J.C Ryle was a prominent Anglican Bishop of Liverpool in the 19th century. An advocate of the Evangelical cause in the Church of England, he penned an insightful article laying out what he took to be the essence of Evangelicalism, clarifying confusions and myths, and proposing a road forward for the Church.
Briefly, defined Evangelical religion as marked by five major commitments: (1) the supreme authority and truthfulness of Scripture, (2) the grave condition of humanity in sin, the centrality and absolute necessity of Christ’s redeeming work in life, (3) atoning death, and resurrection, (4) the necessity of the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, (5) the necessarily transformative work of the Holy Spirit in leading to personal holiness and an active life of faith. (It’s interesting to see how much this overlaps with the Bebbington Quadrilateral.)
He also clarifies a number of things that Evangelical religion is not, but as interesting as that is, what I wanted to call our attention to today was a latter section in the work. Here, he tries to lay out why so much religion in the Church is un-Evangelical and confusing. He’s not even necessarily talking about outright heresy or false teaching, but the sort of thing that “spoils” the Gospel and robs people of it despite our best intentions.
Ryle then lays out 5 distinct ways to spoil the Gospel:
You may spoil the Gospel by substitution . You have only to withdraw from the eyes of the sinner the grand object which the Bible proposes to faith,—Jesus Christ; and to substitute another object in His place,—the Church, the Ministry, the Confessional, Baptism, or the Lord’s Supper, and the mischief is done. Substitute anything for Christ, and the Gospel is totally spoiled! Do this, either directly or indirectly, and your religion ceases to be Evangelical.
You may spoil the Gospel by addition. You have only to add to Christ, the grand object of faith, some other objects as equally worthy of honour, and the mischief is done. Add anything to Christ, and the Gospel ceases to be a pure Gospel! Do this, either directly or indirectly, and your religion ceases to be Evangelical.
You may spoil the Gospel by interposition. You have only to push something between Christ and the eye of the soul, to draw away the sinner’s attention from the Saviour, and the mischief is done. Interpose anything between man and Christ, and man will neglect Christ for the thing interposed! Do this, either directly or indirectly, and your religion ceases to be Evangelical.
You may spoil the Gospel by disproportion. You have only to attach an exaggerated importance to the secondary things of Christianity, and a diminished importance to the first things, and the mischief is done. Once alter the proportion of the parts of truth, and truth soon becomes downright error! Do this, either directly or indirectly, and your religion ceases to be Evangelical.
Lastly, but not least, you may completely spoil the Gospel by confused and contradictory directions. Complicated and obscure statements about faith, baptism, Church privileges, and the benefits of the Lord’s Supper, all jumbled together, and thrown down without order before hearers, make the Gospel no Gospel at all! Confused and disorderly statements of Christianity are almost as bad as no statement at all! Religion of this sort is not Evangelical.
This is all excellent and I think to be heeded as wisdom. A few comments, though.
One point I’d make about the distortion by disproportion is that it can occur in other ways than losing sight of the main thing. What I mean is that when you make the “main thing” the “only thing”, the proportions are still wrong. So, a proper understanding of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is crucial and central. But it only properly makes sense against the backdrop of the doctrine of creation. Creation is not the gospel, but without it, you don’t really understand what sort of gospel you’re dealing with.
I mention this because I think a good deal of the problem pop-Evangelicalism nowadays is a shallow understanding of the gospel, the central things, partially because we have little sense of the backdrop, the broader sweep of Christian doctrine and the broad narrative of Scripture. Just something for preachers and teachers to keep in mind.
Second, the point about clarity is an important one. This is probably less an issue for popular Evangelicalism which usually has the simple, five or six-point belief statement up on the website (Trinity, Scripture, Christ, Salvation, Minimalist Eschatology). But in Ryle’s late-19th century Anglicanism, I’m sure the danger for confusing blends of statements is probably more necessary. And I think that may still be true for some wings of uber-intellectual, or confessional Christianity.
Attuned to the dangers of minimalist presentations, we want to get complex, demonstrate nuance, stretch our people’s minds, expand their boxes, and so forth, so that we forget at times to preach a clear, simple gospel. It’s wonderful for pastors to read and address issues with complexity and nuance when that’s required. Read the difficult books, grapple with exegetical nettles, try to push your people into the great mysteries of the Faith like the Trinity and the person of Christ. But do all you can to strive to be clear.
Indeed, as Lewis pointed out long ago, your ability to be clear about an issue is likely a measure of how well you’ve grasped it.
I suppose I’ll close this out by noting how all of these issues are connected to having a solid grasp of Biblical and Systematic theology. Beyond the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, having a sense for the matter and substance, as well as the emphasis, the balance, and the interconnections of various texts and doctrines, and the ability to communicate that clearly, is a matter of disciplined. familiarity with Scripture as a whole. And that takes time, study, and diligence.
But learning not to spoil the gospel of Jesus Christ is worth it. So get to it.
Soli Deo Gloria