Abstracted from Practical Religion, by J. C. Ryle, chapter 1.
(1) Do we ever think about our souls at all?
Thousands of English people, I fear, cannot answer that question satisfactorily. They never give the subject of religion any place in their thoughts. From the beginning of the year to the end they are absorbed in the pursuit of business, pleasure, politics, money, or self-indulgence of some kind or another. Death, and judgment, and eternity, and heaven, and hell, and a world to come, are never calmly looked at and considered. They live on as if they were never going to die, or rise again, or stand at the bar of God, or receive an eternal sentence!
They simply never think about God, unless frightened for a few minutes by sickness, death in their families, or an accident. Barring such interruptions, they appear to ignore religion altogether, and hold on their way cool and undisturbed, as if there wore nothing worth thinking of except this world.
Like the Jews of old they do not “consider their ways,” they do not “consider their latter end;” they do not “consider that they do evil.” (Isa. 1:3; Hag. 1:7; Deut. 32:29; Eccles. 5:1.) Like Gallio they “care for none of these things:” they are not in their way. (Acts 18:17.)
(2) Do we ever do anything about our souls?
There are multitudes in England who think occasionally about religion, but unhappily never get beyond thinking.
Their life is spent in playing the part of the son in our Lord’s parable, to whom the father said, “Go, work in my vineyard: and he answered, I go, sir, and went not.” (Matt. 21:30.) They are like those whom Ezekiel describes, who liked his preaching, but never practised what he preached:—“They come unto thee as the people cometh, and they sit before thee as my people, and they hear thy words, but they will not do them.… And, lo, thou art unto them as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument: for they hear thy words, but they do them not.” (Ezek. 33:31, 32.)
(3) Are we are trying to satisfy our consciences with a mere formal religion?
There are myriads in England at this moment who are making shipwreck on this rock. Like the Pharisees of old, they make much ado about the outward part of Christianity, while the inward and spiritual part is totally neglected.
Remember our Saviour’s words about the Jewish formalists of His day: “This people draweth nigh with their mouth, and honoureth Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. In vain do they worship.” (Matt. 15:9.) It needs something more than going diligently to church, and receiving the Lord’s Supper, to take our souls to heaven. Means of grace and forms of religion are useful in their way, and God seldom does anything for his church without them. But let us beware of making shipwreck on the very lighthouse which helps to show the channel into the harbour.
(4) Have we have received the forgiveness of our sins?
Few reasonable Englishmen would think of denying that they are sinners. Many perhaps would say that they are not so bad as many, and that they have not been so very wicked, and so forth. But few, I repeat, would pretend to say that they had always lived like angels, and never done, or said, or thought a wrong thing all their days. In short, all of us must confess that we are more or less “sinners,” and, as sinners, are guilty before God; and, as guilty, we must be forgiven, or lost and condemned for ever at the last day.—Now it is the glory of the Christian religion that it provides for us the very forgiveness that we need,—full, free, perfect, eternal, and complete.
This forgiveness of sins has been purchased for us by the eternal Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. He has purchased it for us by coming into the world to be our Saviour, and by living, dying, and rising again, as our Substitute, in our behalf. He has bought it for us at the price of His own most precious blood, by suffering in our stead on the cross, and making satisfaction for our sins. But this forgiveness, great, and full, and glorious as it is, does not become the property of every man and woman, as a matter of course. It is a thing which each individual must receive for himself by his own personal faith, lay hold on by faith, appropriate by faith, and make his own by faith; or else, so far as he is concerned, Christ will have died in vain. “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life, and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him.” (John 3:36.)
(5) Do we know anything by experience of conversion to God?
Without conversion there is no salvation. “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”—“Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”—“If any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His.”—“If any man be in Christ he is a new creature.” (Matt. 18:3; John 3:3; Rom. 8:9; 2 Cor. 5:17.)
Sense of sin and deep hatred to it, faith in Christ and love to Him, delight in holiness and longing after more of it, love to God’s people and distaste for the things of the world,—these, these are the signs and evidences which always accompany conversion. Myriads around us, it may be feared, know nothing about it. They are, in Scripture language, dead, and asleep, and blind, and unfit for the kingdom of God.
(6) Do we know anything of practical Christian holiness?
It is as certain as anything in the Bible that “without holiness no man shall see the Lord.” (Heb. 12:14) It is equally certain that it is the invariable fruit of saving faith, the real test of regeneration, the only sound evidence of indwelling grace, the certain consequence of vital union with Christ.
The great Apostle, who said “I fight,—I labour,—I keep under my body and bring it into subjection” (1 Cor. 9:27), would have been amazed to hear of sanctification without personal exertion, and to be told that believers only need to sit still, and everything will be done for them!
Yet, weak and imperfect as the holiness of the best saints may be, it is a real true thing, and has a character about it as unmistakable as light and salt. It is not a thing which begins and ends with noisy profession: it will be seen much more than heard. Genuine Scriptural holiness will make a man do his duty at home and by the fireside, and adorn his doctrine in the little trials of daily life. It will exhibit itself in passive graces as well as in active. It will make a man humble, kind, gentle, unselfish, good-tempered, considerate for others, loving, meek, and forgiving. It will not constrain him to go out of the world, and shut himself up in a cave, like a hermit. But it will make him do his duty in that state to which God has called him, on Christian principles, and after the pattern of Christ.
(7) Do we know anything of enjoying the means of grace?
When I speak of the means of grace, I have in my mind’s eye five principal things,—the reading of the Bible, private prayer, public worship, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and the rest of the Lord’s day.
How can that man be thought to love God who reads about Him and His Christ, as a mere matter of duty, content and satisfied if he has just moved his mark onward over so many chapters?—How can that man suppose he is ready to meet Christ, who never takes any trouble to pour out his heart to Him in private as a Friend, and is satisfied with saying over a string of words every morning and evening, under the name of “prayer,” scarcely thinking what he is about?—How could that man be happy in heaven for ever, who finds the Sunday a dull, gloomy, tiresome day,—who knows nothing of hearty prayer and praise, and cares nothing whether he hears truth or error from the pulpit, or scarcely listens to the sermon?—What can be the spiritual condition of that man whose heart never “burns within him,” when he receives that bread and wine which specially remind us of Christ’s death on the cross, and the atonement for sin?
Tell me what a man does in the matter of Bible-reading and praying, in the matter of Sunday, public worship, and the Lord’s Supper, and I will soon tell you what he is, and on which road he is travelling. How is it with ourselves? Once more let us ask,—In the matter of means of grace, “How do we do?”
(8) Do we ever try to do any good in the world?
A Christian who was content to go to heaven himself, and cared not what became of others, whether they lived happy and died in peace or not, would have been regarded as a kind of monster in primitive times, who had not the Spirit of Christ.
Why should fig trees which bear no fruit be spared in the present day, when in our Lord’s time they were to be cut down as “cumberers of the ground”? (Luke 13:7.)
There is a generation of professing Christians now-a-days, who seem to know nothing of caring for their neighbours, and are wholly swallowed up in the concerns of number one,—that is, their own and their family’s. They eat, and drink, and sleep, and dress, and work, and get money, and spend money, year after year; and whether others are happy or miserable, well or ill, converted or unconverted, travelling toward heaven or toward hell, appear to be questions about which they are supremely indifferent.
(9) Do we know anything of living the life of habitual communion with Christ?
By “communion,” I mean that habit of “abiding in Christ” which our Lord speaks of, in the fifteenth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, as essential to Christian fruitfulness. (John 15:4–8.)
Let it be distinctly understood that union with Christ is one thing, and communion is another. There can be no communion with the Lord Jesus without union first; but unhappily there may be union with the Lord Jesus, and afterwards little or no communion at all. The difference between the two things is not the difference between two distinct steps, but the difference between the higher and lower ends of an inclined plane. Union is the common privilege of all who feel their sins, and truly repent, and come to Christ by faith, and are accepted, forgiven, and justified in Him. Too many believers, it may be feared, never get beyond this stage! Partly from ignorance, partly from laziness, partly from fear of man, partly from secret love of the world, partly from some unmortified besetting sin, they are content with a little faith, and a little hope, and a little peace, and a little measure of holiness. And they live on all their lives in this condition—doubting, weak, halting, and bearing fruit only “thirty-fold” to the very end of their days!
Communion with Christ is the privilege of those who are continually striving to grow in grace, and faith, and knowledge, and conformity to the mind of Christ in all things,—who do not “look to the things behind,” and “count not themselves to have attained,” but “press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:14.) Union is the bud, but communion is the flower: union is the babe, but communion is the strong man. He that has union with Christ does well; but he that enjoys communion with Him does far better. Both have one life, one hope, one heavenly seed in their hearts,—one Lord, one Saviour, one Holy Spirit, one eternal home: but union is not so good as communion! The grand secret of communion with Christ is to be continually “living the life of faith in Him,” and drawing out of Him every hour the supply that every hour requires. “To me,” said St. Paul, “to live is Christ.”—“I live: yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” (Gal. 2:20; Phil. 1:21.)
(10) Do we know anything of being ready for Christ’s second coming?
The ancient Christians made it a part of their religion to look for His return. Backward they looked to the cross and the atonement for sin, and rejoiced in Christ crucified. Upward they looked to Christ at the right hand of God, and rejoiced in Christ interceding. Forward they looked to the promised return of their Master, and rejoiced in the thought that they would see Him again. And we ought to do the same.
What have we really got from Christ? and what do we know of Him? and what do we think of Him? Are we living as if we long to see Him again, and love his appearing?—Readiness for that appearing is nothing more than being a real, consistent Christian. It requires no man to cease from his daily business. The farmer need not give up his farm, nor the shopkeeper his counter, nor the doctor his patients, nor the carpenter his hammer and nails, nor the bricklayer his mortar and trowel, nor the blacksmith his smithy. Each and all cannot do better than be found doing his duty, but doing it as a Christian, and with a heart packed up and ready to be gone.