Skip to comments.Excerpt from "Needs of the Times" by J.C. Ryle
Posted on 06/11/2006 5:53:22 PM PDT by sionnsar
As the General Convention for ECUSA begins, perhaps one message needed for this time is this excerpt from Bishop J.C. Ryle's sermon, "Needs of the Times":
Needs of the TimesNo matter what happens at General Convention, let us not be "alarmed" at whatever transpires, and let us look at these facts, and draw strength from them; let us throw aside indecision, and remember what the Bishop wrote: If you believe little, those to whom you try to do good will believe nothing.
"Men that had understanding of the times" (1 Chron. 12:32).
These words were written about the tribe of Issachar, in the days when David first began to reign over Israel. It seems that after Saul's unhappy death, some of the tribes of Israel were undecided what to do. "Under which king?" was the question of the day in Palestine. Men doubted whether they should cling to the family of Saul, or accept David as their king. Some hung back, and would not commit themselves; others came forward boldly, and declared for David. Among these last were many of the children of Issachar; and the Holy Spirit gives them a special word of praise. He says, "They were men that had understanding of the times."
I cannot doubt that this sentence, like every sentence in Scripture, was written for our learning. These men of Issachar are set before us as a pattern to be imitated, and an example to be followed; for it is a most important thing to understand the times in which we live, and to know what those times require. The wise men in the court of Ahasuerus knew the times (Esther 1:13). Our Lord Jesus Christ blames the Jews, because they "knew not the time of their visitation," and did not "discern the signs of the times" (Luke 19:44; Matt. 16:3). Let us take heed lest we fall into the same sin. The man who is content to sit ignorantly by his own fireside, wrapped up in his own private affairs, and has no public eye for what is going on in the church and the world, is a miserable patriot, and a poor style of Christian. Next to our Bibles and our own hearts, our Lord would have us study our own times.
1. First and foremost, the times require of us a bold and unflinching maintenance of the entire truth of Christianity, and the divine authority of the Bible.
Our lot is cast in an age of abounding unbelief, skepticism and, I fear I must add, infidelity. Never, perhaps, since the days of Celsus, Porphyry and Julian, was the truth of revealed religion so openly and unblushingly assailed, and never was the assault so speciously and plausibly conducted. The words which Bishop Butler wrote in 1736 are curiously applicable to our own days "It is come to be taken for granted by many people, that Christianity is not even a subject of inquiry, but that it is now at length discovered to be fictitious. And accordingly they treat it as if, in the present age, this was an agreed point among all people of discernment, and nothing remained but to set it up as a principal subject of mirth and ridicule, as it were by way of reprisals for its having so long interrupted the pleasures of the world." I often wonder what the good bishop would have now said, if he had lived in 1879.
In reviews, magazines, newspapers, lectures, essays and sometimes even in sermons, scores of clever writers are incessantly waging war against the very foundations of Christianity. Reason, science, geology, anthropology, modern discoveries, free thought, are all boldly asserted to be on their side. No educated person, we are constantly told nowadays, can really believe supernatural religion, or the plenary inspiration of the Bible, or the possibility of miracles. Such ancient doctrines as the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the personality of the Holy Spirit, the atonement, the obligation of the Sabbath, the necessity and efficacy of prayer, the existence of the devil and the reality of future punishment, are quietly put on the shelf as useless old almanacs, or contemptuously thrown overboard as lumber! And all this is done so cleverly, and with such an appearance of candor and liberality, and with such compliments to the capacity and nobility of human nature, that multitudes of unstable Christians are carried away as by a flood, and become partially unsettled, if they do not make complete shipwreck of faith.
The existence of this plague of unbelief must not surprise us for a moment. It is only an old enemy in a new dress, an old disease in a new form. Since the day when Adam and Eve fell, the devil has never ceased to tempt men not to believe God, and has said, directly or indirectly, "You shall not die even if you do not believe." In the latter days especially we have warrant of Scripture for expecting an abundant crop of unbelief "When the Son of man comes, shall He find faith on the earth?" "Evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse," "There shall come in the last days scoffers" (Luke 18:8; 2 Tim. 3:13; 2 Peter 3:3). Here in England skepticism is that natural rebound from semi-popery and superstition which many wise men have long predicted and expected. It is precisely that swing of the pendulum which far-sighted students of human nature looked for; and it has come.
But as I tell you not to be surprised at the widespread skepticism of the times, so also I must urge you not to be shaken in mind by it, or moved from your steadfastness. There is no real cause for alarm. The ark of God is not in danger, though the oxen seem to shake it. Christianity has survived the attacks of Hume and Hobbes and Tindal, of Collins and Woolston and Bolingbroke and Chubb, of Voltaire and Payne and Holyoake. These men made a great noise in their day, and frightened weak people, but they produced no more effect than idle travelers produce by scratching their names on the great pyramid of Egypt. Depend on it, Christianity in like manner will survive the attacks of the clever writers of these times. The startling novelty of many modern objections to revelation, no doubt, makes them seem more weighty than they really are. It does not follow, however, that hard knots cannot be untied because our fingers cannot untie them, or formidable difficulties cannot be explained because our eyes cannot see through or explain them. When you cannot answer a skeptic, be content to wait for more light; but never forsake a great principle. In religion, as in many scientific questions, said Faraday, "The highest philosophy is often a judicious suspense of judgment." He that believes shall not make haste: he can afford to wait.
When skeptics and infidels have said all they can, we must not forget that there are three great broad facts which they have never explained away, and I am convinced they never can, and never will. Let me tell you briefly what they are. They are very simple facts, and any plain man can understand them.
a. The first fact is Jesus Christ Himself. If Christianity is a mere invention of man, and the Bible is not from God, how can infidels explain Jesus Christ? His existence in history they cannot deny. How is it that without force or bribery, without arms or money, He has made such an immensely deep mark on the world as He certainly has? Who was He? What was He? Where did He come from? How is it that there never has been one like Him, neither before nor after, since the beginning of historical times? They cannot explain it. Nothing can explain it but the great foundation principle of revealed religion, that Jesus Christ is God, and His gospel is all true.
b. The second fact is the Bible itself. If Christianity is a mere invention of man, and the Bible is of no more authority than any other uninspired volume, how is it that the book is what it is? How is it that a book written by a few Jews in a remote corner of the earth, written at distant periods without consort or collusion among the writers; written by members of a nation which, compared to Greeks and Romans, did nothing for literature-how is it that this book stands entirely alone, and there is nothing that even approaches it, for high views of God, for true views of man, for solemnity of thought, for grandeur of doctrine, and for purity of morality? What account can the infidel give of this book, so deep, so simple, so wise, so free from defects? He cannot explain its existence and nature on his principles. We only can do that who hold that the book is supernatural and of God.
c. The third fact is the effect which Christianity has produced on the world. If Christianity is a mere invention of man, and not a supernatural, divine revelation, how is it that it has wrought such a complete alteration in the state of man kind? Any well-read man knows that the moral difference between the condition of the world before Christianity was planted and since Christianity took root is the difference between night and day, the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of the devil.
Whenever you are tempted to be alarmed at the progress of infidelity, look at the three facts I have just mentioned, and cast your fears away. Take up your position boldly behind the ramparts of these three facts, and you may safely defy the utmost efforts of modern skeptics. They may often ask you a hundred questions you cannot answer, and start ingenious problems about various readings, or inspiration, or geology, or the origin of man, or the age of the world, which you cannot solve. They may vex and irritate you with wild speculations and theories, of which at the time you cannot prove the fallacy, though you feel it. But be calm and fear not. Remember the three great facts I have named, and boldly challenge skeptics to explain them away. The difficulties of Christianity no doubt are great; but, depend on it, they are nothing compared to the difficulties of infidelity.
2. The times require at our hands distinct and decided views of Christian doctrine. I cannot withhold my conviction that the professing church is as much damaged by laxity and indistinctness about matters of doctrine within, as it is by skeptics and unbelievers without. Myriads of professing Christians nowadays seem utterly unable to distinguish things that differ. Like people afflicted with color blindness, they are incapable of discerning what is true and what is false, what is sound and what is unsound. If a preacher of religion is only clever and eloquent and earnest, they appear to think he is all right, however strange and heterogeneous his sermons may be. They are destitute of spiritual sense, apparently, and cannot detect error. Popery or Protestantism, an atonement or no atonement, a personal Holy Spirit or no Holy Spirit, future punishment or no future punishment, "high" church or "low" church or "broad" church, Trinitarianism, Arianism, or Unitarianism, nothing comes amiss to them: they can swallow all, if they cannot digest it! Carried away by a fancied liberality and charity, they seem to think everybody is right and nobody is wrong, every clergyman is sound and none are unsound, everybody is going to be saved and nobody is going to be lost. Their religion is made up of negatives; and the only positive thing about them is, that they dislike distinctness, and think all extreme and decided and positive views are very naughty and very wrong!
These people live in a kind of mist or fog. They see nothing clearly, and do not know what they believe. They have not made up their minds about any great point in the gospel, and seem content to be honorary members of all schools of thought. For their lives they could not tell you what they think is truth about justification or regeneration or sanctification or the Lord's Supper or baptism or faith or conversion or inspiration or the future state. They are eaten up with a morbid dread of controversy and an ignorant dislike of "party spirit," and yet they really cannot define what they mean by these phrases. The only point you can make out is that they admire earnestness and cleverness and charity, and cannot believe that any clever, earnest, charitable man can ever be in the wrong! And so they live on undecided; and too often undecided they drift down to the grave, without comfort in their religion and, I am afraid, often without hope.
The explanation of this boneless, nerveless, jellyfish condition of soul is not difficult to find. To begin with, the heart of man is naturally in the dark about religion, has no intuitive sense of truth and really needs instruction and illumination. Beside this, the natural heart in most men hates exertion in religion and cordially dislikes patient painstaking inquiry. Above all, the natural heart generally likes the praise of others, shrinks from collision and loves to be thought charitable and liberal. The whole result is that a kind of broad religious "agnosticism" just suits an immense number of people, and specially suits young people. They are content to shovel aside all disputed points as rubbish, and if you charge them with indecision, they will tell you, "I do not pretend to understand controversy; I decline to examine controverted points. I dare say it is all the same in the long run." Who does not know that such people swarm and abound everywhere?
Now I do beseech all who read this message to beware of this undecided state of mind in religion. It is a pestilence which walks in darkness, and a destruction that kills in noonday. It is a lazy, idle frame of soul which, doubtless, saves men the trouble of thought and investigation; but it is a frame of soul for which there is no warrant in the Bible, nor yet in the Articles or Prayer Book of the Church of England. For your own soul's sake dare to make up your mind what you believe, and dare to have positive distinct views of truth and error. Never, never be afraid to hold decided doctrinal opinions; and let no fear of man and no morbid dread of being thought party-spirited, narrow or controversial, make you rest contented with a bloodless, boneless, tasteless, colorless, lukewarm, undogmatic Christianity.
Mark what I say. If you want to do good in these times, you must throw aside indecision, and take up a distinct, sharply cut, doctrinal religion. If you believe little, those to whom you try to do good will believe nothing. The victories of Christianity, wherever they have been won, have been won by distinct doctrinal theology, by telling men roundly of Christ's vicarious death and sacrifice, by showing them Christ's substitution on the cross and His precious blood, by teaching them justification by faith and bidding them believe on a crucified Savior, by preaching ruin by sin, redemption by Christ, regeneration by the Spirit, by lifting up the bronze serpent, by telling men to look and live, to believe, repent and be converted. This, this is the only teaching which for eighteen centuries God has honored with success, and is honoring at the present day both at home and abroad. Let the clever advocates of a broad and undogmatic theology-the preachers of the gospel of earnestness and sincerity and cold morality-let them, I say, show us at this day any English village or parish or city or town or district, which has been evangelized without "dogma," by their principles. They cannot do it, and they never will. Christianity without distinct doctrine is a powerless thing. It may be beautiful to some minds, but it is childless and barren. There is no getting over facts. The good that is done in the earth may be comparatively small. Evil may abound and ignorant impatience may murmur, and cry out that Christianity has failed. But, depend on it, if we want to "do good" and shake the world, we must fight with the old apostolic weapons, and stick to "dogma". No dogma, no fruits! No positive evangelical doctrine, no evangelization!
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