This year one of my favorite authors, Ian Murray, published a work on the life of J.C. Ryle. Ryle’s writings have encouraged, challenged, and educated me for the past fifteen years or so. Some of my favorites include Holiness, Thoughts for Young Men, Zeal, and his comments on Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In our current study of Matthew, I read Ryle’s commentary weekly.
As usual, Murray gives a thorough and honest presentation of Ryle’s life and work, incorporating helpful comments and interpretations along the way. Three characteristics of Ryle’s ministry stood out in this book: a high estimation of the accuracy and authority of Scripture, a love for people, and courage to combine the previous two to challenge apostasy and worldliness. Two sections toward the end emphasize these character qualities.
First, Murray comments on Ryle’s view of worship. These comments expose a departure from the truth in much of the Church today.
Ryle would have us understand that how God is worshipped is a fundamental issue. It radically affects how people live. “The best public worship is that which produces the best private Christianity.” If that is not recognized, and public worship is suited to human taste and emotion, the consequence will be an absence of reverence, adoration and godliness. “Here,” he said with feeling, “we have often felt that we stand comparatively alone, and that even in God’s house the real spiritual worshippers are comparatively few.” His comfort was, “We shall have worshipping companions enough in heaven.” (Prepared to Stand Alone, p. 227)
Murray also quotes the following from Ryle’s work Knots Untied:
There is a natural proneness and tendency in us all to give God a sensual, carnal worship, and not that which is commanded in His Word. We are ever ready, by reason of our sloth and unbelief, to devise visible helps and stepping-stones in our approaches to Him . . . Any worship whatsoever is more pleasing to the natural heart, than worshipping God in the way which our Lord Jesus Christ describes, ‘in spirit and in truth’ (John 4:23). (Ibid., p. 226)
Three primary characteristics of Ryle’s ministry moved him toward valuing acceptable worship. In Murray’s estimation, these three characteristics are “frequently missing in pulpits today” (p. 224).
- The human race was created in the image of God for the glory of God
- God has given his law for all people
- The praise of God’s grace is the great purpose of redemption
Working from these characteristics, Murray discusses how revivalism undermined many of these key doctrines. The cause, in Murray’s estimation, is traceable to overemphasizing various truths without proportionately balancing them with the entire revelation of God and body of doctrine found in the Word. These include an overemphasis of faith without repentance, the internal work of the Holy Spirit apart from the revelation of Word, and warm feelings accompanying an instantaneous conversion. Murray carefully acknowledges the truth of faith, the work of the Holy Spirit, and true joy, but accurately diagnoses an overemphasis in the revivalist movement.
The second section highlighting Ryle’s ministry handles the differences with his son, Herbert Ryle. Herbert trained theologically and attained high positions in the church. However, he held to a progressive view of doctrine, claiming that increasing frontiers of knowledge should shape interpretation of Scriptural truth. As a result, Herbert held to a loose hermeneutic of Scripture and embraced broadly ecumenical views that disparaged doctrinal veracity. The difference came to head when J.C., serving as Bishop of Liverpool, dismissed his son because of the doctrinal compromise. Even with this dismissal, Herbert held his father in high esteem. In Ryle’s own words, “People will stand for almost anything without taking offence, if they are convinced you love them.”
Ryle certainly had points of imperfection, as everyone does. Occasionally his writing will give pause and might present something you do not agree with 100%. But, the body of his work reveals a man committed entirely to the Word of God and willing to stand by God’s revelation even at deep personal cost. Ryle’s successor in the Liverpool Bishopric, Francis Chavasse, described Ryle as “that man of granite with the heart of a child.”