J. C. Ryle
Externalism: The Worst Cloud
This essay was written in the 1800s in the context of the church of England, but is just as much an issue in our day as then.
The worst cloud which I see in our Church’s outlook, is the widespread disposition to regard religious externalism, as a substitute for vital soul-saving Christianity.
When I speak of externalism, let me explain what I mean. We all know that the external part of religion has received a large amount of new attention during the last forty years. All over the land it has become the fashion to restore churches, to get rid of old square pews, to improve the singing and music, to have a well-adorned choir, to decorate the church-building in a most elaborate style, and, in one word, to adorn, beautify, and improve the whole exterior of Church Christianity. Do I say there is anything sinful in all this? Nothing of the kind! I abhor everything like slovenliness in the ceremonials of worship. I dislike square pews, and bad music, and bad singing as much as anyone! But I do say, that I fear an external improvement often takes place in a church without the slightest corresponding increase of godliness in the worshipers! No doubt there is a far more show of religion in our Churches but it is very doubtful whether there is more vital Christianity, more presence of the Holy Spirit, more heart and conscience work, in the private lives and the homes of our people. I fear that in hundreds of cases, men have rested content with having secured a handsome church and a ‘bright and hearty service,’ and have forgotten that what God looks a is the hearts of the worshipers, and the quantity of grace to be found among them.
This is a very delicate subject, and I would be sorry to be misunderstood, or to give pain to anyone in handling it. But I am obliged to say plainly, that I fail to see that all the external improvement of the last forty years, is accompanied by any corresponding growth of practical holiness! There is no decrease in the total idolatry of recreations, or the extravagant expenditure of money, or self-indulgence of all kinds. On the contrary, there is far less repentance, faith, holiness, Bible-reading, and family religion! If this state of things is not a most unhealthy symptom in the condition of a Church, I know not what is!
We may depend upon it, that knowledge of Christ, obedience to Christ, and the fruits of the Spirit are the only tests by which God weighs and measures any Church. If these are absent, He cares nothing for beautiful buildings, ﬁne singing, and a pompous ceremonial. These are ‘leaves,’ and He desires to see not leaves only, but ‘fruit’. The tree of the Church of England perhaps never had so many leaves on it, as it has just now. I wish there was a corresponding quantity of fruit!
We must never forget that the Temple service at Jerusalem in the day of our Lord’s cruciﬁxion was the most perfect ceremonial that ever was, whether for singing, order, vestments, or general magniﬁcence and beauty. Yet we all know that at this very time, the Jewish Church was thoroughly rotten at heart, and after forty years was swept away! Who can doubt that the little upper chamber, where the apostles met on the day of our Lord’s ascension, was far more beautiful in God’s sight, than the beautiful temple, which our Master Himself called ‘a den of thieves’? I heartily wish that we would remember this, more than we appear to do. The disposition to make an idol of externals, and to sacriﬁce the inside of religion to the outside, is, in my judgment, the darkest cloud on our ecclesiastical horizon! Of this we may be quite certain, that God will never bless a Church which is content with such a low standard of practical piety.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence! Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like white-washed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside, but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous, but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness!” Matthew 23:25-28
Taken from The Outlook by J. C. Ryle