Article of the Month
by J.C. Ryle
Ephesians ii. 1. “And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins;”
Look at the words before your eyes, and ponder them well. Search your own heart, and do not lay down this paper without solemn self-inquiry. I meet you this day with one simple question,—Are you among the living, or among the dead?
Listen to me while I try to help you to an answer. Give me your attention, while I unfold this matter, and show you what God has said about it in the Scriptures. If I say hard things, it is not because I do not love you. I write as I do, because I desire your salvation. He is your best friend, who tells you the most truth.
I. First then, let me tell you what we all are by nature,—we are DEAD!
“Dead” is a strong word, but it is not my own coining and invention. I did not choose it. The Holy Ghost told Paul to write it down about the Ephesians,—“You hath he quickened who were dead.” (Eph. ii. 1.) The Lord Jesus Christ made use of it in the parable of the prodigal son,—“This my son was dead, and is alive again.” (Luke xv. 24, 32.) You will read it also in the Epistle to the Corinthians,—“One died for all, then were all dead.” (2 Cor. v. 14.) Shall a mortal man be wise above that which is written? Must I not take heed to speak that which I find in the Bible, and neither less nor more?
“Dead” is an awful idea, and one that man is most unwilling to receive. He does not like to allow the whole extent of his soul's disease.
He shuts his eyes to the real amount of his danger. Many a one will allow me to say that naturally most people “are not quite what they ought to be,—they are thoughtless,—they are unsteady,—they are gay,—they are wild,—they are not serious enough.” But dead? Oh! no!
I must not mention it. It is going too far to LIVING OR DEAD. say that. The idea is a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence.1
My dear Reader, what we like in religion is of very little consequence. The only question is—What is written? What saith the Lord? God's thoughts are not man's thoughts, and God's words are not man's words. God says of every living person, who is not a decided Christian,—be he high or low, rich or poor, old or young, he is dead.
In this, as in everything else, God's words are right. Nothing could be said more correct, nothing more accurate, nothing more faithful, nothing more true. Stay a little, and let me reason this out with you. Come and see.
What should you have said, if you had seen Joseph weeping over his father Jacob?—“He fell upon his face, and wept upon him, and kissed him.” (Gen. 1.1.) But there was no reply to his affection. All about that aged countenance was unmoved, silent, and still. Doubtless you would have guessed the reason.—Jacob was dead.
What would you have said, if you had heard the Levite speaking to his wife, when he found her lying before the door in Gibeah? “Up,” he said, “and let us be going. But none answered.” (Judg. xix. 28.) His words were thrown away. There she lay, motionless, stiff, and cold. You know the cause.—She was dead.
What would you have thought, if you had seen the Amalekite stripping Saul of his royal ornaments in Mount Gilboa? He “took from him the crown that was upon his head, and the bracelet that was on his arm.” (2 Sam. i. 10.) There was no resistance. Not a muscle moved in that proud face. Not a finger was raised to prevent him. And why?—Saul was dead.
What should you have thought, if you had met the widow's son in the gate of Nain, lying on a bier, wrapped about with grave-clothes, followed by his weeping mother, carried slowly towards the tomb? (Luke vii. 12.) Doubtless it would have been all clear to you. It would have needed no explanation.—The young man was dead.
Now, I say this is just the condition of every man by nature in the matter of his soul. I say this is just the state of the vast majority of people around us in spiritual things, God calls to them continually,—by mercies, by afflictions, by ministers, by His word;—but they do not hear His voice. The Lord Jesus Christ mourns over them, pleads with them, sends them gracious invitations, knocks at the door of their hearts;—but they do not regard it. The crown and glory of their being, that precious jewel, their immortal soul, is being seized, plundered, and taken away;—and they are utterly unconcerned. The devil is carrying them away, day after day, along the broad road that leads to destruction;—and they allow him to make them his captives without a struggle. And this is going on everywhere,—all around you,—among all classes,—through the length and breadth of the land. You know it in your own conscience, while you read this paper. You must be aware of it. You cannot deny it. And what then, I ask you, can it be said more perfectly true than that which God says, We are all by nature spiritually dead?
Yes! when a man's heart is cold and unconcerned about religion,—when his hands are never employed in doing God's work,—when his feet are not familiar with God's ways, when his tongue is seldom or never used in prayer and praise,—when his ears are deaf to the voice of Christ in the Gospel,—when his eyes are blind to the beauty of the kingdom of heaven,—when his mind is full of the world, and has no room for spiritual things,—when these marks are to be found in a man, the word of the Bible is the right word to use about him, and that word is “dead.”
We may not like this perhaps. We may shut our eyes both to facts in the world, and texts in the Word. But God's truth must be spoken, and to keep it back does positive harm. Truth must be spoken, however condemning it may be. So long as man does not serve God with body, soul, and spirit, he is not really alive. So long as he puts the first things last and the last first, buries his talent like an unprofitable servant, and brings the Lord no revenue of honor, so long; in God's sight he is dead. He is not filling the place in creation for which he was intended. He is not using his powers and faculties as God meant them to be used. The poet's words are strictly true,
“He only lives who lives to God
And all are dead beside.”
This is the true explanation of sin not felt, and sermons not believed,—and good advice not followed,—and the Gospel not embraced, and the world not forsaken,—and the cross not taken up,—and self-will not mortified,—and evil habits not laid aside,—and the Bible seldom read—and the knee never bent in prayer. Why is all this on every side? The answer is simple. Men are dead.
This is the true account of that host of excuses for neglect of religion, which so many make with one consent. Some have no learning, and some have no time. Some are oppressed with business, and some with poverty.
Some have difficulties in their own families, and some in their own health. Some have peculiar obstacles in their calling, which others, we are told, cannot understand; and others have peculiar drawbacks at home, and they wait to have them removed. But God has a shorter word in the Bible, which describes all these people at once. He says, they are dead.
This is the true explanation of many things which wring a faithful minister's heart. Many around him never attend a place of worship at all. Many attend so irregularly, that it is clear they think it of no importance. Many attend once on a Sunday, who might just as easily attend twice. Many never come to the Lord's table,—never appear at a week-day means of grace of any kind. And why is all this? Often, far too often, there can only be one reply about these people. They are dead.
See now, dear Reader, how all professing Christians should examine themselves and try their own state. It is not in church-yards alone where the dead are to be found. There are way too many inside our churches, and close to our pulpits,—too many on the benches, and too many in the pews. The land is like the valley in Ezekiel's vision, full of bones, and those very dry. There are dead souls in all our parishes, and dead souls in all our streets. There is hardly a family in which all live to God. There is hardly a house in which there is not some one dead. Oh! search and look at home. Prove your own self.
See too how sad is the condition of all who have gone through no spiritual change, whose hearts are still the same as in the day they were born. There is a mountain of division between them and heaven. They have yet to pass from death to life. Oh! that, they did but see and know their danger! Alas! it is one fearful mark of spiritual death, that, like natural death, it is not felt. We lay our beloved ones tenderly and gently in their narrow beds, but they feel nothing of what we do. “The dead,” says the wise man, “know not anything.” (Eccl. ix. 5.) And this is just the case with dead souls.
See too what reason ministers have to be anxious about their congregations. We feel that time is short, and life is uncertain. We know that death spiritual is the high-road that leads to death eternal. We fear lest any of those we preach to should die in their sins, unprepared, unrenewed, impenitent, unchanged.
Oh! marvel not if we often speak strongly, and plead with you warmly. We dare not give you flattering titles, amuse you with trifles, say smooth things, and cry peace, peace, when life and death are at stake, and nothing less. The plague is among you. We feel that we stand between the living and the dead. We must and will use great plainness of speech. “If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself for the battle?” (1 Cor. xiv. 8.)
II. Let me tell you, in the second place, what every man needs who would he saved,—he must be quickened and made alive.
Life is the mightiest of all possessions. From death to life is the mightiest of all changes. And no change short of this will ever avail to fit man's soul for heaven.
Yes! it is not a little mending and alteration, —a little cleansing and purifying,—a little painting and patching,—a little turning over a new leaf, and putting on a new outside, that is wanted. It is the bringing in of something altogether new,—the planting within us a new nature,—a new being,—a new principle,—a new heart,—this alone, and nothing less than this, will ever meet the necessities of man's soul.2
To hew a block of marble from the quarry, and carve it into a noble statue,—to break up a waste wilderness, and turn it into a garden of flowers,—to melt a lump of iron-stone, and forge it into watch-springs;—all these are mighty changes. Yet they all come short of the change which every child of Adam requires, for they are merely the same thing in a new form, the same substance in a new shape. But man requires the grafting in of that which he had not before. He needs a change as great as a resurrection from the dead. He must become a new creature. Old things must pass away, and all things must become new. He must be born again, born from above, born of God. The natural birth is not a whit more necessary to the life of the body, than is the spiritual birth to the life of the soul.
I know well this is a hard saying. I know well the children of this world dislike to hear they must be born again. It pricks their consciences. It makes them feel they are further off from heaven than they are willing to allow. It seems like a narrow door which they have not yet stooped to enter, and they would fain make the door wider, or climb in some other way.
But I dare not give place by subjection in this matter. I will not foster a delusion, and tell people they only need repent a little, and stir up a gift they have within them, in order to become real Christians. I dare not use any other language than that of the Bible. And I say in the words which are written for our learning, we all need to be born again, we are all naturally dead, and must be made alive.
Reader, if you had seen Manasseh, king of Judah, at one time filling Jerusalem with idols, and murdering his children in honor of false gods, at another purifying the temple, putting down idolatry, and living a godly life;—if you had seen Zacchaeus, the publican of Jericho, at one time cheating, plundering, and covetous, at another following Christ, and giving half his goods to the poor;—if you had seen the servants of Nero's household, at one time conforming to their master's profligate ways, at another of one heart and mind with the apostle Paul; if you had seen the ancient father, Augustine, at one time living in open neglect of the seventh commandment, at another walking closely with God;—if you had seen our own Reformer, Latimer, at one time preaching earnestly against the truth as it is in Jesus, at another spending and being spent even to death in its cause; if you had seen the New Zealanders, or Tinnevelly Hindoos, at one time blood-thirsty, immoral, and sunk in abominable superstitions, at another holy, pure, and believing Christians;—if you had seen these wonderful changes, or any of them, I ask you what you would have said? Would you have been content to call them nothing more than amendments and alterations? Would you have been satisfied with saying that Augustine had reformed his ways, and Latimer turned over a new leaf? Verily, if you had said no more than this, the very stones would have cried out. I tell you in all these cases there was nothing less than a new birth, a resurrection of human nature, a quickening of the dead. These are the right words to use. All other language is weak, poor, beggarly, unscriptural, and short of the truth.
Now I will not shrink from saying plainly, we all need the same kind of change, if we are to be saved. The difference between us and any of those I have just named, is far less than it appears. Take off the outward crust, and you will find the same nature beneath in us and them, an evil nature requiring a complete change. The face of the earth is very different in different climates, but the heart of the earth, I am told, is everywhere the same. Go where you will, from one end to the other, you would always find the granite rock beneath your feet, if you only bored down deep enough. And it is just the same with men's hearts. Their customs and their colors, their ways and their laws, may all be utterly unlike, but the inner man is always the same;—their hearts are all alike at the bottom, all stony, all hard, all ungodly, all needing to be thoroughly renewed. The Englishman and the New Zealander, stand on the same level in this matter. Both are naturally dead, and both need to be made alive. Both are children of the same father Adam, who fell by sin, and both need to be born again, and made children of God.
Reader, whatever part of the globe we live in, our eyes need to be opened: naturally we never see our sinfulness, guilt, and danger. Whatever nation we belong to, our understandings need to be enlightened:3 naturally we know little or nothing of the plan of salvation; like the Babel-builders, we think to get to heaven our own way. Whatever church we may belong to, our wills need to be bent in the right direction;—naturally we should never choose the things which are for our peace,—we should never come to Christ. Whatever be our rank in life, our affections need to be turned to things above;—naturally we only set them on things below, earthly, sensual, short-lived, and vain. Pride must give place to humility,—self-righteousness to self-abasement,—carelessness to seriousness—worldliness to holiness, unbelief to faith. Satan's dominion must be put down within us, and the kingdom of God set up. Self must be crucified, and Christ must reign. Till these things come to pass, we are dead as stones. When these things begin to take place, and not till then, we are alive.
Reader, I dare to say this sounds like foolishness to some. I tell you that many a living man could stand up this day and testify that it is true. Many a one could tell you that he knows all by experience, and that he does indeed feel himself a new man. He loves the things that once he hated, and hates the things that once he loved. He has new habits, new companions, new ways, new tastes, new feelings, new opinions, new sorrows, new joys, new anxieties, new pleasures, new hopes, and new fears.4 In short, the whole bias and current of his being is changed. Ask his nearest relations and friends, and they would bear witness to it. Whether they liked it or not, they would be obliged to confess he was no longer the same.
Many a one could tell you that once he did not think himself such a very great transgressor. At any rate he fancied he was no worse than others. Now he would say, with the apostle Paul, he feels himself the chief of sinners.
Once he did not consider he had a bad heart. He might have his faults, and be led away by bad company and temptations, but he had a good heart at the bottom. Now he would tell you he knows no heart so bad as his own. He finds it deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.
Once he did not suppose it was a very hard matter to get to heaven. He thought he had only to repent, and say a few prayers, and do what he could, and Christ would make up what was wanting. Now he believes the way is narrow, and few find it. He is convinced he could never have made his own peace with God. He is persuaded that nothing but the blood of Christ could wash away his sins. His only hope is to be justified by faith without the deeds of the law.
Once he could see no beauty and excellence in the Lord Jesus Christ. He could not understand some ministers speaking so much about Him. Now he would tell you he is the pearl above all price, the chiefest among ten thousand, —his Redeemer, his Advocate, his Priest, his King, his Physician, his Shepherd, his all.
Once he thought lightly about sin. He could not see the necessity of being so particular about it. He could not think a man's words and thoughts and actions were of such importance, and required such watchfulness. Now he would tell you sin is the abominable thing which he hates, the sorrow and burden of his life. He longs to be more holy. He can enter thoroughly into Whitefield's desire, “I want to go where I shall neither sin myself, nor see others sin any more.”
Once he found no pleasure in means of grace. The Bible was neglected. His prayers, if he had any, were a mere form. Sermons were a weariness, and often sent him to sleep. Now all is altered. These things are the food, the comfort, the delight of his soul.
Once he disliked earnest-minded Christians. He shunned them as melancholy, low-spirited, weak people. Now they are the excellent of the earth, of whom he cannot see too much. He is never so happy as he is in their company. He feels if all men and women were saints ii would be heaven upon earth.
Once he cared only for this world, its pleasures, its business, its occupations, its rewards. Now he looks upon it as an empty, unsatisfying place,—an inn,—a lodging,—a training-school for the life to come. His treasure is in heaven. His home is beyond the grave.
Reader, I ask you once more, what is all this but a new life? Such a change as I have described is no vision and fancy. It is a real actual thing, which not a few in this world have known or felt. It is not a picture of my own imagining. It is a true thing, which many a one could find at this moment hard by his own doors. But wherever such a change does take place, there you see the thing of which I am now speaking,—you see the man made alive, a new man, a new creature, a soul born again.
I would to God that changes such as these were more common! I would to God there were not such multitudes, of whom we must say even weeping, they know nothing about the matter at all. But common or not, one thing I say plainly, this is the kind of change we all need. I do not hold that all must have exactly the same experience. I allow most fully that the change is different, in degree, extent, and intensity, in different persons. Grace may be weak, and yet true;—life may be feeble, and yet real. But I do confidently affirm, we must all go through something of this kind, if ever we mean to be saved. Till this sort of change has taken place, there is no life in us at all. We may be living Churchmen, but we are dead Christians.6
Take it home, every man or woman that reads this paper, take it home to your own conscience, and look at it well. Some time or other, between the cradle and the grave, all who would be saved must be made alive. The words which good old Berridge had graven on his tomb-stone are faithful and true, “Reader, art thou born again? Remember! no salvation without a new birth.”
See now, my dear Reader, what an amazing gulf there is between the Christian in name and form, and the Christian in deed and truth. It is not the difference of one being a little better, and the other a little worse than his neighbor;—it is the difference between a state of life and a state of death. The meanest blade of grass that grows upon a Highland mountain is a more noble object than the fairest wax-flower that was ever formed; for it has that which no science of man can impart,—it has life. The most splendid marble statue in Greece or Italy is nothing by the side of the poor sickly child that crawls over the cottage floor; for with all its beauty it is dead. And the weakest member of the family of Christ is far higher and more precious in God's eyes, than the most gifted man of the world. The one lives unto God, and shall live forever;—the other, with all his intellect, is still dead in sins.
Oh! you that have passed from death to life, you have reason indeed to be thankful. Remember what you once were by nature, dead. Think what you are now by grace, alive. Look at the dry bones thrown up from the graves. Such were ye;—and who has made you to differ? Go and fall low before the footstool of your God. Bless Him for His grace. His free distinguishing grace. Say to Him often, “Who am I, Lord, that thou hast brought me hitherto? Why me, why hast thou been merciful unto me?”
III. Let me tell you in the third place, in what way alone this quickening can he brought about,—by what means a dead soul can be made alive.
Surely, if I did not tell you this, it would be cruelty to write what I have written. Surely, it would be leading you into a dreary wilderness, and then leaving you without bread and water;—it would be like marching you down to the Red Sea, and then bidding you walk over;—it would be commanding you to make brick, like Pharaoh, and yet refusing to provide you with straw;—it would be like tying your hands and feet, and then desiring you to war a good warfare, and so run as to obtain the prize. I will not do so. I will not leave you, till I have pointed out the wicket-gate towards which you must run. By God's help, I will set before you the full provision there is made for dead souls. Listen to me a little longer, and I will once more show you what is written in the Scripture of truth.
One thing is very clear;—we cannot work this mighty change ourselves. It is not in us. We have no strength or power to do it. We may change our sins, but we cannot change our hearts. We may take up a new way, but not a new nature. We may make considerable reforms and alterations. We may lay aside many outward bad habits, and begin many outward duties. But we cannot create a new principle within us. We cannot bring something out of nothing. The Ethiopian cannot change his skin, nor the leopard his spots; no more can we put life into our own souls.7 (Jer. xiii. 23.)
Another thing is equally clear, no man can do it for us. Ministers may preach to you, and pray with you,—receive you at the font in baptism, admit you at the Lord's table, and give you the bread and wine;—but they cannot bestow spiritual life. They may bring in regularity in the place of disorder, and outward decency in the place of open sin. But they cannot go below the surface. They cannot reach your hearts. Paul may plant and Apollos water, but God alone can give the increase. (I Cor. iii. 6.)
Who then can make a dead soul alive? No one can do it but God. He only who breathed into Adam's nostrils the breath of life, can ever make a dead sinner a living Christian. He only who formed the world out of nothing in the day of creation, can make man a new creature. He only who said, “Let there be light, and there was light,” can cause spiritual light to shine into man's heart. He only who formed man out of the dust and gave life to his body, can ever give life to his soul. His is the special office to do it by His Spirit, and His also is the power.8
Reader, the glorious Gospel contains provision for your spiritual, as well as your eternal life. The dead must come to Christ, and He will give them life as well as peace. He is able to do everything which sinners need. He cleanses them by His blood,—He makes them alive by His Spirit. The Lord Jesus is a complete Saviour. That mighty living Head has no dead members. His people are not only justified and pardoned, but quickened together with Him, and made partakers of His resurrection. To Him the Spirit joins the sinner, and raises him by that union from death to life. In Him the sinner lives, after he has believed. The spring of all his vitality is the union between Christ and his soul, which the Spirit begins and keeps up. Christ is the appointed fountain of all spiritual life, and the Holy Ghost the appointed agent who conveys that life to our souls.9
Come to the Lord Jesus Christ, if you would have life. He will not cast you out. He has gifts, even for the rebellious. The moment the dead man touched the body of Elisha, he revived and stood upon his feet. (2 Kings xiii. 21.) The moment you touch the Lord Jesus with the hand of faith, you are alive unto God, as well as forgiven all trespasses. Come, and your soul shall live.
I never despair of any one becoming a decided Christian, whatever he may have been in days gone by. I know how great the change is from death to life. I know the mountains of division that seem to stand between some of you and heaven. I know the hardness, the prejudices, the desperate sinfulness of the natural heart. But I remember that God the Father made the glorious world out of nothing. I remember the voice of the Lord Jesus could reach Lazarus when four days dead, and recall him even from the grave. I remember the amazing victories the Spirit of God has won in every nation under heaven. I remember all this, and feel that I never need despair. Yes! the very man who now seems most utterly dead in sins, may yet be raised to a new being, and walk before God in newness of life.
Why should it not be so? The Holy Spirit is a merciful and loving Spirit. He turns away from no man because of his vileness. He passes by no one, because his sins are black and scarlet.
There was nothing in the Corinthians that He should come down and quicken them. Paul reports of them that they were “fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, effeminate, thieves, covetous, drunkards, revilers, extortioners.” “Such,” he says, “were some of you.” Yet even them the Spirit made alive. “Ye are washed,” he writes, “ye are sanctified, ye are justified, in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.” (I Cor. vi. 9, 10, 11.)
There was nothing in the Colossians, that He should visit their hearts. Paul tells us that “they walked in fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” Yet them also the Spirit quickened. He made them “put off the old man with his deeds, and put on the new man which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him.” (Coloss. iii. 5-9, 10.)
There was nothing in Mary Magdalene that the Spirit should make her soul alive. Once she had been possessed with seven devils. Time was, if report be true, she had been a woman proverbial for vileness and iniquity. Yet even her the Spirit made a new creature, separated her from her sins, brought her to Christ, made her last at the cross, and first at the tomb.
Never, never will the Spirit turn away from a soul because of its corruption. He never has done so;—He never will. It is His glory that He has purified the minds of the most impure, and made them temples for His own abode. He may yet take the worst man who reads this paper, and make him a vessel of grace.
Why indeed should it not be so? The Spirit is an Almighty Spirit. He can change the stony heart into a heart of flesh. He can break the strongest bad habits like tow before the fire. He can make the most difficult things seem easy, and the mightiest objections melt away like snow in spring. He can cut the bars of brass, and throw the gates of prejudice wide open. He can fill up every valley, and make every rough place smooth. He has done it often, and He can do it again.10
The Spirit can take a Jew,—the bitterest enemy of Christianity,—the fiercest persecutor of true believers,—the strongest stickler for Pharisaical notions,—the most prejudiced opposer of Gospel doctrine,—and turn that man into an earnest preacher of the very faith he once destroyed. He has done it already.—He did it with the Apostle Paul.
The Spirit can take a Roman Catholic Monk, brought up in the midst of Romish superstition, trained from his infancy to believe false doctrine, and obey the Pope,—steeped to the eyes in error,—and make that man the clearest upholder of justification by faith the world ever saw. He has done it already.—He did it with Martin Luther.
The Spirit can take an English tinker, without learning, patronage, or money,—a man at one time notorious for nothing so much as blasphemy and swearing—and make that man write a religious book, which shall stand unrivalled and unequalled in its way by any since the time of the Apostles. He has done so already.—He did it with John Bunyan, the author of “Pilgrim's Progress.”
The Spirit can take a sailor, drenched in worldliness and sin,—a profligate captain of a slave-ship,—and make that man a most successful minister of the Gospel,—a writer of letters, which are a store-house of experimental religion,—and of hymns which are known and sung wherever English is spoken. He has done it already.—He did it with John Newton.
All this the Spirit has done, and much more, of which I cannot speak particularly. And the arm of the Spirit is not shortened. His power is not decayed. Such as the Lord Jesus Christ is, such also is the Spirit, the same yesterday, to-day, and forever. He is still doing wonders, and will do to the very end.
Once more then, I say, I never despair of any man's soul being made alive. I should if it depended on man himself. Some seem so hardened, I should have no hope. I should if it depended on the work of ministers. Alas! the very best of us are poor, weak creatures. But I cannot despair, when I remember that God the Spirit is the agent who conveys life to the soul, for I know and am persuaded that with him nothing is impossible. I should not be surprised to hear, even in this life, that the hardest man I ever met, had become softened, and the proudest had taken his place at the feet of Jesus as a weaned child.
I shall not be surprised to meet many on the right hand in the day of judgment, whom I shall leave, when I die, travelling in the broad way. I shall not start, and say, “What! you here!” I shall only remind them, “Was not this my word, when I was yet among you,—nothing is impossible with Him that quickeneth the dead.”
Does any one who reads this paper desire to help the Church of Christ? Then pray for a great outpouring of the Spirit. He alone can give edge to sermons, and point to advice, and power to rebukes, and cast down the high walls of sinful hearts. It is not better preaching and finer writing that is wanted in this day, but more of the presence of the Holy Ghost.
Does any one who reads this paper feel the slightest drawing towards God,—the smallest concern about his immortal soul? Then flee to that open fountain of living waters, the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall receive the Holy Ghost. (John vii. 39.) Begin at once to pray for the Holy Spirit. Think not you are shut up, and cut off from hope. The Holy Ghost is promised to them that ask Him. His very name is the Spirit of promise and the Spirit of life. Give Him no rest till he comes down and makes you a new heart. Cry mightily unto the Lord,—say unto Him “Bless me, even me also,—quicken me, and make me alive.”
And now let me wind up all I have said, with a few words of special application. I have told you what I believe to be the truth as it is in Jesus. Let me try, by God's blessing, to bring it home to your heart.
1. First, let me put this question to every soul who reads this paper,—“Are you living, or are you dead?”
Suffer me, as an ambassador for Christ, to press the inquiry on every conscience. There are only two ways to walk in, the narrow and the broad;—two companies in the day of judgment, those on the right hand and those on the left; two classes of people in the professing Church of Christ, and to one of them you must belong. Where are you? What are you? Are you among the living, or among the dead?
I speak to you yourselves who read this paper, and to none else,—not to your neighbor, but to you,—not to Africans or New Zealanders, but to you. I do not ask whether you are angels, or whether you have the mind of David or Paul,—but I do ask whether you have a well-founded hope that you are new creatures in Christ Jesus,—I do ask whether you have reason to believe you have put off the old man and put on the new,—whether you are conscious of ever having gone through a real spiritual change of heart,—whether, in one word, you are dead or alive?11
Think not to put me off by saying, “You were admitted into the church by baptism,—you received grace and the Spirit in that sacrament,—you are alive.” It shall not avail you. Paul himself says of the baptized widow who lives in pleasure, “She is dead while she liveth.” (1 Tim. V. 6.) The Lord Jesus Christ himself tells the chief officer of the church in Sardis, “Thou hast a name that thou livest and art dead.” (Rev. iii. 1.) The life you talk of is nothing if it cannot be seen. Show it to me, if I am to believe its existence. Grace is light, and light will always be discerned. Grace is salt, and salt will always be tasted. An indwelling of the Spirit that does not show itself by outward fruits,—and a grace that men's eyes cannot discover, are both to be viewed with the utmost suspicion. Believe me, if you have no other proof of spiritual life but your baptism, you are yet a dead soul.
Think not to tell me, “It is a question that cannot be decided, and you call it presumptuous to give an opinion in such a matter.” This is a vain refuge, and a false humility. Spiritual life is no such dim and doubtful thing as you seem to fancy. There are marks and evidences by which its presence may be discerned by those who know the Bible. “We know,” says John, “that we have passed from death unto life.” (1 John iii. 14.) The exact time and season of that passage may often be hidden from a man. The fact and reality of it will seldom be entirely an uncertain thing. It was a true and beautiful saying of a Scotch girl to Whitefield, when asked if her heart was changed, “Something was changed, she knew; it might be the world, it might be her own heart; but there was a great change somewhere, she was quite sure, for everything seemed different to what it once did.” Oh! cease to evade the inquiry. Anoint your eyes with eye-salve that you may see. Are you dead or alive?
Think not to reply, “You do not know;—you allow it is a matter of importance;—you hope to know some time before you die;—you mean to give your mind to it when you have a convenient season;—but at present you do not know.”
You do not know! Yet heaven or hell is wrapped up in this question. An eternity of happiness or misery hinges upon your answer. You do not leave your worldly affairs so unsettled. You do not manage your earthly business so loosely. You look far forward. You provide against every possible contingency. You insure life and property. Oh! why not deal in the same way with your immortal soul?
You do not know! Yet all around you is uncertainty. You are a poor frail worm,—your body fearfully and wonderfully made,—your health liable to be put out of order in a thousand ways. The next time the daisies bloom, it may be over your grave. All before you is dark. You know not what a day may bring forth, much less a year. Oh! why not bring your soul's business to a point without delay?
Reader, begin the great business of self-examination. Rest not till you know the length and breadth of your own state in God's sight. Backwardness in this matter is an evil sign. It springs from an uneasy conscience. It shows that man thinks ill of his own case. He feels like a dishonest tradesman, that his accounts will not bear inquiry. He dreads the light.
Reader, make sure work. Take nothing for granted. Do not measure your condition by that of others. Bring everything to the measure of God's word. A mistake about your soul is a mistake for eternity. “Surely,” says Leighton, “they that are not born again, shall one day wish they had never been born.”
Sit down this day and think. Commune with your own heart and be still. Go to your own room and consider. Enter into your own closet, or at any rate contrive to be alone with God. Look the question fairly, fully, honestly in the face. How does it touch you? Are you among the living, or among the dead?12
2. In the second place, let me speak in full affection to those who are dead.
What shall I say to you? What can I say? What words of mine are likely to have any effect on your hearts?
This I will say, I mourn over your souls. I do most unfeignedly mourn. You may be thoughtless and unconcerned. You may care little for what I am saying. You may scarcely run your eye over this paper, and after reading it, despise it, and return to the world; but you cannot prevent my feeling for you, however little you may feel for yourselves.
Do I mourn when I see a young man sapping the foundation of his bodily health, by indulging his lusts and passions, sowing bitterness for himself in his old age? Much more then will I mourn over your souls.
Do I mourn when I see men squandering away their inheritance, and wasting their property on trifles and follies? Much more then will I mourn over your souls.
Do I mourn when I hear of one drinking slow poisons, because they are pleasant, as the Chinese take opium,—putting the clock of his life on, as if it did not go fast enough,—inch by inch digging his own grave? Much more then will I mourn over your souls.
I mourn to think of golden opportunities thrown away,—of Christ rejected,—of the blood of atonement trampled underfoot,—of the Spirit resisted,—the Bible neglected,—heaven despised, and the world put in the place of God, I mourn to think of the present happiness you are missing,—the peace and consolation you are thrusting from you,—the misery you are laying up in store for yourselves, and the bitter waking up which is yet to come.
Yes! I must mourn. I cannot help it. Others may think it enough to mourn over dead bodies. For my part, I think there is far more cause to mourn over dead souls. The children of this world find fault with us for being so grave. Truly, when I look at the world, I marvel we can ever smile at all.
Reader, dear Reader, why will you die? Are the wages of sin so sweet and good that you cannot give them up? Is the world so satisfying that you cannot forsake it? Is the service of Satan so pleasant that you and he are never to be parted? Is heaven so poor a thing that it is not worth seeking? Is your soul of so little consequence that it is not worth a struggle to have it saved? Oh! turn, turn, before it be too late. God is not willing that you should perish. “As I live,” He says, “I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth.” Jesus loves you, and grieves to see your folly. He wept over wicked Jerusalem, saying, “I would have gathered thee, but thou wouldst not be gathered.” Surely if lost, your blood will be upon your own head. “Awake, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.”
Believe me, believe me, true repentance is that one step that no man ever repented. Thousands have said at their latter end, “they have served God too little:” no child of Adam ever said, as he left this world, that he had cared for his soul too much. The way of life is a narrow path, but the footsteps in it are all in one direction,—not one has ever come back and said it was a delusion. The way of the world is a broad way, but millions on millions have forsaken it, and borne their testimony it was a way of sorrow.
Oh! that this year might be a year of life to your soul! Oh! that the Spirit might come down upon your heart, and make you a new man. I ask it of the Lord, as the prophet did of old, “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” (Ezek. xxxvii. 9.)
3. Let me, in the third place, speak to those who are living.
Are you indeed alive unto God? Can you say with truth, I was dead and am alive again, I was blind, but now I see? Then suffer the word of exhortation, and incline your heart unto wisdom.
Are you alive? Then see that you prove it by your actions. Be a consistent witness. Let your words, and works, and ways, and tempers all tell the same story. Let not your life be a poor torpid life, like that of a tortoise or sloth; let it rather be an energetic stirring life, like that of a deer or bird. Let your grace shine forth from all the windows of your conversation, that those who live near you may see that the Spirit is abiding in your hearts. Let your light not be a dim, flickering, uncertain flame, hi it burn steadily like the eternal fire on the altar, and never become low. Let the savor of your religion, like Mary's precious ointment, fill all the houses where you dwell. Be an Epistle of Christ, so clearly written, penned in such large bold characters, that he who runs may read it. Let your Christianity be so unmistakable,—your eye so single, —your heart so whole,—your walk so straightforward, that all who see you may have no doubt whose you are, and whom you serve. Oh! dear reader, if we are quickened by the Spirit, no one ought to be able to doubt it. Our conversation should declare plainly that we seek a country. It ought not to be necessary to tell people, as in the case of a badly painted picture, “This is a Christian.” We ought not to be so sluggish and still, that men shall be obliged to come close and look hard, and say, “Is he dead or alive?”
Are you alive? Then see that you prove it by your growth. Let the great change within become every year more evident. Let your light be an increasing light,—not like Joshua's sun in the valley of Ajalon, standing still,—nor Hezekiah's sun, going back,—but ever shining more and more to the very end of your days. Let the image of your Lord, wherein you are renewed, grow clearer and sharper every month. Let it not be like the image and superscription on a coin, more indistinct and defaced the longer it is used. Let it rather become more plain, the older it is, and the likeness of your King stand out more fully. I have no confidence in a standing-still religion, I do not think a Christian was meant to be like an animal, to grow to a certain age, and then stop growling. I believe rather he was meant to be like a tree, and to increase more and more in strength and vigor all his days. Remember the words of the Apostle Peter, “Add to your faith virtue, and to virtue knowledge, and to knowledge temperance, and to temperance brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness charity.” (2 Peter i. 5, 6, 7.) This is the way to be a useful Christian. Men will believe you are in earnest when they see constant improvement, and perhaps be drawn to go with you.13 This is one way to obtain comfortable assurance. “So an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly.” (2 Peter i. 11.) Oh! as ever you would be useful and happy in your religion, let your motto be, “ Forward, forward,” to your very last day.
Reader, I speak to myself as well as to you. I say the spiritual life there is in Christians ought to be more evident. Our lamps want trimming,—they ought not to burn so dim. Our separation from the world should be more distinct,—our walk with God more decided. Too many of us are like Lot, lingerers,—or like Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh, borderers,—or like the Jews in Ezra's time, so much mixed up with strangers, that our spiritual pedigree cannot be made out. It ought not so to be. Let us be up and doing. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. If we really have life, let us make it known.
The state of the world demands it. The latter days have fallen upon us. The kingdoms of the earth are shaking, falling, crashing, and crumbling away. (Isaiah xxiv. 1, etc.) The glorious kingdom that will never be removed is drawing nigh. The King himself is close at hand. The children of this world are looking round to see what the saints are doing. God, in His wonderful providences, is calling to us, —”Who is on my side?” Who?—Surely we ought to be, like Abraham, very ready with our answer, “Here am I.”
“Ah!” you may say, “these are ancient things, these are brave words. We know it all. But we are weak, we have no power to think a good thought, we can do nothing, we must sit still.” But hear me a little. What is the cause of your weakness? Is it not because the fountain of life is little used? Is it not because you are resting on old experiences, and not daily gathering new manna,—daily drawing new strength from Christ? He has left you the promise of the Comforter. He giveth more grace,—grace upon grace to all who ask it. He came that you might have life, and have it more abundantly. “Open thy mouth wide,” He says this day, “and I will fill it.” (Psalm Ixxxi. 10.)
Reader, if you want your spiritual life to be more healthy and vigorous, you must just come more boldly to the throne of grace. You must give up this hanging back spirit,—this hesitation about taking the Lord at His own word. Doubtless you are a poor sinner, and nothing at all. The Lord knows it, and has provided a store of strength for you. But you do not draw upon the store He has provided; you have not, because you ask not. The secret of your weakness is your little faith, and little prayer. The fountain is unsealed, but you only sip a few drops. The bread of life is before you, yet you only eat a few crumbs. The treasury of heaven is open, but you only take a few pence. O man of little faith, wherefore do you doubt? Awake to know your privileges;—awake, and sleep no longer. Tell me not of spiritual hunger, and thirst, and poverty, so long as the throne of grace is before you. Say rather, that you are proud, and will not come to it as a poor sinner. Say rather, you are slothful, and will not take pains to get more.
Cast aside the grave-clothes of pride, that still hang around you. Throw off that Egyptian garment of indolence, which ought not to have been brought through the Red Sea. Away with that unbelief, which ties and paralyzes your tongue. You are not straitened in God, but in yourself. Come boldly to the throne of grace, where the Father is ever waiting to give, and Jesus ever stands by Him to intercede. Come boldly, for you may, all sinful as you are, if you come in the name of the Great High Priest. Come boldly, and ask largely, and you shall have abundant answers,—mercy like a river, and grace and strength like a mighty stream. Come boldly, and you shall have supplies exceeding all you can ask or think. Hitherto you have asked nothing. Ask and receive that your joy may be full.
Reader, I commend you to God, and to the Lord Jesus Christ. While you live, may you live unto the Lord. When you die, may you die the death of the righteous. And when the Lord Jesus comes, may you be found ready, and “not be ashamed before Him at His coming.”
John Charles Ryle (1816-1900) served the Church of England from 1841 to the year of his death. Thoroughly evangelical and uncompromising in his principles, he became widely known for his prolific writing and his faithful service as a pastor. The last twenty years of his life he served as Bishop of Liverpool.
DISCUSS THIS TOPIC
Please join others who have commented upon this and other topics in our Discussion Group.