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Bishop J.C. Ryle: “The Christian Race” (continued)

August 4, 2021

We looked at the first portion of “The Christian Race” by Bishop Ryle in the post yesterday.  Today I’d like to post another portion of this sermon which is based on Hebrews 12:1-2; note it speaks very much to our times:

II. The second thing you may learn from the text is this: Many have gone before us. “We are encompassed with a great cloud of witnesses.” The witnesses here spoken of are those patriarchs and prophets who are mentioned in the eleventh chapter, and the apostle calls upon us to remember them and their troubles and take courage. Are we frail earthen vessels? so were they. Are we weak and encompassed with infirmities? so were they. Are we exposed to temptation and burdened with this body of corruption? so were they. Are we afflicted? so were they. Are we alone in our generation, the scorn of all our neighbors? so were they. Have we trials of cruel mockings? so had they. What can we possibly be called upon to suffer which they have not endured? What consolations did they receive which we may not enjoy?

You may talk of your cares and business and families—but their portion was just like yours; they were men of like passions; they did not neglect business, and yet they gave their hearts to God. They show the race can always be run by those who have the will. Yes, they were all flesh and blood like ourselves, and yet by grace they became new creatures; and so by faith they “obtained a good report;” by faith they confessed themselves strangers and pilgrims on the earth; through faith they “quenched the raging of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, gained strength after being weak, became mighty in battle, and put foreign armies to flight. Some men were tortured, not accepting release, so that they might gain a better resurrection, and others experienced mockings and scourgings, as well as bonds and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawed in two, they died by the sword, they wandered about in sheepskins, in goatskins, destitute, afflicted, and mistreated. They wandered in deserts, mountains, caves, and holes in the ground.”

But grace exceedingly abounded, and all fought a good fight and finished their course and kept the faith, and to God Almighty every one of them appeared in Zion. Take courage, fainting Christians: you are encompassed with a great cloud of witnesses! The race that you are running has been run by millions before; you think that no one ever had such trials as yourself—but every step that you are journeying has been safely trod by others; the valley of the shadow of death has been securely passed by a multitude of trembling, doubting ones like yourself. They had their fears and anxieties, like you—but they were not cast away. The world, the flesh and the devil can never overwhelm the weakest woman who will set her face towards God. These millions journeyed on in bitterness and tears like your own, and yet not one perished—they all reached their eternal home.

III. The third point to be considered is the apostle’s advice, to “lay aside every weight.” By this he means that we must give up everything which is really hurtful to our souls. We must act like men who throw off all their long and flowing garments, as an encumbrance, when about to enter a race. We must cast away everything which hinders us upon our road towards heaven—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life; the love of riches, pleasures, and honors, the spirit of lukewarmness and carelessness and indifference about the things of God—all must be rooted out and forsaken if we are anxious for the prize. We must mortify the deeds of the body, we must crucify our affections for this world. We must look well to our habits and inclinations and employments, and if we find anything coming in as a stumbling-block between ourselves and salvation, we must be ready to lay it aside as if it were a millstone about our necks, although it cost us as much pain as cutting off a hand or plucking out a right eye. Away with everything which keeps us back; our feet are slow at the very best, we have a long course to run, we cannot afford to carry weight, if we are really contending for everlasting life.

But above all we must take heed that we lay aside the sin which does most easily beset us, the sin which from our age—or habit—or taste—or disposition—or feelings, possesses the greatest power over us. I know of two which are always at our elbows, two sins which try the most advanced Christians even to the end, and these are pride and unbelief. Pride in our own difference from others, pride in our reputation as Christians, pride in our spiritual attainments. Unbelief about our own sinfulness, unbelief about God’s wisdom, unbelief about God’s mercy. Oh, they are heavy burdens, and sorely do they keep us back, and few really know they are carrying them, and few indeed are those who will not discover them at the very bottom of the chamber of their hearts, waiting an opportunity to come out.

But there are particular besetting sins, of which each separate Christian can alone furnish an account; each single one of us has some weak point, each one has got a thin, weak spot in his wall of defense against the devil, each one has a traitor in his camp ready to open the gates to Satan, and he who is wise will never rest until he has discovered where this weak point is. This is that special sin which you are here exhorted to watch against, to overcome, to cast forth, to spare no means in bringing it into subjection—that it may not entangle you in your race towards Zion. One man is beset with lust, another with a love of drinking, another with evil temper, another with malice, another with covetousness, another with worldly-mindedness, another with idleness—but each of us has got about him some besetting infirmity, which is able to hinder him far more than others, and with which he must keep an unceasing warfare—or else he will never so run as to obtain the prize.

Oh these bitter besetting sins! How many have fallen in their full course, and given occasion to God’s enemies to blaspheme, from thinking lightly of them, from not continually guarding against them, from a vain notion that they were altogether cut off! They have been over-confident and presumptuous. They have said “We are the temple of the Lord, and we cannot greatly stumble,” and they have forgotten that hidden root, that branch of the old Adam; and so day after day, little by little, shoot after shoot, it grew, it strengthened, it filled their heart, it blighted their few graces; and suddenly, without time to think, they have slipped and fallen headlong in the race, and now they are hurrying down stream amidst that miserable party, the backsliders, and who can tell what their end may be?

But what was the simple cause? They disregarded some besetting sin. Go, child of God, and search the chambers of your heart! See whether you can find there some seed of evil, some darling thing which you have tenderly spared hitherto, because it was a little one. Away with it! There must be no mercy, no compromise, no reserve! It must be laid aside, plucked up, torn up by the roots—or it will one day trip you up, and prevent you running your race towards Zion. The gates of heaven are broad enough to receive the worst of sinners—but too narrow to admit the smallest grain of unforsaken sin!

Both these points, to me, do indeed speak to us, for we do often forget about the “great cloud of witnesses” which has preceded us, and we thus do not gain the much-needed encouragement of remembering that as the grace of God sustained them, so will it sustain us in our time of need.  Likewise, Bishop Ryle speaks to the tendency in our day to redefine sin, to excuse sin, and to deny sin.  In a future installment we’ll see what he writes about finishing the race.

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