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Posts Tagged ‘J.C. Ryle’


In addition to Tim Keller’s book on preaching, I decided to read a booklet by J.C. Ryle entitled Simplicity in Preaching. I will confess that at times I struggle with being clever. I suspect that at times my preaching could use a little more (or a lot more) simplicity.

Ryle obviously thought many of his peers could also stand to exhibit more simplicity in their preaching. This is why he wrote the pamphlet (what is the difference between a booklet and a pamphlet, if any?).

It was interesting reading this on the heels of Keller’s book on preaching. He exhibited some of what Keller said, and advocated some of the same things. There was overall harmony here. He quoted from a number of “respected” non-Christian voices in the area of oration (Quintilian, Cicero, an Arabian proverb, a painter named Turner), as well as some respected preachers.

Rather than a manifesto, as Keller wrote, Ryle confined himself “to one point”. “That point is simplicity in language and style.”

“Unless you are simple in your sermons you will never be understood, and unless you are understood you cannot do good to those who hear you. … Of course the first object of a minister should be to preach the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but ‘the truth as it is in Jesus’.”

So, we see the same goals in preaching. We see a different emphasis on how to achieve that goal. We can do all Keller (or Stott or any other author) encourages us to do, but if we aren’t understood it doesn’t matter who awesome it looks on paper.

Simplicity is not to be confused with simplistic or childish preaching. The pastor shouldn’t be talking down to them. He should be speaking so they understand. Ryle is not speaking about using coarse or vulgar speech. Understandably, but as a gentleman is a lesson Mark Driscoll needed.

Ryle then goes ahead to note five points toward simplicity. The first is “Know your subject.” I simplified that for him. It the subject of the sermon isn’t clear to you, it will be even less clear or more obscure to the congregation.

“Never choose a text of which you do not quite know what it means.”

There is much wisdom here. We grow into some texts. I did not preach through Colossians until my mid-late 40’s. There is a spiritual maturity necessary to preaching some portions of the letter well and wisely. While I’ve preached texts in Hebrews and Romans, there are still some I am only now feeling mature enough to preach wisely. It isn’t simply about understanding the commentaries but being able to evaluate them and communicate the truth.

He also warns against “fanciful subjects and accommodated texts”. By the latter he means a whole lotta eisegesis, or reading into a text so that you make it say something it never tries to say. Chose texts that are clear so your point is clear and simple.

Secondly, use simple words. Or, as Keller says, define more complex terms. I rarely use a theological term without defining it for the congregation. Ryle argues that short words are often the “most powerful and forcible words.”

In the midst of this point he gets caught up in a controversy about Saxon words rather than words of French or Latin origin. It seems to be a bit of a hot button issue of his day. His focus is not on the origin of the words, but words people understand.

Thirdly, use a simple style. You can’t preach like John Owen wrote. Keep sentences short rather than complex with a series of colons and semi-colons. He notes to “take care to write as if you were asthmatical or short of breath.” This is because you aren’t writing a book and they aren’t reading a book. The congregants can’t rewind the sermon to hear that phrase until they get it, you keep moving merrily along.

“A hearer of English hears once for all, and if he loses the thread of your sermon in a long involved sentence, he very likely never finds it again.”

In addition to simple style, use proverbs and epigrammatic sayings. They are brief but pointed. This means they communicate well and can be remembered easily.

Fourth, use a direct style. Use “I” and “you” while avoiding “we”. I often use “we” to communicate it applies to me as well as to them. But he has a point in that the composition of “we” is unclear. Whom does it signify? If you clarify that periodically, use “we” as I do. But if you don’t clarify they won’t know what you mean- that they are part of “we”. The directness is for clarity as well as forcefulness. “This applies to you”, not some vague Anybody. He notes that Whitefield was well-known for such directness. It was a large part of his effectiveness.

Fifth, use plenty of anecdotes and illustrations. They are “windows through which light is let in upon your subject.” He advocates reading the Puritans, among others, to see how they use illustrations. He lauds Moody’s use of them.

He notes that a preacher with an eye for them is a happy preacher. Such a man finds them in books, movies, music and real life. He sees how these seemingly ordinary things communicate spiritual truth. Unless you are a good story teller, keep them short. Make sure you aren’t obscuring the truth you want to communicate by a lengthy or poorly told illustration or anecdote.

After repeating his points in summary, he adds a word of application (he’s essentially following the Puritan sermonic pattern). Simplicity is attained with much hard work and trouble.

“You must not think that God will do work for you, though he is ready to do it by you.”

God illuminates the Scriptures as we work in them. He doesn’t bypass our study of the grammar, history, context etc. Likewise, as we put sermons together we are to work hard. Exercise your brains in preparation and putting them together.

Oddly, he notes not to spend time reading the Fathers. They are interesting and sometimes helpful, but he doesn’t want us to read for the sake of reading. Read wisely. Read people who not only provide good information but who model such simplicity (today we’d include listening to podcasts that model it for us).

He also notes that part of your “study” is talking with your people. Keller says something similar in terms of expanding your bubble and getting out of the echo chamber. He noted that his time in Hopewell was helpful because he was able to talk to his congregation about his sermons- what connected and what didn’t. Ryle is essentially saying the same thing. He uses an interesting illustration about a pastor asked about the Fathers noting he usually meets with the mothers when he visits because the fathers are at work.

“We must talk to our people when we are out of church, if we would understand how to preach to them in church.”

The goal is to hit their hearts with the truth. Talking with them means you’ll learn to talk to them and the concerns of their hearts.

He concludes with an important reminder:

“All the simplicity in the world can do no good, unless you preach the simple gospel of Jesus Christ so fully and clearly that everybody can understand it. If Christ crucified has not his rightful place in your sermons, and sin is not exposed as it should be, and your people are not plainly told what they ought to believe and be, and do, your preaching is of no use.

He also reminds us that simplicity is not a replacement for prayer, particularly for the Spirit’s work. Simplicity, though important, is not a magic bullet that covers a multitude of pastoral sins.

“… let us never forget to accompany our sermons by holy living and fervent prayer.”

Ryle provides preachers with a brief treatise that is helpful and often needful.

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Jerry Bridges’ newest book, The Transforming Power of the Gospel, is what I now call a “blender book”.

I suppose some background is in order. My son recently had surgery and has been on a pureed food diet for 3 weeks. We take what the rest of us are having, usually, toss it in the Ninja (the Magic Bullet broke from overuse, so we moved on) and chop it up. Everything is combined into easy to eat mush, which is really important when you’ve had surgery on your palate.

This book takes the subject matter from Transforming Grace,The Practice of Godliness, The Gospel for Real Life, Growing Your Faith, The Discipline of Grace and more, and puts it in easy to eat chapters. It is not mush, there is a distinct progression to the book. He’s not merely repackaging the material either. He wrote a new book that blends all those together. There are people who would not own (and read) all of those books like I have. Or perhaps they are new to this thing (afterall, I’ve been reading his books since the late 80’s) and this provides a good summary to whet the appetite. Some will choose to read more deeply in some areas, and others will be quite content with what they find here.

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Earlier this year I made a sad discovery.  I discovered that I have no books on the Trinity.  I have plenty of Systematic Theologies with sections on the Trinity.  The closest thing to a book on the Trinity in my library was probably J.I. Packer’s Knowing God.  While not on the Trinity, as an heir to the Puritans he was quite Trinitarian in his theological approach.  So, in the words of Uncle Duncan in Braveheart, “We’ll have to rectify that.”

“Forget the Trinity and you forget why we do what we do; you forget who we are as gospel Christians; you forget how we got to be like we are.”

One of the books I bought to remedy that was Fred Sanders’ book The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything.  I’m on a combination of vacation and study leave, so I thought this was a good time to read it.  I’d have a bit more time to think on it.

Prior to leaving on vacation the guy who lives with us commented “he keeps talking about evangelicalism”.  Sanders’ point is that Trinitarian thinking has long been foundational to evangelical thinking.  This foundation has been cracking of late as the implicit has been largely forgotten or at least seen as non-essential.  His goal is limited to evangelicalism.  This is the Christian heritage of which he is a part and which he wants to be healthy and growing.  He’s not trying to evaluate and critique other traditions in the visible church.

These means that while Sanders uses Scripture, he’s not putting forth a biblical-theological defense of the Trinity.  He’s more concerned with how our Trinitarianism plays out in our understanding of our faith and practice.  So the reader must keep this focus in mind and not expect something profoundly different.

Sanders does draw on the writings of earlier evangelicals of different stripes to illustrate how deep the heritage runs (and how shallow our present experience).  So you find sections looking at Francis Schaeffer, Susanna Wesley, C.S. Lewis, Adolph Sahpir, Henry Scougal and more.

“A gospel that rearranges the components of your life but does not put you personally in the presence of God is too small.”

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I feel like I’ve been reading Faithfulness and Holiness for a lifetime.  I usually read a book more quickly, but taking on the church history instruction made my reading grind to a near halt.  I had brain gridlock.  So, this is no reflection on the book, but merely my circumstances.  I am assured of God’s love for me, despite feeling like a complete slacker.

The final chapter in J.C. Ryle’s book is Assurance.  This is a much mis-understood doctrine- at least by those who deny it.  Ryle begins by discussing this, and the charge of presumption.  If our assurance were based on our performance, that charge would be true (the Council of Trent therefore calls it a ‘prime error of heretics’).  But assurance is based on the completeness of Jesus’ work on our behalf, which we partake of with even the least faith.

“There never yet was a Scriptural truth without abuses and counterfeits.  God’s election- man’s impotence- salvation by grace- all are alike abused.  There will be fanatics and enthusiasts as long as the world stands.  But, for all this, assurance is a reality and a true thing; and God’s children must not let themselves be driving from the use of a truth, merely because it is abused.”  Ryle then goes on to give lots of Scripture that points to the reality of assurance for the believer.  The point being, we lean upon Jesus our Mediator, and God’s Word. 

However, a “believer may never arrive at this assured hope, which Paul expresses, and yet be saved.”  It is not necessary to have assurance of salvation to actually be saved.  Many Christians have struggled with doubts and depression.  However, there hope is in Christ and they are saved.  Assurance is not infallible.  Nor is it a test of salvation.  “Faith, let us remember, is the root, and assurance is the flower.”  The root can be present, and lively, even if there is no flower to show it.

Why should we desire assurance?  First, it grants us some peace and comfort about our spiritual condition.  It helps us to stand firm under trial and loss.  It removes the fear of abandonment in the midst of great suffering.  This is no small thing (written as one experiencing trial at this time).

Second, it “tends to make a Christian and active working Christian.”  Assurance provides us with the safety to act, not the luxury of leisure.  We act because we believe we have new life, not to earn or maintain new life.  A Christian without assurance tends to become preoccupied with introspection.  This makes with a very unproductive, and counterproductive Christian life.  Such a person is often paralyzed.

Third, it makes a Christian a “decided Christian”.  I think decisive might be a better word choice today.  Lack of assurance creates a great deal of uncertainty and instability in our pursuit of God. 

Fourth, it tends to make the holiest Christians.  “He that is freely forgiven by Christ will always do much for Christ’s glory, and he that enjoys the fullest assurance of this forgiveness will ordinarily keep up the closest walk with God.”  Think the forgiven prostitute versus Simon the Pharisee.  They prize their assurance, and keep a close watch on their own hearts as a result.

“Now, has it never struck you that your neglect of assurance may possibly be the main secret of all your failures- that the low measure of faith which satisfies you may be the cause of your low degree of peace?” 

Why is assurance so seldom attained?  First, a defective view of justification.  People think it some combination of Christ’s work and their own.  It is all Christ’s- his active & passive obedience.  He completely obeyed the law & He endured God’s wrath as our substitute.  We affirm “simul justus et peccator”- at the same time we are just and sinners.  We are justified sinners (Romans 3-5). 

Second, we are slothful in seeking growth in grace.  We misunderstand assurance as an opportunity to be spiritual slackers.  Not seeing progress in sanctification, we certainly lack assurance.

Third, we are inconsistent in our walk.  We vary in our pursuit of Christ by faith.  This inconsistency destroys a peaceful conscience. 

I found this to be a sound & encouraging book.  I hope it won’t take you quite so long to read as it took me- may your circumstances be different.  Click the link, buy, read and apply to the glory of God.

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Ryle’s next chapter in Holiness is on Growth in Grace. He addressed 3 topics in this chapter: the reality, marks and means of spiritual growth.  His text is 2 Peter 3:18 (Grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.).  This should basically show the reality of spiritual growth (which is concurrent with our growth in our knowledge- both objective and subjective- of Jesus).

The marks of spiritual growth include increased humility, increased faith and love toward Jesus, increased holiness of life, increased spirituality of taste and mind.  The first ones should make sense, and be obvious to any converted person.  The last I mentioned may not be instantly clear. 

“The ways, and fashions, and amusements, and recreations of the world have a continually decreasing place in his heart.  He does not condemn them as downright sinful, nor say that those who have anything to do with them are going to hell.  He only feels that they have a constantly diminishing hold on his own affections, and gradually seem smaller and more trifling in his eyes.”

He does not really specify what he means.  Our hobbies should become less important to us, and we should spend more time cultivating a heart toward him, toward others etc.  One does not want to say that anyone must abstain from indifferent matters (1 Tim. 4).  However, I fear we (me included) have been captivated and be-dazzled by indifferent matters.  We are more concerned with missing our favorite show or game than not having/finding time to be with God.  We can be more focused on a new CD than a new book by someone who will spur us on to holiness and love.

Two other marks are growth in charity (love) and increased zeal and diligence in trying to do good to others.  These are connected.  The grace of God teaches us to say ‘no’ to ungodliness and live proper, godly lives in this present age (Titus).  “One of the surest marks of spiritual decline is a decreased interest about the souls of others and the growth of Christ’s kingdom.”

I want to focus on the means of grace.  We can often think that these things earn God’s grace.  Modern Pharisees think this way.  Antinomians avoid these means out of fear of legalism, forgetting that God uses means to give us grace.  “They seem to suppose that those who grow are what they are by some special gift or grant from God. … Cast away for ever the vain thought that if a believer does not grow in grace it is not his fault.”  God has appointed those means.  Those means do not benefit us unless we participate in them believing God has ordained them, and that God will provide the grace He promised.  We do not think the act itself provides grace, but that God does it as He sees fit.  However, if we don’t utilize those means… no grace.  So, what are these means?

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In his chapter on The Cost of Holiness, J.C. Ryle builds on the idea of Luke 14:28 about counting the cost.  He laments the “easy-believism” that marked his day, and ours.  He mentions that there is little cost associated with the nominal Christianity that fills many of our churches.

The point is not that we can in any way earn our salvation- only Jesus could do that.  The point is that if we truly believe, there will be a cost we will pay.  We had better count that cost.

1. It will cost us our self-righteousness.  We must forsake all our boasting in the practices that we think may bring us life.  Ryle quotes a Puritan, “it is harder to deny proud self than sinful self.  But it is absolutely necessary.”  The doctrine of free grace is an affront to the flesh.  As Luther has written, there is a little religious zealote in each of us clamoring to earn a part of our salvation.

2. It will cost us our sins. There is a willingness to forsake our sins, particularly our pet sins.  “Our sins are often as dear to us as our children: we love them, hug them, cleave to them, and delight in them.”  We enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.  Yes, they have their pleasures.  Otherwise we would not commit them.  But, “he and sin must quarrel, if he and God are to be friends.”  God hates sin, and to enjoy his fellowship we must begin to break with sin.  As we grow more like God, we will hate sin more and more.

3. It will cost us our love of ease.  Following Jesus will mean a new carefulness to life.  We are more concerned with our use of time, treasures, tongue.  Most of us avoid difficulty, unless there is a sufficient payoff.  The time line on our payoff is pretty long.  We must expend lots of energy first, and this “cuts against the grain of our hearts.”  This is why people drop away so quickly when following Jesus introduces difficulty in their lives.  They love X more than him.  We must don’t want trouble with our faith.

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It was a fight to read this chapter because I was fighting a migraine at the time.  But it served as a good reminder that progressive sanctification is not automatic, nor easy.  There is no passivism to be found in the Bible.  Hebrews 11 is full of people who acted because they believed.

Anyway, Ryle addresses why this is a good fight (1 Timothy 6:12).  He notes the horrible consequences of war in our world.  Consequences that have not changed.  People may choose to be pacifists when it comes to earthly conflicts.  But in our internal battle against sin, no Christian may be a pacifist or appeaser.  We are all to be soldiers of Christ.

Keep in mind, the battle is not between nations, or religions or theological squabbles.  The battle in view is the battle with the flesh, the world and the devil.  “But with a corrupt heart, a busy devil, and an ensnaring world, he must either ‘fight’ or be lost.”

Interestingly, he quotes “the wisest General that ever lived in England”.  I wish I knew to whom to attribute this great quote to, but: “In time of war it is the worst mistake to underrate your enemy, and try to make a little war.”  I can think of some politicians that need to read it.  But the point Ryle is making, and we need to hear, is that we must not underestimate the flesh, the world and the devil.  It is not a minor skirmish, or ‘police action’ or ‘act of terrorism’.  The battle against sin is a full-time, full-blown war.  It is not a hobby, or an option activity for the ‘serious’ Christian.

“Where there is grace there will be conflict.  …. There is no holiness without a warfare.  Saved souls will always be found to have fought a fight.”  This should cause us to recognize our own weakness before our foes.  How we need the work of Christ progressively applied to us by the Spirit through faith!  How we need to recognize it is all of grace, even as we dig in or press on.  We will feel the heat, and pressure, if we are to be purified and transformed.  As John Owen has said, “Be killing sin or it will kill you.”

The key, as Ryle notes, is faith.  Not generic faith- but a faith in Jesus.  We trust in his “person, work and office” as revealed by Scripture and portrayed in the Gospel.  We need our Prophet to reveal our sin, our Priest to cover our sin, and our King to kill our sin.  Faith is also rooted, as Piper often notes, in God’s promises.  We are to believe, and act upon, God’s promises for grace.

We are not alone in this fight, or at least should not be.  Sadly we tend to isolate ourselves from the very helps God has provided.  We have allies in the Word and Spirit.  God has joined them together (Calvin & Owen among others) though sinful men drive them apart.  We have allies in one another (Ephesians 6 speaks of tight ranks to oppose the foe).  Do not go it alone, but stand by your brothers and sisters.  And in the words of a great coach, “Fight, fight, fight!”

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