by Bishop J.C. Ryle
Since many religious disputes have arisen solely because there has been a lack of accurate definition, I am beginning this paper by explaining exactly what I mean by “Evangelical Religion”.
I want to consider that religion which is peculiar to those within the Church of England who are normally called “the Evangelical Party”. Whether we like it, or not; whether it is right or not, it must be agreed that there are varying schools of thought within the Church of England, with many divisions and shades of opinion even within the various parties. Here I am concerned with the unmistakable and undeniable tenets of the Evangelical school which, I maintain, are worth contending for.
This is a subject of great difficulty and delicate grounds, for it necessitates comparisons and all comparisons are odious. But sometimes comparisons are a duty. Did not Paul command “Approve the things that are excellent”? (Phil. 1;10), and while I have a sense of the difficulties, I have a deeper sense of the importance of this subject. The existence of parties cannot be ignored, and the strife is not just one about trappings and vestments in religion, but about the very foundations of the Gospel. Evangelicals must therefore consider what they have to maintain and defend; so let us distinctly understand our principles.
In defining Evangelical Religion, I can only bring forward the result of careful reading and study of the works of Evangelical fathers. I have only arrived at these conclusions after prayer, thought and pains. I am not claiming to be a mouthpiece for the Evangelical Party, for many who are called Evangelical will not agree with all in this paper. But I am writing what I believe to be the leading tenets of Evangelicalism.
WHAT EVANGELICAL RELIGION IS
I want to point out what I consider to be the five leading features of Evangelicalism.
1.) The absolute supremacy of Holy Scripture.
The first feature is the supremacy of Scripture as the only rule of faith and practice, the only test of truth and the only judge of controversy.
Evangelicals believe that man is required to accept nothing as necessary to Salvation which cannot be read in or proved from Holy Scripture. They deny any other guide for man, and reject such arguments as “The Church says so”, etc., unless what is said is in harmony with Scripture. We will accept anything in the Bible, however trying, but anything contrary, however specious, plausible or desirable, we will not have under any commendation.
Our faith can find no resting place except in the Bible; its supreme authority is one of the corner stones of our system. Here is rock, all else is sand.
2.) The doctrine of human sinfulness and corruption.
Through Adam’s fall, everyone is as far as possible gone from original righteousness, and is, naturally, inclined to evil. Before God, man is miserable, pitiable and bankrupt, and in a state of guilt, condemnation and danger. Everyone is at enmity with God, without title to heaven, and with no love for God.
Such a spiritual disease calls for as mighty a spiritual cure. So Evangelical religion will not countenance anything which even seems to encourage the idea that there is an easy cure, or that a little outward appearance or sacrament receiving is all that is needed. Thus we protest strongly against formalism, sacerdotalism (1) or any other external or vicarious (2) Christianity. Such religion is based on an inadequate view of man’s need. Nothing less than the blood of Christ and the grace of God applied to heart and soul can cure.
It is because many are ignorant of the extent of the fall and the doctrine of original sin that they cannot understand Evangelical Religion. Next to the Bible, it is based on a clear view of Original Sin.
3.) The work and office of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the salvation He has wrought for man.
Jesus Christ has by His life, death and resurrection, as our representative and substitute, obtained a complete salvation for sinners and a redemption from the guilt, power and consequences of sin. All who believe on Him are, even while they live, completely forgiven and justified, reckoned righteous before God and are interested in Christ and all His benefits.
Only simple faith between the sinner and the Saviour is involved. Anything else is only useful so far as it helps the faith. But anything relied upon as an end is just poison to the soul.
The essence of Christianity is a practical knowledge of Christ, so that in teaching Christianity we can never speak too much of Christ, or too strongly of the full, free and simple salvation for all who believe in Him.
Now this doctrine is just what the. natural man most dislikes, for man wants a religion of sight and sense – not faith; of doing, not believing. People should be warned against making a Christ of the Church, or the Ministry, or forms of worship, or Baptism, or even the Lord’s Supper. Life eternal is to know, believe in and abide in Christ. Everything in religion is useful in so far as it helps faith, but no further.
4.) The inward work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of man.
The foundation of all vital Christianity is a work of grace in the heart. Until there is real working relationship, religion is only a form which can neither comfort nor serve. People’s attention needs to be brought to the Holy Spirit’s works – inward repentance, faith, hope, hatred of sin and love of God’s laws. To tell people to take comfort in baptism or Church membership instead, is a mistake – and positive cruelty as well.
The inward work of the Holy Spirit is a necessity to salvation, but it must be inwardly felt, for nothing felt within the heart means nothing possessed. Feelings can be deceptive but the witness of the Spirit, however much it be abused, is a real thing.
5.) The outward and visible work of the Holy Ghost in the life of man.
God’s grace will always show in the behaviour and habits of the man who has it. It is not something dormant – something within but not without.
It is wrong to tell a man he is “born of God” while he deliberately lives in sin; he must overcome the world, the flesh and the devil. Only by his life can we tell a man’s spiritual condition. Where nothing is seen, then nothing is possessed. Grace that cannot be seen is not grace at all, but just disobedience to God.
Such are the leading features of Evangelical Religion. Although I have only sketched these in outline, and have omitted many things which, although part of the Evangelical doctrine, are, I feel, comparatively of secondary importance, enough has been said to serve my purpose. These are, I believe, the main principles of the teaching of Evangelicals within the Church of England. These are the first, foremost, chief and principle things in Christianity. Others may accept each of them individually, but they do not assign to them the pre-eminent position as do Evangelicals. It is this lack of attention to position which spoils much teaching.
To show all the foundations of Evangelical Religion in this paper is clearly impossible. But we challenge anyone to examine, impartially, our system in the light of Scripture, or the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church, or the writings of our leading Divines, from the Reformation to Archbishop Laud – we have no fears concerning the results of such examination. There can be no charge that we have introduced something new.
We may well be ashamed of our own personal imperfections, but we have no need to be ashamed of our doctrine. It is easy to try to frighten people against Evangelicals by such names as “Calvinism” or “Puritanism” (3) but impartial inquiry will always show that Evangelical Religion is the religion of Scripture and of the Church of England.
WHAT EVANGELICAL RELIGION IS NOT
I am almost ashamed to deal with the negative side of this question. But false reports about Evangelicals are so numerous that I must do so. We know that we are not perfect, and have many defects, but many charges made against us just are not true.
1.) Evangelical Religion does not despise Learning or Research.
No one appreciates more than us anything that throws light on God’s Word. Anyone looking at the lists of people who have been eminent in theological scholarship will find that some of the greatest have been Evangelicals. No school of thought has done more for the exposition and interpretation of Scripture, or produced more commentaries. Even today we have no need to be ashamed.
But while we do not despise learning, we do not place any uninspired writings on a level with revelation. Scripture alone is our guide. We leave it to others to speak of “primitive antiquity”, and “catholic truth”. But to us there is only one test; “What is written in the Scripture? What does the Lord say?”
2.) Evangelical Religion does not undervalue the Church or think lightly of its privileges.
No one is more sincere and loyal to the Church of England; no one values its form of government, confession of faith or mode of worship more. We have stuck to it through thick and thin, and will resist attempts to Romanise it.
But we refuse to exalt the Church above Christ, or to teach that membership of a church is identical with membership of Christ, or to give to it an authority not found in Scripture or even in the Articles. Councils, synods and convocations may go wrong, and nowhere in Scripture is there any proof that Jesus Christ intended a body of men to be regarded as infallible. So, we hold, much of the talk about the voice of the Church is meaningless.
3.) Evangelical Religion does not undervalue the Christian Ministry.
We regard the Ministry as an honourable office, instituted by Christ, and of general necessity for carrying on the work of the Gospel. Ministers should be preachers of God’s Word; God’s ambassadors, messengers, servants, shepherds, stewards, overseers, and labourers in His vineyard.
But we refuse to admit that the clergy are sacrificing priests, mediators, lords or private confessors, firstly because this is not Biblical, and secondly because church history shows sacerdotalism has often been the curse of Christianity. The exaltation of the ministerial office within the Church of England is likely to alienate the laity, ruin the church and lead to error and superstition.
4.) Evangelical Religion does not undervalue Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
We honour the Sacraments as holy ordinances appointed by Christ, and as means of grace which have a “wholesome effect or operation” in all who use them rightly, worthily and with faith.
But we refuse to admit that the Sacraments convey grace ex opere operato (4), and that good must be done whenever they are administered; or that they are, above faith, preaching and prayer, the grand medium between Christ and the soul.
We cannot accept the doctrine that baptism in water and in the name of the Trinity is always and necessarily accompanied by regeneration, nor the practice of encouraging anyone to the Lord’s Table who is unrepentant and without faith in Christ and love for men. Nor can we accept the theory that the Lord’s Supper is a sacrifice, for this is contrary to the Bible, the Prayer Book (5) and the Articles. Above all we protest against the doctrine of the bodily presence of Christ’s flesh and blood in the Lord’s Supper, under the form of bread and wine; this is, indeed, “idolatry, to be abhorred of all faithful Christians”.
5.) Evangelical Religion does not undervalue the English Prayer Book.
We regard the Prayer Book as the finest form of public worship, admirably adapted to the wants of human nature. We use it with pleasure and would never want its use forbidden.
But we do not say that there can be no acceptable worship of God without it. It has not the authenticity of the Bible, and we will not honour the Prayer Book as equal with Scripture, or regard it as forming with the Bible, the rule of faith for the Church of England. It does not contain any truth over and above God’s Word. It is completely wrong to say that the Bible and Prayer Book together form the Church’s creed.
6.) Evangelical Religion does not undervalue the Episcopacy.
We honour and respect Bishops as much as, if not more than, any section of the Church of England. We believe Episcopacy rightly administered, to be the best form of Church government in this evil world.
But we refuse to believe that Bishops are infallible, and that they are to be believed when not in harmony with Scripture. We believe that there have been Bishops, Priests and Deacons from the beginning, but we will not agree to the statement “No Bishop, no Church”, or that Free Church clergy are not validly ordained, or that Nonconformist Christians (6) are not really Christians.
I repeat, in due respect to Episcopal office we yield to none. But we cannot forget that Bishops have erred, both individually and in conference. In the days of Charles I, it was the erring Bishops who ruined the Church of England. In 1662, when they threw out the Puritans, they almost did it again, and then again when they shut out the Methodists. History shows that, while we have had great Bishops, others have been a disgrace to their office.
7.) Evangelical Religion does not object to handsome Church buildings.
We like well-designed and well arranged places of worship, good architecture, well ordered ceremonial and well conducted services. We dislike slovenliness, and would have all things done “properly and in an orderly manner” (1 Cor. 14;40).
But we maintain that simplicity should be the characteristic of Christian worship. Remembering the great Scriptural truth, “man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Sam. 16;7), we believe the inward and spiritual character of the congregation is more important than architecture and ornaments. Further, remembering that human nature is easily led astray, we feel that ornaments, theatrical ceremonial, and such like, only drive men away from Christ, and make them walk by sight and not by faith.
8.) Evangelical Religion does not undervalue Unity.
We love harmony and peace as much as any Christians anywhere, and long for the day when controversy, strife and division shall end.
But for this, there must be oneness in faith. Unity must be on a common belief in Christ’s Gospel, and not on a common Episcopacy. Further we abhor the idea of reunion with the Church of Rome, unless that Church first purges herself of false doctrines and superstitions; and we repudiate those who make advances to Rome while ignoring the Church of Scotland, as unworthy of English Churchmen.
9.) Evangelical Religion does not undervalue Christian Holiness and Self-Denial.
We desire as much as anyone to promote habitual spirituality of heart and life in Christians. No one is so concerned to exalt every Christian virtue, and true Christian living, as are we. With all our defects, none attaches more importance to private prayer, Bible reading and communion with God than do we.
But we firmly deny that true holiness consists in calling everything in religion holy; or that it is promoted by outward gestures, fastings and such like. Such practices are often only outward and a delusion, and, of themselves, do not make Christian holiness. It may satisfy those who desire worldliness one part of the week, and asceticism another. But it will never satisfy a Bible reading Christian, for it is not the holiness recommended by St. Paul, St. Peter, St. James and St. John.
To summarise. We do give all lawful honour to all of these things, but we decline to give to them more honour than we find given in God’s Word. This is the Scriptural position, and we can take no other. Those who accuse us of undervaluing any of these things only show their own ignorance of Scripture. If they can show that God’s Word takes a different position, we will confess our error. Until then, we shall maintain that we are right and they are wrong.
WHAT MAKES MUCH RELIGION APPEAR TO US NOT EVANGELICAL?
This is a delicate, but serious point. For while we do not say that men who are not professedly Evangelical, ignore and disbelieve the leading Evangelical doctrines, we do say that there are many ways in which the faith of Christ may be altered and spoiled, without being positively denied.
The Gospel may be spoiled by substitution. Put anything or anyone else in the place of Christ, for the sinner, and the Gospel is spoiled. It can be the Church, the Ministry, the Confessional, the Sacraments, and so on – but the Gospel is altered.
The Gospel may be spoiled by addition. Add anything to Christ, the grand object of faith, and the mischief is done.
Equally, the Gospel may be spoiled by interposition; that is, by putting someone between Christ and the sinner, so distracting the sinner’s attention. Or by disproportion; by giving secondary things an exaggerated importance and altering the proportions of the parts of truth. Or, lastly, by confused and contradictory directions – by complicated and obscure statements of doctrine, which are as bad as no statement at all!
Do any of these things, either directly or indirectly and your religion ceases to be Evangelical. We cannot expect any benefit from Christ’s salvation, unless we use the Gospel as Christ appointed. We must not alter the Biblical proportions in any way, whether by addition, subtraction or any “improvement.” God’s plan, of salvation cannot be improved. Anyone trying to do so, only spoils it.
To be really Evangelical, religion must be the Gospel, the whole Gospel and nothing but the Gospel, as Christ prescribed it. I am sorry to say that much so called religion of today breaks down because of additions or subtractions and other alterations, and so does not come up to the Scriptural standards which I have set out. Now, I do not accuse any who are not “Evangelical” with not being “Christian”. But I do say that they appear to me to teach something which is not Christ’s whole truth. The parts are there, but in the wrong proportions.
THE PRESENT DUTIES OF EVANGELICALS
Since we have been considering what Evangelical Religion is and is not, some thoughts on our immediate duties will not be inappropriate. We live in times which are critical for the Church, and dangerous for the nation. Popish opinions are found amongst churchmen, and there are shameless additions to the faith. Whether our Protestantism lives or dies, much depends on whether Evangelicals are really alive to their duty.
1.) We should be jealous over our own personal religion.
Today, a clear cut and distinct doctrinal Christianity is unfavourable. A liberalism which regards everyone as right and no one as wrong, meets us everywhere. There is a veritable devil of false charity about religion. When others would persuade us that it is “all the same thing”, let us remember Paul’s words, “Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith” (1 Cor. 16;13).
Let us stand firm in the old paths of the Reformers. Some may call this doctrine narrow, or old fashioned, but they will never show us something better. Let us have no man or form between us and Christ. Let us know whom we believe, what, why, and in what manner we believe. Only thorough Evangelical Religion can do this. Let us make sure it is our own.
2.) Evangelical clergy must be careful not to compromise their principles and damage their testimony by trying to conciliate the world.
Too often, Evangelicals use the plausible pretext of making services “more attractive” to cut the grounds from under the feet of Ritualists (7). But it is so easy to let in the Pope and the Devil. Such things may please the world, but they never convert the world. We cannot be too jealous about the slightest departure from “the faith once delivered to the saints” and the worship handed to us by the Reformers. Remember Paul’s declaration, “though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed.” (Gal. 1;8).
Evangelical preaching and Ritualistic ceremonial do not mix. The world is never won by trimming and compromising, or by trying to face both ways and please everyone. Adornments and ritual may please children and weak-minded people. But they never have helped and never will help heart conversion and sanctification.
We need patience in these times, when it is provoking to be criticised about the nakedness, poverty and meagreness (so called) of Evangelical religion, and when we see so many going off to ritualistic services saying that they feel so much better after these services. But the end will never justify illicit means. Popularity through pandering is not worth anything. Worshippers who are not content with the Bible, the Cross of Christ, simple prayers and praise, are worshippers of little value. Further, remember the injury to our own souls if we depart in the least from the simple Gospel in any way.
3.) We must not allow Evangelical Religion to be thrust out of the Church of England without a struggle.
It is a religion well worth a struggle, for it can point to works which no other school in the Church of England has ever equalled. We confess, with sorrow, that we have done little compared to what we ought to have done, but yet we fear no honest and fair comparison, for whether at home or abroad, none has done so much good to souls. Nothing gives the Church of England such power and influence as genuine, well worked and well administered Evangelical Religion.
But if Evangelical Religion is to be preserved now, we must make a great effort and be prepared for a mighty struggle. For the sake of our Church and the future, let us resolve to make it. It is not of our seeking – the controversy is forced upon us. This is our choice; to sit in silence and let the Church of England be unprotestantised and reunited with Rome; or we can desert the Church and leave it to those who would change it; or else we must face the danger and fight, fight with the same Word used by Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley, and not with corrupt weapons.(8) If we want our church to continue Protestant and Evangelical we must do as they did, stand and fight.
What is to be done? All Protestant and Evangelical clergy must unite and organise; expose the Romanising dealings in every way, even going to law and Parliament if necessary (9). There must be bold and prompt action whenever required – these are our weapons. They must be wielded at whatever sacrifice.
Let us resolve then to “contend earnestly for the faith”, labouring in every way to maintain Evangelical Religion in the Church of England, and resisting the enemies around. We are not weak if we stand and act together. Most of the laity do not love Popery. God has not forsaken us, and truth is on our side.
Let us remember above all, that without these Biblical principles, a Church is as useless as a well without water. Should the Church of England again become Popish, it will be a church not worth preserving.
John Charles Ryle, the first Bishop of Liverpool, lived from 1816–1900. He was a prolific writer of both devotional and doctrinal books and tracts.
This article is an edited version of the first chapter of his book “Knots Untied” which was published in 1877, when Bishop Ryle was Vicar of Stradebroke, Norfolk. It has been published in many editions including one in booklet form in 1959 by Church Book Room Press (London) titled: “Evangelical Religion”.
Footnotes have been added, and some modernisation made, to keep this important document before the Christian readership.
Quoted Scriptures are given here in the New American Standard Version.
(1) sacerdotalism – a system which places undue emphasis on the priestly order, as for example in Roman Catholicism where the priest is said to repeat Calvary when he says the Mass.
(2) vicarious – i.e. standing in the place of Christ (as for example, when a priest absolves a sinner in confession).
(3) Were Ryle alive today he would no doubt include “Fundamentalism” as well.
(4) ex opere operato: i.e. without living faith in the recipients.
(5) i.e. The Book of Common Prayer – 1662.
(6) Nonconformist Christians.
(7) While ritualism still holds appeal for many, the so-called “entertainment church” is the model that is especially dangerous in our time and for the reasons given by Ryle.
(8) “I do not want to narrow the pale of the Church of England, for I am well aware it is eminently liberal, comprehensive and tolerant. There has always been room for people of widely different thought. But I cannot believe that our Church ever meant to teach the Roman doctrines of the Real Presence, the sacrifice of the Mass, and auricular confession. There is a great distinction between the old High Churchman, and the modern Ritualistic Anglo-Catholic, who is so near Rome that no one can see the difference.” – Ryle
(9) Ryle advocated resorting to law to resolve doctrinal issues. For Evangelicals now this option is neither desirable nor possible.
(Text and footnotes prepared by the Rev. Neil Prott.)