A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life Summary

William Law


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Responding to the challenge that the Age of Reason posed for Christian faith and practice, William Law crafted a tight, rational argument for “a devout and holy life.” Devotion, as he defined it, should involve all of life—living according to God’s will and not for one’s own selfish desires. If religion covers all of life, then it follows that Christians must observe rules that govern all their actions and not merely times of worship. Scripture does not contain a single instruction regarding worship, but almost every verse gives something on the ordinary actions of life. If we do not practice humility, self-denial, renunciation of the world, poverty of spirit, and heavenly affection, therefore, we do not live as Christians.

Sad to say, many who call themselves Christians do not incorporate these traits into daily living. What is the difference, he asks, between Leo, who shows little regard for religion per se but lives a respectable life, and Eusebius, who has a huge appetite for religious things and cannot stop talking about religion but does not differ from Leo as regards his everyday life?

Why do we Christians fail to live devout lives? Law asks. We can plead neither ignorance nor inability, for we have the same knowledge and the same Spirit early Christians did. What prevents us, rather, is a lack of intention. Failure of intention puts us in real spiritual danger. Although we have ample assurance of God’s mercy when we sin unavoidably, we cannot count on that mercy when we sin through a lack of intention, as many Scriptures prove. Scriptures show that “our salvation depends upon the sincerity and perfection of our endeavours to obtain it.” Law’s main contention is that we can please God only by intending and devoting all of life to God’s glory and honor. God takes no more delight in one station or position than another. His concern, rather, is that we offer reasonable service in whatever place we occupy in singleness of heart and thus live lives of reason and piety.

A person of leisure himself after his retirement from Cambridge, Law believed such persons held a special responsibility to devote themselves to God in a higher degree. The freer one is from pursuit of necessities, the more one should “imitate the higher perfections of angels.” Law continues:As we have always the same natures, and are everywhere the servants of the same God, as every place is equally full of his presence, and everything is equally his gift, so we must always act according to the reason of our nature; we must do everything as the servants of God; we must live in every place as in his presence; we must use everything as that ought to be used which belongs to God.

Law applied the same rationale to use of estates and fortunes, expending his own for care of others. The humble, meek, devout, just, or faithful person is not one who has done acts of humility, meekness, devotion, justice, or fidelity now and then, but one who “lives in the habitual exercise of these virtues.” In the matter of estates or fortunes, it is not enough to deny oneself needless expenses or be moderate and frugal sometimes so as to aid the needy; we must do so at all times. Unwise use of one’s estate corrupts both mind and heart. Law posits two “maiden sisters,” Flavia and Miranda, to illustrate his point. As Flavia, a perfect example of the self-centered rich person, illustrates, the religion of such a person exists only in the head; it has no place in the heart. Although Law will not go so far as to say that such a person as Flavia cannot be saved, he judges that “she has no grounds from Scripture to think she is in the way of salvation,” since her whole life conflicts with the “tempers and practices which the Gospel has made necessary to salvation.” On the opposite side, wise and pious use of an estate leads to perfection in all the virtues attendant on the Christian life. As Miranda, a perfect example of the other-directed person, shows, right stewardship of money and time will benefit both ourselves and other persons.

From the beginning, Law writes, there have been two orders of Christians: those who feared and served God in secular vocations and those who devoted themselves to voluntary poverty, virginity, devotion, and withdrawal so they might live wholly for God. Nevertheless, all orders of Christians are obliged to devote themselves to God in all things; to do otherwise is contrary...

(The entire section is 1814 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Brown, R. LaMon. Growing Spiritually with the Saints: Catherine of Genoa and William Law. Macon, Ga.: Peake Road, 1996. Brown, a theology professor, here studies the spiritual lives of Catherine and Law, focusing on the notion of sacrificial service. He emphasizes confession, service, prayer, simplicity, and Holy Communion.

Clarkson, George E. The Mysticism of William Law. New York: P. Lang, 1992. Law later became attracted to the German mystics, particularly the thought of Jakob Böhme. Includes an eight-page bibliography and an index.

Overton, J. H. William Law: Non-juror and Mystic. London: Longmans, Green, 1881. An old but still useful biography.

Rudolph, Erwin Paul. William Law. Boston: Twayne, 1980. A comprehensive yet accessible biography in Twayne’s English Authors series. Includes a bibliography and index.

Walker, A. Keith. William Law: His Life and Thought. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1973. An excellent critical biography.