Review: J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone

j-c-ryle

J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand AloneIain H. Murray. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2016.

Summary: The biography of this nineteenth century evangelical Anglican, from his early student days, his conversion, the decision to enter ministry, and his growing national reputation and his different assignments, including his last years as the first Bishop of Liverpool.

Earlier this year, a reading group of which I am a part chose J. C. Ryle’s Holiness (reviewed here) for our book discussions. Having read English writers of this era like John Henry Newman, I was bracing myself for highly convoluted sentences from which I would ferret meaning. Instead, I encountered a writer who was plain-spoken and a man of gracious, but uncompromising conviction. So when I came across notice of this new biography of Ryle, I acquired a copy, wanting to learn more of this man.

Ryle grew up the affluent son of a banker. He was tall, a gifted player of cricket, and seemed bound for a successful career, possibly in politics. During an illness in his last year at Oxford, he began to read his Bible and came to a personal faith in Christ, having previously been influenced by the conversion of his sister and a close relative.

A second turning point came when his father’s banking interest collapsed and he found himself without the means to pursue the political career for which he seemed destined. Instead, he sought ordination in the Church of England, serving first at Exbury and then St. Thomas’s Winchester. This was followed by a pastorate in Helmingham, during which he married twice, losing both wives, leaving him with five children. He wrote of this time, “There are anxieties in such cases which no one knows but he who has gone through them; anxieties which can crush the strongest spirit.”

Yet during these years Murray describes the pattern of a ministry that was constant in pastoral care visiting people in their homes, saturated with study, of the scriptures and the best of the Puritans, marked by compelling preaching, and further propagated through the publishing of tracts and collections of sermons. It was a time when Newman, Pusey, Keble, Froude, and others were publishing Tracts for the Times and leading a movement toward Anglo-Catholicism emphasizing sacraments, ritual, and ties with Rome, that Ryle and others thought contrary both to the Thirty-Nine Articles and to an evangelical faith rooted in the scriptures and the saving work of Christ.

A move to Stradbroke in 1861 brought with it a third marriage that would last until Henrietta’s death in 1889 and an increasingly national reputation as a voice for the evangelical wing of the Anglican Church. There were further publications, including his commentary on the Gospel of John. In 1872 he became Canon of Norwich and in 1880, at age 64, he became the first Bishop of Liverpool. He remained in this post until shortly before his death in 1900, establishing 44 new churches and mission halls, and becoming beloved among the working people, if not among a Church of England growing increasingly sacramental and tolerant of theological heterodoxy that moved away from evangelical conviction.

He was not able to stem the tide despite his efforts, even with his own son Herbert, who became a leader in the “broad” church. They differed but always remained charitable toward each other. One telling observation made however is that J.C. Ryle’s work continues to be re-printed and read, Herbert’s has not.

This makes me wonder about the subtitle, “prepared to stand alone.” It appears that this may often have been the case for Ryle, especially later in life. Are there times when it may seem that many, even those most dear will desert “the faith once delivered?” Perhaps this is why some find the writing of Ryle of such comfort in a time where parts of the church are given over to political captivity and others to a latitudinarianism that considers matters of doctrine of little value. Ryle brings together in his life and preaching both clarity of conviction and charity toward those with whom he ministered as he sought to proclaim that transforming power of new life in Christ.

Murray’s new biography explores the “long obedience” of this evangelical leader who never left the Church of England. He also includes two appendices, one with quotes from Ryle, and the other a brief profile of Herbert Ryle, his son. I’ll close with one of those quotes, on the “new birth,” a terminology that has undeservedly fallen into disrepute:

“The change which our Lord he declares needful to salvation is evidently no slight or superficial one. It is not merely reformation, or amendment, or moral change, or outward alteration of life. It is a thorough change of heart, will, and character. It is a resurrection. It is a new creation. It is a passing from death to life. It is the implanting in our dead hearts of a new principle from above. It is the calling into existence of a new creature, with a new nature, new habits of life, new tastes, new desires, new appetites, new judgments, new opinions, new hopes, and new fears. All this and nothing less than this is implied, when our Lord declares we all need a ‘new birth’…. Heaven may be reached without money, or rank, or learning. But it is clear as daylight, if words have any meaning, that no one can enter heaven without a ‘new birth.’ “

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher . I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: Holiness

Holiness

Holiness, J.C. Ryle. Chios Classics (electronic text), 2015 (originally published 1877).

Summary: The classic collection by nineteenth century evangelical Anglican J.C. Ryle emphasizing that growth in Christ-like character (holiness) involves not only faith in Christ’s empowering work but effort in laying hold of that work and that this basic matter is far too often neglected in the church.

J. C. Ryle was an Anglican rector, and eventually bishop of the then-new Diocese of Liverpool. He lived from 1816-1900. Much of his work was among working class people, and it is evident in reading this collection of sermons why he was so popular. Unlike others who cultivated a dense eloquence, Ryle spoke plainly and clearly outlined his points such that anyone giving him their attention could follow. Even his titles were straightforward, the longest of which is only five words (“A Woman to be Remembered”, on Lot’s wife!).

Ryle’s main concern was for the decline in practical holiness in his day. Against the Keswick movement and others who took a type of “let go and let God” approach, Ryle argued that holy character was something assiduously fought for (one of the sermons in this collection is titled “The Fight!”), and that while faith in Christ’s working in one’s life was necessary, so also was effort and exertion.

The title sermon of this collection, “Holiness”, begins with an exposition of the nature of true holiness in one’s life, why such holiness ought to be pursued, and finally how such holiness may be attained, through striving and through dependence upon Christ. In the concluding section he writes:

That great divine, John Owen, the Dean of Christ Church, used to say, more than two hundred years ago, that there were people whose whole religion seemed to consist in going about complaining and telling everyone that they could do nothing of themselves. I am afraid that after two centuries, the same thing might be said with truth of some of Christ’s professing people in this day. I know there are texts in scripture which warrant such complaints. I do not object to them, when they come from men who walk in the steps of the apostle Paul and fight a good fight, as he did, against sin, the devil and the world. But I never like such complaints when I see ground for suspecting, as I often do — that they are only a cloak to cover spiritual laziness, and an excuse for spiritual sloth. If we say with Paul, “O wretched man that I am!” let us also be able to say with him, “I press toward the mark!”

The collection begins with a sermon on the nature of sin (“Sin”) and is followed by one on “Sanctification”, including the diligent use of means, and then the title sermon of “Holiness”.  He then follows up on the theme of the struggle in the Christian life with chapters on “The Fight” and “The Cost”. He writes of the marks of “Growth in Grace” being a deepening sense of sin coupled with stronger faith, brighter hope, and growing love and spiritual-mindedness. The sermon on “Assurance” both holds out the reality of confidence in the work of Christ, coupled with the knowledge that one may not experience this and yet belong to Christ.

Then come four sermons around figures in scripture. He looks at Moses as an example of living by faith, Lot as a “beacon” warning us of the example of less than full-hearted obedience and Lot’s wife as “A Woman to be Remembered” because of the privileges she enjoyed, the repudiation of it all in the backward look, and the judgment she experienced. Finally, “Christ’s Greatest Trophy!” concerns the thief on the cross who believed–one of the rare instances I’ve come across of a sermon on this episode.

The next sermons concern the Lordship of Jesus in adversity, (“Ruler of the Waves”), and over the church (“The Church Which Christ Builds” and “Visible Churches Warned”). Sermons fifteen to eighteen focus around our call to love the Lord (“Do You Love Me?”), the sobering reality of life “Without Christ”, how Christ addresses our deepest thirst, and through us addresses the thirst of others (“Thirst Relieved!”). He explores the “Unsearchable Riches” of life in Christ.

His concluding sermons in this collection focus first on the “Needs of the Times”, including the authority of scripture, a clear grasp of Christian doctrine, a pursuit of holiness, and perseverance in private devotion. This sermon does have some sharp words against the Catholicism of his day. The collection concludes on a high note as Ryle explores all the ways “Christ is All”, a wonderful resource for nurturing one’s worship!

Ryle’s frank and straightforward preaching is a breath of fresh air. Read Ryle if you want to learn how to preach plainly. Read him to understand how good shepherds of God’s people afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Read him to examine your own life and to stir you from indifference. Read him to appreciate the marvelous riches one has in Christ. And read him for the practical help he gives in pursuing a “practical” holiness.

A note on editions: All of the most inexpensive editions of Holiness are in electronic form, including that linked to in this post. As a public domain work, it may be found for free or very cheaply online in various e-formats. Amazon also sells print-on-demand editions. Crossway has a more expensive paperback that includes a biography of Ryle by J.I. Packer under the title Faithfulness and HolinessOne should check to see if the edition you are buying has all twenty sermons–some are abridged–and it is worth getting them all!

 

Where Are The Reviews?

Partially Read Books.jpgThat’s a question some of you who follow regularly may be wondering for a little while. I wonder if other reviewers have ever had this happen? You end up in the middle of a number of books at the same time! The picture right now represents my current reading stack minus a couple books I’m reading on Kindle. Notice all those bookmarks in the middle of my books! So I thought I would give you some “mid-book” updates, that hopefully I’ll remember not to rehash in the reviews. Consider it a taste of things to come.

I Beg to DifferI’ll begin with the top most book. Tim Muelhoff’s I Beg to Differ is a very practical book on one of the hardest relational challenges–having those difficult conversations around disagreements without creating relational discord. Muelhoff outlines a set of questions and approaches that I’m finding very helpful.

Paul and His Recent InterpretersThe “meatiest” book comes next. N.T. Wright’s Paul and His Recent Interpreters is described as a companion to his magisterial Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Wright’s definitive work on the Apostle Paul. In Paul and His Recent Interpreters, Wright engages the range of contemporary Pauline scholarship, including the criticism of his own work. Wish I had read Paul and the Faithfulness of God, but haven’t been able to wade through the two volumes that make up this work yet! Point is, we often read Paul in light of the Reformation rather than Paul’s Jewish context and may miss some crucial things as a result. Stay tuned to the review for more!

Destiny and PowerThe “fattest” book in the stack is Jon Meacham’s Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker BushI’ve liked the things I’ve read of Meacham, and this is no exception. Bush, the 41st president was a complex mix of character and ambition, that both led to the presidency and was his undoing after one term. His single term, and the shadow of his son’s presidency may obscure the significant things this man quietly accomplished, both as president, and in the rest of his life.

A Commentary on 1 and 2 ChroniclesEugene Merrill’s A Commentary on 1 and 2 Chronicles is probably not something you’d pick up unless you were teaching or preaching on these books. I’m reading it because it was sent to me to review (and I am teaching a Bible overview that includes these books). Good introductory materials as well as enough depth to inform of textual issues without being overwhelming to all but the specialist.

Falling UpwardThe last two books are not in the photograph because they are on my Kindle. One is Falling Upward by Richard Rohr. Rohr sees our lives in halves, each with their crucial tasks, the first half, preparing for the second. I’ve just started this and find his basic premise intriguing. I’m clearly in the second half (unless there is a medical miracle) and interested to see what he says about this.

HolinessFinally, my last book is one our Dead Theologians group is reading at present, J. C. Ryle’s HolinessThe version we are using includes all twenty sermons on this theme. Unlike some 19th century writers, Ryle is plain-spoken without being simplistic. He argues that growth in holiness, or the idea of becoming more like Christ, involves faith that actively strives for this goal.

All of this is rich reading. One decision I’ve made though, particularly after a comment on yesterday’s post is that I’m going to move Nine Tailors to the top of my reading pile. This commenter thought it “just might be Sayer’s best mystery.” After all this meaty reading, I’m ready for a good mystery!