Practical Religion by J. C. Ryle
For more than a century, J. C. Ryle was best known for his clear and lively writings on practical and spiritual themes. His great aim in all his ministry was to encourage strong and serious Christian living. But Ryle was not naive in his understanding of how this should be done. He recognized that, as a pastor of the flock of God, he had a responsibility to guard Christ’s sheep and to warn them whenever he saw approaching dangers. His penetrating comments are as wise and relevant today, as they were when he first wrote them. His sermons and other writings have been consistently recognized, and their usefulness and impact have continued to the present day, even in the outdated English of the author’s own day.
Why then should expositions already so successful and of such stature and proven usefulness require adaptation, revision, rewrite or even editing? The answer is obvious. To increase its usefulness to today’s reader the language in which it was originally written needs updating.
Though his sermons have served other generations well, just as they came from the pen of the author in the nineteenth century, they still could be lost to present and future generations simply because, to them, the language is neither readily nor fully understandable.
My goal, however, has not been to reduce the original writing to the vernacular of our day. It is designed primarily for you who desire to read and study comfortably and at ease in the language of our time. Only obviously archaic terminology and passages obscured by expressions not totally familiar in our day have been revised. However, neither Ryle’s meaning nor intent have been tampered with.
All Scripture references are taken from the HOLY BIBLE: NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION (C) 1978 by the New York Bible Society, used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.
This updated and revised manuscript is copyrighted ã 1998 by Tony Capoccia. All rights reserved.
THE BEST FRIEND
“This my friend” [Song of Solomon 5:16]
A friend is one of the greatest blessings on earth. Don’t tell me about money: love is better than money; sympathy is better than owning property. He is a poor man who has no friends.
This world is full of sorrow because it is full of sin. It is a dark place. It is a lonely place. It is a disappointing place. A friend is like the brightest ray of the sun on a Spring day. Friendship eliminates half of our troubles and doubles our joys.
A real friend is scarce and rare. There are many who will eat, and drink, and laugh with us in the sunshine of prosperity. There are few who will stand by us in the days of darkness–few who will love us when we are sick, helpless, and poor–few, above all, who will care for our souls.
Does any reader of this article want a real friend? I write this to recommend one to you this day. I know of One who “is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” [Proverbs 18:24] I know of One who is ready to be your friend for time and for eternity, if you will receive Him.
The friend I want you to know is Jesus Christ. Happy is that family in which Christ has the foremost place! Happy is that person whose chief friend is Christ!
I. Do we want a “friend in need?” Such a friend is the Lord Jesus Christ.
Man is the neediest creature on God’s earth, because he is a sinner. There is no need so great as that of sinners: poverty, hunger, thirst, cold, sickness, are all nothing in comparison. Sinners need forgiveness, and they are utterly unable to provide it for themselves; they need deliverance from a guilty conscience and the fear of death, and they have no power of their own to obtain it. This is the need the Lord Jesus Christ came into the world to relieve. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” [1 Timothy 1:15]
We are all by nature poor dying creatures. From the king on his throne to the pauper in the slums, we are all sick of a mortal disease of soul. Whether we know it or not, whether we feel it or not, we are all dying daily. The plague of sin is in our blood. We cannot cure ourselves: we are getting worse every hour. All this the Lord Jesus undertook to remedy. He came into the world to “bring health and healing;” He came to deliver us from “the second death;” He came to “destroy death and bring life and immortality to light through the gospel.” [Jeremiah 33:6; Revelation 2:11; 2 Timothy 1:10]
We are all by nature imprisoned debtors. We owed our God millions of dollars, and did not even have a penny to our name. We were wretched bankrupts, without the hope of freeing ourselves. We could never have freed ourselves from our load of liabilities, and were daily getting deeper in debt. The Lord Jesus saw all of this and undertook to help us. He engaged to “ransom and redeem us;” He came to “proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners;” “He came to redeem us from the curse of the law.” [Hosea 13:14; Isaiah 61:1; Galatians 3:13]
We were all by nature sinking and rejected. We could never have reached the harbor of everlasting life. We were sinking in the midst of the waves, lethargic, helpless, and powerless; tied and bound by the chain of our own sins, floundering under the burden of our own guilt, and likely to become the easy prey of the devil. The Lord Jesus saw all of this and undertook to help us. He came down from heaven to be our strong “warrior;” He came to “seek and to save what was lost;” and to “spare us from going down to the pit.” [Psalm 89:19; Luke 19:10; Job 33:24]
Could we have been saved without the Lord Jesus Christ coming down from heaven? It would have been impossible, so far as our eyes can see. The wisest men of Egypt, and Greece, and Rome never found out the way to have peace with God. Without the friendship of Christ we should all have been lost forever in the torments and agonies of hell.
Was the Lord Jesus Christ obliged to come down to save us? Oh, no! no! never! It was His own free love, mercy, and pity that brought Him down. He came unsought and unasked because He was gracious.
Let us think on these things. Search all of history from the beginning of the world–look around the whole circle of those you know and love: you never heard of such friendship among the sons of men. There never was such a real friend who was willing to help us in our desperate time of need as was Jesus Christ.
II. Do you want a friend who is absolutely capable to meet all your needs? Such a friend is the Lord Jesus Christ. The true extent of a man’s friendship must be measured by his deeds. Don’t tell me what he says, and feels, and wishes; don’t tell about his words and letters: rather tell me what he does. “A real Friend is measured by what a real Friend does.”
What the Lord Jesus Christ has done for man is the grand proof of His friendly feeling towards him. Never were there such acts of kindness and self-denial as those which He has performed on our behalf. He has not loved us in word only but in action and deed.
For our sakes He took our nature upon Him, and was born of a woman. He who was very God Himself, and absolutely equal with the Father, laid aside, for a period of time, His glory and took upon Him flesh and blood like our own. The almighty Creator of all things became a little babe like any of us, and experienced all our bodily weaknesses and ailments, sin only excepted. “Though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.” [2 Corinthians 8:9]
For our sakes He lived thirty-three years in this evil world, despised and rejected by men and women, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. Though He was King of kings, He had no place to lay His head: though He was Lord of lords, He was often weary, and hungry, and thirsty, and poor. “[He] made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself. . . .” [Philippians 2:7-8]
For our sakes He suffered the most painful of all deaths–the death of crucifixion on a cross. Though innocent, and without fault, He allowed Himself to be condemned, and found guilty. He who was the Prince of Life was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and poured out His soul unto death. He “died for us.” [1 Thessalonians 5:10]
Was He obliged to do this? Oh no! He could have summoned to His aid more than twelve legions of angels, and scattered His enemies with a word from His mouth. He suffered voluntarily and of His own free will, to make atonement for our sins. He knew that nothing but the sacrifice of His body and blood could ever make peace between sinful man and a holy God. He laid down His life to pay the price of our redemption: He died that we might live; He suffered that we might reign; He bore shame that we might receive glory. “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” [1 Peter 3:18; 2 Corinthians 5:21]
Such friendship as this passes man’s understanding. Sometimes we may have heard of friends who would die for those who love them. But who can find a man who would lay down his life for those that hate him? Yet this is what Jesus has done for us. “God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” [Romans 5:8]
Ask all the tribes of mankind, from one end of the world to the other, and you will nowhere hear of a deed like this. No one was ever so exalted and stooped down so low as Jesus the Son of God: no one ever gave so costly a proof of his friendship; no one ever paid so much and endured so much to do good to others. Never was there such a friend as Jesus Christ!
III. Do we want “a mighty and powerful friend?” Such a friend is Jesus Christ.
Power to help is that which few possess in this world. Many have the desire to do good to others, but no power. They feel for the sorrows of others, and would gladly relieve them if they could: they can weep with their friends in distress, but are unable to take their grief away. But though man is weak, Christ is strong–though the best of our earthly friends is feeble, Christ is almighty: Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me.” [Matthew 28:18] No one can do so much for those whom He helps as Jesus Christ. Others can help their bodies a little: He can help both body and soul. Others can do a little for them for a time: He can be a friend both for time and eternity.
(a) He is “able to pardon” and save the very chief of sinners. He can deliver the most guilty conscience from all its burdens, and give it perfect peace with God. He can wash away the vilest stains of wickedness, and make a man’s soul whiter than snow in the sight of God. He can clothe a poor weak child of Adam in everlasting righteousness, and give him a title to heaven that can never be overthrown. In a word, He can give anyone of us peace, hope, forgiveness, and reconciliation with God, if we will only trust in Him. “The blood of Jesus, His Son, purifies us from all sin.” [1 John 1:7]
(b) He is “able to convert” the hardest of hearts, and create in man a new spirit. He can take the most thoughtless and ungodly people, and give them another mind by the Holy Spirit which He puts in them. He can cause old things to pass away, and everything to become new. He can make them love the things which they once hated, and hate the things they once loved. “[He can give] the right to become children of God.” “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” [John 1:12; 2 Corinthians 5:17]
(c) He is “able to preserve” to the end all who believe in Him, and become His disciples. He can give them grace to overcome the world, the flesh and the devil, and fight a good fight to the end. He can lead them on safely in spite of every temptation, carry them home through a thousand dangers, and keep them faithful, though they stand alone and have no one to help them. “He is able to save completely those who come to God through Him.” [Hebrews 7:25]
(d) He is “able to give” those that love Him the best of gifts. He can give them in life inward comforts, which money can never buy–peace in poverty, joy in sorrow, patience in suffering. He can give them bright hopes in death, which enable them to walk through the dark valley without fear. After death He can give them a crown of glory, which never fades, and a reward which no King or country on earth could ever match.
This is power indeed: this is true greatness; this is real strength. Go and look at the poor Hindu idolater, seeking peace in vain by afflicting his body; and, after fifty years of self-
imposed suffering, was still unable to find it. Go and look at the blind Roman Catholic, giving money to his priest to pray for his soul, and yet dying without salvation. Go and look at rich men, spending thousands in search of happiness, and yet always discontented and unhappy. Then turn to Jesus, and think what He can do, and is daily doing for all who trust Him. Think how He heals all the broken-hearted, comforts all the sick, cheers all the poor that trust in Him, and supplies all their daily need. The fear of man is strong, the opposition of this evil world is mighty, the lusts of the flesh rage, the fear of death is distressing, the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour; but Jesus is stronger than them all. Jesus can make us conquerors over all these foes. And now I ask you whether it is not a true statement, that there never was so mighty a friend as Jesus Christ.
IV. Do we want “a loving and affectionate friend?” Such a friend is Jesus Christ.
Kindness is the very essence of true friendship. Money, advice, and help lose half their good will, if not given in a loving manner. What kind of love is that of the Lord Jesus toward man? It is called, “A love that surpasses knowledge.” [Ephesians 3:19]
Love shines forth in His “reception of sinners.” He refuses none that come to Him for salvation, however unworthy they may be. Though their lives may have been most wicked, though their sins may be more in number than the stars of heaven, the Lord Jesus is ready to receive them, and give them pardon and peace. There is no end to His compassion: there are no limits to His mercy. He is not ashamed to be a friend and to help those whom the world casts off as hopeless. There are none too bad, too filthy, and too much diseased with sin, to be admitted into His home. He is willing to be the friend of any sinner: He has kindness and mercy and healing medicine for all. He has long proclaimed this to be His rule: “Whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” [John 6:37]
Love shines forth in His “dealings with sinners,” after they have believed in Him and become His friends. He is very patient with them, though their conduct is often very trying and provoking. He is never tired of hearing their complaints, however often they may come to Him. He sympathizes deeply in all their sorrows. He knows what pain is: He is “familiar with suffering.” [Isaiah 53:3] In all their afflictions He is afflicted. He never allows them to be tempted above what they are able to bear: He supplies them with daily grace for their daily conflict. Their poor services are acceptable to Him: He is well pleased with them as a parent is with his child’s efforts to speak and walk. He has caused it to be written in His book, that “The LORD takes delight in His people,” and that “the LORD delights in those who fear Him.” [Psalm 149:4; 147:11]
There is no love on earth that can be named together with this! We love those in whom we see something that deserves our affection, or those who are our flesh and bone: the Lord Jesus loves sinners in whom there is nothing good. We love those from whom we get something in return for our affection: the Lord Jesus loves those who can do little or nothing for Him, compared to what He does for them. We love where we can give some reason for loving: the great Friend of sinners draws His reasons out of His own everlasting compassion. His love is purely impartial, purely unselfish, purely free. Never, never was there so truly loving a friend as Jesus Christ.
V. Do we want “a wise and prudent friend?” Such a friend is the Lord Jesus Christ.
Man’s friendship is sadly blind. He often injures those he loves by overbearing kindness: he often errs in the counsel he gives; he often leads his friends into trouble by bad advice, even when he means to help them. He sometimes keeps them back from the way of life, and entangles them in the vanities of the world, when they have almost escaped. The friendship of the Lord Jesus is not that way: it always does us good, and never evil.
The Lord Jesus “never spoils” His friends by extravagant indulgence. He gives them everything that is really for their benefit; He withholds nothing from them that is really good; but He requires them to take up their cross daily and follow Him. He commands them to endure hardships as good soldiers: He calls on them to fight the good fight against the world, the flesh, and the devil. His people often dislike it at the time, and think it difficult; but when they reach heaven they will see it was all well done.
The Lord Jesus “makes no mistakes” in managing His friend’s affairs. He orders all their concerns with perfect wisdom: all things happen to them at the right time, and in the right way. He gives them as much of sickness and as much of health, as much of poverty and as much of riches, as much of sorrow and as much of joy, as He sees their souls require. He leads them by the right way to bring them to the city that will be their eternal home. He mixes their bitterest cups like a wise physician, and takes care that they have not a drop too little or a drop too much. His people often misunderstand His dealings; they are silly enough to imagine that their course of life might have been better ordered: but in the resurrection-day they will thank God that not their will, but Christ’s will was done.
Look around the world and see the harm which people are continually getting from their friends. Note how much more ready men are to encourage one another in worldliness and levity, than to spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Think how often they meet together, not for the better, but for the worse–not to quicken one another’s souls in the way to heaven, but to confirm one another in the love of this present world. Yes, there are thousands who are wounded unexpectedly in the house of their friends!
And then turn to the great Friend of sinners, and see how different a thing is His friendship from that of man. Listen to Him as He walks by the way with His disciples; mark how He comforts, reproves, and exhorts with perfect wisdom. Observe how He times His visits to those He loves, as to Mary and Martha at Bethany. Hear how He converses, as He dines on the shore of the sea of Galilee: “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?” [John 21:16] His company is always sanctifying. His gifts are always for our soul’s good; His kindness is always wise; His fellowship always edifies us. One day with the Son of Man is better than a thousand days in the society of earthly friends: one hour spent in private communion with Him, is better than a year in kings’ palaces. Never, never was there such a wise friend as Jesus Christ.
VI. Do we want “a tried and proved friend?” Such a friend is Jesus Christ.
Six thousand years have passed away since the Lord Jesus began His work of being a friend to mankind. During that long period of time He has had many friends in this world. Billions of people, unhappily, have refused His offers and been miserably lost forever; but millions on millions have enjoyed the mighty privilege of His friendship and been saved. He has had great experience on being a friend of sinners.
(a) He has had friends of “every rank and station” in life. Some of them were kings and rich men, like David, and Solomon, and Hezekiah, and Job; some of them were very poor in this world, like the shepherds of Bethlehem, and James, and John, and Andrew: but everyone of them were Christ’s friends.
(b) He has had friends “of every age” that man can pass through. Some of them never knew Him till they were advanced in years, like Manasseh, and Zacchaeus, and probably the Ethiopian Eunuch. Some of them were His friends even from their earliest childhood, like Joseph, and Samuel, and Josiah, and Timothy. But everyone of them were Christ’s friends.
(c) He has had friends “of every possible temperament and disposition.” Some of them were simple plain men and women, like Isaac; some of them were mighty in word and deed, like Moses; some of them were fervent and warm-hearted, like Peter; some of them were gentle and retiring spirits, like John; some of them were active and stirring, like Martha; some of them loved to sit quietly at His feet, like Mary; some lived unknown among their own people, like the Shunamite; some have gone everywhere and turned the world upside down, like Paul. But everyone of them were Christ’s friends.
(d) He has had friends “of every condition in life.” Some of them were married, and had sons and daughters, like Enoch; some of them lived and died unmarried, like Daniel and John the Baptist; some of them were often sick, like Lazarus and Epaphroditus; some of them were strong and labored hard, like Persis, and Tryphena, and Tryphosa; some of them were masters, like Abraham and Cornelius; some of them were servants, like the saints in Nero’s household; some of them had bad servants, like Elisha; some of them had bad masters like Obadiah; some of them had bad wives and children, like David. But everyone of them were Christ’s friends.
(e) He has had friends “of almost every nation, and people, and language.” He has had friends in hot countries and in cold; friends among highly civilized nations, and friends among the simplest and rudest tribes. His Book of Life contains the names of Greeks and Romans, of Jews and Egyptians, of bond and of free. There are to be found on its lists reserved Englishmen and cautious Scotchmen, impulsive Irishmen and fiery Welshmen, volatile Frenchmen and dignified Spaniards, refined Italians and solid Germans, rude Africans and refined Indians [from India], cultivated Chinese and half-savage New Zealanders. But everyone of them were Christ’s friends.
All these have tested Christ’s friendship, and proved it to be good. They all found nothing lacking when they began: they all found nothing lacking as they advanced in the friendship. No lack, no defect, no deficiency was ever found by any one of them in Jesus Christ. Each found his own soul’s needs fully supplied; each found every day, that in Christ there was enough and plenty to spare. Never, never was there a friend so fully tried and proved as Jesus Christ.
VII. Last, but not least, do we want “an unfailing friend?’ Such a friend is the Lord Jesus Christ.
The saddest part of all the good things of earth is their instability. Riches make themselves wings and fly away; youth and beauty are but for a few years; strength of body soon decays; mind and intellect are soon exhausted. All is perishing. All is fading. All is passing away. But there is one splendid exception to this general rule, and that is the friendship of Jesus Christ.
The Lord Jesus is “a friend who never changes.” There is no fickleness about Him: those whom He loves, He loves to the end. Husbands have been known to forsake their wives; parents have been known to cast off their children; human vows and promises of faithfulness have often been forgotten. Thousands have been neglected in their poverty and old age, who were honored by all when they were rich and young. But Christ never changed his feelings towards one of His friends. He is “the same yesterday and today and forever.” [Hebrews 13:8]
The Lord Jesus “never goes away from His friends.” There is never a parting and goodbye between Him and His people. From the time that He makes His home in the sinner’s heart, He abides in it forever. The world is full of separations and departures: death and the passage of time break up the most united family; sons move on to make their way in life; daughters are married, and leave their father’s house forever. Scattering, scattering, scattering, is the yearly history of the happiest home. How many we have tearfully watched as they drove away from our doors, whose pleasant faces we have never seen again! How many we have sorrowfully followed to the grave, and then come back to a cold, silent, lonely house! But, thanks be to God, there is One who never leaves His friends! The Lord Jesus is He who has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” [Hebrews 13:5]
The Lord Jesus “goes with His friends wherever they go.” There is no possible separation between Him and those He loves. There is no place or position on earth, or under the earth, that can divide them from the great Friend of their souls. When the path of duty calls them far away from home, He is their companion; when they pass through the fire and water of fierce suffering, He is with them; when they lie down on the bed of sickness, He stands by them and makes all their trouble work for good; when they go down the valley of the shadow of death, and friends and relatives stand still and can go no further, He goes down by their side. When they wake up in the unknown world of Paradise, they are still with Him; when they rise with a new body at the judgment day, they will not be alone. He will acknowledge them as His friends, and say, “They are mine: let them go free.” He will make good His own words: “I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” [Matthew 28:20]
Look around the world, and see how failure is written on all men’s schemes. Add up the partings, and separations, and disappointments, and bereavements which you have experienced, heard about or observed. Think what a privilege it is that there is One at least who never fails, and in whom no one was ever disappointed! Never, never was there so unfailing a friend as Jesus Christ.
And now, permit me to conclude this paper with a few plain words of application. I don’t know who you are or in what state your soul may be in; but I am sure that the words I am about to say deserve your serious attention. Oh, that this paper may not find you careless of spiritual things! Oh, that you may be able to give a few thoughts to Christ!
(1) Know then, for one thing, that I call upon you to “solemnly consider whether Christ is your friend and you are His.”
There are millions, I grieve to say, who are not Christ’s friends. Baptized in His name, outward members of His Church, attending Church services, taking the Lord’s Supper, praying, reading the Bible–but they are not Christ’s “friends.”
Do they hate the sins which Jesus died for? No. Do they love the Savior who came into the world to save them? No. Do they care for the souls which were so precious in His sight? No.
Do they delight in the word of reconciliation? No.
Do they try to speak with the Friend of sinners in prayer? No.
Do they seek close fellowship with Him? No.
Oh, reader, is this your situation? How is it with you? Are you or are you not one of Christ’s friends?
(2) Know, in the next place, that “if you are not one of Christ’s friends, you are a poor miserable being.”
I write this down deliberately. I do not say it without thought. I say that if Christ is not your friend, you are a poor miserable being.
You are in the midst of a failing, sorrowful world, and you have no real source of comfort, or refuge for a time of need. You are a dying creature, and you are not ready to die. You have sins, and they are not forgiven. You are going to be judged, and you are not prepared to meet God: you might be, but you refuse to use the one and only Mediator and Advocate. You love the world better than Christ. You refuse the great Friend of sinners, and you have no friend in heaven to plead your cause. Yes: it is sad but true! You are a poor, miserable being. It matters nothing what your income is: without Christ’s friendship you are very poor.
(3) Know, in the third place, that “if you really want a friend, Christ is willing to become your friend.”
He has long wanted you to join His people, and He now invites you by my hand. He is ready to receive you, all unworthy as you may feel, and to write your name down in the list of His friends. He is ready to pardon all the past, to clothe you with righteousness, to give you His Spirit, to make you His own dear child. All He asks you to do is to come to Him.
He commands you to come with all your sins; only acknowledging your wickedness, and confessing that your are ashamed. Just as you are–waiting for nothing–unworthy of anything in yourself–Jesus commands you to come and be His friend.
Oh come and be wise! Come and be safe. Come and be happy. Come and be Christ’s friend.
(4) Know, in the last place, that “if Christ is your friend, you have great privileges, and ought to walk worthy of them.”
Seek every day to have closer communion with Him who is your friend, and to know more of His grace and power. True Christianity is not merely the believing of a certain set of dry abstract propositions: it is to live in daily personal communication with an actual living person–Jesus the Son of God. “To me,” said Paul, “to live is Christ.” [Philippians 1:21]
Seek every day to glorify your Lord and Savior in all your ways. “A man that has friends must show himself friendly”[Proverbs 18:24 – KJV], and surely no man is under such mighty obligations as the friend of Christ. Avoid everything which would grieve your Lord. Fight hard against the sins that so easily entangles, against inconsistency, against being ashamed to confess Him before men. Say to your soul, whenever you are tempted to do that which is wrong, “Soul, soul, is this your kindness to your Friend?”
Think, above all, of the mercy which has been shown you, and learn to rejoice daily in your Friend! What if your body is bent over with disease? What if the poverty and trials of your life are overwhelming? What if your earthly friends all forsake you, and you are alone in this world? All this may be true: but if you are in Christ, then you have a friend, a mighty Friend, a loving Friend, a wise friend, a friend that never fails. Oh, think, think habitually about your Friend!
Yet in a little while and your friend will come to take you home, and you will live with Him forever. Yet a little while and you will see Him as you have been seen by Him, and know Him as you have been known by Him. And then you will hear the glorified saints in heaven proclaim, that HE IS THE RICH AND HAPPY MAN WHO HAS HAD CHRIST FOR HIS FRIEND.