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.

The Prayer Life of Jesus

Knowing ChristMark 6:45-52 is the account of one of the most well-known miracles of the Lord Jesus Christ, His walking on water. But notice that the first thing that we see in that text is Jesus praying. In v.45-46 Mark writes,

“Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray.”

Now, it is easy to overlook this detail of the story, especially when it is found in such close proximity to such a jaw-dropping miracle as Jesus walking on water. But if you stop to really think about, the most amazing thing (in a sense) in this passage might not be so much that Jesus walked on water, but that He spent so much time in prayer.

Why did Jesus pray? If He is God, did He really need to pray? Or was it just for show, as an example for us? These can be perplexing questions for us at times. We sometimes struggle even as as Bible-believing, evangelical Christians, with how to properly understand and articulate what it means to say that Jesus is (in the words of Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.21), “God and man in two distinct natures, and one person, forever.” We also struggle at times to understand the implications of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. And that certainly holds true when it comes to the prayer life of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In his book, Knowing Christ, Mark Jones helpfully addresses it this way:

“Our apparent dilemma disappears when we remember that Jesus was not only divine, but also fully human. Even as the perfect man, he no doubt still needed to pray. A robust, reverential, dependent prayer life was suitable and necessary given the various trials and distresses that he faced as the suffering servant. The Scriptures certainly give the impression that his prayer life was as indispensable for him as it is for us. His prayer life described so vividly in the New Testament leaves us in awe. What a thought: the Son of God praying to God the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit!” (p.93)

We must be careful to do justice, not only to the true divinity of Christ (that He is really and truly God almighty), but also to His true humanity. Theological liberals and cults very often fail to do justice to the former; we who are Bible-believing evangelicals at times fail to do justice to the latter. But we must be careful to affirm both the true divinity and true humanity of Jesus Christ. Without the truth both of those things, we would have no true Mediator between God and man. (See Westminster Larger Catechism Q.40.)

Now, as we examine our Lord praying in the above text, we also see that this was no hurried, perfunctory prayer. In fact, Mark strongly implies that this time of prayer lasted quite a while. In v.47 the next thing Mark tells us is that it was “when evening came” that Jesus saw the disciples straining at the oars due to the wind. So Jesus was praying well into the night! This is a pretty consistent theme in the Gospels. Our Lord Jesus often took time away from everything else to spend time with His Father in prayer. (See also Matthew 14:23; Luke 5:16; 6:12; 9:28.) Is it any wonder that the apostles asked the Lord Jesus to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1)?

After a long, tiring day of ministering to the crowds (after the feeding of the 5,000 – v.30-44, Jesus needed rest. So what did He do? He went away by Himself to spend time with His Father in prayer. Isn’t that often just about the last thing that we think to do when we are tired? I don’t know about you, but after a long day at work, especially work that is mentally-taxing, the last thing that comes to my mind is to stop and pray. Stop and eat? Sure. Stop and shut off my brain in front of the television? Yep. Waste time scrolling through social media sites on my “smart” phone? Guilty as charged. But what about prayer?

In his book, Expository Thoughts on Mark, J.C. Ryle writes,

“There are few things, it may be feared, in which Christians come so far short of Christ’s example, as they do in the matter of prayer. Our Master’s strong crying and tears, his continuing all night in prayer to God, his frequent withdrawal to private places to hold close communion with the Father – are things more talked of and admired than imitated. We live in an age of hurry, bustle, and so-called activity. Men are tempted continually to cut short their private devotions, and abridge their prayers. When this is the case, we need not wonder that the church of Christ does little in proportion to its machinery. The church must learn to copy its Head more closely. Its members must be more in their closets. ‘We have little,’ because little is asked (James 4:2).” (p.102, emphasis mine)

So let us look to God for help to pray. We have the intercession of both Christ Himself (Hebrews 7:25) and the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:27) to encourage us and to help us. Let us, with the help of the Holy Spirit, seek not just to admire, but to imitate the prayer life of our Head, so that as His church we might not ‘do so little in proportion to our machinery.’ If we want to see our Lord bless and use us as His church to reach our neighbors with the gospel, we simply must become a praying church.

J.C. Ryle on the Leading Marks of a Forgiven Soul

old-pathsHow do you know if your sins have been forgiven? It would be practically impossible to overstate the importance of knowing the answer to that question for oneself.

In his book, Old Paths, J.C. Ryle (1816-1900) offers five (5) distinguishing characteristics or “leading marks” of those who have truly found forgiveness through faith in Jesus Christ:

  1. Forgiven souls hate sin.  If you hate only the consequences of your sins, and would really much prefer to continue in them if only the consequences were once removed, then you have good reason to question whether or not you have truly experienced the grace of forgiveness. As Ryle adds, “If you and sin are friends, you and God are not yet friends” (p.188).
  2. Forgiven souls love Christ. As Jesus says of the woman who wiped His feet with both her tears and her hair (!) in Luke 7:47, “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little” (ESV). She loved Jesus much because she had been forgiven much. The better we know the greatness of the forgiveness that is only to be found through faith in Jesus Christ, the more and more we will love Him for it!
  3. Forgiven souls are humble. Forgiven souls know that they owe all that they have to the grace, love, and mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our sin is an infinite debt that none of us could ever hope to repay, and so those who have had an infinite debt of sin forgiven on the basis of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, have infinite cause for humility.
  4. Forgiven souls are holy. This goes hand-in-hand with #1 (i.e. Forgiven souls hate sin). Ryle goes so far to say that anyone who is “deliberately living an unholy and licentious life, and boasting that his sins are forgiven” is, in fact, “under a ruinous delusion, and is not forgiven at all” (p.190). As is often said, justification and sanctification go together and are “inseparably joined” (Westminster Larger Catechism Q.77). You cannot have one without the other. As Hebrews 12:14 tells us, “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (ESV, emphasis mine).
  5. Forgiven souls are forgiving. As Ryle adds, “They do as they have been done by.” How can someone who has been forgiven an infinite debt of sin, then turn around and persist in refusing to forgive the much lesser debts of their fellow servants? (See Matthew 18:21-35.) Ryle concludes by stating, “Surely we know nothing of Christ’s love to us but the name of it, if we do not love our brethren” (p.190).

Of course, Ryle’s objective here is not to disturb the tender consciences of sincere believers in Christ, but to awaken the false professor of faith, those who claim to know Christ and forgiveness in His name, but yet exhibit none of these “leading marks” of having actually experiencing that forgiveness.

If you are reading of these things and do see the presence of them in your life (even if also certainly seeing your ever-present need to grow in them), take heart and thank God for His grace in your life. As Ryle puts it, “saving faith in Christ is consistent with many imperfections” (p.191).

If you consider yourself a believer in Jesus Christ, and claim to be forgiven in His name, but honestly do not see the presence of these graces in your life, then (to use Paul’s words) “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5, ESV). Let this serve as a wake-up call if you find that you are not yet in Christ by faith. Turn to Him by faith, and you will at last know the joy of sins freely forgiven.

The Unimpressive Church

MH900409495As the old saying goes, you can’t always judge a book by its cover. The same can be said of churches. In fact, sometimes it is the downright unimpressive-looking church where God is really at work.

We often tend to look for the bells and whistles, the programs and amenities (basically what does a church have to offer me and my family?). And there is nothing wrong with those things in & of themselves. But we also need to look deeper than that. Frankly, sometimes we can be impressed by all of the wrong things.

Beautiful church building? Nothing wrong with that at all, of course. (Who doesn’t want a nice building for their church?) Youth programs for the kids? Catchy music? A lot of activities going on throughout the week? Those can be good things. But those things alone are not the right basis for judging a church.

J.C. Ryle offers us some godly wisdom – a different way to look at the outwardly unimpressive church:

“There are many assemblies of Christian worshippers [sic] on earth at this very day in which there is literally nothing to attract the natural man. They meet in miserable dirty chapels, so-called, or in wretched upper rooms and cellars. They sing unmusically. They hear feeble prayers, and more feeble sermons. And yet the Holy Ghost is often in the midst of them! Sinners are often converted in them and the kingdom of God prospers far more than in any Roman Catholic Cathedral, or in many gorgeous Protestant churches. How is this? How can it be explained? The cause is simply this, that in these humble assemblies heart-religion is taught and held. Heart work is aimed at. Heart work is honored. And the consequence is that God is pleased and grants his blessing.” (J.C. Ryle, Practical Religion, p.256)

So if you are a member of just such an unimpressive church (or even one of its ministers!) – take heart! Just as God doesn’t look at the outward appearance, but at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7), even so He is often very much at work in the church whose outward appearance is nothing to write home about.

Unimpressive music? Feeble prayers? Even more feeble sermons? (How many pastors want to lay claim to that one?)  But better to be at home in a dull, unimpressive church like that where God is truly at work than anywhere else!