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
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
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
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
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.