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 Issues | Church History | John Charles Ryle

Biography of J.C.Ryle
Chapter 4 by M Guthrie Clark
The Man Who Could Not Bow

<<Chapter 3

Oliver Cromwell often told how in April, 1651, at Edinburgh he held a Conference with two of the leading Scottish Presbyterians, James Guthrie and Patrick Gillespie. The minutes of the discussion have not survived, but a significant word about one of the protagonists sheds much light upon what took place. Whenever Cromwell referred afterwards to James Guthrie, he added the description which I have put at the head of this chapter. “The short man who could not bow.”

Ryle was not a short man (he was well over six feet in height, his nickname at Eton being “Magnus”), but he was one who could not bow. “The views I held as a presbyter, I still hold as a Bishop.” Twenty years ago that impressed me tremendously. He could not bow! Whether it was a matter of principle or of detail, he held on with a steady pace. He did not conform to ephemeral ecclesiastical fashions. Before coming to matters of great importance, let me refer to smaller points.

(a) Turning to the East. One writer who never saw Ryle relates what happened at a big service in St. Paul's Cathedral, where Ryle was the preacher. The writer's father told with glee that when the rest of those in the Choir turned to the East in the Creed, Ryle leaned forward a little so that everyone could see he did not turn! How this practice has helped to make people think that the East end of the Church is more holy than any other part, no one will ever be able to tell.

(b) Using the word “Altar.” Ryle strongly objected to the Lord’s table being called “an altar”, declaring it to be an improper name. When there is no sacrificing priest and no sacrifice, there can be no altar. All of us need to be on our guard on this point, too.

(c) Episcopal robes. When he first went to Liverpool, some kindly-disposed folk sent him a beautiful cope with mitre to match. It is recorded that he returned it with thanks and in his letter stated that he had no intention of “making a guy of himself”. What uncommon common sense!

Now, I must pass to matters of doctrine. In his book, Christian Leaders, he enumerates some points which formed the substance and subject-matter of the preaching of men like Whitefield and Wesley. The Bishop's son, H. E. Ryle, who eventually became Dean of Westminster, tells us in his reminiscences of his father, that his preaching was altogether on the lines of the eighteenth-century Evangelists. Let me give you these seven points, with a brief comment on each from his own pen.

1. The sufficiency and supremacy of Holy Scripture. - “Prove all things by the Word of God-all ministers, all teaching, all preaching, all doctrines, all sermons, all writings, all opinions, all practices-prove all by the Word of God. Measure all by the measure of the Bible. Weigh all in the balance of the Bible. Examine all by the light of the Bible. Test all in the crucible of the Bible. That which can abide the fire of the Bible, receive, hold, believe and obey. That which cannot abide the fire of the Bible, reject, refuse, repudiate and cast away .”

2. The total corruption of human nature. Writing of the evangelical preachers of the eighteenth century, he says, “They knew nothing of the modern notion that Christ is in every man and that all possess something good within, which they have only to stir up and use in order to be saved. They never flattered men and women in this fashion. They told them plainly they were dead and must be made alive again; that they were guilty, lost, helpless and hopeless and in imminent danger of eternal ruin. Strange and paradoxical as it may seem to some, their first step towards making men good was to show them that they were utterly bad; and their primary argument in persuading men to do something for their souls, was to convince them that they could do nothing at all.”

3. Christ's Death on the Cross the only satisfaction/or sin. - “We rest our souls on a ‘finished work’, if we rest them on the work of Jesus Christ the Lord. We need not fear that either sin or Satan or law shall condemn us at the last day. We may lean back on the thought that we have a Saviour who has done all, paid all, accomplished all, performed all that is necessary for our salvation. When we look at our own works, we may well be ashamed of their imperfection. But when we look at the finished work of Christ, we may feel peace. We are ‘complete in Him’, if we believe.”

4. Justification by faith. - Bishop Ryle was rightly tremendously proud of Article XI, as every conscientious son of the Church of England is. He is never in better form than when he is explaining that we are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, by faith. “Every one that believes on the Son of God is at once pardoned, forgiven, justified, counted righteous, reckoned innocent and freed from all liability to condemnation. His sins, however many, are at once cleansed away by Christ's precious blood. His soul, however guilty, is at once clothed with Christ's perfect righteousness. It matters not what he may have been in time past. His sins may have been of the worst kind. His former character may be of the blackest description. But does he believe on the Son of God? This is the one question. If he does believe, he is justified from all things in the sight of God.”

5. Universal necessity of heart conversion. - In his very helpful exposition of the third chapter of St. John, he writes: “The change which our Lord declares needful for salvation is evidently no slight or superficial one. It is not merely reformation or amendment or moral change or outward alteration of life. It is a thorough change of heart, will and character. It is a resurrection. It is a passing from death unto life. It is the implanting in our dead hearts of a new principle from above. It is the calling into existence of a new creature, with a new nature, new habits of life, new tastes, new desires, new appetites, new judgements, new opinions, new hopes, new fears. See this, and nothing less than this, is implied, when our Lord declares that we all need a new birth.”

6. The connexion between true faith and personal holiness. - “We maintain that to tell a man he is born of God or regenerated while he is living in carelessness or sin, is a dangerous delusion and calculated to do infinite harm to his soul. We affirm confidently that fruit is the only certain evidence of a man's spiritual condition ; that if we would know whose he is and whom he serves, we must look first at his life. Where there is the grace of the Spirit, there will be always more or less the fruit of the Spirit. Grace that cannot be seen is no grace at all, and nothing better than Antinomianism. In short, we believe that where there is nothing seen, there is nothing possessed.”

7. God's hatred against sin and God’s love towards sinners. “If men are not saved, it is not because God does not love them and is not willing to save them, but because they will not come to Christ. But we must not be wise above that is written. No morbid liberality, so called, must induce us to regret anything which God has revealed about the next world. Men sometimes talk exclusively about God's mercy and love and compassion as if He had no other attributes, and leave out of sight entirely His holiness and His purity, His justice and His unchangeableness and His hatred of sin. Let us beware of falling into this delusion. It is a growing evil in these latter days."

This chapter has been very largely quotations from Ryle's writings, but my aim is quite deliberate; I wanted Ryle to speak for himself. The passages I have included are a good example of his forthright style, and at the same time they show him as one who remained unswerving in his loyalty to revealed Truth. A man who could not bow! What a tragedy it is to-day that we cannot see more men of Ryle's stamp. Like Henry Lawrence at Lucknow, he could say “Never surrender”.

Men whom lust of office could not kill ;
Men whom the spoils of office could not buy ;
Men who possessed opinions and a will ;
Men who had honour, men who could not lie ;
Men who could stand before a demagogue,
And damn his treacherous flatteries without winking ;
Tall men, sun-crowned, who lived above the fog
In public duty and private thinking.


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BulletGuthrie Biography Chapter 1
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BulletChapter 4
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