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Notable Christians: J. C. Ryle

Aug 8, 2012

John Charles Ryle (1816-1900) was an English pastor, preacher, writer, and Bible expositor. He was part of a strong Wesleyan Methodist family; his great-grandmother was converted under the ministry of John Wesley. He was educated at Eton and Oxford in the mid-1830s where he excelled in his studies and in cricket.

After a severe illness drew him to Scripture, he converted in 1837. A key verse in this was Ephesians 2:8: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God”. He became a Church of England minister in 1841, and was made the first Bishop of Liverpool in 1880. His importance there is seen in the fact that in the following ten years he added 88 new clergy and saw 75 new churches and halls established. All this work was done because of his over-riding passion to win souls.

While pasturing in Helmingham, Suffolk from 1844 to 1861 he soaked in the writings of the Puritans and the Reformers. In these authors he found what his soul was looking for, and he soon was castigating fellow Anglicans for their “jellyfish” Christianity. As he said, these folks have “no dogma, no distinct tenets, no positive doctrine”.

His expertise was preaching, both from the pulpit, and in his written tracts, of which he wrote over 200. Most of these were evangelistic in nature, and it is said that over twelve million copies of these were distributed during his lifetime. His vigour in his church work was matched by his energy in writing.

His leadership in the evangelical wing of the Church of England was vital, and he was a major figure in the battle between liberalism and conservatism in the church. His pastoral heart was reinforced by a sharp theological mind. His aim was always to win the lost and to help believers grow strong and mature in their faith.

While he penned a number of noteworthy books, perhaps his most important volume was his 1877 volume, Holiness. This book is a classic, and it still sells extremely well today, some 135 years later. This is such an important book that I have cut short my biographical details of Ryle in order to concentrate on this tremendous work.

Indeed, simply quoting from it is perhaps the best way for you to get a flavour of the man and his faith. The book itself contains twenty meaty chapters, with a 21st containing “Extracts from Old Writers”. Chapter titles include:
-SinRyle 2
-Sanctification
-Growth
-Assurance
-The Church Which Christ Builds
-Visible Churches Warned
-Without Christ, and
-Christ is All

Let me just highlight a few chapters, beginning with chapter 4: “The Fight”. This in itself is worth the price of the book. The edition I use (Hendrickson, 2007), runs to 418 pages. Chapter 4 covers just 20 pages, but it is loaded with spiritual gems and wonderful theological insights. Let me offer just a few:

“True Christianity is ‘a fight’. . . . The true Christian is called to be a soldier, and must behave as such from the day of his conversion to the day of his death. He is not meant to live a life of religious ease, indolence, and security. He must never imagine for a moment that he can sleep and doze along the way to heaven, like one travelling in an easy carriage. If he takes his standard of Christianity from the children of this world he may be content with such notions, but he will find no countenance for them in the Word of God. If the Bible is the rule of his faith and practice, he will find his lines laid down very plainly in this matter. He must ‘fight’.” (pp. 66-67)

“The saddest symptom about many so-called Christians is the utter absence of anything like conflict and fight in their Christianity. They eat, they drink, they dress, they work, they amuse themselves, they get money, they spend money, they go through a scanty round of formal religious services once every week. But of the great spiritual warfare—its watchings and strugglings, its agonies and anxieties, its battles and contests—of all this they appear to know nothing at all.” (p. 71)

He speaks to this theme elsewhere. For example, in ch 14, “Visible Churches Warned” he writes: “I fear much for many professing Christians. I see no sign of fighting in them, much less of victory. They never strike one stroke on the side of Christ. They are at peace with His enemies. They have no quarrel with sin. I warn you, this is not Christianity. This is not the way to heaven.”  (p. 297)

Chapter 5, “The Cost” is also superb, loaded with spiritual gold. A few more quotes are worth presenting here:

“It is always unpleasant to be spoken against, and forsaken, and lied about, and to stand alone. But there is no help for it. The cup which our Master drank must be drunk by His disciples. They must be ‘despised and rejected of men.’ (Isa. liii. 3.) Let us set down that item last in our account. To be a Christian it will cost a man the favour of the world. Such is the account of what it costs to be a true Christian. I grant the list is a heavy one. But where is the item that could be removed? Bold indeed must that man be who would dare to say that we may keep our self-righteousness, our sins, our laziness, and our love of the world, and yet be saved! I grant it costs much to be a true Christian. But who in his sound senses can doubt that it is worth any cost to have the soul saved? When the ship is in danger of sinking, the crew think nothing of casting overboard the precious cargo. When a limb is mortified, a man will submit to any severe operation, and even to amputation, to save life. Surely a Christian should be willing to give up anything which stands between him and heaven. A religion that costs nothing is worth nothing! A cheap Christianity, without a cross, will prove in the end a useless Christianity, without a crown.” (89-90)

“For want of ‘counting the cost,’ hundreds of professed converts, under religious revivals, go back to the world after a time, and bring disgrace on religion. They begin with a sadly mistaken notion of what is true Christianity. They fancy it consists in nothing more than a so-called “coming to Christ,” and having strong inward feelings of joy and peace. And so, when they find, after a time, that there is a cross to be carried, that our hearts are deceitful, and that there is a busy devil always near us, they cool down in disgust, and return to their old sins. And why? Because they had really never known what Bible Christianity is. They had never learned that we must ‘count the cost’.” (92-93)

“Let every reader of this paper think seriously, whether his religion costs him anything at present. Very likely it costs you nothing. Very probably it neither costs you trouble, nor time, nor thought, nor care, nor pains, nor reading, nor praying, nor self-denial, nor conflict, nor working, nor labour of any kind. Now mark what I say. Such a religion as this will never save your soul. It will never give you peace while you live, nor hope while you die. It will not support you in the day of affliction, nor cheer you in the hour of death. A religion which costs nothing is worth nothing.” (pp. 101)

“I frankly allow there are some presumptuous persons who profess to feel a confidence for which they have no Scriptural warrant. There are always some people who think well of themselves when God thinks ill, just as there are some who think ill of themselves when God thinks well. There always will be such. There never yet was a Scriptural truth without abuses and counterfeits. God’s election – man’s impotence – salvation by grace – all are alike abused. There will be fanatics and enthusiasts as long as the world stands. But, for all this, assurance is a reality and a true thing; and God’s children must not let themselves be driven from the use of a truth, merely because it is abused.” (p. 130)

“But my answer, furthermore, to all who dislike the doctrine of assurance, as bordering on presumption, is this:–It can hardly be presumption to tread in the steps of Peter, and Paul, of Job, and of John. They were all eminently humble and lowly-minded men, if ever any were; and yet they all speak of their own state with an assured hope. Surely this should teach us that deep humility and strong assurance are perfectly compatible, and that there is not any necessary connection between spiritual confidence and pride.” (p. 132)

“I am inclined to think that justification and sanctification are insensibly confused together in the minds of many believers. They receive the Gospel truth – that there must be something done in us, as well as something done for us, if we are true members of Christ: and so far they are right. But then, without being aware of it, perhaps, they seem to imbibe the idea that their justification is, in some degree, affected by something within themselves. They do not clearly see that Christ’s work, not their own work – either in whole or in part, either directly or indirectly–is alone the ground of our acceptance with God; that justification is a thing entirely without us, for which nothing whatever is needful on our part but simple faith – and that the weakest believer is as fully and completely justified as the strongest.

“Many appear to forget that we are saved and justified as sinners, and only sinners; and that we never can attain to anything higher, if we live to the age of Methuselah. Redeemed sinners, justified sinners, and renewed sinners doubtless we must be – but sinners, sinners, sinners, we shall be always to the very last. They do not seem to comprehend that there is a wide difference between our justification and our sanctification. Our justification is a perfect finished work, and admits of no degrees. Our sanctification is imperfect and incomplete, and will be so to the last hour of our life. They appear to expect that a believer may at some period of his life be in a measure free from corruption, and attain to a kind of inward perfection. And not finding this angelic state of things in their own hearts, they at once conclude there must be something very wrong in their state. And so they go mourning all their days–oppressed with fears that they have no part or lot in Christ, and refusing to be comforted.” (pp. 149-150)

OK, I can’t resist, one last quote, from ch. 8, “Moses: An Example”: “There is a common, worldly kind of Christianity in this day, which many have, and think they have enough – a cheap Christianity which offends nobody, and is worth nothing. I am not speaking of religion of this kind. But if you really are in earnest about your soul – if your religion is something more than a mere fashionable Sunday cloak – if you are determined to live by the Bible – if you are resolved to be a New Testament Christian, then, I repeat, you will soon find you must carry a cross. You must endure hard things, you must suffer on behalf of your soul, as Moses did, or you cannot be saved.” (p. 182)

I could keep doing this all day. I love sharing quotes from this great book. So my earnest entreaty to you is to get a copy of this book, read it, and read it again. If you do not already have this great volume, I must ask you: Why not? If you cannot afford to purchase a copy, you can read it online for free: articles.ochristian.com/book2363.shtml

I strongly commend it to you.

[2026 words]

6 Responses to Notable Christians: J. C. Ryle

  • Hi Bill, who was it that said he was the best man in the church of England? Or something like it.
    I would believe it, and would suspect it has been downhill ever since.
    Rob Withall

  • Thanks Rob

    It could have been many folks: Martyn Lloyd-Jones, J.I. Packer, etc. So many have been greatly influenced by Ryle.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • It’s interesting, Bill, to note that much in the quotes tells us about bad situations (in the 19th century) which we thought were new, features of our own times!. It shows that so much that is depressing has always existed. Satan just seems to re-cycle the same old temptations and delusions; though Ryle could never have imagined (probably would never have believed) that there could be churches that actively promoted homosexuality and called abortion “holy”.
    Great article.
    John Thomas, UK

  • I hope I can get Ryles book on kindle although a paper copy does feel in order here! In all of the years the great men of God are saying the same thing! Our ears appear shut to certain truths that may make life uncomfortable forsaking the Gospel and our faith.
    Thanks for sharing Bill.

  • C.H. Spurgeon described J.C. Ryle as the ‘best man in the Church of England.’ (Understandably so)

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