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to the present day, even in the outdated English of the author’s own day.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.
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 #6 to the Church
The Fallibility of Ministers
J. C. Ryle
When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face,
because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men
came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when
they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself
from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who
belonged to the circumcision group.
The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their
hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that
they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I
said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you
live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then,
that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?”
We who are Jews by birth and not “Gentile sinners” know that
a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in
Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus
that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by
observing the law, because by observing the law no one will
Have we ever considered what the Apostle Peter did at Antioch? It is a
question that deserves serious consideration.
What the Apostle Peter did at Rome we are often told, although we have
hardly a jot of authentic information about it. Legends, traditions, and
fables abound on the subject. But unhappily for these writers, Scripture
is utterly silent upon the point. There is nothing in Scripture to show
that the Apostle Peter ever was at Rome at all!
But what did the Apostle Peter do at Antioch? This is the point to which
I want to direct attention. This is the subject from the passage from
the Epistle to the Galatians, which heads this paper. On this point, at
any rate, the Scripture speaks clearly and unmistakably.
The six verses of the passages before us are striking on many accounts.
They are striking, if we consider the event which they describe: here is
one Apostle rebuking another! They are striking, when we consider who
the two men are: Paul, the younger, rebukes Peter the elder! They are
striking, when we remark the occasion: this was no glaring fault, no
flagrant sin, at first sight, that Peter had committed! Yet the Apostle
Paul says, “I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the
wrong.” He does more than this–he reproves Peter publicly for his error
before all the Church at Antioch. He goes even further–he writes an
account of the matter, which is now read in two hundred languages all
over the world.
It is my firm conviction that the Holy Spirit wants us to take particular
notice of this passage of Scripture. If Christianity had been an
invention of man, these things would never have been recorded. An
impostor would have hushed up the difference between two Apostles. The
Spirit of truth has caused these verses to be written for our learning,
and we shall do well to take heed to their contents.
There are three great lessons from Antioch, which I think we ought to
learn from this passage.
I. The first lesson is, “That great ministers may make great mistakes.”
II. The second is, “That to keep the truth of Christ in His Church is
even more important than to keep peace.”
III. The third is, “That there is no doctrine about which we ought to be
so protective about as justification by faith without the deeds of the
I. The first great lesson we learn from Antioch is, “That great ministers
may make great mistakes.”
What clearer proof can we have than that which is set before us in this
place? Peter, without doubt, was one of the greatest in the company of
the Apostles. He was an old disciple. He was a disciple who had had
peculiar advantages and privileges. He had been a constant companion of
the Lord Jesus. He had heard the Lord preach, seen the Lord work
miracles, enjoyed the benefit of the Lord’s private teaching, been
numbered among the Lord’s intimate friends, and gone out and come in with
Him all the time He ministered upon earth. He was the Apostle to whom
the keys of the kingdom of heaven were given, and by whose hand those
keys were first used. He was the first who opened the door of faith to
the Jews, by preaching to them on the day of Pentecost. He was the first
who opened the door of faith to the Gentiles, by going to the house of
Cornelius, and receiving him into the Church. He was the first to rise
up in the Council of the fifteenth of Acts, and say, “Why do you try to
test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we
nor our fathers have been able to bear?” And yet here this very Peter,
this same Apostle, plainly falls into a great mistake.
The Apostle Paul tells us, “I opposed him to his face.” He tells us
“because he was clearly in the wrong.” He says “he was afraid of those
who belonged to the circumcision group.” He says of him and his
companions, that “they were not acting in line with the truth of the
gospel.” He speaks of their “hypocrisy.” He tells us that by this
hypocrisy even Barnabas, his old companion in missionary labors, “was led
astray.” What a striking fact this is. This is Simon Peter! This is
the third great error of his, which the Holy Spirit has thought fit to
record! Once we find him trying to keep back our Lord, as far as he
could, from the great work of the cross, and severely rebuked Him. Then
we find him denying the Lord three times, and with an oath. Here again
we find him endangering the leading truth of Christ’s Gospel. Surely we
may say, “Lord, what is man?” Let us note, that of all the Apostles
there is not one, excepting, of course, Judas Iscariot, of whom we have
so many proofs that he was a fallible man.
(Note: It is curious to observe the shifts to which some writers have
been reduced, in order to explain away the plain meaning of the verses
which head this paper. Some have maintained that Paul did not really
rebuke Peter, but only faked it, for show and appearance sake! Others
have maintained that it was not Peter the Apostle who was rebuked, but
another Peter, one of the seventy! Such interpretations need no remark.
They are simply absurd. The truth is that the plain honest meaning of
the verses strikes a heavy blow at the favorite Roman Catholic doctrine
of the primacy and superiority of Peter over the rest of the Apostles.)
But it is all meant to teach us that even the Apostles themselves, when
not writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, were at times
liable to err. It is meant to teach us that the best men are weak and
fallible so long as they are in the body. Unless the grace of God holds
them up, any one of them may go astray at any time. It is very humbling,
but it is very true. True Christians are converted, justified, and
sanctified. They are living members of Christ, beloved children of God,
and heirs of eternal life. They are elect, chosen, called, and kept unto
salvation. They have the Spirit. But they are not infallible.
Will not rank and dignity confer infallibility? No, they will not! It
matters nothing what a man is called. He may be a Czar, an Emperor, a
King, a Prince. He may be a Preacher, Minister, or Deacon. He is still
a fallible man. Neither the crown, nor the anointing oil, nor the laying
on of hands, can prevent a man making mistakes.
Will not numbers confer infallibility? No, they will not! You may
gather together princes by the score, and ministers by the hundred; but,
when gathered together, they are still liable to err. You may call them
a council, or an assembly, or a conference, or what you please. It
matters nothing. Their conclusions are still the conclusions of fallible
men. Their collective wisdom is still capable of making enormous
The example of the Apostle Peter at Antioch is one that does not stand
alone. It is only a parallel of many a case that we find written for our
learning in Holy Scripture. Do we not remember Abraham, the father of
the faithful, following the advice of Sarah, and taking Hagar for a wife?
Do we not remember Aaron, the first high priest, listening to the
children of Israel, and making a golden calf? Do we not remember
Solomon, the wisest of men, allowing his wives to build their high places
of false worship? Do we not remember Jehosaphat, the good king, going
down to help wicked Ahab? Do we not remember Hezekiah, the good king,
receiving the ambassadors of Babylon? Do we not remember Josiah, the
last of Judah’s good kings, going forth to fight with Pharaoh? Do we not
remember James and John, wanting fire to come down from heaven? These
things deserve to be remembered. They were not written without cause.
They cry aloud, “No infallibility!”
And who does not see, when he reads the history of the Church of Christ,
repeated proofs that the best of men can err? The early fathers were
zealous according to their knowledge, and ready to die for Christ. But
many of them advocated ritualism, and nearly all sowed the seeds of many
superstitions. The Reformers were honored instruments in the hand of God
for reviving the cause of truth on earth. Yet hardly one of them can be
named who did not make some great mistake. Martin Luther held tightly to
the doctrine of consubstantiation [believing that during communion the
bread and the wine became the actual body and blood of Christ].
Melancthon was often timid and undecided. Calvin permitted Servetus to
be burned. Cranmer recanted and fell away for a time from his first
faith. Jewell subscribed to Roman Catholic Church doctrines for fear of
death. Hooper disturbed the Church of England by demanding the need to
wear ceremonial vestments [priestly type garments] when ministering. The
Puritans, in later times, denounced Christian liberty and freedoms as
doctrines from the pit of Hell. Wesley and Toplady, last century, abused
each other in most shameful language. Irving, in our own day, gave way
to the delusion of speaking in unknown tongues [babble]. All these
things speak with a loud voice. They all lift up a beacon to the Church
of Christ. They all say, “Do not trust man; call no man master; call no
man father [spiritually] on earth; let no man glory in man; He that
glories, let him glory in the Lord.” They all cry, “No infallibility!”
The lesson is one that we all need. We are all naturally inclined to
lean upon man whom we can see, rather than upon God whom we cannot see.
We naturally love to lean upon the ministers of the visible Church,
rather than upon the Lord Jesus Christ, the great Shepherd and High
Priest, who is invisible. We need to be continually warned and set on
I see this tendency to lean on man everywhere. I know no branch of the
Protestant Church of Christ which does not require to be cautioned upon
the point. It is a snare to the Scottish Christians to pin their faith
on John Knox. It is a snare to the Methodists in our day to worship the
memory of John Wesley. All these are snares, and into these snares how
We all naturally love to have a pope of our own. We are far too ready to
think, that because some great minister or some learned man says a thing,
or because our own minister, whom we love, says a thing, it must be
right, without examining whether it is in Scripture or not. Most men
dislike the trouble of thinking for themselves. They like following a
leader. They are like sheep, when one goes over the hill all the rest
follow. Here at Antioch even Barnabas was carried away. We can well
fancy that good man saying, “An old Apostle, like Peter, surely cannot be
wrong. Following him, I cannot err.”
And now let us see what practical lessons we may learn from this part of
(a) For one thing, let us learn not to put implicit confidence in any
man’s opinion, merely because he lived many hundred years ago. Peter was
a man who lived in the time of Christ Himself, and yet he could err.
There are many who talk much in the present day about the voice of the
early Church. They would have us believe that those who lived nearest
the time of the Apostles, must of course know more about truth than we
can. There is no foundation for any such opinion. It is a fact, that
the most ancient writers in the true Church of Christ are often at
variance with one another. It is a fact that they often changed their
own minds, and retracted their own former opinions. It is a fact that
they often wrote foolish and weak things, and often showed great
ignorance in their explanations of Scripture. It is vain to expect to
find them free from mistakes. Infallibility is not to be found in the
early fathers, but in the Bible.
(b) For another thing, let us learn not to put implicit confidence in any
man’s opinion, merely because of his office as a minister. Peter was one
of the very chief Apostles, and yet he could err.
This is a point on which men have continually gone astray. It is the
rock on which the early Church struck. Men soon took up the saying, “Do
nothing contrary to the mind of the minister.” But what are ministers,
preachers, and deacons? What are the best of ministers but men–dust,
ashes, and clay–men of like passions with ourselves, men exposed to
temptations, men liable to weaknesses and infirmities? What does the
Scripture say? “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only
servants, through whom you came to believe–as the Lord has assigned to
each his task” (1 Corinthians 3:5).
Ministers have often driven the truth into the wilderness, and decreed
that to be true which was false. The greatest errors have been begun by
ministers. Hophni and Phinehas, the sons of the high-priest, made
religion to be abhorred by the children of Israel. Annas and Caiaphas,
though in the direct line of descent from Aaron, crucified the Lord. It
is absurd to suppose that ordained men cannot go wrong. We should follow
them so far as they teach according to the Bible, but no further. We
should believe them so long as they can say, “Thus it is written, thus
says the Lord,” but further than this we are not to go. Infallibility is
not to be found in ordained men, but in the Bible.
(c) For another thing, let us learn not to place implicit confidence in
any man’s opinion, merely because of his learning. Peter was a man who
had miraculous gifts, and could speak with the (then valid) gift of
tongues, and yet he could err.
This is a point again on which many go wrong. This is the rock on which
men struck in the middle ages. Men looked on Thomas Aquinas, and Peter
Lombard, and many of their companions, as almost inspired. They gave
epithets to some of them in token of their admiration. They talked of
“the indisputable” preacher, “the angelic” minister, “the incomparable”
pastor, and seemed to think that whatever these ministers said must be
true! But what is the most learned of men, if he is not taught by the
Holy Spirit? What is the most learned of all divines but a mere fallible
child of Adam at his very best? Vast knowledge of books and great
ignorance of God’s truth may go side by side. They have done so, they
may do so, and they will do so in all times. I will engage to say that
the two volumes of Robert McCheyne’s Memoirs and Sermons, have done more
positive good to the souls of men, than any one folio that Origen or
Cyprian ever wrote.
I do not doubt that the one volume of Pilgrim’s Progress, written by a
man who knew hardly any book but his Bible, and was ignorant of Greek and
Latin, will prove in the last day to have done more for the benefit of
the world, than all the works of the schoolmen put together. Learning is
a gift that ought not to be despised. It is an evil day when books are
not valued in the Church. But it is amazing to observe how vast a man’s
intellectual attainments may be, and yet how little he may know of the
grace of God. I have no doubt the Authorities of Oxford in the last
century, knew more of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, than Wesley or
Whitefield. But they knew little of the Gospel of Christ. Infallibility
is not to be found among learned men, but in the Bible.
(d) For another thing, let us take care that we do not place implicit
confidence on our own minister’s opinion, however godly he may be. Peter
was a man of mighty grace, and yet he could err.
Your minister may be a man of God indeed, and worthy of all honor for his
preaching and example; but do not make a pope of him. Do not place his
word side by side with the Word of God. Do not spoil him by flattery.
Do not let him suppose he can make no mistakes. Do not lean your whole
weight on his opinion, or you may find to your cost that he can err.
It is written of Joash, King of Judah, that he “did what was right in the
eyes of the LORD all the years of Jehoiada the priest” (2 Chronicles
24:2). Jehoiada died, and then died the religion of Joash. Just so your
minister may die, and then your religion may die too. He may change, and
your religion may change. He may go away, and your religion may go.
Oh, do not be satisfied with a religion built on man! Do not be content
with saying, “I have hope, because my own minister has told me such and
such things.” Seek to be able to say, “I have hope, because I find it
thus and thus written in the Word of God.” If your peace is to be solid,
you must go yourself to the fountain of all truth. If your comforts are
to be lasting, you must visit the well of life yourself, and draw fresh
water for your own soul. Ministers may depart from the faith. The
visible Church may be broken up. But he who has the Word of God written
in his heart, has a foundation beneath his feet which will never fail
him. Honor your minister as a faithful ambassador of Christ. Esteem him
very highly in love for his work’s sake. But never forget that
infallibility is not to be found in godly ministers, but in the Bible.
The things I have mentioned are worth remembering. Let us bear them in
mind, and we shall have learned one lesson from Antioch.
II. I now pass on to the second lesson that we learn from Antioch. That
lesson is, “That to keep Gospel truth in the Church is of even greater
importance than to keep peace.”
I suppose no man knew better the value of peace and unity than the
Apostle Paul. He was the Apostle who wrote to the Corinthians about
love. He was the Apostle who said, “Live in harmony with one another;
live in peace with each other; the Lord’s servant must not quarrel;
There is one body and one Spirit–just as you were called to one hope
when you were called–one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” He was the
Apostle who said, “I have become all things to all men so that by all
possible means I might save some” (Romans 12:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:13;
Philemon 3:16; Ephesians 4:5; 1 Corinthians 9:22). Yet see how he acts
here! He withstands Peter to the face. He publicly rebukes him. He
runs the risk of all the consequences that might follow. He takes the
chance of everything that might be said by the enemies of the Church at
Antioch. Above all, he writes it down for a perpetual memorial, that it
never might be forgotten, that, wherever the Gospel is preached
throughout the world, this public rebuke of an erring Apostle might be
known and read of all men.
Now, why did he do this? Because he dreaded false doctrine; because he
knew that a little leaven leavens the whole lump, because he would teach
us that we ought to contend for the truth jealously, and to fear the loss
of truth more than the loss of peace.
Paul’s example is one we shall do well to remember in the present day.
Many people will put up with anything in religion, if they may only have
a quiet life. They have a morbid dread of what they call “controversy.”
They are filled with a morbid fear of what they style, in a vague way,
“party spirit,” though they never define clearly what party spirit is.
They are possessed with a morbid desire to keep the peace, and make all
things smooth and pleasant, even though it be at the expense of truth.
So long as they have outward calm, smoothness, stillness, and order, they
seem content to give up everything else. I believe they would have
thought with Ahab that Elijah was a troubler of Israel, and would have
helped the princes of Judah when they put Jeremiah in prison, to stop his
mouth. I have no doubt that many of these men of whom I speak, would
have thought that Paul at Antioch was a very imprudent man, and that he
went too far!
I believe this is all wrong. We have no right to expect anything but the
pure Gospel of Christ, unmixed and unadulterated; the same Gospel that
was taught by the Apostles; to do good to the souls of men. I believe
that to maintain this pure truth in the Church men should be ready to
make any sacrifice, to hazard peace, to risk dissension, and run the
chance of division. They should no more tolerate false doctrine than
they would tolerate sin. They should withstand any adding to or taking
away from the simple message of the Gospel of Christ.
For the truth’s sake, our Lord Jesus Christ denounced the Pharisees,
though they sat in Moses’ seat, and were the appointed and authorized
teachers of men. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you
hypocrites,” He says, eight times over, in the twenty-third chapter of
Matthew. And who shall dare to breathe a suspicion that our Lord was
For the truth’s sake, Paul withstood and blamed Peter, though a brother.
Where was the use of unity when pure doctrine was gone? And who shall
dare to say he was wrong?
For the truth’s sake, Athanasius stood out against the world to maintain
the pure doctrine about the divinity of Christ, and waged a controversy
with the great majority of the professing Church. And who shall dare to
say he was wrong?
For the truth’s sake, Luther broke the unity of the Church in which he
was born, denounced the Pope and all his ways, and laid the foundation of
a new teaching. And who shall dare to say that Luther was wrong?
For the truth’s sake, Cranmer, Ridley, and Latimer, the English
Reformers, counseled Henry VIII and Edward VI to separate from Rome, and
to risk the consequences of division. And who shall dare to say that
they were wrong?
For the truth’s sake, Whitefield and Wesley, a hundred years ago,
denounced the mere barren moral preaching of the clergy of their day, and
went out into the highways and byways to save souls, knowing well that
they would be cast out from the Church’s communion. And who shall dare
to say that they were wrong?
Yes! peace without truth is a false peace; it is the very peace of the
devil. Unity without the Gospel is a worthless unity; it is the very
unity of hell. Let us never be ensnared by those who speak kindly of it.
Let us remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, “Do not suppose that
I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace,
but a sword” (Matthew 10:34) Let us remember the praise He gives to one
of the Churches in Revelation, “I know that you cannot tolerate wicked
men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and
have found them false” (Revelation 2:2). Let us remember the blame He
casts on another, “You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a
prophetess” (Revelation 2:20). Never let us be guilty of sacrificing any
portion of truth on the altar of peace. Let us rather be like the Jews,
who, if they found any manuscript copy of the Old Testament Scriptures
incorrect in a single letter, burned the whole copy, rather than run the
risk of losing one jot or tittle of the Word of God. Let us be content
with nothing short of the whole Gospel of Christ.
In what way are we to make practical use of the general principles which
I have just laid down? I will give my readers one simple piece of
advice. I believe it is advice which deserves serious consideration.
I warn then every one who loves his soul, to be very selective as to the
preaching he regularly hears, and the place of worship he regularly
attends. He who deliberately settles down under any ministry which is
positively unsound is a very unwise man. I will never hesitate to speak
my mind on this point. I know well that many think it a shocking thing
for a man to forsake his local church. I cannot see with the eyes of
such people. I draw a wide distinction between teaching which is
defective and teaching which is thoroughly false; between teaching which
errs on the negative side and teaching which is positively unscriptural.
But I do believe, if false doctrine is unmistakably preached in a local
church, a Christian who loves his soul is quite right in not going to
that local church. To hear unscriptural teaching fifty-two Sundays in
every year is a serious thing. It is a continual dropping of slow poison
into the mind. I think it almost impossible for a man willfully to
submit himself to it, and not be harmed.
I see in the New Testament we are plainly told to “Test everything” and
“Hold on to the good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). I see in the Book of
Proverbs that we are commanded to “Stop listening to instruction, my son,
and you will stray from the words of knowledge” (Proverbs 19:27). If
these words do not justify a man in ceasing to worship at a church, if
positively false doctrine is preached in it, I do not know what words
–Does any one mean to tell us that to attend your local denominational
church is absolutely needful to a person’s salvation? If there is such a
one, let him speak out, and give us his name.
–Does any one mean to tell us that going to the denominational church
will save any man’s soul, if he dies unconverted and ignorant of Christ?
If there is such a one, let him speak out, and give us his name.
–Does any one mean to tell us that going to the denominational church
will teach a man anything about Christ, or conversion, or faith, or
repentance, if these subjects are hardly ever named in the denomination
church, and never properly explained? If there is such a one, let him
speak out, and give us his name.
–Does any one mean to say that a man who repents, believes in Christ, is
converted and holy, will lose his soul, because he has forsaken his
denomination and learned his religion elsewhere? If there is such a one,
let him speak out, and give us his name.
For my part I abhor such monstrous and extravagant ideas. I do not see a
speck of foundation for them in the Word of God. I trust that the number
of those who deliberately hold them is exceedingly small.
There are many churches where the religious teaching is little better
than Roman Catholicism. Ought the congregation of such churches to sit
still, be content, and take it quietly? They ought not. And why?
Because, like Paul, they ought to prefer truth to peace.
There are many churches where the religious teaching is little better
than morality. The distinctive doctrines of Christianity are never
clearly proclaimed. Plato, or Seneca, or Confucius, could have taught
almost as much. Ought the congregation in such churches to sit still, be
content, and take it quietly? They ought not. And why? Because, like
Paul, they ought to prefer truth to peace.
–I am using strong language in dealing with this part of my subject: I
–I am trenching on delicate ground: I know it.
–I am handling matters which are generally let alone, and passed over in
silence: I know it.
I say what I say from a sense of duty to the Church of which I am a
minister. I believe the state of the times, and the position of the
congregation require plain speaking. Souls are perishing, in many
churches, in ignorance. Honest members of the church are disgusted and
perplexed. This is no time for smooth words. I am not ignorant of those
magic expressions, “order, division, schism, unity, controversy,” and the
like. I know the cramping, silencing influence which they seem to
exercise on some minds. I too have considered those expressions calmly
and deliberately, and on each of them I am prepared to speak my mind.
(a) The denominational church is an admirable thing in theory. Let it
only be well administered, and worked by truly spiritual ministers, and
it is calculated to confer the greatest blessings on the nation. But it
is useless to expect attachment to the denomination, when the minister of
the denominational church is ignorant of the Gospel or a lover of the
world. In such a case we must never be surprised if men forsake their
denomination, and seek truth wherever truth is to be found. If the
denominational minister does not preach the Gospel and live the Gospel,
the conditions on which he claims the attention of his congregation are
virtually violated, and his claim to be heard is at an end. It is absurd
to expect the head of a family to endanger the souls of his children, as
well as his own, for the sake of “the denomination.” There is no mention
of denominations in the Bible, and we have no right to require men to
live and die in ignorance, in order that they may be able to say at last,
“I always attended my local denominational church.”
(b) Divisions and separations are most objectionable in religion. They
weaken the cause of true Christianity. They give occasion to the enemies
of all godliness to blaspheme. But before we blame people for them, we
must be careful that we lay the blame where it is deserved. False
doctrine and heresy are even worse than schism. If people separate
themselves from teaching which is positively false and unscriptural, they
ought to be praised rather than reproved. In such cases separation is a
virtue and not a sin. It is easy to make sneering remarks about “itching
ears,” and “love of excitement;” but it is not so easy to convince a
plain reader of the Bible that it is his duty to hear false doctrine
every Sunday, when by a little exertion he can hear truth.
(c) Unity, quiet, and order among professing Christians are mighty
blessings. They give strength, beauty, and efficiency to the cause of
Christ. But even gold may be bought too dear. Unity which is obtained
by the sacrifice of truth is worth nothing. It is not the unity which
pleases God. The Church of Rome boasts loudly of a unity which does not
deserve the name. It is unity which is obtained by taking away the Bible
from the people, by gagging private judgment, by encouraging ignorance,
by forbidding men to think for themselves. Like the exterminating
warriors of old, the Catholic Church of Rome makes a solitude and calls
it peace. There is quiet and stillness enough in the grave, but it is
not the quiet of health, but of death. It was the false prophets who
cried “Peace,” when there was no peace.
(d) Controversy in religion is a hateful thing, It is hard enough to
fight the devil, the world and the flesh, without private differences in
our own camp. But there is one thing which is even worse than
controversy, and that is false doctrine tolerated, allowed, and permitted
without protest or molestation. It was controversy that won the battle
of Protestant Reformation. If the views that some men hold were correct,
it is plain we never ought to have had any Reformation at all! For the
sake of peace, we ought to have gone on worshipping the Virgin, and
bowing down to images and relics to this very day! Away with such
trifling! There are times when controversy is not only a duty but a
benefit. Give me the mighty thunderstorm rather than the deadly malaria.
The one walks in darkness and poisons us in silence, and we are never
safe. The other frightens and alarms for a little while. But it is soon
over, and it clears the air. It is a plain Scriptural duty to “contend
for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
I am quite aware that the things I have said are exceedingly distasteful
to many minds. I believe many are content with teaching which is not the
whole truth, and fancy it will be “all the same” in the end. I am sorry
for them. I am convinced that nothing but the whole truth is likely, as
a general rule, to do good to souls. I am satisfied that those who
willfully put up with anything short of the whole truth, will find at
last that their souls have received much damage. There are three things
which men never ought to trifle with: a little poison, a little false
doctrine, and a little sin.
I am quite aware that when a man expresses such opinions as those I have
just brought forward, there are many ready to say, “He is not faithful to
the Church.” I hear such accusations unmoved. The day of judgment will
show who were the true friends of the Church and who were not. I have
learned in the last thirty-two years that if a minister leads a quiet
life, leaves alone the unconverted part of the world, and preaches so as
to offend none and edify none, he will be called by many “a good pastor.”
And I have also learned that if a man studies Scriptures, labors
continually for the conversion of souls, adheres closely to the great
principals of the Reformation, bears a faithful testimony against
Romanism, and preaches powerful, convicting sermons, he will probably be
thought a firebrand and “troubler of Israel.” Let men say what they
will. They are the truest friends of the Church who labor most for the
preservation of truth.
I lay these things before the readers of this paper, and invite their
serious attention to them. I charge them never to forget that truth is
of more importance to a Church than peace. I ask them to be ready to
carry out the principles I have laid down, and to contend zealously, if
needs be, for the truth. If we do this, we shall have learned something
III. But I pass on to the third lesson from Antioch. That lesson is,
that “There is no doctrine about which we ought to be so jealous as
justification by faith and not by observing the law.”
The proof of this lesson stands out most prominently in the passage of
Scripture which heads this paper. What one article of the faith had the
Apostle Peter denied at Antioch? None. What doctrine had he publicly
preached which was false? None. What, then, had he done? He had done
this. After once keeping company with the believing Gentiles as “heirs
together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together
in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 3:6), he suddenly became shy
of them and withdrew himself. He seemed to think they were less holy and
acceptable to God than the circumcised Jews. He seemed to imply, that
the believing Gentiles were in a lower state than they who had kept the
ceremonies of the law of Moses. He seemed, in a word, to add something
to simple faith as needful to give man an interest in Jesus Christ. He
seemed to reply to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” not merely
“Believe in the Lord Jesus,” but “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and be
circumcised, and keep the ceremonies of the law.”
Such conduct as this the Apostle Paul would not endure for a moment.
Nothing so moved him as the idea of adding anything to the Gospel of
Christ. “I opposed him,” he says, “to his face.” He not only rebuked
him, but he recorded the whole transaction fully, when by inspiration of
the Spirit he wrote the Epistle to the Galatians.
I invite special attention to this point. I ask men to observe the
remarkable jealousy which the Apostle Paul shows about this doctrine, and
to consider the point about which such a stir was made. Let us mark in
this passage of Scripture the immense importance of justification by
faith and not by keeping the law.
(a) This is the doctrine which is essentially necessary to our own
personal comfort. No man on earth is a real child of God, and a saved
soul, till he sees and receives salvation by faith in Christ Jesus. No
man will ever have solid peace and true assurance, until he embraces with
all his heart the doctrine that “we are counted righteous before God
because of the work of our Lord Jesus Christ [on the cross], by faith,
and not for our own works and goodness.” One reason, I believe, why so
many professors in this day are tossed to and fro, enjoy little comfort,
and feel little peace, is their ignorance on this point. They do not see
clearly justification by faith without their own “good works.”
(b) This is the doctrine which the great enemy of souls hates, and labors
to overthrow. He knows that it turned the world upside down at the first
beginning of the Gospel, in the days of the Apostles. He knows that it
turned the world upside down again at the time of the Reformation. He is
therefore always tempting men to reject it. He is always trying to
seduce Churches and ministers to deny or obscure its truth. No wonder
that the Council of Trent [Roman Catholic Council that established their
present doctrines] directed its chief attack against this doctrine, and
pronounced it accursed and heretical. No wonder that many who think
themselves learned in these days denounce the doctrine as theological
jargon, and say that all “serious minded people” are justified by Christ,
whether they have faith or not! The plain truth is that the doctrine is
all bitterness and poison to unconverted hearts. It just meets the wants
of the awakened soul. But the proud unhumbled man who knows not his own
sin, and sees not his own weakness, cannot receive its truth.
(c) This is the doctrine, the absence of which accounts for half the
errors of the Roman Catholic Church. The beginning of half the
unscriptural doctrines of Catholicism may be traced up to rejection of
justification by faith. No Catholic teacher, if he is faithful to his
Church, can say to an anxious sinner, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you
will be saved.” He cannot do it without additions and explanations,
which completely destroy the good news. He dare not give the Gospel
medicine, without adding something which destroys its effectiveness, and
neutralizes its power.
Purgatory, penance, priestly absolution [confession], the intercession of
saints, the worship of the Virgin, and many other man-made services of
Roman Catholicism, all spring from this source. They are all rotten
props to support weary consciences. But they are rendered necessary by
the denial of justification by faith.
(d) This is the doctrine which is absolutely essential to a minister’s
success among his people. Obscurity on this point spoils all. Absence
of clear statements about justification will prevent the utmost zeal
doing good. There may be much that is pleasing and nice in a minister’s
sermons, much about Christ and union with Him, much about self-denial,
much about humility, much about love. But all this will profit little,
if his trumpet gives an uncertain sound about justification by faith
without the attendant “good works.”
(e) This is the doctrine which is absolutely essential to the prosperity
of a Church. No Church is really in a healthy state, in which this
doctrine is not prominently brought forward. A denomination and/or
church may have good forms and regularly ordained ministers, but a
denomination and/or church will not see conversion of souls going on
under its pulpits, when this doctrine is not plainly preached. Its
schools may be found in every town. Its church buildings may strike the
eye all over the land. But there will be no blessing from God on that
denomination and/or church unless justification by faith is proclaimed
from its pulpits. Sooner or later its candlestick will be taken away.
Why have the Churches of Africa and the East fallen to their present
state? Did they not have Ministers? They had. Did they not have forms
and ceremony? They had. Did they not have councils? They had. But
they cast away the doctrine of justification by faith. They lost sight
of that mighty truth, and so they fell.
Why did our own Church (Church of England) do so little in the last
century, and why did the Independents and Baptists do so much more? Was
it that their system was better than ours? No. Was it that our Church
was not so well adapted to meet the wants of lost souls? No. But their
ministers preached justification by faith, and our ministers, in too many
cases, did not preach the doctrine at all.
Why do so many English people go to dissenting churches in the present
day? Why do we so often see a splendid Gothic local church as empty of
worshipers as a barn in July, and a little plain brick building, called a
Meeting House, filled to suffocation? Is it that people in general have
any abstract dislike of formal worship, the Prayer-book, and the
establishment? Not at all! The simple reason is, in the vast majority
of cases, that people do not like preaching in which justification by
faith is not fully proclaimed. When they cannot hear it in the local
church they will seek it elsewhere. No doubt there are exceptions. No
doubt there are places where a long course of neglect has thoroughly
disgusted people with the Church, so that they will not even hear truth
from its ministers. But I believe, as a general rule, when the local
church is empty and the meeting-house full, it will be found on inquiry
that there is a cause.
If these things be so, the Apostle Paul might well be jealous for the
truth, and oppose Peter to his face. He might well maintain that
anything ought to be sacrificed, rather than endanger the doctrine of
justification in the Church of Christ. He saw with a prophetical eye
coming things. He left us all an example that we should do well to
follow. Whatever we tolerate, let us never allow any injury to be done
to that blessed doctrine–that we are justified by faith without any of
our own “good works.”
Let us always beware of any teaching which either directly or indirectly
obscures justification by faith. All religious systems which put
anything between the heavy burdened sinner and Jesus Christ the Savior,
except simple faith, are dangerous and unscriptural. All systems which
make out faith to be anything complicated, anything but a simple,
childlike dependence, the hand which receives the soul’s medicine from
the physician, are unsafe and poisonous systems. All systems which cast
discredit on the simple Protestant doctrine which broke the power of
Roman Catholicism, carry about with them a plague-spot, and are dangerous
Baptism is a sacrament ordained by Christ Himself, and to be used with
reverence and respect by all professing Christians. When it is used
rightly, worthily and with faith, it is capable of being the instrument
of mighty blessings to the soul. But when people are taught that all who
are baptized are as a matter of course born again, and that all baptized
persons should be addressed as “children of God,” I believe their souls
are in great danger. Such teaching about baptism appears to me to
overthrow the doctrine of justification by faith. They only are children
of God who have faith in Christ Jesus. And all men do not have faith.
The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament ordained by Christ Himself, and intended
for the edification and refreshment of true believers. But when people
are taught that all persons ought to come to the Lord’s table, whether
they have faith or not; and that all alike receive Christ’s body and
blood who receive the bread and wine, I believe their souls are in great
danger. Such teaching appears to me to darken the doctrine of
justification by faith. No man eats Christ’s body and drinks Christ’s
blood except the justified man. And none are justified until they
Membership in the local church is a great privilege. But when people are
taught that because they are members of a church, they are as a matter of
course members of Christ, I believe their souls are in great danger.
Such teaching appears to me to overthrow the doctrine of justification by
faith. They only are joined to Christ who believe. And all men do not
Whenever we hear teaching which obscures or contradicts justification by
faith, we may be sure there is a screw loose somewhere. We should watch
against such teaching, and be upon our guard. Once let a man turn away
from justification by faith alone, and he will bid a long farewell to
comfort, to peace, to lively hope, to anything like assurance in his
Christianity. An error here is decay at the root.
(1) In conclusion, let me first of all ask every one who reads this
paper, to arm himself with a thorough knowledge of the written Word of
God. Unless we do this we are at the mercy of any false teacher. We
shall not see through the mistakes of an erring Peter. We shall not be
able to imitate the faithfulness of a courageous Paul. An ignorant
congregation will always be the curse of a Church. A Bible reading
congregation may save a Church from ruin. Let us read the Bible
regularly, daily, and with fervent prayer, and become familiar with its
contents. Let us receive nothing, believe nothing, follow nothing, which
is not in the Bible, nor can be proved by the Bible. Let our rule of
faith, our touchstone of all teaching, be the written Word of God.
(2) In the next place, let me entreat all who read this paper to be
always ready to contend for the faith of Christ, if needful. I recommend
no one to foster a controversial spirit. I want no man to be like
Goliath, going up and down, saying, “Give me a man to fight with.”
Always feeding upon controversy is poor work indeed. It is like feeding
upon bones. But I do say that no love of false peace should prevent us
striving jealously against false doctrine, and seeking to promote true
doctrine wherever we possibly can. True Gospel in the pulpit, true
Gospel in the books we read, true Gospel in the friends we keep company
with, let this be our aim, and never let us be ashamed to let men see
that it is so.
(3) In the next place, let me entreat all who read this paper to keep a
jealous watch over their own hearts in these controversial times. There
is much need of this caution. In the heat of the battle we are apt to
forget our own inner man. Victory in argument is not always victory over
the world or victory over the devil. Let the meekness of Peter in taking
a reproof, be as much our example as the boldness of Paul in reproving.
Happy is the Christian who can call the person who rebukes him
faithfully, a “dear brother” (2 Peter 3:15). Let us strive to be holy in
all manner of conversation, and not least in our tempers. Let us labor
to maintain an uninterrupted communion with the Father and with the Son,
and to keep up constant habits of private prayer and Bible-reading. Thus
we shall be armed for the battle of life, and have the sword of the
Spirit well fitted to our hand when the day of temptation comes.
(4) In the last place, let me entreat all members of a church who know
what real praying is, to pray daily for the Church to which they belong.
Let us pray that the Holy Spirit may be poured out upon it, and that its
candlestick may not be taken away. Let us pray for those churches in
which the Gospel is now not preached, that the darkness may pass away,
and the true light shine in them. Let us pray for those ministers who
now neither know nor preach the truth, that God may take away the veil
from their hearts, and show them a more excellent way. Nothing is
impossible. The Apostle Paul was once a persecuting Pharisee; Luther was
once an unenlightened monk; Bishop Latimer was once a bigoted Catholic;
Thomas Scott was once thoroughly opposed to evangelical truth. Nothing,
I repeat, is impossible. The Spirit can make ministers preach that
Gospel which they now labor to destroy. Let us therefore be urgent in
I commend the matters contained in this paper to serious attention. Let
us ponder them well in our hearts. Let us carry them out in our daily
practice. Let us do this, and we shall have learned something from the
story of Peter at Antioch.
Transcribed by Tony Capoccia of
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