The Grace of God in Vain
Adapted from a Sermon by J.C. Ryle
“Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.” 2 Corinthians 6:1
Although the Church of Corinth, to which these words were written, was certainly not without spot and blemish; although we learn by Paul’s first Epistle that in many things its members were to be blamed; still, with all its faults, it is plain this Church was very different from the churches of our own day; there was less profession without practice, more fruit in proportion to the branches, a stronger leaven of faith and holiness and love, a more abundant crop of wheat in proportion to the tares.
And yet you see by the text how solemnly the apostle warns them of danger, how earnestly he entreats them not to hear the gospel only to their condemnation; he would not have them rest upon their outward privileges and opportunities, he would not have them soothe their consciences with the idea that all was safe because they were baptised in the name of Jesus, but as a faithful labourer in God’s vineyard he calls on them to examine themselves, and beware lest they receive the grace of God in vain.
And are we better than they were? Can we produce a greater list of evidences that God is truly in us? No, even a casual examination will show that we are guilty in this matter. Let us rather confess that we have nothing to pride ourselves in, and as a stumbling generation let us humbly consider what this text contains for our particular instruction.
It is an easy matter to say, “one minister is too harsh, we do not like him, and another is too high, we cannot understand him, and another makes the way so narrow that no one can be saved, and another is so dull that we do not want to hear him”; but consider, you who are so difficult to please, consider, you who are so slow to search the Scriptures for yourselves, you have a great work to do, the time is short, this world is quickly passing away, and you ought to tremble lest you go on doubting and trifling and fault-finding till the end, and so be found among that wretched company who have received the grace of God in vain.
Now, there are three points to be considered in our text.
I. What you are to understand by the grace of God.
II. What it is to receive it in vain.
III. The reasons you are implored so earnestly not to receive it in vain.
I. First, then, what is this grace of God, which the apostle here speaks of?
It is an expression which has different meanings in Scripture; sometimes it describes the free favour of God, as when we read, “By grace you have been saved… not a result of works”; (Eph 2:8-9) sometimes it means the operation of the Holy Spirit in a man’s conversion, as when the Apostle Paul tells the Galatians, it was God “who called me by his grace”; (Gal 1:15) but in our text it has a wider, broader meaning. It refers to that gracious offer of free salvation for the worst of sinners which is commonly called the gospel, and so called because it is in every way good news, that free gift of righteousness, peace and pardon, which is provided for all who will believe in the Lord Jesus.
Now, what is it that makes this offer so important and so precious? It is simply this, that we are all by nature sinful and corrupt. We are born into the world with a disposition inclined to evil and not to good; we show it in our childhood by angry tempers, by jealousy, by selfishness; we show it in our youth by deceit, by idleness, by unwillingness to learn, by disobedience to parents, by unthankfulness, by self-conceit; and when we come to adulthood we show it in a hundred ways,—by giving way to our lusts and passions whenever we dare, by loving pleasure more than God, and swearing, by unkind conduct to our neighbours, by pride and vanity, by neglecting God’s Bible, by staying away from His church, by despising His sacraments, by dishonoring His ministers, by worldly-mindedness, by living on from year to year without a spark of love to Him who gave us life and breath and everything that we enjoy.
This is the way in which we naturally like to pass our time; and so it is that one way or another we prove our hearts to be “deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.” (Jer 17:9) No doubt it was not so in the beginning: man was created upright, and his Maker pronounced him, like His other works, to be very good in the day when everything was finished; but Adam did not remain in his first condition, he ate the forbidden fruit and fell; and in that hour there came an awful change over his nature: he lost the holy image and likeness of God, and from that time the imagination of man has had a continual bent towards evil.
And yet the God with whom we have to do is holy: He is “of purer eyes than to see evil,” (Hab 1:13) the least speck of sin is an abomination in His sight; the heaven that He dwells in is a holy place, and the general judgment which he has appointed as the end of all things will be a judgment of holiness and a judgment of righteousness. And how can we expect to face this fiery trial? How and with what can we come into our Maker’s presence? The laws we have insulted, and the mercies we have despised, would all rise up against us; by nature we are all doomed to condemnation, there remains nothing for us to look forward to, but the worm that never dies and the fire that will not be quenched. (Mark 9:48)
But here, in this deplorable case, the grace of God has come in: the Lord of all, out of pure love and mercy—for we deserve nothing but wrath and condemnation—out of pure love and mercy, for He was not obligated to redeem us—the Lord of all has sent His beloved Son Jesus Christ to take our nature upon Himself, and suffer death on the cross, “that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) It is the grace of God that, when we were all without hope, Christ came into the world, to do the things we never could have done, to fulfil that holy and just and good law which condemns us all, and He did fulfil it to the last jot and tittle; to suffer the punishment which we deserved, and He did suffer it on the cross, and drank the bitter cup to the very dregs; and by the things He did and the things He suffered He provided a perfect righteousness for every one that is willing to believe.
It is the grace of God that He came to do His Father’s will, and to satisfy His Father’s justice, by standing in our place and taking upon Himself the sins of the whole world; and though the burden was so heavy that He sweat great drops of blood, yet He proved “mighty to save,” (Is 63:1) and won a victory over our great enemies upon the cross—here is the grace of God, of which the apostle spoke; here is the message we are charged to deliver. We offer to you Christ and a free pardon, Christ and everlasting life; you may have been the worst of sinners and yet you are not shut out from this salvation; only believe—all things are possible to him that believes.
To the one who feels his sin and says that he has sinned exceedingly before God—I answer the blood of Christ cleanses from all sin; you tell me you have broken God’s laws a million times—I answer Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believes; you tell me you have no righteousness, you will never be fit for heaven—I offer you the perfect righteousness of the Lord Jesus Himself, all that He has done will be accounted yours. Again, the complete righteousness of the Lord Jesus will be placed upon you as a pure white garment, which will cover all your iniquities, and who will dare to raise his voice against you? But you tell me you have such a cold, dead, wicked heart,—I answer, if you come at once to the Lord Jesus He will pour the Holy Spirit upon you and give you a new one, and you will become a new creature.
This very day is set before the worst of sinners pardon and peace and immortality, without money and without price: You are not told to go and become saints, to go and live a new life before you can receive these blessings; You are called upon to return at once, with all your sins upon you, and lay them at your Saviour’s feet, and they will be forgiven. There are no conditions; It is not for one and not for another. All are invited to the Master’s banquet, and whatever your character may have been in time past, however thoughtless and profane you may have been, I am charged to offer you the gospel of the grace of God, to tell you all will be pardoned and forgotten if you trust in Jesus’ name.
Here is bread for the hungry and water for the thirsty—healing balm for the wounded and rest for the weary—light for those that are in darkness and life for those that are dead—riches for those that are poor, and joy for those that mourn; Christ’s precious blood will wash away every single sin, Christ’s everlasting righteousness will be all your own. Return to Jesus all who are far off, old or young, it does not matter—whether you are now sleeping in utter carelessness, whether you are godless blasphemers of the truth, whether you are talking, self-deceiving hypocrites, whether you are self-righteous, formal Pharisees, whether you are cold, indifferent, heartless listeners to truth, whether you are wretched backsliders from the narrow way—return to Jesus, I urge you, for He has redeemed you.
What fruit have you in the life you now live? You are not really happy; you tremble at the thought of judgment: return to Jesus and you will be welcome; all things will be yours, the world or life or death, or things present or things to come, all will be yours, for you will be Christ’s and Christ is God’s. Come to your Father’s house; the price of your redemption has been paid, and He prays you to enter in; He tells the very guiltiest of you all that if you will only come to Him through the appointed Mediator, He will forever blot out your transgressions put them away from him as far as the east is from the west.
Such then is the mighty doctrine which Paul had in view when he spoke of “the grace of God” in our text. He did not merely mean that spiritual help is promised to those who want to set up a righteousness of their own; he had before his mind that grand offer of full reconciliation which is made by our Heavenly Father to His rebellious children through Christ’s atonement; he meant that new and living way which Jesus has opened for disobedient man to draw near his holy Maker; that mystery of undeserved love and mercy which angels desire to look into; and so deeply does he dread the corruption of man’s heart, that he seems to tremble lest the Corinthians should hear of this grace of God and go no further, should listen to the report of the gospel and yet perish in their sins.
II. Let us, then, in the second place look into how and when it may be said that a man receives the grace of God in vain.
Now, I have nothing to do in this matter with the open unbeliever, the man who deliberately forsakes the house of God, and turns his back upon the simplest elements, the first principles of Scriptural religion. Of such a one I can only say that he is not receiving the grace of God at all; he will not even listen to our message; he has not even an outward form of Christianity, and to all intents and purposes he is living without God in the world.
The persons whom I wish to deal with are those who profess and call themselves Christians, the men and women and children who generally go to church. You must know well that a vast proportion of them hear the gospel and yet are never the better for it; they receive the grace of God into their ears and their mouths and their heads, indeed, sometimes even into their houses, and yet they do not receive it into their own hearts, and therefore they are said to receive it in vain, unprofitably, to no purpose; and the point I want to establish in your minds this morning is how and why and when these things are so.
And to be sure there never was a time when such examination was so necessary: we live in days which prophets and kings of old wished to see and never saw, days when many run to and fro, and light and knowledge is very much increased, days when there are opportunities for getting spiritual wisdom which our forefathers never enjoyed, but days, sadly! when there is much profession without practice, and there is need for much self-examination, lest we tragically deceive ourselves.
Now, it can be clearly said that all are receiving the grace of God in vain who have never been convinced of the guilt and corruption of their own hearts, who have never found out that they are sinners and must be born again of the Holy Spirit, who are altogether at ease about their own souls, and cannot see the need for such anxiety as Christ’s people show, and wonder at people who think much about religion; Those who cannot believe themselves to be so desperately wicked, and cannot think that God will be so meticulous.
These are those who in their own opinion are rich and have many goods and are in need of nothing, and to this hour do not see that they are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked; all such have until now received the grace of God in vain.
In vain because how can a man know the value of a remedy until he has felt his disease? how can you love the light if you never discovered yourself to be in darkness? how can you see the excellence of the gospel if you never found yourself condemned by the law? how can you understand your need of a Saviour if you never groaned under the burden of sin? No, for certain, if your spirit has never witnessed within you that you have really erred and strayed from God’s ways like a lost sheep, that you have really followed too much the devices and desires of your own hearts, that you have really offended against God’s holy laws, that there really is no health in you,—if you have never mourned over your transgressions with a true godly sorrow, and hated them with a true godly hatred,—if you are until now a stranger to these feelings, it is impossible you can consider Christ crucified as the one thing needful; you may have heard of the grace of God, but you know nothing of it as you ought to know.
But again, there are many who are convinced of sin, and yet will not come to Christ and the hope set before them in the gospel. Some are so affected under the preaching of the word that they can hardly suppress their emotions; they cannot speak bad enough of their past lives, they will have nothing more to do with the accursed thing; and yet the first temptation sweeps them away, and their goodness proves no better than the morning dew and the cloud which passes away—and all because they made resolutions in their own strength, they did not build upon the sure cornerstone, even the Lord Jesus Christ, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy.
Others, perhaps, appear to make surer work: they put away the evil of their doings; they give up outward vices, they put on a whitewashed garment, and are beautiful in the eyes of men, and they are regular and decent in the formal duties of religion—but there they stop. They flatter themselves that all is safe; that they have something to boast about before God; and that persons so sober, so honest, so just, so reformed, cannot fail attaining everlasting life. But if the word of God be true, their hopes are false; they are looking to themselves while Scripture says, “by works of the law no human being will be justified“; (Rom 3:20) they are building on the sand.
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” (John 14:6) says Jesus; “No one comes to the Father except through me.” A simple faith in the blood of Christ is the very alphabet in the school of Christianity; and if your conviction never bring you to it, it is clear you have something at the bottom which you have not given up—and that is pride.
There can be no true repentance without faith. You may cast away your old habits, as the serpent sheds his skin; but if you are not resting everything on “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” (John 1:29) and looking to be saved by simple faith in Him, you may be wise in your own eyes, but you are ignorant of the root and fountain, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last, in all true gospel religion. You may tell us you have repented; but if you have not at the same time laid hold on Christ, you have until now received the grace of God in vain.
Lastly, there can be no doubt that those who do not follow after holiness, who do not strive to glorify their Lord with their bodies and spirits, have received the grace of God in vain. About all other men we may not be able to decide with certainty; but about them the rule is laid down clearly.
“You will recognize them by their fruits.” (Matt 7:16) “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control….And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:22-24) They who are true believers in the Lord Jesus love to walk in their Master’s steps and learn of Him, and endeavour to be as like Him as possible in all their habits and dispositions.
Can men and women who name the name of Christ and yet neglect His will, and speak of the Holy Spirit while they resist Him, and talk of faith while they plainly do not believe, and of repentance while they continue impenitent, and of a heavenly life while they continue in their carnal ways—Can such, for all their fine words, have any portion or lot in the kingdom of God?
No, these are like sign-posts: they point the way towards Zion, but they never get one yard nearer to it themselves. Such people build with their lips, but pull down with their lives; they warn others of hell, and yet are on the high road to it.
We read that Christ redeems His flock “from all lawlessness … to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works;” (Tit 2:14) and therefore, when men or women or children take the advice of the ungodly and follow the example of sinners and sit in the seat of mockers, making “provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires,” (Rom 13:14) conforming to the world in its vain and idle customs—we may well fear for them. They may often look like saints and talk like angels—they may be very knowledgeable and fluent in religion; but if sin can so reign in their mortal bodies that they can obey it in its lusts without a struggle to be free, it is the only charitable thing to say to them directly and plainly—whoever they may be—“You have, so far, received the grace of God in vain.”
To think seriously about this is a truly troubling thing. Think how many of those we know may come under the three classes that have been named. All who have never been truly penitent for sin,—all who have never rightly closed with Christ,—and all who do not strive to walk worthy of their high calling,—all those have received the grace of God in vain. And if He whose fan is in His hand were now to come amongst you, and thoroughly purge His floor and cast out all the unprofitable hearers, what a poor little handful might possibly be left!
III. In the last place, a few words about the reasons why ministers such as Davis, and Burder, and Doddridge and Ryle are so anxious that you should not receive the grace of God in vain.
Is it not truly a strange thing we should have to be urged at all? you would not need to be if every Sunday we had a purse of gold to divide amongst a congregation, but when we have to set before you the kingdom of God, righteousness, peace and everlasting life, sadly! it is a great matter if we can get you to give your attention to our invitations, it is a great matter if you can be brought to listen patiently to the messengers and ambassadors of your Maker, your Redeemer, and your Judge.
Know, then, that we urge you earnestly that you not receive the grace of God in vain, because the time is short, and every day that you continue lingering and undecided shortens your opportunity for repentance and makes your heart more dull and harder to be moved. The time you have is short for praying, short for Bible reading, short for breaking loose from this deceitful world, short for preparing for the world to come; those fevers and diseases, which God shakes over the heads of many, might easily cut off any of the strongest of you, and where would your souls be?
We urge you because you have a battle to fight; the world, the flesh, the devil have all to be opposed; you have to put on the whole armour of God, to strive, to wrestle manfully against temptation; and if you really love the crown of glory, you cannot too soon come out from sinful ways and take your stand among the valiant for the truth upon the earth.
But if there were no other reason, we urge you because of death and judgment. I urge upon you that an hour is meeting each of you like an armed man, when this body will become the food of creeping things and the soul will be called to its last account; I see in my mind’s eye the business of that awful day—the great white throne, the assembled millions, the open books, the heavens departing as a scroll, the earth and the works that are in it melting with fervent heat; I hear the archangel’s trumpet summoning the dead from north and south and east and west, and I tremble to think how those will fare who have received the grace of God in vain.
I tremble to think how they will be dealt with, who have a long account of Bibles unread and prayer neglected, churches despised and sacraments dishonoured, ministers disregarded and sermons scorned, all standing in full array against their names.
I tremble to find it plainly declared by Christ Himself, Christ the compassionate and tender-hearted, that even Sodom and Gomorrah will be mercifully treated, compared with those who have been called upon to repent and have not repented, who have been invited to believe in Jesus and have not believed.
And for all these causes, and for many more, we do urge you and implore you to beware lest you receive the grace of God in vain, to beware of hearing without improving, to beware of professing while you are not growing, to beware of giving your ears to God but not your heart.
See, now, does this text not make a great division? Does it not separate the good fish from the bad? You know in your own consciences it does. And where are the few who humbly trust that they have not altogether heard the gospel in vain? Listen, you that are really followers of Christ. Can you see in yourselves a feeling of hatred towards sin that , at one time, you never knew, a dependence on the blood of Jesus only to which you were once strangers, a thirsting after holiness with which you were once unacquainted? Then rejoice with humble fear, and go forward in faith and hope; and though iniquity abounds, let not your love grow cold; but grow in grace and every day bring forth more fruit, and unto the God of gods you will every one of you appear in Heaven.
But are there not many who have all your lives received the grace of God to no purpose, and sided with the world? You know there are. These things are not spoken to shame you, but out of heartfelt concern to warn you, for it is my heart’s desire and prayer to God that every soul among you may be saved; and I urge you to listen to a word of exhortation.
Consider, I urge you, you who give no place to Christ in your life, consider the madness, the folly of your conduct. Surely you must feel that in the ways of worldly-mindedness and sin there is no real satisfaction, and you must know the end of these things is death. Surely your Father’s offer of forgiveness is a gracious and a loving one. Do not sell your souls for such miserable rewards as this world can give, and let it not be written of you this day that you were asked to turn and refused.
You cannot really suppose that God’s beloved Son was crucified and put to open shame, while heaven became black and the earth quaked and the veil was torn at the fearful sight, that you might be careless and live as you please, and yet be saved. You must have a low view of heaven if you think it can be won so cheaply!
Let me plead with you, let me plead the cause of your everlasting souls. I do not want to make you wretched, depressed beings; the devil, who was a murderer and a liar from the beginning, tries to make you believe this, but it is not the case; I want to provide you with a solid peace, such as this perishable world can neither give nor take away. Why will you cling so closely to the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life?—they cannot comfort you in the days of trial which you must go through.
Why is the everlasting gospel, which alone is good for every season, good for time and good for eternity, good for sorrow and good for joy, good for youth and good for old age, good for life and good for death,—why is the gospel to be treated as a thing that will do you harm and poison the source of your happiness?
I challenge you to answer this; you know that I am speaking the words of soberness and truth. This very day I call upon you to begin a change—to forsake your sins, to care nothing for the opinion of the world, to receive your Father’s invitation readily and willingly, meekly and honestly; I urge you to turn and live, to repent and be converted, to believe and be saved.
Let not another harvest ripen on this earth and find you still among the number of those who are called the tares, still spiritually dark, sleeping and dead, still unprepared and unforgiven; sow to yourselves in righteousness, break up your fallow ground with the plough of repentance, seek your loving Redeemer with the tax collector’s prayer, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” (Luke 18:13)—and in this way, and in this way only, when the mighty harvest of the earth is reaped, the angels will gather you as precious wheat into the treasure-house of God, and you will not be burned up as worthless chaff with unquenchable fire.