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Book review by James Jeffery
If a shortlist of the 20 most influential Christians throughout history were to be written, I have no doubt that J.C. Ryle would be amongst such saints. His life is a testimony to the power of the gospel and the influence believers can have when we entrust ourselves to the Lord. Wherever you are in your journey with Jesus Christ, you must read Prepared to Stand Alone, as Ryle is amongst the great cloud of witnesses whose life we can look to for inspiration, encouragement, and a reignited trust our God.
Murray traces Ryle’s life all the way from his birth in Macclesfield to his appointment as the Bishop of Liverpool in 1880. Though Ryle’s upbringing was marked by wealth, prestige, and worldly success, it was during his tertiary years at Oxford that he came to know the grace and love of Jesus Christ. Through the loving rebuke of a friend, the trial of severe chest inflammation, and a series of other events orchestrated by the Holy Spirit, Ryle repented of His sin and began to follow the Lord.
Murray shows in Prepared to Stand Alone that while Ryle was a veracious defender of the Word of God, he was uncompromisingly committed to a philosophy of Christian ministry that sought to purify his own denomination, ally with Biblically-minded Christians of other denominations, and reach others no matter their background.
From the moment he began his public ministry, Ryle was devoted to faithfully studying, meditating upon, and preaching the Word of God. This commitment drove Ryle to love others sacrificially, relentlessly preach God’s Word, and prevented him from forging partnerships with false believers for the sake of numerical growth and superficial harmony. Ryle wrote:
“No doubt we all love unity; but we must distinctly maintain, that true unity can only be built on God’s truth. No doubt we must not withhold the right hand of fellowship from any faithful brother, because he does not think exactly like us; but we must understand who the men are to whom we extend the right hand. Many are saying now-a-days, that ‘after all, there is no great difference between one clergyman and another. Some speak of a thing by one name, and some by another; but after all, they mean the same’… But let us not be taken in by such sophistry…I believe that all communion of that sort, all interchange of pulpits with unsound men, is to be deprecated, as doing nothing but harm to the cause of God.” (pp. 179-180)
Ryle’s commitment to serving in the Church of England did not hinder him from partnering with other believers from different denominations. While it is clear he abhorred the idea of fellowshipping with false brethren, he saw many faithful Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians amongst those whom Christ died for, and so was eager to partner with them in the proclamation of the gospel. Rather than being a hermit who only dwelt amongst fellow Anglican brethren, Murray writes:
“The cordiality of Ryle’s inter-denominational friendships does not fit the picture of a reserved and distant man.” (p. 174)
Ryle was no stranger to suffering, having faced various physical ailments during college, witnessing the collapse of his father’s bank, and being widowed twice shortly after each marriage. In retrospect, it is clear that God used these circumstances and events to shape Ryle into a man who could empathise with the sufferings of others, and who was committed to reaching all of society with the gospel of Jesus Christ, regardless of their background. This concern was made manifest in Ryle’s conscious decision to regularly worship with Richard Hobson’s church — a gathering of believers who met in a cellar — because he believed that doing so would not be a hindrance to reaching the lower echelons of society.
As believers, there is seldom a better way to discover how we can put our faith into practice than to study the lives of faithful saints who have lived before us. When we see a glimpse of how great a cloud of witnesses there are who precede us, we are led to not only worship God more, but to see His faithfulness throughout the ages. Ryle’s life will do just this, as you ponder the riches of God’s mercy towards to those who are willing to be used by Him.