Article of the Month
by J.C. Ryle
“Flee from idolatry”
Our text for today may seem at first to be hardly needed in our country. In an age of education and intelligence, we might almost fancy it is waste of time to tell us to “flee from idolatry.”
I am bold to say that this is a great mistake. I believe that we have come to a time when the subject of idolatry demands a thorough and searching investigation. I believe that idolatry is near us, all around us, and in the midst of us, to a very fearful extent. The second commandment, in one word, is in danger. “The plague is begun.”
Without further preface, I propose to consider the following four points:
I feel that the subject is encompassed with many difficulties. Our lot is cast in an age when truth is constantly in danger of being sacrificed to “toleration,” “love,” and “peace,” falsely so-called. Nevertheless, I cannot forget, as a minister, that the Church has given little or no warnings on the subject of idolatry; and, unless I am greatly mistaken, truth about idolatry is, in the highest sense, truth for the times.
I. Let me, then, first of all supply a definition of idolatry. Let me show WHAT IT IS.
It is of the utmost importance that we should understand this. Unless I make this clear, I can do nothing with the subject. Vagueness and indistinctness prevail upon this point, as upon almost every other in religion. The Christian who desires not be continually running aground in his spiritual voyage, must have his channel well buoyed, and his mind well stored with clear definitions.
I say then, that Idolatry is a worship, in which the honor due to the Triune God, and to God only, is given to some of His creatures, or to some invention of His creatures.
It may vary. It may assume different forms, according to the ignorance or the knowledge—the civilization or the barbarism, of those who offer it. It may be grossly absurd and ludicrous, or it may closely border on truth, and being most superficially defended. But whether in the adoration of the idol of Juggernaut, or in the adoration of the Pope in St. Peter’s at Rome, the principle of idolatry is in reality the same. In either case the honor due to God is turned aside from Him, and bestowed on that which is not God. And whenever this is done, whether in heathen temples or in professedly Christian Churches, there is an act of idolatry.
It is not necessary, for a man to formally deny God and Christ, in order to be an idolater. Far from it. Professed reverence for the God of the Bible and actual idolatry, are perfectly compatible. They have often been done side by side, and they still do so. The children of Israel never thought of renouncing God when they persuaded Aaron to make the golden calf. “Here are your gods,” they said, “who brought you up out of Egypt.” And the feast in honor of the calf was kept as a “festival to the LORD (Jehovah)” (Exodus 32:4, 5).
Jeroboam, again, never pretended to ask the ten tribes to cast off their allegiance to the God of David and Solomon. When he set up the calves of gold in Dan and Bethel, he only said, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt” (1 Kings 12:28).
In both instances, we should observe, the idol was not set up as a rival to God, but under the pretense of being a help—a steppingstone to His service. But, in both instances, a great sin was committed. The honor due to God was given to a visible representation of Him. The majesty of Jehovah was offended. The second commandment was broken. There was, in the eyes of God, a flagrant act of idolatry.
Let us mark this well. It is high time to dismiss from our minds those loose ideas about idolatry, which are common in this day. We must not think, as many do, that there are only two sorts of idolatry—the spiritual idolatry of the man who loves his wife, or child, or money more than God; and the open, gross idolatry of the man who bows down to an image of wood, or metal, or stone, because he knows no better. We may rest assured that idolatry is a sin, which occupies a far wider field than this. It is not merely a thing in pagan lands, that we may hear of and pity at missionary meetings; nor yet is it a thing confined to our own hearts, that we may confess before the mercy-seat upon our knees. It is a pestilence that walks in the Church of the Living Christ to a much greater extent than many suppose. It is an evil that, like the man of sin, “that sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God” (2 Thessalonians 2:4).
It is a sin that we all need to watch and pray against continually. It creeps into our religious worship unnoticed, and is upon us before we are aware. Those are tremendous words which Isaiah spoke to the faithful Jew—not to the worshiper of Baal, remember, to the man who actually came to the temple (Isaiah 66:3): “Whoever sacrifices a bull is like one who kills a man, and whoever offers a lamb, like one who breaks a dog’s neck; whoever makes a grain offering is like one who presents pig’s blood, and whoever burns memorial incense, like one who worships an idol.”
This is that sin which God has especially denounced in His Word. One commandment out of ten is devoted to the prohibition of it. Not one of all the ten contains such a solemn declaration of God’s character, and of His judgments against the disobedient: “I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (Exodus 20:5). Not one, perhaps, of all the ten is so emphatically repeated and amplified, and especially in the fourth chapter of the book of Deuteronomy. This is the sin, of all others, to which the Jews seem to have been most inclined to commit before the destruction of Solomon’s temple. What is the history of Israel under their judges and kings but a sorrowful record of repeated falling away into idolatry? Again and again we read of “high places” and “false gods.” Again and again we read of captivities and chastisements on account of idolatry. Again and again we read of a return to the old sin. It seems as if the love of idols among the Jews was naturally bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh. The besetting sin of the Old Testament Church, in one word, was idolatry. In the face of the most elaborate ceremonial ordinances that God ever gave to His people, Israel was incessantly turning aside after idols, and worshipping the work of men’s hands.
This is the sin, of all others, which has brought down the heaviest judgments on the visible Church. It brought on Israel the armies of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. It scattered the ten tribes, burned up Jerusalem, and carried Judah and Benjamin into captivity. It brought on the Eastern Churches, in later days, the overwhelming flood of the Muslim invasion, and turned many a spiritual garden into a wilderness. The desolation which reigns where Cyprian and Augustine once preached, the living death in which the Churches of Asia Minor and Syria are buried, are all attributable to this sin. All testify to the same great truth which the Lord proclaims in Isaiah: “I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols” (Isaiah 42:8).
Let us gather up these things in our minds, and ponder them well. Idolatry is a subject which, in every Christian Church, that wants to keep herself pure, should be thoroughly examined, understood, and known. It is not for nothing that Paul lays down the stern command, “Flee from idolatry.”
II. Let me show, in the second place, the cause to which idolatry may be traced. WHERE DOES IT COME FROM?
To the man who takes an extravagant and exalted view of human intellect and reason, idolatry may seem absurd. He fancies it too irrational for any but weak minds to be endangered by it.
To a mere superficial thinker about Christianity, the peril of idolatry may seem very small. Whatever commandments are broken, such a man will tell us, professing Christians are not very likely to transgress the second.
Now, both these persons betray a woeful ignorance of human nature. They do not see that there are secret roots of idolatry within us all. The prevalence of idolatry in all ages among the heathen must necessarily puzzle the one—the warnings of Protestant ministers against idolatry in the Church must necessarily appear uncalled for to the other. Both are alike blind to its cause.
The cause of all idolatry is the natural corruption of man’s heart. That great family disease, with which all the children of Adam are infected from their birth, shows itself in this, as it does in a thousand other ways. Out of the same fountain from which “come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly” (Mark 7:21, 22)—out of that same fountain arise false views of God, and false views of the worship due to Him, and, therefore, when the Apostle Paul tells the Galatians (Galatians 5:20) what are the “works of the flesh,” he places prominently among them “idolatry.”
Man will have some kind of a religion. God has not left Himself without a witness in us all, fallen as we are. Like old inscriptions hidden under mounds of rubbish, there is a dim something—engraved at the bottom of man’s heart, however faint and half-erased—a something which makes him feel he must have a religion and a worship of some kind. The proof of this is to be found in the history of voyages and travels in every part of the globe. The exceptions to the rule are so few, if indeed there are any, that they only confirm its truth. Man’s worship in some dark corner of the earth may rise no higher than a vague fear of an evil spirit, and a desire to appease him; but a worship of some kind man will have.
But then comes in the effect of the fall. Ignorance of God, carnal and low conceptions of His nature and attributes, earthly and sensual notions of the service, which is acceptable to Him, all characterize the religion of the natural man. There is a craving in his mind after something he can see, and feel, and touch. He is eager to bring his God down to his own crawling level. He would make his religion a thing of sense and sight. He has no idea of the religion of heart, and faith, and spirit. In short, just as he is willing to live on God’s earth, until renewed by grace, a fallen and degraded life, so he has no objection to the worship of idols, until renewed, by the Holy Spirit. In one word, idolatry is a natural product of man’s heart. It is a weed, which like the uncultivated earth, the heart is always ready to bring forth.
And now does it surprise us, when we read of the constantly recurring idolatries of the Old Testament Church, of Baal, and Moloch, and Ashtaroth—of high places and hill altars, and groves and images—and this in the full light of the Mosaic ceremonial? Let us cease to be surprised. It can be accounted for. There is a cause.
Does it surprise us when we read in history, how idolatry crept in by degrees into the Christian Church, how little by little it thrust out Gospel truth, until, in Canterbury, men offered more at the shrine of Thomas a’Becket, than they did at the shrine of the Virgin Mary, and more at the shrine of Virgin Mary, than at the shrine of Christ? Let us cease to be surprised. It is all intelligible. There is a cause.
Does it surprise us when we hear of men going over from Protestant Churches to the Roman Catholic Church, in the present day? Do we think it impossible, and feel as if we ourselves could never forsake a pure form of worship for one like that of the Roman Catholic Church? Let us cease to be surprised. There is a solution for the problem. There is a cause.
That cause is nothing else but the corruption of man’s heart. There is a natural proneness and tendency in us all, to give God a sensual, carnal worship, and not that, which is commanded in His Word. We are always ready, by reason of our laziness and unbelief, to devise visible helps and stepping-stones in our approaches to Him, and ultimately to give these inventions of our own the honor due to Him. In fact, idolatry is all natural, downhill, easy, like the broad way. Spiritual worship is all of grace, all uphill, and all against the grain. Any worship whatsoever is more pleasing to the natural heart, than worshipping God in the way, which our Lord Christ describes, “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23).
I, for one, am not surprised at the quantity of idolatry existing, both in the world and in the visible Church. I believe it perfectly possible that we may yet live to see far more of it than some have ever dreamed of. It would never surprise me if some mighty personal Antichrist were to arise before the end—mighty in intellect, mighty in talents for government, yes, and mighty, perhaps, in miraculous gifts too. It would never surprise me to see such a one as him setting up himself in opposition to Christ, and forming an Agnostic conspiracy against the Gospel.
I believe that many would rejoice to do him honor, who now glory in saying, “We will not have this Christ to reign over us.” I believe that many would make a god of him, and reverence him as an incarnation of truth, and concentrate their idea of hero-worship on his person. I advance it as a possibility, and no more. But of this at least I am certain, that no man is less safe from danger of idolatry than the man who now sneers at every form of religion; and that from belief to unbelief, from Atheism to the grossest idolatry, there is but a single step. Let us not think, that idolatry is an old-fashioned sin, into which we are never likely to fall. “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” We shall do well to look into our own hearts: the seeds of idolatry are all there. We should remember the words of Paul, “Flee from idolatry.”
III. Let me show, in the third place, the forms which idolatry has assumed, and does assume in the visible Church. WHERE IS IT?
I believe there never was a more baseless fabric than the theory, which obtains favor with many—that the promises of perpetuity and preservation from apostasy, belong to the visible Church of Jesus Christ. It is a theory supported neither by Scripture nor by facts. The Church against which “the gates of Hades will not overcome,” is not the visible Church, but the whole body of the elect, the company of true believers out of every nation and people. The greater part of the visible Church has frequently maintained gross heresies. The particular branches of it are never secure against deadly error, both in faith and practice. A departure from the faith—a falling away—a leaving of first love in any branch of the visible Church, need never surprise a careful reader of the New Testament.
That idolatry would arise, seems to have been the expectation of the Apostles, even before the canon of the New Testament was closed. It is remarkable to observe how Paul dwells on this subject in his Epistle to the Corinthians. If any Corinthian called a brother an idolater, with such a man the members of the Church were not to even eat with (1 Corinthians 5:11). “Do not be idolaters, as some of them were” (1 Corinthians 10:7). He says again, in our text for today, “My dear friends, flee from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14). When he writes to the Colossians, he warns them against the “worshipping of angels” (Colossians 2:18). And John closes his first Epistle with the solemn injunction, “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). It is impossible not to feel that all these passages imply an expectation that idolatry would soon arise, among professing Christians.
The last passage I will call attention to, is the conclusion of the ninth chapter of Revelation. We read there, in the twentieth verse: “The rest of mankind that were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood—idols that cannot see or hear or walk.” Now, I am not going to offer any comment on the chapter in which this verse occurs. I know well there is a difference of opinion as to the true interpretation of the plagues predicted in it. I only venture to assert, that it is the highest probability these plagues are to fall upon the visible Church of Jesus Christ; and the highest improbability, that John was here prophesying about the heathen, who never heard the Gospel. And this once conceded, the fact that idolatry is a predicted sin of the visible Church, does seem most conclusively and forever established.
And now, if we turn from the Bible to facts, what do we see? I reply, without a second thought, that there is unmistakable proof that Scripture warnings and predictions were not spoken without cause, and that idolatry has actually arisen in the visible Church of Christ, and does still exist.
The rise and progress of the evil in former days, we shall find well summed up in the sermon “Peril of Idolatry.” To that I beg to refer all Christians, reminding them once for all, how, even in the fourth century, Jerome complains, “that the false doctrine of images have come in, and passed to the Christians from the Gentiles;” and Eusebius says, “We do see, that images of Peter and Paul, and of our Savior Himself are made, which I think to have been derived and kept indifferently by an heathenish custom.” There we may also read,
And there we may read the conclusion with which the sermon winds up its historical summary, “that the congregation and the clergy, learned and unlearned, all ages, sorts, and degrees of men, women and children of whole Christendom, have been at once drowned in abominable idolatry, of all other vices most detested by God, and most damnable to man, and that in the space of 800 years.”
This is a mournful account, but it is only too true. There can be little doubt the evil began even before the time just mentioned by the sermon writer. No man, I think, need wonder at the rise of idolatry in the Early Church who considers calmly the excessive reverence which it paid, from the very first, to the visible parts of religion. I believe that no impartial man can read the language used by nearly all the Fathers about the Church, the bishops, the ministry, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the martyrs, and the dead saints, generally—no man can read it without being struck with the wide difference between their language and the language of Scripture on such subjects. You seem at once to be in a new atmosphere. You feel that you are no longer treading on holy ground. You find that things, which in the Bible are evidently of second-rate importance, are here made of first-rate importance.
You find the things of sense and sight exalted to a position in which Paul, and Peter, and James, and John, speaking by the Holy Spirit, never for a moment placed them. It is not merely the weakness of uninspired writings that you have to complain of; it is something worse; it is a new system. And what is the explanation of all this? It is, in one word, that you have gotten into a region where the malaria of idolatry has begun to arise. You perceive the first workings of the mystery of iniquity. You detect the buds of that huge system of idolatry which, as the sermon describes, was afterwards formally acknowledged, and ultimately blossomed in every part of Christendom.
But let us now turn from the past to the present. Let us examine the question which most concerns ourselves. Let us consider in what form idolatry presents itself to us, as a sin of the visible Church of Christ in our own time.
I find no difficulty in answering this question. I feel no hesitation in affirming that idolatry never yet assumed a more glaring form than it does in the Roman Catholic Church in this present day.
And here I come to a subject on which it is hard to speak, because of the times we live in. But the whole truth ought to be spoken by ministers of Christ, without respect of times and prejudices. And I could not lie down in peace, after preaching on idolatry, if I did not declare my solemn conviction that idolatry is one of the crying sins of which the Roman Catholic Church is guilty. I say this in all sadness. I say it, acknowledging fully that we have our faults in the Protestant Church; and practically, perhaps, in some quarters, a little idolatry. But from formal, recognized, systematic idolatry, I believe we are almost entirely free. While, as for the Roman Catholic Church, if there is not in her worship, an enormous quantity of systematic, organized idolatry, I frankly confess then I do not know what idolatry is.
I know well that language like this jars the minds of many. Men love to shut their eyes against evils which is disagreeable. They will not see things which involve unpleasant consequences. That the Roman Catholic Church is an erring church, they will acknowledge. That she is idolatrous, they will deny.
They tell us that the reverence which the Roman Catholic Church gives to saints and images does not amount to idolatry. They inform us that there are distinctions between the kinds of worship—that God deserves the “strong worship” and the saints and images get a lesser worship. That there is a distinction between a mediator of redemption, and a mediator of intercession, which clear the church of the charge of idolatry. My answer is, that the Bible knows nothing of such distinctions; and that, in the actual practice of the great bulk of Roman Catholics, there is no distinction at all.
They tell us, that it is a mistake to suppose that Roman Catholics really worship the images and pictures before which they perform acts of adoration; that they only use them as helps to devotion, and in reality look far beyond them. My answer is, that many a heathen could say just as much for his idolatry—that it is well-known, in former days, they did say so—and that in Hindu religion many idol-worshippers do say the same even in the present day. But the apology does not help. The terms of the second commandment are too stringent. It prohibits “bowing down,” as well as worshipping. And the very anxiety which the Roman Catholic Church has often displayed to exclude that second commandment from her catechisms, is of itself a great fact which speaks volumes to a candid observer.
They tell us that we have no evidence for the assertions we make on this subject; that we found our charges on the abuses which prevail among the ignorant members of the Roman Catholic Church; and that it is absurd to say that a Church containing so many wise and learned men, is guilty of idolatry. My answer is, that the devotional books in common use among Roman Catholics supply us with unmistakable evidence. Let any one examine that well known Catholic book, “The Garden of the Soul,” if he doubts my assertion, and read the language there addressed to the Virgin Mary. Let him remember that this language is addressed to a woman, who, though highly favored, and the mother of our Lord, was yet one of our fellow-sinners—to a woman, who actually confesses her need of a Savior for herself. She says, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:47).
Let him examine this language in the light of the New Testament, and then let him tell us fairly, whether the charge of idolatry is not correctly made. But I answer, beside this, that we need no better evidence than that which is supplied in the city of Rome itself. What do men and women do under the light of the Pope’s own countenance? What is the religion that prevails around St. Peter’s and under the walls of the Vatican? What is Romanism at Rome, unfettered, unshackled, and free to develop itself in full perfection? Let a man honestly answer these questions, and I ask no more. Let him read such a book as Seymour’s “Pilgrimage to Rome,” or “Alford’s Letters,” and ask any visitor to Rome if the picture is too highly colored. Let him do this, I say, and I believe he cannot avoid the conclusion, that Romanism in perfection is a gigantic system of Church-worship, Sacrament-worship, Mary-worship, saint-worship, image-worship, relic-worship, and priest-worship—that it is, in one word, a huge organized idolatry.
I know how painful these things sound to many ears. To me it is no pleasure to dwell on the shortcomings of any who profess and call themselves Christians. I can truly say, that I have said what I have said with pain and sorrow.
I draw a wide distinction between the accredited dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church and the private opinions of many of her members. I believe and hope that many a Roman Catholic is in his heart inconsistent with his profession, and is better than the Church to which he belongs. I believe that many a poor Italian at this day is worshipping with an idolatrous worship, simply because he knows no better. He has no Bible to instruct him. He has no faithful minister to teach him. He has the fear of the priest before his eyes, if he dares to think for himself. He has no money to enable him to get away from the bondage he lives under, even if he feels a desire. I remember all this, and I say that the Italian eminently deserves our sympathy and compassion. But all this must not prevent my saying that the Roman Catholic Church is an idolatrous Church.
I would not be faithful if I said less. The Church of which I am a minister has spoken out most strongly on the subject. The sermon on the “Perils of Idolatry,” and the solemn protest in our own Church of England writings, which denounces the adoration of the Sacramental bread and wine as “idolatry to be abhorred of all faithful Christians,” are plain evidences that I have said no more than the mind of my own Church. And in a day like this, when some are disposed to break away to the Roman Catholic Church, and many are shutting their eyes to her real character, and wanting us to be reunited to her, in a day like this, my own conscience would rebuke me if I did not warn men plainly that the Roman Catholic Church is an idolatrous Church, and that if they will join her they are “joining themselves to idols.”
But I will not dwell any longer on this part of my subject. The main point I wish to impress on men’s minds is this—that idolatry has decidedly manifested itself in the visible Church of Christ, and nowhere so decidedly as in the Roman Catholic Church.
IV. And now let me show, in the last place, the ultimate termination of all idolatry. WHAT WILL END IT?
I consider that man’s soul must be in an unhealthy state who does not long for the time when idolatry shall be no more. That heart can hardly be right with God which can think of the millions who are sunk in heathenism, or honor the false prophet Mohammed, or daily offer up prayers to the Virgin Mary, and not cry, “O my God, when shall the end come of these things? How long, O Lord, how long?
Here, as in other subjects, the sure word of prophecy comes to our aid. The end of all idolatry shall one day come. Its doom is fixed. Its overthrow is certain. Whether in heathen temples, or in so-called Christian Churches, idolatry shall be destroyed at the Second Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Then shall the prophecies be fulfilled:
“The idols will totally disappear” (Isaiah 2:18).
“I will destroy your carved images and your sacred stones from among you; you will no longer bow down to the work of your hands” (Micah 5:13).
“The LORD will be awesome to them when he destroys all the gods of the land. The nations on every shore will worship him, every one in its own land” (Zephaniah 2:11).
“On that day, I will banish the names of the idols from the land, and they will be remembered no more,” declares the LORD Almighty. I will remove both the prophets and the spirit of impurity from the land” (Zechariah 13:2).
In a word the 97th Psalm will then receive its fulfillment: “The LORD reigns, let the earth be glad; let the distant shores rejoice. Clouds and thick darkness surround him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. Fire goes before him and consumes his foes on every side. His lightning lights up the world; the earth sees and trembles. The mountains melt like wax before the LORD, before the Lord of all the earth. The heavens proclaim his righteousness, and all the peoples see his glory. All who worship images are put to shame, those who boast in idols—worship him, all you gods!”
The second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ is that blessed hope which should always comfort the children of God under the present dispensation. It is the guiding star by which we must journey. It is the one point on which all our expectations should be concentrated. “For in just a very little while, `He who is coming will come and will not delay’ (Hebrews 10:37).” Our David shall no longer dwell in Adullam, followed by a despised few, and rejected by the many. He shall take to Himself His great power, and reign, and cause every knee to bow before Him.
Till then our redemption is not perfectly enjoyed; as Paul tells the Ephesians, “You were sealed for the day of redemption” (Ephesians 4:30). Till then our salvation is not completed; as Peter says of Christians, “who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5). Till then our knowledge is still defective; as Paul tells the Corinthians: “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). In short, our best things are yet to come.
But in the day of our Lord’s return every desire shall receive its fulfillment. We shall no more be pressed down and worn out with the sense of constant failure, feebleness, and disappointment. In His presence we shall find there is a fullness of joy; and when we awake we will be satisfied with seeing His likeness (Psalm 16:11; 17:15).
There are many abominations now in the visible Church, over which we can only sigh and cry, like the faithful in Ezekiel’s day (Ezekiel 9:4). We cannot remove them. The wheat and the weeds will grow together until the harvest. But a day comes when the Lord Jesus shall once more purify His temple, and cast forth everything that defiles. He shall do that work of which the doing of Hezekiah and Josiah were a faint type long ago. He shall cast forth the images, and purge out idolatry in every shape.
Who is there now that longs for the conversion of the heathen world? You will not see it in its fullness until the Lord’s appearing. Then, and not till then, will that often misapplied text be fulfilled: “In that day men will throw away to the rodents and bats their idols of silver and idols of gold, which they made to worship” (Isaiah 2:20).
Who is there now that longs for the redemption of Israel? You will never see it in its perfection till the Redeemer comes to Zion. Idolatry in the professing Church of Jesus Christ has been one of the mightiest stumbling blocks in the Jew’s way. When it begins to fall, the veil over the heart of Israel shall begin to be taken away (Psalm 102:16).
Who is there now that longs for the fall of Antichrist, and the purification of the Roman Catholic Church? I believe that will never be until the winding up of this dispensation. That vast system of idolatry may be consumed and wasted by the Spirit of the Lord’s mouth, but it shall never be destroyed excepting by the brightness of His coming. (2 Thessalonians 2:8).
Who is there now that longs for a perfect Church—a Church in which there shall not be the slightest taint of idolatry? You must wait for the Lord’s return. Then, and not till then, shall we see a perfect Church—a Church having neither spot nor wrinkle, nor any such thing (Ephesians 5:27)—a Church of which all the members shall be regenerate, and every one a child of God.
If these things be so, men need not wonder that we urge on them the study of prophecy, and that we charge them above all to grasp firmly the glorious doctrine of Christ’s second appearing and kingdom. This is the “light shining in a dark place” to which we shall do well to take heed. Let others indulge their fancy if they will, with the vision of an imaginary “Church of the future.” Let the children of this world dream of some “coming man,” who is to understand everything, and set everything right. They are only sowing to themselves bitter disappointment. They will awake to find their visions baseless and empty as a dream. It is to such as these that the Prophet’s words may be well applied: “But now, all you who light fires and provide yourselves with flaming torches, go, walk in the light of your fires and of the torches you have set ablaze. This is what you shall receive from my hand: You will lie down in torment” (Isaiah 50:11).
But let your eyes look onward to the day of Christ’s second advent. That is the only day when every abuse shall be rectified, and every corruption and source of sorrow completely purged away. Waiting for that day, let us each work on and serve our generation; not idle, as if nothing could be done to check evil, but not disheartened because we do not yet see all things put under our Lord. After all, the night is far spent, and the day is at hand. Let us wait, I say, on the Lord.
If these things be so, men need not wonder that we warn them to beware of all leanings towards the Roman Catholic Church. Surely, when the mind of God about idolatry is so plainly revealed to us in His Word, it seems the height of infatuation in anyone to join a Church so steeped in idolatries as the Roman Catholic Church. To enter into communion with her, when God is saying, “Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues” (Revelation 18:4)—to seek her when the Lord is warning us to leave her—to become her subjects when the Lord’s voice is crying, “Escape for your life, flee from the wrath to come;” all this is mental blindness indeed, a blindness like that of him, who, though forewarned, embarks in a sinking ship—a blindness which would be almost incredible, if our own eyes did not see examples of it continually.
We must all be on our guard. We must take nothing for granted. We must not hastily suppose that we are too wise to be ensnared. Those who preach must cry aloud and spare not, and allow no false tenderness to make them hold their peace about the heresies of the day. Those who hear must have the belt of truth buckled around their waist, and their minds stored with clear prophetical views of the end to which all idol-worshippers must come. Let us all try to realize that the last days of the world are upon us, and that the termination of all idolatry is hurrying on. Is this a time for a man to draw nearer to the Roman Catholic Church? Is it not rather a time to draw further back and stand clear, lest we be involved in her downfall?
Is this a time to whitewash Rome’s manifold corruptions, and refuse to see the reality of her sins? Surely we ought rather to be doubly jealous of everything of a Roman Catholic tendency in religion—doubly careful that we do not hint at any treason against our Lord Christ—and doubly ready to protest against unscriptural worship of every description. Once more, then, I say, let us remember that the destruction of all idolatry is certain, and remembering that, beware of the Roman Catholic Church.
The subject I now touch upon is of deep and pressing importance, and demands the serious attention of all Protestants. It is vain to deny that a large party of clergy and laity in the present day are moving heaven and earth to reunite the Protestant Church with the idolatrous Roman Catholic Church. The publication of that monstrous book, Dr. Pusey’s “Eirenicon” and the formation of a “Society for Promoting the Union of Christendom,” are plain evidence of what I mean.
The existence of such a movement as this will not surprise any one who has carefully watched the history of the Church during the last forty years. The tendency of Ritualism has been steadily moving towards Rome. Hundreds of men and women have fairly and honestly left our ranks, and become Catholics. But many hundreds more have stayed behind, and are yet nominal Christians within our midst. The pompous semi-Roman Catholic ceremonies, which has been introduced into many churches, has prepared men’s minds for changes. An lavishly theatrical and idolatrous mode of celebrating the Lord’s Supper has paved the way for transubstantiation. A regular process of unprotestantizing has been long and successfully at work. The poor old Church stands on an inclined plane. Her very existence, as a Protestant Church, is in peril.
I hold, for one, that this Roman Catholic movement ought to be steadily and firmly resisted. Notwithstanding the rank, the learning, and the devotedness of some of its advocates, I regard it as a most mischievous, soul-ruining and unscriptural movement. To say that reunion with Rome would be an insult to our martyred Reformers, is a very light thing, it is far more than this: it would be a sin and an offense against God! Rather than be reunited with the idolatrous Roman Catholic Church, I would willingly see my own beloved Church perish and go to pieces. Rather than become Roman Catholic once more, she would be better dead!
Unity in the abstract is no doubt an excellent thing: but unity without truth is useless. Peace and uniformity are beautiful and valuable: but peace without the Gospel—peace based on a common church government, and not on a common faith—is a worthless peace, not deserving of the name. When Rome has repealed the decrees of Trent, and her additions to the Creed—when Rome has recanted her false and unscriptural doctrines—when Rome has formally renounced image-worship, Mary-worship, and transubstantiation—then, and not till then, will it be time to talk of reunion with her. Till then there is a gulf between us which cannot be honestly bridged. Till then I call on all Christians to resist to the death this idea of reunion with Rome. Till then let our watchwords be “No peace with the Roman Catholic Church! No communion with idolaters!”
Jewell well says in his Apology, “We do not decline concord and peace with men; but we will not continue in a state of war with God that we might have peace with men! If the Pope does indeed desire we should be reconciled to him, he ought first to reconcile himself to God.” This witness is true! Well would it be for the Church, if all her leaders had been like Jewell!
I write these things with sorrow. But the circumstances of the times make it absolutely necessary to speak out. To whatever quarter of the horizon I turn, I see grave reason for alarm. For the true Church of Jesus Christ I have no fears at all. But for the Established Protestant Churches, I have very grave fears indeed. The tide of events seems running strongly against Protestantism and in favor of Rome. It looks as if God had a controversy with us, as a nation, and was about to punish us for our sins.
I am no prophet. I do not know where we are drifting. But at the rate we are going, I think it quite within the verge of possibility that in a few years the Protestant Church may be reunited to the Roman Catholic Church. Protestantism may be formally repudiated. A Roman Catholic Archbishop may once more preside over the former Protestant Churches. Mass may be once more said at Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s. And one result will be that all Bible-reading Christians must either leave the Established Protestant Church, or else sanction idol-worship and become idolaters! God grant we may never come to this state of things! But at the rate we are going, it seems to me quite possible.
And now it only remains for me to conclude what I have been saying, by mentioning some safeguards for the souls of all who hear this message. We live in a time when the Roman Catholic Church is walking amongst us with renewed strength, and loudly boasting that she will soon win back the ground that she has lost. False doctrines of every kind are continually set before us in the most subtle forms. It cannot be thought unreasonable if I offer some practical safeguards against idolatry. What it is, where it comes from, where it is, what will end it—all this we have seen. Let me point out how we may be safe from it, and I will say no more.
(1) Let us arm ourselves, then, for one thing, with a thorough knowledge of the Word of God.
Let us read our Bibles more diligently than ever, and become familiar with every part of them. Let the Word dwell in us richly. Let us beware of anything which would make us give less time, and less heart, to the perusal of its sacred pages. The Bible is the sword of the Spirit; let it never be laid aside. The Bible is the true lantern for a dark and cloudy time; let us beware of traveling without its light. I strongly suspect, if we knew the secret history of the numerous secessions from our Church to that of Rome, which we deplore—I strongly suspect that in almost every case one of the most important steps in the downward road would be found to have been a neglected Bible—more attention to forms, sacraments, daily services, primitive Christianity, and so forth, and diminished attention to the written Word of God. The Bible is the King’s highway. If we once leave that for any side road, however beautiful, and old, and frequented it may seem, we must never be surprised if we end with worshipping images and relics, and going regularly to a confessional.
(2) Let us arm ourselves, in the second place, with a godly jealousy about the least portion of the Gospel.
Let us beware of sanctioning the slightest attempt to keep back any jot or tittle of it, or to throw any part of it into the shade by exalting subordinate matters in religion. When Peter withdrew himself from eating with the Gentiles, it seemed but a little thing; yet Paul tells the Galatians, “I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong” (Galatians 2:11). Let us count nothing little that concerns our souls. Let us be very particular whom we hear, where we go, and what we do, in all the matters of our own particular worship. We live in days when great principles are involved in little acts, and things in religion, which fifty years ago were utterly indifferent, are now by circumstances rendered indifferent no longer. Let us beware of tampering with anything of a Romanizing tendency. It is foolishness to play with fire. I believe that many of our perverts and seceders began with thinking there could be no mighty harm in attaching a little more importance to certain outward things than they once did. But once launched on the downward course, they went on from one thing to another. They provoked God, and He left them to themselves! They were given over to strong delusion, and allowed to believe a lie (2 Thessalonians 2:11). They tempted the devil, and he came to them! They started with trifles, as many foolishly call them. They have ended with downright idolatry.
(3) Let us arm ourselves, last of all, with clear, sound views of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of the salvation that is in Him.
He is the “image of the invisible God,” the “exact representation of His being,” and the true preservative against all idolatry, when truly known. Let us build ourselves deep down on the strong foundation of His finished work upon the cross. Let us settle it firmly in our minds, that Christ Jesus has done everything needful in order to present us without spot before the throne of God, and that simple, childlike faith on our part is the only thing required to give us an entire interest in the work of Christ. Let us not doubt that having this faith, we are completely justified in the sight of God—will never be more justified if we live to the age of Methuselah and do the works of the Apostle Paul—and can add nothing to that complete justification by any acts, deeds, words, performances, fastings, prayers, attendance on ordinances, or anything else of our own.
(4) Above all let us keep up continual communion with the person of the Lord Jesus!
Let us abide in Him daily, feed on Him daily, look to Him daily, lean on Him daily, live upon Him daily, draw from His fullness daily. Let us realize this, and the idea of other mediators, other comforters, other intercessors, will seem utterly absurd. “What need is there?” we shall reply: “I have Christ, and in Him I have everything. What have I to do with idols? I have Jesus in my heart, Jesus in the Bible, and Jesus in heaven, and I want nothing more.”
Once let the Lord Christ have His rightful place in our hearts, and all other things in our religion will soon fall into their right places—Church, ministers, ordinances, all will go down, and take the second place.
Except Christ sits as Priest and King upon the throne of our hearts, that little kingdom within will be in perpetual confusion. But only let Him be “all in all” there, and all will be well, Before Him every idol, every Dagon shall fall down. CHRIST RIGHTLY KNOWN, CHRIST TRULY BELIEVED, AND CHRIST HEARTILY LOVED, IS THE TRUE PRESERVATIVE AGAINST RITUALISM, ROMANISM, AND EVERY FORM OF IDOLATRY. AMEN.
John Charles Ryle (1816-1900) served the Church of England from 1841 to the year of his death. Thoroughly evangelical and uncompromising in his principles, he became widely known for his prolific writing and his faithful service as a pastor. The last twenty years of his life he served as Bishop of Liverpool.
DISCUSS THIS TOPIC
Please join others who have commented upon this and other topics in our Discussion Group.