The Nature of Vital Piety

by Archibald Alexander

True religion not only enlightens the understanding, but rectifies the affections of the heart. All genuine feelings of piety are the effects of divine truth. The variety and intensity of these feelings depend on the different kinds of truth and the various aspects in which the same truth is viewed, and also on the distinctness and clearness with which it is presented to the mind. In a state of moral perfection, truth would uniformly produce all those emotions and affections which correspond with its nature, without the aid of any superadded influence. It is a strong evidence of human depravity that these effects are not experienced by all who have the opportunity of knowing the truth. In a state of moral depravity, the mind is incapable alike of perceiving and feeling the beauty and excellence of divine truth. The dead neither see nor feel, and man is by nature “dead in trespasses and sins”.

Hence the necessity of the agency of the Holy Spirit to illuminate and regenerate the mind. The nature of divine agency, in every case, is not understandable by mortals. “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, or whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” We know, however, that the work of the Spirit in the regeneration of the heart is adapted to the rational nature of man. The thing to be accomplished is not the creation of some new faculty; it is a moral renewing; and all moral changes must be effected by understanding and choice.

To put the soul therefore in that state in which it will rightly understand the truth and cordially choose the highest good, is the end of regeneration. Truth therefore must be the means by which actual conversion to God takes place. “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.” “Of His own will begat he us with the word of truth.” “Sanctify them through Thy truth, Thy word is truth.” Although piety in the heart is the effect of a divine operation, yet all its exercises take place agreeably to the common laws of our rational nature. The understanding is enlightened, the judgement is convinced, motives operate on the will, and conscience approves or disapproves. That the soul, in the exercises of piety, is under the renewing influences of the Holy Spirit, is not known by any consciousness which it has of these divine operations, but by the effects produced in a change of views and feelings. And this change is ascribed to God, because no other is able to produce it; and His Word assures us that He is its author.

Now, as all men are given mental powers of the same kind, and as all Christians contemplate the same fundamental truths, the work of grace in the hearts of all must be substantially the same. By the knowledge of the law all have been convinced of sin – have been made to feel sorrow, shame and guilt, upon the recollection of their transgressions. They have been brought to submit to the justice of the sentence of condemnation, which the law denounces against them. All have been made sensible of their own inability to save themselves and, under the influence of these humbling and penitent feelings, have been led to seek refuge in Jesus Christ as the only hope of their souls. This plan of salvation appears glorious and suitable to all believers, so that they not only assent to it as the only method of salvation, but they are so well pleased with it that they would not have another if they could. And, in the acquaintance of Christ as a complete Saviour, there is, in every case, some experience of joy and peace.

Connected with the views which the true believer has of Christ as a Saviour, there is also a discovery, more or less clear, of the glory of the divine attributes, especially of those which are especially manifested in the cross of Christ. Holiness, justice, mercy and truth shine, in the view of the sincere convert, with a lustre surpassing all other excellence, and God is respected and loved for His own glorious excellence, as well as for the rich benefits bestowed upon us.

But although these views may be distinguished, yet in experience they are not separated. The brightest discovery of divine excellence ever made, is God’s love to our miserable race. The law of God is also viewed to be holy, just and good by every regenerated soul. The unrenewed heart never is, and never can be, reconciled to the law; “it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be”. But the “new man” delights in the law of God, and would not have one precept of it altered; and, while it condemns all his feelings and works as imperfect, he approves of it still, and blames himself for his want of conformity to a rule so perfect.

Another thing in which the experience of all Christians is uniform, is that they all are brought to a deliberate purpose to be on the Lord’s side. On this point there is no hesitancy. Many are affected, and much agitated with religious impressions, and yet never come to a full submission to follow God and His service. They halt between two opinions, and have a divided mind. Such persons, however lively their feelings, are not yet truly converted; all true converts, after counting the cost, have settled this point for ever. And they can say with the Psalmist, “My heart is fixed, O God, my heart is fixed”. They are, therefore, prepared now to comply with the terms of discipleship laid down by Christ Himself. They are willing to deny themselves, to take up their cross, and follow Him; to forsake father and mother, wife and children, houses and lands, yea also their own lives, for the sake of Him who gave Himself for them.

Out of such views and feelings as have been described, arises an ardent hungering and thirsting after righteousness, an intense desire to know more of God and to be admitted into closer union and more intimate communion with Him. These habitual desires of the renewed soul, find their proper expression in prayer, and lead to a patient and earnest waiting upon God in all the ordinances and means of His appointment. True piety, however, does not stop in mere desires or in attendance on religious duties; it seeks to glorify God by action. The earnest inquiry of every soul inspired with the love of God is, “Lord, what wouldst Thou have me to do?” And wherever there is piety towards God, there will exist benevolence towards men.

One of the keenest emotions of the young convert is “goodwill to men”; a sincere desire for the welfare and eternal salvation of all, not even excepting his most deep-rooted enemies. And towards the children of God, there springs up a strong and tender affection. Such seem to be brethren indeed, because they are the brethren of Christ, and bear something of His image, in the humility, meekness, and benevolence of their character. In short, genuine piety disposes and determines all who are its subjects to obey and respect all the commandments of God and to hate and avoid all sin, according to that declaration of David, “I esteem all Thy precepts concerning all things to be right; and I hate every false way.”

In all the above-mentioned essential characteristics of piety, there is a perfect sameness in the exercises of all true Christians. The same impression has been made on every renewed heart, and the only difference is that it is imprinted more deeply on some than on others. But still the characters are identical, and therefore the evidences of a work of grace contained in the Holy Scriptures are equally applicable to all persons who have been brought from darkness to light.

There often is, moreover, a striking resemblance in those accompanying exercises and circumstances, which are not essential. Awakened sinners are liable to the same erroneous conceptions, and usually fall into the same mistakes. They are all prone to think that by reforming their lives they can restore themselves to the favour of God. They commonly apply to the works of the law for relief in the first instance and, when driven from this false refuge by a clearer view of the spirituality and extent of the law and the depth of their own depravity, they are apt to give up all for lost, and seriously to conclude that there is no hope in their case. They are all prone to misunderstand the nature of the gospel: of its freeness they can at first form no conception, and therefore they think it necessary to come with some price in their hands – to obtain some kind of preparation or fitness before they venture to come to Christ. And, when it is clear that no moral fitness can be obtained until they apply to Him, this legal spirit will lead the soul under conviction to think that very deep and sharp distress will recommend it to Christ. And thus many are found seeking and praying for a more deep and alarming impression of their sin and danger.

It is also very common to place undue dependence on particular means, especially on such as have been much blessed to others. Anxious souls are prone to think that in reading some particular book, or in hearing some successful preacher, they will receive the grace of God which bringeth salvation, in which expectation they are always disappointed and are brought at last to feel that they are entirely dependent on sovereign grace, and that they can do nothing to obtain that grace. Before, they were like a drowning man catching at every thing which seemed to promise support, but now they are like a man who feels that he has no support, but is actually sinking. Their cry, therefore, is now truly a cry for mercy: “God be merciful to me a sinner! Lord save, I perish!” And it has often been said, “Man’s distress is God’s opportunity”, which is commonly experienced by the soul cut off from all dependence on itself – the arm of the Lord is stretched forth to preserve it from sinking; the Saviour’s voice of love and mercy is heard; light breaks in upon the soul, and it finds itself embraced in the arms of the Saviour. And so wonderful is the change, that it can scarcely trust to its own experience.

This similarity of feelings in the experience of the pious has often been observed, and has been justly considered a strong evidence of the divine origin of experimental religion; for how otherwise can this uniformity of the views and feelings of the pious, in all ages and countries, be accounted for? Excitement assumes a thousand different shapes and is marked by no uniform characteristics; but scriptural piety is the same now as in the days of David and Asaph, the same as when Paul lived, the same as experienced by the pious fathers of the Christian Church, the same as described by the Reformers, by the Puritans and by the evangelical preachers and writers of the present day.

When the gospel takes effect on any of the heathen, although it is certain that they never had the opportunity of learning anything of this kind from others, yet we find them expressing the same feelings which are common to other Christians. Persons from different quarters of the globe, whose native tongue is entirely different, yet speak the same language in religion.

The late eminently pious and learned theologian, the Rev Dr Livingston, related to me, not many years before his decease, a pleasant story which will serve to illustrate the point under consideration, and which I communicate to the public the more willingly because I do not know that he has left any record of it behind him. While a student at the University of Utrecht, a number of pious persons, from the town and from among the students, were accustomed to meet for free conversation on experimental religion and for prayer and praise in a social capacity. On one of these occasions, when the similarity of the exercises of the pious, in all countries and ages, was the subject of conversation, it was remarked by one of the company that there was then present a representative from each of the four quarters of the world. These were Dr Livingston from America, a young man from the Cape of Good Hope in Africa, another student from one of the Dutch possessions in the East Indies, and many natives of Europe of course. It was therefore proposed that, at the next meeting, the three young gentlemen first referred to, together with an eminently pious young nobleman of Holland, should each give a particular narrative of the rise and progress of the work of grace in his own soul.

The proposal was universally acceptable, and accordingly a narrative was heard from a native of each of the four quarters of the globe – of their views and feelings, of their trials and temptations etc. The result was highly gratifying to all present, and I think Dr Livingston said that it was generally admitted by those present that they had never before witnessed so interesting a scene. And, since I have taken the liberty of mentioning the name of that distinguished theologian, I beg leave to add that I have never seen a man who appeared to love vital piety more, or to understand its nature better.

But the identity of religious feeling which has been described above is consistent with a great variety in many of the accompanying circumstances. Indeed, it seems probable that each individual Christian has something distinctly characteristic in his own case, so that there exists at least as much difference in the peculiar features of the inner as of the outward man. The causes of these differences are manifold. As first, the different degrees of grace received in the commencement of the divine life; secondly, the extent to which they have respectively run in sin, and the suddenness, or gradual nature, of their change; thirdly, the degree of religious knowledge which is possessed; and finally, no small diversity arises from the various constitutional temperaments of different persons, which must have a powerful effect in giving complexion to the exercises of religion. To all which may be added the manner in which persons under religious impressions are treated by their spiritual guides, and especially the manner in which the gospel is preached to them.

It has been remarked by men of exact observation that particular revivals of religion are often marked by something peculiar in the exercises and in the spirit of those who are the subjects of them. In some revivals, convictions are more sharp and awful, or continued for a longer time, than in others; and the converts, in some revivals, appear to acquire a much deeper and more abiding impression of the reality and glory of divine things, and are evidently more under the constraining influence of the love of Christ, than is observable in other cases. These are subjects which deserve a careful investigation, and as revivals are increasing in frequency and extent in our churches, and as different modes of conducting them are in use, it is highly important that some man of deep experience and sober, impartial judgement should make observations extensively, and communicate them to the religious public, which is, in many places, perplexed and distracted with the different methods of treatment recommended by different persons and different parties.

It may, however, be laid down as a sound rule that, in proportion as the truth of God is clearly brought to view and faithfully applied to the heart and conscience, the good effects will be manifest. Erroneous opinions, although mingled with the essential truths of the gospel, will ever tend to mar the work of God. The good produced on any individual, or on a society, must not be judged of by the violence of the feelings excited, but by their character. Men may be consumed by a fiery zeal, and yet exhibit little of the meekness, humility, and sweet benevolence of Jesus. Great pretenders and high professors may be proud, arrogant, and critical. When these are the effects, we may, without fear, declare, that they “know not what manner of spirit [they] are of”. Any religion, however corrupt, may have its zealots; but true Christianity consists in the fruits of the Spirit, which are “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance”.

Piety seems also to assume an aspect somewhat different in different ages and periods of the church. There is in human nature a strong tendency to run to extremes, and from one extreme immediately to the opposite. And as the imperfections of our nature mingle with everything which we touch, so piety itself is not exempt from the influence of the tendency above mentioned. In one age, or in one religious community, the leaning is to enthusiasm; in another, to superstition. At one time, religion is made to assume a severe and gloomy aspect; the conscience is gloomy and things indifferent are viewed as sins; and human infirmities are magnified into crimes. At such times, all cheerfulness is proscribed; and the Christian whom nature prompts to smile, feels a check from the conscience within. This value of genuine piety is also often connected with an unreasonable attitude. Now, when true religion is disfigured by such defects, it appears before the world to great disadvantage. Men of the world form their opinions of the nature of piety from what they observe in its professors, and from such an exhibition of it as we have described they often take up prejudices which are never removed.

There is, however, an opposite extreme, not less dangerous and injurious than this, when professors of religion conform to the world so far that no clear distinction can be observed between the Christian and the worldling. If the former error drives men away from religion as a sour and miserable thing, this leads them to the opinion that Christians are activated by the same principles as they are, and therefore they conclude that no great change of their character is necessary. It is sometimes alleged, by professors of religion, who thus accommodate themselves to the fashions and amusements of the world, that they hope by this means to render religion attractive and thus gain over to piety those who neglect it; but this is a weak pretext, for such conformity always tends to confirm people in their carelessness. When they see such professors at the theatre, or figuring in the ball-room, their conclusion either is, that there is no reality in vital piety, or that these professors act inconsistently.

The religious habits of some serious professors of religion are apt to make a very unfavourable impression on the minds of sensible men. They assume a false piety and speak in an affected and drawling tone, often sighing and giving audible utterance to their own emotions. Now these persons may be and, I doubt not, often are, truly pious; but the impression made on most minds, by this affectation of religious solemnity, is that they are hypocrites who aim at being thought uncommonly devout. It appears to me that religion never appears so lovely as when she wears the dress of perfect simplicity. We ought not, indeed, to be ashamed of our religion before the world, but it obliges us to be very careful not to give to others an unfavourable opinion of serious piety. The rule is, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven”. “Let not your good be evil spoken of.”

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