Practical Religion Book Review
On the eve of combat as a soldier, would you rather have practical knowledge or theoretical knowledge about your enemy? When it comes to matters of life and death, all would choose to possess real-life experience, hands-on ability to face the battle. Likewise, in the Christian life, if we are to follow the Apostle Paul’s command to put on the full armor of God and fight the good fight, this demands that we cultivate practical skills to live for Christ. J. C. Ryle helps us to do just that in Practical Religion.
Originally published in 1879, the contents of this book are just as applicable and useful today as they were in Ryle’s time. In 495 pages, he shepherds us through the everyday duties, dangers, privileges, and experiences of following Christ. As a minister of the gospel whose faith was tested by acute trials, Ryle is a trustworthy guide. He walked with Christ through riches and poverty, health and sickness, fruitful and barren years.
How can we, too, persevere through good times and bad times? How do we grow in thanksgiving and each year become more Christlike? To answer these, Ryle calls attention to Luke 13:24: “Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” Focusing on the verb strive, Ryle explains the necessity of self-exertion in the Christian life.
Strive teaches us that laboring for our soul’s prosperity is our chief business in life. Created in the image of God with a soul that will never die, we must seek to nourish our souls. As we frequently hear from the pulpit at Grace, in order to grow as Christians, we must make diligent use of the means of grace. Put simply, we must read our Bibles and engage in private prayer. Every day.
Being in the Word and Prayer
In two standout chapters, Ryle attests to the importance of being in the Word and prayer. Growth takes effort; progress requires exertion. Ryle asks, “What art thou doing with the Bible? Dost thou read it? How readest thou?”[i] Peppered throughout Practical Religion, direct questions such as these are a mark of Ryle’s style. They challenge the Christian reader to perform self-inquiry and to earnestly seek God in prayer.
Chapter 4 covers the subject of prayer in compelling language. When it was originally published as the standalone tract Do You Pray? during Ryle’s lifetime, it sold 130,000 copies.[ii] I find myself rereading this chapter on a regular basis to rekindle my heart of the necessity to pray.
To communicate prayer’s indispensable nature, Ryle likens it to breathing: “The first act of faith will be to speak to God. Faith is to the soul what life is to the body. Prayer is to faith what breath is to life.”[iii] With metaphoric language, he illustrates the vital function of prayer in the Christian’s life.
Years ago I heard a sermon on prayer in which the preacher emphasized that as sinners we are so feeble and negligent in doing good to our own souls that God, in his wisdom, commands us to pray—through the vehicle of prayer, he commands us to do good to our own souls. Likewise, Ryle declares that we must nourish our souls by praying earnestly and persistently to our Father in heaven. A treasure chest for the Christian reader, this chapter on prayer is reason alone to purchase Practical Religion.
Experiencing Riches and Poverty
Next, Ryle addresses common trials in a fallen world to help us grow in practical Christian living skills. A glimpse into his background reveals why he is uniquely suited to discuss the subject of riches and poverty.
Born into a wealthy family as the eldest son, he grew up on a large estate in the greatest comfort and ease. His father’s status, as a well-heeled banker, owner of a prosperous silk mill, and member of Parliament, meant that Ryle moved in the elite circles of nineteenth-century, class-conscious England. At age twenty-five, though, this life of luxury came to an abrupt end. The stunning blow? Bankruptcy. Father’s bank failed and creditors seized everything.
All possessions—banks, silk mill, family estate, furniture, every last knick-knack—were sold at auction. Left with nothing but the clothes on his back and two horses, the catastrophe reduced Ryle to the level of the footmen in his father’s household. Expelled from his upper crust company of peers, the humiliating ruin destroyed all his worldly prospects.
Through this hard providence, Ryle became a minister of the gospel. Fast forward thirty-eight years to the publication of Practical Religion. At sixty-three years old, Ryle’s life experience combined with his biblical knowledge make chapter 13 “Riches and Poverty” a thought-provoking read.
Ryle explores the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19–23. In this well-known Bible story, the opulence of the rich man’s life contrasts sharply against the indigence of the beggar Lazarus’s. Of the leading truths Ryle outlines, two points stand out.
First, the parable illustrates how God assigns different conditions to different men. Some are rich; some are poor. Yet these outward conditions are no sign of the inward state of a man’s soul. In the end, the rich man and Lazarus both had to drink the same cup—both had to die. The rich man met eternal death; Lazarus met eternal life.
Second, the parable teaches “how precious a believer’s soul is in the sight of God.”[iv] Although destitute from the world’s perspective, Lazarus possessed unsearchable riches in Christ. He had an eternal inheritance that would never fade away, a portion that could never be taken from him. Keeping these eternal realities at the forefront of our minds is a practical skill in living for Christ.
Three Reasons to Read Ryle
During this four-part series on J. C. Ryle, we examined A Call to Prayer, Holiness, Light from Old Times, and Practical Religion. The careful reader will notice the influence of the Puritans in Ryle’s works. He drank deeply from their rich sources, and their substantial writings live on in his.
In addition to the Puritans, the following three qualities make Ryle a valuable read:
- Focused on living out the Scriptures instead of accumulating head knowledge, Ryle challenges the Christian reader on every page. By emphasizing the fundamentals—being in the Word and prayer—he teaches us to strive for our soul’s prosperity.
- Reading Ryle puts my mind on God’s Word and drives me to prayer. With a command of the English language, he insightfully draws key truths from Scripture to bear upon the conscience.
- Through an expressive writing style that captures the urgency of Scripture, his love for Christ and passion to pursue holiness are infectious.
On June 10, 1900, J. C. Ryle went home to the Lord at age eighty-four. In his works, this faithful servant of the Lord speaks to us today.
[i] J. C. Ryle, Practical Religion (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977), 129.
[ii] Chapter 4 is available from Banner of Truth Trust as the standalone tract A Call to Prayer.
[iii] Ryle, 68.
[iv] Ryle, 322.
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