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10 Reasons to Love Ryle

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Posted by Lee Gatiss, 10 May 2016

Lee Gatiss gives us 10 reasons to love JC Ryle, on the great bishop’s 200th birthday.

Today is JC Ryle’s 200th birthday! He lived 10th May 1816 — 10th June 1900, and was a great champion of evangelical faith in the Church of England during the nineteenth century. To celebrate this milestone, we have produced a new limited edition hardback book called Stand Firm and Fight On: JC Ryle and the Future for Anglican Evangelicals. You can read about that here. But here are also ten reasons to love JC Ryle:

1. He was a brainbox, who used his cleverness for a good cause.
Ryle was educated at Eton and Oxford, as many children from well off families have been. But he made the most of the advantages of birth and wealth, applied himself to learning, and graduated with a first class degree in Classics. He might have easily ended up as a university professor (as many of his descendants did), and was offered such posts, but instead chose to dedicate his heart, soul, mind, and strength to preaching the gospel.

2. He became a clergyman because his father’s bank went bust.
Bankruptcy forced Ryle to reconsider his ambitions to enter Parliament, and forced him to fend for himself rather than relying on inherited wealth and position to make his way in life. He didn’t do too badly.

3. He was vicar of several small rural parishes.
For just under 40 years, Ryle was the minister of Exbury (1841), St Thomas’ Winchester (1843), Helmingham (1844), and Stradbroke (1861). Helmingham had a population of less than 300, and while Stradbroke was wealthier, it still only had a population of 1500. He was often invited to preach in Oxford, Cambridge, London, and elsewhere but he did not seek to lead a larger church himself to bolster a celebrity image, but faithfully pastored the rural inhabitants of those East Anglian villages. Indeed, he said he “always felt that popularity, as it was called, was a very worthless thing and a very bad thing for a man’s soul.”

4. He was a simple preacher.
When he first started out, Ryle intended to model his own preaching on the magnificent and florid style of Canon Melville of St Paul’s Cathedral. But he soon realised that what was really needed was simplicity and clarity. He deliberately preached in a way that anyone could follow him, in a punchy and straightforward manner, rather than seeking merely to impress congregations with his great learning or oratory.

5. He was a prolific tract-writer.
The Anglo-Catholic movement was very effective in its use of “tracts for the times”, and Ryle sought to use the same weapon for gospel purposes. In his lifetime he wrote more than 200 tracts — and sold more than 12 million copies: 130,000 copies of “Do you pray?” for example, and 80,000 copies of “What do we owe to the Reformation?” in just a single year.

6. He was a fervent Bible man.
Ryle initially published his wonderful Expository Thoughts on the Gospels as a series of tracts and short books. They are still in print today as a multi-volume set of commentaries because they remain vivid, insightful, doctrinally-aware, and pastorally applied aids to devotion and preaching.

7. He was a devoted Anglican.
There is a reason why, despite being a fervent Bible man and a solid evangelical, Ryle was invited to become the first bishop of Liverpool — and that is because he was also a devoted Anglican. He was a firm believer in the established church, in her Articles, her Prayer Book, and her form of government. He was not an Anglican fundamentalist, however, recognising brothers and sisters in nonconformist churches as fellow believers and gospel workers.  He was also not an angular evangelical, but one who was able to hold robust views of his own while keeping a sense of proportion between major and minor issues which divided Anglicans in his day.

8. He was a student of church history.
We live in strangely narcissistic days where even some ministers discourage people from having an interest in the history of their spiritual family, as if ours is the only generation that really counts or the word of God originated with us! But Ryle did not see himself or his generation as the first to read the Bible properly. He recognised the value of studying the past and was not the type of anti-intellectual fundamentalist who denigrates all study except Bible study. “For my own part,” he declared,“I can only say that I read everything I can get hold of which professes to throw light on my Master’s business, and the work of Christ among men.” That is why his historical studies of men such as Cranmer, Latimer, Baxter, Laud, Whitefield, and Hervey remain so pertinent and relevant for evangelicals today.

9. He was no slave to tradition.
It was astonishing to Ryle that others could not see it as clearly as he did, but he was an utterly convinced premillennialist in his understanding of the end times. One might have expected him to be an amillennialist like Francis Close and others he greatly admired, or a postmillennialist like Charles Simeon and many of the Puritans he appreciated so much. But Ryle was his own man, and came to his own decisions. For the most part, he was Reformed with a capital R in his theology, with a strong belief in predestination for example, but perfectly capable of the odd idiosyncratic conclusion when he thought it might be warranted. He wasn’t always right, of course, but he usually kept a sense of proportion on such issues where Bible believing Christians differed.

10. He was a focused evangelist.
When he was given charge of the massive new diocese of Liverpool, with a population of over 1 million in 1880, Ryle did not choose to focus his attention on building a new cathedral to strut around in. Instead, he sought to multiply the number of gospel workers engaged across the diocese in proclaiming Christ, and to deploy them, as he put it, in “an organized system of aggressive evangelization,” which might even include sending workers across parish boundaries. “The Church of England has made an idol of her parochial system,” he said, “To hear some men talk, you might fancy the parochial system came down from heaven, like the pattern of the Mosaic tabernacle, and that to attempt any other sort of ministry but a parochial one was a heresy and a sin ... Churchmen talk and act as if a system which did pretty well for five millions of Englishmen 250 years ago ... must needs be perfectly suited to twenty millions in 1884!” The most important thing was that as many as possible must hear about Christ.

So there are 10 reasons to love the great bishop. Why not find out more by getting hold of his new book Distinctive Principles for Anglican Evangelicals, or our new edition of his Christian Leaders of the Seventeenth Century, or indeed our brand new collection about his life and work: Stand Firm and Fight On: JC Ryle and the Future for Anglican Evangelicals.

Lee Gatiss is the Director of Church Society and editor of Stand Firm and Fight On: JC Ryle and the Future for Anglican Evangelicals.

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