How God’s People May Make Great Attainments
William S. Plumer
From Plumer’s Earnest Hours (1869). Plumer was born in Pennsylvania in 1802, and was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Richmond, Virginia, for twelve years, being elected moderator of the first Old School General Assembly in 1838. He served the Franklin Street Presbyterian Church, in Baltimore, Maryland, for seven years, and afterwards taught at Western Theological Seminary, Allegheny, Pennsylvania, and then at Columbia Seminary, South Carolina, dying in 1880.
Professors of religion may be divided into three classes. First, there are those of whom charity dares not hope that they are passed from death unto life. They are carnal, careless, covetous. They are manifestly just such as they were before they joined the church. In them no change of life appears to prove a change of heart. They are much like their other worldly neighbors, except that they go to the Lord’s table. They add no strength to the cause of truth. They are spots in Christian feasts. They are a grief and a shame to godly people. The church has their names, but the world has their hearts. The number of such is painfully large.
A second class consists of those, who sometimes seem quite changed. Once in a while their faith and love and zeal appear to be unfeigned, and their humility profound. But their course is not uniform. At times they are like sky-rockets for brilliancy; but soon they lose their effulgence, and all you find left is a dirty stick. They have great defects and area also guilty of some excesses. The best Christians have not confidence in them, not because they love to indulge suspicion, but because they cannot help it. Paul said to some: “I stand in doubt of you.” (Gal. 4:26) It is a sad thing when the conduct of professors of piety keeps their brethren in a state of alternate fear and hope, distrust and confidence. If they either fully and heartily condemn or confide in such, they fear that they are doing wrong. This class of church members at one time seems to be quite under the power of evil, and then quite penitent. There is perhaps not much very decidedly against them, but there is nothing very decidedly in their favor. They are always falling and yet seeming to recover themselves. They sin and seem to repent, and yet seem not to have thoroughly repented, for they soon sin again. Their number is considerable. Some, perhaps more of them than is generally hoped for, will be saved; but many of them will no doubt perish. Those of them, who shall reach heaven, will be saved as by fire. They will suffer great loss too, for their works shall be generally burnt up, because they are wood, hay, and stubble. What a blessing it is that the Lord knoweth them that are his, and can find a grain of wheat in a bushel of chaff. Those of them, who are not saved, will perish very fearfully, for they had many convictions, made many vows, lived in the enjoyment of privileges, and yet all to no purpose.
The third class of professors consists of those, whose profession is attended by fervent love, deep humility, Christian firmness, a well-tempered zeal, attachment to the whole law of God, and a habitual renunciation of the world as a portion. Such have trials, days of darkness, and doubts, which lead them to cry mightily to God. At times perhaps they suffer even keen anguish. But no charitable person, who knows them, seriously doubts where their hearts are. They do not turn back — they do not look back. They are reliable people. They maintain regular secret devotion, and consequently they exhibit a devout temper in society. Their brethren trust them, and are never disappointed. In their presence even wicked men feel “how awful goodness is,” and often cease to lay snares for them, for they see that their minds are made up. They lose little time in debating idle questions. They do not by a doubtful course of life create distressing questions of casuistry. Their rule is to keep themselves as far as possible from all sin. They seldom dally with temptation. If they are overcome, it is only to rise with new strength after every fall. There is a sweet savor of piety about them. Their manners are perhaps very various, some being polished and bland, or affable and free; others being awkward and uncouth, or quiet and retiring. But they uniformly show a tenderness of conscience, an uprightness of intention, a zeal for God and a love to his people, which cannot be mistaken. They use the world as not abusing it. They live not after the flesh. They live unto God and they will die unto God. They do not overact their part. They are zealous, but not officious, prudent but not cowardly, decided but not obstinate. They greatly love the truth. It is their food. They hate every false way and all lying words. But they do not make a man an offender for a word. They are modest but not mean. They are often cast down but not in despair. Their humility, like the ample folds of a large cloak, covers even their good works from the gaze of many, and especially from their own eyes. They say but little to their own praise, because they do not think well of themselves. They put themselves among the least of all saints, yea among the chief of sinners. With pleasure they acknowledge the gifts and graces of their brethren. They often feel reproved by what they esteem the superior attainments of others. They never think themselves eminent Christians. They forget the things that are behind and press forward to learn and to do more and better than ever before. They hate and resist vain thoughts. They are ashamed of their many failures. They grow. They first cast their roots downwards, then they bear fruit upwards. They not only begin but they continue to live by the doctrine of salvation by grace alone. Their fruit remaineth in them because they abide in Christ. He is their life and all their salvation. They glory in his cross. They glory in nothing else. Having begun in the Spirit they end in the Spirit also.
They may not be able to reason with subtle errorists, but neither are they led astray by them. They know that all doctrine which puffs up the carnal mind, which gives low views of sin, which detracts from the glory of Christ, which gives iniquity an advantage over us, must be unsound. They, therefore, wisely eschew it. They have learned the difference between truth and error chiefly, perhaps, by means of that spiritual discernment, taste, and experience, of which they are possessed. Though they may not be skillful in argument, they are wise unto salvation. As the children of wisdom, they always justify her. Every one of them is at heart a martyr, and, under a fair trial, would be found unto praise and honor and glory. Through education, or church relations, they may have imbibed some narrow views, but they are not at heart bigots. And it is delightful to see their pure love like a flowing stream, rising above all obstructions, and pouring forth its warm sympathies on all who love the Lord Jesus Christ, whatever be their name or nation, color or condition.
The prosperity of Christ’s kingdom lies near their hearts. They are often filled with sadness at the abounding of sin; but they rejoice at the progress of truth and righteousness. The state of the unconverted and perishing millions of men deeply affects them. The low state of piety in the church makes them mourn and weep and pray. Yet the joy of the Lord is their strength. They rejoice in tribulation. They are useful and pray and study to be more and more so. Their example is a sermon which no man can answer. By well-doing they put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. They are not aware of half the good they are doing.
As they advance in life a delightful mellowness of character is more and more perceptible. They may seem to shrink away from the public gaze and from public duties, but it is not because they are soured with the world, nor because they have any haughty or embittered feelings. They have learned in honor to prefer one another. They love to be alone with God. Their meditation of him is sweet. They think of him in the night watches. They rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for him.
Some such eminent servants of God finish their course early in life. Their sun rises and shines in his strength, but goes down before it is noon. What a blessing such persons are! Those who know and love them cherish their memories with extreme tenderness. Their removal from earth is one of the things which makes good men willing to be absent from the body and present with the Lord.
Others live longer and die at a time when we would expect them to be most useful. Such were Halyburton, and Brainerd, and Martyn, and Payson, and Nevins, and thousands whose record is on high. Their death makes sad all their pious friends; but it is hallowed. Had they lived longer, many might have leaned on them, or the church might have felt less her need of ascension gifts from Christ her Lord. Their work was done, and the Master called them to fill a higher sphere of usefulness, and honor, and felicity. And when he called them, good men both wept and rejoiced.
Some of the eminently pious are spared to old age. Then, like shocks of corn fully ripe, they are gathered into the garner of the Lord. Their last days are to the body full of pain and weakness, but to the soul full of peace. Their hoary head is a crown of glory, because it is found in the way of righteousness. No man can read the memoirs of John Newton, Thomas Scott, John Brown of Haddington, and many others, without seeing something desirable in the heritage of the saints even in old age. Balaam said: “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his.”
All of this class of persons enjoy religion. It is their meat and drink. They have bread to eat which the world knows not of. The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him, and he shows them his covenant. He is their portion. They are not driven out of the world, but willingly leave it. “They rest from their labors, and their works do follow them.” No sorrowing friend is sunk to the earth for fear that they are not saved. In the next world they shine as the stars forever and ever.
The well-spring and fountain of all these attainments must be sought in God, and in God alone. He says: “From me is thy fruit found.” “God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that ye, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work.” And God is a Sovereign, dividing his gifts severally as he will. His grace is as free and unmerited as it is great and glorious.
Yet God commonly makes his grace abound the most where his people most diligently use the proper means. Spiritual sloth is worse than natural. We must be up and doing. Words are cheap. We have in the church “many walking and talking skeletons.” They are not fat and flourishing. They are sometimes loud and noisy professors, yet none but themselves think well of their case. They may talk of zeal and love, yet they never are much. But others are like cedars in Lebanon. They are strong men in Christ Jesus. They are pillars in the church. How did they become so? The answer is, God made all grace abound to them, and so they abound to every good work. But how was his abundant grace bestowed on them? This is a grave question, and deserves a grave answer. No man has ever become eminent for piety but in the humble use of proper means. The Holy Spirit is the sole efficient cause of holiness. We may use all the means and be no better, unless he bless them to us. But then he always sends a rich blessing on all who rightly wait upon the Lord in the ways of his appointment.
It has been said that some Christians, as some infants, are born with much more vigor, and seem to grow much more rapidly than others at the first. This is true. But did you never see such after a while become sickly? And have you not seen those, who seemed feeble at first, become strong and mighty? A healthy child may be so injured by the treatment it receives as never to make a strong man. The proper means must be used, and the divine blessing secured on those means. What then must be done?
1. It is essential to the Christian’s improvement that he maintain tenderness of conscience. A scrupulous conscience is like a diseased eye, which weeps at the light or at nothing. But a tender conscience is like a sound eye, which weeps when a mote is in it. It is called in Scripture “a conscience void of offence towards God and man.” We have many pleasing examples of such a conscience. Take one. In the midst of battle David became weary and thirsty. In that hour he thought, as men are apt to do, of the water which he drank in his childhood and youth. And he said: “O that one would give me to drink of the water of the well of Bethlehem!” And three mighty men broke through the enemy’s line, and drew water out of the well, and brought it to David; nevertheless he would not drink thereof, but poured it out unto the Lord. And he said: “Be it far from me, O Lord, that I should do this: is not this the blood of the men that went in jeopardy of their lives? Therefore he would not drink it.” This was indeed a tender conscience. He knew that it was lawful to drink water. He knew that it would please his faithful men for him to drink this water. But then it had cost too much. It had been procured at the hazard of life. So he made it a thank-offering to God, who had mercifully, and, perhaps, miraculously preserved alive those intrepid men who had periled their lives for the comfort of their commander. Go thou and do likewise. Keep a tender conscience at all costs and at all hazards. Put not wicked gains into your pocket, nor lay them up for your children. In the end they will bring a curse on all concerned. Give no quarters to sin. Parley not with temptation. Touch not, taste not, handle not any evil thing, any doubtful thing. Defile not your soul with courses, the right of which you even suspect. It is extremely perilous to do so.
2. Be a diligent student of God’s word, of God’s whole word. Despise no portion of it. Its promises encourage. Its threatenings warn. Its precepts direct. Its histories teach by example. Its songs cheer. Its doctrines edify. Its prophecies prove its divinity. Not only read but hear the word of God, as it is the word of God. Beware of that bane of profitable hearing, a critical spirit. A display of your critical powers may please your vanity, but will never bring you on your journey heavenward. Dr. Owen says of some: “They are ready to think and say, that the preaching and religious exercises which they had in former days were far to be preferred above what they now enjoy; and they despise the ministers of the present age in comparison of their fathers. But the change is in themselves. They have lost their spiritual appetite. Being grown full of themselves and conceited of their own abilities, they have not that taste and relish for the word which they had formerly; and this is both the cause and the evidence of the decay of all their other graces.” Anyone who has formed the habits of a severe, not to say capricious critic of preaching, is greatly to be pitied. Even faultless preaching would but strengthen such a habit. Beware of it. Earnestly cry to God for that faith which must be mixed with the word read or preached, that you may profit withal. “As new-born babes desire the sincere milk of the word that ye may grow thereby.” It is in this way that “the righteous shall flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar of Lebanon. Those that be planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God. They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing; to show that the Lord is upright; he is their rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.”
3. Would you attain eminence in piety? You must also be a companion of all them who fear the Lord, and especially of such as have knowledge and experience in religion superior to your own. “He that walketh with wise men shall be wise.” The presence of such is no mean preservative against sin and no feeble stimulant to good. It is a great thing to have before us the words and example of one who is a burning and shining light. Great men often appear in clusters, as in the days of Augustus, of Cromwell, of Queen Ann, and of George the Third. The same is true of pious men. Eminent goodness is seldom attained by one man alone. It needs a Peter to strengthen his brethren, a John to set a high example of love, a Paul to bring out in their connection the truths of Scripture, and these all taught from above, and giving us high examples of virtue. Many a man has been vastly benefited by spending even an hour with an eminent servant of Christ.
4. If you would attain eminent piety, study and labor to do good, as you have opportunity to all men. “He that watereth shall be watered.” The widow’s oil increased only so long as she continued pouring out. He whose world is himself must have both narrow views and contracted feelings. The very spirit of piety is benevolent. Our Savior went about doing good. Nor did he tire at his work. Even when wearied with his journey he sat at Jacob’s well, he would not fail to do good to the Samaritan woman. But beware of Jehu’s vanity, and of what is akin to it, an angry spirit. Be grieved, but not offended, if sinners will not turn to God. Be not bitter against them. You ought to bear with the wicked as long as God does. “Be patient toward all men.” Quarrel not with them. They will be glad to have their controversy with God brought down to a contest with you. If they revile you, do you bless them. Expect not to be useful, but at a cost of feeling, ease, or money. Try every way that is lawful and wise. Encourage and aid those who show any desire to flee from the wrath to come. Do all you can and in as private and modest a way as possible. Sow not sparingly. If men were but governed by an enlightened self-love, they would hardly be as penurious as they often are. “So quickly has the wheel turned round, that many a man has lived to enjoy the benefit of that charity which his own piety projected and consummated.” In the very exercise of benevolence there is a blessing which is worth far more than all it costs. The joy of doing good is one of the purest and most pleasing of all our affections. To do good from pure love is to be like God. But watch providence. To run uncalled and not to run when called are two things more nearly allied in temper and in guilt than is commonly supposed. Dr. Payson says: “What God calls a man to do, He will carry him through. I would undertake to govern half a dozen worlds if God called me to do it, but I would not undertake to govern half a dozen sheep unless God called me to it.” And keep in your own sphere. “As a bird that wandereth from her nest, so is a man that wandereth from his place.” When Nero entered the lists to write poetry in competition with Lucan he was ridiculous and his life was embittered. When Henry the Eighth undertook to confute Luther, he burnt his fingers, and the reforming monk laughed him to scorn. Let no man, in doing good, undertake what he cannot do well. The frogs may swell themselves till they burst, but they will never be oxen. And let not the oxen try to become little as frogs. It is no glory to a king, a senator, or a minister of Christ to excel in fiddling or in jesting. It is well to know what you can do, and what it befits you to do. When Cyrus of Persia and Jackson of America did the duties of a private soldier, it was to animate their troops by example. What is your proper place in the church of God, and in all labors of love? Find it out. Never leave it. Many a useful and honorable teacher of a Sabbath School loses all his influence by attempting to preach. Many souls may be won to Christ by an humble, laborious colporteur, who would be a burden to the church if he attempted some higher calling. “Earnestly covet the best gifts”; but give not your great work for something above you or beneath you. There should be a place for every church member, and every church member should be in his place.
5. If you would advance rapidly in divine attainments, you must be serious. Moroseness is a sin and melancholy is no friend to piety. But seriousness is essential to great success in any thing, and especially in religion. In the days of Elizabeth flourished that great statesman, Walsingham. In old age he retired into private life. Some, who relished merriment, visited him and rallied him on what they called his melancholy. He replied: “I am not melancholy; I am serious; and it is fit I should be so. Ah my friends, while we laugh, all things are serious about us. God is serious, who exerciseth patience towards us; Christ is serious, who shed his blood for us; the Holy Spirit is serious in striving against the obstinacy of our hearts; the Holy Scriptures bring to our ears the most serious things in the world; the holy sacraments represent to us the most serious and awful things; the whole creation is serious in serving God and us; all that are in heaven and hell are serious, and shall not I be serious too?” A mind soured with the world, though it may be more unamiable and tormenting, is hardly a greater enemy to piety than is levity.
6. When you have done all these things, and whatever else seems called for, cast yourself entirely and constantly upon the Almighty Father for strength; upon Jesus Christ for mercy, for atonement, for righteousness and for all-prevailing intercession; and upon the blessed Holy Spirit for illumination, guidance, purity and abundance of inwrought grace. Do this at all times, praying with all prayer. Whoever at any time has gone to heaven has climbed up thither on his knees. Nothing can be a substitute for a devotional spirit. Prayer is our vital breath. Without it we die.
Whoever doeth these things shall never fall, nor shall he be barren, nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. He shall make his calling and election sure; and so an entrance shall be ministered unto him abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.