Visible churches warned – J.C. Ryle

Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Revelation 3:22, NIV)

This verse appears to call the special attention of all true Christians to the seven “Epistles to the Churches of Asia Minor.” I believe it was meant to make believers take particular notice of the things which these seven Epistles contain. There was design in every verse of the Bible. There was design in every repetition of a verse, wherever it took place. There was design in the sevenfold repetition of the verse before our eyes.

The Lord Jesus, in all the seven Epistles, speaks of nothing but matters of doctrine, practice, warning, and promise.
  • You will observe that the Lord Jesus sometimes finds fault with false doctrines, and ungodly, inconsistent practices, and rebukes them sharply.
  • You will observe that He sometimes praises faith, patience, work, labour, perseverance, and bestows on these graces high commendation.
  • You will sometimes find Him enjoining repentance, amendment, return to the first love, renewed application to Himself – and the like.
  • But I want you to observe that you will not find the Lord in any of the epistles dwelling upon Church government or ceremonies. The leading principles of what may be called “the sacramental system” are not brought forward in any one of the seven epistles from first to last.
  • There are some who seem to hold that there can be no Church without a bishop – and no godliness without a liturgy. They believe that to teach the value of the sacraments is the first work of a minister, and to keep to their parish church the first business of a people.
  • The sacraments, Church government, the use of a liturgy, the observance of ceremonies and forms, are all as nothing compared to faith, repentance, and holiness.
  • We who rightly or wrongly, are called Evangelical clergy, do not preach about bishops, and the Prayer-book, and ordinances more than we do. But we believe that repentance toward God, faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ, and a holy conversation, are subjects of far more importance to men’s souls. Without these no man can be saved.
  • We often urge you to remember that he is not a Christian who is one only outwardly – that you must be “born again” – that you must have a “faith that works by love “ – that there must be a “new creation” by the Spirit in your heart.
  • According to one system, religion is a mere corporate business. You are to belong to a certain body of people. By virtue of your membership of this body, vast privileges, both for time and eternity, are conferred upon you. It matters little what you are and what you believe.
  • According to the other system, religion is eminently a personal business between yourself and Christ. It will not save your soul to be an outward member of any ecclesiastical body whatever, however sound that body may be. Such membership will not wash away one sin, or give you confidence in the day of judgment. There must be personal faith in Christ – personal dealings between yourself and God – personal felt communion between your own heart and the Holy Spirit.
  • This last system is the system which those who are called Evangelical ministers cleave to and teach. They do so because they are satisfied that it is the system of Holy Scripture.
In every epistle the Lord Jesus says, “I know your works.”
  • To one Church the Lord Jesus says, I know you labour and patience
  • To another your tribulation and poverty
  • To the third, your charity, and service, and faith.
  • But to all, He uses the words I now dwell on: “I know your works.” It is not, “I know your profession, your desires, your resolutions, your wishes”, but your works.
  • The works of a professing Christian are of great importance.
  • They cannot save your soul.
    • They cannot justify you.
    • They cannot wipe out your sins.
    • They cannot deliver you from the wrath of God.
  • But it does not follow because they cannot save you, that they are of no importance.
  • A man’s works are the evidence of a man’s religion. If you call yourself a Christian, you must show it in your daily ways and daily behaviour. Call to mind that the faith of Abraham and of Rahab was proved by their works.
  • Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says,

“Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? (James 2:21–25, NIV)

  • The Lord Jesus knows the works of all impenitent and unbelieving souls, and will one day punish them. They are not forgotten in heaven, though they may be upon earth. When the great white throne is set, and the books are opened, the wicked dead will be judged “according to their works.”
  • The Lord Jesus knows the works of His own people, and weighs them. “By Him actions are weighed.” (1 Sam. 2:3.) He knows the why and the wherefore of the deeds of all believers. He sees their motives in every step they take. He discerns how much is done for His sake, and how much is done for the sake of praise. A few things are done by believers which seem very good to you and me, but are rated very low by Christ.
  • The Lord Jesus knows the works of all His own people, and will one day reward them. He never overlooks a kind word or a kind deed done in His name. He will own the least fruit of faith, and declare it before the world in the day of His appearing. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. (1 Corinthians 3:8, NIV)
    • You may receive the bread and wine from my hands, and yet be cleaving to iniquity in your hearts. You may sit under the pulpit of an Evangelical preacher, week after week, and hear his words with a serious face, but believe them not. But remember this, you cannot deceive Christ.
    • Hypocrisy is a losing game. It will never answer to seem one thing and be another; to have the name of Christian, and not the reality. Be sure, if your conscience smites you and condemns you in this matter – be sure your sin will find you out.
  • Think also what encouragement there is here for every honest and true-hearted believer. To you also Jesus says, “I know thy works.” You see no beauty in any action that you do. All seems imperfect, blemished, and defiled. You are often sick at heart of your own short-comings. You often feel that your whole life is one great arrear, and that every day is either a blank or a blot. But know now that Jesus can see some beauty in everything that you do from a conscientious desire to please Him. As a father finds a pleasure in the least acts of his children, of which a stranger knows nothing, so I suppose the Lord finds a pleasure in our poor feeble efforts to serve Him.
In every epistle the Lord Jesus makes a promise to the man that overcomes
  • Seven times over Jesus gives to the Churches exceeding great and precious promises. Each is different, and each full of strong consolation: but each is addressed to the overcoming Christian.
  • Every professing Christian is the soldier of Christ. He is bound by his baptism to fight Christ’s battle against sin, the world, and the devil. The very fact that he belongs to a Church, attends a Christian place of worship, and calls himself a Christian is a public declaration that he desires to be reckoned a soldier of Jesus Christ. He not only professes to fight on Christ’s side against sin, the world, and the devil, but he does actually fight and overcome.
  • The professing Christian has the best of leaders: Jesus the Captain of Salvation, through whom he may be more than conqueror – the best of provisions, the bread and water of life – and the best of pay promised to him: an eternal weight of glory.
  • Armour is provided for the true Christian:

“Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:13–17, NIV)

  • If you would make it clear that you have any title to Christ’s precious promises, you must fight the good fight in Christ’s cause, and in that fight you must conquer.
  • Victory is the only satisfactory evidence that you have a saving religion. You like good sermons perhaps. You respect the Bible, and read it occasionally. You say your prayers night and morning.
  • But how goes the battle?
    • How does the great conflict go on all this time?
    • Are you overcoming the love of the world and the fear of man?
    • Are you overcoming the passions, tempers, and lusts of your own heart?
    • Are you resisting the devil and making him flee from you? How is it in this matter?
  • You must either rule or serve sin, and the devil, and the world. There is no middle course. You must either conquer or be lost.
  • This is the road that saints of old have trodden in, and left their record on high.
    • When Moses refused the pleasures of sin in Egypt, and chose affliction with the people of God – this was overcoming: he overcame the love of pleasure.
    • When Micaiah refused to prophesy smooth things to king Ahab, though he knew he would be persecuted if he spoke the truth – this was overcoming: he overcame the love of ease.
    • When Daniel refused to give up praying, though he knew the den of lions was prepared for him – this was overcoming: he overcame the fear of death.
    • When Matthew rose from the receipt of custom at our Lord’s bidding, left all and followed Him – this was overcoming: he overcame the love of money.
    • When Peter and John stood up boldly before the council and said, “We cannot but speak the things we have seen and heard” – this was overcoming: they overcame the fear of man.
    • When Saul the Pharisee gave up all his prospects of preferment among the Jews, and preached that very Jesus whom he had once persecuted – this was overcoming: he overcame the love of man’s praise.
  • They fought. They wrestled. They struggled. You must do the same. What was the secret of their victory? – their faith. They believed on Jesus, and believing were made strong. They believed on Jesus, and believing were held up. In all their battles, they kept their eyes on Jesus, and He never left them nor forsook them.
  • They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death. (Revelation 12:11, NIV)

I often fear much for those who hear the Gospel regularly, i fear lest you become so familiar with the sound of its doctrines, that insensibly you become dead to its power. I fear lest your religion should sink down into a little vague talk about your own weakness and corruption, and a few sentimental expressions about Christ, while real, practical fighting on Christ’s side is altogether neglected. Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. (James 1:22, NIV)

  • Young men and women, and specially those who have been brought up in religious families, I fear much for you. I fear lest you get a habit of giving way to every temptation. I fear lest you become afraid of saying, “No!” to the world and the devil – and, when sinners entice you, think it least trouble to consent.
  • Believers in the Lord Jesus, of every Church and rank in life, I feel much for you. I know your course is hard. I know it is a sore battle you have to fight. I know you are often tempted to say, “It is of no use,” and to lay down your arms altogether.
  • Millions as weak as you have fought the same fight. Not one of all those millions has been finally led captive by Satan. Mighty are your enemies – but the Captain of your salvation is mightier still. – His arm, His grace, and His Spirit shall hold you up. Cheer up. Be not cast down.
  • All who are living only for the world:  Take heed what they are doing. You are enemies to Christ, though you may not know it. He marks your ways, though you turn your backs on Him, and refuse to give Him your hearts. He is observing your daily life, and reading your daily ways. There will yet be a resurrection of all your thoughts, words and actions. You may forget them, but God does not. You may be careless about them, but they are carefully marked down in the book of remembrance. Oh! worldly man, think of this! Tremble, tremble and repent.
  • All formalists and self-righteous people: Take heed that they are not deceived. You fancy you will go to heaven because you go regularly to church. You indulge an expectation of eternal life, because you are always at the Lord’s table, and are never missing in your pew. But where is your repentance? Where is your faith? Where are your evidences of a new heart? Where is the work of the Spirit? Where are your evidences of regeneration? Oh, formal Christian, consider these questions! Tremble, tremble and repent.
  • All careless members of Churches:  Beware. You live on year after year as if there was no battle to be fought with sin, the world, and the devil. You pass through life a smiling, laughing, gentlemanlike or lady-like person, and behave as if there was no devil, no heaven, and no hell. Oh, careless Churchman, or careless Dissenter, careless Episcopalian, careless Presbyterian, careless Independent, careless Baptist, awake to see eternal realities in their true light! Awake and put on the armour of God! Awake and fight hard for life! Tremble, tremble and repent.
  • Every one who wants to be saved:  Do not to be content with the world’s standard of religion. Surely, no man with his eyes open can fail to see that the Christianity of the New Testament is something far higher and deeper than the Christianity of most professing Christians. The formal, easy-going, do-little thing which most people call religion, is evidently not the religion of the Lord Jesus. The things that He praises in these seven Epistles are not praised by the world. The things that He blames are not things in which the world sees any harm. Oh, if you would follow Christ, be not content with the world’s Christianity! Tremble, tremble and repent.
  • Every one who professes to be a believer in the Lord Jesus:  Do not to be content with a little faith, a little grace, a little repentance, a little faith, a little knowledge, a little charity, and a little holiness. Let us rather seek, every year we live, to make more spiritual progress than we have done – to grow in grace, and in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus – to grow in humility and self-acquaintance – to grow in spirituality and heavenly-mindedness – to grow in conformity to the image of our Lord.

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