Written by J. C. Ryle.
Edited for thought and space.
The spiritual lives of many so-called Christians, I fear, are nothing better than a continual diet of spiritual drama-drinking.
They are always morbidly craving fresh excitement; and they seem to care little what it is if they only get it. All preaching seems to come alike to them; and they appear unable to “see differences,” so long as they heard what is clever, have their ears tickled, and sit in a crowd.
Worst of all, there are hundreds of young unestablished believers who are so infected with the same love of excitement, that they actually think it a duty to be always seeking it. Insensibly almost to themselves, they take up a kind of hysterical, sensational, sentimental Christianity, until they are never content with the “old paths,” and, like the Athenians, are always running after something new. To see a calm-minded young believer, who is not stuck up, self-confident, self-conceited, and more ready to teach than learn, but content with a daily steady effort to grow up into Christ’s likeness, and to do Christ’s work quietly and unostentatiously, at home, is really becoming almost a rarity!
Too many young professors, alas, behave like young recruits who have not spent all their bounty money. They show how little deep root they have, and how little knowledge of their own hearts, by noise, forwardness, readiness to contradict and set down old Christians, and over-weaning trust in their own fancied soundness and wisdom! Well will it be for many young professors of this age if they do not end, after being tossed about for a while, and “carried to and fro by every wind of doctrine, “by joining some petty, narrow-minded, censorious sect, or embracing some senseless, unreasoning, crotchety heresy. Surely in times like these there is great need for self-examination.
When we look around us, we may well ask, “How do we do about our souls?”
In handling this question, I think the shortest plan will be to suggest a list of subjects for self-inquiry, and to go through them in order. By so doing I shall hope to meet the case of every one into whose hands this volume may fall I invite every reader of this paper to join me in calm, searching self-examination, for a few short minutes.
I desire to speak to myself as well as to you. I approach you not as an enemy, but as a friend. “My heart’s desire and prayer to God is that you may be saved.” (Rom. 10:1.) Bear with me if I say things which at first sight look harsh and severe. Believe me, he is your best friend who tells you the most truth.
Let me ask, in the first place, “Do we ever think about our souls at all?”
Thousands of 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 do not openly oppose religion, for they have not sufficient reflection about it to do so;” but they eat, and drink, and sleep, and get money, and spend money, as if religion was a mere fiction and not a reality.
They are neither infidels, nor High Church, nor Low Church, nor Broad Church. They are just nothing at all, and do not take the trouble to have opinions. A more senseless and unreasonable way of living cannot be conceived; but they do not pretend to reason about it. 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 were nothing worth thinking of except this world.
It is hard to imagine a life more unworthy of an immortal creature than such a life as I have just described, for it reduces a man to the level of a beast. But it is literally and truly the life of multitudes in the world: and as they pass away their place is taken by multitudes like them. The picture, no doubt, is horrible, distressing, and revolting: but, unhappily, it is only too true. In every large town, in every market, on every stock-exchange, in every club, you may see specimens of this class by scores, “men who think of everything under the sun except the one thing needful,” the salvation of their souls. 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; Dent, 32:29; Eccles. 5:1) Like Gallio they “care for none of these things:” they are not in their way. (Acts xviii. 17.) If they prosper in the world, and get rich, and succeed in their line of life, they are praised, and admired by their contemporaries. Nothing succeeds in the world like success. But for all this they cannot live forever. They will have to die and appear before the bar of God, and be judged; and then what will the end be? When a large class of this kind exists in our country, no reader need wonder that I ask whether he belongs to it. If you do, you ought to have a mark set on your door, as there used to be a mark on a plague-stricken house two centuries ago, with the words, ” Lord have mercy on us,” written on it. Look at the class I have been describing, and then look at your own soul
Let me ask, in the second place, whether we ever do anything about our souls?
There are multitudes in the world who think occasionally about religion, but unhappily never get beyond thinking. After a stirring sermon, ” or after a funeral,” or under the pressure of illness, ” or on Sunday evening,” or when things are going on badly in their families,” or when they meet some bright example of a Christian,” or when they fall in with some “striking religious book or tract,” they will at the time think a good deal, and even talk a little about religion in a vague way. But they stop short, as if thinking and talking were enough to save them. They are always meaning, and intending, and purposing, and resolving, and wishing, and telling us that they “know” what is right, and “hope” to be found right at last, but they never attain to any action. There is no actual separation from the service of the world and sin, no real taking up the cross and following Christ, no positive doing in their Christianity. 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 practiced 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.) In a day like this, when hearing and thinking, without doing, is so common, no one can justly wonder that I press upon men the absolute need of self-examination. Once more, then, I ask you to consider the question of my text,” “How do we do about our souls?”
Let me ask, in the third place, whether we are trying to satisfy our consciences with a mere formal Religion?
There are myriads in the world 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. They are careful to attend all the services of their place of worship, and regular in using all its forms and ordinances. They are never absent from Communion when the Lord’s Sapper is administered. Sometimes they are most strict in observing Lent, and attach great importance to Saints’ days. They are often keen partisans of their own Church, or sect, or congregation, and ready to contend with anyone who does not agree with them. Yet all this time there is no heart in their religion. Anyone who knows them intimately can see with half an eye that their affections are set on things below, and not on things above; and that they are trying to make up for the want of inward Christianity by an excessive quantity of outward form. And this formal religion does them no real good. They are not satisfied. Beginning at the wrong end, by making the outward things first, they know nothing of inward joy and peace, and pass their lives in a constant struggle, secretly conscious that there is something wrong, and yet not knowing why. Well, after all, if they do not go on from one stage of formality to another, until in despair they take a fatal plunge, and fall into carnality!
When professing Christians of this kind are so painfully numerous, no one need wonder if I press upon him the paramount importance of close self-examination. If you love life, do not be content with the husk, and shell, and scaffolding of religion. Remember our Savior’s words about the Jewish formalists of His day: “This people drawled nigh with their mouth, and honored 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 harbor.
Once more I ask, “How do we do about our souls?”
Meet the author and part of your Christian heritage: John Charles Ryle (10 May 1816 – 10 June 1900) was the first Anglican bishop of Liverpool. Ryle was born at Macclesfield, and was educated at Eton and at Christ Church, Oxford, where he was Craven Scholar in 1836. The son of a wealthy banker, he was destined for a career in politics before choosing a path of ordained ministry. While hearing Ephesians 2 read in church in 1838, he felt a spiritual awakening and was ordained by Bishop Sumner at Winchester in 1842. For 38 years he was a parish priest, first at Helmingham and later at Stradbrooke, in Suffolk. He became a leader of the evangelical party in the Church of England and was noted for his doctrinal essays and polemical writings.
Ryle was a strong supporter of the evangelical school and a critic of Ritualism. He was a writer, pastor and an evangelical preacher. Among his longer works are Christian Leaders of the Eighteenth Century (1869), Expository Thoughts on the Gospels (7 vols, 1856–69), Principles for Churchmen (1884). Ryle was described as having a commanding presence and vigorous in advocating his principles albeit with a warm disposition. He was also credited with having success in evangelizing the blue collar community. His second son, Herbert Edward Ryle also a clergyman, became Dean of Westminster.