Based on a Sermon by
J.C. Ryle, 1878
“Nothing but leaves.” Mark 11:13
“Let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” 1John 3:18
“You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” Revelation 3:1
“Rejected silver they are called, for the LORD has rejected them.” Jeremiah 6:30
If we profess to have any religion at all, let us make sure that it is real. This cannot be emphasized enough: Let us make sure that our religion is real.
What is meant here by the word "real?" It means that which is genuine, and sincere, and honest, and thorough. It means that which is not base, and hollow, and formal, and false, and counterfeit, and a charade, and in name only. "Real "religion is not mere show, and pretence, and skin-deep feeling, and temporary profession, and outside work. It is something inward, solid, substantial, intrinsic, living and lasting.
We know the difference between play money and good money, between solid gold and tinsel foil, between plated metal and silver, between real stone and plaster imitation. Let us think of these things as we consider the subject before us this morning. What is the character of our religion? Is it real? It may be weak, and feeble, and mingled with many defects. That is not the point before us today. The question is: Is our religion real? Is it true?
The times in which we live demand our attention to the subject. A lack of reality is a striking feature of a vast amount of religion in our day.
If we measure the religion of the age by its apparent quantity — there is certainly much of it. But if we measure it by its quality — there is very little indeed. What is urgently needed everywhere is more reality.
As I try to bring home to your consciences the subject before us, there are two things which I propose to do:
I. In the first place, I will show the importance of reality in religion.
II. In the second place, I will offer some tests by which we may prove whether our own religion is real.
Does anyone here present have the least desire to go to Heaven when he dies? Do you wish to have a religion which will comfort you in life, give you good hope in death, and withstand the judgment of God at the last day? Then listen carefully to what follows. Consider calmly, whether your Christianity is real and true — or base and hollow.
I. In the first place, let us consider the importance of reality in religion.
The point is one which, at first sight, may seem to need very few words to prove it. All men, we would assume, are fully convinced of the importance of reality. But is this true? Can it be said indeed that reality is rightly esteemed among professing Christians? Sadly, not at all!
The greater part of people who profess to admire reality, seem to think that everyone possesses it! They tell us "that when it comes down to it, everyone has a good heart," that all are basically sincere and true, though they may make mistakes. They call us uncharitable, and harsh, and fault finding, if we doubt anybody's goodness of heart. In short, they destroy the value of reality, by taking it as a thing which almost everyone has.
This wide-spread delusion is precisely one of the causes why we need to pay attention to this subject. We must see that reality is a far more rare and uncommon thing than is commonly supposed. We have to see that unreality is one of the great dangers of which professing Christians ought to beware.
What does Scripture say? This is the only judge that can decide the subject. Let us turn to our Bibles, and examine them honestly, and then deny, if we can, the importance of reality in religion, and the danger of not being real.
(1) Let us look then, for one thing, at the parables spoken by our Lord Jesus Christ. Observe how many of them are intended to put in strong contrast the true believer and the mere disciple in name only. The parables of the sower, of the wheat and tares, of the two sons, of the wedding garment, of the ten virgins, of the talents, of the great supper, of the ten minas, of the two builders — they all have one great point in common. They all bring out in striking colors the difference between reality and unreality in religion. They all show the uselessness and danger of any Christianity which is not real, thorough, and true.
(2) Let us look, in the second place, at the language of our Lord Jesus Christ about the scribes and the Pharisees. Eight times over in one chapter, we find Him denouncing them as "hypocrites," in words of almost fearful severity.
"You serpents, you brood of vipers," He says, "how are you to escape being sentenced to hell!" (Matt 23:33) What may we learn from these tremendously strong expressions? How is it that our gracious and merciful Savior used such cutting words about people who at any rate were more moral and decent than the tax collectors and prostitutes? It is meant to teach us the exceeding abominableness of false profession and mere external religion in God's sight.
Open recklessness and wilful obedience to lusts of the flesh are no doubt destructive sins, if not given up. But there seems nothing which is so displeasing to Christ — as hypocrisy and unreality!
(3) Let us look, lastly, at the startling fact, that there is hardly a grace in the character of a true Christian of which you will not find a counterfeit described in the Word of God. There is not a feature in a believer's features, of which there is not an imitation. Here as some particular examples of this very thing.
Is there not an unreal repentance? Beyond doubt there is. Saul and Ahab, and Herod, and Judas Iscariot had many feelings of sorrow about sin. But they never really repented unto salvation.
Is there not an unreal faith? Beyond doubt there is. It is written of Simon the magician, at Samaria, that he "believed," and yet his heart was not right in the sight of God. It is even written of the devils that they "believe—and shudder." (Acts 8:13; James ii. 19.)
Is there not an unreal holiness? Beyond doubt there is. Joash, king of Judah, became to all appearance very holy and good, so long as Jehoiada the priest lived. But as soon as he died, the religion of Joash died at the same time! (2 Chronicles 24:2.) Judas Iscariot's outward life was as correct as that of any of the apostles, up to the time that he betrayed his Master. There was nothing suspicious about him. Yet in reality he was "a thief" and a traitor! (John 12:6.)
Is there not an unreal love and charity? Beyond doubt there is. There is a love which consists in words and tender expressions, and a great show of affection, and calling other people "dear brother" — while the heart does not love at all. It is not for nothing that John says, "let us not love in word or talk —but in deed and in truth!" It was not without cause that Paul said: "Let love be genuine." (1 John 3:18; Romans 12:9)
Is there not an unreal humility? Beyond doubt there is. There is a pretended lowliness of manner, which often covers over a very proud heart. Paul warns us against those who insist on "asceticism," and speaks of things which “have … an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion." (Colossians 2:18, 23)
Is there not unreal praying? Beyond doubt there is. Our Lord denounces it as one of the special sins of the Pharisees that "for a pretense make long prayers." (Mark 12:40) He does not charge them with not praying, or with praying too shortly. Their sin was this, that their prayers were not real.
Is there not unreal worship? Beyond doubt there is. Our Lord says of the Jews: "This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me." (Matthew 15:8.) They had plenty of formal services in their temples and their synagogues. But the fatal defect about them was lack of reality and lack of heart.
Is there not unreal talking about religion? Beyond doubt there is. Ezekiel describes some professing Jews who talked and spoke like God's people: but "their heart is set on their gain." (Ezekiel 33:31) And Paul tells us that we may "speak in the tongues of men and of angels," and yet be no better than sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal. (1 Corinthians 13:1)
What shall we say to these things? To say the least, they ought to set us thinking. They seem to lead to only one conclusion. They clearly show the great importance which Scripture attaches to reality in religion. They clearly show how careful we must be, for fear that our Christianity turn out to be merely nominal, formal, unreal, and base.
The subject is deeply important in every age. There has never been a time, since the Church of Christ was founded, when there has not been a vast amount of unreality and mere nominal religion among professing Christians. And is it not clearly the case in our day?
Wherever you may look in Christianity in our day, there is abundant cause for the warning, "Beware of dross in religion. Be genuine. Be thorough. Be real. Be true."
Of the inward work of the Holy Spirit,
of living faith in the Lord Jesus,
of delight in the Bible and pious conversation,
of separation from worldly follies and amusements,
of zeal for the conversion of souls to God
of all these things the multitude of professing Christians are profoundly ignorant! And is such Christianity as this real? It is nothing of the kind. It is a mere name.
How much Evangelical religion is completely unreal? You will sometimes see men professing great affection for the pure "Gospel," while they are practically inflicting on it the greatest harm. They will talk loudly of soundness in the faith, and are quick to spot heresy. They will run eagerly after popular preachers, and eagerly applaud Protestant speakers at public meetings. They are familiar with all the phrases of evangelical religion, and can speak fluently about its leading doctrines. To see their faces at public meetings, or in church — you would think them eminently godly. To hear them talk — you would suppose their lives were bound up in religious activities. And yet these people in private will sometimes do things of which even some heathen would be ashamed! They are neither truthful, nor straightforward, nor honest, nor manly, nor just, nor good-tempered, nor unselfish, nor merciful, nor humble, nor kind! And is such Christianity as this real? It is not. It is a miserable imposture, a base deception and caricature!
This is a very sad condition. And it is mentioned not to bring any section of the Church of Christ into contempt or to cast any reproach on any movement which begins with the Spirit of God. But the times demand very plain speaking about some points in the prevailing Christianity of our day. And one point, sadly, that demands attention, is the abounding lack of reality which is to be seen on every side.
Moving on now to the second thing which I bring to your attention.
II. Some tests by which we may try the reality of our religion.
As we approach this part of our subject, I ask you to deal fairly, honestly, and reasonably with your soul. Dismiss from your mind the common idea, that of course all is right if you go to church. Cast away such vain notions forever. You must look further, higher, deeper than this, if you would find out the truth. If you will pay attention, I will give you a few hints. Believe me, it is no light matter. Your eternal life is in the balance.
(1) For one thing, if you would know whether your religion is real — try it by the place which it occupies in your inner man.
It is not enough that it is in your head. You may know the truth, and assent to the truth, and believe the truth — and yet be wrong in God's sight!
It is not enough that it is on your lips. You may repeat the Lord’s prayer daily. You may say "Amen" to public prayer in church — and yet have nothing more than an outward religion.
It is not enough that it is in your feelings. You may weep under preaching one day, and be lifted to the third Heaven by joyous excitement another day — and yet be dead to God.
Your religion, if it is real, and given by the Holy Spirit — must be in your heart. It must occupy that citadel. It must hold the reins. It must sway the affections. It must lead the will. It must direct the tastes. It must influence the choices and decisions. It must fill the deepest, lowest, inmost seat in your soul. Is this your religion? If not, you may well doubt whether it is "real" and true. (Acts 8:21; Romans 10:10.)
(2) In the next place, if you would know whether your religion is real — try it by the feelings towards sin which it produces.
The Christianity which is from the Holy Spirit, will always have a very deep view of the sinfulness of sin. It does not merely consider sin as a blemish and misfortune, which makes men and women objects of pity and compassion. It sees in sin, the abominable thing which God hates, the thing which makes man guilty and lost in his Maker's sight — the thing which deserves God's wrath and condemnation. It looks on sin as the cause of all sorrow and unhappiness, of strife and wars, of quarrels and contentions, of sickness and death — the stain which has stained God's beautiful creation, the accursed thing which makes the whole earth groan and toil in pain! Above all, it sees in sin the thing which will . . .
ruin us eternally — unless we can find a ransom;
lead us captive — unless we can get its chains broken; and
destroy our happiness, both here and forever— unless we fight against it, even to death.
Is this your religion? Are these your feelings about sin? If not, you may well doubt whether your religion is "real."
(3) For another thing, if you would know whether your religion is real, try it by the feelings toward Christ which it produces.
Religion in name only may believe that such a person as Christ existed, and did great good to mankind. It may show Him some external respect, even go to the extent of obeying his ordinances, The Lord’s Supper and Baptism, and bow the head at His name. But it will not go any further.
Real religion, on the other hand, will make a man glory in Christ, as the Redeemer, the Deliverer, the Priest, the Friend — without whom he would have no hope at all.
It will produce . . .
confidence in Him,
love towards Him,
delight in Him,
comfort in Him —
as the mediator, the food, the light, the life, the peace of the soul.
Is this your religion? Do you know anything of feelings like these toward Jesus Christ? If not, you may well doubt whether your religion is "real."
(4) For another thing, if you would know whether your religion is real, try it by the fruit it produces in your heart and life.
The Christianity which is from above — will always be known by its fruits. It will produce in the man who has it: repentance, faith, hope, charity, humility, spirituality, kind temper, self-denial, unselfishness, forgivingness, self-control, truthfulness, brotherly-kindness, patience, and forbearance. The degree in which these various graces appear, may vary in different believers. The germ and seeds of them will be found in all who are the children of God. By their fruits — they may be known.
Is this your religion? If not, you may well doubt whether it is "real."
(5) In the last place, if you would know whether your religion is real, try it by your feelings and habits about means of grace.
Prove it by the Sunday. Is that day a season of boredom and constraint — or a delight and a refreshment, and a sweet foretaste of the rest to come in Heaven? Prove it by the public means of grace. What are your feelings about public prayer and public praise, about the public preaching of God's Word, about Baptism and the administration of the Lord's Supper? Are they things to which you give a cold assent, and tolerate them as proper and correct? Or, are they things in which you take pleasure, and without which you could not live happy?
Prove it, finally, by your feelings about private means of grace. Do you find it essential to your comfort to read the Bible regularly in private, and to speak to God in prayer? Or, do you find these practices irksome, and either do them grudgingly, or neglect them altogether? These questions deserve your attention. If means of grace, whether public or private, are not as necessary to your soul as food and drink are to your body — you may well doubt whether your religion is "real."
Carefully consider the five points which have just been named. There is nothing like coming to particulars about these matters. If you would know whether your religion is "real," genuine, and true — measure it by the five particulars which have just been named. Measure it fairly — test it honestly. If your heart is right in the sight of God — you have no cause to flinch from examining yourselves. If it is wrong — the sooner you find it out the better.
And now what was proposed has been completed. We have seen from Scripture, the unspeakable importance of reality in religion, and the danger in which many stand of being lost forever — for being without it. We have been given five plain tests, by which a man may find out whether his Christianity is real.
We will close with a direct application of the whole subject to ourselves.
(1) The first word of application concerns inquiry.
Is your own religion real or unreal? Genuine or base? The question is not what you think about others. Maybe you have seen many hypocrites in Christian circles. You may be able to point to many who have no "reality "at all. But this is not the question. You may be right in your opinion about others. But what about yourself? Is your own Christianity real and true — or false and in name only?
If you love life, I urge you not to turn away from the question which is now before you. The time must come when the whole truth will be known. The judgment day will reveal every man's religion, of what sort it is. The parable of the wedding-garment will receive a solemn fulfillment. Surely it is a thousand times better to find out your condition now, and to repent — than to find it out too late in the next world, when there will be no space for repentance.
If you have common care, sense, and judgment, consider this. Sit down quietly today, and examine yourself. Find out the real character of your religion. With the Bible in your hand, and honesty in your heart — you have all you need to find this out.
(2) The second word of application is one of warning.
It goes to all who know, in their own consciences, that their religion is not real. I ask them to remember the greatness of their danger, and their exceeding guilt in the sight of God.
An unreal Christianity is specially offensive to that Great God with whom we have to do. He is continually spoken of in Scripture as the God of Truth. Truth is peculiarly one of His attributes. Can you doubt for a moment that He hates everything that is not genuine and true? It would be better to be found an ignorant heathen at the last day — than to be found with nothing better than a religion in name only! If your religion is of this kind— beware!
An unreal Christianity is sure to fail a man at last. It will wear out; it will break down; it will leave its possessor like a wreck on a sandbank, high and dry and forsaken by the tide; it will give no comfort in the hour when comfort is most needed, in the time of affliction, and on the bed of death. If you want a religion to be of any use to your soul — then beware of unreality! If you would not be comfortless in death, and hopeless in the judgment day — be genuine, be real, be true!
(3) The third word of application will be one of advice.
If there are any who feel pricked in their conscience by the subject before us, the advice to you is to cease from all toying and playing with religion, and to become honest, thoroughgoing, whole-hearted followers of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Go at once to the Lord Jesus, and ask Him to become your Savior, your Physician, your Priest, and your Friend. Do not let the thought of your unworthiness keep you away; Do not let the remembrance of your great sins prevent you from coming to him. Never, ever forget that Christ can cleanse you from any quantity of sins, if you only commit your soul to Him. But one thing He does ask of those who come to Him: He asks them to be real, honest, and true!
Let reality be one great mark of your approach to Christ — and there is everything to give you hope.
Your repentance may be feeble — but let it be real;
your faith may be weak — but let it be real;
your desires after holiness may be mingled with many defects— but let them be real.
Let there be nothing of reserve, of double-dealing, of part-playing, of dishonesty, of sham, of counterfeit — in your Christianity. Never be content to wear a cloak of religion. Be all that you profess.
Though you may make mistakes— be real. Though you may stumble — be true. Keep this principle always before your eyes, and it will be well with your soul throughout your journey from grace to glory.
(4) The last word of application will be one of encouragement.
This word is to all who have manfully taken up the cross, and are honestly following Christ. They are exhorted to persevere, and not to be moved by difficulties and opposition.
You may often find few with you — and many against you. You may often hear hard things said of you. You may often be told that you go too far, and that you are extreme, intolerant, narrow and fault-finding. Pay no attention to it. Turn a deaf ear to remarks of this kind. Press on.
If there is anything which a man ought to do thoroughly, really, truly, honestly, and with all his heart — it is the business of his soul. If there is any work which he ought never to do negligently, and do in a lazy way — it is the great work of "working out his own salvation." (Philippians 2:12.) Believer in Christ, remember this! Whatever you do in religion — do it well. Be real. Be thorough. Be honest. Be true.
If there is anything in the world of which a man need not be ashamed, it is the service of Jesus Christ. Of sin, of worldliness, of levity, of jesting, of time-wasting, of pleasure-seeking, of bad temper, of pride, of making an idol of money, dress, food, working, novel-reading, and the like — of all this a man may well be ashamed. Living after this fashion — he makes the angels grieve, and the devils rejoice.
But of living for his soul, caring for his soul, thinking of his soul, providing for his soul, making his soul's salvation the principal and chief thing in his daily life — of all this a man has no reason to be ashamed at all.
Believer in Christ, remember this! Remember it in your Bible-reading and your private praying. Remember it in your worship of God. In all these things never be ashamed of being whole-hearted, real, thorough, and true!
The years of our life are swiftly passing away. Who knows but this year may be the last in your life? Who can tell but that you may be called this very year to meet your God? As ever you would be found ready — be a real and true Christian. Do not be half hearted.
The time is fast coming, when nothing but reality will stand the fire. Real repentance towards God, real faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ, real holiness of heart and life — these, these are the only things which will have any worth at the last day!
It is a solemn saying of our Lord Jesus Christ, "On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’!" (Matt 7:22, 23.)