A SERIOUS CALL TO A DEVOUT AND HOLY LIFE
by William Law
Showing how all orders and ranks of men and women, of all ages, are obliged to devote themselves unto God.
I HAVE in the foregoing chapters, gone through the several great instances of Christian devotion, and shown that all the parts of our common life, our employments, our talents, and gifts of fortune, are all to be made holy and acceptable unto God by a wise and religious use of everything, and by directing our actions and designs to such ends as are suitable to the honour and glory of God.
I shall now show that this regularity of devotion, this holiness of common life, this religious use of everything that we have, is a devotion that is the duty of all orders of Christian people.
Fulvius21 has had a learned education, and taken his degrees in the university; he came from thence, that he might be free from any rules of life. He takes no employment upon him, nor enters into any business, because he thinks that every employment or business calls people to the careful performance and just discharge of its several duties. When he is grave, he will tell you that he did not enter into holy orders, because he looks upon it to be a state that requires great holiness of life, and that it does not suit his temper to be so good. He will tell you that he never intends to marry, because he cannot oblige himself to that regularity of life and good behaviour, which he takes to be the duty of those that are at the head of a family. He refused to be godfather to his nephew, because he will have no trust of any kind to answer for.
Fulvius thinks that he is conscientious in this conduct, and is therefore content with the most idle, impertinent, and careless life.
He has no religion, no devotion, no pretences to piety. He lives by no rules, and thinks all is very well, because he is neither a priest, nor a father, nor a guardian, nor has any employment, or family, to look after.
But Fulvius, you are a rational creature, and, as such, are as much obliged to live according to reason and order, as a priest is obliged to attend to the altar, or a guardian to be faithful to his trust: if you live contrary to reason, you do not commit a small crime, you do not break a small trust; but you break the law of your nature, you rebel against God who gave you that nature, and put yourself amongst those whom the God of reason and order will punish as apostates and deserters.
Though you have no employment, yet, as you are baptized into the profession of Christ's religion, you are as much obliged to live according to the holiness of the Christian spirit, and perform all the promises made at your Baptism, as any man is obliged to be honest and faithful in his calling. If you abuse this great calling, you are not false in a small matter, but you abuse the precious blood of Christ; you crucify the Son of God afresh; you neglect the highest instances of Divine goodness; you disgrace the Church of God; you blemish the body of Christ; you abuse the means of grace, and the promises of glory; and it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment than for you.
It is therefore great folly for any one to think himself at liberty to live as he pleases, because he is not in such a state of life as some others are: for if there is anything dreadful in the abuse of any trust; if there is anything to be feared for the neglect of any calling; there is nothing more to be feared than the wrong use of our reason, nor anything more to be dreaded than the neglect of our Christian calling, which is not to serve the little uses of a short life, but to redeem souls unto God, to fill Heaven with saints, and finish a kingdom of eternal glory unto God.
No man, therefore, must think himself excused from the exactness of piety and morality, because he has chosen to be idle and independent in the world; for the necessities of a reasonable and holy life are not founded in the several conditions and employments of this life, but in the immutable nature of God, and the nature of man. A man is not to be reasonable and holy, because he is a priest, or a father of a family; but he is to be a pious priest, and a good father, because piety and goodness are the laws of human nature. Could any man please God, without living according to reason and order, there would be nothing displeasing to God in an idle priest, or a reprobate father. He, therefore, that abuses his reason, is like him that abuses the priesthood; and he that neglects the holiness of the Christian life, is as the man that disregards the most important trust.
If a man were to choose to put out his eyes, rather than enjoy the light, and see the works of God; if he should voluntarily kill himself by refusing to eat and drink; every one would own that such a one was a rebel against God, that justly deserved His highest indignation. You would not say that this was only sinful in a priest, or a master of a family, but in every man as such.
Now wherein does the sinfulness of this behaviour consist? Does it not consist in this, that he abuses his nature, and refuses to act that part for which God has created him? But if this be true, then all persons that abuse their reason, that act a different part from that for which God created them, are like this man, rebels against God, and on the same account subject to His wrath.
Let us suppose that this man, instead of putting out his eyes, had only employed them in looking at ridiculous things, or shut them up in sleep; that instead of starving himself to death, by not eating at all, he should turn every meal into a feast, and eat and drink like an epicure; could he be said to have lived more to the Glory of God? Could he any more be said to act the part for which God had created him, than if he had put out his eyes, and starved himself to death?
Now do but suppose a man acting unreasonably; do but suppose him extinguishing his reason, instead of putting out his eyes, and living in a course of folly and impertinence, instead of starving himself to death; and then you have found out as great a rebel against God.
For he that puts out his eyes, or murders himself, has only this guilt, that he abuses the powers that God has given him; that he refuses to act that part for which he was created, and puts himself into a state that is contrary to the Divine will. And surely this is the guilt of every one that lives an unreasonable, unholy, and foolish life.
As, therefore, no particular state, or private life, is an excuse for the abuse of our bodies, or selfmurder, so no particular state, or private life, is an excuse for the abuse of our reason, or the neglect of the holiness of the Christian religion. For surely it is as much the will of God that we should make the best use of our rational faculties, that we should conform to the purity and holiness of Christianity, as it is the will of God that we should use our eyes, and eat and drink for the preservation of our lives.
Until, therefore, a man can show that he sincerely endeavours to live according to the will of God, to be that which God requires him to be; until he can show that he is striving to live according to the holiness of the Christian religion; whosoever he be, or wheresoever he be, he has all that to answer for, that they have, who refuse to live, who abuse the greatest trusts, and neglect the highest calling in the world.
Everybody acknowledges that all orders of men are to be equally and exactly honest and faithful; there is no exception to be made in these duties, for any private or particular state of life. Now, if we would but attend to the reason and nature of things, if we would but consider the nature of God, and the nature of man, we should find the same necessity for every other right use of our reason, for every grace, or religious temper of the Christian life; we should find it as absurd to suppose that one man must be exact in piety, and another need not, as to suppose that one man must be exact in honesty, but another need not; for Christian humility, sobriety, devotion, and piety, are as great and necessary parts of a reasonable life, as justice and honesty. And on the other hand, pride, sensuality, and covetousness, are as great disorders of the soul, are as high an abuse of our reason, and as contrary to God, as cheating and dishonesty. Theft and dishonesty seem, indeed, to vulgar eyes, to be greater sins, because they are so hurtful to civil society, and are so severely punished by human laws. But if we consider mankind in a higher view, as God's order or society of rational beings, that are to glorify Him by the right use of their reason, and by acting conformably to the order of their nature, we shall find that every temper that is equally contrary to reason and order, that opposes God's ends and designs, and disorders the beauty and glory of the rational world, is equally sinful in man, and equally odious to God.
This would show us that the sin of sensuality is like the sin of dishonesty, and renders us as great objects of the Divine displeasure.
Again: if we consider mankind in a farther view, as a redeemed order of fallen spirits, that are baptized into a fellowship with the Son of God; to be temples of the Holy Ghost; to live according to His holy inspirations; to offer to God the reasonable sacrifice of an humble, pious, and thankful life; to purify themselves from the disorders of their fall; to make a right use of the means of grace, in order to be sons of eternal glory; if we look at mankind in this true light, then we shall find that all tempers that are contrary to this holy society, that are abuses of this infinite mercy, all actions that make us unlike to Christ, that disgrace His body, that abuse the means of grace, and oppose our hopes of glory, have everything in them that can make us forever odious unto God. So that though pride and sensuality, and other vices of the like kind, do not hurt civil society as cheating and dishonesty do; yet they hurt that society, and oppose those ends, which are greater and more glorious in the eyes of God than all the societies that relate to this world.
Nothing, therefore, can be more false than to imagine, that because we are private persons, that have taken upon us no charge or employment of life, therefore we may live more at large, indulge our appetites, and be less careful of the duties of piety and holiness; for it is as good an excuse for cheating and dishonesty. Because he that abuses his reason, that indulges himself in lust and sensuality, and neglects to act the wise and reasonable part of a true Christian, has everything in his life to render him hateful to God, that is to be found in cheating and dishonesty.
If, therefore, you rather choose to be an idle epicure than to be unfaithful; if you rather choose to live in lust and sensuality, than to injure your neighbour in his goods; you have made no better a provision for the favour of God, than he that rather chooses to rob a house than to rob a church.
For the abusing of our own nature is as great a disobedience against God, as the injuring our neighbour; and he that wants piety towards God, has done as much to damn himself, as he that wants honesty towards men. Every argument, therefore, that proves it necessary for all men in all stations of life to be truly honest, proves it equally necessary for all men in all stations of life to be truly holy and pious, and do all things in such a manner as is suitable to the glory of God.
Again: another argument to prove that all orders of men are obliged to be thus holy and devout in the common course of their lives, in the use of everything that they enjoy, may be taken from our obligation to prayer.
It is granted that prayer is a duty that belongs to all states and conditions of men: now if we inquire into the reason of this, why no state of life is to be excused from prayer, we shall find it as good a reason why every state of life is to be made a state of piety and holiness in all its parts.
For the reason why we are to pray unto God, and glorify Him with hymns, and psalms of thanksgiving, is this, because we are to live wholly unto God, and glorify Him all possible ways. It is not because the praises of words, or forms of thanksgiving, are more particularly parts of piety, or more the worship of God than other things; but it is because they are possible ways of expressing our dependence, our obedience and devotion to God. Now if this be the reason of verbal praises and thanksgivings to God, because we are to live unto God all possible ways, then it plainly follows, that we are equally obliged to worship and glorify God in all other actions that can be turned into acts of piety and obedience to Him. And, as actions are of much more significance than words, it must be a much more acceptable worship of God, to glorify Him in all the actions of our common life, than with any little form of words at any particular times.
Thus, if God is to be worshipped with forms of thanksgivings, he that makes it a rule to be content and thankful in every part and accident of his life, because it comes from God, praises God in a much higher manner than he that has some set time for singing of psalms. He that dares not say an illnatured word, or do an unreasonable thing, because he considers God as everywhere present, performs a better devotion than he that dares not miss the Church. To live in the world as a stranger and a pilgrim, using all its enjoyments as if we used them not, making all our actions so many steps towards a better life, is offering a better sacrifice to God than any forms of holy and heavenly prayers.
To be humble in all our actions, to avoid every appearance of pride and vanity, to be meek and lowly in our words, actions, dress, behaviour, and designs, in imitation of our blessed Saviour, is worshipping God in a higher manner than they who have only times to fall low on their knees in devotions. He that contents himself with necessaries, that he may give the remainder to those that want it; that dares not to spend any money foolishly, because he considers it as a talent from God which must be used according to His will, praises God with something that is more glorious than songs of praise.
He that has appointed times for the use of wise and pious prayers, performs a proper instance of devotion; but he that allows himself no times, nor any places, nor any actions, but such as are strictly conformable to wisdom and holiness, worships the Divine nature with the most true and substantial devotion. For who does not know, that it is better to be pure and holy, than to talk about purity and holiness? Nay, who does not know, that a man is to be reckoned no farther pure, or holy, or just, than as he is pure, and holy, and just in the common course of his life? But if this be plain, then it is also plain, that it is better to be holy, than to have holy prayers.
Prayers, therefore, are so far from being a sufficient devotion, that they are the smallest parts of it. We are to praise God with words and prayers, because it is a possible way of glorifying God, who has given us such faculties, as may be so used. But then as words are but small things in themselves, as times of prayer are but little, if compared with the rest of our lives; so that devotion which consists in times and forms of prayer is but a very small thing, if compared to that devotion which is to appear in every other part and circumstance of our lives.
Again: as it is an easy thing to worship God with forms of words, and to observe times of offering them unto Him, so it is the smallest kind of piety. And, on the other hand, as it is more difficult to worship God with our substance, to honour Him with the right use of our time, to offer to Him the continual sacrifice of self-denial and mortification; as it requires more piety to eat and drink only for such ends as may glorify God, to undertake no labour, nor allow of any diversion, but where we can act in the Name of God; as it is more difficult to sacrifice all our corrupt tempers, correct all our passions, and make piety to God the rule and measure of all the actions of our common life; so the devotion of this kind is a much more acceptable service unto God, than those words of devotion which we offer to Him either in the Church or in our closet.
Every sober reader will easily perceive that I do not intend to lessen the true and great value of prayers, either public or private; but only to show him that they are certainly but a very slender part of devotion, when compared to a devout life.
To see this in a yet clearer light, let us suppose a person to have appointed times for praising God with psalms and hymns, and to be strict in the observation of them; let it be supposed, also, that in his common life he is restless and uneasy, full of murmurings and complaints at everything, never pleased but by chance, as his temper happens to carry him, but murmuring and repining at the very seasons, and having something to dislike in everything that happens to him.
Now, can you conceive anything more absurd and unreasonable than such a character as this? Is such a one to be reckoned thankful to God, because he has forms of praise which he offers to Him? Nay, is it not certain that such forms of praise must be so far from being an acceptable devotion to God, that they must be abhorred as an abomination? Now the absurdity which you see in this instance, is the same in any other part of our life; if our common life hath any contrariety to our prayers, it is the same abomination as songs of thanksgiving in the mouths of murmurers.
Bended knees, whilst you are clothed with pride; heavenly petitions, whilst you are hoarding up treasures upon earth; holy devotions, whilst you live in the follies of the world; prayers of meekness and charity, whilst your heart is the seat of pride and resentment; hours of prayer, whilst you give up days and years to idle diversions, impertinent visits, and foolish pleasures; are as absurd, unacceptable services to God, as forms of thanksgiving from a person that lives in repinings and discontent.
So that, unless the common course of our lives be according to the common spirit of our prayers, our prayers are so far from being a real or sufficient degree of devotion, that they become an empty lip-labour, or, what is worse, a notorious hypocrisy.
Seeing, therefore, we are to make the spirit and temper of our prayers the common spirit and temper of our lives, this may serve to convince us that all orders of people are to labour and aspire after the same utmost perfection of the Christian life. For as all Christians are to use the same holy and heavenly devotions, as they are all with the same earnestness to pray for the Spirit of God, so is it a sufficient proof that all orders of people are, to the utmost of their power, to make their life agreeable to that one Spirit, for which they are all to pray.
As certain, therefore, as the same holiness of prayers requires the same holiness of life, so certain is it, that all Christians are called to the same holiness of life.
A soldier, or a tradesman, is not called to minister at the altar, or preach the Gospel; but every soldier or tradesman is as much obliged to be devout, humble, holy, and heavenly-minded, in all the parts of his common life, as a clergyman is obliged to be zealous, faithful, and laborious, in all parts of his profession.
And all this for this one plain reason, because all people are to pray for the same holiness, wisdom, and Divine tempers, and to make themselves as fit as they can for the same Heaven.
All men, therefore, as men, have one and the same important business, to act up to the excellency of their rational nature, and to make reason and order the law of all their designs and actions. All Christians, as Christians, have one and the same calling, to live according to the excellency of the Christian spirit, and to make the sublime precepts of the Gospel the rule and measure of all their tempers in common life. The one thing needful to one, is the one thing needful to all.
The merchant is no longer to hoard up treasures upon earth; the soldier is no longer to fight for glory; the great scholar is no longer to pride himself in the depths of science; but they must all with one spirit "count all things but loss, for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus." [Phil. iii. 8]
The fine lady must teach her eyes to weep, and be clothed with humility. The polite gentleman must exchange the gay thoughts of wit and fancy, for a broken and a contrite heart. The man of quality must so far renounce the dignity of his birth, as to think himself miserable till he is born again. Servants must consider their service as done unto God. Masters must consider their servants as their brethren in Christ, that are to be treated as their fellow-members of the mystical body of Christ.
Young ladies must either devote themselves to piety, prayer, self-denial, and all good works, in a virgin state of life; or else marry, to be holy, sober, and prudent in the care of a family, bringing up their children in piety, humility, and devotion, and abounding in all other good works, to the utmost of their state and capacity. They have no choice of anything else, but must devote themselves to God in one of these states. They may choose a married, or a single life; but it is not left to their choice, whether they will make either state a state of holiness, humility, devotion, and all other duties of the Christian life. It is no more left in their power, because they have fortunes, or are born of rich parents, to divide themselves betwixt God and the world, or take such pleasures as their fortune will afford them, than it is allowable for them to be sometimes chaste and modest, and sometimes not.
They are not to consider how much religion may secure them a fair character, or how they may add devotion to an impertinent, vain, and giddy life; but must look into the spirit and temper of their prayers, into the nature and end of Christianity; and then they will find that, whether married or unmarried, they have but one business upon their hands; to be wise, and pious, and holy, not in little modes and forms of worship, but in the whole turn of their minds, in the whole form of all their behaviour, and in the daily course of common life.
Young gentlemen must consider what our blessed Saviour said to the young gentleman in the Gospel; he bid him sell all that he had, and give to the poor. Now though this text should not oblige all people to sell all, yet it certainly obliges all kinds of people to employ all their estates in such wise and reasonable and charitable ways, as may sufficiently show that all that they have is devoted to God, and that no part of it is kept from the poor to be spent in needless, vain, and foolish expenses.
If, therefore, young gentlemen propose to themselves a life of pleasure and indulgence, if they spend their estates in high living, in luxury and intemperance, in state and equipage, in pleasures and diversions, in sports and gaming, and such like wanton gratifications of their foolish passions, they have as much reason to look upon themselves to be Angels, as to be disciples of Christ.
Let them be assured, that it is the one only business of a Christian gentleman, to distinguish himself by good works, to be eminent in the most sublime virtues of the Gospel, to bear with the ignorance and weakness of the vulgar, to be a friend and patron to all that dwell about him, to live in the utmost heights of wisdom and holiness, and show through the whole course of his life a true religious greatness of mind. They must aspire after such a gentility, as they might have learnt from seeing the blessed Jesus, and show no other spirit of a gentleman, but such as they might have got by living with the holy Apostles. They must learn to love God with all their heart, with all their soul, and with all their strength, and their neighbour as themselves; and then they have all the greatness and distinction that they can have here, and are fit for an eternal happiness in Heaven hereafter.
Thus in all orders and conditions, either of men or women, this is the one common holiness, which is to be the common life of all Christians.
The merchant is not to leave devotion to the clergyman, nor the clergyman to leave humility to the labourer; women of fortune are not to leave it to the poor of their sex to be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, to adorn themselves in modest apparel, shamefacedness, and sobriety; nor poor women leave it to the rich to attend at the worship and service of God. Great men must be eminent for true poverty of spirit; and people of a low and afflicted state must greatly rejoice in God.
The man of strength and power is to forgive and pray for his enemies, and the innocent sufferer, that is chained in prison, must, with Paul and Silas, at midnight sing praises to God. For God is to be glorified, holiness is to be practised, and the spirit of religion is to be the common spirit of every Christian, in every state and condition of life.
For the Son of God did not come from above to add an external form of worship to the several ways of life that are in the world, and so to leave people to live as they did before, in such tempers and enjoyments as the fashion and spirit of the world approves; but as He came down from Heaven altogether Divine and heavenly in His own nature, so it was to call mankind to a Divine and heavenly life; to the highest change of their own nature and temper; to be born again of the Holy Spirit; to walk in the wisdom and light and love of God, and to be like Him to the utmost of their power; to renounce all the most plausible ways of the world, whether of greatness, business, or pleasure; to a mortification of all their most agreeable passions; and to live in such wisdom, and purity, and holiness, as might fit them to be glorious in the enjoyment of God to all eternity.
Whatever, therefore, is foolish, ridiculous, vain, or earthly, or sensual, in the life of a Christian, is something that ought not to be there; it is a spot and a defilement that must be washed away with tears of repentance. But if anything of this kind runs through the course of our whole life, if we allow ourselves in things that are either vain, foolish, or sensual, we renounce our profession.
For as sure as Jesus Christ was wisdom and holiness, as sure as He came to make us like Himself, and to be baptized into His Spirit, so sure is it, that none can be said to keep to their Christian profession, but they who, to the utmost of their power, live a wise and holy and heavenly life. This, and this alone, is Christianity; an universal holiness in every part of life, a heavenly wisdom in all our actions, not conforming to the spirit and temper of the world, but turning all worldly enjoyments into means of piety and devotion to God.
But now, if this devout state of heart, if these habits of inward holiness, be true religion, then true religion is equally the duty and happiness of all orders of men; for there is nothing to recommend it to one, that is not the same recommendation of it to all states of people.
If it be the happiness and glory of a bishop to live in this devout spirit, full of these holy tempers, doing everything as unto God, it is as much the glory and happiness of all men and women, whether young or old, to live in the same spirit. And whoever can find any reasons why an ancient bishop should be intent upon Divine things, turning all his life into the highest exercises of piety, wisdom, and devotion, will find them so many reasons why he should, to the utmost of his power, do the same himself.
If you say that a bishop must be an eminent example of Christian holiness, because of his high and sacred calling, you say right. But if you say that it is more to his advantage to be exemplary, than it is yours, you greatly mistake: for there is nothing to make the highest degrees of holiness desirable to a bishop, but what makes them equally desirable to every young person of every family.
For an exalted piety, high devotion, and the religious use of everything, is as much the glory and happiness of one state of life, as it is of another.
Do but fancy in your mind what a spirit of piety you would have in the best bishop in the world, how you would have him love God, how you would have him imitate the life of our Saviour and His Apostles, how you would have him live above the world, shining in all the instances of a heavenly life, and then you have found out that spirit which you ought to make the spirit of your own life.
I desire every reader to dwell awhile upon this reflection, and perhaps he will find more conviction from it than he imagines. Every one can tell how good and pious he would have some people to be; every one knows how wise and reasonable a thing it is in a bishop to be entirely above the world, and be an eminent example of Christian perfection; as soon as you think of a wise and ancient bishop, you fancy some exalted degree of piety, a living example of all those holy tempers which you find described in the Gospel.
Now, if you ask yourself, What is the happiest thing for a young clergyman to do? you must be forced to answer, that nothing can be so happy and glorious for him, as to be like that excellent holy bishop.
If you go on and ask, What is the happiest thing for any young gentleman or his sisters to do? the answer must be the same; that nothing can be so happy or glorious for them as to live in such habits of piety, in such exercises of a Divine life, as this good old bishop does. For everything that is great and glorious in religion, is as much the true glory of every man or woman, as it is the glory of any bishop. If high degrees of Divine love, if fervent charity, if spotless purity, if heavenly affection, if constant mortification, if frequent devotion, be the best and happiest way of life for any Christian, it is so for every Christian.
Consider again: if you were to see a bishop in the whole course of his life living below his character, conforming to all the foolish tempers of the world, and governed by the same cares and fears which govern vain and worldly men, what would you think of him? Would you think that he was only guilty of a small mistake? No, you would condemn him as erring in that which is not only the most, but the only important matter that relates to him. Stay awhile in this consideration, till your mind is fully convinced how miserable a mistake it is in a bishop to live a careless worldly life.
Whilst you are thinking in this manner, turn your thoughts towards some of your acquaintance, your brother or sister, or any young person. Now, if you see the common course of their lives to be not according to the doctrines of the Gospel, if you see that their way of life cannot be said to be a sincere endeavour to enter in at the strait gate, you see something that you are to condemn, in the same degree, and for the same reasons. They do not commit a small mistake, but are wrong in that which is their all, and mistake their true happiness, as much as that bishop does, who neglects the high duties of his calling. Apply this reasoning to yourself; if you find yourself living an idle, indulgent, vain life, choosing rather to gratify your passions than to live up to the doctrines of Christianity, and practise the plain precepts of our blessed Lord, you have all that blindness and unreasonableness to charge upon yourself, that you can charge upon any irregular bishop.
For all the virtues of the Christian life, its perfect purity, its heavenly tempers, are as much the sole rule of your life, as the sole rule of the life of a bishop. If you neglect these holy tempers, if you do not eagerly aspire after them, if you do not show yourself a visible example of them, you are as much fallen from your true happiness, you are as great an enemy to yourself and have made as bad a choice, as that bishop, that chooses rather to enrich his family than to be like an Apostle. For there is no reason why you should think the highest holiness, the most heavenly tempers, to be the duty and happiness of a bishop, but what is as good a reason why you should think the same tempers to be the duty and happiness of all Christians. And as the wisest bishop in the world is he who lives in the greatest heights of holiness, who is most exemplary in all the exercises of a Divine life, so the wisest youth, the wisest woman, whether married or unmarried, is she that lives in the highest degrees of Christian holiness, and all the exercises of a Divine and heavenly life.
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