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JC Ryle on Practical Religion

Written by: Ryle, J.C.    Posted on: 04/09/2003

Category: Sermons

Source: CCN


For more than a century, J. C. Ryle was best known for his plain and lively writings on practical and spiritual themes.  His great aim in all his ministry was to encourage strong and serious Christian living.  But Ryle was not naive in his understanding of how this should be done.  He recognized that, as a pastor of the flock of God, he had a responsibility to guard Christ's sheep and to warn them whenever he saw approaching dangers.  His penetrating comments are as wise and relevant today as they were when he first wrote them.  His sermons and other writings have been consistently recognized, and their usefulness and impact have continued to the present day, even in the outdated English of the author's own day. 

Why then should expositions already so successful and of such stature and proven usefulness require adaptation, revision, rewrite or even editing?  The answer is obvious.  To increase its usefulness to today's reader the language in which it was originally written needs updating.

Though his sermons have served other generations well, just as they came from the pen of the author in the nineteenth century, they still could be lost to present and future generations simply because, to them, the language is neither readily nor fully understandable.

My goal, however, has not been to reduce the original writing to the vernacular of our day.  It is designed primarily for you who desire to read and study comfortably and at ease in the language of our time.  Only obviously archaic terminology and passages obscured by expressions not totally familiar in our day have been revised.  However, neither Ryle's meaning nor intent have been tampered with.

                                                          Tony Capoccia

        All Scripture references are taken from the HOLY BIBLE: NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION (C) 1978 by the New York Bible Society, used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.         

                              Chapter 1                             Self-Examination                                   by                               J. C. Ryle                               (1816-1900)        

"Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing"  (Acts 15:36).

The text which heads this page contains a proposal which the Apostle Paul made to Barnabas after their first missionary journey.  He proposed to revisit the Churches they had founded, and to see how the were getting along.  Were their members continuing steadfast in the faith?  Were they growing in grace?  Were they going forward, or standing still?  Were they prospering, or falling away?  "Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing." 

This was a wise and useful proposal.  Let us lay it to heart, and apply it to ourselves today.  Let us search our ways, and find out how matters stand between ourselves and God.  Let us "see how we are doing?"  I ask every reader of this volume to begin its perusal by joining me in self- examination.  If ever self-examination about religion was needed, it is needed today.

We live in an age of unusual spiritual privileges.  Since the world began there never was such an opportunity for a man's soul to be saved as there is in England at this time.  There never were so many signs of religion in the land, so many sermons preached, so many services held in churches and chapels, so many Bibles sold, so many religious books and tracts printed, so many Societies for evangelizing mankind supported, so much outward respect paid to Christianity.  Things are done everywhere now-a- days which a hundred years ago would have been thought impossible.

Pastors support the boldest and most aggressive efforts to reach the unconverted.  Clergy of the most formal and structured denominations advocate special missions, and vie with the Evangelical brethren in proclaiming that going to church on Sunday is not enough to take a man to heaven. 

In short, there is a stir about religion now-a-days to which there has been nothing like since England was a nation, and which the cleverest skeptics and agnostics cannot deny.  If Romaine, and Venn, and Berridge, and Rowlands, and Grimshaw, and Hervey, had been told that such things would come to pass about a century after their deaths, they would have been tempted to say, with the Samaritan nobleman, "Look, even if the LORD should open the floodgates of the heavens, could this happen?" (2 Kings 7:19).  But the Lord has opened the floodgates of heaven.  There is more taught now-a-days in England of the real Gospel, and of the way of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ, in one week, than there was in a year in Romaine's time.  Surely I have a right to say that we live in an age of spiritual privileges.  But are we any better for it?  In an age like this it is well to ask, "How is it going with our souls?"

We live in an age of special spiritual danger.  Never perhaps since the world began was there such an immense amount of mere outward profession of religion as there is in the present day.  A painfully large proportion of all the congregations in the land consists of unconverted people, who know nothing of heart-religion, never come to the Lord's Table, and never confess Christ in their daily lives.  Myriads of those who are always running after preachers, and crowding to hear special sermons, are nothing better than empty tubs, and tinkling cymbals, without a bit of real vital Christianity at home.

It is curious and instructive to observe how history repeats itself, and how much sameness there is in the human heart in every age.  Even in the Early Church, many persons were found at church for the great Christian ceremonies, and at the theaters, or even at the temples, for the heathen spectacles.  The ritual of the Church was viewed as a theatrical spectacle.  The sermons were listened to as the display of rhetoricians; and eloquent preachers were cheered, with clapping of hands, stamping of  feet, waving of handkerchiefs, cries of "Orthodox," "Thirteenth Apostle," and such like demonstrations, which such teachers as Chrysostom and Augustine tried to restrain, that they might persuade their flocks to a more profitable manner of hearing.  Some went to Church for the sermon only, alleging that they could pray at home.  And when the more attractive parts of the service were over, the great mass of the people departed without remaining for the Lord's Table.

The parable of the sower is continually receiving most vivid and painful illustrations.  The pathway hearers, the stony-ground hearers, the thorny-ground hearers abound on every side.

The life of many religious persons, I fear, in this age, is nothing better than a "continual course of spiritual tasting."  They are always morbidly craving fresh excitement; and they seem to care little what it is if they only get it.  All preaching seems to be the same to them; and they appear unable to "see differences" so long as they hear what is clever, have their ears tickled, and sit in a crowd.  Worst of all, there are hundreds of young believers who are so infected with the same love of excitement, that they actually think it a duty to be always seeking it. Insensible almost to themselves, they take up a kind of hysterical, sensational, sentimental Christianity, until they are never content with the "old paths" and, like the Athenians, are always running after something new. 

To see a calm-minded young believer, who is not stuck up, self confident, self-conceited, and more ready to teach than learn, but content with a daily steady effort to grow up into Christ's likeness, and to do Christ's work quietly and inconspicuously, at home, is really becoming almost a rarity!  They show how little deep root they have, and how little knowledge of their hearts, by noise, forwardness, readiness to contradict and set down old Christians, and over-weaning trust in their own fancied soundness and wisdom!  Well will it be for many young professors of this age if they do not end, after being tossed about for a while, and "carried to and fro by every wind of doctrine," by joining some petty, narrow-minded, censorious sect, or embracing some senseless, unreasoning heresy.  Surely, in times like these there is great need for self- examination.  When we look around us, we may well ask, "How is it with our souls?"

In handling this question, I think the shortest plan will be to suggest a list of subjects for self-examination, and to get them in order.  By so doing I shall hope to meet the case of every one into whose hands this volume may fall.  I invite every reader of this paper to join me in calm, searching self-examination, for a few short minutes.  I desire to speak to myself as well as to you.  I approach you not as an enemy, but as a friend.  "My heart's desire and prayer to God is that you may be saved" (Romans 10:1).  Bear with me if I say things which at first sight look harsh and severe.  Believe me, he is your best friend who tells you the most truth.

(1) Let me ask, in the first place, "Do we ever think about our souls at all?" 

Thousands of people, I fear, cannot answer that question satisfactorily.  They never give the subject of religion any place in their thoughts.  From the beginning of the year to the end they are absorbed in the pursuit of business, pleasure, politics, money, or self-indulgence of some kind or another.  Death, and judgment, and eternity, and heaven, and hell, and a world to come, are never calmly looked at and considered.  They live on as if they were never going to die, or rise again, or stand at the bar of God, or receive an eternal sentence!  They do not openly oppose Christianity, for they do not have sufficient reflection about it to do so; but they eat and drink, and sleep, and get money, and spend money, as if Christianity was a mere fiction and not a reality.

They are neither Roman Catholics, nor Socinians, nor infidels, nor High Church, nor Low Church, nor Broad Church.  They are just nothing at all, and do not take the trouble to have opinions.  A more senseless and unreasonable way of living cannot be conceived; but they do not pretend to reason it out.  They simply never think about God, unless frightened for few minutes by sickness, death in their families, or an accident.  Barring such interruptions, they appear to ignore Christianity altogether, and hold on to their way cool and undisturbed, as if there were nothing worth thinking of except this world.

It is hard to imagine a life more unworthy of an immortal creature than such a life as I have just described, for it reduces a man to the level of a beast.  But it is literally and truly the life of multitudes and as they pass away their place is taken by multitudes like them.  The picture, no doubt, is horrible, distressing, and revolting but, unhappily, it is only too true.  In every large town, in every market, on every stock-exchange, in every club, you may see specimens of this class by the scores--men who think of everything under the sun except the one thing needful--the salvation of their souls.

Like the Jews of old they do not "consider their ways," they do not "consider their latter end;" they do not "consider that they do evil" (Isaiah 1:3; Haggai 1:7; Deuteronomy 32:29; Ecclesiastes 5:1).  Like Gallio they "care for none of these things:" they are not in their way. (Acts 18:17).  If they prosper in the world, and get rich, and succeed in their line of life, they are praised, and admired by their contemporaries.  Nothing succeeds today like success!  But for all this they cannot live forever.  They will have to die and appear before the bar of God, and be judged; and then what will the end be?  When a large class of this kind exists in our country, no reader need wonder that I ask whether he belongs to it.  If you do, you ought to have a mark set on your door, as there used to be a mark on a plague-stricken house two centuries ago, with the words, "Lord have mercy on us," written on it.  Look at the class I have been describing, and then look at your own soul.

(2) Let me ask, in the second place, whether we ever do anything about our souls? 

There are multitudes who think occasionally about Christianity, but unhappily never get beyond thinking.  After a stirring sermon, or after a funeral, or under the pressure of illness, or on Sunday evening, or when things go bad in their families, or when they meet some bright example of a Christian, or when they fall in with some striking, religious book or tract, they will at the time think a good deal, and even talk a little  about religion in a vague way.  But they stop short, as if thinking and talking were enough to save them.  They are always meaning, and intending, and purposing, and resolving, and wishing, and telling us that they "know" what is right, and "hope" to be found right in the end, but they never attain to any action.

There is no actual separation from the world and sin, no real taking up the cross and following Christ, no positive "doings" in their Christianity.  Their life is spent in playing the part of the son in our Lord's parable, to whom the father said, "'Go and work today in the vineyard:' and he answered, 'I will, sir,' but he did not go" (Matthew 21:30). 

They are like those whom Ezekiel describes, who liked his preaching, but never practiced what he preached: "My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to listen to your words, but they do not put them into practice. . . .Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice" (Ezekiel 33:31- 32).   

In a day like this, when hearing and thinking without doing, is so common, no one can rightly wonder that I press upon men the absolute need of self-examination.  Once more, then, I ask my readers to consider the question of my text, "How is it with our souls?"

(3) Let me ask, in the third place, whether we are trying to satisfy our consciences with a mere formal religion? 

There are myriads at this moment who are making shipwreck on this rock.  Like the Pharisees of old, they make much ado about the outward part of Christianity, while the inward and spiritual part is totally neglected.  They are careful to attend all the services of their place of worship, and are regular at all the church functions.  They are never absent from Communion when the Lord's Supper is administered.  Sometimes they are most strict in observing Lent, and attach great importance to Saints' days.  They are often keen partisans of their own Church, or sect, or congregation, and ready to contend with any one who does not agree with them.  Yet all this time there is no heart in their religion. 

Anyone who knows them intimately can see with half an eye that their affections are set on things below, and not on things above; and that they are trying to make up for the want of inward Christianity by an excessive quantity of outward form.  And this formal religion does them no real good.  They are not satisfied.  Beginning at the wrong end, by making the outward things first, they know nothing of inward joy and peace, and pass their days in a constant struggle, secretly conscious that there is something wrong, and yet not knowing why.  It would be well, after all, if they do not go on from one stage of formality to another, until in despair they take a fatal plunge, and fall into Roman Catholicism!  When professing Christians of this kind are so painfully numerous, no one need wonder if I press upon him the paramount importance of close self-examination.  If you love life, do not be content with the husk, and shell, and scaffolding of religion.  Remember our Savior's words about the Jewish formalists of His day: "These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.  They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men" (Matthew 15:8-9). 

It needs something more than going diligently to church, and receiving the Lord's Supper, to take our souls to heaven.  These things are useful in their way, and God seldom does anything for His church without them.  But let us beware of making shipwreck on the very lighthouse which helps to show the channel into the harbor.  Once more I ask, "How is it with our souls?"

(4)  Let me ask, in the fourth place, whether we have received the forgiveness of our sins? 

Few reasonable persons would think of denying that they are sinners.  Many perhaps would say that they are not as bad as others, and that they have not been really wicked, and so forth.  But few, I repeat, would pretend to say that they had always lived like angels, and never done, or said, or thought a wrong thing all their life.  In short, all of us must confess that we are "sinners," and, as sinners, are guilty before God; and, as guilty, we must be forgiven, or be lost and condemned forever at the last day.  Now it is the glory of the Christian religion that it provides for us the very forgiveness that we need--full, free, perfect, eternal, and complete.  It is a fundamental belief of the Christian Faith that we are forgiven.

This forgiveness of sins has been purchased for us by the eternal Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ.  He has purchased it for us by coming into the world to be our Savior, and by living, dying, and rising again, as our Substitute, in our behalf.  He has bought it for us at the price of His own most precious blood, by suffering in our place on the cross, and making satisfaction to God for our sins.  But this forgiveness, great, and full, and glorious as it is, does not become the property of every man and woman as a matter of course.  It is not a privilege which every member of a church possesses, merely because they are a member of a church.  It is a thing which each individual must receive for himself by his own personal faith, grab hold of by faith, appropriate by faith, and make his own by faith: or else, so far as he is concerned, Christ will have died in vain.  "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him" (John 3:36).

No terms can be imagined more simple, and more suitable to man.  As good old Latimer said in speaking of the matter of justification, "It is but believe and have.  It is only faith that is required; and faith is nothing more than the humble, heartfelt trust of the soul which desires to be saved.  Jesus is able and willing to save; but man must come to Jesus and believe.  All that believe are at once justified and forgiven: but without believing there is no forgiveness at all.

Now here is exactly the point, I am afraid, because multitudes of our people who go to church are unsaved sinners, and are in imminent danger of being lost forever.  They know that there is no forgiveness of sin except in Christ Jesus.  They can tell you that there is no Savior for sinners, no Redeemer, no Mediator, excepting Him who was born of the Virgin Mary, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, died, and buried.  But here they stop, and get no further!  They never come to the point of  actually laying hold of Christ by faith, and becoming one with Christ and Christ in them.  They can say, He is a Savior, but not my Savior--a Redeemer, but not my Redeemer--a Priest, but not my Priest--an Advocate, but not my Advocate: and so they live and die unforgiven!  No wonder that Martin Luther said, "Many are lost because they cannot use possessive pronouns.  When this is the state of many in this day, no one need wonder that I ask men whether they have received the forgiveness of sins. 

An eminent Christian lady once said, in her old age, "The beginning of eternal life in my soul, was a conversation I had with an old gentleman who came to visit my father when I was only a little girl.  He took me by the hand one day and said, My dear child, my life is nearly over, and you will probably live many years after I am gone.  But never forget two things.  One is, that there is such a thing as having our sins forgiven while we live.  The other is, that there is such a thing as knowing and feeling that we are forgiven.  I thank God I have never forgotten his words."  How is it with us?  Let us not rest till we "know and feel" that we are forgiven.  Once more let us ask, in the matter of forgiveness of sins, "How is it with our souls?"

(5)  Let me ask, in the fifth place, whether we know anything by experience of conversion to God. 

Without conversion there is no salvation. 

Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3).

No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again (John 3:3).

If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ (Romans 8:9).

If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17).

We are all by nature so weak, so worldly, so earthly-minded, so inclined to sin, that without a thorough change we cannot serve God in life, and could not enjoy Him after death.  Just as ducks, as soon as they are hatched, take naturally to water, so do children, as soon as they can do anything, take to selfishness, lying, and deceit; and none pray or love God, unless they are taught.  Rich or poor, gentle or simple, we all need a complete change--a change which the Holy Spirit gives to us.  Call it what you please--new birth, regeneration, renewal, new creation, quickening, repentance--the thing must be possessed if we are to be saved: and if we have the thing it will be seen.

Sense of sin and deep hatred of it, faith in Christ and love to Him, delight in holiness and longing after more of it, love for God's people and distaste for the things of the world,--these, these are the signs and evidences which always accompany conversion.  Myriads around us, it may be feared, know nothing about it.  They are, in Scripture language, dead, and asleep, and blind, and unfit for the kingdom of God.  Year after year, perhaps, they go on repeating the words, "I believe in the Holy Spirit," but they are utterly ignorant of His changing power on the inward man.  Sometimes they flatter themselves they are born again,  because they have been baptized, and go to church, and receive the Lord's Supper; while they are totally destitute of the marks of the new birth, as described by John in his first Epistle.  And all this time the words of Scripture are clear and plain, "Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3).

In times like these, no reader ought to wonder that I press the subject of conversion on men's souls.  No doubt there are plenty of sham conversions in such a day of religious excitement as this.  But a bad coin is no proof that there is no good money: no, rather it is a sign that there is some money currency which is valuable, and is worth imitation.  Hypocrites and sham Christians are indirect evidence that there is such a thing as real grace among men.  Let us search our own hearts then, and see how it is with ourselves.  Once more let us ask, in the matter of conversion, "How is it with us?"

(6)  Let me ask, in the sixth place, whether we know anything of practical Christian holiness? 

It is as certain as anything in the Bible that "without holiness no one will see the Lord" (Hebrews 12:14).  It is equally certain that it is the invariable fruit of saving faith, the real test of regeneration, the only sound evidence of indwelling grace, the certain consequence of vital union with Christ.

Holiness is not absolute perfection and freedom from all faults.  Nothing of the kind!  The wild words of some who talk of enjoying "unbroken communion with God for many months, are greatly to be condemned, because they raise unscriptural expectations in the minds of young believers, and so do harm.  Absolute perfection is for heaven, and not for earth, where we have a weak body, a wicked world, and a busy devil continually near our souls.  Nor is real Christian holiness ever attained, or maintained, without a constant fight and struggle.  The great Apostle, who said "I beat my body and make it my slave (1 Corinthians 9:27), would have been amazed to hear of sanctification without personal effort, and to be told that believers only need to sit still, and everything will be done for them!

Yet, weak and imperfect as the holiness of the best saints may be, it is a real true thing, and has a character about it as unmistakable as light and salt.  It is not a thing which begins and ends with noisy profession: it will be seen much more than heard.  Genuine Scriptural holiness will make a man do his duty at home, and adorn his doctrine in the little trials of daily life.  It will make a man humble, kind, gentle, unselfish, good-tempered, considerate of others, loving, meek, and forgiving.  It will not force him to go out of the world, and shut himself up in a cave, like a hermit.  But it will make him do his duty in that state to which God has called him, on Christian principles, and after the pattern of Christ.

Such holiness, I know well, is not common.  It is a style of practical Christianity which is painfully rare in these days.  But I can find no other standard of holiness in the Word of God, no other which comes up to the pictures drawn by our Lord and His Apostles.  In an age like this no  reader can wonder if I press this subject also on men's attention.  Once more let us ask--In the matter of holiness, how is it with our souls? "How are we doing?"

(7)  Let me ask, in the seventh place, whether we know anything of enjoying the means of grace? 

When I speak of the means of grace, I have in my mind's eye five principal things:

                        The Reading of the Bible                             Private Prayer                             Public Worship                     The Taking of the Lord's Supper                       The Rest of the Lord's day.

They are means which God has graciously appointed in order to convey grace to man's heart by the Holy Spirit, or keep up the spiritual life after it has begun.  As long as the world stands, the state of a man's soul will always depend greatly on the manner and spirit in which he uses means of grace.  The manner and spirit, I say deliberately and of purpose.  Many people use the means of grace regularly and formally, but know nothing of enjoying them: they attend to them as a matter of duty, but without a lot of feeling, interest, or affection.  Yet even common sense might tell us that this formal, mechanical use of holy things is utterly worthless and unprofitable.  Our feeling about them is just one of the many tests of the state of our souls.    How can that man be thought to love God who reads about Him and His Christ as a mere matter of duty, content and satisfied if he has just moved his bookmark onward over so many chapters? How can that man suppose he is ready to meet Christ who never takes any trouble to pour out his heart to Him in private as a Friend, and is satisfied with saying over a string of words every morning and evening, under the name of prayer, scarcely thinking what he is about?  How could that man be happy in heaven forever who finds Sunday a dull, gloomy, tiresome day--who knows nothing of hearty prayer and praise, and cares nothing whether he hears truth or error from the pulpit, or scarcely listens to the sermon?  What can be the spiritual condition of that man whose heart never "burns within him," when he receives that bread and wine which specially remind us of Christ's death on the cross, and the atonement for sin? 

These inquiries are very serious and important.  If means of grace had no other use, and were not mighty helps toward heaven, they would be useful in supplying a test of our real state in the sight of God.  Tell me what a man does in the matter of Bible reading and praying, in the matter of Sunday, public worship, and the Lord's Supper, and I will soon tell you what he is, and on which road he is traveling.  How is it with ourselves?  Once more let us ask--In the matter of means of grace, "How are we doing?"

(8)  Let me ask, in the eighth place, whether we ever try to do any good in the world?

Our Lord Jesus Christ was continually "going around doing good," while He was on earth (Acts 10:38).  The Apostles, and all the disciples in Bible  times, were always striving to walk in His steps.  A Christian who was content to go to heaven himself and cared not what became of others, whether they lived happy and died in peace or not, would have been regarded as a kind of monst

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