by J. C. Ryle
"Good hope through grace." 2 Thess. 2:10
"The hope of the ungodly shall perish." Job 8:13
"For what is the hope of the godless, when he is cut off, when God takes away his life?" Job 27:8
"I hope," is a very common expression. Everybody can say, "I hope." About no subject is the expression used so commonly as it is about religion. Nothing is more common than to hear people turn off some home-thrust at conscience, by this convenient form of words, "I hope." "I hope it will be all right at last." "I hope I shall be a better man some day." "I hope I shall get to heaven at last." But why do they hope? On what is their hope built? Too often they cannot tell you! Too often it is a mere excuse for avoiding a disagreeable subject. "Hoping," they live on. "Hoping," they grow old. "Hoping," they die at last—and find too often that they are lost forever in hell!
I ask the serious attention of all who read this paper. The subject is one of the deepest importance, "We are saved by hope." (Rom. 8:24.) Let us, then, make sure that our hope is sound. Have we a hope that our sins are pardoned, our hearts renewed, and our souls at peace with God? Then let us see to it that our hope is "good," and "living," and one "that makes not ashamed." (2 Thess. 2:16; 1 Pet, 1:3; Rom. 5:5.) Let us consider our ways. Let us not shrink from honest, searching inquiry into the condition of our souls. If our hope is good, examination will do it no harm. If our hope is bad, it is high time to know it, and to seek a better one.
There are five marks of a really "good hope." I desire to place them before my readers in order. Let us ask ourselves what we know of them. Let us prove our own state by them. Happy is he who can say of each of these marks, "I know it by experience. This is my hope about my soul."
I. In the first place, a good hope is a hope that a man can explain. What says the Scripture? "Be ready always to give an answer to every man who asks you a reason of the hope that is in you." (1 Pet. 3:15.)
If our hope is sound we must be able to give some account of it. We must be able to show why, and therefore, and on what grounds, and for what reason we expect to go to heaven when we die. Now can we do this?
Let no one misunderstand my meaning. I do not say that deep learning and great knowledge are absolutely needful to salvation. A man may know twenty languages, and have the whole body of divinity at his fingers' ends, and yet be lost; a man may be unable to read, and have a very weak understanding, and yet be saved. But I do say that a man must know what his hope is, and be able to tell us its nature. I cannot believe that a man has got possession of a thing if he knows nothing about it.
Once more, let no one misunderstand my meaning. I do not say that a power of talking well is necessary to salvation. There may be many fine words on a man's lips, and not a whit of grace in his heart; there may be few and stammering words, and yet deep feeling within, planted there by the Holy Spirit. There are some who cannot speak many words for Christ, and yet would die for Him. But for all this, I do say that the man who has a good hope ought to be able to tell us why. If he can tell us no more than this, that "he feels himself a sinner, and has no hope but in Christ," it is something. But if he can tell us nothing at all, I must suspect that he has got no real hope.
I am aware that the opinion just expressed displeases many. Thousands can see no necessity for that clear knowledge which I believe to be essential to a saving hope. So long as a man goes to church on Sunday, and has his children baptized, they think we ought to be content. "Knowledge," they tell us, "may be very well for clergymen and professors of theology; but it is too much to require it of common people."
My answer to all such people is short and simple. Where in the whole New Testament shall we find that people were called Christians, unless they knew something of Christianity? Will anyone try to persuade me that a Corinthian Christian, or a Colossian, or Thessalonian, or Philippian, or Ephesian, could not have told us what was his hope about his soul? Let those believe it who will—I, for one, cannot. I believe that in requiring a man to know the ground of his hope I am only setting up the standard of the New Testament. Ignorance may suit a Roman Catholic well enough. He belongs to what he considers to be the true Church! He does as his priest tells him! He asks no more! But ignorance ought never to be the characteristic of a Christian. He ought to know what he believes, and if he does not know he is in a bad way.
I ask every reader of this paper to search his heart, and see how the matter stands with his soul. Can you tell us nothing more than this, that "you hope to be saved"? Can you give no explanation of the grounds of your confidence? Can you show us nothing more satisfactory than your own vague expectation? If this be the case you are in imminent peril of being lost forever. Like Ignorance, in Pilgrim's Progress, you may get to your journey's end, and be ferried by Vainhope over the river, without much trouble. But, like Ignorance, you may find to your sorrow that there is no admission for you into the celestial city. None enter in there but those who "know what as well as whom they have believed."
"Now, while I was gazing upon all these things, I turned my head to look back, and saw Ignorance coming up to the riverside—but he soon got over, and that without half the difficulty which the other two men met with. For it happened that there was then in that place one Vainhope, a ferry-man, that with his boat helped him over; so he, as the other I saw, did ascend the hill to come up to the gate, only he came alone; neither did any man meet him with the least encouragement. When he was come up to the gate, he looked up to the writing that was above, and then began to knock, supposing that entrance should have been quickly administered to him. But he was asked by the man that looked over the top of the gate, 'Whence come you? And what would you have?' He answered, 'I have ate and drank in the presence of the King, and He has taught in our streets.' Then they asked him for his certificate, that they might go in and show it to the King. So he fumbled in his bosom for one, and found none. Then said they, 'Have you none?' But the man answered never a word.
"So they told the King; but He would not come down to see him—but commanded the two shining ones that conducted Christian and Hopeful to the City, to take Ignorance and bind him hand and foot, and take him away. Then they took him up, and carried him through the air to the door that I saw in the side of the hill, and put him in there. Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gate of heaven, as well as from the city of destruction."—Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.
I lay down this principle as a starting point, and I ask my readers to consider it well. I admit most fully that there are different degrees of grace among true Christians. I do not forget that there are many in the family of God whose faith is very weak, and whose hope is very small. But I believe confidently, that the standard of requirement I have set up, is not a whit too high. I believe that the man who has a "good hope" will always be able to give some account of it.
II. In the second place, a good hope is a hope that is drawn from Scripture. What says David? "I hope in Your word." "Remember the word unto Your servant, upon which You have caused me to hope." What says Paul? "Whatever things were written aforetime, were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, might have hope." (Psalm 119:81, 49. Rom. 15:4.)
If our hope is sound we ought to be able to turn to some text, or fact, or doctrine of God's Word, as the source of it. Our confidence must arise from something which God has caused to be written in the Bible for our learning, and which our heart has received and believed.
It is not enough to have good feelings about the state of our souls. We may flatter ourselves that all is right, and that we are going to heaven when we die, and yet have nothing to show for our expectations but mere fancy and imagination. "The heart is deceitful above all things." "He who trusts in his own heart is a fool." (Jer. 17:9. Prov. 28:26.) I have frequently heard dying people say that "they felt quite happy and ready to go." I have heard them say that "they felt as if they craved nothing in this world." And all this time I have remarked that they were profoundly ignorant of Scripture, and seemed unable to lay firm hold on a single truth of the Gospel! I never can feel comfort about such people. I am persuaded that there is something wrong in their condition. Good feelings, without some warrant of Scripture, do not make up a good hope.
It is not enough to have the good opinion of others about the state of our souls. We may be told by others on our death beds, to "keep up our spirits," and "not to be afraid." We may be reminded that we have "lived good lives—or had a good heart—or done nobody any harm—or not been so bad as many." And all this time our friends may not bring forward a word of Scripture, and may be feeding us poison! Such friends are miserable comforters. However well meaning, they are downright enemies to our souls. The good opinion of others, without the warrant of God's Word, will never make up a good hope.
If a man would know the soundness of his own hope, let him search and look within his heart for some text or doctrine, or fact out of God's book. There will always be some one or more on which your soul hangs, if you are a true child of God. The dying thief in London, who was visited by a City Missionary, and found utterly ignorant of Christianity, laid hold on one single fact in a chapter of Luke's Gospel which was read to him, and found comfort in it. That fact was the story of the penitent thief. "Sir," he said, when visited the second time, "are there any more thieves in that book from which you read yesterday?" The dying Hindu who was found by a missionary on a roadside, had grasped one single text in the First Epistle of John, and found in it peace. That text was the precious saying, "The blood of Jesus Christ His Son, CLEANSES us from all sin." (1 John 1:7.) This is the experience of all true Christians. Unlearned, humble, poor, as many of them are, they have got hold of something in the Bible, and this causes them to hope. The hope which "takes not ashamed" is never separate from God's Word.
People wonder sometimes that ministers press them so strongly to read the Bible. They marvel that we say so much about the importance of preaching, and urge them so often to hear sermons. Let them cease to wonder, and marvel no more. Our object is to make you acquainted with God's Word. We want you to have a good hope, and we know that a good hope must be drawn from the Scriptures. Without reading or hearing you must live and die in ignorance. Hence we cry, "Search the Scriptures." "Hear, and your soul shall live." (John 5:39. Isa. 55:3.)
I warn everyone to beware of a hope not drawn from Scripture. It is a false hope, and many will find out this to their cost. That glorious and perfect book, the Bible, however people despise it, is the only fountain out of which man's soul can derive peace. Many sneer at the old book while living, who find their need of it when dying. The Queen in her palace and the pauper in the workhouse, the philosopher in his study and the child in the cottage—each and all must be content to seek living water from the Bible, if they are to have any hope at all. Honor your Bible—read your Bible—stick to your Bible. There is not on earth a scrap of solid hope for the other side of the grave which is not drawn out of the Word.
III. In the third place, a good hope is a hope that rests entirely on Jesus Christ. What says Paul to Timothy? He says that Jesus Christ "is our hope." What says he to the Colossians? He speaks of "Christ in you the hope of glory." (1 Tim. 1:1; Coloss. 1:27.)
The person who has a good hope founds all his expectations of pardon and salvation on the mediation and redeeming work of Jesus, the Son of God. He knows his own sinfulness; he feels that he is guilty, wicked, and lost by nature—but he sees forgiveness and peace with God offered freely to him through faith in Christ. He accepts the offer—he casts himself with all his sins on Jesus, and rests on Him. Jesus and His atonement on the cross—Jesus and His righteousness—Jesus and His finished work—Jesus and His all-prevailing intercession—Jesus, and Jesus only, is the foundation of the confidence of his soul.
Let us beware of supposing that any hope is good which is not founded on Christ. All other hopes are built on sand. They may look well in the summer time of health and prosperity—but they will fail in the day of sickness and the hour of death. "Other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ." (1 Cor. 3:11.)
Church-membership is no foundation of hope. We may belong to the best of Churches, and yet never belong to Christ. We may fill our pew regularly every Sunday, and hear the sermons of orthodox, ordained clergymen, and yet never hear the voice of Jesus, or follow Him. If we have nothing better than Church-membership to rest upon we are in a poor plight—we have nothing solid beneath our feet.
Reception of the sacraments is no foundation of hope. We may be washed in the waters of baptism, and yet know nothing of the water of life. We may go to the Lord's table every Sunday of our lives, and yet never eat Christ's body and drink Christ's blood by faith. Miserable indeed is our condition if we can say nothing more than this! We possess nothing but the outside of Christianity—we are leaning on a reed.
Christ Himself is the only true foundation of a good hope. He is the rock, His work is perfect. He is the stone—the sure stone, the tried corner-stone. He is able to bear all the weight that we can lay upon Him. He only that builds and "believes on Him shall not be confounded." (Deut. 32:4; Isa. 28:16; 1 Peter 2:6.)
This is the point on which all true saints of God in every age have been entirely agreed. Differing on other matters, they have always been of one mind upon this. Unable to see alike about Church-government, and discipline, and liturgies, they have ever seen alike about the foundation of hope. Not one of them has ever left the world trusting in his own righteousness. Christ has been all their confidence—they have hoped in Him, and not been ashamed.
"Consider how it is with the most holy and eminent saints when dying. Did you ever see or hear any boasting of their own works and performances? They may, and do own to the praise of His grace, what they have been made to be, what they have been helped to do or allow for Christ's sake. But when they draw near to the solemn tribunal, what else is in their eye and heart—but only free grace, ransoming blood, and a well-ordered covenant in Christ the surety? They cannot bear to have any make mention to them of their holiness, their own grace, and attainments.
"He is a wise and happy man that can anchor his soul on that rock on which he can ride out the storm of death. Why should people contend for that in their life that they know they must renounce at their death? or neglect that truth now, that they must betake themselves unto then? It is a great test of the truth of the doctrine about the way of salvation when it is generally approved by sensible dying people."—Traill.
Would anyone like to know what kind of death-beds a minister of the Gospel finds comfort in attending? Would you know what closing scenes are cheering to us, and leave favorable impressions on our minds? We like to see dying people making much of Christ. So long as they can only talk of "the Almighty," and "Providence," and "God," and "mercy," we must stand in doubt. Dying in this state, they give no satisfactory sign. Give us the men and women who feel their sins deeply, and cling to Jesus, who think much of His dying love—who like to hear of His atoning blood—who return again and again for the story of His cross. These are the death-beds which leave good evidence behind them. For my part I had rather hear the name of Jesus come heartily from a dying relative's lips, than see him die without a word about Christ, and then be told by an angel that he was saved.
The dying words of Mr. Ash, the Puritan, are well-deserving of notice. He said, "When I consider my best duties, I sink, I die, I despair. But when I think of Christ, I have enough. He is all and in all.'
The words of Mr. Cecil shortly before his death are very remarkable. He said, "I know myself to be a wretched, worthless sinner, having nothing in myself but poverty and sin. I know Jesus Christ to be a glorious and almighty Savior. I see the full efficacy of His atonement and grace; and I cast myself entirely on Him, and wait at His footstool." A short time before his decease he requested one of his family to write down for him the following sentence in a book, "'None but Christ, none but Christ,' said Lambert, dying at a stake—the same in dying circumstances, with his whole heart, says Richard Cecil."
IV. In the fourth place, a good hope is a hope that is felt inwardly in the heart. What says Paul? He speaks of "hope that makes not ashamed, because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts." He speaks of "rejoicing in hope." (Rom. 5:5; 12:12.)
The man who has a good hope is conscious of it. He feels within him something that another man does not—he is conscious of possessing a well-grounded expectation of good things to come. This consciousness may vary exceedingly in different people. In one it may be strong and well-defined; in another it may be feeble and indistinct. It may vary exceedingly in different stages of the same person's experience. At one time he may be full of "joy and peace in believing;" at another he may be depressed and cast down. But in all people who have a "good hope," in a greater or less degree, this consciousness does exist.
I am aware that this truth is one which has been fearfully abused and perverted. It has been brought into great disrepute by the fanaticism, enthusiasm, and extravagance of some professing Christians. Mere animal excitement has been mistaken for the work of the Holy Spirit. The over-wrought feelings of weak and nervous people have been prematurely and rashly supposed to be the result of grace. Men and women have been hastily pronounced "converted," who have soon gone back to the world, and proved utterly "unconverted" and dead in sins. And then has come in the devil. Contempt has been poured on religious feelings of every description—their very existence has been denied and scouted; and the result is that the very name of "feelings" in religion is in many quarters dreaded and disliked.
But the abuse and perversion of a truth, must never be allowed to rob us of the use of it. When all has been said that can be said against fanaticism and enthusiasm, it is still undeniable that religious feelings are plainly spoken of and described in Scripture. The Word of God tells us that the true Christian has "peace," and "rest," and "joy," and "confidence." It tells us of some who have the "witness of the Spirit"—of some who "fear no evil"—of some who enjoy "assurance"—of some who "know whom they have believed"—of some who "are persuaded that they shall never be separated from the love of God in Christ." These are the feelings for which I contend—this is that sober, inward experience in which I see nothing extravagant, enthusiastic, or fanatical. Of such feelings I say boldly, no man need be ashamed. I go further, and say that no man has a "good hope" who does not know something, however faintly, of these feelings in his own heart. I go further still, and say that to hold any other doctrine is to cast dishonor on the whole work of the Holy Spirit.
Will anyone tell us that God ever intended a true Christian to have no inward consciousness of his own Christianity? Will anyone say that the Bible teaches that people can pass from death to life, be pardoned, renewed, and sanctified, and yet feel nothing of this mighty change within? Let those think it who will—I can hold no such doctrine. I would as soon believe that Lazarus did not know that he was raised from the grave, or Bartimeus that he was restored to sight—as believe that a man cannot feel within him the Spirit of God.
Can a weary man lie down in bed—and not feel rested? Can the parched traveler in an African desert drink cool water—and not feel refreshed? Can the shivering sailor, in Arctic regions, draw near to the fire—and not feel warmed? Can the half-naked, hungry, homeless wanderer in our streets be clothed, fed, and housed—and not feel comforted? Can the fainting sick man receive the healing cordial—and not feel revived? I cannot believe it. I believe that in each case something will be felt. Just so I cannot believe that a man can be a true Christian if he does not feel something within. A new birth, a pardon of sins, a conscience sprinkled with Christ's blood, an indwelling of the Holy Spirit—are no such small matters as people seem to suppose. He who knows anything of them will feel them. There will be a real, distinct witness in his inward man.
Let us beware of a hope that is not felt, and a Christianity that is destitute of any inward experience. They are idols of the present day, and idols before which thousands are bowing down. Thousands are trying to persuade themselves that people may be born again, and have the Spirit, and yet not be sensible of it—or that people may be members of Christ, and receive benefit from Him, who have neither faith nor love towards His name. These are the favorite doctrines of modern days! These be the gods which have taken the place of Diana and Mercury, and "the image which fell down from Jupiter!" These be the last new deities invented by poor, weak, idolatrous man! From all such idols let us keep ourselves with jealous care. Golden as their heads may be—their feet are no better than clay! They cannot stand—they must, sooner or later, break down. Miserable indeed are the prospects of those who worship them! Their hope is not the hope of the Bible—it is the hope of a dead corpse. Where Christ and the Spirit are their presence will be felt!
Can anyone in his senses suppose that the apostle Paul would have been content with Christians who knew nothing of inward feelings? Can we imagine that mighty man of God sanctioning a religion which a person might have, and yet experience nothing within? Can we picture to ourselves a member of one of the Churches he founded, who was utterly unacquainted with peace, or joy, or confidence towards God, and was yet approved by the great apostle as a true believer! Away with the idea! It will not bear reflection for a moment. The testimony of Scripture is plain and explicit. Talk as people will about enthusiasm and excitement, there are such things as feelings in religion. The Christian who knows nothing of them is not yet converted, and has everything to learn. The cold marble of a Grecian statue may well be unimpassioned. The dried mummy from Egypt may well look stiff and still. The stuffed beast in a museum may well be motionless and cold. They are all lifeless things. But where there is life there will always be some feeling. The "good hope" is a hope that can be felt.
V. In the last place, a good hope is a hope that is manifested outwardly in the life. Once more, what says the Scripture? "Everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, even as He is pure." (1 John 3:3.) The man who has a good hope will show it in all his ways. It will influence his life, his character, and his daily conduct; it will make him strive to be a holy, godly, conscientious, spiritual man. He will feel under a constant obligation to serve and please Him from whom his hope comes. He will say to himself, "What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits to me?" He will feel, "I am bought with a price—let me glorify God with body and spirit, which are His." "Let me show forth the praises of Him who has called me out of darkness into His marvelous light." Let me prove that I am Christ's friend, "by keeping His commandments." (Psalm 116:12; 1 Cor 6:20; 1 Peter 2:9; John 15:14.)
This is a point which has been of infinite importance in every age of the Church. It is a truth which is always assailed by Satan, and needs guarding with jealous care. Let us grasp it firmly, and make it a settled principle in our religion. If there is light in a house it will shine through the windows—if there is any real hope in a man's soul it will be seen in his ways. Show me your hope in your life and daily behavior. Where is it? Wherein does it appear? If you cannot show it, you may be sure it is nothing better than a delusion and a snare.
The times demand a very distinct testimony from all ministers on this subject. The truth on this point requires very plain speaking. Let us settle it in our minds deeply, and beware of letting it go. Let no man deceive us with vain words. "He that does righteousness is righteous." "He that says he abides in Him, ought himself also so to walk, even as He walked." (1 John 2:6; 3:7.) The hope that does not make a man honest, honorable, truthful, sober, diligent, unselfish, loving, meek, kind, and faithful in all the relations of life, is not from God. It is only "the talk of the lips which tends to poverty." "He that boasts himself of a false gift, is like clouds and wind without rain." (Prov. 14:23; 25:14.)
(a) There are some in the present day who flatter themselves they have a good hope because they possess religious knowledge. They are acquainted with the letter of their Bibles; they can argue and dispute about points of doctrine—they can quote texts by the score, in defense of their own theological opinions. They are perfect Benjamites in controversy—they can "sling stones at an hair-breadth, and not miss." (Judges 20:16.) And yet they have no fruits of the Spirit, no love, no meekness, no gentleness, no humility, nothing of the mind that was in Christ. And have these people a true hope? Let those believe it who will, I dare not say so. I hold with Paul, "If I speak the languages of men and of angels, but do not have love, I am a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so that I can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I donate all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind. Love does not envy; is not boastful; is not conceited; does not act improperly; is not selfish; is not provoked; does not keep a record of wrongs; finds no joy in unrighteousness, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." Yes—hope without love is no hope at all.
(b) There are some again who presume to think they have a good hope because of God's everlasting election. They boldly persuade themselves that they were once called and chosen of God to salvation. They take it for granted that there was once a real work of the Spirit on their hearts, and that all therefore must be well. They look down upon others, who are afraid of professing as much as they do. They seem to think, "We are the people of God, we are the temple of the Lord, we are the favored servants of the Most High—we are those who shall reign in heaven, and none beside." And yet these very people can lie, and cheat, and swindle, and be dishonorable! Some of them can even get drunk in private, and secretly commit sins of which it is a shame to speak! And have they a good hope? God forbid that I should say so! The election which is not "unto sanctification" is not of God—but of the devil. The hope that does not make a man holy is no hope at all.
(c) There are some in this day who fancy they have a good hope because they like hearing the Gospel. They are fond of hearing good sermons. They will go miles to listen to some favorite preacher, and will even weep and be much affected by his words. To see them in church one would think, "Surely these are the disciples of Christ, surely these are excellent Christians!" And yet these very people can plunge into every folly and gaiety of the world. Night after night they can go with their whole heart to the opera, the theater, or the ball. They are to be seen on the race-course. They are advanced in every worldly revel. Their voice on Sunday is the voice of Jacob—but their hands on week days are the hands of Esau. And have these people a good hope? I dare not say so. "The friendship of the world is enmity with God;" the hope that does not prevent conformity to the world, is no hope at all. "Whoever is born of God overcomes the world." (James 4:4; 1 John 5:4.)
Let us beware of any hope that does not exercise a sanctifying influence over our hearts, lives, tastes, conduct, and conversation. It is a hope that never came down from above. It is mere base metal, and counterfeit coin. It lacks the mint-stamp of the Holy Spirit, and will never pass current in heaven. The man that has a real hope, no doubt, may be overtaken in a fault; He may stumble occasionally in his practice, and be drawn aside from the right path for a while. But the person who can allow himself in any willful and habitual breach of God's law, is rotten at the heart. He may talk of his hope as much as he pleases—but he has none in reality. His religion is a joy to the devil, a stumbling block to the world, a sorrow to true Christians, and an offence to God. Oh, that people would consider these things! Oh, that many would use some such prayer as this, "From antinomianism and hypocrisy, good Lord, deliver me!"
I have now done what I proposed to do. I have shown the five leading marks of a sound good hope.
(1) It is a hope that a man can explain.
(2) It is a hope that is drawn from Scripture.
(3) It is a hope that is founded on Christ.
(4) It is a hope that is felt within the heart.
(5) It is a hope that is manifested outwardly in the life.
Such, I firmly believe is the hope of all true Christians, of every name, and Church, and denomination, and people, and tongue. Such is the hope that we must have, if we mean to go to heaven. Such is the hope without which, I firmly believe, no man can be saved. Such is "the good hope through grace."
Allow me now to APPLY the whole subject to the conscience of every reader in a practical way. What shall it profit us to know truths unless we use them? What shall it avail us to see the real nature of a good hope unless the matter be brought home to our own souls? This is what I now propose to do, if God permits, in the remainder of this paper. May the Spirit of God apply my words to the heart of every reader of these pages with mighty power! Man may speak, and preach, and write—but God alone can convert!
(1) My first word of application shall be a QUESTION. I offer it to all who read this paper, and I entreat each reader to give it an answer. That question is, "What is your own hope about your soul?"
I do not ask this out of idle curiosity. I ask it as an ambassador for Christ, and a friend to your best interests. I ask it in order to stir up self-inquiry, and promote your spiritual welfare. I ask, "What is your hope about your soul?"
I do not want to know whether you go to church or chapel—there will be no account of these differences in heaven. I do not want to know whether you approve of the Gospel, and think it very right and proper that people should have their religion, and say their prayers; all this is beside the mark—it is not the point. The point I want you to look at is this, "What is your hope about your soul?"
It matters nothing what your relations think. It matters nothing what other people in the parish or town approve. The account of God will not be taken by towns, or by parishes, or by families—each must stand forth separately and answer for himself. "Everyone of us shall give account of himself to God." (Rom. 14:12.) And what is the defense you mean to set up? What is to be your plea? "What is your hope about your soul?"
Time is short, and is passing quickly away—in a few years, we shall be all dead and gone! The trees perhaps are cut down out of which our coffins will be made—the shrouds perhaps are woven which will surround our bodies—the spades perhaps are made which will dig our graves. Eternity draws near! There ought to be no trifling. "What, what is your hope about your soul?"
Another world will soon begin. Trade, politics, money, lands, cottages, palaces, eating, drinking, dressing, reading, playing, working, dancing, feasting—will soon be at an end forever. There will remain nothing but a heaven for some, and a hell for others! "What, what is your hope about your soul?"
I have asked my question. And now I ask every reader as in the sight of God, What is your reply?
Many would say—if they spoke the truth, "I don't know anything about it. I suppose I am not what I ought to be. I dare say I ought to have more religion than I have. I trust I shall have more some day. But as to any hope at present—I really don't know!"
I can quite believe that this is the state of many. I have seen enough of the spiritual ignorance of people to fill me with deep sorrow. I am convinced that there is no error, or heresy, or "ism," which is ruining so many souls as the heresy of ignorance. I am convinced that there are myriads of professors in England who do not even know the A B C's of Christianity, and are nothing better than baptized heathen! I have heard of a man, in his last days, whose only hope was, "that he had always kept his Church, and voted for the Blues." I have heard of a woman, who was asked on her death-bed where she hoped to go, and said, "She hoped she should go with the crowd." I have little doubt that there are thousands of people in this country who are much in the same condition, knowing nothing whatever about their state before God. If this be the condition of any reader of this paper, I can only say, May God convert you! May God awaken you! May God open your eyes before it is too late!
"When we deal with the carnal, secure, careless sinners (and they are a vast multitude), and ask them a reason of that hope of heaven they pretend to, is not this their common answer, "I live inoffensively; I keep God's law as well as I can; whenever I fail, I repent, and beg God's mercy for Christ's sake—my heart is sincere, though my knowledge and attainments be short of others." If we go on further to inquire what acquaintance they have with Jesus Christ? what application their souls have made to Him? what workings of faith on Him? what use they have made of His righteousness for justification, and of His Spirit for sanctification? what they know of living by faith on Jesus Christ?—we seem to be barbarians to them! And in this sad state thousands in England live, and die, and perish eternally. Yet so thick is the darkness of the age, that many of them live here and go hence with the reputation of good Christians; and some of them may have their funeral sermon and praise preached by an ignorant flattering minister; though it may be the poor creatures did never, in the whole course of their lives, nor at their deaths, employ Jesus Christ so much for any entry to heaven, purchased by His blood and accessible by faith in Him—as a poor Turk does Mahomet for a room in his beastly paradise!"—Traill.
Look at that man who goes to the Bank of England on a dividend day, and asks to be paid a large sum of money. Is his name down among the list of people to be paid? No!—Has he any title or right to claim payment? No! He has none! He only knows that other people are receiving money, and that he would like to receive some too. You know well that you would call the man "out of his mind;" you would say he was nothing better than a madman. But stop! Take care what you are saying! You are the real madman, if you mean to claim heaven at last, when you have no title, no warrant, no ground of hope to show. Once more, I say—May God open your eyes!
But many, I believe, would reply to my question that "they have hope." They would say, "I am not as bad as some, at any rate. I am no heathen. I am no infidel. I have some hope about my soul."
If this be your case, I beseech you to consider calmly what your hope really is. I entreat you not to be content with saying, like a parrot, "I hope—I hope—I hope;" but to examine seriously into the nature of your confidence, and to make sure that it is well-founded. Is it a hope you can explain? Is it scriptural? Is it built on Christ? Is it felt in your heart? Is it sanctifying to your life? All is not gold that glitters. I have warned you already that there is a false hope as well as a true hope—I offer the warning again. I beseech you to take heed that you be not deceived. Beware of mistakes.
There are ships lying quietly in London docks, about to sail for every part of the globe. They all look equally trustworthy, so long as they are in harbor; they have all equally good names, and are equally well-rigged and painted—but they are not all equally well-built and equally safe. Once let them put to sea, and meet with rough weather, and the difference between the sound and unsound ships will soon appear. Many a ship which looked well in dock has proved not sea-worthy when she got into deep water, and has gone down at last with all hands on board! Just so it is with many a false hope. It has failed completely, when most needed—it has broken down at last, and ruined its possessor's soul. You will soon have to put to sea. I say again, beware of mistakes!
I leave my question here. I earnestly pray that God may apply it to the hearts of all who read this paper. I am sure it is much needed. I believe there never was a time when there was so much counterfeit religion current, and so many "false hopes" passing off for true. There never was a time when there was so much high profession, and so little spiritual practice, so much loud talk about preachers, and parties, and Churches, and so little close walking with God, and real work of the Spirit. There is no lack of blossoms in Christendom—but there is a melancholy scarcity of ripe fruit. There is an abundance of controversial theology—but a dearth of practical holiness. There are myriads who have a name to live—but few whose hearts are really given to Jesus Christ—few whose affections are really set on things above. There will be some awful failures yet in many quarters—there will be still more awful disclosures at the last day. There are many hopes now-a-days, which are utterly destitute of foundation. I say, for the last time, Beware of mistakes.
(2) My second word of application shall be a REQUEST. I make it to all readers of this paper who feel they have no hope and desire to have it. It is a short simple request. I entreat them to seek "a good hope" while it can be found.
A good hope is within the reach of any man, if he is only willing to seek it. It is called emphatically in Scripture, a "good hope through grace." It is freely offered, even as it was freely purchased—it may be freely obtained, "without money and without price." Our past lives do not make it impossible to obtain it, however bad they may have been; our present weaknesses and infirmities do not shut us out, however great they may be. The same grace which provided mankind with a hope, makes a free, full, and unlimited invitation. "Whoever will, let him take the water of life freely." "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find." (Rev. 22:17; Matt. 7:7.)
The Lord Jesus Christ is able and willing to give "a good hope" to all who really want it. He is sealed and appointed by God the Father to give the bread of life to all who hunger, and the water of life to all who thirst. "It pleased the Father that in Him should all fullness dwell." (Coloss. 1:19.) In Him there is pardon and peace with God, bought by the precious blood which He shed upon the cross. In Him there is joy and peace for any believer, and a solid, well-grounded expectation of good things to come. In Him there is rest for the weary, refuge for the fearful, a cleansing fountain for the unclean, medicine for the sick, healing for the broken-hearted, and hope for the lost. Whoever feels laboring and heavy-laden with sin, whoever feels anxious and distressed about his soul, whoever feels afraid of death and unfit to die—whoever he is, let him go to Christ and trust in Him. This is the thing to be done—this is the way to follow. Whoever wants "hope," let him go to Christ.
If any reader of this paper really wants to enjoy a good hope, let him seek it from the Lord Jesus Christ. There is every encouragement to do so. The Thessalonians in old time were, like the Ephesians, dead in trespasses and sins, having no hope, and without God in the world; but when Paul preached Jesus to them, they arose from their miserable state and became new people. God gave them a "good hope through grace." The door through which Manasseh and Magdalene entered, is still open! The fountain in which Zacchaeus and Matthew were washed, is still unsealed! Seek hope from Christ, and you shall find it.
Seek it honestly, and with no secret reserve. The ruin of many is that they are not fair and straightforward. They say that they "try as much as they can," and that they really "want to be saved," and that they really "look to Christ;" and yet in the chamber of their own heart there lies some darling sin, to which they privately cling, and are resolved not to give it up. They are like Augustine, who said, "Lord convert me—but not now." Seek honestly, if you wish to find a good hope.
Seek it in humble prayer. Pour out your heart before the Lord Jesus, and tell Him all the needs of your soul. Do as you would have done had you lived in Galilee eighteen hundred years ago, and had a leprosy—go directly to Christ, and lay before Him your cares! Tell Him that you are a poor, sinful creature—but that you have heard He is a gracious Savior, and that you come to Him for "hope" for your soul. Tell Him that you have nothing to say for yourself—no excuse to make, nothing of your own to plead—but that you have heard that He "receives sinners," and as such you come to Him. (Luke 15:2.)
Seek it at once without delay. Halt no more between two opinions—do not linger another day. Cast away the remnants of pride which are still keeping you back—draw near to Jesus as a heavy-laden sinner, and "lay hold upon the hope set before you." (Heb. 6:18.) This is the point to which all must come at last if they mean to be saved. Sooner or later they must knock at the door of grace and ask to be admitted. Why not do it at once? Why stand still looking at the bread of life? Why not come forward and eat it? Why remain outside the city of refuge? Why not enter in and be safe? Why not seek hope at once, and never rest until you find it? Never did soul seek honestly in the way I have marked out, and fail to find.
The words of Traill on this point of coming to Christ by faith, deserve many thoughts. They throw light on a subject which is constantly misunderstood. He says, "When we come to deal with a poor, awakened sinner, who sees his lost estate, and that he is condemned by the law of God, we find the same principles (pride and ignorance) working in him. We see him sick and wounded—we tell him where his help lies, in Jesus Christ; and what his proper work is, to apply to Him by faith. What is his answer—'Alas,' says the man, 'I have been, and I am so vile a sinner, my heart is so bad, and so full of plagues and corruptions, that I cannot think of believing on Christ. But if I had but repentance, and some holiness in heart and life, and such and such gracious qualifications—I would then believe.' This his answer is as full of nonsense, ignorance and pride, as words can contain or express. It implies—
(1) If I were pretty well recovered, I would employ the Physician, Christ.
(2) There is some hope to work out these good things by myself, without Christ.
(3) When I come to Christ with a price in my hand I shall be welcome.
(4) I can come to Christ when I will.
So ignorant are people naturally of faith in Jesus Christ; and no words, or warnings, or plainest instructions can beat into men's heads and hearts that the first coming to Christ by faith, and believing on Him, is not a believing we shall be saved by Him—but a believing on Him, that we may be saved by Him."—Traill's Works.
(3) My last word of application shall be COUNSEL. I offer it to all who have really obtained "good hope through grace." I offer it to all who are really leaning on Christ, walking in the narrow way, and led by the Spirit of God. I ask them to accept advice from one who hopes that he is "their brother and companion in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ" (Rev. 1:9.) I believe the advice to be sound and good.
(a) If you have a good hope be zealous and watchful over it. Beware that Satan does not steal it away for a season, as he did from David and Peter. Beware that you do not lose sight of it by giving way to inconsistencies, and by conformity to the world. Examine it often, and make sure that it is not becoming dim. Keep it bright by daily carefulness over your temper, thoughts, and words. Keep it healthy by hearty, fervent, and continual prayer. The hope of the Christian is a very delicate plant. It is an exotic from above—it is not a plant of natural growth. It is easily chilled and nipped by the cold frosts of this world. Unless watered and tended carefully, it will soon dwindle away to a mere nothing, and scarcely be felt or seen. None find out this so painfully as dying believers who have not walked very closely with God. They find that they have sown thorns in their dying pillows, and brought clouds between themselves and the sun.
(b) For another thing, if you have a good hope, keep it always ready. Have it at your right hand, prepared for immediate use—look at it often, and take care that it is in good order. Trials often break in upon us suddenly, like an armed man. Sicknesses and injuries to our mortal frame sometimes lay us low on our beds without any warning. Happy is he who keeps his lamp well trimmed, and lives in the daily sense of communion with Christ!
Did you ever see a fire-engine in some old country house? Did you ever remark how often it lies for months in a dark shed, untouched, unexamined, and uncleaned? The valves are out of order; the leather hose is full of holes; the pumps are rusty and stiff. A house might be almost burnt to the ground before it could lift a pailful of water. In its present state it is a well-near useless machine.
Did you ever see a ship in dock at harbor? The hull may perhaps be good and sound; the keel and topsides, and timbers and beams, and decks may be all that you could desire. But she is not rigged, or stored, or armed, or fit for service. It would take weeks and months to make her ready for sea. In her present state she could do little for her country's defense. The hope of many a believer is like that fire-engine, and that ship. It exists, it lives, it is real, it is true, it is sound—it is good—it came down from heaven—it was implanted by the Holy Spirit. But, alas, it is not ready for use! Its possessor will find that out, by his own lack of joy and sensible comfort, when he comes to his death-bed. Beware that your hope be not a hope of this kind. If you have a hope keep it ready for use, and within reach of your hand.
(c) For another thing, if you have a good hope, seek and pray that it may grow more and more strong every year. Do not be content with a "day of small things;" covet the best gifts—desire to enjoy full assurance. Strive to attain to Paul's standard, and to be able to say, "I know whom I have believed." "I am persuaded that neither death nor life shall separate me from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ." (2 Tim. 1:12; Rom. 8:38.)
Believe me, this part of my counsel is one that deserves close attention. Believe me, the things before us all will try our hope of what sort it is. Sickness and death are solemn things. They strip off all the tinsel and paint from a man's religion; they discover the weak places in our Christianity; they strain our hopes to the very uttermost, and often make us well near despair. Old Christian, in Pilgrim's Progress, had a sore trial at his latter end in crossing the cold river before he entered the celestial city. Faithful and true as he was, he still cried out, "All your billows go over me," and had a hard struggle to keep his footing. May we all lay this to heart! May we seek to know and feel that we are one with Christ and Christ in us! He that has hope does well; but he that has assurance does better. Blessed indeed are they who "abound in hope through the power of the Holy Spirit." (Rom. 15:13.)
(d) Finally, if you have a good hope, be thankful for it, and give God daily praise. Who has made you to differ from the perishing world around you? Why have you been taught to feel your sins, and nothingness, while others are ignorant and self-righteous? Why have you been taught to look to Jesus, while others are looking to their own goodness, or resting on some mere form of religion? Why are you longing and striving to be holy, while others are caring for nothing but this world? Why are these things so? There is but one answer, Grace, grace, free grace, has done it all. For that grace praise God. For that grace be thankful.
Go on, then, to your journey's end, "rejoicing in hope of the glory of God." (Rom. 5:2.) Go on, rejoicing in the thought that though you are a poor sinner Jesus is a most gracious Savior, and that though you have trials here for a little season, heaven shall soon make amends for all.
Go on, wearing hope as a helmet in all the battles of life—a hope of pardon, a hope of perseverance, a hope of acquittal in the judgment day, a hope of final glory. Put on the breast-plate of righteousness; take the shield of faith; have your loins girt about with truth; wield valiantly the sword of the Spirit. But never forget—as ever you would be a happy Christian—never forget to put on the "helmet of hope." (1 Thess. 5:8.)
Go on, in spite of an ill-natured world, and be not moved by its laughter or its persecution, its slanders or its sneers. Comfort your heart with the thought that the time is short, the good things yet to come, the night far spent, the "morning without clouds" at hand. (2 Sam. 23:4.) When the wicked man dies his expectation perishes; but your expectation shall not deceive you—your reward is sure.
Go on, and be not cast down because you are troubled by doubts and fears. You are yet in the body—this world is not your rest. The devil hates you because you have escaped from him, and he will do all he can to rob you of peace. The very fact that you have fears is an evidence that you feel you have something to lose. The true Christian may ever be discerned by his warfare—quite as much as by his peace; and by his fears—quite as much as by his hopes. The ships at anchor may swing to and fro with the tide, and pitch heavily in a south-eastern gale; but so long as their anchors hold the ground they ride safely, and have no cause to fear. The hope of the true Christian is the "anchor of his soul, sure and steadfast." (Heb. 6:19.) His heart may be tossed to and fro sometimes—but he is safe in Christ. The waves may swell, and lift him up and down—but he will not be wrecked.
Go on, and "hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ." (1 Pet. 1:13.) Yet a little time, and faith shall be changed to sight, and hope to certainty—you shall see even as you have been seen, and know even as you have been known. A few more tossings to and fro on the waves of this troublesome world—a few more battles and conflicts with our spiritual enemy—a few more years of tears and partings, of working and suffering, of crosses and cares, of disappointments and vexations, and then—then we shall be at home! The harbor lights are already in view—the haven of rest is not far off. There we shall find all that we have hoped for, and find that it was a million times better than our hopes. There we shall find all the saints, and no sin, no cares of this world, no money, no sickness, no death, no devil. There, above all, we shall find Jesus, and be ever with the Lord! (1 Thess. 4:17.) Let us hope on. It is worth while to carry the cross and follow Christ. Let the world laugh and mock, if it will; it is worth while to have "a good hope through grace," and be a thorough decided Christian. I say again—Let us hope on!
Excerpt from Old Paths by J. C. Ryle (free eBook)