Book Review ...

Vital Godliness: A Treatise on Experimental and Practical Piety by William S. Plumer

In keeping with their fondness for lists and steps, many Puritans came up with stages that unregenerate people go through in their journey to regeneration. Different writers came up with different names for stages, and some writers broke stages down into smaller parts, but all were essentially the same. All of them believed that these stages were necessary prior to regeneration, and all of them believed that the unbeliever could stop at a certain stage and never go forward again if he resisted the grace given to him, thus ensuring everlasting damnation. One of the most meticulous lists was presented by William Plumer in his popular book Vital Godliness: A Treatise on Experimental and Practical Piety. Although he lived after what is commonly considered the time of the Puritans, Plumer is considered to be of the Puritan ilk. The A Puritan's Mind web site says of this book, "This book belongs in the realm of the Puritans." Iain Murray of the Banner of Truth, the largest publisher of Puritan books, says this on the Banner of Truth web site: "Of all the Reformed writers in the 19th century, none was more doctrinally sound, experientially searching and practically realistic than William S. Plumer (1802-1880)."

Plumer devoted five of the book's twenty-five chapters to pre-conversion experience. This review will go over quotes from each pre-regeneration stage in Plumer's scheme. This will be a different kind of review, as the reviewer's comments will be among the quotes, italicized and in brackets, all in the form of questions. Please note that all these quotes are about unregenerate people.

"Early religious impressions - AWAKENING. The work of God for the recovery of the soul of man begins in what is fitly spoken of, as an awakening. [Where would this pre-regeneration awakening be "fitly spoken of" in Scripture?] ... The peculiar fitness of this mode of speaking arises from the fact that the stupor of a sinful state is aptly compared to sleep. [Some unregenerate people are not in "the stupor of a sinful state"?] That sleep is guilty. It is also profound. It is like the sleep of death, from which none awake but by the power of God. Indulged a little longer, it will prove fatal. There is a time when every subject of divine grace is awaked from spiritual lethargy. [Some unregenerate people are not spiritually asleep? They are "awaked" but do not believe?]

"He greatly marvels, and well he may, that his mind could so long be utterly dead to the things of salvation. [Some unregenerate people are not "utterly dead to the things of salvation"?] Although he may not yet be the subject of a saving change, yet the frame of his soul is very different from what it was. [Is this "different frame" something with which God is pleased?] Never before was he in such a state, for he has now fairly entered upon a course of PIOUS REFLECTION. The power of reflection is that which chiefly distinguishes a man from a brute; and the habit of reflection, more than anything else, distinguishes a wise man from a fool. [Now this unregenerate man is no longer a fool but is a wise man?] ... Yet where God has begun a work of grace in the soul, the mind will not fall into continued thoughtlessness. [Even though "God has begun a work of grace in the soul," this work can be stopped by the sinner?] God will employ suitable means to keep the attention awake."

"The conduct of the worldly profane is often held before the mind as a mirror, in which one sees reflected the wickedness of his own life. ... So that in the midst of company and lawful employments one often finds his thoughts eagerly turned to everlasting things. This is proof that God has not abandoned him to the power of all evil. [It is? So the unregenerate man's "thoughts eagerly turned to everlasting things" is not an abomination to God?] ... He will look at the past, think of the life he has led, recount God's mercies to him [mercy to the unregenerate?], review many parts of his conduct with pain, and say - 'If I had my life to live over again, I would not do as I have done. I am an unhappy man. My state is sinful. Possibly I may be near to a miserable death or an undone eternity. I cannot justify my present course of life. I am not fit to die. I am not holy. Sin is deeply rooted in my nature. Without a great change of character, I shall never be what I ought.' Looking at the future, he remembers that he must live forever, that before long death will summon him into the presence of his Maker, and that without a change in character and prospects, he must pass from the solemnities of his solitary interview with God to the retributions of an unblessed eternity." [The Holy Spirit causes the self-righteous legalistic thinking that a change of character is what is needed?]

"It will be well for him if Satan does not prevail on him at first quite to restrain prayer. A young man under serious impressions once retired to his room, locked his door, closed the shutters, and was about to pray, when he thought someone might see him through the keyhole. He went to cover that, when a band of music began to play outside his window. His attention was drawn off. He offered no prayer then. His seriousness left him. Let men be warned by such a case. Men must call upon God or perish. 'Let sinners learn to pray.' He who is effectually diverted from prayer, is hopelessly involved in guilt. ... Hence the necessity of fervent prayer." [Satan or man can thwart the "serious impressions" of the Holy Spirit so the man on whom the Holy Spirit worked will perish everlastingly? And what does God say about the prayer of the wicked in Proverbs 15:8,26; 28:9?]

"A kindly influence in his heart will urge him to flee from the wrath to come. He will feel that he cannot turn back. Nor can he stand still." [Is this unregenerate man no longer at enmity with God, no longer a God-hater?]

"Early religious impressions - INQUIRY. ... The truly anxious soul will cry to God for divine guidance: "Teach me your statutes; lead me in a plain path; let me not err from your ways; my Father, be my guide." [This is from an unregenerate sinner? Is this "cry to God" something that is pleasing to God or an abomination to God?] He will also search the Scriptures with a sincere desire to know their teachings. [What about Romans 3:11?] ... The chief ingredient of this inquiry, when it is likely to result in saving good, is its SINCERITY. ... There is no substitute for genuine sincerity. The lack of it spoils everything." [As long as this person is "sincere," the inquiry "is likely to result in saving good"? Sincerity is a prerequisite to regeneration, and the lack of sincerity "spoils everything"? All that initial "awakening" by the Holy Spirit has gone for naught?]

"True, hearty inquiry is soon followed by GOOD RESOLUTIONS. ... The usefulness of forming resolutions depends very much on the state of heart accompanying them. When made in a spirit of self-righteousness, or under a vain persuasion that we may thus commend ourselves to God, they are of no use. [Some unregenerate people can make good resolutions that are not in a spirit of self-righteousness? Are they pleasing to God?]

"But a soul, in its first drawings towards divine things, finds it easier to resolve than to execute. Its resolutions seem in great measure to fail. One washes himself in snow-water, but God plunges him in the ditch, and his own clothes abhor him. He finds that an external remedy will not cure an internal disease! Under the pointed preaching of the truth, his sins appear fearfully numerous and heinous. He loses the boasting spirit of self-exaltation which he once had." [The Holy Spirit causes him to try to execute these "good resolutions"? This unregenerate person has now lost "the boasting spirit of self-exaltation he once had," exchanging his total depravity for partial depravity? And prior to this stage, he was a Holy-Spirit enlightened self-righteous boaster?]

"By night, on his bed, he is restless and uncomfortable. His sleep is neither sound nor refreshing. Sometimes he is afraid to go to sleep, lest he should not awake in this world. He is troubled in visions of the night. And when he awakes, his heart is still heavy. The subjects of sin and salvation still press upon him and hold his attention. At night he wishes it were morning, and in the morning he wishes it were night. ... Day and night God's hand is heavy upon him. He forgets to take bread. His appetite fails him. His sleep is short and disturbed. God holds his eyes awake. At midnight he is sometimes heard sighing, or found weeping." [Crying, depression, lack of sleep or appetite is a mark of Holy Spirit conviction? Is this based on the Bible or on mystical, experiential, psychological nonsense?]

"If any asks what will be the result of all these thoughts and exercises, the answer is that they will either lead to peace with God - or to deeper guilt than ever before rested on the soul. These thoughts will either lead the soul to Christ - or they will leave it oppressed with unutterable criminality. He who thus feels will soon be a child of God - or twofold more the child of evil than ever. He will soon have a broken heart - or a heart fearfully hardened. ... Such influences as he is now under cannot be felt - and the soul remain unaffected. They will produce vast good - or exceeding evil. Nor can anything but great wickedness prevent a sound and speedy conversion to God." [This person who has lost the self-righteous spirit of boasting and self-exaltation and who has experienced awakening, pious reflection, fervent prayer, sincere inquiry, good resolutions, and conviction of sin - all of which are gracious, kindly influences of the Holy Spirit - could in the end just be a reprobate who resists God's grace? And since only "great wickedness" will "prevent a sound and speedy conversion to God," then those who end up being converted did not have "great wickedness" at this stage?]

"It is true of many, that when they can secure a title to God's favor, they will not; and when they wish to do it, they cannot, because they have misspent all their days of grace." [God has favor and grace on those who will end up in hell? What is this but ineffectual, resistible grace in which salvation is conditioned on the sinner?]

"FURTHER STRIVINGS OF THE SPIRIT. Some account has been given, of a soul beginning to shake off its guilty slumbers [Lessening of total depravity?], and to turn its thoughts to the unspeakable concerns of sin and duty, immortality and glory, salvation and perdition. One who has had the exercises of mind thus described is certainly under the teachings of the Holy Spirit. ["Certainly"? According to whom?] Yet he may have many such thoughts and emotions without knowing their origin or Author. In giving this history of the mind's operations and discoveries, it is proper to state that before this, a suspicion, if not a conviction, that God's Spirit is now at work in the heart, takes possession of the mind. Nor is this without foundation. The fact is, that none but the Holy Spirit could have brought about this great change of views and purposes. [Really? This "great change" that includes self-reflection, prayer to an unknown god, resolutions to do better, feeling bad for sin, all without regeneration or belief of the gospel, could only have been brought about by the Holy Spirit? Self-righteousness can only be brought about by the Holy Spirit? Does this "great change of views and purposes" mean that he is no longer a totally depraved, self-righteous God-hater who cannot know the truth because it is foolishness to him? And after this "great change" of a person who "is certainly under the teachings of the Holy Spirit," this changed person could still resist the Holy Spirit and go to hell?]

"Thus hope and fear alternate. [The Holy Spirit is a spirit of fear?] He is restless and unhappy. He deeply regrets that he did not long since become a Christian, when his heart was less depraved and his will less stubborn. [When is an unregenerate sinner's heart "less depraved"?] It cuts him to the heart to remember that all this sorrow over time misspent and opportunities lost, is unavailing. He fears lest his present call should pass away unimproved. [And who would it be who "improves" the "present call"? Where is irresistible grace?] Nor are his apprehensions wholly without foundation, for notwithstanding all his efforts - his sins hang over him in all their guilt, number, and aggravations. ... He has no heart for the mirth of the wicked, for he sees something of the evil of sin. [What does he truly see of sin's evil? Is his refraining from the wicked's mirth pleasing to God?] ... Go where he may, he feels wretched and self-condemned. He wonders that God has not long since destroyed him. He marvels that he does not now cut him down. [All of this without believing the remedy? Is this humility or pride?] Yet he hopes that this drawing of the Spirit is a token for good. [What kind of spirit is it whose drawing is not for good?] He knows that his case is hopeless only when God totally and finally abandons him to the power of his sins, and to the guilt of his iniquities. [So this is a "middle stage" in which he is not totally abandoned to sin and guilt, yet he is at a point where he could go backward or forward?] Thus every motion of the Spirit in his heart is an argument against despair." [What would this "motion of the Spirit in his heart" feel like? And how would he discern it from a false spirit? Why would it be "an argument against despair" if the working of the Holy Spirit can ultimately fail?]

"One thing is now apparent: it is that God's word is no longer a dead letter. It has power and pungency. There is a disposition to apply the truth." [How can someone who has not been made alive by the Holy Spirit be "free from the Law, having died to that in which they were held, so as for them to serve in newness of spirit and not in oldness of letter" (Romans 7:6)? How could that one be "a Jew that is one inwardly, and circumcision is of heart, in spirit, not in letter" (Romans 2:29)? How could it be said of this unregenerate person that he is "not of letter, but of Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit makes alive" (2 Corinthians 3:6)?]

"The author of these new views and emotions is the Spirit of God. [The author of these wicked views and emotions is the Holy Spirit?] These are the strivings of Him who was promised to convince the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment. [Has this person who is under the "strivings" of the Holy Spirit been truly convinced of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment? Has he repented and believed the gospel?] ... Though no terrors will change the heart, yet they may be useful in driving the soul out of itself and away from its false refuges. [Yet this false spirit keeps the person in false refuges for a period of time and might even abandon him in his false refuge?] He who is thus exercised ought to know that the kingdom of God has come near unto him; that now is his time to turn and live, while the Spirit strives. Should he withdraw, all is lost. Without his influences, we can no more move heavenward than we can sail a ship without wind. ... One of the greatest points of danger is found in the fact that a man may grieve away the Spirit without any fixed purpose of bringing his soul into such guilt. Obstinate resistance, continued unbelief, and refusal to obey the call when given - are often all that is necessary to quench the heavenly fire within us, and consign us to the coldness of death. Hardly anything is more offensive to God than an all-absorbing engagedness in worldly pursuits. [How about the wicked self-righteousness of the "seeker"?] This often causes the Spirit of God to forsake a man and leave him to the power of evil. 'If any man loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.' [Does not every unregenerate person love the world? When is the love of the Father ever in an unregenerate person? Is hating the world a condition of having the Holy Spirit continue with the unregenerate person and a prerequisite to regeneration?] ... Many whose morals were blameless, who fully intended to lead a pious life but never did, who shed many tears and bore many terrors, have at last uttered the cry, 'The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and I am not saved!' He who called them suddenly forsook them. Wicked men are often surprised at finding themselves deserted by their serious thoughts, and unmoved by any tender impressions. Against an issue so fatal there is no protection until one casts himself at the feet of Jesus. The longer this is deferred, the worse will be the sinner's state and the more imminent his peril. Already sin, like a gangrene, has spread its roots into every vital part. ... Thousands have succeeded in stifling convictions and shaking off impressions, which proved to be the last effects of the Spirit's strivings. There is no more fearful state than that of a soul meditating the rejection, for what proves to be the last time - of the blessed Spirit of God. As God has no other Son to give for our salvation if we reject the Lord Jesus - so he has no other Spirit to send into our hearts and call us to repentance if we reject the Holy Spirit." [Where is irresistible grace? Where is the power of the Holy Spirit? What kind of god is Plumer talking about?]

"Every good thought, every right affection, and every holy desire come from the Spirit alone." [What thoughts of the wicked are good? What affections of the wicked are right? What desires of the wicked are holy? Where is the truth of Psalm 14:2-3; Proverbs 12:10; 15:8,26; 28:9; Isaiah 45:20; 64:6; Jeremiah 13:23; 17:9; Matthew 7:18; Romans 1:21; 3:9-12; 7:5; 8:5-8; 10:2-3; 1 Corinthians 2:14; Ephesians 4:18; Hebrews 11:6?]

"A young lad had been resisting the calls of mercy. At last he opened the door and admitted the heavenly Stranger." [Is this not unadulterated salvation conditioned on the sinner? How is this trash any different than Arminianism?]