The year 2000 sees the centenary of the death of John Charles Ryle. In terms of the kingdom of God Ryle was one of the most significant men of the second half of the 19th century. 100 years after his death people are again turning to his writings to learn (or re-learn) the fundamental truths of biblical Christianity - the truths that the Church of England was founded upon and for which some of the founding fathers were martyred. Many of us have personally benefited from reading Ryle's works.
He died or (to use the words of the title of one of his famous tracts) he went "home at last", aged 85, on 10 June 1900. He was then buried beside his (third) wife (all three had pre-deceased him) at All Saints', Childwall, on the slope of a hill looking south across the Mersey into Cheshire. Childwall, at the time a rural parish, was where Ryle used to go to be quiet and have time off from the pressures of his busy life as the first Bishop of Liverpool. Liz Holgate, prior to coming onto our staff at Jesmond Parish Church, was a member of All Saints', Childwall and tells of an elderly member of the congregation who could reminisce about J.C.Ryle - her sister had worked for the bishop.
The Sunday following his death Richard Hobson, a close friend, a clergymen in his diocese and at whose church Ryle and his wife used to worship when free, was preaching at the "provisional" cathedral. Hobson spoke of Ryle's greatness:
[he] was great through the abounding grace of God. He was great in stature; great in mental power; great in spirituality; great as a preacher and expositor of God's most holy Word; great in hospitality; great in winning souls to God; great as a writer of Gospel tracts; great as an author of works which will long live, great as a bishop of the Reformed Evangelical Protestant Church of England of which he was a noble defender, great as the first Bishop of Liverpool. I am bold to say that perhaps few men in the nineteenth century did so much for God, for truth, for righteousness, among the English speaking race and in the world as our late bishop.
100 years later many believe that was a fair assessment. But what makes a "great man"? J.I.Packer says you need at least achievement and "universality".
In Ryle's case there was the achievement of establishing a brand new diocese (Liverpool had just been split off from Chester when Ryle went there). There was the achievement of his national evangelical leadership. Before going to Liverpool Ryle was a country parson in Suffolk ending up at Stradbroke Parish Church, where he went the year Jesmond Parish Church was founded (1861). While there he was considered the leader of the evangelicals in the Church of England. He lead through his preaching and teaching, travelling considerably. He also lead through his other great achievement - his writing. He was a brilliant writer. Unlike many Victorians (and particularly religious writers) he is still readable today. The style is uniquely his own and from a different day to ours. But what he says is crystal clear.
Then in addition to his achievement Ryle was great because of this quality of "universality". Packer says:
Great men impress us as men not simply raised up for their own day, but as men who are there, raised up by God as we Christians would say, for the benefit and the blessing of generations other than their own.
Yes, Ryle was a Victorian. And the Victorians have often had a bad press - sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly. There was the class system and the social structure which we find offensive today. Only rarely are you conscious of Ryle's "Victorianism". But that world and that culture were hugely significant for Ryle. The existence of social class was the context for one of the defining moments in Ryle's own life.
Ryle had been born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He was educated at Eton and after Eton at Oxford University, where he excelled both academically and in terms of sport. He was a distinguished classicist; captained Oxford at cricket (in one university match taking 10 wickets); and also rowed in the university boat race. He then went back home to his family's estate in Macclesfield which, as the eldest son, he expected to inherit having made his way in law and politics. But then something happened. His father's bank crashed. His father became bankrupt losing everything overnight. Here are Ryle's own words:
My father was a wealthy man. He was a landed proprietor and a banker. I was the eldest son and looked forward to inheriting a large fortune. I was on the point of entering Parliament. I had all things before me until I was twenty-five. But it then pleased God to alter my prospects in life through my father's bankruptcy. We got up one summer's morning with all the world before us as usual and went to bed that evening completely and entirely ruined.
This had a profound effect on Ryle. Writing twenty five years later he wrote ...
... with all the world before me [I] lost everything and saw the whole future of my life, turned upside down and thrown into confusion. If I hadn't been a Christian at that time, I do not know if I should not have committed suicide. As it was, everybody said how beautifully I behaved, how resigned I was, what an example of contentment I was. Never was there more a complete mistake. God alone knows how the iron entered into my soul; how my whole frame - body, mind and spirit - reeled and was shaken to the foundation under the blow of my father's ruin. I am quite certain it inflicted a wound on my body and mind, of which I feel the effects most heavily at this day and shall feel it if I live to be a hundred. To suppose that people do not feel things because they do not scream and yell and fill the air with their cries is simple nonsense.
The Turning point
But a more important turning point had occurred before that moment. It was in his last months at Oxford. He had been made to think about God and eternity during a period of illness. After he recovered he found himself in a church one Sunday - arriving late! He was just in time for the second bible reading from Paul's letter to the Ephesians. And the lesson reader, we are told, read clearly and distinctly with a pause between each phrase. This may seem artificial to us, but it had a profound effect on Ryle. The words "for by grace ... are ye saved ... through faith ... and that ... not of yourselves ... it is the gift of God" worked in Ryle's life. They went from his head to his heart. He now understood what the gospel of grace and salvation through faith in Christ alone really meant.
Ryle was a clear writer because he was a clear thinker. He knew his own mind. And for most of his life he saw the need to help others come to those same convictions. He never claimed they were his own convictions. Rather they were his convictions about the central core of the biblical message. These were his evangelical convictions. He summed them up under five headings: first, the absolute supremacy of the bible as the only rule of faith and practice; secondly, the fact and reality of human sin, such that we are all under God's judgment [not just people in the tabloids]; thirdly, the centrality of the work of Christ dying for sin on the cross, rising again and, ascended, praying now for us - and with the need for us to have childlike faith; fourthly, the need for the work of the Holy Spirit to bring new life to the believer and for the believer to be conscious of that work; and fifthly, the need, if God is at work in a person's life, for changes in "conduct, behaviour, tastes, ways, choices, and habits."
Ryle was at heart an evangelist. Throughout his life he preached, wrote and taught so that men and women would come to faith in Christ. But he was also concerned for changes in the church. He saw the church of his day loosing grip of the fundamentals as clearly set out in the Thirty-nine Articles and the theology of the 1662 Prayer Book. He wrote about the Pharisaical tendency of adding to the bible. He saw the Roman Catholic church doing that by adding all sorts of human traditions as necessary to salvation. He also wrote about the Sadducean tendency of wanting to subtract from that biblical tradition. This was being done by, what today we would call, "liberal" theologians.
Undoubtedly Ryle made mistakes. One of his tracts is entitled "The Fallibility of Ministers". He points out that the bible alone is infallible. "Even the Apostles themselves, when not writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, were at times liable to err." A great supporter of the Reformers, Ryle said that at times Luther, Calvin and Cranmer got things wrong. To remember this is not to reject most of their teaching. It is to test everything by the Bible. Ryle's biographies of the Reformers and the Puritans are still worth reading. My favourite of all Ryle's books is Christian Leaders of the 18th Century. If you have not read it, why not get it for Christmas? This will give you not only an insight into the lives of men like Whitefield and Wesley, but also a good indirect introduction, without tears, into Ryle's and, surely, biblical evangelical theology.