J C Ryle (1816-1900) was undoubtedly one of the greatest Anglicans who ever lived.
Educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, his parents expected him to enter politics. However, Ryle felt called to the priesthood and was ordained in 1842.
He was very much an evangelical preacher, firmly opposed to the Ritualism in the Church as characterised by the Anglo-Catholic Oxford Movement of the time. Although he had firm religious convictions which he expressed in no uncertain terms, in private, he was known for his kindness and warmth. He also preached to the working class, bringing many to the knowledge and love of Christ Jesus.
One of Benjamin Disraeli’s last acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Ryle to the post of Bishop of Liverpool, a brand new diocese. There, Ryle presided over the construction of 40 new churches, raised clergy salaries and instituted pension funds for them. He was also responsible for the building of the Anglican cathedral in Liverpool.
Ryle retired only three months before he died at age 83 in 1900. Today, he appears to have more of a following in the United States among orthodox Protestants than he does here in England. He published several works on the four Gospels as well as on the Christian life.
(Incidentally, Ryle’s second son, Herbert Edward Ryle, served as Bishop of Exeter, then Bishop of Winchester before being appointed Dean of Westminster in 1911.)
If only the Church of England had many more clergy like Ryle today. He wrote:
My chief desire in all my writings, is to exalt the Lord Jesus Christ and make Him beautiful and glorious in the eyes of men; and to promote the increase of repentance, faith, and holiness upon earth.
Every professing Christian is the soldier of Christ. He is bound by his baptism to fight Christ’s battle against sin, the world, and the devil. The man that does not do this, breaks his vow: he is a spiritual defaulter; he does not fulfil the engagement made for him. The man that does not do this, is practically renouncing his Christianity. The very fact that he belongs to a Church, attends a Christian place of worship, and calls himself a Christian, is a public declaration that he desires to be reckoned a soldier of Jesus Christ.
Ryle’s written works include commentaries on the gospels. What follows is an excerpt from Ryle’s Expository Thoughts on Matthew. It is from his commentary on Matthew 26:14-25. Emphases mine below.
This is the relevant reading (ESV):
Judas to Betray Jesus
14 Then one of the twelve, whose name was Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests 15 and said, “What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?” And they paid him thirty pieces of silver. 16 And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray him.
The Passover with the Disciples
17 Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where will you have us prepare for you to eat the Passover?” 18 He said, “Go into the city to a certain man and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is at hand. I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’” 19 And the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover.
20 When it was evening, he reclined at table with the twelve.[b] 21 And as they were eating, he said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” 22 And they were very sorrowful and began to say to him one after another, “Is it I, Lord?” 23 He answered, “He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me will betray me. 24 The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” 25 Judas, who would betray him, answered, “Is it I, Rabbi?” He said to him, “You have said so.”
The first part of Ryle’s commentary discusses Judas then concludes with the following. Note how Ryle relies on Scripture to make his point about the importance of avoiding everlasting hell:
We ought frequently to call to mind the solemn words, “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” “We brought nothing into this world and it is certain we can carry nothing out.” Our daily prayer should be, “Remove far from me vanity and lies: give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me.” ( Proverbs 30:8). Our constant aim should be to be rich in grace. “They that will be rich” in worldly possessions often find at last that they have made the worst of bargains ( 1 Timothy 6:9 ). Like Esau, they have bartered an eternal portion for a little temporary gratification; like Judas Iscariot, they have sold themselves to everlasting perdition.
Let us learn in the last place from these verses the hopeless condition of all who die unconverted. The words of our Lord on this subject are peculiarly solemn: he says of Judas, “It had been good for that man if he had not been born”. This saying admits of only one interpretation. It teaches plainly that it is better never to live at all than to live without faith and die without grace. To die in this state is to be ruined forevermore: it is a fall from which there is no rising, a loss which is utterly irretrievable. There is no change in hell: the gulf between hell and heaven is one that no man can pass. This saying could never have been used if there was any truth in the doctrine of universal salvation. If it really was true that all would sooner or later reach heaven, and hell sooner or later be emptied of inhabitants, it never could be said that it would have been “good for a man not to have been born.” Hell itself would lose its terrors if it had an end: hell itself would be endurable if after millions of ages there were a hope of freedom and of heaven. But universal salvation will find no foothold in Scripture: the teaching of the Word of God is plain and express on the subject. There is a worm that never dies, and a fire that is not quenched ( Mark 9:44) Except a man be born again,” he will wish one day he had never been born at all. “Better,” says Burkett, “have no being, than not have a being in Christ.”
Let us grasp this truth firmly, and not let it go. There are always persons who deny the reality and eternity of hell. We live in a day when a morbid charity induces many to exaggerate God’s mercy at the expense of his justice, and when false teachers are daring to talk of a “love of God lower even than hell.” Let us resist such teaching with a holy jealousy, and abide by the doctrine of Holy Scripture: let us not be ashamed to walk in the old paths, and to believe that there is an eternal God, and an eternal heaven and an eternal hell. Once [we] depart from this belief, and we admit the thin end of the wedge of skepticism, and may at last deny any doctrine of the Gospel. We may rest assured that there is no firm standing ground between a belief in the eternity of hell, and downright infidelity.
We do need to guard against adopting unorthodox beliefs, those which go contrary to Scripture. As Ryle says, once we begin discarding one fundamental tenet of Christianity, we are unlikely to stop there. We depart on the road to questioning more and more of the Bible and discarding more doctrine. Where does one end up then? In a sorry spiritual state wherein we question whether we are saved.
Notional doubters or sceptics who claim they ‘want to believe’ but somehow cannot, would do well to study the New Testament. If they cannot bring themselves to do that, they should pray for the divine grace to enable them to do so:
I believe; help my unbelief! (Mark 9:24)
More on hell next week.