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The Bishop’s Text

He made much of Christ, knowing that the preacher who makes little of Him can hardly be deemed a preacher of the Gospel!

This year – May 10 – marked the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of John Charles Ryle. He was the first Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, though he is probably best known today because of his writings, among them an immensely valuable work on the four Gospels and a powerful and practical treatment of holiness

Ryle’s period as Bishop was dogged by conflict. A steady stream of controversies meant that he was attacked by liberals or conservatives, and sometimes by both. While there are many things with which we could take issue – not least his refusal to separate from a body that, for the most part, failed to live up to its Protestant and Reformed tenets – it would be churlish to deny the contribution Ryle made to evangelical witness in the second half of the nineteenth century.

We should remember that he did not become Bishop until the advanced age of 63. He was, first of all, a preacher. The greater part of his service was spent ministering in two rural Suffolk parishes. In the second of these, Stradbroke, he undertook extensive renovation of the building. When the pulpit was installed, he had the carpenter carve the words of a text so that it might be seen by everyone using the ‘sacred desk’: ‘Woe is unto me if I preach not the Gospel’ (1 Corinthians 9:16). Ryle borrowed the chisel and cut a deep groove beneath the word ‘not’, emphasizing the solemnity of the preacher’s task. Years later he gifted an exact replica of this pulpit to a church opening in his Liverpool diocese. He was a preacher to the end.

J C Ryle knew that the primary task of the minister was to preach. In the early days he aped the florid style of Melville, but quickly realized that would do his people no good. Effective preaching will always be understood, and so his preaching – and writing too – was thereafter characterized by simplicity. It was not only plain, but pointed, and urgent, pressing the claims of Christ upon all who would hear, a quality not so highly esteemed in some quarters today as it ought to be.

Ryle’s theme was ever the Gospel. He was evangelical and evangelistic, believing in salvation from sin by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. He made much of Christ, knowing that the preacher who makes little of Him can hardly be deemed a preacher of the Gospel! The Bishop was a committed Anglican, but his commitment to the Gospel trumped his Anglicanism, and he was ever ready to recognize the faithfulness of ‘dissenters’ and to make common cause with them – an approach that did not endear him to many in the establishment.

And he realized a great woe would be upon the preacher who is unfaithful. It is a solemn thing to be an ambassador for Christ, and the only message of the said emissary is ‘we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God’ (2 Corinthians 5:20). Woe betide him if he fails to deliver it!

And a greater woe upon those who, hearing the Gospel, fail to heed it! ‘What shall the end be of them that obey not the Gospel of God?’ (1 Peter 4:17).

Rev Timothy Nelson.