Profiles of Holiness: J. C. Ryle

14 “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:14–16)

For the next several days, I will be profiling several individuals who not only preached about, but lived a life, of personal holiness before the Lord. While these pastors, evangelists, and hymn writers lived in different centuries and countries, they all shared a common bond which binds them together: holiness. These profiles will provide an introduction to our impending study of holiness. Today’s profile concerns theologian and author John Charles (J.C.) Ryle.

John Charles Ryle was born Macclesfield on 10 May 1816. After a period of private schooling, he entered Eton in February 1828, where he excelled at rowing and cricket. Going up to Christ Church, Oxford in October 1834, he continued his involvement in sports, and captained the First Eleven in his second and third years, achieving a personal 10-wicket bowling triumph in the 1836 Varsity match at Lords (which Oxford won by 121 runs).

However, various circumstances and incidents in his own and others’ lives awakened Ryle to the knowledge that all was not well with his soul. Matters came to a head not long before he took his Finals in 1837. He was struck down with a serious chest infection, and for the first time in fourteen years he turned to his Bible and prayer. Then one Sunday, arriving late to church he was in time to hear the reading of Ephesians chapter two. As he listened, he felt that the Lord was speaking directly to his soul. His eyes were opened when he heard verse 8, ‘For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.’ He was converted through hearing the Word of God, without comment or sermon.

Ryle’s intention was a career in politics, and he went to London to study law, thinking this would be helpful for him. However, he had to give this up after six months due to a recurrence of his chest problems, caused by the London smog. When his father’s bank crashed in 1841, Ryle had to give up all hope of a political career, as he now had no money.

With his Oxford degree, Ryle could enter the ministry of the Church of England, and it was to this he turned, being ordained by Charles Sumner, Bishop of Winchester on 21st December 1841. Long afterwards Ryle wrote, ‘I have not the least doubt, it was all for the best. If I had not been ruined, I should never have been a clergyman, never have preached a sermon, or written a tract or book.’

Ryle started his ministry as curate at the Chapel of Ease in Exbury, Hampshire, moving on to become rector of St Thomas’s, Winchester in 1843 and then rector of Helmingham, Suffolk the following year. It was this time that he began publishing popular tracts, and wrote commentaries on the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke for his series Expository Thoughts on the Gospels. These were published in successive years (1856-1858).

His final parish was Stradbroke, also in Suffolk, where he moved in 1861, and it was as vicar of All Saints that he became known nationally for his straightforward preaching and firm defense of evangelical principles. It was at this time that he wrote several well-known and still-in-print books, often addressing issues of contemporary relevance for the Church from a biblical viewpoint. He completed his Expository Thoughts on the Gospels while at Stradbroke, with his work on the Gospel of John (1869).

In 1880, Ryle became the first bishop of Liverpool, at the recommendation of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. His episcopate was marked by his efforts to build churches and mission halls to reach the rapidly expanding urban areas of the city. He retired in 1900 at age 83 and died later the same year in Lowestoft. His successor in Liverpool described him as ‘the man of granite with the heart of a child.’

A classic work by Ryle is his book Holiness. Many would consider, as I do, his work on this subject to be his Magnum Opus. In it, Ryle devotes over twenty chapters concerning this important and biblical doctrine.

In his introduction, Ryle states, I have had a deep conviction for many years that practical holiness and entire self-consecration to God are not sufficiently attended to by modern Christians in this country. Politics, or controversy, or a party spirit, or worldliness, have eaten out the heart of lively piety in too many of us. The subject of personal godliness has fallen sadly into the background. The standard of living has become painfully low in many quarters. The immense importance of “adorning the doctrine of God our Saviour” (Titus ii. 10), and making it lovely and beautiful by our daily habits and tempers, has been far too much overlooked. Worldly people sometimes complain with reason that “religious” persons, so-called, are not so amiable and unselfish and good-natured as others who make no profession of religion. Yet sanctification, in its place and proportion, is quite as important as justification. Sound Protestant and Evangelical doctrine is useless if it is not accompanied by a holy life. It is worse than useless: it does positive harm. It is despised by keen-sighted and shrewd men of the world, as an unreal and hollow thing, and brings religion into contempt. It is my firm impression that we want a thorough revival about Scriptural holiness, and I am deeply thankful that attention is being directed to the point.”

Ryle continues by writing, “It is, however, of great importance that the whole subject should be placed on right foundations, and that the movement about it should not be damaged by crude, disproportioned, and one-sided statements. If such statements abound, we must not be surprised. Satan knows well the power of true holiness, and the immense injury which increased attention to it will do to his kingdom. It is his interest, therefore, to promote strife and controversy about this part of God’s truth. Just as in time past he has succeeded in mystifying and confusing men’s minds about justification, so he is labouring in the present day to make men “darken counsel by words without knowledge” about sanctification. May the Lord rebuke him! I cannot however give up the hope that good will be brought out of evil, that discussion will elicit truth, and that variety of opinion will lead us all to search the Scriptures more, to pray more, and to become more diligent in trying to find out what is “the mind of the Spirit.”

Ryle’s book remains in print in various forms. I am currently reading, and enjoying, it on my Kindle. I encourage you to give consideration to read Holiness by J.C. Ryle.

Soli deo Gloria!  


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