Reviewed by Ben Rogers
In 1877 J. C. Ryle published Old Paths, which set forth the “leading truths of Christianity which are necessary to salvation.” The five chapters that make up this new work, Steps Towards Heaven, are taken from this classic text. Those who know and love the writings of the First Bishop of Liverpool will surely welcome this new volume. Those who are not familiar with him are treated to a short and sweet introduction to the man whose writings have done so much for so many for so long.
The subject of sin is the focus of chapter 1. Ryle argues that: 1) we have many sins; 2) that it is of the utmost importance to have them taken away; 3) we cannot do this ourselves; 4) the blood of Christ cleanses away all our sin; 5) faith alone is needed to give us an interest in the cleansing blood of Christ. His treatment of this difficult subject is simply outstanding. He manages to be systematic but not abstract, direct but not heavy handed, convicting and yet pastorally sensitive. He wounds with the law, then he heals with the gospel.
Chapter two, “Few Saved,” is a heart-searching meditation on the number of the redeemed. Ryle systematically demolished the prevailing assumption – of his time and ours – that everyone will ultimately be saved in the end. He begins by explaining what it is to be saved. Then he identifies a number of common mistakes people make about the number of the saved. After this, he points readers to what the Bible says about this number by taking them on a short tour of biblical history. He concludes the chapter by discussing some “plain facts” about the fewness of the saved and asks the reader to systematically remove categories of people – like the openly immoral, the self-righteous, etc. – from the number of the redeemed. This thought experiment leads the reader to only one conclusion: the number of the saved will be few indeed.
In chapter three Ryle defends the evangelical doctrine of conversion. Against all detractors he argues that conversion is a “scriptural thing.” And though counterfeits may abound, he argues that it is a “real thing” by pointing to examples in the Bible, church history, and common experience. Moreover, the total corruption of the human heart makes it an absolutely “necessary thing” to serve God on earth and enjoy him in heaven. He also points out that conversion is a “possible thing,” even in the most hopeless cases, because of the almighty power of Christ and the Spirit. And contrary to popular caricatures, conversion is a “happy thing.” Finally, true conversion is always a “visible thing.” Though the Spirit works invisibly, the effects of his converting work will always be seen. This chapter has much to commend itself to modern readers. Ryle’s treatment of the work of the Spirit and the happiness of the converted are, perhaps, the most outstanding features of an outstanding chapter.
In chapter four Ryle discusses one of his favorite subjects – the doctrine of justification. The chief privilege of a true Christian is that he has peace with God, that is, “a calm, intelligent sense of friendship with the Lord of heaven and earth.” Such a man can face death without fear, the judgment without terror, and eternity without being greatly moved. The fountain from which this peace is drawn is justification. To have one sins forgiven and to be counted righteous in God’s sight – i.e. to be justified – is the only ground for real peace. The “Rock” from which justification and peace flows is Christ, who is the believer’s Surety and Substitute. Ryle explains:
Christ, in one word, has lived for the true Christian. Christ has died for him. Christ has gone to the grave for him. Christ has risen again for him. Christ has ascended up on high for him, and gone into heaven to intercede for his soul. Christ has done all, paid all, suffered all that was needful for his redemption. Hence arises the true Christian’s justification – hence his peace. In himself there is nothing, but in Christ he has all things that his soul can require.
And the hand by which this great privilege is received is faith alone. Simply put, chapter 4 is Ryle at his best as a writer, theologian, and spiritual guide. It is easily worth the price of the entire book to own it.
The fifth and final chapter discusses the work of the Holy Spirit. J. C. Ryle had a keen interest in the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and he is an excellent – though unappreciated – theologian of the Spirit in his own right. In this chapter the reader is given a good summary of some of his particular pneumatological interests. He opens the chapter with an excellent summary of the work of the Spirit. Then the discussion turns to the necessity of the Spirit’s work. The rest of the chapter is dedicated to the manner and evidence of the Spirit’s work. This chapter is simply outstanding. There is nothing particularly novel in this chapter per se. What make makes it unique is Ryle’s ability to say so much, so simply, and so forcefully. “The Holy Spirit” serves as a great conclusion to this work or as a standalone treatise on the subject.
In conclusion, I cannot recommend J. C. Ryle’s Old Paths, or this new Banner edition, Steps Towards Heaven, highly enough, and I can think of many uses for this excellent book. It is a great introduction into Ryle’s works. It could be used privately for devotional reading or for a small group study. I took my adult Sunday school class through it over the course of five weeks, and it was well received. It could be used in an evangelistic setting as well. Ryle’s work is timeless because the subjects he discusses – sin, salvation, conversion, justification, and the Holy Spirit – are timeless. And he treats these critical truths with characteristic clarity, simplicity, and power.
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Steps Toward Heaven