Extracted from a paper by J. C. Ryle
“Seeing then that we have a great High Priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession.” Heb. 4.14.
1. What is meant by “our profession.”
When Paul uses this expression, there can be little doubt about his meaning. He meant that public “profession” of faith in Christ and obedience to Him, which every person made when he became a member of the Christian Church. In the days of the Apostle, when a man or woman left Judaism or heathenism, and received Christ as a Saviour, he declared himself a Christian by certain acts. He did it by being publicly baptized, by joining the company of those who had been baptized already, by publicly promising to give up idolatry and wickedness of all kinds, and by habitually taking part with the followers of Jesus of Nazareth in all their religious assemblies, their ways, and their practices. This is what Paul had in view when he wrote the words, “Let us hold fast our profession.”
Profession in those days was a very serious matter, and entailed very serious consequences. It often brought on a man persecution, loss of property, imprisonment, and even death. The consequence was that few persons ever made a Christian profession in the early Church unless they were thoroughly in earnest, truly converted, and really believers. No doubt there were some exceptions. People like Ananias and Sapphira, and Simon Magus, and Demas, crept in and joined themselves to the disciples. But these were exceptional cases. As a general rule, it was not worth while for a man to profess Christianity if his heart was not entirely in his profession. It cost much. It brought on a man the risk of a vast amount of trouble, and brought in very little gain. The whole result was, that the proportion of sincere, right-hearted, and converted persons in the Church of the Apostle’s days was far greater than it ever has been at any other period in the last eighteen centuries. There was a very deep meaning in Paul’s words when he said, “Let us hold fast our profession.”
2. Why St. Paul says, “Let us hold fast our profession.”
The answer to this question is threefold, and demands the serious attention of all who hope that they are really sincere in their Christian profession.
(a) For one thing, our hearts are always weak and foolish, even after conversion. We may have passed from death to life, and be renewed in the spirit of our minds. We may see the value of our souls, as we once did not. We may have become new creatures; old things may have passed away, and all things may have become new.
But believers must never forget that until they die they carry about with them a weak, foolish, and treacherous heart. The roots of all manner of evil are still within us, although cut down to the ground by the grace of the Holy Ghost. Whether we like to acknowledge it or not, there are within us, at our very best, latent dislike of trouble, secret desire to please man and keep in with the world, carelessness about our private Bible-reading and our prayers, envy and jealousy of others, laziness about doing good, selfishness and desire to have our own way, forgetfulness of the wishes of others, and want of watchfulness over our own besetting sins. All these things are often lying hid within us, and below the surface of our hearts. The holiest saint may find to his cost some day that they are all there alive, and ready to show themselves. No wonder that our Lord Jesus said to the three Apostles in the garden, “Watch and pray, lest ye enter into temptation. The spirit truly is ready, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14.38). I have no doubt that Paul had the heart in view, when he wrote those words, “Hold fast.” “Let us therefore hold fast our profession.”
(b) For another thing, the world is a source of immense danger to the Christian soul. From the day that we are converted, we are living in a most unhealthy atmosphere for religion. We live and move and have our being in the midst of a vast multitude of people who are utterly without vital Christianity. In every rank of life we meet with hundreds who, however moral and respectable, seem to care for nothing but such things as these,Â—What shall I eat? What shall I drink? What can I get? What can I spend? How shall I employ my time? What profit can I make? What amusement can I have? What pleasant company can I enjoy?Â—As for God, and Christ, and the Holy Ghost, and the Bible, and prayer, and repentance, and faith, and holy living, and doing good in the world, and death, and resurrection, and judgment, and heaven and hell, they are subjects which never appear to come across them except in sickness, or at a funeral. Now to live constantly in the midst of such people, as a Christian must do, is sure to be a great trial to him, and requires constant watchfulness to prevent his getting harm. We are incessantly tempted to give way about little things, and to make compromises and concessions. We naturally dislike giving offence to others, and having frictions and collisions with relatives, friends, and neighbours. We do not like to be laughed at and ridiculed by the majority, and to feel that we are always in a minority in every company into which we go. I fear that too many are laughed out of heaven and laughed into hell. It is a true saying of Solomon, “The fear of man bringeth a snare” (Prov. 29.25). I once knew a brave sergeant of a cavalry regiment, who, after living to the age of fifty without any religion, became for the last few years of his life a
decided Christian. He told me that when he first began to think about his soul, and to pray, some months passed away before he dare tell his wife that he said his prayers; and that he used to creep upstairs without his boots at evening, that his wife might not hear him, and find out what he was doing!
The plain truth is, that “the whole world lieth in wickedness” (1 John 5.19), and it is vain to ignore the danger that the world causes to the believer’s soul. The spirit of the world, and the tone of the world, and the tastes of the world, and the air of the world, and the breath of the world, are continually about him every day that he lives, drawing him down and pulling him back. If he does not keep his faith in lively exercise, he is sure to catch infection, and take damage, like the travellers through the Campagna at Rome, who take a fever without being aware of it at the time. The most mischievous and unsanitary gas is that which our bodily senses do not detect. We have reason to pray continually for an increase of that faith of which John says, “that it gives us the victory over the world” (1 John 5. 4). Happy, indeed, is that Christian who can be in the world and yet not of the world,Â—who can do his duty in it, and yet not be conformed to it,Â—who can pass through it unmoved by its smiles or its frowns, its flattery or its enmity, its open opposition or its playful ridicule, its sweets or its bitters, its gold or its sword! When I think what the world is, and see what harm it has done and is doing to souls, I do not wonder that Paul says, “Hold fast.” “Let us hold fast our profession.”
(c) For one thing more, the devil is a constant enemy to the Christian’s soul. That great, sleepless, and unwearied foe is always labouring to do us harm. It is his constant object to wound, hurt, vex, injure, or weaken, if he cannot kill and destroy. He is an unseen enemy who is always near us, “about our path, and about our bed,” and spying out all our ways, prepared to suit his temptations to the special weak points of every man. He knows us far better than we know ourselves. He has been studying one book for 6000 years, the book of fallen human nature,Â—and he is a spirit of almost boundless subtlety and cunning, and of boundless malice. The best of saints has little idea how many vile suggestions in his heart come from the devil, and what a restless adversary stands at his right hand.
Now I suspect that some reader of this paper may be secretly thinking that I am an alarmist, and that there is no need of such watchfulness, carefulness, and “holding fast.” I ask such a person to turn with me to the Bible for a few moments, and to consider seriously what that blessed book teaches.
I ask him to remember that Judas Iscariot and Demas both began well, and made a good profession. One was a chosen Apostle of our Lord Jesus Christ, a constant companion of our blessed Saviour for
three years. He walked with Him, talked with Him, heard His teaching, saw His miracles, and up to the very night before our Lord was crucified was never thought a worse man than Peter, James, or John. Yet this unhappy man at last let go his profession, betrayed his Master, came to a miserable end, and went to his own place.Â— The other man whom I named, Demas, was a chosen companion of the Apostle Paul, and professed to be of like mind with that eminent man of God. There can be little doubt that for some years he journeyed with him, helped him, and took part in his evangelistic labours. But how did it all end? He gave up his profession, and the last Epistle Paul wrote contains this melancholy record: “Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world” (2 Tim. 4.10). We never hear of him again.Â—To every one who thinks I have dwelt too much on the Christian’s dangers, I say this day, Remember Demas, remember Judas Iscariot, tighten your grasp, “hold fast your profession,” and beware. We may appear to men to be very good Christians for a season, and yet prove at last to be stony-ground hearers, and destitute of a wedding garment.
But this is not all. I ask every believer to remember that if he does not “hold fast,” he may pierce himself through with many sorrows, and bring great discredit on his character. We should never forget David’s awful fall in the matter of the wife of Uriah, and Peter’s thrice-repeated denial of his Master, and Cranmer’s temporary cowardice, of which he so bitterly repented at last. Are we greater and stronger than they? “Let us not be high-minded, but fear.” There is a godly fear which is of great use to the soul. It was the great Apostle of the Gentiles who wrote these words: “I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection; lest, after I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway” (1 Cor. 9.27).
3. The encouragement there is to Christians to hold fast their profession.
The Apostle Paul was singularly fitted, both by grace and nature, to handle this subject. Of all the inspired writers in the New Testament, none seems to have been so thoroughly taught of God to deal with the conflicts of the human heart as Paul. None was better acquainted with the dangers, diseases, and remedies of the soul. The proof of this is to be seen in the seventh chapter of his Epistle to the Romans, and the fifth chapter of his Second Epistle to the Corinthians. Those two chapters ought to be frequently studied by every Christian who wishes to understand his own heart.
Now what is the ground of encouragement which Paul proposes? He tells us to “hold fast our profession,” and not let it go, because ‘we have a great High Priest that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God.”
Let us think for a moment what a wonderful and suitable High Priest is the High Priest of our profession, a million times superior to any high priest of the family of Aaron.
Jesus is a High Priest of almighty power, for He is very God of very God, never slumbering, never sleeping, never dying, and eternal. The Jewish high priests were “not suffered to continue by reason of death” (Heb. 7.23), but Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more. Our great High Priest never grows old, and never dies (Rom. 6.9).
Jesus is a High Priest who is perfect Man as well as perfect God. He knows what our bodies are, for He had a body Himself, and is acquainted with all its sinless weakness and pains. He knows what hunger, and thirst, and suffering are, for He lived for thirty-three years upon earth, and knows the physical nature of an infant, a child, a boy, a young man, and a man of full age. “He hath suffered himself, being tempted” (Heb. 2.18). ;
Jesus is a High Priest of matchless sympathy. He can be “touched with the feeling of our infirmities” (Heb. 4.15). His heart was always overflowing with love, pity, and compassion while He was on earth. He wept at the grave of Lazarus. He wept over unbelieving Jerusalem. He had an ear ready to hear every cry for help, and was ever going about doing good to the sick and the afflicted. One of His last thoughts on the cross was one of care for His mother, and one of His first messages after His resurrection was one of “peace” to His poor fallen Apostles. And He is not changed. He has carried that wonderful heart up to heaven, and is ever watching the weakest lamb in His flock with merciful tenderness.
Jesus is a High Priest of perfect wisdom. He knows exactly what each of us is, and what each of us requires. “He will not suffer us to be tempted above that which we are able to bear” (1 Cor. 10.13), nor allow us to remain in the furnace of suffering one moment beyond the time that is required for our refining. He will give us strength according to our day, and grace according to our need. He knows the most secret feelings of our hearts, and understands the meaning of our feeblest prayers. He is not like Aaron, and Eli, and Abiathar, and Annas, and Caiaphas, an erring and imperfect high priest in dealing with those who come to Him, and spread out their petitions before Him. He never makes any mistakes.
I challenge every reader of this paper to tell me, if he can, what greater consolation and encouragement the soul of man can have than the possession of such a High Priest as this? We do not think enough of Him in these days. We talk of His death, and His sacrifice, and His blood, and His atonement, and His finished work on the cross; and no doubt we can never make too much of these glorious subjects. But we err greatly if we stop short here. We ought
to look beyond the cross and the grave, to the life, the priesthood, and the constant intercession of Christ our Lord. Unless we do this, we have only a defective view of Christian doctrine. The consequences of neglecting this part of our Lord’s offices are very serious, and have done great harm to the Church and the world.
I will now conclude this paper by addressing a few words of direct practical exhortation to every reader into whose hands it may happen to fall.
(a) Do you belong to that huge class of so-called Christians who make no profession of religion at all? Alas! it is a pity this class should be so large; but it is vain to shut our eyes to the fact that it is very large. These of whom I speak are not atheists or infidels; they would not for a moment like to be told they are not Christians. They go to places of worship, they think Christianity a very proper thing for baptisms, weddings, and funerals. They say grace before and after dinner; they like their children to have some religion in their education. But they never seem to get any further; they shrink from making a “profession.” It is useless to tell them to “hold fast,” because they have nothing to hold.
Think of these things, I beseech you, and change your plan of life. Cast aside vain excuses and petty reasons for delay. Resolve by the grace of God to lay firm hold on Jesus Christ, and to enlist like a man under His banners. That blessed Saviour will receive you just as you are, however unworthy you may feel yourself. Wait for nothing, and wait for nobody. Begin to pray this very day, and to pray real, lively, fervent prayers, such as the penitent thief prayed upon the cross. Take down your long-neglected Bible, and begin to read it. Break off every known bad habit. Seek the company and friendship of thoroughgoing Christians. Give up going to places where your soul can get nothing but harm. In one word, begin to make “a profession,” fearing neither the laughter nor the scorn of man. The word of the Lord Jesus is for you as well as another: “Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out” (John 6.37). I have seen many people on their death-beds, but I never met with one who said he was sorry he had made a “profession” of religion.
(b) In the last place, do you belong to that much smaller class of persons who really profess Christian faith and Christian obedience, and are trying, however weakly, to follow Christ in the midst of an evil world. I think I know something of what goes on in your hearts. You sometimes feel that you will never persevere to the end, and will be obliged some day to give up your profession. You are sometimes tempted to write bitter things against yourself, and to fancy you have got no grace at all. I am afraid there are myriads of
true Christians in this condition, who go trembling and doubting toward heaven, with Despondency, and Much-Afraid, and Fearing in the Pilgrim’s Progress, and fear they will never get to the Celestial City at all. But oddly enough, in spite of all their groans and doubts and fears, they do not turn back to the city from which they came (Heb. 11.15). They press on, though faint, yet pursuing, and, as John Wesley used to say of his people, “they end well.”
Now, my advice to all such persons, if any of them are reading this paper, is very simple. Say every morning and evening of your life, “Lord, increase my faith.” Cultivate the habit of fixing your eye more simply on Jesus Christ, and try to know more of the fulness there is laid up in Him for every one of His believing people. Do not be always poring down over the imperfections of your own heart, and dissecting your own besetting sins. Look up. Look more to your risen Head in heaven, and try to realize more than you do that the Lord Jesus not only died for you, but that He also rose again, and that He is ever living at God’s right hand as your Priest, your Advocate, and your Almighty Friend. When the Apostle Peter ‘walked upon the waters to go to Jesus”, he got on very well as long as his eye was fixed upon his Almighty Master and Saviour. But when he looked away to the winds and waves, and reasoned, and considered his own strength, and the weight of his body, he soon began to sink, and cried, “Lord, save me.” No wonder that our gracious Lord, while grasping his hand and delivering him from a watery grave, said, “O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?” Alas! many of us are very like Peter,Â—we look away from Jesus, and then our hearts faint, and we feel we are sinking (Matt. 14.28-31).
Think, last of all, how many millions of men and women like yourself have got safe home during the last eighteen hundred years. Like you, they have had their battles and their conflicts, their doubts and their fears. Some of them have had very little “joy and peace in believing,” and were almost surprised when they woke up in Paradise. Some of them enjoyed full assurance, and strong consolation, and have entered the haven of eternal life, like a gallant ship in full sail. And who are these last that have done so? Those who have not only held their profession between finger and thumb, but have grasped it firmly with both hands, and have been ready to die for Christ, rather than not confess Him before men. Take courage, believer. The bolder and more decided you are, the more comfort you will have in Christ. You cannot have two heavens, one here, and the other hereafter. You are yet in the world, and you have a body, and there is always near you a busy devil. But great faith shall always have great peace. The happiest person in religion will always be that man or woman who can say,
with a true heart, like St. Paul, “The life that I live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” In myself I see nothing, but I keep ever looking to Jesus, and by His grace I hold my profession (Gal. 2.20).
And now I cannot leave this great and solemn subject without offering to all who read it a parting word of warning about the times in which we live. I will try to explain briefly what I mean.
I believe, then, that for three centuries there has not been an age in which it has been so needful to urge professing Christians to “hold fast” as it is at this time. No doubt there is plenty of religion of a certain sort in these days. There are many more attendants on public worship all over the land than there were thirty years ago. But it may well be doubted whether there is any increase of vital Christianity. I am greatly mistaken if there is not a growing tendency to “hold fast” nothing in religion, and a disposition to hold everything as loosely as possible. “Nothing fast! Everything loose!” seems the order of the day.
How is it in matters of faith and doctrine? It used to be thought important to hold clear and distinct views about such points as the inspiration of the Scriptures, the atonement, the work of the Spirit, the personality of the devil, the reality of future punishment. It is not thought so now. The old order of things has passed away. You may believe anything or nothing on these subjects, so long as you are earnest and sincere. Holding fast has given way to holding loose.
How is it in the matter of holy living? It used to be thought important to “renounce the pomps and vanity of this wicked world,” and to keep clear of races, theatre-goings, balls, card-playing, and the like. It is not thought so now. You must not be so very strict and particular! Once more I say, holding fast has given way to holding loose.
This state of things, to say the least, is not satisfactory, It is full of peril. It shows a condition of Christianity which, I am certain, would not have satisfied St. Paul or St. John. The world was not turned .upside down by such vague, loose doctrine and practice eighteen centuries ago. The souls of men in the present day will never receive much benefit from such loose Christianity either in England or anywhere else. Decision in teaching and living is the only Christianity which God has blessed in the ages that are past, or will continue to bless in our own time. Loose, vague, misty, broad Christianity may avoid offence and please people in health and prosperity, but it will not convert souls, or supply solid comfort in the hour of sorrow or sickness, or on the bed of death.
The plain truth is, that “sincerity and earnestness” are becoming the idol of many English Christians in these latter days. People seem to think it matters little what opinions a man holds in religion, so
long as he is “earnest and sincere;” and you are thought uncharitable if you doubt his soundness in the faith! Against this idolatry of mere “earnestness” I enter my solemn protest. I charge every reader of this paper to remember that God’s written Word is the only rule of faith, and to believe nothing to be true and soul-.saving in religion which cannot be proved by plain texts of Scripture. I entreat him to read the Bible, and make it his only test of truth and error, right and wrong. And for the last time I say, “Hold fast, and not loose,Â—hold fast your profession.”