May 24, 2006 by Joseph Krohn
Never 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 hearers of Lot ’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 theology at Regent College , 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.
Fight? “The 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 to Eton , England ’s most prestigious private school, he distinguished himself in Greek and Latin before moving on to Oxford University , 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 Eton 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 England 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 under fourteen.
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 Liverpool attended church, he intensified evangelistic efforts. Deploring the poverty of the clergy, he initiated the first clergy pension plan in England . 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.”