Written by J. C. Ryle
Edited for thought and sense
“On this rock I will build My church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it.”
The Church of our text is made up of all true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ.
It comprehends all who have repented of sin, and fled to Christ by faith, and been made new creatures in Him. It comprises all God’s elect, all who have received God’s grace, all who have been washed in Christ’s blood, all who have been clothed in Christ’s righteousness, all who have been born again and sanctified by Christ’s Spirit. All such, of every nation, and people, and tongue, compose the Church of our text. This is the body of Christ. This is the flock of Christ. This is the bride. This is the Lamb’s wife. This is the Church on the rock.
The members of this Church do not all worship God in the same way, or use the same form of government. “It is not necessary that ceremonies should be in all places one and alike.” But they all worship with one heart. They are all led by one Spirit. They are all really and truly holy. They can all say “Alleluia,” and they can all reply “Amen.” This is that Church, to which all visible Churches on earth are servants. They all serve the interests of the one true Church. They are the scaffolding, behind which the great building is carried on. They are the husk, under which the living kernel grows.
The best and worthiest of them, is that which trains up most members for Christ’s true Church.
But no visible Church has any right to say, “We are the only true Church. We are the men, and truth shall die with us.” No visible Church should ever dare to say, “We shall stand forever. The gates of hell will not overcome us.” This is that Church to which belong the Lord’s precious promises of preservation, continuance, protection, and final glory. “Whatever,” says Hooker, “we read in Scripture, concerning the endless love and saving mercy which God shows towards His Churches, the only proper subject is this Church, which we properly term the mystical body of Christ.” Small and despised as the true Church may be in this world, it is precious and honorable in the sight of God. The temple of Solomon in all its glory was nothing, in comparison with that Church which is built upon a rock.
Men and brethren, see that you hold sound doctrine on the subject of “the Church.” A mistake here may lead to dangerous and soul-ruining errors. The Church which is made up of true believers, is the Church for which we, who are ministers, are specially ordained to preach. The Church which comprises all who repent and believe the Gospel, is the Church to which we desire you to belong. Our work is not done, and our hearts are not satisfied, until you are made new creatures, and are members of the one true Church. Outside of this Church, there can be no salvation. I pass on to the second point, to which I proposed to call your attention.
Our text contains not merely a building, but a “Builder”…
The Lord Jesus Christ declares, “I will build My Church.” The true Church of Christ is tenderly cared for by all the three persons of the blessed Trinity. In the economy of redemption, beyond all doubt, God the Father chooses, and God the Holy Spirit sanctifies, every member of Christ’s mystical body. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, three Persons in one God, cooperate for the salvation of every saved soul. This is truth, which ought never to be forgotten. Nevertheless, there is a peculiar sense in which the help of the Church is laid on the Lord Jesus Christ. He is peculiarly and preeminently the Redeemer and the Savior. Therefore it is, that we find Him saying in our text, “I will build—the work of building is my special work.” It is Christ who calls the members of the Church in due time. They are “the called of Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:6). It is Christ who gives them life. “The Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it” (John 5:21). It is Christ who washes away their sins. He “who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood” (Revelation 1:5). It is Christ who gives them peace. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you” (John 14:27). It is Christ who gives them eternal life. “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish” (John 10:28). It is Christ who grants them repentance. “God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior, that he might give repentance” (Acts 5:31). It is Christ who enables them to become God’s children. “To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).
It is Christ who carries on the work within them, when it is begun. “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19).
In short, “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Christ]” (Colossians 1:19). He is the author and finisher of faith. From Him every joint and member of the mystical body of Christians is supplied. Through Him they are strengthened for duty. By Him they are kept from falling. He shall preserve them to the end, and present them faultless before the Father’s throne with exceeding great joy. He is all things, and all in all to believers.
The mighty agent by whom the Lord Jesus Christ carries out this work in the number of His Churches, is, without doubt, the Holy Spirit. He it is who applies Christ and His benefits to the soul. He it is who is ever renewing, awakening, convincing, leading to the cross, transforming, taking out of the world, stone after stone, and adding it to the mystical building. But the great Chief Builder, who has undertaken to execute the work of redemption and bring it to completion, is the Son of God—the Word who was made flesh. It is Jesus Christ who “builds.”
In building the true Church, the Lord Jesus condescends to use many subordinate instruments.
The ministry of the Gospel, the circulation of the Scriptures, the friendly rebuke, the word spoken in season, the drawing influence of afflictions—all, all are means and methods by which His work is carried on. But Christ is the great superintending architect, ordering, guiding, directing all that is done. What the sun is to the whole solar system—that Christ is to all the members of the true Church. “Paul may plant, and Apollos water, but God gives the increase.” Ministers may preach, and writers may write, but the Lord Jesus Christ alone can build. And except He builds, the work stands still.
Great is the wisdom with which the Lord Jesus Christ builds His Church. All is done at the right time, and in the right way. Each stone in its turn is put in the right place. Sometimes He chooses great stones, and sometimes He chooses small stones. Sometimes the work moves fast, and sometimes it moves slowly. Man is frequently impatient, and thinks that nothing is happening. But man’s time is not God’s time. A thousand years in His sight are but as a single day. The great Builder makes no mistakes. He knows what He is doing. He sees the end from the beginning. He works by a perfect, unalterable and certain plan. The mightiest conceptions of architects, like Michaelangelo are mere insignificant child’s play, in comparison with Christ’s wise counsels respecting His Church.
Great is the condescension and mercy, which Christ exhibits in building His Church. He often chooses the most unlikely and roughest stones, and fits them into a most excellent work. He despises no one, and rejects none—on account of former sins and past transgressions. He delights to show mercy. He often takes the most thoughtless and ungodly, and transforms them into polished corners of His spiritual temple.
Great is the power which Christ displays in building His Church. He carries on his work in spite of opposition from the world, the flesh, and the devil. In storm, in chaos, through troublesome times—silently, quietly, without noise, without stir, without excitement—the building progresses. “I will work,” He declares, “and none shall hinder it.” Brethren, the children of this world take no interest in the building of this Church, they care nothing for the conversion of souls. What are broken spirits and penitent hearts to them? It is all foolishness in their eyes. But while the children of this world care nothing, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God. For the preserving of that Church, the laws of nature have oftentimes been suspended.
For the good of that Church, all the providential dealings of God in this world are ordered and arranged. For the elect’s sake, wars are brought to an end, and peace is given to a nation. Statesmen, rulers, emperors, kings, presidents, heads of governments, have their schemes and plans, and think them of vast importance.
But there is another work going on of infinitely greater significance, for which they are all but as the axes and saws in God’s hands. That work is the gathering in of living stones into the one true Church. How little are we told in God’s Word about unconverted men, compared with what we are told about believers! The history of Nimrod, the mighty hunter, is dismissed in a few words. The history of Abraham, the father of the faithful, occupies several chapters. Nothing in Scripture is so important as the concerns of the true Church. The world makes up little of God’s Word. The Church and its story make up much.
Forever let us thank God, my beloved brethren, that the building of the one true Church is laid on the shoulders of One who is mighty. Let us bless God that it does not rest upon man. Let us bless God that it does not depend on missionaries, ministers, or committees. Christ is the almighty Builder. He will carry on His work, though nations and visible Churches do not know their duty. Christ will never fail. That which He has undertaken He will certainly accomplish!
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.