Adapter from a Sermon by
J. C. Ryle
"For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. (5) Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?" 1 John 5:4-5
It ought to be our practice, if we have any religion, to examine the state of our souls from time to time, and to find out whether we are “right before God” (Acts 8:21).
Are we true Christians? Are we likely to go to heaven when we die? Are we born again,—born of the Spirit,—born of God? These are searching questions, which urgently demand an answer; and our verse this morning will help us to give that answer. If we are born of God, we will have one great mark of character,—we will “overcome the world.”
In opening up this subject, there are three points to which I propose to invite to your attention.
I. In the first place, let us consider the name by which the Apostle John describes a true Christian. He calls him seven times over, in his First Epistle, a man “born of God.”
II. In the second place, let us consider the special mark which the Apostle John supplies of a man born of God. He says that he has “overcome the world.”
III. In the last place, let us consider the secret of the true Christian’s victory over the world. He says, “this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.”
Let me clear the way by expressing an earnest hope that no one will turn away from the subject before us, under the idea that it is a controversial one. Perhaps no other doctrine of the Bible has suffered so much from impatient aversion to controversy as that which is contained in the phrase, “Born of God.”
Yet that phrase contains a great foundational truth of Christianity, which can never be neglected without harm. There lies in those three words one of the primary rocks of the everlasting gospel, even the inward work of the Holy Spirit on the soul of man. The atoning work of Christ for us, and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit within us, are the two corner-stones of saving religion. Surely a truth which the last writer of the New Testament brings forward no less than seven times in the five chapters of one Epistle, a truth which he associates seven times with some of the distinguishing characteristics of the Christian man,—such a truth ought not to be disliked or lightly passed by. Can it be handled profitably without entering upon debatable ground? Let us see.
I. First and foremost, I ask you to notice the name by which the Apostle John describes a true Christian. Here, and in six other places, he speaks of him as one “born of God.”
Let us briefly look into this rich and wonderful expression. The natural birth of any human being, in the humblest rank of life, is an important event. It is the bringing into being of a creature who will outlive sun, moon, stars, and earth, and may one day develop a character which will shake the world. How much more important must spiritual birth be! How much must lies beneath that figurative phrase, “Born of God!”
(i) First, to be “born of God” is to be the subject of an inward change of heart, so complete, that it is like passing into a new existence.
It is the introduction into the human soul of a seed from heaven, a new principle, a Divine nature, a new will. Certainly it is no outward bodily change; but it is no less certain that it is an entire change of the inward man. It adds no new faculties to our minds; but it gives an entirely new bent and bias to our old ones. The tastes and opinions of one “born of God,” his views of sin, of the world, of the Bible, of God, and of Christ, are so completely new, that he is to all intents and purposes what the Apostle Paul calls “a new creation.” (2 Cor 5:17
(ii) Second, to be “born of God” is a change which is the peculiar gift of the lord Jesus Christ to all His believing people.
It is He who plants in their hearts the Spirit of adoption, by whom they cry, Abba Father, and makes them members of His mystical body, and sons and daughters of the Lord Almighty (Rom. 8:15). It is written: “the Son gives life to whom he will.” “As the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (John 5:21, 26). In short, as the first chapter of the gospel of John teaches, so it will be as long as the world stands: “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. ”(John 1:12, 13).
(iii) In the third place, to be “born of God” is a change which is unquestionably very mysterious.
The Lord Jesus Christ Himself tells us that in well-known words: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8). Now we must all confess there are a thousand things in the natural world around us which we cannot explain, and yet believe. We cannot explain how our wills act daily on our members, and make them move, or rest, at our discretion; yet no one ever thinks of disputing the fact. The wisest philosopher cannot tell us the origin of physical life. What right, then, have we to complain because we cannot understand the beginning of spiritual life in him that is “born of God”?
(iv) But, in the fourth place, to be “born of God “ is a change which will always be seen and felt.
This is not to say that the subject of it will invariably understand his own feelings. On the contrary, those feelings are often a cause of much anxiety, conflict, and inward strife. Nor is it to say that a person “born of God” will always become at once an established Christian, a Christian in whose life and ways nothing weak and defective can be observed by others. But it can be affirmed that the Holy Spirit never works in a person’s soul without producing some perceptible results in character and conduct. The true grace of God is like light and fire: it cannot be hidden; it is never idle; it never sleeps. There is no such thing as “dormant” grace in Scripture. It is written, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9).
(v) To crown all, lastly, to be born of God is a thing which is absolutely necessary to our salvation.
Without it we can neither know God rightly and serve Him acceptably in the life that now is, nor dwell with God comfortably in the life that is to come. There are two things which are absolutely essential before any child of Adam can be saved. One is the forgiveness of his sins through the blood of Christ: the other is the renewal of his heart by the Spirit of Christ.
Without the forgiveness we have no title to heaven: without the renewed heart we could not enjoy heaven. These two things are never separate. Every forgiven man is also a renewed man, and every renewed man is also a forgiven man. There are two standing maxims of the gospel which should never be forgotten: one is, “whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life;“ the other is, “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (John 3:36; Rom. 8:9). Ryle relates an old saying which sounds very helpful and true: “Once born, die twice, and die for ever; twice born, never die, and live for ever.” Without a natural birth we would never have lived and moved on earth: without a spiritual birth we will never live and dwell in heaven. It is written, “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
And now, before we pass away from the name which the Apostle John gives in this text to the true Christian, let us not forget to ask ourselves what we know experimentally about being “born of God.” Let us search and test our own hearts with honest self-examination, and endeavour to find out whether there is any real work of the Holy Spirit in our own inward man.
Let us never be content with the outward and visible signs of Christianity, unless we also know something of inward and spiritual grace. Let us often take this First Epistle of the Apostle John in our hands, and try to find out by its light whether we are “born of God.”
II. I now ask you, in the second place, to notice in our text, the special mark which the Apostle John supplies of the man who is a true Christian.
He says, “everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world.” In short, the Apostle teaches that the only certain proof of regeneration is victory.
We are all apt to flatter ourselves, that if we regularly attend a Christian church, our souls cannot be in much danger. We secretly suppress the voice of conscience with the comfortable thought, “I am a Church-goer; why should I be afraid?”
Yet common sense and a little reflection might remind us that there are no privileges without corresponding responsibilities. Before we rest in self-satisfied confidence on our Church attendance, we would do well to ask ourselves whether we bear in our characters the marks of living membership of Christ’s mystical body. Do we know anything of renouncing the devil and all his works, and crucifying the flesh with its affections and lusts? And, to bring this matter to a point, as it is set before us in our text, do we know anything of “overcoming the world”?
Of the three great spiritual enemies of man, it is hard to say which does most harm to the soul. The last day alone will settle that point.
Listen to what Ryle says of his own day 140 years ago: I venture boldly to say, that at no former period has “the world” been so dangerous, and so successful in injuring Christ’s Church, as it is just now. Every age is said to have its own peculiar epidemic disease. I suspect that “worldliness” is the peculiar plague of Christendom in our own era. That same love of the world’s good things and good opinion,—that same dread of the world’s opposition and blame,—which proved so fatal to Judas Iscariot, and Demas, and many more in the beginning of the gospel,—each is just as powerful in the nineteenth century as it was in the first, and a hundred times more. Are these words not all the more applicable in 2019?
Even in days of persecution, under heathen emperors, these spiritual enemies slew their thousands, and in days of ease, and luxury and liberalism, like our own, they slay their tens of thousands. The influence of the world, nowadays, seems to infect the very air we breathe. It creeps into families like an angel of light, and leads myriads captive, who never know that they are slaves. The enormous increase wealth, and with it the power of self-indulgence, and the immense growth of a passionate taste for recreations and amusements of all kinds; the startling rise and progress of a so-called liberality of opinion, which refuses to say anybody is wrong, whatever he does, and loudly asserts that, as in the days of the Judges, every one should think and do what is right in his own eyes, and never be checked,—all these strange phenomena of our age give the world an amazing additional power, and make it doubly needful for Christ’s ministers to cry aloud, “Beware of the world!”
In the face of this powerful danger, we must never forget that the word of the living God does not change. “Do not love the world,”—“Do not be conformed to this world,”—“Friendship with the world is enmity with God,” these mighty sayings of God’s word remain unchanged still (1 John 2:15; Rom. 12:2; Jas. I4:4). The true Christian strives daily to obey them, and proves the vitality of his religion by his obedience.
It is as true now as it was two thousand years ago, that the man “born of God” will be a man who, more or less, resists and overcomes the world. Such a man does not “overcome” by hiding in a corner, and becoming a monk or a hermit, but by boldly meeting his foes and conquering them. He does not refuse to fill his place in society, and do his duty in that position to which God has called him. But though “in” the world, he is not “of” the world. He uses it, but does not abuse it. He knows when to say No, when to refuse compliance, when to stop, when to say, “I have gone this far, but I go no further.”
He is not wholly absorbed either in the business or the pleasures of life, as if they were the sum total of existence. Even in innocent things he keeps the rein on his tastes and inclinations, and does not let them run away with him. He does not live as if life was made up of recreation, or money earning, or politics, or scientific pursuits, and as if there were no life to come. Everywhere, and in every condition, in public and in private, in business or in amusements, he carries himself like a citizen of a “better country,” (Heb 11:16) and as one who is not entirely dependent on temporal things. You will neither bribe him, nor frighten him, nor allure him into neglecting his soul. This is one way in which the true Christian proves the reality of his Christianity. This is the way in which the man “born of God” overcomes the world.
Now, at first sight, all these things may appear “hard sayings.” This standard of true Christianity may seem extravagant, and extreme, and unattainable in this life. To “overcome” in this way requires a constant fight and struggle, and all such fighting is naturally unpleasant to flesh and blood. It is not pleasant to find ourselves standing alone every now and then, and running counter to the opinions of all around us. We do not like to appear narrow-minded, and exclusive, and uncharitable, and unfriendly, and ill-natured, and out of harmony with those around us. We naturally love ease and popularity, and hate collisions in religion, and if we hear we cannot be true Christians without all this fighting and warring, we are tempted to say to ourselves, “I will give it up in despair.”
To all who are tempted in this way,—and none, probably, are so much tempted as the young,—to all who are disposed to shrink back from any effort to overcome the world, as something impossible,—to all such, here are a few words of exhortation. Before you turn your back on the enemy, and openly confess that he is too strong for you,—before you bow down to the strong man, and let him place his foot on your neck, let me help you remember some things which, perhaps, you are forgetting.
Consider that countless men and women, no stronger than yourself, have fought this battle with the world, and won it. Think of the many Christian soldiers who have walked in the narrow way in the last twenty one centuries, and proved more than conquerors. The same Divine Captain, the same armour, the same helps and aids by which they overcame, are ready for you. Surely if they got the victory, you may hope to do the same.
Again, is it not true that this fight with the world is absolutely necessary? Does not our Master say, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple”? (Luke 14:27) And “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34). Here, in any case, we cannot remain neutral, and sit still. Such a line of conduct may be possible in conflict between nations, but it is utterly impossible in that conflict which concerns the soul.
The boasted policy of non-interference, the “masterly inactivity” which pleases so many today, the plan of keeping quiet and letting things alone,—all this will never do in the Christian warfare. To be at peace with the world, the flesh, and the devil, is to be at enmity with God, and in the broad way that leads to destruction. We have no choice or option. The promises to the Seven Churches in Revelation are only to “he who overcomes.” (Rev 3) We must fight or be lost. We must conquer or die eternally. We must “put on the whole armor of God.” (Eph 6:11)
Surely, in the face of such thoughts as these, it may be well to charge and entreat all who are inclined to make peace with the world, and not resist it, to awake to a sense of their danger. Awake and cast aside the chains which laziness or love of popularity are gradually weaving round you. Awake before it is too late,—before repeated worldly acts have formed habits, and habits have crystallized into character, and you have become a helpless slave.
When men on every side are volunteering for war, and ready to go out to battle for a corruptible crown, stand up and resolve to do it for one that is incorruptible. The world is not so strong an enemy as you think, if you will only meet it boldly, and use the right weapons. The imagined difficulties will vanish, or melt away like snow, as you approach them. The lions you now dread will prove chained. Hundreds could tell you that they served the world for years, and found at last that its rewards were hollow and unreal, and its so-called good things could neither satisfy nor save.
But who, on the other hand, ever fought God’s battle manfully against the world and failed to find a rich reward? No doubt the experience of Christian pilgrims varies much. Not all have “richly provided for them and entrance” into the kingdom, and some are “saved, but only as through fire” (2 Pet. 1:11; 1 Cor. 3:15). But none, surely, have such joy and peace in believing, and travel to the celestial city with such light hearts, as those who come out boldly, and overcome the love and fear of the world. Such men the King of kings delights to honour while they live; and when they die, their testimony is that of old Bunyan’s hero, Valiant, “I am going to my Father’s house; and though with great difficulty I have got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the troubles I have been at to arrive where I am.”
III. The third and last thing brought to our notice in this text is, the secret of the true Christian’s victory over the world.
The Apostle John reveals that secret to us twice over, as if he would emphasize his meaning, and make it unmistakable: “ this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:4,5)
Simplicity is a distinguishing characteristic of many of the works of God’s hands. “How beautifully simple!” has often been the scientist’s cry, on finding out some great secret of nature. Simplicity is the striking feature of the principle by which the man “born of God” overcomes the world. Perhaps he hardly understands it himself. But he is what he is, and does what he does, acts as he acts, behaves as he behaves, for one simple reason,—he BELIEVES.
He realizes the existence of unseen objects, compared to which the frowns or smiles, the favour or blame of the world, are nothing and as light as air. God, and heaven, and judgment, and eternity, are not “words and names” with him, but vast and substantial realities; and the faith of them makes everything else look shadowy and unreal.
But, towering far above all other objects, he sees by faith an unseen Saviour, who loved him, gave Himself for him, paid his debt to God with His own precious blood, went to the grave for him, rose again, and appears in heaven for him as his Advocate with the Father. Seeing Him, he feels constrained to love Him first and foremost, to set his chief affection on things above, not on things on the earth, and to live not for himself, but for Him who died for him. Seeing Him, he does not fear to face the world’s displeasure, and fights on with a firm confidence that he will be “more than conqueror.” (Rom 8:37) In short, it is the expulsive power of a new principle, a living faith in an unseen God and an unseen Jesus, that minimizes the difficulties of a true Christian, drives away the fear of man, and overcomes the world.
This is the principle that made the Apostles what they were after the day of Pentecost. When Peter and John stood before the Council, and spoke in such a way that all men marvelled at their boldness, their vivid faith saw One higher than Annas and Caiaphas and their companions who would never forsake them. When Saul, converted and renewed, gave up all his brilliant prospects among his own nation, to become a preacher of the gospel he had once despised, he saw far away, by faith, One that was invisible, who could give him a hundredfold more in this present life, and in the world to come life everlasting. These all overcame by FAITH.
This is the principle which made the primitive Christians hold fast their religion even to death, unshaken by the fiercest persecution of heathen emperors. They were often unlearned and ignorant men, and saw many things through a glass darkly. But their so-called “obstinacy” astonished even philosophers like Pliny. For centuries there were never lacking men like Polycarp and Ignatius, who were ready to die rather than to deny Christ. Fines, and prisons, and torture, and fire, and sword failed to crush the spirit of the noble army of martyrs. The whole power of imperial Rome, with her legions, proved unable to stamp out the religion which began with a few fishermen and tax collectors in Palestine. They overcame by FAITH.
This is the principle that made the Reformers in the sixteenth century endure hardships even to death, rather than withdraw their protest against the Church of Rome. Many of them, no doubt, might have enjoyed rich positions and died quietly in their beds, if they would only have recanted. But they chose rather to suffer affliction, and, strong in faith, died at the stake. This was the principle that made the rank and file of the martyrs in the same age—labourers, artisans, and apprentices—yield their bodies to be burned. Poor and uneducated as they were, they were rich in faith; and if they could not speak for Christ, they could die for Him. These all overcame by BELIEVING.
Does any one long to live the life of a true Christian, and overcome the world? Let him begin by seeking to have the principle of victory within himself. Without this, all outward show of spirituality is entirely worthless. Faith, inward faith, is the one thing that is necessary. Let him begin by praying for FAITH. It is the gift of God, and a gift which those who ask will never ask in vain. He who is called the “Author of faith “ (Heb 12:2) is the same yesterday, today, and forever; (Heb 13:8) and waits to be entreated. Without faith you will never win this war, never set down your foot firmly, never make progress on the ice of this slippery world. You must believe if you would do. If men do nothing in religion, and sit still like uninterested spectators of a show, it is simply because they do not believe. Faith is the first step towards heaven.
Would anyone fight the Christian battle with constantly increasing success and prosperity? Then let him pray daily for a continual growth of faith. Let him abide in Christ, get closer to Christ, tighten his hold on Christ every day that he lives. Let him never forget the prayer of the disciples, “Lord, increase our faith.” (Luke 17:5) Let him watch jealously over his faith, and never let it wane. According to the degree of his faith will be the measure of his peace, his strength, and his victory over the world.
(a) And now let us leave the whole subject with the solemn question, “What do we know of that great test of religion which this text supplies? What do we know of overcoming the world? Where are we? What are we doing? Whose are we, and whom do we serve? Are we overcoming or being overcome?” It is a sad, sorrowful fact, that many know not whether they are Christ’s freemen or the world’s slaves! The shackles of the world are often invisible. We are dragged downward without feeling it, and are like one who sleeps in a boat, and does not know that he is drifting away, gently drifting, towards the falls. There is no slavery so bad as that which is unfelt. There are no chains so really heavy as those which are unseen.
This is a question in particular for the younger among us. You are just at that generous and unsuspecting age when the world seems least dangerous and most inviting, and it stands to reason you are most likely to be ensnared and overcome. Experience alone can make you see the enemy in his true colours. As you grow older, if you have faith, you will place a very different estimate on the good things, or the praise or the hatred of this world. But, even now, remember my caution: “If you love your souls, hold the world at arm’s length. Beware of the world.”
(b) And, secondly, consider how time is swiftly passing by. Before long you may be launching out on the waves of this troublesome world. My heart’s desire and prayer to God is, that you may have a prosperous voyage, and be found in the end in the safe haven of eternal life. But take care that you are well equipped for the stormy waters you have to cross, and see that you have a compass to steer by, that you can depend on, and a pilot who will not fail! Beware of making shipwreck by conformity to the world. Sadly, how many put to sea in gallant trim, with flying colours, and brilliant prospects, and are lost at last with all on board! They seem at first to begin with Moses, and Daniel, and the saints in Nero’s household; but they end at last with Balaam, and Demas, and Lot’s wife! Remember the pilot and the compass! There is no compass like the Bible! No pilot like Christ!
Take the advice I offer you, as a friend, this day. Ask the Lord Jesus Christ to come and dwell in your heart by faith, and to rescue you “from this present evil age” (Gal. 1:4). Ask Him to pour out His promised Spirit on you, and to make you willing to bear His easy yoke at once, and to resist the world. Strive, in the strength of Christ, to get the victory over the world, whatever it may cost you. Be ashamed of being a slave, however golden the chains may be. Be ashamed of the mark of the shackles. Resolve to be earnest and be free.
Liberty is the greatest of blessings, and deserves the greatest struggles. For freedom’s sake, Greeks, and Romans, and Germans, and Poles, and Swiss, and Englishmen, and Canadians have often cheerfully fought to the bitter end, and laid down their lives. Surely, if men have made such sacrifices for the freedom of their bodies, it is a disgrace to professing Christians if they will not fight for the liberty of their souls. This day resolve in the strength of Christ, that you will fight the good fight against the world; and not only fight, but overcome. And “if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.“(John viii. 36).
(c) Finally, let us all remember that the Christian soldier’s best time is yet to come. Here, in this world, we are often hindered in our warfare. There are many hard things to be done and borne. There are wounds and bruises; there are watchings and fatigues; there are reverses and disappointments. But the end of all things is at hand. For those who “overcome” there will be a conqueror’s crown.
In the warfare of this world, the aftermath is often a sorrowful sight. But the review day of Christ’s victorious army will be a very different thing. There will be no one missing in that day. It will be a meeting without regret. It will be “a morning without clouds” and tears. It will make rich amends for all we have suffered in resisting and overcoming the world.
There is a great day coming, when the Captain of our salvation and His victorious soldiers will at length meet face to face. Who can describe the happiness of that time when we will lay aside our armour, and put our sword down to rest. What mind can conceive the blessedness of that hour when we will see the King in His beauty, and hear these words, “Well done, good and faithful servant. …. Enter into the joy of your master”? (Matt 25:23)
For that glorious day let us wait patiently, for it cannot be far off. In the hope of it let us work, and watch, and pray, and fight on, and resist the world. And let us never forget our Captain’s words “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).