from our lips." Hos. 14:2. This spirit of prayer is sure to be followed by tokens for good. This itself, is a blessed fruit of Christ's mediation. He who asks receives.

And now the Lord appears. As the spouse found it good to be of a quiet, patient spirit, so does the soul; for the next thing is, "The voice of my Beloved! behold, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, and skipping upon the hills." Song 2:7. He "comes out of the wilderness like pillars of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense." Song 3:6. When, in the fullness of his love and kindness and power and condescension and faithfulness, Christ makes his appearance and shows himself gracious to the repentant soul—there is a wonderful change. He comes both gently and seasonably. "His going forth is prepared as the morning." Hos. 6:3. He bids the soul take courage. He forgives all its sins, casting them behind his back. He gives a check to corruption. He causes the tempter to depart. He pours light into the mind. He hushes the tumultuous waves of human passion. He quiets the troubles of the soul. He says, "Peace, be still!" and suddenly there is a great calm. Thus Jesus is "a horn of salvation for us, in the house of his servant David. That we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us. That we, being delivered out of the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life." Thus he "gives knowledge of salvation unto his people, by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the day-spring from on high has visited us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace." Luke 1.

To a soul thus exercised, Christ in all his offices is precious. Its language is, "Whom have I in heaven but you? and there is none upon earth that I desire besides you." "Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it; if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would be utterly despised." Song 8:6, 7.

In such a soul, the purposes of obedience are humble, but firm. Faith gains many an important victory. Penitence loves to shed her secret tears. Hope looks up, and says—I shall soon be forever with the Lord. The spirit of adoption says—That majestic God, who shakes the heavens with his voice, is my kind and merciful Father. Aversion to sin is now strong. The soul says, "What shall I render into the Lord for all his benefits to me?" Gratitude is ready to make any offering; it withholds nothing.

In one thus dealt with by the Lord are strikingly fulfilled these passages of Scripture: "I waited patiently for the Lord, and He turned to me and heard my cry for help. He brought me up from a desolate pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet on a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord." Psalm 40:1-3. Nor is the following language of the psalmist less applicable to his case: "I love the Lord because He has heard my appeal for mercy. Because He has turned His ear to me, I will call out to Him as long as I live. The ropes of death were wrapped around me, and the torments of Hell overcame me; I encountered trouble and sorrow. Then I called on the name of the Lord: "Lord, save me!" The Lord is gracious and righteous; our God is compassionate. The Lord guards the inexperienced; I was helpless, and He saved me. Return to your rest, my soul, for the Lord has been good to you. For You, Lord, rescued me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling. I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living." Psalm 116:1-9.

Thus experience teaches the sense and sweetness of many a passage of Scripture formerly read without understanding. Indeed it is not uncommon for those thus recovered to think that this is their first conversion, and that never before did they know in their souls the joy of God's salvation. The change is great. The grace is great. When God thus heals backsliders, he kindly adds these blessings: "I will love them freely; for my anger is turned away from him. I will be as the dew unto Israel." That is, I will send daily gentle, refreshing influences upon him. "I will heal their apostasy; I will freely love them, for My anger will have turned from him. I will be like the dew to Israel; he will blossom like the lily and take root like the cedars of Lebanon. His new branches will spread, and his splendor will be like the olive tree, his fragrance, like the forest of Lebanon. The people will return and live beneath his shade. They will grow grain and blossom like the vine. His renown will be like the wine of Lebanon. It is I who answer and watch over them. I am like a flourishing pine tree; your fruit comes from Me." Hos. 14:4-8.

All the figures in this passage may not be intelligible to some; but plain honest minds will not doubt that here are promised rich supplies of free grace, securing pardon of sin, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, deep-rooted vigor, increase of grace and of fruitfulness, usefulness to those under his influence, a sweet savor of piety at all times, together with an utter renunciation of idols and of self-dependence.

And now are you a backslider? Are you cold, formal, or negligent in the secret duties of piety? Do you feel the uneasiness of guilt? Are you "afraid of evil tidings?" Do you live in constant apprehension of sore calamities? Are ordinances unprofitable to you? Are you in the constant exercise of charity, or do you indulge in a censorious spirit? Are you vain, light, trifling? Do you prefer the society of the devout? What books do you select? Are you alive to the honor of Christ? Do you enjoy piety? Let these solemn questions be asked frequently and answered honestly, as you shall give account to God. If you have evidence that you are not a backslider, then give God the glory, and "be not high-minded, but fear."

Nothing but amazing grace could have preserved you from the snare of the fowler. But if you find that the evidence shows you to be in a state of declension, then open your eyes to your real condition, judge yourself, confess your sins, and cleave to God. Hear the kind call: "Come, and let us return unto the Lord." Hos. 6:1. If you should not return and be healed, and if you should be called to die, how sad would be your departure out of this world. Your sun would go down behind a cloud, leaving others in doubt whether it was not gone down in eternal night. And if your sanctification shall not advance faster than it has done since you first believed in Christ, how long will it be before you are prepared for glory? At your present rate of growth in grace—would you be fit for heaven in a thousand years? And yet there is no one of us who shall live a thousand months. Many will not live a thousand weeks—yes, not a thousand days. Possibly some will not live a thousand seconds. Indifference to eternal things in so critical circumstances, is wholly irreconcilable with wisdom.