The Exceeding Wickedness of Willful Impenitence

Taken and adapted from, “Expository Thoughts on the Gospels”
Written by, J.C. Ryle

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“But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces, who call to their companions and say, ‘We played the flute for you, and you didn’t dance. We mourned for you, and you didn’t lament.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is justified by her children.”

Then he began to denounce the cities in which most of his mighty works had been done, because they didn’t repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon which were done in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. You, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, you will go down to Hades. For if the mighty works had been done in Sodom which were done in you, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom, on the day of judgment, than for you.”–Matthew 11:16-24

These sayings of the Lord Jesus were called forth by the state of the Jewish nation…

…when He was upon earth. But they speak loudly to us also, as well as to the Jews. They throw great light on some parts of the natural man’s character. They teach us the perilous state of many immortal souls in the present day.

The first part of these verses shows us the unreasonableness of many unconverted men in the things of religion. The Jews, in our Lord’s time, found fault with every teacher whom God sent among them. First came John the Baptist preaching repentance–an austere man, a man who withdrew himself from society, and lived an ascetic life. Did this satisfy the Jews? No! They found fault and said, “He has a devil.” Then came Jesus the Son of God, preaching the Gospel, living as other men lived, and practicing none of John the Baptist’s peculiar austerities. And did this satisfy the Jews? No! They found fault again, and said, “Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” In short, they were as perverse and hard to please as ‘contrary children’.

It is a mournful fact, that there are always thousands of professing Christians just as unreasonable as these Jews. They are equally perverse, and equally hard to please. Whatever we teach and preach, they find fault. Whatever be our manner of life, they are dissatisfied.

Do we tell them of salvation by grace, and justification by faith? At once they cry out against our doctrine as licentious and antinomian. Do we tell them of the holiness which the Gospel requires? At once they exclaim, that we are too strict, and precise, and righteous overmuch. Are we cheerful? They accuse us of levity. Are we grave? They call us gloomy and sour. Do we keep aloof from balls, and races, and plays? They denounce us as puritanical, exclusive and narrow-minded. Do we eat, and drink, and dress like other people, and attend to our worldly callings and go into society? They sneeringly insinuate that they see no difference between us and those who make no religious profession at all, and that we are not better than other men. What is all this but the conduct of the Jews over again? “We played the flute for you, and you didn’t dance. We mourned for you, and you didn’t lament.” He who spoke these words knew the hearts of men.

The plain truth is, that true believers must not expect unconverted men to be satisfied, either with their faith or their practice. If they do, they expect what they will not find. They must make up their minds to hear objections, cavils, and excuses, however holy their own lives may be.

Well says Quesnel, “Whatever measures good men take, they will never escape the censures of the world. The best way is not to be concerned at them.” After all, what says the Scripture? “The mind of the flesh is hostile towards God.” “The natural man doesn’t receive the things of God’s Spirit.” (Rom. 8:7, 1 Cor. 2:14.) This is the explanation of the whole matter.

The second part of these verses shows us the exceeding wickedness of willful impenitence. Our Lord declares that it shall be “more tolerable for Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom, in the day of judgment,” than for those towns where people had heard His sermons, and seen His miracles, but not repented.

There is something very solemn in this saying. Let us look at it well. Let us think for a moment what dark, idolatrous, immoral, profligate places Tyre and Sidon must have been. Let us call to mind the unspeakable wickedness of Sodom. Let us remember that the cities named by our Lord, Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, were probably no worse than other Jewish towns, and at all events, were far better than Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom. And then let us observe, that the people of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, –are to be in the lowest hell, because they heard the Gospel, and yet did not repent–because they had great religious advantages, and did not use them. 

Surely these words ought to make the ears of every one tingle, who hears the Gospel regularly, and yet remains unconverted. How great is the guilt of such a man before God! How great the danger in which he daily stands? Moral, and decent, and respectable as his life may be, he is actually more guilty than an idolatrous Tyrian or Sidonian, or a miserable inhabitant of Sodom. They had no spiritual light: he has, and neglects it. They heard no Gospel; he hears, but does not obey it. Their hearts might have been softened, if they had enjoyed his privileges. Tyre and Sidon “would have repented.” Sodom “would have remained until this day.” His heart under the full blaze of the Gospel remains hard and unmoved. There is but one painful conclusion to be drawn. His guilt will be found greater than theirs at the last day. Most true is the remark of an English bishop, “Among all the aggravations of our sins, there is none more heinous than the frequent hearing of our duty.”

Let us settle it in our minds that it will never do to be content with merely hearing and liking the Gospel. We must go further than this. We must actually “repent and be converted.” We must actually lay hold on Christ, and become one with Him. Until then we are in dreadful danger. It will prove more tolerable to have lived in Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom, than to have heard the Gospel in England, and at last died unconverted.