"...Devotion signifies a life given, or devoted, to God." So begins William Law's Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.
William Law was a priest at the Church of England in the 18th century. Law's book A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life is considered a classic that all Christians should read. In the book Law suggests practices which will lead to good Christian living through prayer and devotion.
Originally published in 1729, Law's book stands as a powerful challenge to Christians. Law teaches that if God is "our greatest good," then the wisest way to live is to please God through a life of worship, adoration, and devotion.
Since many fail to live this way, Law diagnoses why and suggests certain concrete practices as a remedy. Thus, no one interested in becoming more devout can ignore this dynamic book. Law's call has encouraged several generations, and does not fail to encourage believers even today with a serious call to a devout and holy life.
Life of William Law
William Law was born on 1686. He was a son of a prosperous businessman. Law had received an excellent education at Cambridge and had a solid future as a scholar or clergyman ahead of him.
As a young adult preparing for university studies, Law had written a list of 18 rules to guide his living. They included the commitment to the will of God, the primacy of Scripture, the value of time, a distrust of the world, temperance in all things, humility and charity, prayer, and constant self-examination.
From a professional perspective, William Law's life seemed to be over when he was 28 years old. Then Queen Anne died without an heir. On the ascension of the German George I to the English throne, Law refused to swear an oath of allegiance.
As a "nonjuror," Law was forced to give up his fellowship and was denied further advancement in the Church of England or in any academic institution.
Clearly Law was not a product of his age. Catholic, Anglican, and Puritan factions warred within the English church. Morality and piety were correct in form but devoid of spiritual passion in many quarters. Many found "philosophical religion"—deism or rationalism—more to their liking.
Law would have none of it. Regarding "philosophical religion," for example, he said, "There can be no such thing. Religion is the most plain, simple thing in the world. It is only, 'We love him, because he first loved us.' So far as you add philosophy to religion, just so far you spoil it."
The outer structure of his life to his death 47 years later is easily told. For many years, he served as tutor to Edward Gibbons, father of the renowned historian.
When Edward left home, Law retired to his family home where he devoted his life to writing. Celibate, rigorous, and solitary, Law honed his writing skills.
Law's writings aimed at uncovering shallow devotion and stirring up readers to renewed moral vigor and holiness. Some writings were responses to published works; others were more broadly addressed, such as The Absolute Unlawfulness of Stage Entertainment. But most of his works were in the area of Christian spirituality, which he refused to relegate to a comfortable corner of life.
William Law's most widely known book, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, pulls together many of his thoughts in a lucid work addressed to the "average" Christian. It challenged Christians to wake up from their spiritual stupor and apply all their energy to the holy life.
In his later years, Law, influenced by German mysticism, produced The Spirit of Prayer and The Spirit of Love, which emphasized the indwelling of Christ in the soul. (This, however, alienated some, like John Wesley, who had up to this time eagerly followed his work.)
The day before he died, he said, "Oh what hast thou done? Thou has awakened such a spark of divine love that quite devours me. Who would have thought that all my life should end in my dying a martyr to love!"
A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life
The eighteenth-century and Enlightenment was a time when rationalist criticism of religious belief was perhaps at its peak.
William Law's A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life succeeded in inspiring the most cynical men of the age with its arguments in favor of a spiritual life.
The book is much more than simply articulating a set of rules to live by. Law's book examines what it means to lead a Christian life and criticizes the perversion of Christian tenets by the Establishment—whether secular or spiritual—whose real aim is temporal power.
Devotion, as William Law 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.
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 endeavors 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.
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...
A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life is a book that can still speak to our time.