Our Need of Forgiveness – by J.C. Ryle

“Your sins are forgiven!”

John 2:12

There is a clause near the end of the Apostle’s Creed, which, I fear, is often repeated without thought or consideration. I refer to the clause which contains these words, “I believe in the Forgiveness of sins.” Thousands, I am afraid, never reflect what those words mean. I propose to examine the subject of them in the following paper, and I invite the attention of all who care for their souls, and want to be saved. Do we believe in the “Resurrection of our bodies”? Then let us see to it that we know something by experience of the “Forgiveness of our sins.”

I. Let me show, first of all, our need of forgiveness.

All people need forgiveness, because all people are sinners. He that does not know this, knows nothing in religion. It is the very A B C’s of Christianity, that a man should know his right place in the sight of God, and understand his deserts.

We are all great sinners. “There is none righteous, no, not one.” “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:10, 23.) Sinners we were born, and sinners we have been all our lives. We take to sin naturally from the very first. No child ever needs schooling and education to teach it to do wrong. No devil, or bad companion, ever leads us into such wickedness as our own hearts. And “the wages of sin is death.” (Rom. 6:23.) We must either be forgiven, or lost eternally.

We are all guilty sinners in the sight of God. We have broken His holy law. We have transgressed His precepts. We have not done His will. There is not a commandment in all the ten which does not condemn us. If we have not broken it in deed we have in word; if we have not broken it in word, we have in thought and imagination—and that continually. Tried by the standard of the fifth chapter of Matthew, there is not one of us that would be acquitted. All the world is “guilty before God.” And “as it is appointed unto people once to die, and after this comes the judgment.” We must either be forgiven, or perish everlastingly. (Rom. 3:19; Heb. 9:27.)

When I walk through the crowded streets of London, I see hundreds and thousands of whom I know nothing beyond their outward appearance. I see some bent on pleasure, and some on business—some who look rich, and some who look poor—some rolling in their carriages, some hurrying along on foot. Each has his own object in view. Each has his own aims and ends, all alike hidden from me. But one thing I know for a certainty, as I look upon them—they are all sinners. There is not a soul among them all but “deserves God’s wrath and condemnation.” There breathes not the man or woman in that crowd but must die forgiven, or else rise again to be condemned forever at the last day.

When I look through the length and breadth of Great Britain I must make the same report. From the Queen on the throne to the pauper in the workhouse—we are all sinners. We Englishmen have got a name among the empires of the earth. We send our ships into every sea, and our merchandise into every town in the world. We have bridged the Atlantic with our steamers. We have made night in our cities like day, with gas lighting. We have changed England into one great county by railways. We can exchange thought between London and Edinburgh in a few seconds by the electric telegraph. But with all our arts and sciences—with all our machinery and inventions—with all our armies and navies—with all our lawyers and statesmen, we have not altered the nature of our people. We are still in the eye of God an island full of sinners.

When I turn to the map of the world I must say the same thing. It matters not what quarter I examine—I find men’s hearts are everywhere the same, and everywhere wicked. Sin is the family disease of all the children of Adam. Never has there been a corner of the earth discovered where sin and the devil do not reign. Wide as the difference is between the nations of the earth, they leave always been found to have one great mark in common. Europe and Asia, Africa and America, Iceland and India, Paris and Peking—all alike have the mark of sin. The eye of the Lord looks down on this globe of ours, as it rolls round the sun, and sees it covered with corruption and wickedness! What He sees in the moon and stars, in Jupiter and Saturn, I cannot tell—but on the earth I know He sees sin. (Psalm 14:2, 3.)
I have no doubt such language as this sounds extravagant to some. You think I am going much too far. But mark well what I am about to say next, and then consider whether I have not used the words of soberness and truth.

What then, I ask, is the life of the best Christian among us all? What is it but one great career of shortcomings? What is it but a daily acting out the words of our Prayer-book, “leaving undone things we ought to do, and doing things that we ought not to do”? Our faith, how feeble! Our love, how cold! Our works, how few! Our zeal, how small! Our patience, how short-breathed! Our humility, how thread-bare! Our self-denial, how dwarfish! Our knowledge, how dim! Our spirituality, how shallow! Our prayers, how formal! Our desires for more grace, how faint! Never did the wisest of people speak more wisely than when he said, “There is not a just man upon earth, that does good, and sins not.” (Eccles. 7:20.) “In many things,” says the apostle James, “we offend all.” (James 3:2.) And what is the best action that is ever done by the very best of Christians? What is it after all but an imperfect work, when tried on its own merits? It is, as Luther says, no better than “a splendid sin.” It is always more or less defective. It is either wrong in its motive or incomplete in its performance—not done from perfect principles, or not executed in a perfect way. The eyes of people may see no fault in it—but weighed in the balances of God it would be found lacking, and viewed in the light of heaven it would prove full of flaws. It is like the drop of water which seems clear to the naked eye—but, placed under a microscope, is discovered to be full of impurity. David’s account is literally true, “There is none who does good, no, not one.” (Psalm 14:3.)

And then what is the Lord God, whose eyes are on all our ways, and before whom we have one day to give account? “Holy, holy, holy,” is the remarkable expression applied to Him by those who are nearest to Him. (Isaiah 6:3; Rev. 4:8.) It sounds as if no one word could express the intensity of His holiness. One of His prophets says, “He is of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on iniquity.” (Habak. 1:13.) We think the angels exalted beings, and far above ourselves; but we are told in Scripture, “He charged His angels with folly.” (Job 4:18.) We admire the moon and stars as glorious and splendid bodies; but we read, “Behold even the stars are not pure in His sight.” (Job 25:5.) We talk of the heavens as the noblest and purest part of creation; but even of them it is written, “The heavens are not clean in His sight.” (Job 15:15.) What then is anyone of us but a miserable sinner in the sight of such a God as this?

Surely we ought all to cease from proud thoughts about ourselves. We ought to lay our hands upon our mouths, and say with Abraham, “I am dust and ashes;” and with Job, “I am vile;” and with Isaiah, “We are all as an unclean thing;” and with John, “If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (Gen. 18:27; Job 40:4; Isaiah 64:6; 1 John 1:8.) Where is the man or woman in the whole catalogue of the Book of Life, that will ever be able to say more than this, “I obtained mercy”? What is the glorious company of the apostles, the goodly fellowship of the prophets, the noble army of martyrs—what are they all but pardoned sinners? Surely there is but one conclusion to be arrived at—We are all great sinners, and we all need a great forgiveness.

See now what just cause I have to say that to know our need of forgiveness is the first thing in true religion. Sin is a burden, and must be taken off. Sin is a defilement, and must be cleansed away. Sin is a mighty debt, and must be paid. Sin is a mountain standing between us and heaven, and must be removed. Happy is that mother’s child among us that feels all this! The first step towards heaven is to see clearly that we deserve hell. There are but two alternatives before us—we must either be forgiven, or be miserable forever.

ee too how little many people know of the main design of Christianity, though they live in a Christian land. They fancy they are to go to church to learn their duty, and be moral. They forget that the heathen philosophers could have told them as much as this. They forget that such people as Plato and Seneca gave instructions which ought to put to shame the church-going liar, the drunkard, and the thief. They have yet to learn that the leading mark of Christianity is the remedy it provides for sin. This is the glory and excellence of the Gospel. It meets man as he really is. It takes him as it finds him. It goes down to the level to which sin has brought him, and offers to raise him up. It tells him of a remedy equal to his disease—a great remedy for a great disease—a great forgiveness for great sinners.

I ask every reader to consider these things well, if he never considered them before. It is no light matter whether you know your soul’s necessities or not—it is a matter of life and death. Try, I beseech you, to become acquainted with your own heart. Sit down and think quietly what you are in the sight of God. Bring together the thoughts, and words, and actions of any day in your life, and measure them by the measure of God’s Word. Judge yourself honestly, that you may not be condemned at the last day. Oh, that you might find out what you really are! Oh, that you might learn to pray Job’s prayer, “Make me to know my transgression and my sin.” (Job 13:23.) Oh, that you might see this great truth—that until you are forgiven, all your church-going has done nothing for you at all!_____________________________

John Charles Ryle (10 May 1816 – 10 June 1900) was the first Anglican bishop of Liverpool


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