Warning #1 to the Church The True Church
Written by: Ryle, J.C. Posted on: 04/02/2003
For more than a century, J. C. Ryle's 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day, even in the outdated English of the author's own day.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.
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 #1 to the Church
The True Church
J. C. Ryle
The following Sermon was preached in England, in August, 1858.
"On this rock I will build my church,
and the gates of hell will not
overcome it" (Matthew 16:18)
We live in a world in which all things are passing away. Kingdoms,
empires, cities, institutions, families, all are liable to change and
corruption. One universal law seems to prevail everywhere. In all
created things there is a tendency to decay.
There is something sad and depressing in this. What profit has a man in
the labor of his hands? Is there nothing that shall stand? Is there
nothing that shall last? Is there nothing that shall endure? Is there
nothing of which we can say--This shall continue forever? You have the
answer to these questions in the words of our text. Our Lord Jesus
Christ speaks of something which shall continue, and not pass away.
There is one created thing which is an exception to the universal rule to
which I have referred. There is one thing which shall never perish and
pass away. That thing is the building founded upon the rock--the Church
of our Lord Jesus Christ. He declares, in the words you have heard
tonight: "On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell
will not overcome it."
There are five things in these words which demand your attention:
1. A Building: "My Church"
2. A Builder: Christ says, "I will build My Church"
3. A Foundation: "On this rock I will build My Church"
4. Perils Implied: "The gates of hell"
5. Security Asserted: "The gates of hell will not overcome it"
May God bless the words that shall be spoken. May we all search our own
hearts tonight, and know whether or not we belong to this one Church.
May we all go home to reflect and to pray!
1. First, you have a "Building" mentioned in the text. The Lord Jesus
Christ speaks of "My Church."
Now what is this Church? Few inquiries can be made of more importance
than this. For want of due attention to this subject, the errors that
have crept into the Church, and into the world, are neither few nor
The Church of our text is no material building. It is no temple made
with hands, of wood, or brick, or stone, or marble. It is a company of
men and women. It is no particular visible Church on earth. It is not
the Eastern Church or the Western Church. It is not the Church of
England, or the Church of Scotland--much less is it the Church of Rome.
The Church of our text is one that makes far less show in the eyes of
man, but is of far more importance in the eyes of God.
The Church of our text is made up of all true believers in the Lord Jesus
Christ. It comprehends all who have repented of sin, and fled to Christ
by faith, and been made new creatures in Him. It comprises all God's
elect, all who have received God's grace, all who have been washed in
Christ's blood, all who have been clothed in Christ's righteousness, all
who have been born again and sanctified by Christ's Spirit. All such, of
every nation, and people, and tongue, compose the Church of our text.
This is the body of Christ. This is the flock of Christ. This is the
bride. This is the Lamb's wife. This is the Church on the rock.
The members of this Church do not all worship God in the same way, or use
the same form of government. Our own 34th Article declares, "It is not
necessary that ceremonies should be in all places one and alike." But
they all worship with one heart. They are all led by one Spirit. They
are all really and truly holy. They can all say "Alleluia," and they can
all reply "Amen."
This is that Church, to which all visible Churches on earth are servants.
Whether they are Episcopalian, Independent, or Presbyterian, they all
serve the interests of the one true Church. They are the scaffolding,
behind which the great building is carried on. They are the husk, under
which the living kernel grows. They have their various degrees of
usefulness. The best and worthiest of them is that which trains up most
members for Christ's true Church. But no visible Church has any right to
say, "We are the only true Church. We are the men, and wisdom shall die
with us." No visible Church should ever dare to say, "We shall stand for
ever. The gates of hell will not overcome us."
This is that Church to which belong the Lord's precious promises of
preservation, continuance, protection, and final glory. "Whatsoever,"
says Hooker, "we read in Scripture, concerning the endless love and
saving mercy which God shows towards His Churches, the only proper
subject is this Church, which we properly term the mystical body of
Christ." Small and despised as the true Church may be in this world, it
is precious and honorable in the sight of God. The temple of Solomon in
all its glory was nothing, in comparison with that Church which is built
upon a rock.
Men and brethren, see that you hold sound doctrine on the subject of "the
Church." A mistake here may lead to dangerous and soul-ruining errors.
The Church which is made up of true believers, is the Church for which
we, who are ministers, are specially ordained to preach. The Church
which comprises all who repent and believe the Gospel, is the Church to
which we desire you to belong. Our work is not done, and our hearts are
not satisfied, until you are made new creatures, and are members of the
one true Church. Outside of this Church there can be no salvation.
2. I pass on to the second point, to which I proposed to call your
attention. Our text contains not merely a building, but a Builder. The
Lord Jesus Christ declares, "I will build My Church."
The true Church of Christ is tenderly cared for by all the three persons
of the blessed Trinity. In the economy of redemption, beyond all doubt,
God the Father chooses, and God the Holy Spirit sanctifies, every member
of Christ's mystical body. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy
Spirit, three Persons and one God, cooperate for the salvation of every
saved soul. This is truth, which ought never to be forgotten.
Nevertheless, there is a peculiar sense in which the help of the Church
is laid on the Lord Jesus Christ. He is peculiarly and preeminently the
Redeemer and the Savior. Therefore it is, that we find Him saying in our
text, "I will build: the work of building is my special work."
It is Christ who calls the members of the Church in due time. They are
"the called of Jesus Christ" (Romans 1:6).
It is Christ who gives them life. "The Son gives life to whom he is
pleased to give it" (John 5:21).
It is Christ who washes away their sins. He "who loves us and has freed
us from our sins by his blood" (Revelation 1:5).
It is Christ who gives them peace. "Peace I leave with you; my peace I
give you" (John 14:27).
It is Christ who gives them eternal life. "I give them eternal life, and
they shall never perish" (John 10:28).
It is Christ who grants them repentance. "God exalted him to his own
right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance"
It is Christ who enables them to become God's children. "To all who
received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to
become children of God" (John 1:12).
It is Christ who carries on the work within them when it is begun.
"Because I live, you also will live" (John 14:19).
In short, "God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him
[Christ]" (Colossians 1:19). He is the author and finisher of faith.
From Him every joint and member of the mystical body of Christians is
supplied. Through Him they are strengthened for duty. By Him they are
kept from falling. He shall preserve them to the end, and present them
faultless before the Father's throne with exceeding great joy. He is all
things, and all in all to believers.
The mighty agent by whom the Lord Jesus Christ carries out this work in
the number of His Churches, is, without doubt, the Holy Spirit. He it is
who applies Christ and His benefits to the soul. He it is who is ever
renewing, awakening, convincing, leading to the cross, transforming,
taking out of the world, stone after stone, and adding it to the mystical
But the great Chief Builder, who has undertaken to execute the work of
redemption and bring it to completion, is the Son of God: the Word who
was made flesh. It is Jesus Christ who "builds."
In building the true Church, the Lord Jesus condescends to use many
subordinate instruments. The ministry of the Gospel, the circulation of
the Scriptures, the friendly rebuke, the word spoken in season, the
drawing influence of afflictions--all, all are means and methods by which
His work is carried on. But Christ is the great superintending
architect, ordering, guiding, directing all that is done. What the sun
is to the whole solar system, that Christ is to all the members of the
true Church. "Paul may plant, and Apollos water, but God gives the
increase." Ministers may preach, and writers may write, but the Lord
Jesus Christ alone can build. And except He builds, the work stands
Great is the wisdom with which the Lord Jesus Christ builds His Church.
All is done at the right time, and in the right way. Each stone in its
turn is put in the right place. Sometimes He chooses great stones, and
sometimes He chooses small stones. Sometimes the work moves fast, and
sometimes it moves slowly. Man is frequently impatient, and thinks that
nothing is happening. But man's time is not God's time. A thousand
years in His sight are but as a single day. The great Builder makes no
mistakes. He knows what He is doing. He sees the end from the
beginning. He works by a perfect, unalterable and certain plan. The
mightiest conceptions of architects, like Michael Angelo are mere
insignificant child's play, in comparison with Christ's wise counsels
respecting His Church.
Great is the condescension and mercy, which Christ exhibits in building
His Church. He often chooses the most unlikely and roughest stones, and
fits them into a most excellent work. He despises no one, and rejects
none, on account of former sins and past transgressions. He delights to
show mercy. He often takes the most thoughtless and ungodly, and
transforms them into polished corners of His spiritual temple.
Great is the power which Christ displays in building His Church. He
carries on his work in spite of opposition from the world, the flesh, and
the devil. In storm, in chaos, through troublesome times, silently,
quietly, without noise, without stir, without excitement, the building
progresses, like Solomon's temple. "I will work," He declares, "and none
shall stop it."
Brethren, the children of this world take little or no interest in the
building of this Church, They care little for the conversion of souls.
What are broken spirits and penitent hearts to them? It is all
foolishness in their eyes. But while the children of this world care
nothing, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God. For the
preserving of that Church, the laws of nature have oftentimes been
suspended. For the good of that Church, all the providential dealings of
God in this world are ordered and arranged. For the elect's sake, wars
are brought to an end, and peace is given to a nation. Statesmen,
rulers, emperors, kings, presidents, heads of governments, have their
schemes and plans, and think them of vast importance. But there is
another work going on of infinitely greater significance, for which they
are all but as the axes and saws in God's hands. That work is the
gathering in of living stones into the one true Church. How little are
we told in God's Word about unconverted men compared with what we are
told about believers! The history of Nimrod, the mighty hunter, is
dismissed in a few words. The history of Abraham, the father of the
faithful, occupies several chapters. Nothing in Scripture is so
important as the concerns of the true Church. The world makes up little
of God's Word. The Church and its story make up much.
For ever let us thank God, my beloved brethren, that the building of the
one true Church is laid on the shoulders of One that is mighty. Let us
bless God that it does not rest upon man. Let us bless God that it does
not depend on missionaries, ministers, or committees. Christ is the
almighty Builder. He will carry on His work, though nations and visible
Churches do not know their duty. Christ will never fail. That which He
has undertaken He will certainly accomplish.
3. I pass on to the third point, which I proposed to consider--The
Foundation upon which this Church is built. The Lord Jesus Christ tells
us, "On this rock I will build my church."
What did the Lord Jesus Christ mean, when He spoke of this foundation?
Did He mean the Apostle Peter, to whom He was speaking? I think
assuredly not. I can see no reason, if he meant Peter, why did He not
say, "On you" will I build My church. If He had meant Peter, He would
have said, I will build My Church on you, as plainly as He said, "I will
give you the keys." No! it was not the person of the Apostle Peter, but
the good confession which the Apostle had just made. It was not Peter,
the erring, unstable man; but the mighty truth which the Father had
revealed to Peter. It was the truth concerning Jesus Christ himself
which was the Rock. It was Christ's Mediatorship, and Christ's
Messiahship. It was the blessed truth, that Jesus was the promised
Savior, the true Guarantee, the real Intercessor between God and man.
This was the rock, and this was the foundation on which the Church of
Christ was to be built.
My brethren, this foundation was laid at a mighty cost. It was necessary
that the Son of God should take our nature upon Him, and in that nature
live, suffer, and die, not for His own sins, but for ours. It was
necessary that in that nature Christ should go to the grave, and rise
again. It was necessary that in that nature Christ should go up to
heaven, to sit at the right hand of God, having obtained eternal
redemption for all His people. No other foundation but this could have
borne the weight of that Church of which our text speaks. No other
foundation could have met the necessities of a world of sinners.
That foundation once obtained, is very strong. It can bear the weight of
the sin of all the world. It has borne the weight of all the sins of all
the believers who have built on it. Sins of thought, sins of the
imagination, sins of the heart, sins of the head, sins which every one
has seen, and sins which no man knows, sins against God, and sins against
man, sins of all kinds and descriptions--that mighty rock can bear the
weight of all these sins and not give way. The mediatorial office of
Christ is a sufficient remedy for all the sins of all the world.
To this one foundation every member of Christ's true Church is joined.
In many things believers are disunited and disagreed. In the matter of
their soul's foundation they are all of one mind. They are all built on
the rock. Ask where they get their peace, and hope, and joyful
expectation of good things to come. You would find that it all flows
from that one mighty truth--Christ the Mediator between God and man, and
the office that Christ holds, as the Highpriest and Promise of sinners.
Here is the point which demands our personal attention. Are we on the
rock? Are we really joined to the one foundation? What does that good
old godly man, Leighton say? "God has laid this precious stone for this
very purpose, that weary sinners may rest upon it. The multitude of
imaginary believers lie all around it, but they are not any better for
that, any more than stones that lie loose in heaps, near a foundation,
but not joined to it. There is no benefit to us by Christ, without union
Look to your foundation, my beloved brethren, if you would know whether
or not you are members of the one true Church. It is a point that may be
known to yourselves. Your public worship we can see, but we cannot see
whether you are personally built upon the rock. Your attendance at the
Lord's table we can see, but we cannot see whether you are joined to
Christ, and one with Christ, and Christ in you. But all shall come to
light one day. The secrets of all hearts shall be exposed. Perhaps you
go to church regularly and you pray faithfully. All this is right and
good, so far as it goes. But see that you make no mistake about your own
personal salvation. See that your own soul is on the rock. Without
this, all else is nothing. Without this, you will never stand in the day
of judgment. Better a thousand times in that day to be found in a
cottage on the rock, than in a palace on the sand!
4. I proceed, in the fourth place, to speak of the Implied Trials of the
Church, to which our text refers. There is mention made of "the gates of
hell." By that expression we are to understand the power of the devil!
The history of Christ's true Church has always been one of conflict and
war. It has been constantly assailed by a deadly enemy, Satan, the
prince of this world. The devil hates the true Church of Christ with an
undying hatred. He is ever stirring up opposition against all its
members. He is ever urging the children of this world to do his will,
and injure and harass the people of God. If he cannot bruise the head,
he will bruise the heel. If he cannot rob believers of heaven, he will
aggravate them as they travel the road to heaven.
For six thousand years this hostility has gone on. Millions of the
ungodly have been the devil's agents, and done the devil's work, though
they did not know it. The Pharaohs, the Herods, the Neros, the Julians,
the Diocletians, the bloody Marys--were Satan's tools, when they
persecuted the disciples of Jesus Christ.
Warfare with the powers of hell has been the experience of the whole body
of Christ. It has always been a bush burning, though not consumed--a
woman fleeing into the wilderness, but not swallowed up. The visible
Churches have their times of prosperity and seasons of peace, but never
has there been a time of peace for the true Church. Its conflict is
perpetual. Its battle never ends.
Warfare with the powers of hell is the experience of every individual
member of the true Church. Each has to fight. What are the lives of all
the saints, but records of battles? What were such men as Paul, and
James, and Peter, and John, and Polycarp, and Ignatius, and Augustine,
and Luther, and Calvin, and Latimer, and Baxter, but soldiers engaged in
a constant warfare? Sometimes their persons have been assailed, and
sometimes their property. Sometimes they have been harassed by slander,
and sometimes by open persecution. But in one way or another the devil
has been continually warring against the Church. The "gates of hell"
have been continually assaulting the people of Christ.
Men and brethren, we who preach the Gospel can hold out to all who come
to Christ, exceeding great and precious promises. We can offer boldly to
you in our Master's name, the peace of God which passes all
understanding. Mercy, free grace, and full salvation, are offered to
every one who will come to Christ, and believe on Him. But we promise
you no peace with the world, or with the devil. We warn you, on the
contrary, that there must be warfare, so long as you are in the body. We
would not keep you back, or deter you from Christ's service. But we
would have you count the cost, and fully understand what Christ's service
entails. Hell is behind you. Heaven is before you. Home lies on the
other side of a troubled sea. Thousands, tens of thousands have crossed
these stormy waters, and in spite of all opposition, have reached the
haven where they would be. Hell has assailed them, but has not
prevailed. Go forward, beloved brethren, and fear not the adversary.
Only abide in Christ, and the victory is sure.
Marvel not at the hatred of the gates of hell. "If you were of the
world, the world would love as its own." So long as the world is the
world, and the devil the devil, there must be warfare, and believers in
Christ must be soldiers. The world hated Christ, and the world will hate
true Christians, as long as the earth stands. As the great reformer,
Luther, said, "Cain will go on murdering Abel so long as the Church is on
Be prepared for the hostility of the gates of hell. Put on the whole
armor of God. The tower of David contains a thousand shields, all ready
for the use of God's people. The weapons of our warfare have been tried
by millions of poor sinners like ourselves, and have never been found
Be patient under the bitterness of the gates of hell. It is all working
together for your good. It tends to sanctify. It keeps you awake. It
makes you humble. It drives you nearer to the Lord Jesus Christ. It
weans you from the world. It helps to make you pray more. Above all, it
makes you long for heaven, and say with heart as well as lips, "Come,
Do not be cast down by the hatred of hell. The warfare of the true child
of God is as much a mark of grace as the inward peace which he enjoys.
No cross, no crown! No conflict, no saving Christianity! "Blessed are
you," said our Lord Jesus Christ, "when people insult you, persecute you
and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me."
5. There remains one thing more to be considered: the Security of the
true Church of Christ. There is a glorious promise given by the mighty
Builder, "The gates of Hades will not overcome it." He who cannot lie
has pledged His royal word, that all the powers of hell shall never
overthrow His Church. It shall continue, and stand, in spite of every
assault. It shall never be overcome. All other created things perish
and pass away, but not the Church of Christ. The hand of outward
violence, or the moth of inward decay, prevail over everything else, but
not over the church that Christ builds.
Empires have risen and fallen in rapid succession. Egypt, Assyria,
Babylon, Persia, Tyre, Carthage, Rome, Greece, Venice--where are all
these now? They were all the creations of man's hand, and have passed
away. But the Church of Christ lives on.
The mightiest cities have become heaps of ruins. The broad walls of
Babylon are sunk to the ground. The palaces of Nineveh are mounds of
dust. The hundred gates of Thebes are only matters of history. Tyre is
a place where fishermen hang their nets. Carthage is a desolation. Yet
all this time the true Church stands. The gates of hell do not prevail
The earliest visible Churches have in many cases decayed and perished.
Where is the Church of Ephesus and the Church of Antioch? Where is the
Church of Alexandria and the Church of Constantinople? Where are the
Corinthian, and Philippian, and Thessalonian Churches? Where, indeed,
are they all? They departed from the Word of God. They were proud of
their bishops, and synods, and ceremonies, and learning, and antiquity.
They did not glory in the true cross of Christ. They did not hold fast
the Gospel. They did not give Jesus His rightful office, or faith its
rightful place. They are now among the things that have been. Their
candlestick has been taken away. But all this time the true Church has
Has the true Church been oppressed in one country? It has fled to
another. Has it been trampled on and oppressed in one soil? It has
taken root and flourished in some other climate. Fire, sword, prisons,
fines, penalties, have never been able to destroy its vitality. Its
persecutors have died and gone to their own place, but the Word of God
has lived, and grown and multiplied. Weak as this true Church may appear
to the eye of man, it is an anvil which has broken many a hammer in times
past, and perhaps will break many more before the end. He that lays
hands on it, is touching the apple of God's eye.
The promise of our text is true of the whole body of the true Church.
Christ will never be without a witness in the world. He has had a people
in the worst of times. He had seven thousand in Israel even in the days
of Ahab. There are some now, I believe, in the dark places of the Roman
Catholic and Greek Churches, who, in spite of much weakness, are serving
Christ. The devil may rage horribly. The Church may in some countries
be brought exceedingly low. But the gates of hell shall never entirely
The promise of our text is true of every individual member of the Church.
Some of God's people have been brought very low, so that they despaired
of their safety. Some have fallen sadly, as David and Peter did. Some
have departed from the faith for a time. Many have been tried by cruel
doubts and fears. But all have gotten safely home at last, the youngest
as well as the oldest, the weakest as well as the strongest. And so it
will be to the end. Can you prevent tomorrow's sun from rising? Can you
prevent the tide in the channel from ebbing and flowing? Can you prevent
the planets moving in their respective orbits? Then, and then alone, can
you prevent the salvation of any believer, however feeble--of any living
stone in that Church which is built on the rock, however small or
insignificant that stone may appear.
The true Church is Christ's body. Not one bone in that mystical body
shall ever be broken.
The true Church is Christ's bride. They whom God has joined in
everlasting covenant, shall never be put asunder.
The true Church is Christ's flock. When the lion came and took a lamb
out of David's flock, David arose and delivered the lamb from his mouth.
Christ will do the same. He is David's greater son. Not a single sick
lamb in Christ's flock shall perish. He will say to His Father in the
last day, "I have not lost one of those you gave me."
The true Church is the wheat of the earth. It may be sifted, winnowed,
buffeted, tossed to and fro. But not one gain shall be lost. The tares
and chaff shall be burned. The wheat shall be gathered into the barn.
The true Church i
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