Written by J. C. Ryle.
What is the meaning of the question before your eyes? I ask about your religion. I offer you a solemn question on a matter that deeply concerns your soul. I say to you, is your religion real? Is it true?
What do I mean when I use the word “real”? I mean that which is genuine, and sincere, and honest, and thorough. I mean that which is not base, and hollow, and formal, and false, and counterfeit, and sham, and nominal. Real religion is not mere show, and pretense, and skin-deep feeling, and temporary profession, and outside work. It is something inward, solid, substantial, intrinsic, living, lasting. You know the difference between base coin and good money,—between solid gold and tinsel,—between plated metal and silver,—between real stone and plaster imitation. Think of these things as you consider the question which heads these thoughts. What is the character of your religion? Is it real? It may be weak, and feeble, and mingled with many infirmities. That is not the point before you today. My question is simply this,—Is your religion real? Is it true?
CHRISTIAN, the times in which you live demand such a question as that which is before you.
A want of reality is a striking feature of a vast amount of religion in the present day. Poets have sometimes told us that the world has passed through four different states or conditions. We have had a golden age, and a silver age, a brazen age, and an iron age. How far this is true I do not stop to inquire. But I fear there is little doubt as to the character of the age in which we live. It is universally an age of base metal and alloy. If we measure the religion of the age by its apparent quantity, there is much of it. But if we measure it by its quality, there is very little indeed. On every side we want MORE REALITY.
CHRISTIAN, I ask for attention, while I try to bring home to your conscience the question of these thoughts.
CHRISTIAN, have you the least desire to go to heaven when you die? Do you wish to have a relation which will comfort you in life, give you good hope in death, and abide the judgment of God at the last day? Then do not turn away from the question before you. Sit down, and consider calmly, whether your Christianity is real and true, or base and hollow.
The point is one which, at first sight, may seem to require very few remarks to establish it. All men, I shall be told, are fully convinced of the importance of reality.
But is this true? Can it be said indeed that reality is rightly esteemed among Christians? I deny it entirely. The greater part of people who profess to admire reality, seem to think that everyone possesses it! They tell us “that all have got good hearts at bottom,”—that all are sincere and true in the main, though they may make mistakes. They call us uncharitable, and harsh, and censorious, if we doubt anybody’s goodness of heart. In short, they destroy the value of reality, by regarding it as a thing which almost everyone has.
CHRISTIAN, this wide-spread delusion is precisely one of the causes why I put forth these thoughts.
I want you to understand that reality is a far more rare and uncommon thing than is commonly supposed. I want you to see that unreality is one of the great dangers of which Christians ought to beware. Believe me, it is no light or easily answered inquiry, when I ask,—Is your religion real?
What saith the Scripture? This is the only judge that can try the subject. Turn to your Bible, and examine it fairly, and then deny, if you can, the importance of reality in religion, and the danger of not being real.
I. Look then, for one thing, at the parables spoken by our Lord Jesus Christ. Observe how many of them are intended to put in strong contrast the true believer and the mere nominal disciple. The parables of the sower, of the wheat and tares, of the draw-net, of the two sons, of the wedding garment, of the ten virgins, of the talents, of the great supper, of the pounds, of the two builders, have all one great point in common. They all bring out in striking colors the difference between reality and unreality in religion. They all show the uselessness and danger of any Christianity which is not real, thorough, and true.
2. Look, for another thing, at the language of our Lord Jesus Christ about the Scribes and the Pharisees. Eight times over in one chapter we find Him denouncing them as “hypocrites,” in words of almost fearful severity.—”Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers,” He says, “How can ye escape the damnation of hell?” (Matt. xxiii. 33). What may we learn from these tremendously strong expressions? How is it that our gracious and merciful Savior used such cutting words about people who at any rate were more moral and decent than the publicans and harlots? It is meant to teach us the exceeding abominableness of false profession and mere outward religion, in God’s sight. Open profligacy and wilful obedience to fleshly lusts are no doubt ruinous sins, if not given up. But there seems nothing which is so displeasing to Christ as hypocrisy and unreality.
3. Look, for another thing, at the startling fact, that there is hardly a grace in the character of a true Christian of which you will not find a counterfeit described in the Word of God. There is not a feature in a believer’s countenance of which there is not an imitation. Give me your attention, and I will show you this in a few particulars.
Is there not an unreal repentance?
Beyond doubt there is. Saul, and Ahab, and Herod, and Judas Iscariot, had many feelings of sorrow about sin. But they never really repented unto salvation.
Is there not an unreal faith?
Beyond doubt there is. It is written of Simon Magus, at Samaria, that he “believed,” and yet his heart was not right in the sight of God. It is even written of the devils that they “believe and tremble.” (Acts viii. 13; James ii. 19).
Is there not an unreal holiness?
Beyond doubt there is. Joash, king of Judah, became to all appearance very holy and good while Jehoiada the priest lived. But as soon as he died the religion of Joash died at the same time. (2 Chron. 24: 2). Judas Iscariot’s outward life was as correct as that of any of the apostles up to the time that he betrayed his Master. There was nothing suspicious about him. Yet in reality he was a thief and a traitor.
Is there not an unreal love and charity?
Beyond doubt there is. There is a love which consists in words and tender expressions, and a great show of affection, and calling other people “dear brethren,” while the heart does not love at all. It is not for nothing that St. John says, “Let us not love in word, neither in tongue, but in deed and in truth.” It was not without cause that St. Paul said, “Let love be without dissimulation.” (1 John 3: 18 Rom. 12: 9).
Is there not an unreal humility?
Beyond doubt there is. There is a pretended lowliness of demeanor, which often covers over a very proud heart. St. Paul warns us against a “voluntary humility,” and speaks of “things which had a show of wisdom in will-worship and humility.” (Col. 2: 18, 23).
Is there not unreal praying?
Beyond doubt there is. Our Lord denounces it as one of the special sins of the Pharisees—that for a “pretense they made long prayer.” He does not charge them with not praying, or with praying too shortly. Their sin lay in this, that their prayers were not real.
Is there not unreal worship?
Beyond doubt there is. Our Lord says of the Jews, “This people draw nigh to Me with their mouths, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me.” (Matt. xv. 8.) They had plenty of formal services in their temples and their synagogues. But the fatal defect about them was want of reality and want of heart.
Is there not unreal talking about religion?
Beyond doubt there is. Ezekiel describes some professing Jews who talked and spoke like God’s people, “while their hearts went after their covetousness.” (Ezek. xxxiii. 31.) St. Paul tells us that we may “speak with the tongue of men and angels,” and yet be no better than sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal. (1 Cor. 13: 1.)
CHRISTIAN, what shall we say to these things?
To say the least, they ought to set us thinking. To my own mind they seem to lead to only one conclusion. They show clearly the immense importance which Scripture attaches to reality in religion. They show clearly what need we have to take heed, lest our Christianity turn out to be merely nominal, formal, unreal, and base.
The subject is of deep importance in every age. There has never been a time, since the Church of Christ was founded, when there has not been a vast amount of unreality and mere nominal religion among professing Christians. I am sure it is the case in the present day. Wherever I turn my eyes I see abundant cause for the warning,—Beware of base metal in religion. Be genuine. Be thorough. Be real. Be true.