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J.C. Ryle: 10 Questions to Test Whether You Are a True Christian

2. Do we ever do anything about our souls?

There are multitudes in England who think occasionally about religion—but unhappily never get beyond thinking. After a stirring sermon—or after a funeral—or under the pressure of illness—or on Sunday evening—or when things are going on badly in their families—or when they meet some bright example of a Christian—or when they fall in with some striking religious book or tract—they will at the time, think a good deal, and even talk a little about religion in a vague way. But they stop short, as if thinking and talking were enough to save them. They are always meaning, and intending, and purposing, and resolving, and wishing, and telling us that they “know” what is right, and “hope” to be found right in the end—but they never attain to any action. There is no actual separation from the service of the world and sin—no real taking up the cross and following Christ—no positive doing in their Christianity. Their life is spent in playing the part of the son in our Lord’s parable, to whom the father said, “‘Go and work today in the vineyard:’ and he answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go” (Matthew 21:30).

They are like those whom Ezekiel describes, who liked his preaching—but never practiced what he preached: “They come unto you as the people comes, and they sit before you as my people, and they hear your words—but they will not do them…And lo, you are unto them as a very lovely song of one that has a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument: for they hear your words—but they do them not.” (Ezekiel 33:31-32). In a day like this, when hearing and thinking without doing, is so common—no one can justly wonder that I press upon men the absolute need of self-examination. Once more, then, I ask my readers to consider the question of my text—”How do we do about our souls?”

3. Are we trying to satisfy our consciences with mere “formal” religion?

There are myriads in England at this moment who are making shipwreck on this rock. Like the Pharisees of old, they make much ado about the outward part of Christianity, while the inward and spiritual part is totally neglected. They are careful to attend all the services of their place of worship, and regular in using all its forms and ordinances. They are never absent from Communion when the Lord’s Supper is administered. Sometimes they are most strict in observing Lent, and attach great importance to Saints’ days. They are often keen partisans of their own Church, or sect, or congregation, and ready to contend with anyone who does not agree with them.

Yet all this time there is no heart in their religion. Anyone who knows them intimately can see with half an eye—that their affections are set on things below, and not on things above; and that they are trying to make up for the lack of inward Christianity—by an excessive quantity of outward form. And this formal religion does them no real good. They are not satisfied. Beginning at the wrong end, by making the outward things first—they know nothing of inward joy and peace, and pass their days in a constant struggle, secretly conscious that there is something wrong, and yet not knowing why. Well, after all, if they do not go on from one stage of formality to another, until in despair they take a fatal plunge, and fall into Popery!

When professing Christians of this kind are so painfully numerous, no one need wonder if I press upon him the paramount importance of close self-examination. If you love life, do not be content with the husk, and shell, and scaffolding of religion. Remember our Savior’s words about the Jewish formalists of His day: “These people draws near with their mouth, and honors Me with their lips — but their heart is far from Me. In vain do they worship.” (Matthew 15:8-9). It needs something more than going diligently to church, and receiving the Lord’s Supper—to take our souls to Heaven. Means of grace, and forms of religion, are useful in their way—and God seldom does anything for His church without them. But let us beware of making shipwreck on the very lighthouse which helps to show the channel into the harbor! Once more I ask, “How do we do about our souls?”

4. Have we received the forgiveness of our sins?

Few reasonable Englishmen would think of denying that they are sinners. Many perhaps would say that they are not as bad as others, and that they have not been so very wicked, and so forth. But few, I repeat, would pretend to say that they had always lived like angels, and never done, or said, or thought a wrong thing all their days. In short, all of us must confess that we are more or less “sinners,” and, as sinners, are guilty before God; and, as guilty, we must be forgiven—or be lost and condemned forever at the last day. Now it is the glory of the Christian religion that it provides for us the very forgiveness that we need—full, free, perfect, eternal, and complete. It is a leading article in that well-known creed, which most Englishmen learn when they are children. They are taught to say, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” This forgiveness of sins has been purchased for us by the eternal Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. He has purchased it for us by coming into the world to be our Savior, and by living, dying, and rising again, as our Substitute, in our behalf. He has bought it for us at the price of His own most precious blood, by suffering in our place on the cross, and making satisfaction for our sins.

But this forgiveness, as great, and full, and glorious as it is — does not become the property of every man and woman as a matter of course. It is not a privilege which every member of a Church possesses, merely because he is a Churchman. It is a thing which each individual must receive for himself by his own personal faith, lay hold on by faith, appropriate by faith, and make his own by faith; or else, so far as he is concerned, Christ will have died in vain. “He who believes on the Son has everlasting life, and he who believes not the Son shall not see life — but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36). No terms can be imagined more simple, and more suitable to man. As good old Latimer said in speaking of the matter of justification, “It is but believe — and have.” It is only faith that is required; and faith is nothing more than the humble, heartfelt trust of the soul which desires to be saved. Jesus is able and willing to save; but man must come to Jesus and believe. All that believe are at once justified and forgiven: but without believing there is no forgiveness at all.

Now here is exactly the point, I am afraid, where multitudes of English people fail, and are in imminent danger of being lost forever. They know that there is no forgiveness of sin excepting in Christ Jesus. They can tell you that there is no Savior for sinners, no Redeemer, no Mediator, excepting Him who was born of the Virgin Mary, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, dead, and buried. But here they stop, and get no further! They never come to the point of actually laying hold of Christ by faith, and becoming one with Christ and Christ in them. They can say, He is a Savior — but not my Savior; a Redeemer — but not my Redeemer; a Priest — but not my Priest; an Advocate — but not my Advocate. So they live and die unforgiven! No wonder that Martin Luther said, “Many are lost because they cannot use possessive pronouns.”

When this is the state of many in this day, no one need wonder that I ask men whether they have received the forgiveness of sins. An eminent Christian lady once said, in her old age, “The beginning of eternal life in my soul, was a conversation I had with an old gentleman who came to visit my father when I was only a little girl. He took me by the hand one day and said, ‘My dear child, my life is nearly over, and you will probably live many years after I am gone. But never forget two things. One is, that there is such a thing as having our sins forgiven while we live. The other is, that there is such a thing as knowing and feeling that we are forgiven.’ I thank God I have never forgotten his words.”

How is it with us? Let us not rest until we “know and feel”, as the Prayer Book says, that we are forgiven. Once more let us ask, in the matter of forgiveness of sins, “How do we do?”

See Page Three for more marks of a true Christian . . .