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Bishop Ryle’s “The Character of the True Christian” (continued)

February 23, 2008

Here is the rest of that sermon “The Character of the True Christian” by Bishop Ryle:

II. The second thing to be considered in our text is that word “My.” Our Lord does not simply call His people sheep—but He says also “My sheep.” It is as though Jesus would have us understand He looks upon them as His property; they are, as it were, stamped and sealed and marked as the possession of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and it is a blessed, comfortable thought that even as men are careful and tender about their earthly belongings, and will not willingly allow them to be lost and damaged, so is our Lord and Savior careful of the souls that belong to Him.

But why are Christ’s people called Mine, in this particular manner? There are many sufficient reasons. We are “His” by ELECTION. We were chosen and given to Him by the Father before the foundations of the world were laid; our names were written in the covenant of salvation before we were born, we were predestined or fore-ordained to be His people from all eternity. That is a glorious, a soul-comforting doctrine, however some abuse it: a man may doubtless get to heaven and never feel sure that he was a true sheep of Christ’s flock until he gets there; he may walk in much darkness and uncertainty all his days—but to all who really feel in themselves the working of Christ’s Spirit, the doctrine that we are His by everlasting election, is full of sweet, pleasant and unspeakable consolation.

But again: Christ’s people are “His “by PURCHASE. Death and hell had claims upon everyone of them, they had all broken the law and forfeited eternal life—but Christ has redeemed them. Christ paid the heavy price of their salvation, even His own most precious blood, and well may He call them “Mine,” for He has bought them off from captivity and Satan at the cost of His own life. He can say “They are Mine by fair purchase in time, as well as Mine by free election in eternity.”

And lastly, Christ’s people are “His” by ADOPTION. He has put His Spirit in them, and overturned the power of sin in their hearts. He has given them a child-like frame of mind, so that they cry Abba Father; they are become part of His family, the very sons and daughters of the Almighty; He looks upon them as a portion of Himself, as members of His body and flesh and bones, and loves them and cherishes them accordingly.

See then, beloved, what great things that little word “My “contains. “My sheep” is the name that Jesus gives to Christians. “Mine” by election, by purchase, by adoption. Oh, believe: you may sometimes be cast down and faint-hearted—but if you have any real interest in that blessed title, if you are really in the number of Christ’s sheep, you have indeed good reason to rejoice.

III. But I must hasten on to the third point which our text lays down in the character of true believers “My sheep,” says Jesus, “hear My voice.” This hearing of Christ’s voice, what is it? It cannot be the mere hearing of the ears, for many do that who die in their sins. It must be the hearing with the heart, the listening with attention; the believing what is heard—the acting manfully on what is believed. And where may Christ’s voice be heard? It sometimes whispers in a sinner’s conscience, saying, Oh, do not these abominable things: turn, turn, why will you die? It sometimes speaks solemnly, in a visitation of providence, as a sickness or an accident or an affliction or a death, saying slowly but clearly, “Stop and think; consider your ways: are you ready to die and be judged?” But it generally is to be heard in the reading of Scripture or the preaching of the Gospel; then the voice of the Lord Jesus may be heard plain and distinct. One day it is sharp and piercing: “Except you repent you shall all likewise perish;” “You must be born again.” “Awake, you who sleep, and arise from the dead.” Another day it is gentle, winning, entreating: “Come unto me, O weary and heavy-laden one, and I will give you rest.” “If any man thirsts, let him come unto me and drink.” “Whoever will, let him take the water of life freely.” In all these ways and manners the voice of Jesus may be heard.

And here comes in the distinction between the converted and the unconverted. Those who are converted hear Christ’s voice—but they that are unconverted hear it not. The true sheep of Christ were once foolish and disobedient, serving divers lusts and pleasures, dead in trespasses and sins—but they heard their Redeemer’s voice at last, and when they heard they lived; they knew not at first who called them—but they heard a voice they could not disobey, and now they can tell you they are sure it was the Lord’s. They heard His voice, they listened to His invitation, they believed His promises, they confessed themselves sinners, and in Him they found peace. And now without His voice they will do nothing; His word, His saying, His command, His will is their rule of life—to be taught of Him by His Spirit and His Bible is their hearts’ desire and prayer—to hear about Him from His ministers is the food and drink of their souls. Their ears are like a dry soil, ever thirsting to drink in the water of life. Sometimes they may be tempted to turn aside to hear what the world can offer—but they soon go back again to sit at Jesus’ feet and hear His voice, with sorrow and shame and wonder for their own backslidings. The world cannot see that Christ’s voice is such a joyful sound; they dislike it—it offends them; to be told they are sinners, and must repent and believe or perish, is a stumbling-block. But Christ’s sheep are never offended; day after day they listen diligently to their Shepherd’s teaching; no music is so sweet to their ears as Jesus’ voice, and whether preached or written there is nothing they love so much. It seems as if it were spoken for their own particular case, and they cannot, they dare not, they would not for all the world disregard it.

IV. I must go on to the fourth and last mark of a true believer. “My sheep,” says the text in John, “hear my voice and follow me.” To follow Christ, that is the grand mark of Christians. No man shall ever say of them, they profess and do not practice, they say and do nothing for their Master’s sake; they must not only hear their Master’s voice—but follow Him. To follow Christ is to place implicit trust in Him as our Redeemer, Savior, Prophet, Priest, King, Leader, Commander and Shepherd; and to walk in His ways, straightforwards. It is to take up our cross and subscribe our name among His people, to look to the Lamb as our Guide and follow Him wherever He goes. We are not to follow our own devices and trust in ourselves for salvation; we are not to follow that vain shadow of a hope, our own doings and performances—but we are to fix our eyes and hearts on Christ; on Him we are to rest our faith for free and full forgiveness, to Him we are to pray for grace to help in time of need, after Him we are to walk, as the best, the brightest, the purest example. The way may be narrow and steep, we must press forward, not turning to the right hand or the left; the way may be dark, we must keep on—there will be light enough in heaven.

O that Christians, the very best of them, were not so slack in following! Some stop to trifle with the perishable things of earth. Some stop to pick up the gaudy, scentless flowers by the wayside. Some stop to sleep, forgetting this is not our rest, it is enchanted ground. Some stop to pick holes and find fault with their fellow-travelers. Few of Christ’s sheep do hold on their way as steadily as they might. But still, compared with the world, they are following Christ Jesus. Oh that they would only remember, those who follow Him most fully, shall follow Him most comfortably! They are following Christ Jesus, and they know where they are going; and even in the dark river, in the valley of the shadow of death, they feel a confidence that their Shepherd will be with them, and His rod and His staff will comfort them. They would all tell you they are poor wandering sheep, less than the least of all God’s mercies, ashamed of the little fruit they bear—but still, weak as they are, they are determined to follow on to the end, and to say, “None but Christ, in life and in death, in time and in eternity.”

Such is the character which the text gives of true Christians. They are compared to sheep; they are called Christ’s property; they hear His voice, and they follow Him. To go further at this time would be plainly impossible, and I therefore purpose, if the Lord will, to speak to you about the other branch of the text—the privileges of Christians—this evening. By God’s blessing you shall then hear what their Savior is to His people. It only remains to wind up what has been already said by PERSONAL APPLICATION.

I told you this was a text for self-inquiry; and in that light I press upon each of you now. I call upon you, O man or O woman, to put your hand upon your heart and ask that little question, “Am I a sheep of Christ’s flock—or am I not? Do I hear His voice or do I not? Do I follow Him or do I not?” Does not your Redeemer and your judge say plainly, “This is the character of my people?” Does He not give you the most certain marks by which to try your state? and if you cannot see in yourself these marks, where and what are your claims to eternal life? Without them you are, for the present, no better than a lost soul. Do you not know there are only to be two sorts of characters before the judgment-seat—sheep on the right hand in honor, and goats on the left hand in disgrace? And do you not know it is just the same even now? There are only two classes of people upon earth—men who hear Christ and follow Christ and are in a way to be saved; and men who neither hear nor follow Him and are in a way to be lost? And which flock do you belong to? There is no middle state. Examine yourself and be wise in time.

Think not to put off this question by saying, “I shall do as well as the rest of the world,”—that well may be doing very badly. The way of the world, indeed! Bring the world to the bar, and try it by the text, “Does the world hear Christ?” Who will stand forth and say it does? Christ’s promises and invitations and warnings and threatenings and instructions and exhortations are all alike disregarded and despised; the world is deaf to them; they might never have been spoken. “Oh,” says the world, “we shall do very well without minding all that; it was not meant for us.” And who was it meant for, then?

But again, does the world follow Christ? Who will stand up and say Yes to that? No, indeed! Christ’s ways and Christ’s example, holiness and love and meekness and temperance and self-denial, are the exceptions—the rare, scarce things in the world; and the things most frequent are anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, drunkenness, revellings, wantonness, pride, vanity, idleness, spiritual sloth, Bible-despising, prayer-neglecting, church-forgetting, worldliness, and the like. “Oh, never mind,” says the world; “we shall do very well without being so strict.” Very well in the devil’s opinion, who would love to ruin every living soul—but not very well in God’s. No; indeed the world will neither follow Christ nor hear Christ, anything else sooner—and yet remember it is the character of those who are to have eternal life that they hear Christ’s voice and follow Him. Sinner, remember, today I have told you.

And think not, O man, to put me off by saying, “At this rate very few will be saved.” You say very truly, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself foretold it. But let me tell you a secret: Why is it so few are likely to be saved? God would have all men brought unto the knowledge of the truth: why do so many, so very many, come short and take the broad way which leads to destruction? Simply because they will not believe what God has told them in His word; simply because they will have it God will not stand to what He has written in His Bible; they will imagine heaven is to be entered without being Christ’s sheep—will have their own way and not God’s.

Remember, then, this day, I tell you, that God is willing to receive you if you will only turn to Him: if you will only resolve to think for yourself and never mind the world, if you will only hear the voice of the Lord Jesus Christ and follow Him, if you will only be in earnest and come unto Him for forgiveness and His Holy Spirit, He shall grant you your heart’s desire, and you shall never perish but have eternal life. But whether you will hear or whether you will forbear, Christ and Christ only is the way, the truth, and the life—and whatever the world may tell you, no man shall ever come unto the Father but by Him.

Bishop Ryle’s “marks of a true believer” are not a bad standard for self-examination, which was indeed one of the aims of this sermon.

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