lacking mordant expressions, Ryle diffused them throughout his
denunciations of sinful folly and naïve self-delusion, but also
throughout his depictions of the glories and joys of the Christian life
and the unutterable grandeur of heaven.
For instance, few things upset him as much as clergy, entrusted
with the spiritual shepherding of their people, who started off redolent
with promise only to make their peace, here a little and there a little,
with church and world as conviction and nerve gradually failed them until
– until “…at the last the man (sic)
who at one time seemed likely to be a real successor to the apostles and a
good soldier of Christ, settles down on his lees as a clerical gardener,
farmer, or diner out, by whom nobody is offended and nobody is saved”.
Yet he didn’t target the clergy.
Zealously urging all to embrace the Saviour, he solemnly warned all
alike of the peril of spiritual neglect or somnolence – as when he told
’s wife and the spiritual disaster coming upon her: “The world was in
her heart, and her heart was in the world.”
Collapsing the imaginary refuge of those who
think their privilege (of any sort) will see them past the just Judge,
Ryle recalled, “Joab was David’s captain; Demas was Paul’s
companion; Judas Iscariot was Christ’s disciple.
These all died in their sins.”
So reads Ryle’s landmark book Holiness.
First published as a collection of addresses and essays in 1879, it
has been reprinted seven times, and continues to stiffen the spines of
Christians in danger of becoming spiritually amorphous, even as it lends
encouragement and hope to Christians who are on the point of giving up.
J.I. Packer, recently retired professor of
, UBC, was near despair as a young man concerning his seeming failure to
“move into the space” that popular holiness teachers counselled.
Packer found their “Let go [of what?] and let God [do what?]”
– and similar exhortations -- too vague to help and too condemnatory to
console. He was ready to write
himself off as spiritually hopeless when Ryle’s Holiness came into his hands. Ryle
showed him that holiness, so far from a passive “surrender” or
self-wrought “consecration”, is simultaneously God’s gift, God’s
command, and the believer’s
pursuit. Holiness is to be
done. And since such
“doing” occurs in the world, the Christian is involved in a fight.
Packer’s life turned around and he stepped ahead.
saddest symptom about many so-called Christians is the utter absence of
anything like conflict and fight in their Christianity”, Ryle lamented.
Unwilling to deny the obvious in scripture, he reminded his people,
“There are no promises in the Lord Jesus Christ’s epistles to the
seven churches, except to those who ‘overcome’”.
Ryle was born to a wealthy family and to the
prerogatives that wealth brings. Sent
’s most prestigious private school, he distinguished himself in Greek
and Latin before moving on to
, where he excelled in football and rowing even as he gained academic
honours. Through it all he was
never exposed to anything but spiritual tepidity and torpor.
Later he was to speak of the sermons offered weekly at
as “a perfect farce and a disgrace to the Church of England.”
Confined to bed for several weeks at age 21,
he began reading scripture. As
its truth and force fermented within him, he was brought to that moment
when, several months later, he happened upon a church service whose
text-for-the-day was the ringing evangelical declaration of Ephesians 2:
“By grace are you saved through faith….it is the gift of God.”
In the wake of the gospel’s luminosity he grasped several
implications: the deplorable condition of the sinner, the sufficiency of
the atonement, the need for Spirit-wrought new birth, the believer’s
holiness as the only authentic sign of faith, and (a point he would make
tirelessly thereafter) the utter speciousness of baptismal regeneration or
any hint of it.
Immediately he found no shortage of people
who looked at him askance. The
joy of his new beginning was matched by the grief of finding his friends
uncomprehending and himself unable to remove the impasse.
Disaster overtook the family in 1841.
His father had loaned a brother-in-law 200,000 pounds to finance a
new business in cotton manufacturing.
The business failed. His
father had had lands and houses whose rents kept the family awash in
money. The family had lived on
a 1000-acre estate. The family
foreparents had to come to
as “Royle” during the Norman Conquest, 1066.
Ryle’s annual allowance had been 15,000 pounds.
Everything vanished overnight.
In his first appointment following ordination (1841), Ryle’s
stipend was 84 pounds.
The year 1844 saw him immersed in the work
for which he would remain known long after his preaching voice was silent;
namely, his intense study and practical renderings of the English
Reformers, the Puritans who followed them, and the leaders of the
Evangelical Awakening after that, together with numerous histories and
accessible expositions of the Gospels.
The days were not easy.
Ryle’s first wife became psychotic following the birth of their
first child. Only a few years
later she died of a pulmonary aneurysm.
His second wife lived ten years, leaving him with five children
Amidst it all he pastored and preached,
attracting huge crowds. He
conducted open-air services. He
emerged as the spokesperson for the Evangelical party within the Church of
England, resisting Anglo-Catholicism’s attempt at undoing the
Reformation and introducing ritual that lacked scriptural warrant.
As retirement age approached, he published
two seminal works (perhaps his best-known), Old
Paths and Knots Untied,
expositions of doctrine he deemed essential.
Then retirement receded in 1880 when he was
appointed bishop of the new Diocese of Liverpool.
Noting that only 10% of
attended church, he intensified evangelistic efforts. Deploring
the poverty of the clergy, he initiated the first clergy pension plan in
. Release from his
ardours was granted in June 1890.
His epitaph could have been taken from the
last chapter of his Holiness.
“‘Christ is all.’ These
words are the essence and substance of Christianity.”