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Warning #5 to the Church

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

Category: Sermons

Source: CCN


For more than a century, J. C. Ryle was the leader of the evangelical party in the Church of England.  His policy was to encourage the conservative men to remain in the church rather than to abandon ship and leave the liberals to pursue their program unhindered.

J. C. Ryle is 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have been consistently recognized, and their usefulness and impact have continued to the present day, even in the outdated English of the author's own day.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. 

                        Warning #5 to the Church

                    All Kinds of Strange Teachings                                   by                               J. C. Ryle                               (1816-1900)

      "Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings.         It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace,         not by ceremonial foods, which are of no value to those                       who eat them" (Hebrews 13:9)

The text which heads this paper is an apostolic caution against false doctrine.  It forms part of a warning which Paul addressed to Hebrew Christians.  It is a caution just as much needed now as it was eighteen hundred years ago.  Never, I think, was it so important for Christian ministers to cry aloud continually, "Do not be carried away."

That old enemy of mankind, the devil, has no more subtle instrument for ruining souls than that of spreading false doctrine.  "A murderer and a liar from the beginning. . . .your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour."  Outside the Church he is ever persuading men to maintain outrageous customs and destructive superstitions.  Human sacrifice to idols, gross revolting, cruel, disgusting worship of abominable false deities, persecution, slavery, cannibalism, child murder, devastating religious wars--all these are a part of Satan's handiwork, and the fruit of his suggestions.  Like a pirate, his object is to "sink, burn, and destroy."  Inside the Church he is ever laboring to sow heresies, to propagate errors, to foster departures from the faith.  If he cannot prevent the waters flowing from the Fountain of Life, he tries hard to poison them.  If he cannot destroy the remedy of the Gospel, he strives to adulterate and corrupt it.  No wonder that he is called "Apollyon, the destroyer."

The Divine Comforter of the Church, the Holy Spirit, has always employed one great agent to oppose Satan's plans.  That agent is the Word of God.  The Word expounded and unfolded, the Word explained and opened up, the Word made clear to the head and applied to the heart.  The Word is the chosen weapon by which the devil must be confronted and confounded.  The Word was the sword which the Lord Jesus wielded in the temptation.  To every assault of the Tempter, He replied, "It is written."  The Word is the sword which His ministers must use in the present day, if they would successfully resist the devil.  The Bible, faithfully and freely expounded, is the safeguard of Christ's Church.

I desire to remember this lesson, and to invite attention to the text which stands at the head of this paper.  We live in an age when men profess to dislike dogmas and creeds, and are filled with a morbid dislike to controversial theology.  He who dares to say of one doctrine that "it is true," and of another that "it is false," must expect to be called narrow-minded and uncharitable, and to lose the praise of men.  Nevertheless, the Scripture was not written in vain.  Let us examine the mighty lessons contained in Paul's words to the Hebrews.  They are lessons for us as well as for them.

I. First, we have here a broad warning: "Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings."

II. Secondly, we have here a valuable prescription: "It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by ceremonial foods."

III. Lastly, we have here an instructive fact: "Ceremonial foods are of no value to those who eat them."

On each of these points I have something to say.  If we patiently plow up this field of truth, we shall find that there is precious treasure hidden in it.

1. First comes the broad warning.  "Do not be not carried away by all kinds of strange teachings."

The meaning of these words is not a hard thing to understand.  "Be not tossed back and forth," the Apostle seems to say, "by every blast of false teaching, like ships without compass or rudder.  False doctrines will arise as long as the world lasts, in many numbers, with varying minor details, in one point alone always the same--strange, new, foreign, and departing from the Gospel of Christ.  They do exist now.  They will always be found within the visible Church.  Remember this, and do not be carried away."  Such is Paul's warning.

The Apostle's warning does not stand alone.  Even in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount there fell from the loving lips of our Savior a solemn caution: "Watch out for false prophets.  They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves" (Matthew 7:15).  Even in Paul's last address to the Ephesian elders, he finds time to warn his friends against false doctrine: "Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them" (Acts 20:30). 

Note what the Second Epistle to the Corinthians says: "I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent's cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ" (2 Corinthians 11:3).  Note what the Epistle to the Galatians says: "I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel."  "Who has bewitched you?"  "After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?"  "How is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles?"  "You are observing special days and months and seasons and years!"  "I fear for you."  "Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." (Galatians 1:6; 3:1, 3; 4:9, 10, 11; 5:1). 

Note what the Epistle to the Ephesians says: "No longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching" (Ephesians 4:14).  Note what the Epistle to the Colossians says: "See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ" (Colossians 2:8).  Note what the First Epistle to Timothy says: "The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith" (1 Timothy 4:1).  Note what the Second Epistle of Peter says: "There will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies" (2 Peter 2:1).  Note what the First Epistle of John says: "Do not believe every spirit.  Many false prophets have gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1).  Note what the Epistle of Jude says: "Contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.  For certain men have secretly slipped in among you" (Jude 1:3, 4).  These things were written for our learning.

What shall we say about these texts?  How they may strike others I cannot say.  I only know how they strike me.  To tell us, as some do, in the face of these texts, that the early Churches were a model of perfection and purity, is absurd even in Apostolic days, its appears, there were abundant errors both in doctrine and practice.  To tell us, as others do, that pastors ought never to handle controversial subjects, and never to warn their people against erroneous views, is senseless and unreasonable.  If we did this then we would have to ignore most of the New Testament.  Surely the dumb dog and the sleeping shepherd are the best allies of the wolf, the thief, and the robber.  It is not for nothing that Paul says, "If you point these things out to the brothers, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus" (1 Timothy 4:6).

A plain warning against false doctrine is especially needed in the present day.  The school of the Pharisees, and the school of the Sadducees, those ancient mothers of all mischief, were never more active than they are now. 

--Between men adding to the truth on one side, and men taking away from it on the other. 

--Between those who bury truth under additions, and those who mutilate it by subtractions.

--Between superstition and infidelity.

--Between Roman Catholicism and neology [New Theology].

--Between Ritualism and Rationalism.

Between these upper and lower millstones the Gospel is near being crushed to death!  Strange views are continually propounded by pastors about subjects of the deepest importance.  About the atonement, the divinity of Christ, the inspiration of the Bible, the reality of miracles, the eternity of future punishment, about the Church, the ministerial office, the Lord's Supper, Baptism, the confessional, the honor due to the Virgin, prayers for the dead.  About all these things there is nothing too outrageous to be taught by some ministers in these latter days.  By the pen and by the tongue, by the press and by the pulpit, the country is incessantly deluged with a flood of erroneous opinions.  To ignore the fact is mere blindness.  Others see it, even if we pretend to be ignorant of it.  The danger is real, great, and unmistakable.  Never was it so needful to say, "Do not be carried away."

Many things combine to make the present inroad of false doctrine peculiarly dangerous.  There is an undeniable zeal in some of the teachers of error: their "earnestness" makes many think they must be right.  There is a great appearance of learning and theological knowledge: many fancy that such clever and intellectual men must surely be safe guides.  There is a general tendency to free thought and free inquiry in these latter days: many like to prove their independence of judgment, by believing novelties.  There is a wide-spread desire to appear charitable and liberal-minded: many seem half ashamed of saying that anybody can be in the wrong.  There is a quantity of half-truth taught by the modern false teachers: they are incessantly using Scriptural terms and phrases in an unscriptural sense.  There is a morbid craving in the public mind for a more sensuous, ceremonial, sensational, showy worship: men are impatient of inward, invisible heart-work.  There is a silly readiness in every direction to believe everybody who talks cleverly, lovingly, and earnestly, and a determination to forget that Satan often masquerades himself "as an angel of light" (2 Corinthians 11:14).  There is a wide-spread "gullibility" among professing Christians: every heretic who tells his story plausibly is sure to be believed, and everybody who doubts him is called a persecutor and a narrow-minded man.  All these things are peculiar symptoms of our times.  I defy any observing person to deny them.  They tend to make the assaults of false doctrine in our day peculiarly dangerous.  They make it more than ever needful to cry aloud, "Do not be carried away!"

If any one should ask me, What is the best safeguard against false doctrine?--I answer in one word, "The Bible: the Bible regularly read, regularly prayed over, regularly studied."  We must go back to the old prescription of our Master: "Diligently study the Scriptures" (John 5:39).  If we want a weapon to wield against the plans of Satan, there is nothing like "the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God."  But to wield it successfully, we must read it habitually, diligently, intelligently, and prayerfully.  This is a point on which, I fear, many fail.  In an age of hurry and activity, few read their Bibles as much as they should.  More books perhaps are read than ever, but less of the one Book which makes man wise to salvation.  The Roman Catholic Church and new theology could never have made such havoc in the Church in the last fifty years, if there had not been a most superficial knowledge of the Scriptures throughout the land.  A Bible-reading congregation is the strength of a Church.

"Diligently study the Scriptures."  Mark how the Lord Jesus Christ and His Apostles continually refer to the Old Testament, as a document just as authoritative as the New.  Mark how they quote texts from the Old Testament, as the voice of God, as if every word was given by inspiration.  Mark how the greatest miracles in the Old Testament are all referred to in the New, as unquestioned and unquestionable facts.  Mark how all the leading events in the Pentateuch are incessantly named as historical events, whose reality admits of no dispute.  Mark how the atonement, and substitution, and sacrifice, run through the whole Bible from first to last, as essential doctrines of revelation.  Mark how the resurrection of Christ, the greatest of all miracles, is proved by such an overwhelming mass of evidence, that he who disbelieves it may as well say he will believe no evidence at all.  Mark all these things, and you will find it very hard to be a Rationalist!  Great are the difficulties of unbelief: it requires more faith to be an unbeliever than a Christian.  But greater still are the difficulties of Rationalism.  Free handling of Scripture--results of modern criticism--broad and liberal theology--all these are fine, swelling, high-sounding phrases, which please some minds, and look very grand at a distance.  But the man who looks below the surface of things will soon find that there is no sure standing-ground between ultra-Rationalism and Atheism.

"Diligently study the Scriptures."  Mark what a conspicuous absence there is in the New Testament of what may be called the Sacramental system, and the whole circle of Ritualistic theology.  Mark how extremely little there is said about the effects of Baptism.  Mark how very seldom the Lord's Supper is mentioned in the Epistles.  Find, if you can, a single text in which New Testament ministers are called sacrificing priests, or the Lord's Supper is called a sacrifice, or private confession to ministers is recommended and practiced.  Turn, if you can, to one single verse in which sacrificial vestments are named as desirable, or in which lighted candles, and pots of flowers on the Lord's Table, or processions, and incense, and flags, and banners, and turning to the east, and bowing down to the bread and wine, or prayer to the Virgin Mary and the angels, are sanctioned.  Mark these things well, and you will find it very hard to be a Ritualist!  You may find your authority for Ritualism in garbled quotations from the Fathers, in long extracts from monkish, mystical, or from Popes; but you certainly will not find it in the Bible.  Between the plain Bible, honestly and fairly interpreted, and extreme Ritualism there is gulf which cannot be passed.

"If we would not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings," we must remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ: "Diligently study the Scriptures."  Ignorance of the Bible is the root of all error.  Knowledge of the Bible is the best antidote against modern heresies.

II. I now proceed to examine Paul's valuable prescription: "It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by ceremonial foods."

There are two words in this prescription which require a little explanation.  A right understanding of them is absolutely essential to a proper use of the Apostle's advice.  One of these words is "foods," and the other is "grace."

To see the full force of the word "foods" we must remember the immense importance attached by many Jewish Christians to the distinctions of the ceremonial law about food.  The flesh of some animals and birds, according to Leviticus, might be eaten, and that of others might not be eaten.  Some foods were, consequently, called "clean," and others were called "unclean."  To eat certain kinds of flesh made a Jew ceremonially unholy before God, and no strict Jew would touch and eat such food on any account.  Now were these distinctions still to be kept up after Christ ascended into heaven, or were they done away by the Gospel?  Were heathen converts under any obligation to attend to the ceremonial of the Levitical law about food?  Were Jewish Christians obliged to be as strict about the foods they ate as they were before Christ died, and the veil of the temple was torn in two?  Was the ceremonial law about foods entirely done away, or was it not?  Was the conscience of a believer in the Lord Jesus to be troubled with fear lest his food should defile him?

Questions like these appear to have formed one of the great subjects of controversy in the Apostolic times.  As is often the case, they assumed a place entirely out of proportion to their real importance.  The Apostle Paul found it needful to handle the subject in no less than three of his Epistles to the Churches.  "Food," he says, "does not bring us near to God."  "The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking."  "Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink." (1 Corinthians 8:8; Romans 14:17; Colossians 2:16).  Nothing shows the fallen nature of man so clearly as the readiness of morbid and scrupulous consciences to turn trifles into serious things.  At last the controversy seems to have spread so far and obtained such dimensions, that "foods" became an expression to denote anything ceremonial added to the Gospel as a thing of primary importance, any Ritual trifle thrust out of its lawful place and magnified into an essential of religion.  In this sense, I believe, the word must be taken in the text now before us.  By "foods" Paul means ceremonial observances, either wholly invented by man, or else built on Mosaic precepts which have been abrogated and superseded by the Gospel.  It is an expression which was well understood in the Apostolic days.

The word "grace," on the other hand, seems to be employed as a comprehensive description of the whole Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Of that glorious Gospel, grace is the main feature, grace in the original scheme, grace in the execution, grace in the application to man's soul.  Grace is the fountain of life from which our salvation flows.  Grace is the agency through which our spiritual life is kept up. 

Are we justified?        It is by grace.  Are we called?          It is by grace.  Have we forgiveness?    It is through the riches of grace.  Have we good hope?      It is through grace. Do we believe?          It is through grace. Are we elect?            It is by the election of grace. Are we saved?            It is by grace.

Why should I say more?  The time would fail me to exhibit fully the part that grace does in the whole work of redemption.  No wonder that Paul says to the Romans, "We are not under the law, but under grace;" and tells Titus, "The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men." (Romans 3:24; Galatians 1:15; Ephesians 1:7; 2Thessalonians 2:16; Acts 18:27; Romans 1:15; Ephesians 2:5; Romans 6:15; Titus 2:11).

Such are the two great principles which Paul puts in strong contrast in the prescription we are now considering.  He places opposite to one another "foods" and "grace" --Ceremonialism and the Gospel--Ritualism and the free love of God in Christ Jesus.  And then he lays down the great principle that it is by "grace," and "not foods," that the heart is strengthened.

Now "strengthening of the heart" is one of the great wants of many professing Christians.  Especially is it longed after by those whose knowledge is imperfect, and whose conscience is half enlightened.  Such persons often feel in themselves much indwelling sin, and at the same time see very indistinctly God's remedy and Christ's fullness.  Their faith is feeble, their hope dim, and their consolations small.  They want to realize more tangible comfort.  They fancy they ought to feel more and see more.  They are not at ease.  They cannot attain to joy and peace in believing.  Where shall they turn?  What shall set their consciences at rest?  Then comes the enemy of souls, and suggests some shortcut road to establishment.  He hints at the value of some addition to the simple plan of the Gospel, some man-made gimmick, some exaggeration of a truth, some flesh-satisfying invention, some improvement on the old path, and whispers, "Only use this, and you shall be strengthened."  Plausible offers flow in at the same time from every quarter, like quack medicines.  Each has its own patrons and advocates.  On every side the poor unstable soul hears invitations to move in some particular direction, and then shall come perfect strength.

"Come to us," says the Roman Catholic.  "Join the Catholic Church, the Church on the Rock, the one, true, holy Church; the Church that cannot err.  Come to her bosom, and rest your soul in her protection.  Come to us, and you will find strength."

"Come to us," says the extreme Ritualist.  "You need higher and fuller views of the priesthood and the Sacraments, of the Real Presence in the Lord's Supper, of the soothing influence of daily service, daily masses, confession to priests, and priestly absolution.  Come and take up sound Church views, and you will find strength."

"Come to us," says the violent Liberationist.  "Cast off the traditions and rules of established Churches.  Enjoy religious liberty.  Throw away forms and Prayer-books.  Join our party.  Cast in your lot with us, and you will soon be strengthened."

"Come to us," say the Plymouth Brethren.  "Shake off all the bondage of creeds and Churches and systems.  We will soon show you higher, deeper, more exalting, more enlightened views of truth.  Join the brethren, and you will soon be strengthened."

"Come to us," says the Rationalist.  "Lay aside the old worn-out clothes of unfruitful schemes of Christianity.  Give your reason free scope and play.  Begin a freer mode of handling Scripture.  Be no more a slave to an ancient old world book.  Break your chains and you shall be strengthened."

Every experienced Christian knows well that such appeals are constantly made to unsettled minds in the present day?  Who has not seen that, when boldly and confidently made, they produce a painful effect on some people?  Who has not observed that they often beguile unstable souls, and lead them into misery for years?

"What does the Scripture say?"  This is the only sure guide.  Hear what Paul says.  Heart strength is not to be obtained by joining this party or that.  It comes "by grace, and not by foods."  Other things have a "show of wisdom" perhaps, and give a temporary satisfaction "to the flesh." (Colossians 2:23).  But they have no healing power about them in reality, and leave the unhappy man who trusts them nothing bettered, but rather worse.

A clearer knowledge of the Divine scheme of grace, its eternal purposes, its application to man by Christ's redeeming work, a firmer grasp of the doctrine of grace, of God's free love in Christ, of Christ's full and complete satisfaction for sin, of justification by simple faith, a more intimate acquaintance with Christ the Giver and Fountain of grace, His offices, His sympathy, His power, a more thorough experience of the inward work of grace in the heart, this, this, this is the grand secret of heart strength.  This is the old path of peace.  This is the true panacea for restless consciences.  It may seem at first too simple, too easy, too cheap, too commonplace, too plain.  But all the wisdom of man will never show the heavy-laden a better road to heart-rest.  Secret pride and self-righteousness, I fear, are too often the reason why this good old road is not used.

I believe there never was a time when it was more needful to uphold the old Apostolic prescription than it is in the present day.  Never were there so many weak and worried Christians wandering about, and tossed to and fro, from want of knowledge.  Never was it so important for faithful ministers to set the trumpet to their mouths and proclaim everywhere, "Grace, grace, grace, not foods, establishes the heart."

From the days of the Apostles there have never been a lack of quack spiritual doctors, who have professed to heal the wounds of conscience with man-made remedies.  In our own beloved Church there have always been some who have in heart turned back to Egypt, and, not content with the simplicity of our worship, have hankered after the ceremonial fleshpots of the Catholic Church of Rome.  To hear the Sacraments incessantly exalted, and preaching played down, to see the Lord's Supper turned into an idol under the pretext of making it more honorable, to find plain worship overlaid with so many newfangled ornaments and ceremonies that its essentials are quite buried, how common is all this!  These things were once a pestilence that walked in darkness.  They are now a destruction that wastes in noonday.  They are the joy of our enemies, the sorrow of the Church's best children, the damage of English Christianity, the plague of our times.  And to what may they all be traced?  The neglect and the forgetfulness of Paul's simple prescription: "Grace, and not foods, strengthens the heart."

Let us take heed that in our own personal religion, grace is all.  Let us have clear systematic views of the Gospel of the grace of God.  Nothing else will do good in the hour of sickness, in the day of trial, on the bed of death, and in the swellings of Jordan.  Christ dwelling in our hearts by faith, Christ's free grace the only foundation under the soles of our feet--this alone will give peace.  Once let in self, and forms, and man's inventions, as a necessary part of our religion, and we are on a quicksand.  We may be amused, excited, or kept quiet for a time, like children with toys, by a religion of "foods."  Such a religion has "a show of wisdom."  But unless our religion be one in which "grace" is all, we shall never feel strengthened.

III. In the last place, I proceed to examine the instructive fact which Paul records.  He says, "Ceremonial foods are of no value to those who eat them."

We have no means of knowing whether the Apostle, in using this language, referred to any particular Churches or individuals.  Of course it is possible that he had in view the Judaizing Christians of Antioch and Galatia, or the Ephesians of whom he speaks to Timothy in his pastoral Epistle, or the Colossians who caused him so much inward conflict, or the Hebrew believers in every Church, without exception.  It seems to me far more probable, however, that he had no particular Church or Churches in view.  I rather think that he makes a broad, general, sweeping statement about all who in any place had exalted ceremonial at the expense of the doctrines of "grace."  And he makes a wide declaration about them all.  They have got no good from their favorite notions.  They have not been more inwardly happy, more outwardly holy, or more generally useful.  Their religion has been most unprofitable to them.  Man-made alterations of God's precious medicine for sinners, man-made additions to Christ's glorious Gospel, however superficially defended and plausibly supported, do no real good to those that adopt them.  They confer no increased inward comfort; they brin

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