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Bishop J.C. Ryle: “The Character of the True Christian”

February 22, 2008

I came across this sermon by the Rt. Rev. J.C. Ryle, and thought it was worth posting.  It is titled “The Character of the True Christian” and I think Bishop Ryle is pretty much right on target.  As his text, Bishop Ryle uses John 10:27.  Here is the first portion of the sermon, and I may post some more at a later date.


“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”

 John 10:27

 

That is a glorious saying, a perfect and complete text; containing all I need to know for my soul’s comfort, full of privileges and mercies for true believers and penitent sinners, and at the same time shutting the door effectually against self-righteous Pharisees and whitened sepulchers and painted hypocrites. It shows us two things: the character of real Christians, and the spiritual treasures they possess. Or, in other words, what they are to their Savior—and what their Savior is to them. I propose this morning to consider these two things in order, and I pray God you may all be led to examine yourselves by the light which the text affords.

I. First, then, with respect to true Christians—their names, their marks, their character—what does the text say about them? “My sheep,” we read, “hear my voice and follow me.” The Lord Jesus Christ likens them to sheep; and He declares “they are mine, and they hear me and follow me.” There is matter we shall do well to consider in each of these expressions.

True Christians, then, are compared to SHEEP, and we shall find a great depth of meaning in the comparison if we look into it. Sheep are the most harmless, quiet, inoffensive creatures that God has made. So should it be with Christians: they should be very humble and lowly-minded, as disciples of Him who said, “Learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart.” They should be known as people of a very gentle and loving spirit, who desire to do good to all around them, who would not injure anyone by word or deed; who do not seek the great things of this world—but are content to go straightforward on the path of duty and take whatever it shall please God to send them. They ought to show forth in their lives and outward conversation that the Holy Spirit has given them a new nature, has taken away their old corrupt disposition and planted in them godly thoughts and purposes and desires.

When, therefore, we see people biting and devouring one another, saying and doing uncharitable things to their neighbors, fierce, and passionate and evil-tempered and angry on the slightest occasion; full of envy and strife and bitter speaking—surely we are justified in saying, “You do not belong to Christ’s flock; you have yet to be born again and made new creatures; there must be a mighty change. Profess what you please, at present we can only see in you the mind of the old man, even Adam the first—but nothing of the Second Adam, even Christ Jesus the Lord. We can discern the spirit of the wolf, however fair your clothing, and we want instead to discover in you the spirit of the lamb.”

But again, sheep are of all animals the most useful; none are so serviceable to man, none so necessary in every way for his comforts and conveniences; and such should be the character of a true Christian. We must study to do good in our day and generation, and lay ourselves out for the spiritual and temporal advantage of our brethren. All can do much: it is not the rich alone, and the great, who are able to be useful; there are a hundred ways of conferring benefits beside the form of giving gold and silver; and each in his respective station can do good if he desires.

Has not a poor man a tongue? Then surely, if he is a sheep of Christ’s flock, he will use it for his neighbors’ profit, when occasion is afforded; he will warn and entreat and counsel and persuade; he will reason and argue, as a witness and servant of God, against sin and carelessness in every shape; he will show himself an affectionate lover of men’s souls, who would gladly impart to others the knowledge he has found valuable to himself. He will never allow wickedness to pass unnoticed if, by saying a quiet word on the Lord’s side, he may perchance restrain it. He will never allow anger and strife to continue, if he can be the means of making peace.

And then has not a poor man a feeling heart? Then surely, if he is a true sheep of Christ’s flock, he will remember those who are in adversity, as being himself in the body. He will not shun the house of mourning—but strive to be a comforter, bearing in mind the proverb “A word spoken in season, how good is it.” He will weep with those who weep, as well as rejoice with those who rejoice. He will let men see that he is a real child of his Father in heaven, who does good to the just and the unjust too, and is kind even to the unthankful and the evil.

And cannot a poor man pray? Yes! and effectual fervent prayer avails much. And if he prays for the souls of others, who knows but he may draw down benefits on all around him? Oh! but a real praying Christian, a man who is constantly asking for the Spirit to come down on the place in which he dwells and convert the sleepers—that man is a mighty benefactor. He is working a powerful engine, and if he is the cause of one single person being converted, he has done something that makes all heaven rejoice.

Brethren, let it be written on our minds that all can do much, and those who belong to Christ’s flock will strive to do much. No man is so really useful in a church, as a true Christian; and no one can have much real Christianity about him who does not endeavor to do good either by his advice or by his example or by his prayers. Are we indeed the sheep of Christ? Let us never forget this point of our character.

A genuine Gospel-faith has nothing selfish about it—it never makes a man think only of his own salvation. It stirs him up, on the contrary, to concern about the souls of others. I always suspect that those who care nothing whether their brethren are saved or not, must in reality be ignorant or thoughtless about their own state.

Again. Sheep love to be together; they do not like being alone; there are no animals which seem to take such pleasure in being in a flock, and cling to each other’s company so faithfully. And so is it with true Christians: it is their delight to meet each other and be together, if possible. It is their continual sorrow and complaint that far too often they have to journey on alone, without any who are like-minded to commune with, about the things which their souls love most; and this is a very sore trial. Friends and relations may be kind and affectionate, they may have everything to make this world enjoyable—but what Christ’s sheep sigh and crave after is to have with them people who can enter into their secret feelings, who understand the unseen workings of their inward man, who can comprehend the hidden warfare which goes on in their hearts—people with whom they can take sweet counsel about their souls’ health and souls’ trials, with whom they can converse freely and unreservedly about their Lord and Master and their hopes of forgiveness through His name.

Who, indeed, can describe the pleasure with which the members of Christ’s flock do meet each other face to face? They may have been strangers before; they may have lived apart, and never been in company—but it is wonderful to observe how soon they seem to understand each other, there seems a thorough oneness of opinion, and taste and judgment, so that a man would think they had known each other for years; they seem, indeed, to feel they are servants of one and the same Master, members of the same family, and have been converted by one and the same Spirit; they have one Lord, one faith, one baptism; they have the same trials, the same fears, the same doubts, the same temptations, the same faintings of heart, the same dread of sin, the same sense of unworthiness, the same love of their Savior. Oh—but there is a mystical union between true believers, which they only know who have experienced it; the world cannot understand it—it is all foolishness to them. “Whatever can you find,” they say, “to make you take such interest in each other’s society?” But that union does really exist, and a most blessed thing it is; for it is like a little foretaste of heaven.

Beloved, this loving to be together is a special mark of Christ’s flock—nor is it strange if we consider they are walking in the same narrow way, and fighting against the same deadly enemies—and never are they so happy as when they are in company. The unconverted know nothing of such happiness; they meet each other, and are civil and polite, and even kind in their way—but how seldom do they open their whole hearts, how much of jealousy and cold suspicion there is about their very friendships, how much they conceal from their nearest acquaintances! The sheep of Christ know nothing of all this; it is their hearts’ desire to be together, and when together they have all their thoughts in common, there is no reserve, no keeping back.

No doubt there are false professors in the world, who have a form of godliness without the power—tinkling cymbals whose religion consists only in talk, all sound and no substance—but notwithstanding the number of these hypocrites, I still say that true believers are remarkable for their love of communion and fellowship with each other; they are ready to pine away with heaviness when separate; it is their very life-breath to be together.

The last thing I would remark about sheep is this: they are of all animals most helpless, most ready to stray, most likely to lose themselves and wander out of their pasture; and so it is with Christ’s people. They are far too ready to turn aside and go in ways that are not good; in vain they are warned and advised to be watchful and take heed to their path; they often get into a drowsy, sleepy frame, and imagine there is no danger, and so they wander down some bypath, and are only wakened by some merciful chastisement or heavy fall. They imagine that they are strong enough to get on without this constant vigilance, and so they take their eye off the Chief Shepherd, and wander on from this field to that, after their own desires, until they find themselves at last in darkness and doubt. And Christ’s sheep, too, like other sheep, do seldom return to the fold without some damage and loss, for it is far more easy to get out of the right way when you are in—than to get into it when you are out.

There are some people who imagine Christians are perfect and faultless creatures—but this is indeed an opinion far wide of the truth. No doubt they aim at perfection—but the very best come far short of it; they would tell you that in many things they offend daily, that they are continually erring and straying and backsliding, that the most fitting prayer they could offer up would be this: “Lord, we are no better than wandering sheep. God be merciful to us unworthy sinners!”

And then, too, like sheep, true Christians are easily frightened. It takes very little to alarm them and make them fearful about their own condition; they are jealous and suspicious of danger from every quarter, and, like creatures who know their own weakness and the number of their enemies, they will often imagine there is something to be feared where no fear really is. But still this godly fear is an eminent sign of Christ’s flock—it proves that they feel their own helplessness; and when a man knows nothing of it, and is full of presumptuous confidence, there is but too much reason to suspect he knows little of Christianity as he ought to know it.

Such appear to be the reasons why true believers are compared to sheep. They may not always be discerned in this corrupt and naughty world; you may often see no great difference between them and the unbelievers—but still they have a nature of their own, and sooner or later, if you observe, you will see it. You may put a flock of sheep and a flock of swine together in a broad green meadow, and an ignorant man might say at first their natures were the same—but drive them together in a narrow road, with a puddle at one side, and the mind of the animal will soon come out. The swine may have looked clean in the meadow—but as soon as they have the opportunity they will wallow in the mud. The sheep were clean in the meadow, and when they come to the dirt they will keep clean there too if they possibly can. Just so is the case of the Christian and the world: when things run smoothly, and there is no particular inducement to sin, there seems no mighty difference between them—but when there comes a temptation, and self-denial is required, immediately the disposition of the heart comes uppermost—the Christian holds on his way, however narrow it may be, the worldly-minded turns down that broad lane which leads to destruction, and the real character of each is revealed.

To me perhaps one of the most important points in this is our need for fellowship with other believers.  Truly there should be no such thing as a “Lone Ranger” Christian.

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