Principles and Practice

What we do reflects what we believe.  What we do reflects what we think.  J C Ryle wisely said: “Guard your thoughts, and there will be little fear about your actions”.

Ryle was born in 1816.  He died in 1900.  He was heir to an estate, valued today, of over £40m.The business he was due to inherit would yield him today an annual income of £15m!

Ryle got neither the estate nor income from his father’s business.  Why not?  When Ryle was but 25 years old his father lost everything.  It happened because of bad deals arranged by one of his bank mangers.  That was in June 1841.

Happily, four years earlier, in 1837, Ryle became a Christian (see A Complete Change, 3 April 2016).  At that time, he said, “certain truths seemed to flash out before my mind.”  He also called them “principles.”  Why?  Because they controlled his actions.  What he believed controlled his behaviour.  The principles determined what he practised.

A question we therefore want to ask is: What were the truths and principles that gripped Ryle?

In 1873 he wrote a biography.  Obviously it did not cover all his life.  In that year he was only 57.  Nor did it describe all of those 57 years.  Instead he restricted himself from his birth (1816) to the death of his second wife, Jesse, in 1860.  It covers the first 44 years of his long life.  He wanted his five surviving children, the oldest of whom was only 13 in 1860, to know about his childhood and life as a preacher.

One thing that he especially wanted his children to know was what he came to believe in 1837.  Before then he said he lived a godless life.  But that changed.  Because the Holy Spirit of God opened his mind.  Truths that he had not heard, not listened to, not understood before came and took a firm hold of him.    Ryle’s only explanation for this was “the free sovereign grace of God.”

What did he mean by the term “grace of God”?  He provides a definition in a sermon he preached.

It is an expression which has different meanings in Scripture.  Sometimes it signifies the free favour of God, as when we read, “By grace are you saved, not of works.”  Sometimes it means the operation of the Holy Spirit in a man’s conversion, as when Paul tells the Galatians, it was “God who called me by His grace.”  (see his sermon on 2 Corinthians 6.1, The Grace own God in Vain)

Thus we take it that Ryle meant that in 1837 God freely did a special work in him.  By his Spirit, God encouraged Ryle to start thinking about Jesus Christ.  He started to read the Bible.  And he started to pray.  As he did so, God opened his mind to understand what he read.  And so it was that certain truths seemed to flash out before his mind.”

Ryle says that they “came out into strong, clear and distinct relief.”  In his Autobiography he listed them for his children – and anyone else who happens to read the pages of it (it is due to be published in the summer of 2016).

Here they are.  I number and give them in the order Ryle gave them.

In the closing months of 1837 Ryle became convinced of:

(1) the extreme sinfulness of sin;

(2) his own personal sinfulness, helplessness and spiritual need;(3) the suitableness of the Lord Jesus Christ by his sacrifice, substitution and intercession to be the Saviour of a sinner;

(4) the absolute necessity of the new birth or conversion by the Holy Spirit if an individual is to be saved;

(5) the indispensable necessity of holiness of life, being the only evidence of a true Christian;

(6) the supremacy of the Bible as the only rule of what is true in faith or right in practice;

(7) the absolute necessity of private prayer and communion with God;

(8) the enormous value of Protestant principles as compared to Romanism;

(9) the unspeakable excellence of the Second Advent of Christ;

(10) the utter folly of supposing that baptism is regeneration;

(11) the folly of thinking that going to church is Christianity;

(12) the folly of imagining that taking the Lord’s Supper will wipe away of sins;

(13) the folly of thinking that clergymen know the Bible better than others; and,

(14) the folly of thinking that clergy, by virtue of their office, are mediators between God and men.

Each truth needs to be explained.  That will be done in the future.  For now I want you to note the following facts.

First, having being gripped by the fourteen truths that Ryle listed for his children in 1837, he held on to them for the rest of his life.  That is evidence that Ryle was a really changed man.  The evidence that a person has been born again from above is a changed life.  Without holiness no one shall see the Lord.  What is holiness?  It is God-likeness.  It is thinking, speaking, and acting in ways that are in perfect conformity to the mind and law of God.

Where do we find the mind and law of God?  In Scripture.  The Bible is the God-given record of all the special things that God has made known to mankind.  There is general revelation and special revelation.  General revelation is what we can learn from the created order around us.  It also includes what we can learn from the events that happen in our lives as well as in the world.  All speak to us of our Creator.

As we look at the universe and the intricacies of creatures, things, and ourselves, we find ourselves saying, ‘This is designed.’  It is far too complex and intricate to have come about by chance.

And as we think over what is happening in the world and our lives we are also prompted to wonder whether there is a guiding hand behind it all.

Some people call this snatching at a crutch to lean upon.  They think that because we have an inadequate understanding of things at present we need some other explanation to help.  But, they also argue, as science pushes forward the frontiers of knowledge we will gradually get to understand things better.

But belief in God is not a crutch.  That idea flies in the face of what God has made known in a special way.  Over the years he has made himself known to us.  Adam and Eve knew him.  So did Enoch and Noah.  As did Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and David.  The list is endless.  There are so many people to whom God has revealed himself and to whom he spoke.  We have a record of such encounters.  That record is the Bible.  It is God’s special revelation to us.

What is more, the Spirit, who guided and led the prophets and apostles to write what they did, works in the lives of men and women who read and hear the message of the Bible.  When he works the truth of God’s Word flashes out, to use Ryle’s words, to our minds.  What we have not seen or chosen to ignore in the past suddenly or gradually (God chooses to do things the way that is best for us) dawns on our minds.  We are gripped by God’s truth.  We have an anointing from God (as John the apostle puts it).  And that anointing does not leave us.  We become obedient from the heart to the teaching to which God commits us (see Romans 6.17).  That is what happened to Ryle.

EPC  10 April 2016