Taken and adapted from, “Practical Religion”
Written by J.C. Ryle
“His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor, gathering His wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” –Matthew 3:12
The verse of Scripture, which is now before our eyes…
…contains words that were spoken by John the Baptist. They are a prophecy about our Lord Jesus Christ, and a prophecy that has not yet been fulfilled. They are a prophecy which we will see fulfilled one day, and God alone knows how soon.
I. Let me show you, in the first place, the two great classes into which mankind may be divided.
There are only two classes of people in the world in the sight of God, and both are mentioned in the text, which begins this paper. There are those who are called the wheat, and there are those who are called the chaff.
Viewed with the eye of man, the earth contains many different sorts of inhabitants. Viewed with the eye of God it only contains two. Man’s eye looks at the outward appearance—this is all he thinks of. The eye of God looks at the heart—this is the only part of which He takes any account. And tested by the state of their hearts, there are only two classes into which people can be divided—either they are wheat, or they are chaff.
Who are the wheat in the world? This is a point that demands special consideration.
The wheat refers to all men and women who are believers in the Lord Jesus Christ—all who are led by the Holy Spirit—all who have felt themselves sinners, and fled for refuge to the salvation offered in the Gospel—all who love the Lord Jesus and live to the Lord Jesus, and serve the Lord Jesus—all who have taken Christ for their only confidence and the Bible for their only guide, and regard sin as their deadliest enemy, and look to heaven as their only home. All such people, of every Church, name, nation, people, and language—of every rank, occupation, and condition—all such people are God’s “wheat.”
Show me people of this kind anywhere, and I know what they are. I do not know whether they and I may agree in all particulars, but I see in them the handiwork of the King of kings, and I ask no more. I do not know where they came from and where they found their religion; but I know where they are going and that is enough for me. They are the children of my Father in heaven. They are part of His “wheat.”
All such people, though sinful and vile, and unworthy in their own eyes, are the precious part of mankind. They are the sons and daughters of God the Father. They are the delight of God the Son. They are a dwelling place of God the Holy Spirit. The Father sees no iniquity in them—they are the members of His dear Son’s mystical body: in Him He sees them, and is well pleased. The Lord Jesus sees in them the fruit of His own suffering and work upon the cross, and is well satisfied. The Holy Spirit regards them as spiritual temples, which He Himself has created, and rejoices over them. In a word, they are the “wheat” of the earth.
Who are the chaff in the world? This again is a point that demands special attention.
The chaff refers to all men and women who have no saving faith in Christ, and no sanctification of the Spirit. Some of them are atheists, and some are “Christians” in name only. Some are sneering Sadducees, and some self-righteous Pharisees. Some of them make a point of keeping up a kind of Sunday religion, and others are utterly careless of everything except their own pleasure and the world. But every one of them has the two great marks already mentioned—no faith and no sanctification—every one of them is “chaff.” Those who attend Church and can think of nothing but outward ceremonies—the unconverted admirer of sermons—all are standing in one class before God: every one of them is “chaff.”
They bring no glory to God the Father, because, “He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent Him.” (John 5:23) They neglect that mighty salvation which countless millions of angels admire. They disobey that Word which was graciously written for their understanding. They do not listen to the voice of Him who condescended to leave heaven and die for their sins. They do not serve nor love Him who gave them “life and breath and everything else.” And therefore God takes no pleasure in them. He pities them, but He considers them no better than “chaff.”
Yes! You may have rare intellectual gifts and great mental attainments: you may sway kingdoms by your counsel, move millions by your pen, or keep crowds in breathless attention by your tongue; but if you have never submitted yourself to the rule of Christ, and never honored His Gospel by heartfelt reception of it, then you are nothing in His sight. The most insignificant insect that crawls in the dirt is a nobler being than you are; it fills its place in creation and glorifies its Maker with all its power, and you do not. You do not honor God with heart, and will, and intellect, and with the members of your body, which are all His. You overturn His order and arrangement, and live as if your time on earth was more important than eternity, and the body better than the soul. You dare to neglect God’s greatest gift—His own incarnate Son. You are cold about that subject which fills heaven with hallelujahs. And as long as this is the case, then you belong to the worthless part of mankind. You are the “chaff” of the earth.
There are many and various minds in every congregation that gathers for religious worship. There are some who attend for a mere form, and some who really desire to meet Christ—some who come there to please others, and some who come to please God—some who’s hearts are open are very alert to the message, and some who have closed their hearts and consider the whole service a drudgery. But the eye of the Lord Jesus only sees two divisions in the congregation—the wheat and the chaff.
I know full well that the world dislikes this way of dividing professing Christians. The world tries hard to convince us that there are three classes of people and not two. The first class of people are the very good and the very strict; however, this does not suit the world: they cannot and will not be saints. Yet, the third class, which has no religion at all, does not suit the world either: it would not be respectable. “Thank God,” they will say, “we are not as bad as they are.” Then there is the second class—a safe middle class, the world thinks—and in this middle class the majority of men persuade themselves is where they belong. In this class a person only needs enough religion to be saved, and yet not go into extremes—to be minimally good, and yet not be exceptional—to have a quiet, easy-going, moderate kind of Christianity, and go comfortably to heaven when they die—this is the world’s favorite class.
I denounce this notion of a middle class as an immense and soul-ruining delusion. I warn you strongly not to be carried away by it. It is as vain an invention as the Roman Catholic’s purgatory. It is a refuge of lies—a castle in the air—a Russian ice-palace—a vast unreality—an empty dream. This middle class is a class of Christians that is nowhere spoken of in the Bible.
There were two classes in the day of Noah’s flood: those who were inside the ark, and those who were outside; two in the parable of the Gospel-net: those who are called the good fish, and those who are called the bad; two in the parable of the ten virgins: those who are described as wise, and those who are described as foolish; two in the account of the judgment day: the sheep and the goats; two sides of the throne: the right hand and the left; two abodes when the last sentence has been passed: heaven and hell.
And just as there are only two classes in the visible Church on earth—those who are in their natural state of unbelief and sin, and those who are in the state of grace; those who are on the narrow road, and those who are traveling on the broad road; those who have faith, and those who do not have faith; those who have been converted, and those who have not been converted; those who are with Christ, and those who are against Him; those who gather with Him, and those who scatter; those who are “wheat,” and those who are “chaff,”—into these two classes the whole professing Church of Christ may be divided. Apart from these two classes there is none.
You must examine yourselves! Are you among the wheat, or among the chaff? Neutrality is impossible. Either you are in one class, or in the other. Which is it of the two?
Perhaps you attend church. You go to the Lord’s table. You like good people. You can distinguish between good preaching and bad. You think Roman Catholicism is a false religion, and heartily oppose it. You think Protestantism is true and warmly support it. You attend Christian meetings. You sometimes read Christian books. It is good: it is all very good. It is more than can be said of many. But still this is not a straightforward answer to my question—are you wheat or are you chaff?
Have you been born again? Are you a new creature? Have you put off the old man and put on the new? Have you ever felt convicted of your sins and repented of them? Are you looking only to Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and eternal life? Do you love Christ? Do you serve Christ? Do you hate your sins and fight against them? Do you long for perfect holiness and strive after it? Have you come out from the world? Do you delight in the Bible? Do you wrestle in prayer? Do you love Christ’s people? Do you try to do good to the world? Are you vile in your own eyes and willing to take the lowest place? Do you live like a Christian at work, and on weekdays, and also in the privacy of your own home? Oh, think, think, think on these things, and then perhaps you will be better able to tell the state of your soul.
I implore you not to turn away from my question, however unpleasant it may be. Answer it, though it may prick your conscience and convict your heart. Answer it, though it may prove you in the wrong and expose your fearful danger. Do not rest, do not rest, until you know how it is between you and God. It is a thousand times better to find out that you are living an evil life of sin, and repent immediately, than live on in uncertainty and be eternally lost.
II. Let me show you, in the second place, the time when the two great classes of mankind will be separated.
The verse at the beginning of this paper tells of a coming separation. It says that Christ will one day do to His professing Church what the farmer does to his corn. He will sift it. He “will clear His threshing floor.” And then the wheat and the chaff will be divided.
There is no separation yet. Good and bad are now all mingled together in the visible Church of Christ. Believers and unbelievers—converted and unconverted—holy and unholy—all are to be found now among those who call themselves Christians. They sit side by side in our churches. They kneel side by side in prayer. They listen side by side to our sermons. They sit side by side at the Lord’s table and receive the same bread and wine from our hands.
But it will not always be so. Christ will come the second time with His winnowing fork is His hand. He will purge His Church, even as He purified the temple. And then the wheat and the chaff will be separated, and each will go to its own place.
(a) Before Christ comes separation is impossible.
It is not in man’s power to make the separation. There is no minister on earth who can read the hearts of every person in his congregation. He may speak decidedly about some, but not everyone. Who has oil in their lamps, and who has not—who has grace as well as profession, and who has profession only and no grace—who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil—all these are questions which in many cases we cannot accurately answer. The winnowing fork was not put into our hands.
There are some Christians whose grace is sometimes so weak and feeble that they look like unbelievers. Unbelievers sometimes are so convincing and well dressed that they look like Christians. I believe that many of us would have said that Judas was as good as any of the Apostles; and yet he proved to be a traitor. I believe that we would have said that Peter was a reprobate when he denied his Lord; and yet he repented immediately. We are fallible men. “For we know in part and we prophesy in part.”
(1 Corinthians 13:9) We scarcely understand our own hearts. It is any great wonder that we cannot read the hearts of others?
But it will not always be this way. There is One coming who never makes a mistake in judgment and is perfect in knowledge. Jesus will purge His floor. Jesus will sift the chaff from the wheat. I wait for this. Till then I will lean to the side of love in my judgments. I would rather tolerate a lot of chaff in the Church than to cast out one grain of wheat. He will soon come with “His winnowing fork is in His hand,” and then everyone’s identity will be known.
(b) Before Christ comes it is useless to expect to see a perfect Church.
There cannot be a perfect Church. In this life the wheat and the chaff will always be found together. I pity those who leave one Church and join another because of a few faults and questionable members. I pity them because they are fostering ideas, which can never be realized. I pity them because they are seeking that which cannot be found. I see “chaff” everywhere. I see imperfections and weaknesses in every congregation on earth. I believe there are only a few communion tables of the Lord, if any, where all the communicants are converted. I often see loud-talking Christians exalted as saints. I often see holy and contrite believers looked upon as having no grace at all. I believe that those who demand a perfect Church will go fluttering about, like Noah’s dove, all their days, and never find rest.
Does you desire a perfect Church? You must wait for the Second Coming of Christ. Then, and not until then, you will see “a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish. (Ephesians 5:27) Then, and not until then, the threshing floor will be purged.
(c) Before Christ returns it is vain to look for the conversion of the world.
How can the whole world be converted, if the Bible says that Christ will find wheat and chaff growing side by side in the day of His Second Coming? I believe some Christians expect that missions will fill the earth with the knowledge of Christ, and that in time sin will disappear and a state of perfect holiness will gradually be manifest. I cannot agree with them. I think they are mistaking God’s purposes, and sowing for themselves bitter disappointment. I expect nothing of the kind. I see nothing in the Bible or in the world around me to make me expect it. I have never heard of a single congregation in all of England or Scotland, which was entirely converted to God—so why am I to look for a different result from the preaching of the Gospel in other countries of the world? I only expect to see a few raised up as witnesses to Christ in other nations, some in one place and some in another. Then I expect the Lord Jesus will come in glory with His winnowing fork in His hand. And when He has purged His floor, and not until then, His kingdom will begin.
No separation and no perfection until Christ comes! This is my creed. I am not moved when the unbeliever asks me, “How can Christianity be true if the whole world is not converted?” I answer, “It was never promised that the whole world would be saved before the return of Christ.” The Bible tells me that believers will always be few in number and that evil and divisions and heresies will always abound, and that when my Lord returns to earth He will find plenty of chaff.