The Life of Ryle: Three Pastoral Lessons from the Preface of Holiness

Bishop J.C. Ryle (1816-1900)I am reading the Hendrickson edition of J.C. Ryle’s Holiness, which includes a 20-page biographical sketch of Ryle’s life as  a preface. This has been one of the most edifying portions of the whole book!

A remarkable preacher, an effective evangelist, and a bold leader of the church in Victorian England, John Charles Ryle (1816-1900) drew untold thousands to deeper Christian holiness. His writings – many still in print – have drawn untold millions more. (vii)

Here are three points from his life directly related to Gospel ministry that I found to be thought-provoking.

A Fatherly Rebuke Leads to Repentance

The whole story of Ryle’s conversion is fascinating, but one episode in particular has stuck with me for months now:

At a house party with an old Eton friend, Ryle carelessly swore in the hearing of his friend’s godly father, who rebuked him firmly. ‘He was the first person who ever told me to think, repent, and pray,’ recalled Ryle. (ix)

I found this to be terribly convicting, because I have unfortunately been affected by our “don’t judge me” culture far more than I would care to admit. The one sin in our society that remains, even for pastors, is to draw attention to any sort of imperfection or moral failure in someone else. And yet, here is a young, privileged, brazen J.C. Ryle being reprimanded by his friend’s dad, and it leads to his repentance and faith in Christ! How many times am I too cowardly or too apathetic to see the careless sinning of a young man or woman as an opportunity to lovingly challenge them and direct them to Christ? Where are the strong, godly fathers among us? I loved this part of Ryle’s story best of all.

Ryle’s Pattern of Ministry

I could not help but admire the zeal with which Ryle pursued his pastoral calling. His first appointment to the tiny village of Exbury, a “dreary, desolate, and solitary” place on England’s south coast, was described in this way:

Ryle boldly preached the Gospel. He held Sunday services and a Sunday school and conducted weeknight meetings. He also visited every house in the parish once a month, calling on thirty or forty families a week. This certainly took up much of his time, but allowed him to know and care for his congregation as no other pastoral method could. ‘We must talk to our people when we are out of church if we would understand how to preach to them when they are in church,’ he insisted. (xi)

In addition, Ryle circulated a number of tracts on Christian living, described as ‘serious short essays designed to have a large spiritual impact.’ (xi) Like the Puritan pastors he loved to quote, Ryle exerted tremendous energy in his ministry of the Word, publicly and from house to house. Ryle remained dedicated to this pattern of ministry all his life. How much grace I need to be even half as faithful with the charge God has given to me!

Ryle’s Rise to Bishop

Over the course of Ryle’s ministry, he was consistently called upon to move to larger, more influential parishes by the leadership of the Anglican church, and Ryle regularly accepted these calls, eventually rising to the position of Bishop. I have been told a number of times that the average stay of a pastor at a church is 18 months. Because pastoral ministry has sadly been largely “professionalized” ordained men often think of their ministry as a career to be plotted out after the pattern of a CEO, always looking for the larger more visible charge. The negative results of this widely accepted mindset are incalculable, on both pastors and churches alike. For this reason, the model of a lifelong pastorate, barring Providential intervention, is close to my heart, and strikes me as the biblical model. When the book noted that a contributing factor to Ryle’s decision to leave his church on more than one occasion was the increase in salary, I sneered inwardly (with only a hint of spiritual superiority, of course).

As I have continued turning these matters over in my mind, I have softened. First of all, Ryle was functioning in an entirely different form of church government than I am. There are not any bishops in the Baptist church, at least not official ones, who are going to urge me to leave my church for another one. There is also the matter of Ryle’s stewardship of his remarkable gifts. I usually find it to be both suspicious and rather lame today when someone suggests that gifted pastors should always be looking for a larger church. This often implies such a devaluing of the souls of small church members. However, Ryle was fighting for orthodoxy in an Anglican church which now ordains practicing homosexuals in some corners, and his rise to the position of Bishop certainly increased his influence there, which was undoubtedly a good thing.

So does Ryle’s move from church to church betray him as just another opportunist, or does it reveal a genuinely pious defender of the faith? I am really in no position to say after this brief biographical sketch, but everything I have read of his has been a model of sound, thoughtful, doxological, theology in service to the church at large. Looking at his ministry alongside Charles Simeon’s (pastor of one church in England for around fifty years) has lead me to reconsider my hasty judgments, both historical and present-day. Like Peter and John listening to the voice of the risen Christ on the shores of Galilee, we are called to follow him in various ways.


About Eric Smith

Sinner saved by the grace of Jesus, husband of Candace, father of Coleman and Crockett, West Tennessean, pastor of Sharon Baptist Church, student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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