Warning #4 to the Church
Written by: Ryle, J.C. Posted on: 04/09/2003
For more than a century, J. C. Ryle was the leader of the evangelical
party in the Church of England. His policy was to encourage the
conservative men to remain in the church rather than to abandon ship and
leave the liberals to pursue their program unhindered.
J. C. Ryle is best known for his plain and lively writings on practical
and spiritual themes. His great aim in all his ministry, was to
encourage strong and serious Christian living. But Ryle was not naive in
his understanding of how this should be done. He recognized that, as a
pastor of the flock of God, he had a responsibility to guard Christ's
sheep and to warn them whenever he saw approaching dangers. His
penetrating comments are as wise and relevant today as they were when he
first wrote them. His sermons and other writings have been consistently
recognized, and their usefulness and impact have continued to the present
day, even in the outdated English of the author's own day.
Why then should expositions already so successful and of such stature and
proven usefulness require adaptation, revision, rewrite or even editing?
The answer is obvious. To increase its usefulness to today's reader, the
language in which it was originally written needs updating.
Though his sermons have served other generations well, just as they came
from the pen of the author in the nineteenth century, they still could be
lost to present and future generations, simply because, to them, the
language is neither readily nor fully understandable.
My goal, however, has not been to reduce the original writing to the
vernacular of our day. It is designed primarily for you who desire to
read and study comfortably and at ease in the language of our time. Only
obviously archaic terminology and passages obscured by expressions not
totally familiar in our day have been revised. However, neither Ryle's
meaning nor intent have been tampered with.
All Scripture references are taken from the HOLY BIBLE: NEW INTERNATIONAL
VERSION (C) 1978 by the New York Bible Society, used by permission of
Zondervan Bible Publishers.
Warning #4 to the Church
Pharisees and Sadducees
J. C. Ryle
"Be careful," Jesus said to them.
"Be on your guard against the yeast
of the Pharisees and Sadducees."
Every word spoken by the Lord Jesus is full of deep instruction for
Christians. It is the voice of the Chief Shepherd. It is the Great Head
of the Church speaking to all its members--King of kings speaking to His
subjects--the Master of the house speaking to His servants--the Captain
of our salvation speaking to His soldiers. Above all, it is the voice of
Him who said, "I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent
me commanded me what to say and how to say it" (John 12:49.) The heart
of every believer in the Lord Jesus ought to burn within him when he
hears his Master's words: he ought to say, "Listen! My lover!" (Song of
And every word spoken by the Lord Jesus is of the greatest value.
Precious as gold are all His words of doctrine and teaching; precious are
all His parables and prophecies; precious are all His words of comfort
and of consolation; precious, the not least of which, are all His words
of caution and of warning. We are not merely to hear Him when He says,
"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened;" we are to also hear Him
when He says, "Be careful and be on your guard."
I am going to direct attention to one of the most solemn and emphatic
warnings which the Lord Jesus ever delivered: "Be on your guard against
the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees." On this text I wish to erect
a beacon for all who desire to be saved, and to preserve some souls, if
possible, from making their lives a shipwreck. The times call loudly for
such beacons: the spiritual shipwrecks of the last twenty-five years have
been deplorably numerous. The watchmen of the Church ought to speak out
plainly now, or forever hold their peace.
I. First of all, I ask my readers to observe "who they were to whom the
warning of the text was addressed."
Our Lord Jesus Christ was not speaking to men who were worldly, ungodly,
and unsanctified, but to His own disciples, companions, and friends. He
addressed men who, with the exception of the apostate Judas Iscariot,
were right-hearted in the sight of God. He spoke to the twelve Apostles,
the first founders of the Church of Christ, and the first ministers of
the Word of salvation. And yet even to them He addressed the solemn
caution of our text: "Be careful and be on your guard."
There is something very remarkable in this fact. We might have thought
that these Apostles needed little warning of this kind. Had they not
given up all for Christ's sake? They had. Had they not endured hardship
for Christ's sake? They had. Had they not believed Jesus, followed
Jesus, loved Jesus, when almost all the world was unbelieving? All these
things are true; and yet to them the caution was addressed: "Be careful
and be on your guard." We might have imagined that at any rate the
disciples had little to fear from the "yeast of the Pharisees and of the
Sadducees." They were poor and unlearned men, most of them fishermen or
tax collectors; they had no desire to follow the teachings of the
Pharisees and the Sadducees; they were more likely to be prejudiced
against them than to feel any drawing towards them. All this is
perfectly true; yet even to them there comes the solemn warning: "Be
careful and be on your guard."
There is useful counsel here for all who profess to love the Lord Jesus
Christ in sincerity. It tells us loudly that the most eminent servants
of Christ are not beyond the need of warnings, and ought to be always on
their guard. It shows us plainly that the holiest of believers ought to
walk humbly with his God, and to watch and pray so that he won't fall
into temptation, and be overtaken with sin. None is so holy, that he
can't fall--not ultimately, not hopelessly, but to his own discomfort, to
the scandal of the Church, and to the triumph of the world: none is so
strong that he cannot for a time be overcome. Chosen as believers are by
God the Father, justified as they are by the blood and righteousness of
Jesus Christ, sanctified as they are by the Holy Spirit--believers are
still only men: they are still in the body, and still in the world. They
are ever near temptation: they are ever liable to misjudge, both in
doctrine and in practice. Their hearts, though renewed, are very feeble;
their understanding, though enlightened, is still very dim. They ought
to live like those who dwell in an enemy's land, and every day to put on
the armor of God. The devil is very busy: he never slumbers or sleeps.
Let us remember the falls of Noah, and Abraham, and Lot, and Moses, and
David, and Peter; and remembering them, be humble, and be careful so that
we don't fall.
I may be allowed to say that none need warnings so much as the ministers
of Christ's Gospel. Our office and our ordination are no security
against errors and mistakes. It is true, that the greatest heresies have
crept into the Church of Christ by means of ordained men. Ordination
does not confers any immunity from error and false doctrine. Our very
familiarity with the Gospel often creates in us a hardened state of mind.
We are apt to read the Scriptures, and preach the Word, and conduct
public worship, and carry on the service of God, in a dry, hard, formal,
callous spirit. Our very familiarity with sacred things, unless we watch
our hearts, is likely to lead us astray. "Nowhere," says an old writer,
"is a man's soul in more danger than in a minister's study." The history
of the Church of Christ contains many dismal proofs that the most
distinguished ministers may for a time fall away. Who has not heard of
Cranmer recanting and going back from those opinions he had defended so
stoutly, though, by God's mercy, raised again to witness a glorious
confession at last? Who has not heard of Jewell signing documents that
he most thoroughly disapproved, and of which signature he afterwards
bitterly repented? Who does not know that many others might be named,
who at one time or another, have been overtaken by faults, have fallen
into errors, and been led astray? And who does not know the mournful
fact that many of them never came back to the truth, but died in hardness
of heart, and held their errors to the end?
These things ought to make us humble and cautious. They tell us to
distrust our own hearts and to pray to be kept from falling. In these
days, when we are especially called upon to cleave firmly to the
doctrines of the Protestant Reformation, let us be careful that our zeal
for Protestantism does not puff us up, and make us proud. Let us never
say in our self-conceit, "I shall never fall into the errors Roman
Catholicism or any New Theology: those views will never suit me." Let us
remember that many have begun well and run well for a season, and yet
afterwards turned aside out of the right way. Let us be careful that we
are spiritual men as well as Protestants, and real friends of Christ as
well as enemies of antichrist. Let us pray that we may be kept from
error, and never forget that the twelve Apostles themselves were the men
to whom the Great Head of the Church addressed these words: "Be careful
and be on your guard."
II. I propose, in the second place, to explain "what were those dangers
against which our Lord warned the Apostles." "Be careful," He says, "Be
on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees."
The danger of which He warns them is false doctrine. He says nothing
about the sword of persecution, or the love of money, or the love of
pleasure. All these things no doubt were perils and snares to which the
souls of the Apostles were exposed; but against these things our Lord
raises no warning voice here. His warning is confined to one single
point: "The yeast of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees." We are not
left to conjecture what our Lord meant by that word "yeast." The Holy
Spirit, a few verses after the very text on which I am now dwelling,
tells us plainly that by yeast was meant the "doctrine" of the Pharisees
and of the Sadducees.
Let us try to understand what we mean when we speak of the "doctrine of
the Pharisees and of the Sadducees."
(a) The doctrine of the Pharisees may be summed up in three words: they
were formalists, tradition-worshippers, and self-righteous. They
attached such weight to the traditions of men that they practically
regarded them of more importance than the inspired writings of the Old
Testament. They valued themselves on excessive strictness in their
attention to all the ceremonial requirements of the Mosaic law. They
thought much of being descended from Abraham, and said in their hearts,
"We have Abraham for our father." They fancied themselves because they
had Abraham for their father that they were not in danger of hell like
other men, and that their descent from him was a kind of title to heaven.
They attached great value to washings and ceremonial purifyings of the
body, and believed that the very touching of the dead body of a fly or
gnat would defile them. They made a great deal about the outward parts
of religion, and such things that could be seen by men. They made broad
their phylacteries, and enlarged the fringes of their garments. They
prided themselves on paying great honor to dead saints, and garnishing
the graves of the righteous. They were very zealous to make converts.
They prided themselves in having power, rank, and preeminence, and of
being called by men, "Teacher, Teacher." These things, and many things
like these, the Pharisees did. Every well-informed Christian can find
these things in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark (See Matthew 15 and 23;
Remember, all this time, they did not formally deny any part of the Old
Testament Scripture. But they brought in, over and above it, so much of
human invention, that they virtually put Scripture aside, and buried it
under their own traditions. This is the sort of religion, of which our
Lord says to the Apostles, "Be careful and be on your guard."
(b) The doctrine of the Sadducees, on the other hand, may be summed up in
three words: free-thinking, skepticism, and rationalism. Their creed was
far less popular than that of the Pharisees, and, therefore, we find them
mentioned less often in the New Testament Scriptures. So far as we can
judge from the New Testament, they appear to have held the doctrine of
degrees of inspiration; at all times they attached greater value to the
Pentateuch [first five Books of the Old Testament] above all the other
parts of the Old Testament, if indeed they did not altogether ignore the
They believed that there was no resurrection, no angels, and no spirits,
and tried to laugh men out ot their belief in these things, by bringing
forward difficult questions. We have an instance of their mode of
argument in the case which they propounded to our Lord of the woman who
had had seven husbands, when they asked, "At the resurrection, whose wife
will she be of the seven?" And in this way they probably hoped, by
rendering religion absurd, and its chief doctrines ridiculous, to make
men altogether give up the faith they had received from the Scriptures.
Remember, all this time, we cannot say that the Sadducees were downright
infidels: this they were not. We may not say they denied revelation
altogether: this they did not do. They observed the law of Moses. Many
of them were found among the priests in the times described in the Acts
of the Apostles. Caiaphas who condemned our Lord was a Sadducee. But
the practical effect of their teaching was to shake men's faith in any
revelation, and to throw a cloud of doubt over men's minds, which was
only one degree better than infidelity. And of all such kind of
doctrine: free thinking, skepticism, rationalism, our Lord says, "Be
careful and be on your guard."
Now the question arises, Why did our Lord Jesus Christ deliver this
warning? He knew, no doubt, that within forty years the schools of the
Pharisees and the Sadducees would be completely overthrown. He that knew
all things from the beginning, knew perfectly well that in forty years
Jerusalem, with its magnificent temple, would be destroyed, and the Jews
scattered over the face of the earth. Why then do we find Him giving
this warning about "the yeast of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees")
I believe that our Lord delivered this solemn warning for the perpetual
benefit of that Church which He came to earth to establish. He spoke
with a prophetic knowledge. He knew well the diseases to which human
nature is always liable. He foresaw that the two great plagues of His
Church on earth would always be the doctrine of the Pharisees and the
doctrine of the Sadducees. He knew that these would like two large
rocks, between which His truth would be perpetually crushed and bruised
until He came the second time. He knew that there always would be
Pharisees in spirit, and Sadducees in spirit, among professing
Christians. He knew that their succession would never fail, and their
generation never become extinct, and that though the names of Pharisees
and Sadducees were no more, yet their principles would always exist. He
knew that during the time that the Church existed, until His return,
there would always be some that would add to the Word, and some that
would subtract from it, some that would tone it down, by adding to it
other things, and some that would bleed it to death, by subtracting from
its principal truths. And this is the reason why we find Him delivering
this solemn warning: "Be careful and be on your guard against the yeast
of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees."
And now comes the question, Did not our Lord Jesus Christ have good
reason to give this warning? I appeal to all who know anything of Church
history--was there indeed not a cause? I appeal to all who remember what
took place soon after the apostles were dead. Do we not read that in the
primitive Church of Christ, there rose up two distinct parties; one ever
inclined to err, like the Arians, in holding less than the truth, the
other ever inclined to err, like the relic worshipers and saint
worshipers [of the Roman Catholic Church], in holding more than the truth
as it is in Jesus? Do we not see the same thing coming out in later
times, in the form of Roman Catholicism? These are ancient things. In a
short paper like this it is impossible for me to enter more fully into
them. They are things well known to all who are familiar with records of
past days. There always have been these two great parties, the party
representing the principles of the Pharisee, and the party representing
the principles of the Sadducee. Therefore our Lord had good cause to say
of these two great principles, "Be careful and be on your guard."
But, I desire to bring the subject even nearer at the present moment. I
ask my readers to consider whether warnings like this are not especially
needed in our own times. We have, undoubtedly, much to be thankful for
in England. We have made great advances in arts and sciences in the last
three centuries, and have much of the form and show of morality and
religion. But, I ask anybody who can see beyond his own door, or his own
living room, whether we do not live in the midst of dangers from false
We have among us, on the one side, a group of men who, wittingly or
unwittingly, are paving the way to the Church of Rome [Catholicism]--a
school that professes to draw its principles from primitive tradition,
the writings of the Fathers, and the voice of the Church--a teaching that
talks and writes so much about the Church, the ministry, and the
Sacraments, that it makes them like Aaron's rod which swallows up
everything else in Christianity, a teaching that attaches vast
importance to the outward form and ceremony of religion, to gestures,
postures, bowings, crosses, holy water, seats of honor for the clergy,
altar cloths, incense, statues, banners, processions, floral decorations,
and many other like things, about which not a word is to be found in the
Holy Scriptures as having any place in Christian worship. I refer, of
course, to the school of Churchmen called Ritualists. When we examine
the proceedings of that school, there can be but one conclusion
concerning them. I believe whatever be the meaning and intention of its
teachers, however devoted, zealous, and self-denying, many of them are,
those whom has fallen the cloak of the Pharisees.
We have, on the other hand, a school of men who, wittingly or
unwittingly, appear to pave the way to Socinianism, a school which holds
strange views about the absolute inspiration of Holy Scripture, and
stranger views about the doctrine of sacrifice, and the Atonement of our
Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, strange views about the eternity of
punishment, and God's love to man, a school strong in negatives, but very
weak in positives, skillful in raising doubts, but impotent in removing
them, clever in unsettling and unscrewing men's faith, but powerless to
offer any firm rest for man. And, whether the leaders of this school
mean it or not, I believe that on them has fallen the cloak of the
These things sound harsh. It saves a vast deal of trouble to shut our
eyes, and say, "I see no danger," and because it is not seen, therefore
not to believe it. It is easy to cover our ears and say, "I hear
nothing," and because we hear nothing, therefore to feel no alarm. But
we know well who they are that rejoice over the state of things we have
to deplore in some quarters of our own Church. We know what the Roman
Catholic thinks: we know what the Socinian thinks. The Roman Catholic
rejoices over the rise of the Catholicism: the Socinian rejoices over the
rise of men who teach such views as those set forth in modern days about
the atonement and inspiration. They would not rejoice as they do if they
did not see their work being done, and their cause being helped forward.
The danger, I believe, is far greater than we are apt to suppose. The
books that are read in many quarters are most mischievous, and the tone
of thought on religious subjects, among many classes, and especially
among the higher ranks, is deeply unsatisfactory. The plague is abroad.
If we love life, we ought to search our own hearts, and try our own
faith, and make sure that we stand on the right foundation. Above all,
we ought to take heed that we ourselves do not drink the poison of false
doctrine, and go back from our first love.
I feel deeply the painfulness of speaking out on these subjects. I know
well that speaking plain about false doctrine is very unpopular, and that
the speaker must be content to find himself being thought of as very
uncharitable, very troublesome, and very narrow-minded. Thousands of
people can never distinguish differences in religion. To the bulk of men
a clergyman is a clergyman, and a sermon is a sermon, and as to any
difference between one minister and another, or one doctrine and another,
they are utterly unable to understand it. I cannot expect such people to
approve of any warning against false doctrine. I must make up my mind to
meet with their disapproval, and must bear it as I best can.
But I will ask any honest-minded, unprejudiced Bible reader to turn to
the New Testament and see what he will find there. He will find many
plain warnings against false doctrine:
"Watch out for false prophets" (Matthew 7:15).
"See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive
philosophy" (Colossians 2:8).
"Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings" (Hebrews
"Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they
are from God" (1 John 4:1).
He will find a large part of several inspired epistles taken up with
elaborate explanations of true doctrine and warnings against false
teaching. I ask whether it is possible for a minister who takes the
Bible for his rule of faith to avoid giving warnings against doctrinal
Finally, I ask any one to mark what is going on in England at this very
day. I ask whether it is not true that hundreds have left the
Established Church and joined the Church of Rome [Roman Catholic Church]
within the last thirty years? I ask whether it is not true that hundreds
remain within our boundaries, who in heart are little better than
Romanists? I ask again whether it is not true that scores of young men,
both at Oxford and Cambridge, are spoiled and ruined by the withering
influence of skepticism, and have lost all positive principles in
religion? Sneers at religious newspapers, loud declarations of dislike
to "denominations," high-sounding, vague phrases about "deep thinking,
broad views, new light, free handling of Scripture, and the barren
weakness of certain schools of theology," make up the whole Christianity
of many of the rising generation. And yet, in the face of these
notorious facts, men cry out, "Hold your peace about false doctrine. Let
false doctrine alone!" I cannot hold my peace. Faith in the Word of God,
love to the souls of men, the vows I took when I was ordained, alike
constrain me to bear witness against the errors of the day. And I
believe that the saying of our Lord is eminently a truth for the times:
"Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and of the
III. The third thing to which I wish to call attention is "the peculiar
name by which our Lord Jesus Christ speaks of the doctrines of the
Pharisees and of the Sadducees."
The words which our Lord used were always the wisest and the best that
could be used. He might have said, "Be careful and be on your guard
against the doctrine, or of the teaching, or of the opinions of the
Pharisees and of the Sadducees." But He does not say so: He uses a word
of a peculiar nature--He says, "Be careful and be on your guard against
the 'yeasts' of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees."
Now we all know what is the true meaning of the word "yeast." The yeast
is added to the lump of dough in making a loaf of bread. This yeast
bears but a small proportion to the lump into which it is mixed; just so,
our Lord would have us know, the first beginning of false doctrine is but
small compared to the body of Christianity. It works quietly and
silently; just so, our Lord would have us know, false doctrine works
secretly in the heart in which it is once planted. It insensibly changes
the character of the whole mass with which it is mingled; just so, our
Lord would have us know, the doctrines of the Pharisees and Sadducees
turn everything upside down, when once admitted into a Church or into a
man's heart. Let us mark these points: they throw light on many things
that we see in the present day. It is of vast importance to receive the
lessons of wisdom that this word "yeast" contains in itself.
False doctrine does not meet men face to face, and proclaim that it is
false. It does not blow a trumpet before it, and endeavor openly to turn
us away from the truth as it is in Jesus. It does not come before men in
broad day, and summon them to surrender. It approaches us secretly,
quietly, insidiously, plausibly, and in such a way as to disarm man's
suspicion, and throw him off his guard. It is the wolf in sheep's
clothing, and Satan in the garb of an angel of light, who have always
proved the most dangerous foes of the Church of Christ.
I believe the most powerful champion of the Pharisees is not the man who
bids you openly and honestly come out and join the Church of Rome: it is
the man who says that he agrees on all points with you in "doctrine." He
would not take anything away from those evangelical views that you hold;
would not have you make any changes at all; all he asks you to do is to
"add" a little more to your belief, in order to make your Christianity
perfect. "Believe me," he says,
We do not want you to give up anything. We only want you to
hold a few more clear views about the Church and the
sacraments. We want you to add to your present opinions a
little more about the office of the ministry, and a little
more about episcopal authority, and a little more about the
Prayer-book, and a little more about the necessity of order
and of discipline. We only want you to add "a little more"
of these things to your system of religion, and you will be
But when men speak to you in this way, then is the time to remember what
our Lord said, and to "Be careful and be on your guard." This is the,
yeast of the Pharisees, against which we are to stand upon our guard.
Why do I say this? I say it because there is no security against the
doctrine of the Pharisees, unless we resist its principles in their
1. Beginning with a "little more about the Church"--You may one day place
the Church in the place of Christ.
2. Beginning with a "little more about the ministry"--You may one day
regard the minister as "the mediator between God and man."
3. Beginning with a "little more about the sacraments"--You may one day
altogether give up the doctrine of justification by faith without the
deeds of the law.
4. Beginning with a "little more reverence for the Prayer-book"--You may
one day place it above the Holy Word of God Himself.
5. Beginning with a "little more honor to Bishops"--You may at last
refuse salvation to every one who does not belong to an Episcopal Church.
I only tell an old story: I only mark out roads that have been trodden by
hundreds of members of the Church of England in the last few years. They
began by faultfinding at the Reformers, and have ended by swallowing the
decrees of the Council of Trent [Roman Catholic Doctrinal Council]. They
began by crying about the way things were, and have ended by formally
joining the Church of Rome. I believe that when we hear men asking us to
"add a little more" to our good old plain Evangelical views, we should
stand upon our guard. We should remember our Lord's caution: "Be on your
guard against the yeast of the Pharisees."
I consider the most dangerous champion of the Sadducee school is not the
man who tells you openly that he wants you to lay aside any part of the
truth, and to become a free-thinker and a skeptic. It is the man who
begins with quietly insinuating doubts as to the position that we ought
to take up about religion, doubts whether
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