There are three things right up front that commend the book J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone by Iain H. Murray to me and hopefully to you.
First of all, it is a Banner of Truth publication. For decades now, Banner has been publishing outstanding books by current authors promoting historic evangelical Reformed theology. Along with that, Banner has reprinted hundreds of works by Christian authors from the past, ranging from John Calvin to John Owen to Charles Spurgeon and many others. There are more Puritan books available today than there would have been during the heyday of the Puritans, thanks to publishing houses like Banner of Truth. Add to that, their books are well bound and are beautiful additions to the library shelves in your home or office.
Second, the author of this book on Ryle is Iain Murray. Mr. Murray has some incredible gifts as a writer and biographer. Often Christian biographies are in the light and fluffy category. They are written to inspire us all to do better. If the subject happened to be a significant figure in history or theological movements, academics weigh in with biographies that are often technical, critical (in multiple senses of the word), and beyond the interest level of most Christian readers. Murray hits the middle ground. He writes for the Christian who needs (desparately) to know more about Christian history or Christian leaders of the past, but who is not an expert.
Murray’s first and foremost biographical study was his book The Forgotten Spurgeon. It was not, strictly speaking, a biography, but rather a study of Spurgeon’s battles against several theological trends in his life and ministry. My favorite Murray book is his two volume study of the life of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. The second of those volumes changed my life. His biography of Jonathan Edwards is first rate, but should be read alongside of George Marsden’s more academic biography. Murray has also written accounts of A. W. Pink, John Murray, and John MacArthur.
A Scottish Christian Heritage and Heroes are both fun reads as well, and The Puritan Hope is a great study of both the Puritans and of eschatology (Murray is postmillennial). Looking over a list of Murray volumes thrills me with remembering his past works, but also frustrates me since I am still lacking far too many of his books.
Third, the subject of this book is J. C. Ryle. Ryle was a minister in the Church of England who lived from 1816 to 1900. He was a prolific author, although he was also a very busy pastor and parish priest. Twice widowed in his earlier years, he did not have an easy life. His earlier career choice was the law, and he had suffered tremendously from economic setbacks that wrecked his father’s business.
At age 21 he was converted to Christ. He was, we might say, very nominally Christian or churched before that. He later wrote, “If I had died before I was twenty-one, if there is such a thing as being lost forever in hell, which I do not doubt, I certainly should have been lost forever.”
During his career, he served as parish minister in several churches. He suffered quite a few difficulties along the way, but managed to not only minister very ably to his congregation but also wrote tracts and other writings. Understand that tracts in the 1800s sometimes meant books of a hundred pages. Overall, Ryle literary output was tremendous.
It is very easy to think of a Church of England parish minister in the 1800’s as having a placid, quiet life. Think of the ministers in Jane Austen’s books. Other than their failed efforts to woo one of Austen’s heroines, they had fairly quiet country lives.
That is not at all the world of J. C. Ryle. Of course, there were the beautiful old churches, quaint villages, tea with parishioners, but there were also battles. The last half of the 1800’s was a war zone for the Christian faith. Ryle’s theology, which was Biblical, enriched by the Puritans, decidedly Reformed and Calvinistic, and evangelical was under attack.
The more admirable of the enemies were part of the Oxford Movement. Quite a few very scholarly and literary churchmen were gravitating (or running) back to Rome. Some made the switch, while others labored to widen the theological options available within the Church of England.
On the other hand, there were the forces of Darwinian Naturalism, the higher critical movement, and the rise of various more modern philosophies and theologies that were not only on the outside of the faith, but were cropping up within. Ryle’s own son, Herbert, bought into many of the “up to date, modern, cutting edge” theologies of his day. (Any surprise that Herbert–also an author–is largely forgotten along with his works?)
Ryle, like his contemporary and fellow battler for the truth Charles H. Spurgeon, labored all his days against the unbiblical theologies, false gospels, and popular new ideas of his age. He was not a philosopher or really a theologian in the technical sense. Nor was he the debater of his age or the man who could answer the fool according to his folly.
Ryle’s gift was faithful, convicting exposition of Bible passages and doctrines. His books remain valuable and can inform and convict the modern man as much or more than the original readers.
I highly, triply, recommend J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone.
However, don’t even get close to that book unless you already have read from Ryle himself. Banner of Truth has published many of Ryle’s books in fine hardback editions. You cannot make a better investment for your library AND your soul than Ryle’s classic book Holiness.
But first, a warning and/or exhortation. Reading this book out right, as in from cover to cover, is not necessarily the way to go. Maybe some will disagree, but I recommend the slow read, the frequent re-read, and the careful handling of this work. Even the introduction is red meat. If you have read more modern books on spiritual disciplines and personal holiness, all such will be good primers or warm-up exercises for Ryle. Regarding the more modern guys, I highly recommend the late Jerry Bridges and the current author Kevin DeYoung. But again, Ryle is completely undiluted.
So, acquire Holiness and hopefully then grow in holiness. Read it slowly. Read the chapters out of order. Pick it up and read a page or two almost anywhere. Mark or write down good quotes. Work the book over. And, I am not just speaking to you. I am speaking to myself as well.