By William Law
Editor’s Note: Why do so many professing Christians seem to fall short of the holiness and devotion to God which Christianity teaches? Could it be because they do not actually intend to be as holy as they know they should be?
Reading this challenging piece by William Law, it may seem as though the only thing necessary to be holy is to intend to be so. Far from it, as he himself acknowledges at the end; rather, we must cooperate with God in the pursuit of holiness (Philippians 2:12-13). However, God will not force us into holiness of life against our will; we will never be holy unless we want and intend to be. With that full intention comes an earnest seeking of strength from God to do what we know He desires, and an asking for more light so that we may learn if there is some part of holiness which we do not yet know we must perform.
This selection is chapter 3 from William Law’s book, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. The language has been slightly modernized.—Ed.
It may now be reasonably enquired, how it comes to pass, that the lives even of the better sort of people are thus strangely contrary to the principles of Christianity. But before I give a direct answer to this, I desire it may also be enquired, how it comes to pass that swearing is so common a vice amongst Christians; it is indeed not yet so common amongst women, as it is amongst men. But amongst men this sin is so common, that perhaps there are more than two in three that are guilty of it throughout the whole course of their lives, swearing more or less, just as it happens, some constantly, others only now and then, as it were by chance. Now I ask why is it that two in three of the men are guilty of so gross and profane a sin as this? There is neither ignorance nor human infirmity to plead for it: It is against an express commandment, and the most plain Doctrine of our blessed Saviour.
Do but now find the reason why the generality of men live in this notorious vice, and then you will have found the reason why the generality even of the better sort of people live so contrary to Christianity.
Now the reason of common swearing is this: It is because men have not so much as the intention to please God in all their actions. For let a man but have so much piety as to intend to please God in all the actions of his life, as the happiest and best thing in the world, and then he will never swear more. It will be as impossible for him to swear, whilst he feels this intention within himself, as it is impossible for a man that intends to please his Prince, to go up and abuse him to his face.
It seems but a small and necessary part of piety to have such a sincere intention as this; and that he has no reason to look upon himself as a Disciple of Christ, who is not thus far advanced in piety. And yet it is purely for want of this degree of piety, that you see such a mixture of sin and folly in the lives even of the better sort of people. It is for want of this intention that you see men that profess religion, yet live in swearing and sensuality; that you see clergymen given to pride and covetousness, and worldly enjoyments. It is for want of this intention, that you see women that profess devotion, yet living in all the folly and vanity of dress, wasting their time in idleness and pleasure, and in all such instances of state and equipage as their estates will reach. For let but a woman feel her heart full of this intention, and she will find it as impossible to patch or paint, as to curse or swear; she will no more desire to shine at balls and assemblies, or make a figure amongst those that are most finely dressed, than she will desire to dance upon a rope to please spectators: She will know that the one is as far from the wisdom and excellency of the Christian Spirit, as the other.
It was this general intention that made the primitive Christians such eminent instances of piety, that made the goodly fellowship of the saints, and all the glorious army of martyrs and confessors. And if you will here stop and ask yourself why you are not as pious as the primitive Christians were, your own heart will tell you that it is neither through ignorance nor inability, but purely because you never thoroughly intended it. You observe the same Sunday-worship that they did; and you are strict in it, because it is your full intention to be so. And when you as fully intend to be like them in their ordinary common life, when you intend to please God in all your actions, you will find it as possible as to be strictly exact in the service of the church. And when you have this intention to please God in all your actions, as the happiest and best thing in the world, you will find in you as great an aversion to everything that is vain and impertinent in common life, whether of business or pleasure, as you now have to anything that is profane. You will be as fearful of living in any foolish way, either of spending your time or your fortune, as you are now fearful of neglecting the public Worship.
Now who that lacks this general sincere intention, can be reckoned a Christian? And yet if it was amongst Christians, it would change the whole face of the world; true piety and exemplary holiness would be as common and visible as buying and selling, or any trade in life.
Let a clergyman be but thus pious, and he will converse as if he had been brought up by an Apostle; he will no more think and talk of noble preferment, than of noble eating or a glorious chariot. He will no more complain of the frowns of the world, or a small pay, or the lack of a patron, than he will complain of the want of a laced coat, or a running horse. Let him but intend to please God in all his actions, as the happiest and best thing in the world, and then he will know that there is nothing noble in a clergyman, but burning zeal for the salvation of souls; nor any thing poor in his profession, but idleness and a worldly spirit.
Again, let a tradesman have this intention, and it will make him a saint in his shop; his everyday business will be a course of wise and reasonable actions, made holy to God, by being done in obedience to His will and pleasure. He will buy and sell, and labour and travel, because by so doing he can do some good to himself and others. But then, as nothing can please God but what is wise, and reasonable, and holy, so he will neither buy, nor sell, nor labour in any other manner, nor to any other end, but such as may be shown to be wise and reasonable and holy. He will therefore consider not what arts, or methods, or application, will soonest make him richer and greater than his brethren, or remove him from a shop to a life of state and pleasure; but he will consider what arts, what methods, what application can make worldly business most acceptable to God, and make a life of trade a life of holiness, devotion, and piety. This will be the temper and spirit of every tradesman; he cannot stop short of these degrees of piety, whenever it is his intention to please God in all his actions, as the best and happiest thing in the world.
And on the other hand, whoever is not of this spirit and temper in his trade and profession, and does not carry it on only so far as is best subservient to a wise and holy and heavenly life; it is certain that he has not this intention; and yet without it, who can be shown to be a follower of Jesus Christ?
Again, let the gentleman of birth and fortune but have this intention, and you will see how it will carry him from every appearance of evil, to every instance of piety and goodness.
He cannot live by chance, or as humor and fancy carries him, because he knows that nothing can please God but a wise and regular course of life. He cannot live in idleness and indulgence, in sports and gaming, in pleasures and intemperance, in vain expenses and high living; because these things cannot be turned into means of piety and holiness, or made so many parts of a wise and religious life.
As he thus removes from all appearance of evil, so he hastens and aspires after every instance of goodness. He does not ask what is allowable and pardonable, but what is commendable and praise-worthy. He does not ask whether God will forgive the folly of our lives, the madness of our pleasures, the vanity of our expenses, the richness of our equipage, and the careless consumption of our time; but he asks whether God is pleased with these things, or whether these are the appointed ways of gaining His favor. He does not inquire whether it be pardonable to hoard up money to adorn ourselves with diamonds, and gild our chariots, while the widow and the orphan, the sick and the prisoner need to be relieved; but he asks whether God has required these things at our hands, whether we shall be called to account at the last day for the neglect of them, because it is not his intent to live in such ways as, for ought we know, God may perhaps pardon; but to be diligent in such ways, as we know that God will infallibly reward.
He will not therefore look at the lives of Christians, to learn how he ought to spend his estate; but he will look into the Scriptures, and make every doctrine, parable, precept, or instruction that relates to rich men, a law to himself in the use of his estate.
He will have nothing to do with goodly apparel, because the rich man in the Gospel was clothed with purple and fine linen. He denies himself the pleasures and indulgences which his estate could procure, because our Blessed Saviour says, Woe unto you that are rich, for ye have received your consolation. He will have but one rule for charity, and that will be, to spend all that he can that way; because the Judge of quick and dead hath said, that all that is so given, is given to Him.
He will have no hospitable table for the rich and wealthy to come and feast with him in good eating and drinking; because our Blessed Lord says, When thou makest a dinner, call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, neither thy kinsmen, nor thy rich neighbors, lest they also bid thee again, and a recompense be made thee. But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and thou shalt be blessed. For they cannot recompense thee, for thou shalt he recompensed at the resurrection of the just (Luke 14:12, 13, 14).
He will waste no money in gilded roofs or costly furniture: He will not be carried from pleasure to pleasure in expensive state and equipage, because an inspired Apostle hath said, that all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.
Let not any one look upon this as an imaginary description of charity, that looks fine in the notion, but cannot be put in practice. For it is so far from being an imaginary impracticable form of life, that it has been practiced by great numbers of Christians in former ages, who were glad to turn their whole estates into a constant course of charity. And it is so far from being impossible now, that if we can find any Christians, that sincerely intend to please God in all their actions as the best and happiest thing in the world, whether they be young or old, single or married, men or women, if they have but this intention, it will be impossible for them to do otherwise. This one principle will infallibly carry them to this height of charity, and they will find themselves unable to stop short of it.
For how is it possible for a man that intends to please God in the use of his money, and intends it because he judges it to be his greatest happiness, how is it possible for such a one in such a state of mind, to bury his money in needless impertinent finery, in covering himself or his horses with gold, whilst there are any works of piety and charity to be done with it, or any ways of spending it well?
This is as strictly impossible as for a man that intends to please God in his words, to go into company on purpose to swear and lie. For as all waste and unreasonable expense is done designedly and with deliberation, so no one can be guilty of it, whose constant intention is to please God in the use of his money.
I have chosen to explain this matter by appealing to this intention, because it makes the case so plain, and because every one that has a mind, may see it in the clearest light and feel it in the strongest manner, only by looking into his own heart. For it is as easy for every person to know, whether he intends to please God in all his actions; as for any servant to know whether this be his intention towards his master. Every one also can as easily tell how he lays out his money, and whether he considers how to please God in it, as he can tell where his estate is, and whether it be in money or land. So that here is no plea left for ignorance or frailty, as to this matter, everybody is in the light, and everybody has power. And no one can fall, but he that is not so much a Christian as to intend to please God in the use of his estate.
You see two persons, one is regular in public and private prayer, the other is not. Now the reason of this difference is not this, that one has strength and power to observe prayer, and the other has not; but the reason is this, that one intends to please God in the duties of devotion, and the other has no intention about it. Now the case is the same in the right or wrong use of our time and money. You see one person throwing away his time in sleep and idleness, in visiting and diversions, and his money in the most vain and unreasonable expenses. You see another careful of every day, dividing his hours by rules of reason and religion, and spending all his money in works of charity; now the difference is not owing to this, that one has strength and power to do thus, and the other has not; but it is owing to this, that one intends to please God in the right use of all his time and all his money, and the other has no intention about it.
Here therefore let us judge ourselves sincerely, let us not vainly content ourselves with the common disorders of our lives, the vanity of our expenses, the folly of our diversions, the pride of our habits, the idleness of our lives, and the wasting of our time, fancying that these are such imperfections as we fall into through the unavoidable weakness and frailty of our natures; but let us be assured, that these disorders of our common life are owing to this, that we have not so much Christianity as to intend to please God in all the actions of our life, as the best and happiest thing in the world. So that we must not look upon ourselves in a state of common and pardonable imperfection, but in such a state as lacks the first and most fundamental principle of Christianity, that is, an intention to please God in all our actions.
And if anyone was to ask himself, how it comes to pass that there are any degrees of sobriety which he neglects, any practice of humility which he lacks, any methods of charity which he does not follow, any rules of redeeming time which he does not observe, his own heart will tell him, that it is because he never intended to be so exact in those duties. For whenever we fully intend it, it is as possible to conform to all this regularity of life, as it is possible for a man to observe times of prayer.
So that the fault does not lie here, that we desire to be good and perfect, but through the weakness of our nature fall short of it; but it is because we have not piety enough to intend to be as good as we can, or to please God in all the actions of our life. This we see is plainly the case of him that spends his time in sports, when he should be at church; it is not his lack of power, but his lack of intention or desire to be there.
And the case is plainly the same in every other folly of human life. She that spends her time and money in the unreasonable ways and fashions of the world, does not do so, because she lacks power to be wise and religious in the management of her time and money; but because she has no intention or desire of being so. When she feels this intention, she will find it as possible to act up to it, as to be strictly sober and chaste, because it is her care and desire to be so.
This doctrine does not suppose that we have no need of divine grace, or that it is within our own power to make ourselves perfect. It only supposes that through the lack of a sincere intention of pleasing God in all our actions, we fall into such irregularities of life, as by the ordinary means of grace we should have power to avoid.
And that we have not that perfection, which our present state of grace makes us capable of, because we do not so much as intend to have it.
It only teaches us that the reason why you see no real mortification or self-denial, no eminent charity, no profound humility, no heavenly affection; no true contempt of the world, no Christian meekness, no sincere zeal, no eminent piety in the common lives of Christians, is this, because they do not so much as intend to be exact and exemplary in these virtues.
 “Attendance, retinue, as persons, horses, carriages” (Webster’s 1828).
 The confessors were those who suffered imprisonment and perhaps torture for their faith, but were not martyred.