J.C. Ryle

J.C. Ryle on “Jelly-Fish” Sermons

prepared to stand aloneIn his terrific biography of J.C. Ryle, Prepared to Stand Alone, Iain Murray quotes Ryle on the dangers of an aversion to “dogma” or doctrine among the ministers of the Church of England in his day. He likened this to ‘Jelly-fish Christianity,’ saying that it was,

“without bone, or muscle, or power.   . . . We have hundreds of ‘jelly-fish’ clergymen, who seem not to have a single bone in their body of divinity [i.e. their doctrine].   . . . We have thousands of ‘jelly-fish’ sermons preached every year, sermons without an edge, or a point, or a corner, smooth as billiard balls, awakening no sinner, and edifying no saint.” (p.186)

Ryle penned these words in the late 19th century (!), but they seem as timely and relevant in our day as ever. (Take heart, such things were not invented in our day!)

If you think about it, there are not many biblical doctrines which unbelievers (or even nominal Christians) are not likely to take offense at hearing. Scoffers, skeptics, and sometimes even professing believers often bristle at the most basic doctrines that are taught in the Bible – creation, providence, the Fall, depravity, sin, hell, the cross of Christ, substitutionary atonement, the resurrection, the judgment – just to name a handful. These things are no doubt repugnant to many, and always have been. But those doctrines and many others are found throughout Scripture, and so they must be clearly preached and taught.

The temptation toward “smooth” preaching is ever-present, and probably always has been. Such sermons are no doubt designed to be pleasing to the ears of the hearers and to avoid offense at all costs. But such sermons, as Ryle observed, awaken no sinner and edify no saint. As Paul told Timothy,

“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. (2 Timothy 4:1-4, ESV)

People who have “itching ears” will tend to refuse to “endure sound teaching” and “turn away from listening to the truth” (v.4), but Paul says here that this is actually all the more reason to “preach the Word” (v.2)!

May the Lord Jesus Christ, the one true Head of His church, be pleased to once again raise up a godly generation of ministers – men who have spines of steel in their doctrine and doctrine in their preaching. And may the Lord use such preaching to awaken many sinners and edify the saints!

A Word of Encouragement for Pastors/Preachers

prepared to stand alone

Preaching is hard work. It requires much prayer, study, preparation, and even practice. Doing all of that on a weekly basis (and in many cases, doing so for both morning and evening services) can add up to a real grind. Who among us is sufficient for such things? It can feel rather overwhelming at times. (Hint: Pray for your pastor!)

Some preachers seem to make it look just so easy, don’t they? And it is all too easy for us to imagine that the men whom we consider our heroes of the faith from years past found no difficulties in such things. But in his recent biography of J.C. Ryle, Prepared to Stand Alone, Iain Murray writes the following:

“He [Ryle] would later say that he was turned fifty before he learned to preach.” (p.59)

Considering that Ryle entered the pastorate at age 25, that is really saying something! Think about that – J.C. Ryle was essentially preaching twice every Lord’s day for the span of 25 years before he started to feel like he had really learned to preach! (Having just turned 50 myself, and having far less than 25 years of experience in preaching, it is encouraging to know that even someone such as Ryle felt that way once too.)

So if you are a pastor and have found the work of preaching to be rather difficult, and are discouraged by your apparent lack of progress in it, take heart – you are in good company. In two or three decades maybe you’ll start to get the hang of it, just like Ryle did!  🙂

And if you are a member of a church where your pastor(s) preaches the Word of God to you faithfully and clearly (even if unspectacularly), thank God! For that is not the case everywhere. And be patient with your pastor’s shortcomings in the pulpit – give him some time to get his proverbial sea legs under him. It might take a decade or two, but it’ll be worth it!  🙂

J.C. Ryle on Sin as the Root of All Sorrow

old-pathsIf you were to ask 100 people at random what lay at the root of all of the world’s problems, what answers do you suppose that you might hear? (You might very well hear nearly 100 different answers.) But how many people in a hundred would point to sin as the culprit?

In his book, Old Paths, J.C. Ryle has some pointed words about the evils of sin as the ultimate source of all of the misery that mankind encounters in this fallen world:

“Sin is the cause of all the burdens which now press down mankind. Most men know it not, and weary themselves in vain to explain the state of things around them. But sin is the great root and foundation of all sorrow, whatever proud man may think. How much men ought to hate sin!” (p.338)

And so while all of mankind shares in the miseries of this life since the fall, how few there are who trace those miseries back to their true root – sin.  And apart from that, there really is no right explanation or understanding of the state of the world. But if we understand that sin is “the great root and foundation of all sorrow,” then we will begin to truly hate sin (and not just its effects), especially our own (not merely those of other people).

And how thankful we should be that God in His great mercy and grace did not leave all of mankind to perish in the estate of sin and misery, but rather, “out of His mere good pleasure, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life, did enter into a covenant of grace to deliver them out of the estate of sin and misery, and to bring them into an estate of salvation by a Redeemer” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.20). Thank God that He gave us His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to be the Redeemer of God’s elect (Q.21)!

A Word of Warning for Ministers of the Gospel

knotsuntiedI believe that there is a subtle temptation among those of us who are pastors to give our own beliefs and teachings the benefit of the doubt when it comes to our orthodoxy. We may keep an eye out for error or false doctrine “out there,” so to speak, but somehow assume that it could never be an issue for us.

A similar tendency can also be found at times when it comes to one’s Reformed orthodoxy. What I mean is this – pastors at times can seem to assume that because they consider themselves to be Reformed, whatever they happen to believe and teach must therefore (of course) be Reformed as well. In other words, we can tend to then (whether consciously or not) define what is “Reformed” by whatever it is that we ourselves hold to be true.

In his book, Knots Untied, J.C. Ryle writes,

” . . .none need warnings so much as the ministers of Christ’s gospel. Our office and ordination are no security against errors and mistakes. It is, alas, too true, that the greatest heresies have crept into the church of Christ by means of ordained men. Neither Episcopal ordination, nor Presbyterian ordination, nor any other ordination, confers any immunity from error and false doctrine.” (p.365)

It is not without reason that Paul told Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16, ESV). Likewise, in Acts 20:28-31 he gives the elders of the church in Ephesus the following sober admonition:

“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.” (ESV)

One of the dangers inherent in the mindset mentioned above is that it is not exactly conducive toward keeping a close eye on one’s own doctrine. Keeping an eye on other people’s doctrine? Maybe. But your own? Probably not so much if we define orthodoxy by whatever we ourselves happen to believe! And so we who are pastors and teachers must be careful not view our ordination (as Ryle puts it) as conferring “any immunity from error and false doctrine.” We must seek to be reformed and yet always reforming.

There are a number of things that we can do to safeguard ourselves (and so our respective flocks as well) from this potential pitfall. First, continue to study the Scriptureskeep on studying. As Paul told Timothy, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, KJV).

Not only that, but if you are a minister in a Presbyterian or Reformed denomination, make it your practice to continue to read, study, and teach your particular denomination’s doctrinal standards. If you are a Presbyterian pastor, that means continuing to familiarize yourself  with the Westminster Standards (i.e. The Westminster Confession of Faith, Larger Catechism, and Shorter Catechism).  Dare I say, even memorize some of it!

Now the Westminster Standards are certainly no cure-all. Frankly, they do not deal with every possible theological question that a pastor might need to deal with in the course of his studies – nor were they designed to do so! But they do give the basic substance of the system of doctrine that is taught in the Scriptures. Think of the Standards as (among other things) guard rails to keep you from drifting off to one side of the road or the other, so to speak.

This means that there may be some areas of theology upon which solidly Reformed pastors may disagree without really being at odds with the Westminster Standards (or even with each other, for that matter). But those areas of difference will inherently not therefore be regarding the main points of the system of doctrine. And so a strong familiarity with one’s doctrinal standards is then not only a way to study to show yourself approved (to borrow Paul’s words above from 2 Timothy 2:15), but also an effective way to study the peace and purity of the church in which one has taken his ordination vows.

J.C. Ryle on the Cross of Christ

old-pathsHow important is the cross of Christ? How central is it to the message of the Bible? Here is what J.C. Ryle has to say about that subject:

“Take away the cross of Christ, and the Bible is a dark book. It is like the Egyptian hieroglyphics without the key that interprets their meaning – curious and wonderful, but of no real use.” (Old Paths, p.233)

Indeed the cross is so central to the message of the Bible, so interwoven throughout it’s pages in both the Old and New Testaments, that you would scarcely be able to make any sense of the Scriptures without it. It would be, as Ryle said, a rather “dark book.”

Judging by Satan’s manifold temptations against our Lord in trying to dissuade Him from going to the cross (Matthew 4:1-11; 16:21-23), it is clear that this is precisely the kind of Bible that Satan himself would readily approve of. Cross-less preaching is certainly his preference for much the same reason.

No wonder the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth,: “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23, ESV), and “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2, ESV). He was determined to keep the main thing the main thing, as the saying goes. And the main thing in Scripture is “Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

 

J.C. Ryle on the Spiritual Use of the Law

holinessCan a sinner be justified in the sight of a holy God by works, or by obedience to God’s commandments? No, of course not. In Galatians 2:16 the Apostle Paul plainly states as much:

“yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (ESV)

Notice that Paul basically states this same truth at least three (3) times in just this one simple verse. (It’s as if he is trying to emphasize his point!) No one will be justified by the works of the law. No one.

Having established that, we must be careful to maintain that although we are not in any way justified by works or by obedience to God’s commandments, yet this does not therefore mean that we as believers in Christ have no more need or use for God’s law. Quite the opposite! In his book, Holiness, J.C. Ryle writes,

“There is no greater mistake than to suppose that a Christian has nothing to do with the law and the Ten Commandments, because he cannot be justified by keeping them. The same Holy Ghost who convinces the believer of sin by the law, and leads him to Christ for justification, will always lead him to a spiritual use of the law, as a friendly guide, in the pursuit of sanctification.” (p.26)

As Ryle rightly points out, the Holy Spirit not only uses the law of God to convince or convict the believer of his or her sin, and so to drive them to look to Christ by faith for salvation from sin (often referred to as the pedagogical use of the law), but after conversion also leads that same believer to what Ryle calls a “spiritual use of the law.” What is that “spiritual use” of God’s law? It is to use it as the believer’s rule for life (often called the normative or 3rd use of the law).

To the believer who has been justified by faith alone in Christ alone, the law no longer holds forth the threat of condemnation for sin, but now serves as (to use Ryle’s words) a “friendly guide” in our lifelong pursuit of sanctification.

J.C. Ryle on the Wonder of the Incarnation of Christ

expository-thoughts-setThe 7-volume set of J.C. Ryle’s Expository Thoughts on the Gospels is a virtual treasure trove of insight into the Gospels.

In vol. 1 of his thoughts on the Gospel According to Luke, he has this to say about the circumstances of the incarnation of Jesus Christ:

“We see here the grace and condescension of Christ. Had he come to save mankind with royal majesty, surrounded by his Father’s angels, it would have been an act of undeserved mercy. Had he chosen to dwell in a palace, with power and great authority, we should have reason enough to wonder. But to become poor as the very poorest of mankind, and lowly as the lowliest, – this is a love that passeth knowledge. It is unspeakable and unsearchable. Never let us forget that through this humiliation Jesus has purchased for us a title to glory. Through his life of suffering, as well as his death, he has obtained eternal redemption for us. All through his life he was poor for our sakes, from the hour of his birth to the hour of his death. And through his poverty we are made rich (2 Cor. 8:9). (p.41)

Such loving condescension and grace really are “unspeakable and unsearchable.” Words fail us in trying to do justice to the mercy of God in Christ. Our deepest meditations on this subject barely scratch the surface of the infinite depths of the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

No wonder that at the birth of Jesus Christ a multitude of the heavenly host burst forth in praise to God, saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14, ESV). Amen.