Saturday, May 10, 2008

Evangelical Bishop J.C. Ryle

Fifty years ago the Christian church was just beginning to rediscover J.C. Ryle, who was a respected Church of England clergyman in the 19th century. A strong evangelical leader, he was known for his biblical convictions and expository preaching. In addition he wrote over 30 books and tracts promoting and defending the historic Christian faith, having been influenced by the Reformation and the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England. In the first half of the 20th century, however, most of his books went out of print, and he was unknown by many until his book Holiness was reprinted by James Clarke & Co. in 1952.
John Charles Ryle was born in Macclesfield, England on May 10, 1816 and educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford. He was the son of a wealthy banker and was expected to take over his father's business someday, having turned down careers in politics and teaching. His family was nominally Christian with no real dedication to the Lord. As a young man Ryle concluded that "Christianity must be one of the most disagreeable occupations on earth, or in heaven" (Peter Toon and Michael Smout, John Charles Ryle: Evangelical Bishop, Reiner Publications, 1976, p.24).
About two years before his conversion Ryle was out shooting with a college friend and was rebuked for swearing by his friend's father, who was a Christian. He never forgot this experience with someone who really knew the Lord. In the summer of 1837, having completed examinations and suffering illness, Ryle attended a church service, where he heard Ephesians chapter two being read by someone whose name he never knew. When the speaker came to verse eight, "By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God," he laid great emphasis on each phrase; and the truth of God's Word concerning justification by faith alone gripped Ryle in the same way that it took hold of Martin Luther centuries earlier. J.C. Ryle was soundly converted, never to be the same again.
Ryle's career in banking came to an abrupt end with the collapse of his father's business in 1841. The family had to sell their property and most of their possessions and move to different places. Had it not been for the Lord, Ryle might have committed suicide during this dark time. But his adversity drove him to the Scriptures for answers. "Faced with the opposition of circumstance at every turn, Ryle learnt that 'submission to God's will is perfectly compatible with intense and keen suffering under the chastisement of His will'" (Toon and Smout, p. 32). He then began thinking seriously about entering the ministry. Ryle was ordained in December 1841 and began 39 years of ministry to country churches until Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli recommended him as the first bishop of Liverpool in 1880, a position he held until three months before his death on June 10, 1900.
The evangelical bishop never lacked for critics among liberals and anglo-catholics, but he also never lacked courage to face them with the truth of God's Word through his sermons, books, and tracts. As a preacher Ryle was plain-spoken and warm-hearted; as an author he was prolific. Whether preaching or writing, he faithfully and forcefully expounded the Bible. His books include Christian Leaders of the 18th Century, The Upper Room, Five English Reformers, and his edifying series of Expository Thoughts on the Gospels.
His book Holiness, originally published in 1877, was written to meet needs he saw among Anglican Christians. The first edition consisted of only the introduction and first seven chapters. The book was so well received that two years later he expanded it into the form we have now. In his preface to the 1952 reprint of Holiness Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says, "Ryle, like his great masters, has no easy way to holiness to offer us, and no 'patent' method by which it can be attained; but he invariably produces that 'hunger and thirst after righteousness' which is the only indispensable condition to being 'filled.'"
May the Lord give us today this hunger and thirst for Himself through faithful expositors of His Word.
For further reading:
Peter Toon and Michael Smout, John Charles Ryle: Evangelical Bishop (Swengel, PA: Reiner Publications; Cambridge: J. Clarke, 1976). Read online.
J.I. Packer, Faithfulness and Holiness: The Witness of J.C. Ryle (Crossway Books, 2002)