Editors’ note: This article is part of on occasional series on the SBTS blog, Why Every Student Should Read . . . This series is intended to spotlight and commend for further investigation pastors, teachers, theologians, books, sermons, and figures from church history as well as from the current evangelical scene.
When I was asked to write this post, I replied by saying, “I would love to! Can I write two?” My rather enthusiastic answer should give you some idea of my estimation of Ryle and the challenges I faced in producing a brief answer to the question at hand. I began my study of J. C. Ryle (1816-1900) more than six years ago, and my interest in him was primarily historical. However, as I prepare to defend my dissertation and end this leg of my journey with him, I am absolutely convinced that he has a lot to offer you as a minister-in-training.
Who is J. C. Ryle?
The story of Ryle’s life is worth getting to know. To say that he lived through a time of tremendous political and theological upheaval is a gross understatement, and his popular and pastoral responses to the rise of Darwinism, higher criticism of the Bible, ritualism (Anglo-Catholicism), and theological liberalism are worth considering. Ryle was also a popular devotional writer and spiritual guide. If you go to the campus bookstore, chances are you will find some of these works on the shelves. Tolle lege! You will see why they have remained popular with evangelicals since their first publication. Furthermore, Ryle also published a number of works specifically for Christian workers and younger ministers. Chief among them is Simplicity in Preaching. In the future I hope to edit and compile a reader of Ryle’s pastoral theology taken from these works, but until then start with Simplicity.
Three categories of Ryle
So, why read Ryle in seminary? Let me answer this question more specifically by appealing to each of the genres, biography, devotional, and ministerial.
First, read about J. C. Ryle’s conversion. J. C. Ryle’s conversion is one of the more remarkable conversions in church history. He wasn’t raised in a Christian home like John and Charles Wesley. He had no spiritual mentors like Ambrose (Augustine) or Johann von Staupitz (Luther). He wasn’t even converted by a sermon like Charles Spurgeon. J. C. Ryle was converted simply by hearing the Scriptures read publicly.
In the autumn of 1837, while a student at Oxford, Ryle attended a Sunday morning worship service at a nearby parish church. The second lesson of the morning was taken from Ephesians 2. When the lector reached verse 8, he slowed down and made some unusual and emphatic pauses. He read: “For by grace – are ye saved – through faith – and that, not of yourselves – it is the gift of God.” The Word went home to his heart. Later in life Ryle could remember neither the name of the church nor the name of the reader, nor anything about the sermon preached that morning, but he never forgot that morning’s reading of Ephesians 2:8. It converted him. It became the theme of his ministry. It was so central to his life and work that he had it inscribed on his gravestone. You can see it today in the churchyard of All Saints, Childwall, in Liverpool.
The next time you read the Scriptures publicly, remember the conversion of J. C. Ryle. One of the greatest evangelical leaders of the 19th century was converted simply by hearing the Word of God read one Sunday morning. Reading the Scriptures publicly, especially in the context of public worship, is no mean task. As W. H. Griffith Thomas notes, “it is a solemn responsibility to read God’s own Word to the people, and it may easily be made a powerful influence for spiritual blessing.” It certain was in Ryle’s case.
Second, read Expository Thoughts on the Gospels. This series is neither a critical commentary nor is it a line-by-line exposition of the four canonical gospels. Ryle wrote them with three purposes in mind: 1) for use in family worship; 2) to aid those who visit the sick and poor; and 3) to aid and encourage private reading of the gospels. The format and the substance are classic Ryle: simple and direct, evangelical and Christ-centered.
He divides the biblical text into short sections, usually around 12 verses. He provides a brief explanation of the scope and purpose of the passage in the opening paragraph. But the heart of each section consists of Ryle’s “expository thoughts,” which are the leading doctrinal and practical points drawn from the text. They typically range in number from three to five per section. Ryle intentionally avoids discussion of controversial subjects and secondary matters. His focus remains fixed on the essentials: Christ, his gospel, and practical Christian living. In the later volumes (Luke and John) he adds notes at the end of each chapter to discuss debated interpretations and controversial subjects, but practical exposition remains the focal point.
I have used Expository Thoughts in family worship and in sermon preparation and found them to be tremendously helpful. My wife and I have found that it takes about 20-25 minutes to read a typical section aloud together. If this is more reading than you want to do at one time, the sections can be easily divided. Ryle uses italics to set off his expository thoughts for this very purpose. I have also preached through Mark and John with the Expository Thoughts at my elbow and found them to be incredibly useful. For simple exposition and practical application they are hard to beat. Perhaps that is why Ryle’s volumes on Matthew, Mark, and Luke were included in The Crossway Classic Commentaries series, alongside of commentaries by Luther, Calvin, and Owen.
Third, read Simplicity in Preaching. J.C. Ryle was a great preacher in an age of great preaching, and he offers young preachers “a few hints” at attaining simplicity in this short (48 pages) preaching manual. A little background information on Ryle may be helpful at this point.
J. C. Ryle had no intention of becoming a clergyman either before or after his conversion; he was sent to Eton and then to Oxford to pursue a career in politics. However, his father’s bankruptcy in 1841 ruined the family, and he entered the ministry of the Church of England because he felt he had no other option.
After ordination, he was preaching four times a week in addition to his other pastoral duties, which were considerable. He had no one to guide him, and with very little homiletical training, he began a series of “pulpit experiments.” He modeled his preaching after the great celebrity preachers of the day like Canon Henry Melvill, but his parishioners couldn’t appreciate his eloquence and went fast to sleep. In order to grab and keep their attention, Ryle “crucified” his style, making it more simple and direct. He preached to packed churches for the rest of his life. In many respects, Simplicity in Preaching is the lab report of those early pulpit experiments. It is well worth your time to read it. Your congregation will thank you. Your wife and children will thank you. Your homiletics professors will thank you as well.
To read Ryle is to read Sermons
If you have ever read anything by J. C. Ryle, chances are, you are reading a sermon. Most of the chapters of his well-known books such as Old Paths, Practical Religion, The Upper Room, and the second half of Holiness were all originally sermons. If you found the style, clarity, and boldness of those chapters appealing, give Simplicity a thoughtful read-through over the Christmas break.
And so my fellow seminary students, I hope I have persuaded you to begin to read J. C. Ryle during your time in seminary. Expository Thoughts and Simplicity in Preaching are a good starting point. I trust you will find both of these works edifying and useful as ministers-in-training.
After these, consider reading some of his biographies of the English Reformers, Puritans, or the Evangelical Fathers (leaders of the First Great Awakening in Britain). And of course there is Holiness – a modern spiritual classic. If you want to talk Ryle, send me an email at email@example.com.
Ben Rogers is a Ph.D. candidate in church history at SBTS. His dissertation is on J. C. Ryle and his place within Victorian Anglicanism. He pastors New Home Baptist Church in Mendenhall, MS. Ben and his wife, Christie, have two sons. You can contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org