J.C. Ryle is one of my favorite Bible commentators. If you are following our Wednesday morning Bible studies which we livestream on the Christ Reformation Church page (and publish on youtube and sermondaudio.com/crc) you have heard me quote Ryle many times. His set of commentaries on the Gospels is excellent.
Ryle is not perfect. Like all of us he was a product of his times to one degree or another. We always need to use discernment when we are being taught by someone and compare what they are saying with what Scripture says. Here is an example of an error – and I think it is a serious error that can cause real harm – which I found recently in Ryle’s commentary on John chapter 4, the account of Jesus and the woman at the well. Here is what Ryle said at the end of his otherwise very good comments:
We must never despise any soul, after reading this passage. No one can be worse than this woman. But Christ did not despise her. We must never despair of any soul, after reading this passage. If this woman was converted, any one may be converted.
Now, there are at least two serious errors in these words. First, Ryle assumes that this woman was such a sinner that no sinner could be worse than her. Ryle assumes that the fact that she had had five husbands and was presently living with a man not her husband proves this. But we simply are not told the details. It is possible that she had been cast aside by 5 wicked men and was currently being used by a 6th.
Was she a sinner? Of course. But to say that no sinner we might encounter could be worse than her is – well…where was Ryle’s brain when he wrote such a thing! We have all said or written things that years later we look back on and wish we could hit the delete button on and I suspect this is just such a statement that Ryle regretted making once he was with the Lord.
The second error here is a result of the first. “We must never despair of any soul…if this woman was converted, any one may be converted.” Now, that is just plain stupid and I am amazed that Ryle uttered those words. Those of you who have been victims of wicked domestic abusers, sociopaths, and so on have probably been guilted and harmed by similar words. “God can save anyone. You need to keep praying for your abuser’s salvation. Where is your faith? You are a sinner too.” Blah, blah, blah.
Do you see how with just a few moments’ thinking we can see the fallacy of all this? Could God save Pharaoh? Can God save the willful reprobate who has willfully and knowingly spit on Christ’s sacrifice and all the while sat in a church pretending to be a Christian, cruelly abusing his wife in secret? Or extrapolate this thinking to its final point: can God save the devil? And yet those who throw words like Ryle’s at us seem to indicate that we should pray for Satan’s salvation.
There are things that it is impossible for God to do. God cannot and will not act against His own nature. He will never just excuse sin. If he could, why was the Cross necessary? And God cannot and will not save wicked people who refuse to repent. He will not and cannot save a child of hell who molests little children and just keeps right on doing it, enjoying it, destroying their lives and sleeping quite well at night with no conscience to bother him. That man is going to hell. It is where he belongs. He IS worse than the woman at the well. She heard Christ. She was looking for the Messiah. She believed Him when He told her He was the One. She ran back to her friends and fellow citizens and told them to come and see!
Pastor Ryle, we love your books. But you blew it on th is one.