Ryle (1816-1900) was the Church of England’s Bishop of Liverpool. Excerpts from Old Paths, Being Plain Statements on Some of the Weightier Matters of Christianity (1877).
All men need forgiveness, because all men are sinners. It is the very ABC of Christianity, that a man should know his right place in the sight of God, and understand his deserts. “There is none righteous, no, not one.” “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:10, 23) Sinners we were born, and sinners we have been all our lives. We take to sin naturally from the very first. No child ever needs schooling and education to teach it to do wrong.
We are all guilty sinners in the sight of God. We have broken His holy law. We have not done His will. There is not a commandment in all the ten which does not condemn us. If we have not broken it in deed we have in word; if we have not broken it in word, we have in thought and imagination, and that continually. Tried by the standard of the fifth chapter of Matthew, there is not one of us that would be acquitted. All the world is “guilty before God.” And “as it is appointed unto men once to die, so after this comes the judgment.” (Romans 3:19, Hebrews 9:27) We must either be forgiven, or perish everlastingly.
When I walk through the crowded streets, I see hundreds and thousands of whom I know nothing beyond their outward appearance. Each has his own object in view. Each has his own aims and ends, all alike hidden from me. But one thing I know for a certainty, as I look upon them — they are all sinners. There breathes not the man or woman in that crowd but must die forgiven, or else rise again to be condemned forever at the last day.
What is the life of the best Christian among us? What is it but one great career of shortcomings? What is it but a daily acting out the words — “leaving undone things we ought to do, and doing things that we ought not to do”? Our faith, how feeble! Our love, how cold! Our patience, how short-breathed! Our humility, how threadbare! Our self-denial, how dwarfish! Our knowledge, how dim! Our spirituality, how shallow! Never did the wisest of men speak more wisely than when he said, “There is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not.” (Ecclesiastes 7:20) And what is the best action that is ever done by the very best of Christians? What is it after all but an imperfect work? It is always more or less defective. It is either wrong in its motive or incomplete in its performance. David’s account is true: “There is none that doeth good, no, not one.” (Psalm 14:3)
And then what is the Lord God, whose eyes are on all our ways, and before whom we have one day to give account? “Holy, holy, holy,” is the remarkable expression applied to Him by those who are nearest to Him, as if no one word could express the intensity of His holiness. (Isaiah 6:3, Revelation 4:8) Surely we ought all to cease from proud thoughts about ourselves. We ought to lay our hands upon our mouths, and say with Abraham, “I am dust and ashes”; and with Job, “I am vile”; and with John, “If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (Genesis 18:27, Job 40:4, I John 1:8)
See now what just cause I have to say that to know our need of forgiveness is the first thing in true religion. Sin is a burden, and must be taken off. Sin is a defilement, and must be cleansed away. Sin is a mighty debt, and must be paid. Sin is a mountain standing between us and heaven, and must be removed. The first step towards heaven is to see clearly that we deserve hell.
See too how little many persons know of the main design of Christianity. They have yet to learn that the leading mark of Christianity is the remedy it provides for sin. This is the glory and excellence of the gospel. It meets man as he really is. I ask every reader to consider these things well, if he never considered them before. It is no light matter whether you know your soul’s necessities or not. Try to become acquainted with your own heart. Sit down and think what you are in the sight of God. Bring together the thoughts, the words, and actions of any day in your life, and measure them by the measure of God’s Word. Judge yourself honestly, that you may not be condemned at the last day. Learn to pray Job’s prayer: “Make me to know my transgression and my sin.” (Job 13:23)
Let me point out the way of forgiveness. Which way will you turn? Will you trust in your own works and endeavors, your virtues and your good deeds, your prayers? They will never pay your debt to God. They are all imperfect in themselves, and only increase your guilt. Will you trust in your own repentance? You are very sorry for the past. You hope to do better for time to come. Alas, the judge does not pardon the thief because he is sorry for what he did. Today’s sorrow will not wipe off the score of yesterday’s sins.
Where then must a man go for pardon? Where is forgiveness to be found? That way is simply to cast your soul, with all its sins, unreservedly on Christ — to cease completely from any dependence on your own works or doings, either in whole or in part, and to rest on no other work but Christ’s work. Take this course and you are a pardoned soul. “To Christ,” says Peter, “give all the prophets witness, that through His name whosoever believeth in Him shall receive remission of sins.” (Acts 10:43) “Through this man,” says Paul, “is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins, and by Him all that believe are justified from all things.” (Acts 13:38) “In Him,” writes Paul, “we have redemption through His blood, even the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 1:14)
Jesus Christ, in great compassion, has made a full and complete satisfaction for sin, by suffering death in our place. On the cross He offered Himself as a sacrifice for us, and allowed the wrath of God, which we deserved, to fall on His own head. For our sins, as our substitute, He gave Himself, suffered, and died — the just for the unjust, the innocent for the guilty, that He might deliver us from the curse of a broken law, and provide a complete pardon. And by so doing, as Isaiah says, He has borne our sins; as John the Baptist says, He has taken away sin; as Paul says, He has purged our sins, and put away sin; and as Daniel says, He has made an end of sin, and finished transgression. (Isaiah 53:11, John 1:29, Hebrews 1:3, 9:26, Daniel 9:24)
And now Jesus Christ is sealed and appointed by God the Father to be a Prince and a Savior, to give remission of sins to all who will have it. The keys of death and hell are put in His hand. The government of the gate of heaven is laid on His shoulder. He Himself is the door; and by Him all that enter in shall be saved. (Acts 5:31, Revelation 1:18, John 10:9)
Christ, in one word, has purchased a full forgiveness. He has done all, paid all, suffered all that was needful to reconcile us to God. And faith, simple faith, is the only thing required in order that you and I may be forgiven. That we will come by faith to Jesus as sinners with our sins — trust in Him, rest on Him — and forsaking all other hope, cleave only to Him, this is all and everything that God asks for. Let a man only do this, and he shall be saved. His iniquities shall be found completely pardoned, and his transgressions entirely taken away. His sins are clean gone, and his soul is justified in God’s sight, however bad and guilty he may have been. “All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies, wherewithsoever they shall blaspheme.” (Mark 3:28) “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall become white as snow, though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” (Isaiah 1:18) They are removed as far as the east from the west. (Psalm 103:12) Jesus does all, and man has only to hold out an empty hand and to receive.
It is an offered forgiveness. “If any man thirst, let him come unto Me and drink.” (John 7:37) “Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) It is a willing forgiveness. I have heard of pardons granted in reply to long entreaty, and wrung out by much importunity. But Jesus is not willing that any should perish. (II Peter 3:9) He would have all men saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth. (I Timothy 2:4) He wept over unbelieving Jerusalem. “As I live,” He says, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked. Turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; why will ye die?” (Ezekiel 33:11)
Besides this, it is a present forgiveness. The very day that David said, “I have sinned against the Lord,” he was told by Nathan, “The Lord also hath put away thy sin.” (II Samuel 12:13) Your pardon is not a thing far away, to be obtained only after many years. From the time of believing, condemnation is gone. “He that believeth hath everlasting life.” (John 3:36) It is an everlasting forgiveness. Once justified, you are justified forever. The sins of God’s children are said to be cast into the depths of the sea, to be sought for and not found, to be remembered no more, to be cast behind God’s back. (Micah 7:19, Jeremiah 50:20, 31:34, Isaiah 38:17)
Do you call it nothing to be able to think of the great day of account, the throne, the books, the Judge, the assembled worlds, the revealing of secrets, the final sentence, and yet to feel, “I am safe”? This is the privilege of a forgiven soul. Such an one is in an hiding place. When God arises to judge terribly the earth, and men are calling to rocks and mountains to fall upon them and cover them, the Everlasting Arms shall be thrown around him, and the storm shall pass over his head.
Let me supply the readers with some marks of having found forgiveness. I dare not leave out this point. Too many persons presume they are forgiven, who have no evidence to show.
(a) Forgiven souls hate sin. Sin is the serpent which bit them: how should they not shrink from it with horror? How should they not loathe it with a godly disgust? How should not the very memory of it be bitter to their hearts? Remember how the Ephesians publicly burned their wicked books. (Acts 19:19) Remember how Paul mourned over his youthful transgressions: “I am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” (I Corinthians 15:9) If you and sin are friends, you and God are not yet reconciled.
(b) Forgiven souls love Christ. His person, His work, His cross, His words — all are precious to forgiven souls. The ministry which exalts Him most is that which they enjoy most. They would tell you they cannot help feeling as they do. He is their Redeemer, their Shepherd, their Physician, their King, their hope, their joy. Were it not for Him they would be of all men most miserable.
(c) Forgiven souls are humble. They cannot forget that they owe all they have and hope for to free grace, and this keeps them lowly. They are debtors who could not pay for themselves, and what right have they to be proud? I do not deny that there are proud saints. But this I do say, they are of all God’s creatures the most inconsistent, and of all God’s children the most likely to stumble and pierce themselves with many sorrows. Forgiveness more often produces the spirit of Jacob: “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and all the truth which Thou hast showed unto Thy servant” (Genesis 32:10); and of the Apostle Paul: “I am less than the least of all saints — chief of sinners.” (Ephesians 3:8, I Timothy 1:15) When you and I have nothing we can call our own but sin and weakness, there is surely no garment that becomes us so well as humility.
(d) Forgiven souls are holy. Their chief desire is to please Him who has saved them, to do His will, to glorify Him in body and in spirit, which are His. “What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits?” (Psalm 116:12) is a leading principle in a pardoned heart. It was the remembrance of Jesus showing mercy that made Paul in labors so abundant, and in doing good so unwearied. It was a sense of pardon that made Zaccheus say, “The half of my goods I give to the poor, and if I have taken anything from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.” (Luke 19:8) If you show me a man deliberately living an unholy and licentious life, and yet boasting that his sins are forgiven, I answer, “He is under a ruinous delusion, and is not forgiven at all.”
(e) Forgiven souls are forgiving. They do as they have been done by. They remember how God for Christ’s sake forgave them, and endeavor to do the same towards their fellow creatures. Doubtless in this, as in everything else, they come short; but this is their desire and their aim. A spiteful, quarrelsome Christian is a scandal to his profession. It is very hard to believe that such an one has ever sat at the foot of the cross.
I know well that saving faith in Christ is consistent with many imperfections. But still I do believe the five marks I have just been naming will generally be found more or less in all forgiven souls. I cannot conceal from you, these marks should raise in many minds great searchings of heart. I must be plain. I fear there are thousands of persons called Christians, who know nothing of these marks. They are baptized. They attend the services of their church. They would not on any account be reckoned infidels. But as to true repentance and saving faith, union with Christ and sanctification by the Spirit, they are “names and words” of which they know nothing at all. Now if this is read by such persons, it will probably either alarm them, or make them very angry. If it makes them angry I shall be sorry. If it alarms them I shall be glad. I want to alarm them. I want to awaken them. I want them to take in the great fact that they are not yet forgiven, that they have not peace with God, and are on the high road to destruction. I must say this, for I see no alternative. It seems neither Christian faithfulness, nor Christian charity, to keep it back. Where is the honesty of acting the part of a lying physician, and telling people there is no danger?
I have told you about forgiveness. But are you forgiven yourself? What does it profit the shipwrecked sailor that the life boat is alongside, if he sticks by the wreck, and does not jump in and escape? What does it avail the sick man that the doctor offers him a medicine, if he only looks at it, and does not swallow it down? Except you lay hold for your own soul, you will be as surely lost as if there was no forgiveness at all. There must be actual business between you and Christ. Surely that a man can make his will, insure his life, give directions about his funeral, and yet leave his soul’s affairs in uncertainty, is a wonderful thing indeed.
I know not who you are, or what you have been in time past, but I say, Come to Christ by faith and you shall be freely forgiven. Think not for a moment that you have some great thing to do before you come to Christ. Man’s idea is to make his peace with God by repentance, and then come to Christ; the gospel way is to receive peace from Christ first of all, and begin with Him. Man’s idea is to amend, and turn over a new leaf, and so work his way up to reconciliation and friendship with God: the gospel way is first to be friends with God through Christ, and then to do His will. Come, willing to take what Christ offers, and not fancying you can give anything in return.