J.C. Ryle’s Practical Religion — A Strong Argument for Reading Old Books

Pastor Bob O'Bannon

Much has been written lately about the potential negative effects of smart phone use and social media. To me, one of the most pressing concerns is that, in our anxious scramble to always keep up with what is new on Twitter and Facebook, we neglect the value of what is old. In particular, I am thinking of the benefit of reading books from the distant past.

C.S. Lewis actually wrote about this in an essay titled, “On the Reading of Old Books." It was Lewis who coined the semi-famous phrase, "chronological snobbery,” which is the idea that the past is inherently inferior to the present. In our hyper-connected age, even the news from last week seems boring and irrelevant, much less the insights from a book written in the 19th or even 4th century. But Lewis writes, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another one till you have a read an old one in between.” Lewis points out that people of every century are hindered by common assumptions that lead to a kind of blindness to certain truths that other ages easily recognized. One sure way to increase that blindness is to read only new books.

Personally I can’t say that I’ve been very good at following Lewis’ advice, but I did recently finish an old book — Practical Religion by J.C. Ryle, a 19th century British churchman. Simply put, this is one of the best books I've ever read on the basic principals and practices of living the Christian life. If it were not a little lengthy (462 pages), I would give this book to every new convert as a simple, clear, profound, theologically sound and practical examination of such topics as Bible reading, love, happiness, sickness, wealth, zeal and the afterlife. The chapter on prayer is the best thing I've read on the subject, and it is certain to increase the desire of any true believer who wants to draw closer to Christ in the private place.

Ryle is maybe best known as the master of the elegant and memorable phrase, such as these from Practical Religion:

  • "Although men may get on comfortably without the Bible while they live, it is sure that without the Bible they cannot comfortably die.”
  • "Presume not on a death-bed repentance. One dying thief was saved that men might not despair but only one that none might presume.”

  • "Tell me what a man's prayers are, and I will soon tell you the state of his soul.”

  • "Money – there is trouble in getting it, anxiety in keeping it, temptation in using it, guilt in abusing it, sorrow in losing it.”

  • Some people have "too much religion to be happy in the world, and too much of the world to be happy in their religion."

  • "Praying and sinning will never live together in the same heart. Prayer will consume sin, or sin will choke prayer." 

  • "To not go into extremes, to be good and yet not peculiar, to have a moderate kind of Christianity – this is the world's favorite idea."

  • "Many believers seem so dreadfully afraid of doing harm that they hardly ever dare to do good.” 

  • “In other things be moderate, and dread running into extremes. In soul matters fear moderation just as you would fear the plague."

Those looking for new ideas will likely not find them in this book, but Ryle has this uncanny ability to examine old gospel truths with such penetrating insight that you end up relishing them like it was the first time you heard them. If your heart is dry and your spiritual fervor flat, and you want to fall in love with the Gospel again, read this book. 

If you’re concerned that the reading an old book like this one will distract your mind with forgotten topics of no contemporary relevance, think again. Here is a passage from Practical Religion, written in 1878, in which Ryle comments on some of the trendy theological ideas of his day:

God is all mercy and love, according to this theology . . . Everybody who believes anything has faith! Everybody who thinks anything has the Spirit! Everybody is right! Nobody is wrong! Nobody is to blame for any action he may commit! . . . The Bible is a very imperfect book! It is old fashioned! It is obsolete! We may believe just as much of it as we please, and no more! Of all this theology I warn men solemnly to beware. In spite of big swelling words about ‘liberality,’ and ‘charity,’ and ‘broad views’ and ‘new lights’ and ‘freedom from bigotry,’ and so forth, I do believe it to be a theology that leads to hell.” (p. 383). Apparently Christians were called “bigots” in 1878, just as they are today. Some things never change. 

Probably all of us, myself included, need to be encouraged to read more. If you take up the challenge, don’t forget the old books. 

By the way, it would be a small crime not to mention the Banner of Truth in a blog on this topic. For the last 50 years, the Banner has been discovering out-of-print treasures and republishing them for the spiritual edification of God’s people, and without much apparent concern for commercial gain. Publishing books by Octavius Winslow and Horatius Bonar would not seem to put one on the fast track to huge profits! But without these authors and their works, the church would be so much poorer. Go here for a 15-minute video on the history of the Banner of Truth.