A Warning Against Unsound Doctrine
Adapted from a Sermon by J.C. Ryle
Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Matthew 16:6
The title of this sermon has been chosen with special reference to its subject. It is a sermon of warning against one of the greatest dangers of these last days. It is not a warning about things that it may be feared your doing, but about things that it may be feared your believing; it is not a warning against vice and immorality, but against false doctrine in religion: and it is a warning founded on the express words of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. If the Head of the Church has thought it good to give men warnings, it cannot be wrong in His ministers to do the same.
Every word spoken by the Lord Jesus is precious. It is the voice of the chief Shepherd. It is the Great Head of the Church speaking to all its members,—the King of kings speaking to His subjects,—the Master of the house speaking to His servants,—the Captain of our salvation speaking to His soldiers. Above all, it is the voice of Him who said, “I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak” (John 12:49). The heart of every believer in the Lord Jesus ought to burn within him when he hears his Master’s words.
And every kind of word spoken by the Lord Jesus is of the greatest value. Precious as gold are all His words of doctrine and precept; precious are all His parables and prophecies; precious are all His words of comfort and of consolation; precious, not least, are all His words of caution and of warning. You and I are not merely to hear Him when He says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden;” (Matt 11:28) we are to hear Him also when He says, “Watch and beware.”
I am going to ask for your attention to one of the most solemn and emphatic warnings which the Lord Jesus ever delivered: “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” I want to setup a beacon for all who want to be saved, and to preserve some souls, if possible, from making shipwreck. The times call loudly for such beacons: the spiritual shipwrecks in these last days have fearfully multiplied.
In considering our verse this morning there are four points which will be brought to your notice.
I. First of all, I will ask you to observe the persons to whom this warning was addressed.
II. Secondly, the dangers against which we are here warned.
III Thirdly, the peculiar name under which those dangers are described.
IV. Fourthly, some safeguards and antidotes against the dangers of which our Lord Jesus Christ warns us.
I. First of all, I ask you to observe who they were to whom the warning of the text was addressed.
Notice that our Lord Jesus Christ was not speaking to men who were worldly, ungodly, and unsanctified, but to His own disciples, companions, and friends: He addressed men who, with the exception of the apostate Judas Iscariot, were right-hearted in the sight of God; He spoke to the twelve apostles, the first founders of the Church of Christ, and the first ministers of the Word of salvation: and yet even to them he addressed the solemn caution of our text, “Watch and beware.”
There is deep instruction here for all who profess to love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. It tells us loudly that the most decided servants of Christ are not beyond the need of warnings, and ought to be always on their guard. It shows us plainly that the holiest of believers ought to walk humbly with his God, and to watch and pray, that he may not fall into temptation, and be overtaken in a fault.
No one is so holy, but that he may fall,—not finally, not hopelessly, but to his own loss of comfort and joy. They are yet in the body, and yet in the world. They are ever near temptation: they are ever liable to err, both in doctrine and in practice. Their hearts, though renewed, are very feeble; their understanding, though enlightened, is still very dim: they have need to live like those who dwell in an enemy’s land, and every day to put on the armour of God. The devil is very busy: he never slumbers or sleeps. Let us remember the falls of Noah, and Abraham, and Lot, and Moses, and David, and Peter; and remembering them, be humble, and take heed lest we fall.
These things ought to make us all cautious. They tell us to distrust our own hearts, and to pray to be kept from falling. Let us remember that many have begun well and run well for a time, and yet afterwards turned aside out of the right way; let us take heed that we are spiritual people as well as Protestants, and real friends of Christ as well as enemies of anti-Christ; let us pray that we may be kept from error; let us never forget that the twelve apostles themselves were the men to whom the Great Head of the Church addressed these words: “Watch and beware.”
II. In the second place, what were those dangers against which our Lord warned the Apostles?
“Watch” He says, “and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
The danger against which He warns them is false doctrine. He says nothing about the sword of persecution, or the breaking of the ten commandments, or the love of money, or the love of pleasure: all these things no doubt were perils and snares to which the souls of the apostles were exposed; against these things, however, our Lord raises no warning voice here. His warning is confined to one single point: “The leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” We are not left to guess what our Lord meant by that word “leaven.” The Holy Spirit, a few verses later, tells us plainly that by leaven was meant the “teaching” of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.
Now let us try to understand what is meant when we speak of the “the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (v.12) Without a clear understanding of this point all the rest will be clouded.
The doctrine of the Pharisees may be summed up in three words,— they were formalists, tradition worshippers, and self-righteous.
They attached such weight to the traditions of men that they practically regarded them as of more importance than the inspired writings of the Old Testament; they prided themselves on excessive strictness in their attention to all the ceremonial requirements of the Mosaic law;
they thought much of being descended from Abraham,—they said in their hearts, “Abraham is our father;” (John 8:39) they imagined that because they had Abraham for their father they were not in danger of hell like other men, and that their descent from him was a kind of title to heaven;
they attached great value to washings and ceremonial purifyings of the body, and believed that the very touching of the dead body of a fly or gnat would defile them; they made a great deal about the outward parts of religion, and such things as could be seen of men; they made their phylacteries broad, and enlarged the fringes of their garments;
they prided themselves on paying great honour to dead saints, and garnishing the tombs of the righteous. They were very zealous to make converts. They thought much of having power, rank, and pre-eminence, and of being called by men, “Rabbi, Rabbi.” These are the types of things that the Pharisees did.
All this time, remember, they did not formally deny any part of the Old Testament Scripture; but they brought in, over and above it, so much of human invention, that they virtually put Scripture aside, and buried it under their own traditions: and of this sort of religion, our Lord says to the apostles, “Watch and beware.”
The doctrine of the Sadducees, on the other hand, may be summed up in three words,—free-thinking, scepticism, and rationalism.
Their creed was one far less popular than that of the Pharisees, and, therefore, we find them less often mentioned in the New Testament Scriptures. As far as we can judge from the New Testament, they appear to have held the doctrine of degrees of inspiration; at all events they attached exceeding value to the Pentateuch above the other parts of the Old Testament, if indeed they did not altogether ignore the other parts of the Old Testament.
They believed that there was no resurrection, no angel, and no spirit; they tried to laugh men out of their belief in these things, by highlighting difficult cases, and bringing forward difficult questions. We have an example of their way of arguing in the case which they presented to our Lord of the woman who had had seven husbands, when they asked “ In the resurrection… of the seven, whose wife will she be?” (Matt 22:28) And in this way they probably hoped, by making religion look absurd, and its chief doctrines ridiculous, to make men altogether give up the faith they had received from the Scriptures.
All this time, remember, we cannot say that the Sadducees were downright infidels: this they were not. We may not say they denied revelation altogether: this they did not do. They observed the law of Moses. Many of them were found among the priests in the times described in the Acts of the Apostles. But the practical effect of their teaching was to shake men’s faith in any revelation, and to throw a cloud of doubt over men’s minds, which was only one degree better than infidelity. And of all such kind of doctrine,—free-thinking, scepticism, rationalism, our Lord says, “Watch and beware.”
Now the question is: Why did our Lord Jesus Christ deliver this warning? He knew, no doubt, that within forty years the schools of the Pharisees and the Sadducees would be completely overthrown. He that knew all things from the beginning, knew perfectly well that in forty years Jerusalem, with its magnificent temple, would be destroyed, and the Jews scattered over the face of the earth. Why then do we find Him giving this warning about the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees?
Surely, our Lord delivered this solemn warning for the perpetual benefit of that Church which He came on earth to found. He spoke with a prophetic knowledge. He knew well the diseases to which human nature is always liable; He foresaw that the two great plagues of His Church on earth would always be the doctrine of the Pharisees and the doctrine of the Sadducees; He knew that these would be the upper and lower millstones, between which His truth would be perpetually crushed and bruised until He came the second time.
He knew that there always would be Pharisees in spirit, and Sadducees in spirit, among professing Christians; He knew that their succession would never fail, and their generation never become extinct,—that though the names of Pharisees and Sadducees disappeared, yet their principles would always exist. He knew that during the time that the Church lasts, until His return, there would always be some that would add to the Word, and some that would subtract from it,—some that would stifle it, by adding to it other things, and some that would bleed it to death, by subtracting from its principal truths. And this is the reason why we find Him delivering this solemn warning: “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
And now comes the question: Was there not good reason for our Lord Jesus Christ to give this warning? I appeal to all who know anything of Church history, Was there not indeed a cause? Anyone who takes time to examine Church history will soon see that there always have been these two great parties,—the party representing the principles of the Pharisee, and the party representing the principles of the Sadducee. And therefore our Lord had good cause to say of these two great principles, “Watch and beware.”
But, to bring the matter closer to home, are not warnings like this especially needed in our times? The pure teaching of the word of God is assaulted from all sides in our day.
We have amongst us, on the one side, a school of men who, wittingly or unwittingly, are corrupting basic principles of the gospel in what is called the New Calvinism. Drawing multitudes into a false sense of security and encouraging and promoting compromise with the world. And whether the leaders of this school mean it or not, have they not to some extent put on the mantle of the Sadducees?
We have, on the other hand, a school of men who, wittingly or unwittingly, appear to pave the way to pure legalism; The modern evangelical church’s vague doctrine that as long as you attend church, give alms, and are generally a good person, all will be well in the end so that there is no need to be concerned about such things as heart religion and self examination. Has not the mantle of the Pharisees to some extent fallen upon them?
These things sound harsh. It saves a vast deal of trouble to shut our eyes, and say, “I see no danger,” and because it is not seen, therefore not to believe it. It is easy to stop our ears, and say, “I hear nothing,” and because we hear nothing, therefore to feel no alarm. But the danger is surely far greater than we are prone to suppose: there are many harmful books in circulation ; the tone of thought on religious subjects is deeply flawed. The plague is abroad. If we love life, we ought to search our own hearts, and test our own faith, and make sure that we stand on the right foundation. Above all, we ought to beware that we ourselves do not drink the poison of false doctrine, and go back from our first love.
And speaking out on these things is not an easy thing. Speaking about false doctrine is very unpopular, and whoever does so must be content to find himself thought very uncharitable, very troublesome, and very narrow-minded. Thousands of people can never distinguish differences in religion: to them a minister is a minister, and a sermon is a sermon, and as to any difference between one minister and another, or one doctrine and another, they are utterly unable to understand it. It cannot be expected that such people will approve of any warning against false doctrine. Whoever speaks out against false doctrine must make up his mind to meet with their disapproval, and must bear it as he best can.
But turn to the New Testament with an honest, unprejudiced mind and see what you find there. You will find many plain warnings against false doctrine: “Beware of false prophets,”—”See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit,”—”Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings,”—”Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” (Matt. 7:15; Col. 2:8; Heb. 13:9; 1 John 4:1). You will find a large part of several inspired epistles devoted to elaborate explanations of true doctrine and warnings against false teaching. Is it possible, then, for a minister who takes the Bible for his rule of faith to avoid giving warnings against false doctrine?
The prevailing attitude is to let false doctrine alone! But believers should not be silent. Faith in the Word of God, love to the souls of men, both call on us to bear witness against the errors of the day. The saying of our Lord is eminently a truth for our times: “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
III. The third thing to which I wish to call your attention is the peculiar name by which our Lord Jesus Christ speaks of the doctrines of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.
The words which our Lord used were surely always the wisest and the best that could be used. He might have said, “Watch and beware of the doctrine, or of the teaching, or of the opinions of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees; “but He does not say so: He uses a word of a peculiar nature. He says, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.”
Now we all know what is the true meaning of the word “leaven.” It is what we commonly call yeast,—the yeast which is added to the lump of dough in making a loaf of bread. The quantity of yeast or leaven is very small compared to the lump into which it is thrown; just so, our Lord would have us know, the first beginning of false doctrine is but small compared to the body of Christianity. It works quietly and noiselessly; just so, our Lord would have us know, false doctrine works secretly in the heart in which it is once planted.. It insensibly changes the character of the whole mass with which it is mingled; just so, our Lord would have us know, the doctrines of the Pharisees and Sadducees turn everything upside down, when once admitted into a church or into a man’s heart. Let us mark these points: they throw light on many things that we see in the present day. It is imperative to receive the lessons of wisdom that this word “leaven” contains in itself.
False doctrine does not stand up in the open and proclaim that it is false; it does not blow a trumpet before itself, and endeavour openly to turn us away from the truth as it is in Jesus; it does not come before men in broad daylight, and call on them to surrender. It approaches us secretly, quietly, insidiously, plausibly, and in such a way as to disarm man’s suspicion, and throw him off his guard. It is the wolf in sheep’s clothing, and Satan dressed up as an angel of light, who have always proved the most dangerous enemies of the Church of Christ.
The most powerful champion of the Pharisees is not the man who calls you openly and honestly to come out and join this or that sect. It is the man who says that he agrees on all points with you in doctrine. He would not take anything away from those evangelical views that you hold; he would not have you make any change at all: all he asks you to do is to add a little more to your belief, in order to make your Christianity perfect. “Believe me,” he says, “we do not want you to give up anything. We only want you to hold a few more clear views about the church and the sacraments. We want you to add to your current opinions a little more about the office of the ministry, and a little more about the Prayer-book, and a little more about the necessity of order and of discipline. We only want you to add a little more of these things to your system of religion, and you will be quite right.” But when men speak to you in this way, then is the time to remember what our Lord said, and to “Watch and beware.” This is the leaven of the Pharisees, against which you are to stand upon your guard.
Why is this important? It is because there is no security against the doctrine of the Pharisees, unless we resist its principles in their beginnings. Beginning with a “little more about the church,” you may one day place the church in the place of Christ. Beginning with a “little more about the ministry,” you may one day take the minister as the mediator between God and man. Beginning with a “little more about the sacraments,” you may one day altogether give up the doctrine of justification by faith without the works of the law. Beginning with a “little more reverence for the Prayer-book,” you may one day place it above the holy Word of God Himself.
When we hear men asking us to “add a little more” to our plain Evangelical views, we should raise our guard. We should remember our Lord’s caution: “Of the leaven of the Pharisees, watch and beware.”
And the most dangerous champion of the Sadducee school is not the man who tells you openly that he wants you to lay aside any part of the truth, and to become a free-thinker and a doubter. It is the man who begins with quiet insinuating doubts as to the position that we ought to take up about religion,—doubts whether we ought to be so positive in saying “this is truth, and that falsehood,”—doubts whether we ought to think men wrong who differ from us on religious opinions, since they may after all be as much right as we are.
It is the man who tells us we ought not to condemn anybody’s views, for fear that we may be seen as uncharitable. It is the man who always begins talking in a vague way about God being a God of love, and hints that we ought to believe perhaps that all men, whatever doctrine they profess, will be saved in the end.
It is the man who is ever reminding us that we ought to take care how we think lightly of men of powerful minds, and great intellects (though they are atheists), who do not think as we do, and that, after all, great minds are all, more or less, taught of God. It is the man who is ever harping on the difficulties of inspiration, and raising questions whether all men may not be found saved in the end, and whether all may not be right in the sight of God.
It is the man who crowns this kind of talk by a few calm sneers against what he is pleased to call “old-fashioned views,” and “narrow-minded theology,” and “bigotry,” and the “lack of open-mindedness and charity.” But when men begin to speak to us in this kind of way, then is the time to raise our guard. Then is the time to remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to “watch and beware.”
Again, why is this so important? It because there is no security against Sadduceeism, any more than against Phariseeism, unless we resist its principles in the bud. Beginning with a little vague talk about “charity,” you may end in the doctrine of universal salvation, fill heaven with a mixed multitude of wicked as well as good, and deny the existence of hell.
Beginning with a few high-sounding phrases about intellect and the inner light in man, you may end with denying the work of the Holy Spirit, and maintaining that Homer and Shakespeare were as truly inspired as the Apostle Paul, and practically casting aside the Bible.
Beginning with dislike to “Evangelical religion,” as old-fashioned, narrow, and exclusive, you may end by rejecting every leading doctrine of Christianity,—the atonement, the need of grace, and the divinity of Christ.
There is no safety for a man’s soul unless he remembers the lesson involved in those solemn words, “beware of the leaven of the …Sadducees.”
Let us beware of the insidiousness of false doctrine. Like the fruit of which Eve and Adam ate, it looks at first sight pleasant and good, and a thing to be desired. Poison is not written on it; like counterfeit money it is not stamped “bad”: its danger is in that it looks so much like the truth.
Beware of the very small beginnings of false doctrine. Every heresy began at one time with some little departure from the truth. There is only a little seed of error needed to create a great tree: We do not tolerate quietly a little dishonesty, or a little cheating, or a little lying: just so, let us never allow a little false doctrine to ruin us, by thinking it is but a “little one,” and can do no harm. The Galatians seemed to be doing nothing very dangerous when they observed “days and months and seasons and years;” yet the apostle Paul says, “ I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain” (Gal 4:10, 11).
Finally, beware of supposing that in any case, you are not in danger.
“Your views are sound: your feet stand firm: others may fall away, but you are safe!” Hundreds have thought the same, and come to a bad end. In their self-confidence they tampered with little temptations; and little forms of false doctrine ; in their self-conceit they went near the brink of danger: and now they seem lost for ever. They appear given over to a strong delusion, so as to believe a lie. The vision in Pilgrim’s Progress, which describes the hill Error as “very steep on the farthest side;” is very striking. And “when Christian and Hopeful looked down they saw at the bottom several men dashed all to pieces by a fall they had from the top.” Never let us forget the caution to beware of “leaven”; and if we think we stand let us “take heed lest we fall.” (1 Cor 19:12)
IV. In the fourth and last place, consider some safeguards and antidotes against the dangers of the present day,—the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of the Sadducees.
We all need more and more the presence of Holy Spirit in our hearts, to guide, to teach, and keep us sound in the faith. We all need to watch more and to pray to be held up, and preserved from falling away. But still, there are certain great truths in a day like this, we are specially bound to keep in mind.
There are times when some common epidemic invades a land, when medicines, at all times valuable, become of peculiar value. There are times and seasons in the Church of Christ when we are bound to tighten our hold upon certain great leading truths, to grasp them in our hands, to press them to our hearts, and not to let them go. Let us look into, in a few words, some great antidotes to the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.
1. For one thing, if you would be kept sound in the faith, I urge you to pay attention to your understanding of the total corruption of human nature.
Bear in mind that the corruption of human nature is no small thing. It is no partial, skin-deep disease: it is a radical and universal corruption of man’s will, intellect, affections, and conscience. We are not merely poor and pitiable sinners in God’s sight: we are guilty sinners; we are blameworthy sinners; we justly deserve God’s wrath and God’s condemnation. There are probably very few errors and false doctrines of which the beginning may not be traced up to unsound views about the corruption of human nature.
Wrong views of a disease will always bring with them wrong views of the remedy: wrong views of the corruption of human nature will always carry with them wrong views of the grand antidote and cure of that corruption.
2. For another thing, consider carefully your views on the doctrine of the inspiration and authority of the Holy Scriptures.
Would that you would hold fast in the face of all opposition, that the whole of the Bible is given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit,—that all is inspired completely, not one part more than another,—and that there is no comparison between the Word of God and any other book in the world.
You don’t have to be afraid of difficulties in the way of the doctrine of full inspiration. There may be many things about it far too high for you and me to understand: it is a miracle, and all miracles are necessarily mysterious. But if we are not to believe anything until we can entirely explain it, there are very few things indeed that we will believe.
You need not be afraid of all the assaults that critics raise against the Bible. From the days of the apostles the Word of the Lord has been incessantly “tried,” and has never failed to emerge as gold, uninjured, and untarnished.
You need not be afraid of the discoveries of science. Astronomers may sweep the heavens with telescopes, and geologists may dig down into the heart of the earth, and never shake the authority of the Bible: The voice of God, and the work of God’s hands never will be found to contradict one another.
Moreover, you may boldly maintain that this Word of God is the only rule of faith and of practice,—that whatsoever is not written in it cannot be required of any man as needful to salvation,—and that however plausibly new doctrines may be defended, if they are not in the Word of God they cannot be worth your attention. It matters nothing who says a thing; however important he may be; it matters nothing that the thing is well said, eloquently, attractively, forcibly, and in such a way as to ridicule you: you are not to believe it except it be proved to you by Holy Scripture.
Last, but not least, we are to use the Bible as if we believed it were given by inspiration. Use it with reverence: read it with all the tenderness with which we would read the words of an absent father. Remember, we must not expect to find no mysteries in a book inspired by the Spirit of God: rather we ought to remember that in nature there are many things we cannot understand; and that, as it is in the book of nature, so it will always be in the Bible.
We are to draw near to the Word of God in that spirit of piety recommended by Lord Bacon many years ago. “Remember,” he says, speaking of the book of nature, “that man is not the master of that book, but the interpreter of that book.” And as we deal with the book of nature, so we must deal with the Book of God. Draw near to it, not to teach, but to learn,—not as if we were the master of it, but like a humble scholar, seeking to understand it. Here is a fundamental rule in rightly approaching the Word of God, those will do well who follow it.
3. For another thing, you must pay attention to your doctrine respecting the atonement and priestly office of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
That the death of our Lord upon the cross was no common death, must be boldly maintained. It was not the death of one who only died like Stephen or Polycarp as a martyr; it was not the death of one who only died to give us a mighty example of self-sacrifice and self-denial. The death of Christ was an offering up to God of Christ’s own body and blood, to make satisfaction for man’s sin and transgression. It was a sacrifice and propitiation; a sacrifice pictured in every offering of the Mosaic law, a sacrifice of the mightiest influence upon all mankind. Without the shedding of that blood there could not be,—there never was to be,—any remission of sin.
That this crucified Saviour ever sits at the right hand of God, to make intercession for all that come to God by Him, is also to be boldly maintained; That He there represents and pleads for them that put their trust in Him; and that He has relegated His office of Priest and Mediator to no man, or set of men on the face of the earth. We need no one beside Him. We need no Virgin Mary, no angels, no saint, no priest, no person ordained or un-ordained, to stand between us and God, but the one Mediator, Christ Jesus.
Last, but not least, let it be firmly set in your mind that peace with God, once obtained by faith in Christ, is to be kept up, not by mere outward ceremonial acts of worship,—not by receiving the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper every day,—but by the daily habit of looking to the Lord Jesus Christ by faith,—eating by faith His body, and drinking by faith His blood; that eating and drinking of which our Lord says that he who eats and drinks will find His “flesh is true food,” and His “blood is true drink.” (John 6:55)
John Owen declared, long ago, that if there was any one point more than another that Satan wished to overthrow, it was the Priestly office of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ: Satan knew well, he said, that it was the “principal foundation of faith and consolation of the church.” Right views upon that role of Christ are vitally important today, if we would not fall into error. Remember this and it will do you good.
4. A fourth and final remedy is to pay attention to your doctrine about the work of God the Holy Spirit
Settle it in your mind that His work is no uncertain, invisible operation upon the heart: that where He is, He is not hidden; that where He is, He is not unfelt; that where he is, He is not unobserved. You do not believe that the dew, when it falls, cannot be felt, or that where there is life in a man it cannot be seen and observed by his breath. So is it with the influence of the Holy Spirit.
No man has any right to lay claim to it, unless its fruits,—its experimental effects,—can be seen in his life. Where the Spirit is, there will always be a new creation; where He is, there will always be a new man; where He is, there will always be new knowledge, new faith, new holiness, new fruits in the family, in the world, in the church. And where these new things are not to be seen we may well say, with confidence, there is no work of the Holy Spirit.
Let us pay close attention to these four points:
· clear views of the sinfulness of human nature;
· clear views of the inspiration of Scripture;
· clear views of the Atonement and Priestly office of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ; and
· clear views of the work of the Holy Spirit.
Strange doctrines about the church, the ministry, and the sacraments,—about the love of God, the death of Christ, and the eternity of punishment,—will find no foothold in the heart which is sound on these four points. They are four great safeguards against the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.
And now, by way of practical application, in order to make the whole subject useful, and to answer questions some may have in their hearts at this time:—What are we to do? What advice have you got to offer for the times?
1. In the first place, the most important thing must be to find out whether you have a saving personal religion for your own soul.
This is the main thing after all. It will profit no one at all to belong to a sound visible church, if he does not himself belong to Christ: it will avail a man nothing to be intellectually sound in the faith, and to approve sound doctrine, if he is not himself sound at heart. Is this the case with you? Can you say that your heart is right in the sight of God? Is it renewed by the Holy Spirit? Does Christ dwell in it by faith? May you have no rest until you can give a satisfactory answer to these questions! The man who dies unconverted, however sound his views, is as truly lost for ever as the worst Pharisee or Sadducee that ever lived.
2. In the next place, let me urge any who want to be sound in the faith, to study the Bible diligently.
That blessed book is given to be a lamp to our feet, and a light to our path. No man who reads it reverently, prayerfully, humbly, and regularly, will ever be allowed to miss the way to heaven. By it every sermon, and every religious book, and every ministry ought to be weighed and proved. Do you want to know the truth? Do you feel confused and puzzled by the war of words which you hear on every side about religion? Do you want to know what you ought to believe, and what you ought to be and do, in order to be saved? Open your Bible, and turn away from man. Read your Bible with earnest prayer for the teaching of the Holy Spirit; read it with honest determination to obey its lessons. Do so steadily and perseveringly, and you will certainly see light: you will be kept from the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees, and be guided to eternal life. The way to do a thing is to do it. Don’t wait one more day, don’t wait a moment before starting, but resolve to do it at once.
3. In the third place, to those who have reason to hope that they are sound in faith and heart, pay attention to the proportion of truths.
What is meant by this is to impress the importance of giving each truth of Christianity the same place and position in our hearts which is given to it in God’s Word. The first things must not be put second, and the second things must not be put first in our religion: the church must not be put above Christ; the sacraments must not be put above faith and the work of the Holy Spirit; ministers must not be exalted above the place assigned to them by Christ; means of grace must not be considered as an end instead of a means.
This is a very important principle: the mistakes which arise from neglecting it are neither few nor small. Here lies the immense importance of studying the whole Word of God, omitting nothing, and avoiding bias in reading one part more than another. Here again lies the value of having a clear system of Christianity in our minds. We would all do well, for example, to have an aid such as the Westminster Catechism fresh in our memory as a statement of the main truths which we ought to believe.
4. In the next place, let me entreat every true-hearted servant of Christ not to be deceived by the alluring disguise under which false doctrines often approach our souls in our day..
Beware of supposing that a teacher of religion is to be trusted, because, although he holds some unsound views, he yet “teaches a great deal of truth:” such a teacher is precisely the man to do you harm: poison is always most dangerous when it is given in small doses and mixed with wholesome food.
Beware of being taken in by the apparent earnestness of many of the teachers and upholders of false doctrine: remember that zeal and sincerity and fervour are no proof whatever that a man is working for Christ, and ought to be believed. Peter no doubt was in earnest when he urged our Lord to spare Himself, and not go to the cross; yet our Lord said to him, “Get behind me, Satan!”: (Matt 16:23)
Saul no doubt was in earnest when he went to and fro persecuting Christians; yet he did it ignorantly, and his zeal was not according to knowledge: the founders of the Spanish Inquisition were no doubt in earnest in burning God’s saints alive and thought they were doing God’s service; yet they were actually persecuting Christ’s members and walking in the steps of Cain.—It is an awful fact that, “even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor 11:24) Of all the delusions prevalent in these last days, there is no greater than the common notion that “if a man is in earnest about his religion he must be a good man!”
Beware of being carried away by this delusion: beware of being led astray by “earnest-minded men.” Earnestness is in itself an excellent thing; but it must be earnestness in behalf of Christ and His whole truth, or else it is worth nothing at all. The things that are highly esteemed among men are often abominable in the sight of God.
5. In the fifth place, a word of advice to every true servant of Christ to examine his own heart frequently and carefully as to his state before God.
This is a practice which is useful at all times: it is specially useful in our day. As when some epidemic is sweeping the land we are all on the watch for the least sign of the disease on our bodies, so ought it to be with ourselves, in the times in which we live. We ought to watch our hearts with double watchfulness; we ought to give more time to meditation, self-examination, and reflection. It is a hurrying, busy age: if we would be kept from falling, we must make time for being frequently alone with God.
6. Last of all, let me urge all true believers to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3).
You and I have no cause to be ashamed of that faith. There is no system so life-giving, so calculated to awaken the sleeping, lead on the inquiring, and build up the saints, as that system which is called the Evangelical system of Christianity. It may be spoken against and mocked by some; but so it was in the days of the apostles. It may be weakly set forth and defended by many of its advocates; but, after all, its fruits and its results are its highest praise.
We are not called upon, beyond all doubt, to instigate controversies; but we never ought to be ashamed to testify to the truth as it is in Jesus. We have the truth, and we need not be afraid to say so. The judgment-day will prove who is right, and to that day we may boldly appeal.
Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”