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Faithfulness and Holiness: The Witness of J.C. Ryle: An Appreciation

J.I. Packer

Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2002, 272 pages.

As Packer notes in his Foreword, this volume, which is devoted to Bishop J.C. Ryle (d. 1900), is really two books in one. The first is a survey of Ryle’s life and work, highlighting his quality and stature as an English evangelical leader. The second is a reprint of the first edition of his book, Holiness, published in 1877 (page 9).

Packer then cites three key characteristics of Ryle that justified his writing of this book. Ryle was “three things together—an evangelical believer, an Anglican churchman, and a pastoral instructor” (page 9).

As an evangelical, he maintained the style and substance of those clergy who gathered first around George Whitefield and then around John Newton in the 18th century.

As a churchman, he vigorously upheld the Reformed, anti-Roman Catholic theology of the 39 Articles, along with the Protestant catholicity embodied in the Book of Common Prayer.

And as a pastor, he taught Christian conduct, devotion and character transformed by the Holy Spirit in the way that the great 17th century Puritans had done before him. All of the best elements of the Church of England’s evangelical heritage were embodied in him, arguably in the best way (page 9).

Ryle was the leader of Anglican evangelicals for the last third of the 19th century, a man who “honed his skills, but never changed his tune” (page 9). It was this consistency that cost him dearly, for while the Church of England during that time “struggled with a plethora of new emphases, visions, tasks, and cross-currents of debate, Ryle remained the man he had been before 1850” (page 10). As a result, “though thought of as a mover and shaker when he was young, he was widely written off as a dinosaur in his last years” (page 10). Packer said this caused him to be undervalued, a condition that continues to this day, and the essay that makes up the first part of this book is aimed at correcting that error.

The aim of the second part of the book is to enable today’s readers to “see the wisdom and feel the force of Ryle as a spiritual guide” (page 10), and to accomplish this Packer has chosen to reprint in its entirety the text of the first edition of Holiness, which is one of Ryle’s best-known works. Packer says that even better than later expanded editions, this first edition, consisting of only 7 chapters, seems

meant to be read as a set, restoring biblical breadth and depth to evangelical minds that had been swept away by fashionable holiness teaching that was actually extreme, shallow, biblically incorrect, and a hindrance to growth in grace. Ryle’s response was not to cross swords with its exponents, but to lay out afresh, biblically, systematically, and in practical terms, the true fundamentals of Christian sanctity, with constant appeal to Puritan and other pundits who had trodden this path before him (page 10).

In his day, Ryle, like his contemporary Charles Spurgeon, was frequently lampooned as a “heavy-handed primitive” for his evangelical convictions. But Packer sees him as

a single-minded Christian communicator of profound biblical, theological, and pastoral wisdom, a man and minister of giant personal stature and electric force of utterance that sympathetic readers still feel (“unction” was the old name for it), and…I think this added material (i.e. Holiness) will both confirm my estimate and enrich my readers (page 11).

So you don’t need to be an Anglican to appreciate, or to benefit from, what Packer has presented both about and from Ryle. In fact, if you are still undecided about whether you would want to read this book, then perhaps you might be persuaded by Packer’s concluding sentences in his Foreword about the benefits he anticipates readers deriving from reading Holiness:

Real Christians will find it a gold mine, a feast, a spur, and a heart-warmer, food, drink, medicine, and a course of vitamins, all in one. Reading it will, I trust, confirm to you the estimate of Ryle in my essay as a great man—and more important!—fill your heart with the realism, wisdom, energy, lowliness, sensitivity, love and joy that come from Christ. So may Ryle come into his own in all of our lives (page 11).

To flesh out Ryle’s greatness, Packer in the 12 chapters comprising the first part of the book, looks at Ryle successively as A Great Man, A Great Victorian, A Great Sufferer, (who experienced) A Great Change, A Great Evangelical, A Great Puritan, (who had) A Great Agenda, A Great Anglican, A Great Bishop, A Great Preacher, (with) A Great Legacy, (and follower of) A Great Tradition (i.e., the Puritans).

This review will not address each of the 12 chapters, which set forth the basis for Packer’s evaluation, but will attempt to hit some of the highlights.

The first chapter begins with a brief summary of Ryle’s life:

Born in 1816, the son of a Macclesfield silk manufacturer and banker who went bankrupt in 1841, he was a long-time country clergyman who over a generation, established himself as a foremost spokesman for evangelical concerns. Then in 1880, at the age of 64, he was made the first bishop of the city and diocese of Liverpool, where he worked tirelessly and fruitfully till he retired and died 20 years later (page 13).

So that is a skeleton outline of Ryle’s life, and in the 12 chapters Packer documents those aspects of Ryle’s life and work that lead him to the conclusion of greatness in each of the various categories.

In the chapter on A Great Sufferer, several aspects of Ryle’s life caused him to identify with the Puritans, for as Packer says: “the original Puritans had been great sufferers” (page 22). The first was the bankruptcy of his father when Ryle was 25. At a time when he was a county magistrate and about to go into Parliament, an eldest son and eventual heir, all of a sudden his world completely changed. In his Autobiography, he described that day:

We got up one summer’s morning with all the world before us as usual, and went to bed that same night completely and entirely ruined. The immediate consequences were bitter and painful in the extreme, and humiliating to the utmost degree. The creditors naturally rightly and justly seized everything and we children were left with nothing but our own personal property and our clothes… I…as the eldest son, twenty-five, with all the world before me, lost everything (page 23).

In fact, he later said that had he not been a Christian, he might have committed suicide. He told his children that the memory of the bankruptcy “had become a permanent running sore inside him” (page 24), and there had not been a single day in his life that he did not remember the humiliation. Nonetheless, he could see the hand of God in the tragedy, for it led him indirectly into the clergy:

I have not the least doubt that it was all for the best. If my father’s affairs had prospered, and I had never been ruined, my life of course would have been a very different one. I should probably have gone into Parliament very soon…I should never have been a clergyman, never have preached, written a tract or a book. Perhaps I might have made a shipwreck in spiritual things” (page 24).

So, he emphasized, he did not mean to say that he wished it had been different, only that he was deeply wounded, and “I do not think I ever recovered in mind or body from the effect” (page 24). And too, one must remember the historical era in which this occurred, for as Packer says, by Victorian standards this was the ultimate disgrace. Ryle wanted to pass the lessons he had learned on to his children. Quoting again from his Autobiography:

God never expects us to feel no suffering or pain when it pleases him to visit us with affliction. There are great mistakes upon this point. Submission to God’s will is perfectly compatible with intense and keen suffering under the chastisement of his will. Troubles not felt are not troubles at all. To feel trouble deeply and yet submit to it patiently is what is required of a Christian (page 24).

In the realm of suffering, Ryle also knew the bereavement of losing a spouse, for during his long life, he buried three wives: Matilda Plumptre (married 1845, died 1847); Jessie Walker (married 1850, died 1860); and Henrietta Legh-Clowes (married 1861, died 1889) (page 248). And the bad health of both his first and second wives “drained his resources and increased his troubles over a period of 15 years.” (page 25). So Ryle knew what it was to suffer in this life, and yet he persevered and recognized God’s providential hand even in the suffering.

In the chapter on A Great Puritan, Packer says that Ryle “looked back to the 17th century Puritans as classic evangelicals, and made no secret of being ‘a thorough lover of Puritan theology’”. In fact, Packer concludes that “Ryle may as truly and justifiably be called a Puritan as he is called an evangelical” (page 36).

A deep admiration for the Puritans is something that Packer shares with Ryle. If you have read much of Packer, you must know something of his great love for the Puritan wells from which he draws. In a later chapter titled The Great Tradition, Packer elaborates on the basis for that admiration, and if you are not familiar with the writings of the Puritans, please read this brief chapter (pages 81-85), and see if you are not motivated to seek them out. Packer says:

It is now more than half a century since I began to discern in the developed Puritanism of history a definitive embodiment of New Testament Christianity. By the Puritanism of history, I mean the Bible-based, Christ-centered, conversionist, devotional, Church-focused, community-oriented movement that began to take place with the Elizabethans Greenham and Perkins and Richard Rogers, and that effectively ended with Baxter, Howe, and Henry (page 81).

He finds within the Puritan ideal, and in individual Puritan lives, “the most complete, profound, and magnificent realization of biblical religion that the world has ever known” (page 82), and says that evangelicalism, so-called, yesterday and today, should be seen as Puritanism continuing but constantly narrowed…by secularizing pressures and perspectives in the Protestant world, so that increasingly it produces pygmies rather than giants. It is by Puritan standards that our stature should be measured, and our shortcomings detected, for those are the standards of the Bible (page 82).

But alas, Packer finds few latter-day giants in the Puritan mold who value and feed on the Puritan tradition. Among the Victorians, Charles Haddon Spurgeon was one, and John Charles Ryle was another, while in more modern times, he finds D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones as “perhaps the only British evangelical to match either of these Victorian flamethrowers in stature” (pages 82-83).

In the chapter titled A Great Agenda, Packer shows how Ryle worked to a Puritan agenda as he aimed at four things: “the evangelizing of English people; the purging of the English national Church; the uniting of English Christians; and the holiness of English believers” (page 37).

And Packer says these were the same objectives the Puritans had sought in their day.

So concluding the first part of the book, Packer urges us to

take from Ryle…what Ryle has to give, that is, the basic Christianity that many fall short of and no one ever gets beyond, and thank God for such food. You will not find a more nourishing diet this side of heaven (page 85).

Toward that end, after the first part of the book, there is a brief section titled “For Further Reading” which lists Ryle’s books, broken into five main categories: Biblical Exposition, Devotional Studies, Historical Studies, Doctrinal Studies, and Anglican Faith and Practice. Packer notes that Ryle’s books are constantly brought back into print, and in particular points out that a uniform centenary edition of Ryle’s works has also begun to appear from Charles Nolan Publishers of Moscow, Idaho. These are individual volumes, and are very attractively done hardbacks. In fact, in the June 22, 2002 edition of World Magazine there is a full page ad by Nolan featuring the new editions of Holiness and Christian Leaders of the Last Century.

That brings us to the second part of the book, which contains the full text of the first (1877) edition of Ryle’s book: Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties and Roots (which is the full title of the book). In the Introduction, Ryle sets forth his conviction that for many years, practical holiness has “not been sufficiently attended to by modern Christians in this country” (page 94), whereas “sound Protestant and Evangelical doctrine is useless if not accompanied by a holy life” (page 94). And while there had been a rise in teaching about sanctification, he was not sure the subject was being addressed on the right foundations. And so he says:

The reader will find little that is directly controversial in these papers. I have carefully abstained from naming modern teachers and modern books. I have been content to give the result of my own study of the Bible, my own private meditations, my own prayers for light, and my own reading of old divines. If in anything I am still in error, I hope I shall be shown it before I leave the world … I trust I am willing to learn (page 93).

Ryle then goes on to give “hints” of the path he will follow in the succeeding chapters, and the “hints” are in the form of seven questions, each with his answer (page 94-102), which are paraphrased below:

    1. Is it wise to speak of faith as the one thing needful, and the only thing required, in handling the doctrine of sanctification, so that it is attained by faith only and not at all by exertion? I doubt it.

    2. Is it wise to make so little, comparatively speaking, of the many practical exhortations to holiness in life which are found in the Sermon on the Mount and in the latter portions of Paul’s epistles? I doubt it.

    3. Is it wise to use vague language about perfection, and to press on Christians a standard of holiness, as attainable in this world, for which there is no warrant shown either in Scripture or experience? I doubt it.

    4. Is it wise to assert so positively that the 7th chapter of Romans does not describe the experience of the advanced saint, but rather the experience of either the unregenerate man or the weak believer? I doubt it.

    5. Is it wise to use the language which is often used in the present day about the doctrine of “Christ in us”, and thereby exalt that doctrine to a position it does not occupy in Scripture? I doubt it.

    6. Is it wise to draw such a deep, wide, and distinct line of separation between conversion and consecration, or the higher life, as many do draw in the present day? I doubt it.

    7. Is it wise to teach believers that they ought not to think so much of fighting and struggling against sin, but ought rather to “yield themselves to God”, and be passive in the hands of Christ? I doubt it.

So now with these “hints”, we can see the type of holiness teaching that Ryle questions: the type that emphasizes passivity and yieldedness over effort, exertion and striving, and which divides professing Christians into three classes: the unconverted, the converted, and the “partakers of the ‘higher life’ of complete consecration” (page 100), whereas “the Word of God always speaks of two great divisions of mankind, and two only…the living and the dead in sin” (page 101). It this type of teaching that Ryle feels is unbalanced, and so his aim is to restore a Biblical balance to the question of sanctification.

Having completed his Introduction, Ryle goes on into the body of his work, which will consist of 7 chapters, titled in turn Sin, Sanctification, Holiness, The Fight, The Cost, Growth, and Assurance.

Ryle opens with a chapter on Sin, for he says:

He that wishes to attain right views about Christian holiness, must begin by examining the vast and solemn subject of sin…wrong views about holiness are generally traceable to wrong views abut human corruption…The plain truth is that a right knowledge of sin lies at the root of saving Christianity. Without it, such doctrines as justification, conversion, sanctification, are “words and names which convey no meaning to the mind” (page 105).

The final chapter is Assurance, and here he draws a distinction between saving faith and assurance. In an earlier chapter on The Fight he had made the point that “faith admits of degrees…all men do not believe alike, and even the same person has his ebbs and flows of faith, and believes more heartily at one time than another” (page 164). So now he states that “a person may have a saving faith in Christ, and yet never enjoy an assured hope…all God’s children have faith; not all have assurance (and)…this ought never to be forgotten” (page 210). Although not necessary for salvation, assured hope is nevertheless very important and ought to be strongly desired because it gives present comfort and peace (page 213), tends to make a Christian an active working Christian (page 214), tends to make a Christian a decided Christian (page 216), and tends to make the holiest Christians (page 217). He then goes through some of the causes of a lack of assurance, such as a defective view of the doctrine of justification, slothfulness about growth in grace, and an inconsistent walk in life.

Chapter 7 on Assurance, is followed by two appendices, the first of which is titled Special Note on Chapter 7, and consists of eleven pages of “Extracts from English Divines”, i.e., quotations from numerous Puritan and other pastors and theologians from the 16th century to Ryle’s present day showing how they made the distinction between faith and assurance. The second appendix is titled Extracts from Old Writers, and consists of eight pages of extracts from two Puritans, Robert Traill and Thomas Brooks, on the subject of holiness. Ryle said they were “the product of an age when, I am obliged to say, experiential religion was more deeply studied and far better understood than it is now” (page 239).

Both the essay by Packer in the first part of this book, and Ryle’s Holiness in the second part, make for very satisfying, stimulating, and convicting reading, and this review will close with a statement by Packer with which you may agree if you read this work:

I do not claim that he (Ryle) was flawless (he clearly was not), but I do claim that he was indeed great (and)…I invite my readers to consider whether they do not agree with me (pages 79-80).

I agree.

Ron Maness

Related Topics: Sermon Illustrations, Faith, Sanctification, Testimony & Biography

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