J. C. Ryle as Model Churchman

I first encountered J. C. Ryle in a seminary course. It was David Jones’ basic ethics course. That class changed my trajectory for seminary and also introduced me to an outstanding author.

Ryle’s Holiness is one of the most overlooked Christian classics. It deserves to be continually in print, widely read, and often referenced. The book is a means of grace; the biography of the man who wrote it helps explain why.

Iaian Murray, co-founder of Banner of Truth Trust, has published a number of volumes on church history including several biographies. Every book of his that I’ve read has been well done. J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone is no exception.

The volume contains thirteen chapters, which progress through Ryle’s life from childhood to the influence of his work after his death. Throughout his life, Ryle’s character is revealed in a way that helps explain the power behind his plainspoken writing.

Ryle was the son of a wealthy man and member of parliament who went bankrupt do to some bad decisions. The blessing of the bankruptcy was that it pushed J. C. Ryle into ministry to support himself. However, according to Murray, the elder Ryle’s debts were source of moral burden to the son, who tried to repay his father’s creditors, even on a meager salary.

The portrait of J. C. Ryle that emerges from these pages is one of a churchman. He was ordained into the Church of England and eventually rose through the ranks to become the first bishop of Liverpool.

However, Ryle’s rise was not due to politicking and compromise. In a time when liberalism was rampant within the Church of England and factions within the state church were attempting to reunite with Rome, Ryle vocally opposed both liberalism and ritualism.

In fact, Ryle was a conservative combatant in an era that, according to comments by Ryle, sounds much like our own day. In a collection of sermons, Home Truths, Ryle wrote:

“It is not Atheism I fear so much in the present times as Pantheism. It is not the system which says nothing is true, so much as the system which says everything is true. It is the system which is so liberal, that it dares not say anything is false. It is the system which is so charitable, that it will not allow everything to be true. It is the system which is so scrupulous about the feeling of others that we are never to say they are wrong … What is it but a bowing down before a great idol speciously called liberality? What is it all but a sacrificing of truth upon the altar of a caricature of charity? Beware of it if you believe the Bible.”

Ryle was a churchman in the best sense of the word. He took his pastoral responsibilities seriously, visiting many of the homes in his sprawling parish regularly. He preached to the people, not over their heads. He saw writing as an important part of his ministry, but not one that would allow him to forgo his local responsibilities.

As Ryle wrote in Charges and Addresses, he was leery of “a growing disposition throughout the land, among the clergy, to devote an exaggerated amount of attention to what I must call the public work of the ministry, and to give comparatively too little attention to pastoral visitation and personal dealing with individual souls.”

This meant that preaching was important and public polemics were important, but pastoral ministry was paramount to Ryle. There was no room for the celebrity pastor in Ryle’s worldview.

Part of Ryle’s story must include the death of those close to him. Ryle was single when he began his ministry, which, of course, makes getting married that much more difficult. He lost his first wife after a few years to a lingering illness and had to board his child elsewhere. He would remarry two more times, each time outliving his wives due to illness. Ryle’s life was one that witnessed to suffering and yet found the joy of the Lord within that experience. The power of his sermons and books was shaped by the pain in his life and the goodness of God through that pain.

Murray’s biography of Ryle is a worthwhile read. It synthesizes the bits of biography we have about Ryle and brings them to light for our contemporary era. Murray shows what made Ryle useful to God. While our calling may not be identical, and the circumstances may have changed, there is much in Murray’s portrait of Ryle that deserves attention and mirroring by current or future pastors.

Read Murray’s book. After you do that, read Ryle. It will be worth your time, without a doubt.

J.C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone
$18.00
By Iain H. Murray

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Knowing Christ - A Review

J. I. Packer’s volume, Knowing God, is a classic for the ages. It is clearly written, theologically deep, and profoundly inspiring. Reading Packer is an experience every Christian should have as soon as they are able.

In the introduction to his recent volume, Knowing Christ, Mark Jones references Packer’s book and pitches his own volume as another attempt in the same vein. He aspires to help his readers to know Christ better, which is a significant goal to say the least.

Jones describes his book in these words:

This book is not polemical (i.e., disputational), but it is still theological. It is also (I pray) devotional. This is a book for God’s people, not the academy. This is a book designed to give God’s people a glimpse of the person of Christ. In short, I write that people may know Christ better than they already do, and so love him more.

Summary

With that target in mind, Jones divides his book into twenty-seven chapters. He covers topics like “Christ’s Dignity,” “Christ’s Faith,” “Christ’s Resurrection,” and “Christ’s Names.” Each of the chapters is eight to ten pages long with multiple headings. It is structured as a book that can be read easily and in segments. The prose is lucid, which makes the book accessible even when the theology is deep. Jones offers many references to Scripture throughout that point the careful reader back to the text, which is the source of much of our knowledge of Christ. He also quotes from the Puritans frequently and quotes some of them at length.

As a theologian, this was a fun book to sit down with at night in my armchair. It did lead me into a deeper appreciation for Christ. It reminded me of much truth about the Savior and helped me think through aspects of Christ’s existence, such as the faith that he demonstrated throughout his life. At the same time, it encouraged me to want to know Christ better and brought to mind the center of the Christian faith, which is the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

This is the sort of book that an educated layperson could pick up and enjoy as well. The structure makes it suitable for a book study, with short chapters and study questions for each chapter in the back of the volume. In the end, whether someone agrees with everything Jones has written here, it is impossible to read this book as a Christian and walk away without having a deeper Christology in some way.

Critique

The weaknesses of the book fall along two fronts. First, Jones loves the Puritans and he draws from them very frequently. As someone who enjoys Puritan theology, I recognize that sometimes they said things so well and in prose that is just far enough removed from modern English to accentuate its theological profundity through shifting cadence. At the same time, those that lack the same love for the Puritans may wonder why some of the quotes are necessary and question the level of authority Jones grants them.

The second weakness of the volume is that at times Jones overstates his case on questionable points. For example, in his discussion of Jesus asking the beloved disciple to take care of his mother, Mary, Jones writes:

We might say that his death for sinners would have been completely ineffectual if he had not entrusted his mother to the care of John. That is to say, if Christ had not uttered these words from the cross, we would be in hell; but he kept God’s law in life and ‘in death’.

Clearly Jones is referring to Christ keeping the fifth commandment to honor his father and mother. However, Jones’ claim is overly strong for the evidence that we have in the text.

Since Christ did utter these words, and the result was the fulfillment of the fifth commandment, it is logically necessary for Christ to utter the words to perfectly fulfill the law. Yet, it does not seem to follow that if Christ had not uttered those words or if we had not received the words through divine revelation, that our salvation would be incomplete. In other words, there could have been other ways for Christ to fulfill the law that Jones has not considered; or it could have happened “off stage.”

This is a minor criticism, but there are a few places where overstatements by Jones made me scratch my head a bit. In the end, they led to some good discussions with my wife (who also read the book), and may prove to do the same if this is read in a group setting.

Conclusion

This is a good book and one that many Christians will find enlightening and inspiring. Pastors might consider recommending this for those that need stimulation to grow in their faith. Seminary students may read this to keep the fire of faith burning brightly. All Christians will find that reading this is well worth the time.

Knowing Christ
$14.25
By Mark Jones

Note: Banner of Truth provided a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.