A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, written by William Law in 1729, is the best book on Christian life that I can remember reading. The title has been familiar to me for years, but I never had any impetus to read it. Then I read this sentence, quoted in Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy:

And if you will here stop, and ask yourselves, 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.

When I read that sentence, I moved the Serious Call to the top of my reading list. I appreciate plain talk and keen insights, and that sentence convinced me that Law would have plenty of both. I was not disappointed. If St. James, C.S. Lewis, and Jane Austen wrote a book together, the result would be something very like A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.

In this post I am going to confine myself to some favorite passages, though the whole book is well worth your time and attention. First some business. Although the text is in the public domain, electronic versions of the text are surprisingly hard to find. Here are links to a Kindle version, and an epub version—the latter suitable for any non-Kindle device. Next, there are two difficulties in reading this book. First, the language is difficult for a modern reader. Law can actually be quite succinct, but the stylistic demands of the 18th century called for long, complex sentences. So read a Jane Austen novel just before reading this book, to get your brain into shape. Second, the social context is different from ours—again, think Jane Austen. But the theology and moral lessons are timeless. Even if you don’t spend your days in a sitting room dreaming about Mr. Darcy, you’re going to be able to relate to the issues that Law talks about. And now the excerpts…

Here is a succinct description of the history of the Gospel:

The history of the Gospel is chiefly the history of Christ’s conquest over the spirit of the world. And the number of true Christians is only the number of those who, following the Spirit of Christ, have lived contrary to this spirit of the world.

This is a wonderful expression of acceptable motivation. Though Barishnikov’s “I only try to dance better than myself,” is more aphoristic, this is catchy in its way.

Remember that there is but one man in the world, with whom you are to have perpetual contention, and be always striving to exceed him, and that is yourself.

A reminder that we can turn right things into wrong things. This was an important reminder for me, especially in the context of over-work.

For our souls may receive an infinite hurt, and be rendered incapable of all virtue, merely by the use of innocent and lawful things. What is more innocent than rest and retirement? And yet what more dangerous than sloth and idleness? What is more lawful than eating and drinking? And yet what more destructive of all virtue, what more fruitful of all vice, than sensuality and indulgence?

He connects this directly to the issue of pride. (Here and subsequently, I have conjoined non-adjacent paragraphs with an ellipsis and conjoined adjacent paragraphs with a pilcrow.)

It is therefore absolutely certain that no Christian is to enter any farther into business, nor for any other ends, than such as he can in singleness of heart offer unto God, as a reasonable service. For the Son of God has redeemed us for this only end, that we should, by a life of reason and piety, live to the glory of God; this is the only rule and measure for every order and state of life. Without this rule, the most lawful employment becomes a sinful state of life. … If a glutton was to say, in excuse of his gluttony, that he only eats such things as it is lawful to eat, he would make as good an excuse for himself, as the greedy, covetous, ambitious tradesman, that should say, he only deals in lawful business. For as a Christian is not only required to be honest, but to be of a Christian spirit, and make his life an exercise of humility, repentance, and heavenly affection, so all tempers that are contrary to these are as contrary to Christianity, as cheating is contrary to honesty. … He that labours and toils in a calling, that he may make a figure in the world and draw the eyes of people upon the splendour of his condition, is as far from the pious humility of a Christian, as he that gives alms that he may be seen of men. For the reason why pride and vanity in our prayers and alms renders them an unacceptable service to God, is not because there is anything particular in prayers and alms, that cannot allow of pride, but because pride is in no respect, nor in anything, made for man; it destroys the piety of our prayers and alms, because it destroys the piety of everything that it touches, and renders every action that it governs incapable of being offered unto God.

He remarks that good circumstances can lead to damnation and poor circumstances can lead to salvation. We can’t judge people’s “true success” from seeing the apparent successes or failures in their lives. John Chrysostom makes similar observations, but I don’t think there is a historical connection.

How silly would it be to envy a man, that was drinking poison out of a golden cup! And yet who can say that he is acting wiser than thus, when he is envying any instance of worldly greatness? How many saints has adversity sent to Heaven! And how many poor sinners has prosperity plunged into everlasting misery! A man seems then to be in the most glorious state, when he has conquered, disgraced, and humbled his enemy; though it may be, that same conquest has saved his adversary and undone himself. This man had perhaps never been debauched, but for his fortune and advancement; that had never been pious, but through his poverty and disgrace. She that is envied for her beauty, may perchance owe all her misery to it; and another may be forever happy, for having had no admirers of her person. One man succeeds in everything, and so loses all; another meets with nothing but crosses and disappointments, and thereby gains more than all the world is worth. This clergyman may be undone by his being made a bishop; and that may save both himself and others, by being fixed to his first poor vicarage.

A related issue is the danger of living in a society that has adopted Christianity nominally. Law says that this is more dangerous to the faith than the persecution of the early church.

And indeed the world, by professing Christianity, is so far from being a less dangerous enemy than it was before, that it has by its favours destroyed more Christians than ever it did by the most violent persecution. We must, therefore, be so far from considering the world as in a state of less enmity and opposition to Christianity than it was in the first times of the Gospel, that we must guard against it as a greater and more dangerous enemy now, than it was in those times. It is a greater enemy, because it has greater power over Christians by its favours, riches, honours, rewards, and protection, than it had by the fire and fury of its persecutions. It is a more dangerous enemy, by having lost its appearance of enmity. Its outward profession of Christianity makes it no longer considered as an enemy, and therefore the generality of people are easily persuaded to resign themselves up to be governed and directed by it. How many consciences are kept at quiet, upon no other foundation, but because they sin under the authority of the Christian world! How many directions of the Gospel lie by unregarded, and how unconcernedly do particular persons read them, for no other reason but because they seem unregarded by the Christian world!

One of the fun things that Law does is to create stereotypical characters to illustrate different kinds of people. Below, Flavia is a stingy giver, always concerned about giving only to the worthy poor, whereas Miranda is a generous giver.

You would think Flavia had the tenderest conscience in the world, if you were to see how scrupulous and apprehensive she is of the guilt and danger of giving amiss. [i.e., to “unworthy” recipients]

It may be, says Miranda, that I may often give to those that do not deserve it, or that will make an ill use of my alms. But what then? Is not this the very method of Divine goodness? Does not God make “His sun to rise on the evil and on the good”? [Matt. v. 45] Is not this the very goodness that is recommended to us in Scripture, that, by imitating of it, we may be children of our Father which is in Heaven, who “sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust”? And shall I withhold a little money, or food, from my fellow-creature, for fear he should not be good enough to receive it of me? Do I beg of God to deal with me, not according to my merit, but according to His own great goodness; and shall I be so absurd as to withhold my charity from a poor brother, because he may perhaps not deserve it? Shall I use a measure towards him, which I pray God never to use towards me? Besides, where has the Scripture made merit the rule or measure of charity? On the contrary, the Scripture saith, “If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink.” [Rom. xii. 20] Now this plainly teaches us, that the merit of persons is to be no rule of our charity; but that we are to do acts of kindness to those that least of all deserve it. For if I am to love and do good to my worst enemies: if I am to be charitable to them, notwithstanding all their spite and malice; surely merit is no measure of charity. If I am not to withhold my charity from such bad people, and who are at the same time my enemies, surely I am not to deny alms to poor beggars, whom I neither know to be bad people, nor any way my enemies.

This really helped me in thinking about giving to beggars. And even more important than the actual giving is the attitude, which Law zeroes in on with the following passage.

When you are at any time turning away the poor, the old, the sick, and helpless traveller, the lame, or the blind, ask yourself this question, Do I sincerely wish these poor creatures may be as happy as Lazarus, that was carried by Angels into Abraham’s bosom? Do I sincerely desire that God would make them fellow-heirs with me in eternal glory? Now if you search into your soul, you will find that there is none of these motions there; that you are wishing nothing of this. For it is impossible for any one heartily to wish a poor creature so great a happiness, and yet not have a heart to give him a small alms. For this reason, says Miranda, as far as I can, I give to all, because I pray to God to forgive all; and I cannot refuse an alms to those whom I pray God to bless, whom I wish to be partakers of eternal glory, but am glad to show some degree of love to such as, I hope, will be the objects of the infinite love of God.

The following is a wonderful passage about actually being obedient in small matters, instead of just saying to ourselves that we would be obedient in big ones: “this is amusing yourself with the notion or idea of resignation, instead of the virtue itself.” That drives a stake through my warmest and fuzziest feelings about myself.

For if he cannot thank and praise God, as well in calamities and sufferings as in prosperity and happiness, he is as far from the piety of a Christian as he that only loves them that love him, is from the charity of a Christian. For to thank God only for such things as you like, is no more a proper act of piety, than to believe only what you see is an act of faith. ¶ Do not therefore please yourself with thinking how piously you would act and submit to God in a plague, or famine, or persecution, but be intent upon the perfection of the present day; and be assured, that the best way of showing a true zeal is to make little things the occasions of great piety. ¶ Now you must not reserve the exercise of this pious temper to any particular times or occasions, or fancy how resigned you will be to God, if such or such trials should happen. For this is amusing yourself with the notion or idea of resignation, instead of the virtue itself. Do not therefore please yourself with thinking how piously you would act and submit to God in a plague, or famine, or persecution, but be intent upon the perfection of the present day; and be assured, that the best way of showing a true zeal is to make little things the occasions of great piety. ¶ Begin therefore in the smallest matters, and most ordinary occasions, and accustom your mind to the daily exercise of this pious temper, in the lowest occurrences of life. And when a contempt, an affront, a little injury, loss, or disappointment, or the smallest events of every day, continually raise your mind to God in proper acts of resignation, then you may justly hope that you shall be numbered amongst those that are resigned and thankful to God in the greatest trials and afflictions.

Law not only promotes Christian life, but critiques the alternative. The foolishness of vanity:

Let any man but look back upon his own life, and see what use he has made of his reason, how little he has consulted it, and how less he has followed it. What foolish passions, what vain thoughts, what needless labours, what extravagant projects, have taken up the greatest part of his life! How foolish he has been in his words and conversation; how seldom he has done well with judgment, and how often he has been kept from doing ill by accident; how seldom he has been able to please himself, and how often he has displeased others; how often he has changed his counsels, hated what he loved, and loved what he hated; how often he has been enraged and transported at trifles, pleased and displeased with the very same things, and constantly changing from one vanity to another! Let a man but take this view of his own life, and he will see reason enough to confess, that pride was not made for man. Let him but consider, that if the world knew all that of him, which he knows of himself; if they saw what vanity and passions govern his inside, and what secret tempers sully and corrupt his best actions; he would have no more pretence to be honoured and admired for his goodness and wisdom, than a rotten and distempered body to be loved and admired for its beauty and comeliness.

The futility of worldly praise:

Think upon the rich, the great, and the learned persons, that have made great figures, and been high in the esteem of the world; many of them died in your time, and yet they are sunk, and lost, and gone, and as much disregarded by the world, as if they had been only so many bubbles of water. Think, again, how many poor souls see heaven lost, and lie now expecting a miserable eternity, for their service and homage to a world that thinks itself every whit as well without them, and is just as merry as it was when they were in it. Is it therefore worth your while to lose the smallest degree of virtue, for the sake of pleasing so bad a master, and so false a friend, as the world is? Is it worth your while to bow the knee to such an idol as this, that so soon will have neither eyes, nor ears, nor a heart, to regard you, instead of serving that great, and holy, and mighty God, that will make all His servants partakers of His own eternity? Will you let the fear of a false world, that has no love for you, keep you from the fear of that God, who has only created you that He may love and bless you to all eternity?

Law distinguishes between the true happiness of nature (i.e., what inherent in the created order), and the artificial happiness that people create for themselves. And he does it with humor!

As for instance; when a man proposes to be happy in ways of ambition, by raising himself to some imaginary heights above other people, this is truly an invention of happiness, which has no foundation in nature, but is as mere a cheat of our own making, as if a man should intend to make himself happy by climbing up a ladder.

I include this passage mainly for the humor:

For as we cannot lift up a hand, or stir a foot, but by a power that is lent us from God; so bold actions that are not directed by the laws of God, as so many executions of His will, are no more true bravery, than sedate malice is Christian patience.

And why not take a crack at a theology of the atonement in passing? I wish I’d read this sixteen years ago. This is an imperative message for Protestant Christianity: “To have a true idea of Christianity, we must not consider our Blessed Lord as suffering in our stead, but as our Representative, acting in our name, and with such particular merit, as to make our joining with Him acceptable unto God.”

Every man therefore is only so far a Christian, as he partakes of this Spirit of Christ. It was this that made St. Paul so passionately express himself, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ”: but why does he glory? Is it because Christ had suffered in his stead, and had excused him from suffering? No, by no means. But it was because his Christian profession had called him to the honour of suffering with Christ, and of dying to the world under reproach and contempt, as He had done upon the Cross. For he immediately adds, “by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.” [Gal. vi. 14] This, you see, was the reason of his glory in the Cross of Christ, because it had called him to a like state of death and crucifixion to the world. ¶ Thus was the Cross of Christ, in St. Paul’s days, the glory of Christians; not as it signified their not being ashamed to own a Master that was crucified, but as it signified their glorying in a religion which was nothing else but a doctrine of the Cross, that called them to the same suffering spirit, the same sacrifice of themselves, the same renunciation of the world, the same humility and meekness, the same patient bearing of injuries, reproaches, and contempts, and the same dying to all the greatness, honours, and happiness of this world, which Christ showed upon the Cross. To have a true idea of Christianity, we must not consider our Blessed Lord as suffering in our stead, but as our Representative, acting in our name, and with such particular merit, as to make our joining with Him acceptable unto God. He suffered, and was a Sacrifice, to make our sufferings and sacrifice of ourselves fit to be received by God. And we are to suffer, to be crucified, to die, and rise with Christ; or else His Crucifixion, Death, and Resurrection, will profit us nothing.

One of Law’s strengths is the practical nature of his advice. We have a motto in American Christianity, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” which tells you absolutely nothing about what that actually looks like in practice. Law observes that we have all had practice in this already, with ourselves.

All other hatred of sin, which does not fill the heart with the softest, tenderest affections towards persons miserable in it, is the servant of sin, at the same time that it seems to be hating it. … Again, if you think it hardly possible to dislike the actions of unreasonable men, and yet have a true love for them: consider this with relation to yourself. ¶ It is very possible, I hope, for you not only to dislike, but to detest and abhor a great many of your own past actions, and to accuse yourself of great folly for them. But do you then lose any of those tender sentiments towards yourself, which you used to have? Do you then cease to wish well to yourself? Is not the love of yourself as strong then, as at any other time? ¶ Now what is thus possible with relation to ourselves, is in the same manner possible with relation to others. We may have the highest good wishes towards them, desiring for them every good that we desire for ourselves, and yet, at the same time, dislike their way of life.

Need some humility? Just keep it in mind that that each of us is the worst sinner that we know of:

For who would dare to be severe against other people, when, for aught he can tell, the severity of God may be more due to him, than to them? Who would exclaim against the guilt of others, when he considers that he knows more of the greatness of his own guilt, than he does of theirs? ¶ How often you have resisted God’s Holy Spirit; how many motives to goodness you have disregarded: how many particular blessings you have sinned against; how many good resolutions you have broken; how many checks and admonitions of conscience you have stifled, you very well know; but how often this has been the case of other sinners, you know not. And therefore the greatest sinner that you know, must be yourself. Whenever, therefore, you are angry at sin or sinners, whenever you read or think of God’s indignation and wrath at wicked men, let this teach you to be the most severe in your censure, and most humble and contrite in the acknowledgment and confession of your own sins, because you know of no sinner equal to yourself.

In brief then, stop wasting your time with blogs, and read this book!