The Privileges Of The True Christian
Adapted from a Sermon by J.C. Ryle
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” John 10:27-28
Last week we considered the first part of this text. We heard then that this passage contains two things—first the character of true Christians, and secondly their privileges—first what they are to their Saviour, and secondly what their Saviour is to them.
Let me, then, remind you what the text says of their character. We found that God’s children, His real believing people, are compared to sheep, because they are gentle, quiet, harmless and inoffensive; because they are useful and do good to all around them; because they love to be together, and dislike separation; and lastly because they are very helpless and wandering and liable to stray.
Next, we found that Jesus calls them “My sheep,” as if they were His peculiar property; “Mine,” He would have us know, by election, “Mine“ by purchase, and “Mine“ by adoption. We found in the third place that Christ’s sheep hear His voice, they listen humbly to His teaching, they take His word for their rule and guide. Lastly we found that they follow Him, they walk in the narrow path He has marked out, they do not refuse because it is sometimes steep and narrow, but wherever the line of duty lies, they go forward without doubting.
It only remains for us now to consider the other part of our text, which concerns the blessings and privileges which Jesus the Good Shepherd bestows upon His people. The Lord grant that none of you may take to yourselves promises which do not belong to you,—that none may take liberty from God’s exceeding mercy to continue sleeping in sin. Glorious and comfortable things are written in this passage, but remember they are given to Christ’s flock only. I fence it out against all that are unbelieving and impenitent and worldly. I warn you plainly, except you will hear the voice of Christ and follow Him and obey Him, you have no right or portion in these blessed encouragements.
Hear now what Jesus says of His believing people: “I know them. . . . I give them eternal life; they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”
Before we look into the meaning of these words more closely, we should address two questions which may arise in the minds of some.
i) Of whom is the Lord Jesus speaking?
Are we to suppose He only has in view patriarchs and prophets and apostles—men like Abraham and David and Job and Daniel, men who through faith subdued kingdoms, upheld righteousness, closed the mouths of lions, subdued the power of fire, worked signs and miracles, and shed their blood for the kingdom of God’s sake? Are these the sort of persons who alone can take comfort from those blessed words—“I know them . . . . they will never perish?” Is everyone else to go on doubting to the end of his life?
No! Never for a moment. It would be doing Satan’s work to preach such doctrine. This text may become the property of the worst of sinners, if he only will: scribes and Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians, tax collectors and harlots, drunkards and adulterers, murderers, thieves, liars and blasphemers. worldly-minded and covetous ones,—each and every one of them may lay firm hold on this text, and inherit its precious treasures, if they will only hear Christ’s voice and follow Him.
It is for all who repent and believe the Gospel. It is for all who mourn over their past sins with a true godly sorrow, and run to the Lord Jesus Christ with faith and prayer as their only hope, their all-sufficient Saviour, their all in all. There is not one single man or woman or child of whom it shall not be written in the Lamb’s book of life, “This is one known of God, this is an heir of eternal life, this is a man or a woman that is never to perish, never to be plucked out of the Lord’s hand,” if you will only give up your sins and take Christ Jesus for your Shepherd and Redeemer. Your repentance may seem very faint, your faith may appear weak as water, but if there be so much as a grain of mustard seed, if there be enough to lead you a penitent to the foot of the cross, you will find yourself one day numbered with the saints in everlasting glory.
ii) The other question I want to answer is this: why did the Lord Jesus Christ give us this full and complete promise?
Because He knew that true Christians would always be a very doubting, fearful, faint-hearted generation, always ready to believe they will not be saved, always afraid they will never see the New Jerusalem, because of the inbred corruption which they find continually in their hearts. He saw they would need the strong wine of assurance like this, and so He has provided this and like texts, as reviving medicine to cheer and enliven their hearts, whenever they feel desponding and feebleminded and ready to halt, in their pilgrimage through this weary world.
We will now look closely into the parts of this promise.
First, says the Lord Jesus Christ of His sheep who hear His voice and follow Him—“I know them.”
I know their number, their names, their particular characters, their besetting sins, their troubles, their trials, their temptations, their doubts, their prayers, their private meditations. I know everything about every one of them.
Think what a comfortable saying that is! The world knows nothing about Christ’s sheep; to be sure, the world notices there are a few people, here one and there one, who live differently than others, who seem to be more serious in their behavior, who appear to be taken up with some important consideration or other; but the world only wonders why they can be so particular about little sins, and when their ways run counter to the world, the world is vastly offended. But as for their fear of sin, and their carefulness about souls, the world neither knows nor understands what they are about; the secret springs of their conduct are all hidden.
Again, a Christian’s friends often do not really know him. They may possibly respect him and allow him to hold on his way unopposed—though this is certainly not always the case—but as for his pleasures and his pains, his constant warfare with the flesh, the world, and the devil, his dread of falling into temptation, his delight in all means of grace, they can neither explain nor comprehend it. There is a something hidden in his character of which they know nothing.
Be comforted, all you who are tried and buffeted with difficulties in your way towards heaven, difficulties from without and difficulties from within, difficulties abroad and difficulties at home, grief for your own sins and grief for the sins of others. The Good Shepherd Jesus knows you well, though you may not realize it. You never shed a secret tear over your own corruption, you never breathed a single prayer for forgiveness and helping grace, you never made a single struggle against wickedness, which He did not see and note down in the book of His remembrance. (Mal 3:16)
You need not fear His not understanding your wants, you need not be afraid your prayers are too poor and unlearned to be attended to. He knows your particular necessities far better than you do yourselves, and your humble supplications are no sooner offered up than heard. You may sometimes sigh and mourn for the lack of Christian friends, you may sometimes lament that you have not more around you with whom you might have pleasant conversations about salvation; but remember there is a Good Shepherd, who is ever about your path and about your bed, His eyes are on all your movements, and no husband, brother, father, mother, sister, friend, could take more tender interest in your soul’s welfare than He does.
If you transgress, He will grieve, but He will chasten and bring you back; if you bear good fruit, He will rejoice and give more grace; if you sorrow He will bind up your broken heart and pour in balm; He is ever watching and observing and listening; none are so humble and lowly but He is acquainted with all their ways.
And does not Jesus know the men of this world, the faithless and ungodly? There is no doubt that He does. He knows all their ways; there is not a single sin they have committed but will appear written down in full in the great book; but He only knows them as His enemies—as careless, thoughtless ones, who will not take the trouble to hear His voice and follow Him—and in the last day, when all shall stand before Him, He will say, “I do not know you. You would not seek to know me on earth, and I know nothing of you in heaven; “depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matt 25:41) No doubt there will be many a Balaam there, many a barren fig tree, many a foolish virgin, many a fruitless vine, many a loud-talking hypocrite, who will say, “Lord, Lord, open to us: have we not taught in your name, and in your name quoted many texts, and in your name made a great profession?” but still the answer will be, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” (Matt 7:23)
And so, what a blessed and comforting thing to be known of Christ, known and marked as His friends, His relations, His dear children, His beloved family, His purchased possession! Here, we are often cast down, often discouraged, often persecuted, often spoken against, often misunderstood, often lonely—but let us take courage, our Lord and Master knows all. A day will come when we will no longer “see in a mirror dimly”, but… face to face” (1 Cor 13:12)—a day when we will know even as we are now known; for the union between us and our Redeemer, which we so often feel disposed to doubt, will then be clearly seen, and we will no more go out to battle.
II. What is the next part of our text? The Lord Jesus says of His sheep, “I give them eternal life.”
What is the portion which Jesus gives His people? “Eternal Life”—a perfect, never-ending happiness for that which is the most important part of a man, his immortal soul. They shall not be hurt by the second death, which alone is to be really feared. What greater things could our Lord bestow upon His people? Health and riches and honour and pleasures, houses and lands, and wives and children, what are they? how long do they last?—it is but perhaps eighty years, and we must leave them all, and then a small plot of earth is room enough for us. Naked we came into the world, and naked must we return to the dust, and carry nothing with us.
Where is the difference between the rich and the poor in death? They both go unto one and the same place; their bodies meet the same end and before long you would not be able to distinguish between them. But if the poor man sleeps in Jesus, while the rich man dies in his sins, what a mighty gulf is then between them! The rich will take up his place in that fire which is never quenched; the poor will awake to find he has an everlasting treasure in heaven, even eternal life. Eternal life! compared to which this world’s concerns, weighty and important as they seem, are like a drop of water.
It is a wonder indeed that men should worry so much about the things of earth, worry about the environment, and sweat and toil after a little more gold and silver, and spend their strength upon these frail, sickly bodies of ours, to get enjoyment for them, and yet remain careless and dead and frozen about the life of that precious treasure of the soul!
But about eternal life? “I,” says the Lord Jesus Christ, “do give it to my people.” Who says this? The one who bought and paid the full price. The one who has in His hands the keys of death and hell. He who opens and no man shuts, He who shuts and no man opens. He says it who is the Amen, the faithful and true Witness, who is not a man that He should lie, who never breaks His promise. He says it who has a right to say it, for He came down to do His Father’s will and die in our place to obtain redemption for us, and when He declares “I give eternal life,” death and hell must be silent, no one can oppose Him.
“I give,” He declares, “eternal life.” He does not speak like the world does. This world is cold, and calculating and heartless. There is little giving,—it is all bargaining and selling and paying what is the value of things. We may be eternally grateful that the Lord Jesus does not deal with sinners as they deal with each other. He gives eternal life freely, and of grace, and for nothing, without money and without price. He does not give it because we are worthy or deserving, nor yet because we will show ourselves worthy and deserving, but He gives it as a free gift, because He loves us and has set His affection upon us.
Consider with yourselves how glorious that doctrine is; how thoroughly it takes away all excuse from the impenitent: pardon and forgiveness are unconditionally given. We are not told that we must pay off so much every day, and then will be saved—that would drive us to doubt and despair—but if a man will only hear Christ’s voice and follow Him, “Behold” says Jesus, “I give him eternal life, there remains no condemnation for him.”
III. The third promise in our text is as follows: Jesus says of His sheep, “They will never perish,”
They will never be finally cast away, if they have once been sealed and numbered in my flock. They may have many slips and many falls, they may experience many shortcomings and many backslidings, but they will never be lost eternally, they will be kept by the power of God through faith to salvation. Where are those fearful Christians, who think that they may be Christ’s sheep and yet come short at last? behold the assurance of Him who cannot lie,—“they will never perish.”
True Christians will never perish! Has there not been a great work begun within their hearts by the Holy Spirit? has the power of God Himself not been employed in converting them from darkness to light? and will we dare say that God will take in hand the smallest thing, and yet leave it unfinished and not bring it to perfection? Have they not been born again of incorruptible seed, (1 Peter 1:23) and will this seed be choked and bear no fruit? Have they not been made by grace new creatures, and is it possible that grace can have raised them to newness of life in vain?
Where in the whole world can you find a work which the Lord has attempted, and yet been forced to give up and leave all incomplete? Then far be it from us to suppose that a true believer can ever be cast away! If man had any share in his conversion one might reasonably doubt; but that is not the case, it is the work of God, and what He does will always be brought to perfection. The building which the Holy Spirit has founded will never be allowed to decay, it will never be left half finished, and the top stone will certainly be laid, one day, with loud celebrations.
True Christians will never perish. Are they not Christ’s special property, the servants of His house, the members of His family, his children by adoption? Then surely He will never let them be overthrown, He will watch them as tenderly as we watch over our own flesh and blood. He will guard them as we guard our valuable and precious possessions. He will cherish them as we cherish that which is most dear to our hearts. He never would have laid down His life for their sakes if He had intended to give them up.
“Never perish”! Kings of the earth and mighty men will depart and be seen no more; thrones and dominions and principalities, rich men and honourable men will be swept into the tomb, but the humblest Christian laborer will never see death everlasting, and when the heavens will pass away as a scroll, and earth with all its fair clothing will be burned up, that man will be found to have a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. That man may be poor in this world and lightly esteemed now, but before long it will be clear that he is a glorious saint, when those who had more of this life’s good things will be in torment. We can be confident that nothing will ever separate him from the love of Christ. He may have his doubts, but he will be provided for, he will never be lost.
IV. There remains one thing more. Jesus adds, “no one will snatch them out of my hand.”
There is assurance upon assurance, that none may have an excuse for doubting. There is always something plucking at Christ’s sheep: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life, the devil, and the world are ever striving hard to destroy them, but they will not succeed. Do you think the devil will give up his kingdom without a mighty struggle? No, he goes about as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. He wars a constant warfare with all who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ, but the word of God is pledged that he will never prevail. Not all the powers of darkness will succeed in extinguishing one single spark of real gospel faith.
And now, in conclusion, let me speak a word of exhortation to all among you who hear Christ’s voice and follow Him. Would that the Spirit may come down among you, and add to your number a hundredfold! Are you indeed Christ’s sheep? Can you feel within yourselves the working of His blessed Spirit, putting to death the works of the flesh and drawing up your minds to heavenly things? Do you have the witness in yourselves that you have gone through a real spiritual change; that you hate the sins which once you loved; and love the things which once you despised? have you good reason to believe that you have indeed put off the old man with his deeds, and put on the new man with the lamb-like nature of your blessed Master? Then, by all means, rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory; pray that you may not stand still, but go on from grace to grace and strength to strength; pray that you may bear much spiritual fruit, for in this way is your Father glorified, and then you will make your own calling and election sure to yourselves.
Are you indeed Christ’s sheep? Then beware of ever trusting to yourselves; nothing offends the Good Shepherd more than to see the members of His flock forgetting that in Him alone is all their safety, and glorying in their own achievements and performances. Do not think of your weak endeavours. Do not think to yourself, “I do very little, and therefore have very little hope,—before long I trust I will do much, and then I will have much hope”; your best performances and attempts towards heaven are in themselves nothing better than broken reeds, and can bear no weight; they are precious as evidences of spiritual life, but they cannot justify. Think only of your Saviour Jesus Christ, trust Him entirely, love Him affectionately, look to Him continually: as long as you lean on Him you are strong and no one can touch you. Without Him and in your own might you are weak and unstable as water.
Are you indeed Christ’s sheep? Then beware of wandering from the pasture He has provided. The devil and the old Adam would often persuade you there is no need for this diligence in using means of grace: “Surely,” they will say, “you are not such a infant but you can leave these fields for a short time; surely you need not keep so closely in your Shepherd’s sight.” Christian, take heed and beware of the charmer, however sophisticated are his charms: diligent private prayer, diligent Scripture searching, diligent gospel hearing,—these are the pastures in which Jesus feeds His flock, and if you turn aside, if you become slack in using them, be sure your soul will soon starve for want of its accustomed nourishment, and you will return to the fold weak and lame and lean and diseased.
Once more, and I am done. Are you indeed Christ’s sheep? then be sure you will have many trials; where indeed would be the value of a Saviour, if there were not enemies to be saved from? You will certainly have many trials. Satan has great malice for all who have escaped his snares, and he will bring every engine to bear against your peace. He will start many a doubt within your mind, he will stir up many a vile and blasphemous imagination within the secret places of your heart, many a horrid thought you once would have believed impossible; but still remember those words, “never perish.”
You will certainly have many trials: when did the world ever support and encourage a true Christian? No, the world will mock and despise, and laugh and frighten, and misrepresent you, and spread false reports, and throw traps in your way, and if it dares it will persecute you; and then there is the flesh, sleepy and drowsy and fond of excuses, always trying to make you believe you have more difficulties than anybody else, deceitful, treacherous, needing constant watchfulness; but still the world and the flesh can never turn you back, unless you are a graceless traitor; remember those blessed words “never perish.”
Christian, you may be perplexed, but you never need despair. You may be persecuted but you are not forsaken, cast down but not destroyed. You may have tribulation, but you will not have condemnation. You will be saved from your enemies and from the hand of all that hate you. Do not fear any of these things which you will suffer; be faithful to death, and your Good Shepherd will give you a crown of life. He has gone before to prepare a place for those whom He knows, and where He is in glory there will they be also.
“For I am sure,” says Paul, “that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”