Reformed Baptist Fellowship

J. C. Ryle on the Diligent Use of the Public Means of Grace

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on May 26, 2010 at 2:01 pm

J. C. Ryle (1816-1900) was an evangelical Anglican bishop who wrote and preached often on personal holiness. One of his classic works is a booklet titled, Thoughts for Young Men. One section of the book is titled “Special Rules for Young Men” and includes the exhortation to make use of “all public means of grace.” By this Ryle meant, “the instruments which God is pleased to use in order to accomplish salvation and sanctification in the hearts of men: the preaching of the Word, Bible reading and study, prayer, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and godly fellowship with others.” Below is an excerpt:

Be regular in going to the house of God whenever it is open for prayer and preaching, and it is in your power to attend. Be regular in keeping, the Lord’s day holy, and determine that God’s day out of the seven shall always be given to its rightful owner.

I would not want to leave any false impression on your minds. Do not go away and say I told you that going to church made up the whole of Christianity. I will tell you no such thing. I have no wish to see you grow up formalists and Pharisees. If you think the mere carrying of your body to a certain building, at certain times, on a certain day in the week, will make you a Christian, and prepare you to meet God, I tell you flatly you are miserably deceived. All services without heart-service are unprofitable and vain. They only are true worshipers who “Worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks” (John 4:23).

But the practices of Christianity are not to be despised because they are not saviors. Gold is not food, you cannot eat it, but you would not say it is useless, and throw it away. Your soul’s eternal wellbeing most certainly does not depend on the practices of Christianity, but it is certain that without them, as a general rule, your soul will not do well. God might take all who are saved to heaven in a chariot of fire, as He did Elijah, but He does not do so. He might teach them all by visions, and dreams, and miraculous interventions, without requiring them to read or think for themselves, but He does not do so. And why not? Because He is a God that works by means, and it is His law and will that in all man’s dealings with Him means shall be used. No one but a fool would think of building a house without ladders and scaffolding, and just so no wise man will despise means.

I dwell on this point, because Satan will try hard to fill your minds with arguments against the practices of Christianity. He will draw your attention to the numbers of persons who use them and are no better for the using. “See there,” he will whisper, “do you not observe that those who go to church are no better than those who stay away?” But do not let this move you. It is never fair to argue against a thing because it is improperly used. It does not follow that the practices of Christianity can do no good because many do them and get no good from them. Medicine is not to be despised because many take it and do not recover their health. No man would think of giving up eating, and drinking because others choose to eat and drink improperly, and so make themselves sick. The value of the practices of Christianity, like other things, depends, in a great measure, on the manner and spirit in which we use them.

Jeffrey T. Riddle, Pastor, Christ Reformed Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Virginia 22901

http://www.jeffriddle.net

  1. Very good words from a good man. Thanks for this post.

  2. Well said!

  3. Ryle says “Because He is a God that works by means, and it is His law and will that in all man’s dealings with Him means shall be used.” But the 1689 says 5:3 “God in his ordinary Providence maketh use of means; yet is free to work, without, above, and against them at his pleasure.” Ryle is mistaken.

  4. lab, maybe he was making an overstatement, since I doubt he’d disagree? But good point! We never want to dismiss the “extraordinary ordinary” work, as my pastor calls it. God’s use of means is often amazing as it is! But yes, He doesn’t have to use them- He spoke to world into existence, after all.

  5. to=the

  6. Lab, the quote you cite (and take issue with) makes more sense when read in context. It comes in response to the following: “God might take all who are saved to heaven in a chariot of fire, as He did Elijah, but He does not do so. He might teach them all by visions, and dreams, and miraculous interventions, without requiring them to read or think for themselves, but He does not do so. And why not?” His point seems to be that God might well use “extraordinary” means (and he can, because he is God). BUT, he most often chooses (particularly in these days)to use “ordinary means.” This, in fact, fits perfectly with the 1689 emphasis on the centrality of God’s revelation of himself in Scripture “the former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased” (1.1).

  7. Even if we change Ryle to say that generally (rather than always) God uses ordinary means rather than extraordinary (which is not what he said), that still does not approach the 1689 idea of God working contrary to means ie God causing ordinary means to fail (which is not necessarily miraculous). Admitting the benign earlier context and forgoing the alteration of his plain words, the statement is representative of a sacramentalist view of providence and the Christian life.

  8. lab, the confession states, “God in his ordinary Providence maketh use of means”…how is this different than your example statement that “generally…God uses ordinary means rather than extraordinary”

    And what exactly do you mean by “a sacramentalist view of providence and the Christian life?”

  9. MarieP, My example statement was only seeking to interact with Jeff’s proposed interpretation of Ryle. We should all agree that God in his ordinary providence makes use of means, that’s not the question. The question is is Ryle (an Anglican sacramentalist) right when he says “it is His law and will that in all man’s dealings with Him means shall be used,” or is the 1689 right when it says 5.3 “God in his ordinary Providence maketh use of means; yet is free to work, without, above, and against them at his pleasure.” Does God INVARIABLY use means or not? Ryle says yes, the 1689 says no. That was the point of my objection to Ryle.

  10. “it is His law and will that in all man’s dealings with Him means shall be used”

    lab, after reading this again, I see he is talking about man’s dealings with God, not God’s dealings with man. It is true that we know God through these means. How can we come to God unless He bids us to and tells us the way to come? Ryle isn’t really talking about God’s works of providence in the article but about the narrower issue of how we grow in our Christian lives. What are the means God uses? The Word, baptism and the Lord’s Supper (which many Reformed folk call sacraments), prayer, meditation, the Body of Christ, and trials and suffering.

    So it seems we were getting off topic with the LBCF discussion of God’s work of providence. To deny that God can work providentially outside and against means would be strange, as Scripture contains ample proof of this fact.

  11. lab, I think we have to distinguish between the person who says that the sacraments (i.e., ordinances) are a vital means of grace for the believer (the position I believe Ryle is urging) and the one who says that the sacraments are effective “ex opere operato.” I am not an expert in Ryle’s biography and do not have an exhaustive understanding of his theology, but my understanding from his writings (e.g., “Holiness” and “Advice to Young Men”) is that Ryle was a Protestant, an evangelical, a Calvinist, and not an Anglo-Catholic sacerdotalist (if this is what you mean when you refer to him as an “Anglican sacramentalist”).

    In Spurgeon’s edition of the Baptist Catechism, question 71 asks, “What are the outward and ordinary means whereby the Holy Spirit communicates to us the benefits of redemption?” The answer is given: “The outward and ordinary means, whereby the Holy Spirit communicates to us the benefits of Christ’s redemption, are the Word, by which souls are begotten unto spiritual life, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, Prayer, and Meditation, by all of which believers are further edified in their most holy faith.” Ryle’s exhortation to young men to the diligent use of the public means of grace seems compatible with the catechism’s perspective. Does this make Spurgeon a “Baptist sacramentalist”?

  12. I agree with Lab concerning the LBC
    I agree with Jeff concerning JC
    I agree with Marie concerning mans use of means

  13. “Ryle (an Anglican sacramentalist)”???

    Ryle’s own words:

    “He that desires to be a true Christian must be experimentally acquainted with repentance and remission of sins. These are the principle things in saving religion. To belong to a pure church, and to hear the gospel, and receive the sacraments are the great privileges: but are we converted? Are we justified? If not, we are dead before God. – J.C. Ryle

    Day by Day with J.C. Ryle, “Ministry” (Preaching), 188.
    Ed. Eric Russel [Christian Heritage, 2004]

  14. ‘Now if there is any one thing that is laid to the charge of us Evangelical clergy, it is this- that we deny sacramental grace. “Excellent worthy hard working men” we are sometimes called; “but unhappily they do not hold right Church views about the Sacraments.”- Men who talk in this manner are talking rashly and saying what they cannot prove.’ JC Ryle pg 96 Knots Untied

    Ryle held to non ex opere operato sacramentalism as he himself states. This may inform his quote above about “means” and view of providence in contrast to the 1689 which was my original point.

  15. Bishop Ryle yet speaks prophetically and pastorally to us today. I would add one more mean of grace: hymn singing from a worshipful heart. In Bishop Ryle’s time, hymn singing and composing was a novelty. They didn’t have the vast compendium of the “age-old hymns of the faith” which is our heritage today. According to Paul in Eph. and Col. such a practice is equated with the filling of the Spirt.

  16. Fantastic quote by the great Bishop of Liverpool.

    For more Ryle gems, I thought I’d refer you folks over to my site dedicated to the quotes of John Charles Ryle.

    Enjoy…

    http://jcrylequotes.com/

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