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day, even in the outdated English of the author’s own day.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.
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 #2 to the Church
Not Corrupting the Word
J. C. Ryle
The following Sermon was preached in England, in August, 1858.
“Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word
of God for profit. On the contrary, in
Christ we speak before God with sincerity,
like men sent from God” (2 Corinthians 2:17)
It is no light matter to speak to any assembly of immortal souls about
the things of God. But the most serious of all responsibilities is, to
speak to a gathering of ministers, such as that which I now see before
me. The awful feeling will come across my mind, that one single word
said wrong, sinking into some heart, and bearing fruit at some future
time, in some pulpit, may lead to harm, of which we cannot know the
But there are occasions when true humility is to be seen, not so much in
loud professions of our weakness, as in forgetting ourselves altogether.
I desire to forget self at this time, in turning my attention to this
portion of Scripture. If I say little about my own sense of
insufficiency, do me the justice to believe, that it is not because I do
not feel it much.
The Greek expression, which we have translated, “peddle,” is derived from
a word, the etymology of which is not quite agreed on by lexicographers.
It either means a tradesman, who does his business dishonestly, or a
vintner, who adulterates the wine which he exposes for sale. Tyndale
renders it, “We are not of those who chop and change the Word of God.”
The Rhemish version is, “We are not as many, who adulterate the Word of
God.” In our margin we read, “We are not as many, who deal deceitfully
with the Word of God.” In the construction of the sentence, the Holy
Spirit has inspired Paul to use both the negative and the positive way of
stating the truth. This mode of construction adds clearness and
unmistakableness to the meaning of the words, and intensity and strength
to the assertion, which they contain. Instances of a similar
construction occur in three other remarkable passages of Scripture, two
on the subject of baptism, one on the subject of the new birth. (John
1:13; 1 Peter 1:23; 1 Peter 3:21). It will be found, therefore, that
there are contained in the text both negative and positive lessons for
the instruction of the ministers of Christ. Some things we ought to
avoid. Others we ought to follow.
The first of the negative lessons is, a plain warning against corrupting
or dealing deceitfully with the Word of God. The Apostle says, “many” do
it, pointing out to us that even in his time there were those who did not
deal faithfully and honestly with God’s truth. Here is a full answer to
those who assert that the primitive Church was one of unmixed purity.
The mystery of iniquity had already begun to work. The lesson which we
are taught is, to beware of all dishonest statements of that Word of God
which we are commissioned to preach. We are to add nothing to it. We
are to take nothing away.
Now when can it be said of us, that we corrupt the Word of God in the
present day? What are the rocks and reefs which we ought to avoid, if we
would not be of the “many” who deal deceitfully with God’s truth? A few
suggestions on this would be useful.
We corrupt the Word of God most dangerously, when we throw any doubt on
the absolute inspiration of any part of Holy Scripture. This is not
merely corrupting the cup, but the whole fountain. This is not merely
corrupting the bucket of living water, which we profess to present to our
people, but poisoning the whole well. Once wrong on this point, the
whole substance of our religion is in danger. It is a flaw in the
foundation. It is a worm at the root of our theology. Once we allow
this worm to gnaw the root, and we will not be surprised if the branches,
the leaves, and the fruit, little by little decay. The whole subject of
inspiration, I am well aware, is surrounded with difficulty. All I would
say is, that, in my humble judgment, notwithstanding some difficulties
which we may not be able now to solve, the only safe and tenable ground
to maintain is this–that every chapter, and every verse, and every word
in the Bible has been “given by the inspiration of God.” We should never
desert a great principle in theology any more than in science, because of
apparent difficulties which we are not able at present to remove.
Permit me to mention an illustration of this important axiom. Those
conversant with astronomy know, that before the discovery of the planet
Neptune there were difficulties, which greatly troubled the most
scientific astronomers, respecting certain aberrations of the planet
Uranus. These aberrations puzzled the minds of astronomers, and some of
them suggested that they might possibly prove the whole Newtonian system
to be untrue. But at that time a well-known French astronomer, named
Leverrier, read before the Academy of Science a paper, in which he laid
down this great axiom–that it was wrong for a scientist to give up a
principle because of difficulties which could not be explained. He said
We cannot explain the aberrations of Uranus now; but we may be
sure that the Newtonian system will be proved to be right,
sooner or later. Something may be discovered one day, which
will prove that these aberrations may be accounted for, and
the Newtonian system will remain true and unshaken.
A few years later, the anxious eyes of astronomers discovered the last
great planet, Neptune. The planet was shown to be the true cause of all
the aberrations of Uranus; and what the French astronomer had laid down
as a principle in science, was proved to be wise and true. The
application of the story is obvious. Let us beware of giving up any
first principle in theology. Let us not give up the great principle of
absolute inspiration because of difficulties. The day may come when they
will all be solved. In the mean time we may rest assured that the
difficulties which beset any other theory of inspiration are tenfold
greater than any which beset our own.
Secondly, we corrupt the Word of God when we make defective statements of
doctrine. We do so when we add to the Bible the opinions of the Church,
or of the Fathers, as if they were of equal authority. We do so when we
take away from the Bible, for the sake of pleasing men; or, from a
feeling of false liberality, keep back any statement which seems narrow,
and harsh, or hard. We do so when we try to soften down anything that is
taught about eternal punishment, or the reality of hell. We do so when
we bring forward doctrines in their wrong proportions. We all have our
favorite doctrines, and our minds are so constituted that it is hard to
see one truth very clearly without forgetting that there are other truths
equally important. We must not forget the exhortation of Paul, to
minister “according to the proportion of faith.” We do so when we
exhibit an excessive anxiety to fence, and guard, and qualify such
doctrines as justification by faith without the deeds of the law, for
fear of the charge of antinomianism; or when we flinch from strong
statements about holiness, for fear of being thought legal. We do so,
not least, when we shrink from the use of Bible language in giving an
account of doctrines. We are apt to keep back such expressions as “born
again,” “election,” “adoption,” “conversion,” “assurance,” and to use a
roundabout phraseology, as if we were ashamed of plain Bible words. I
cannot expand these statements because we are short of time. I am
content with mentioning them and leave them to your private thought.
In the third place, we corrupt the Word of God when we make a defective
practical application of it. We do so when we do not discriminate
between classes in our congregations–when we address everyone as being
possessed of grace, by reason of their baptism or church-membership, and
do not draw the line between those who have the Spirit and those who have
not. Are we not apt to keep back clear, direct appeals to the
unconverted? When we have eighteen hundred or two thousand persons
before our pulpits, a vast proportion of whom we must know are
unconverted, are we not apt to say, “Now if there be any one of you who
does not know the things that are necessary for eternal peace” — when we
ought rather to say, “If there are any of you who has not received the
grace of God?”
Are we not in danger of defective handling of the Word in our practical
exhortations, by not bringing home the statements of the Bible to the
various classes in our congregations? We speak plainly to the poor; but
do we also speak plainly to the rich? Do we speak plainly in our
dealings with the upper classes? This is a point on which, I fear, we
need to search our consciences.
I now turn to the positive lessons which the text contains. “In Christ
we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God.” A few words
on each point must suffice.
1. We should aim to speak “with sincerity” — sincerity of aim, heart,
and motive; to speak as those who are thoroughly convinced of the truth
of what they say; as those who have a deep feeling and tender love for
those whom we address.
2. We should aim to speak “like men sent from God.” We ought to strive
to feel like men commissioned to speak for God, and on His behalf. In
our dread of running into Romanism [Roman Catholicism], we too often
forget the language of the Apostle, “I make much of my ministry.” We
forget how great is the responsibility of the New Testament minister, and
how awful the sin of those who when a real messenger of Christ addresses
them refuse to receive his message, and harden their hearts against it.
3. We should aim to speak “before God.” We are to ask ourselves, not,
What did the people think of me? but, What was I in the sight of God?
Latimer was once called upon to preach before Henry VIII, and began his
sermon in the following manner (I quote from memory, and do not pretend
to verbal accuracy), He began: “Latimer! Latimer! do you remember that
you are speaking before the high and mighty King Henry VIII; who has
power to command you to be sent to prison, and who can have your head cut
off, if it please him? Will you not be take care to say nothing that
will offend royal ears?” Then after a pause, he went on: “Latimer!
Latimer! do you not remember that you are speaking before the King of
kings and Lord of lords; before Him, at whose throne Henry VIII will
stand; before Him, to whom one day you will have to give account
yourself? Latimer! Latimer! be faithful to your Master, and declare all
of God’s Word.” O, that this may be the spirit in which we may always
express from our pulpits, not caring whether men are pleased or
displeased–not caring whether men say we were eloquent or feeble; but
going away with the witness of our conscience–I have spoken as standing
before God’s sight.
4. Finally, we should aim to speak “as in Christ.” The meaning of this
phrase is doubtful. Grotius says, “We are to speak as in His name, as
ambassadors.” But Grotius is a poor authority. Beza says, “We are to
speak about Christ, concerning Christ.” This is good doctrine, but
hardly the meaning of the words. Others say, We are to speak as
ourselves joined to Christ, as those who have received mercy from Christ,
and whose only title to address others is from Christ alone. Others say,
We should speak as through Christ, in the strength of Christ. No
meaning, perhaps, is better than this. The expression in the Greek
exactly answers to Philippians 4:13, “I can do everything through him who
gives me strength.” Whatever sense we ascribe to these words, one thing
is clear: we should speak in Christ, as those who have themselves
received mercy; as those who desire to exalt, not themselves, but the
Savior; and as those who care nothing what men think of them, so long as
Christ is magnified in their ministry.
In conclusion, we should all ask, Do we ever handle the Word of God
deceitfully? Do we realize what it is to speak as of God, as in the
sight of God, and in Christ? Let me put to everyone one searching
question. Is there any text in God’s Word which we shrink from
expounding? Is there any statement in the Bible which we avoid speaking
about to our people, not because we do not understand it, but because it
contradicts some pet notion of ours as to what is truth? If it be so,
let us ask our consciences whether this is very much like handling the
Word of God deceitfully.
Is there anything in the Bible we keep back for fear of seeming harsh,
and of giving offense to some of our hearers? Is there any statement,
either doctrinal or practical, which we mangle, mutilate or dismember?
If so, are we dealing honestly with God’s Word?
Let us pray to be kept from corrupting God’s Word. Let neither fear nor
the favor of man induce us to keep back, or avoid, or change, or
mutilate, or qualify any text in the Bible. Surely we ought to have holy
boldness when we speak as ambassadors of God. We have no reason to be
ashamed of any statement we make in our pulpits so long as it is
I have often thought that one great secret of the marvelous honor which
God has put on a man who is not in our communion (I allude to Mr
Spurgeon) is, the extraordinary boldness and confidence with which he
stands up in the pulpit to speak to people about their sins and their
souls. It cannot be said he does it from fear of any, or to please any.
He seems to give every class of hearers its portion–to the rich and the
poor, the high and the low, the king and the peasant, the learned and the
illiterate. He gives to every one the plain message, according to God’s
Word. I believe that very boldness has much to do with the success which
God is pleased to give to his ministry. Let us not be ashamed to learn a
lesson from him in this respect. Let us go and do likewise.
Transcribed by Tony Capoccia of
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