J.C. Ryle

Theology Thursday - The More You Read, the Better You Preach

J.C. Ryle, the great Anglican preacher, continues to explain how to attain simplicity in preaching:1

And now bear in mind that my five points are these—

  1. If you want to attain simplicity in preaching, you must have a clear knowledge of what you are going to preach.
  2. If you would attain simplicity in preaching, you must use simple words.
  3. If you would attain simplicity in preaching, you must seek to acquire a simple style of composition, with short sentences and as few colons and semicolons as possible.
  4. If you would attain simplicity in preaching, aim at directness.
  5. If you would attain simplicity in preaching, make abundant use of illustration and anecdote.

Let me add to all this one plain word of APPLICATION. You will never attain simplicity in preaching without plenty of work—pains and trouble, I say emphatically, pains and trouble. When Turner, the great painter, was asked by some one how it was he mixed his colors so well, and what it was that made them so different from those of other artists—”Mix them? mix them? mix them? Why, with brains, sir.” I am persuaded that, in preaching, little can be done except by trouble and by pains.

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Theology Thursday - Use Illustrations in Your Preaching!

Illustrations are important. But, busy preachers sometimes forget to use them. I think a preacher could save himself several minutes of explanation if he can fasten upon a good illustration to drive the point home. I tried this myself a few weeks ago, and it worked very well. It took a few minutes to think of something appropriate, but that illustration was worth 10 minutes of explanation. Here, J.C. Ryle explains why illustrations are so important:1

The fifth and last hint I wish to give you is this: If you would attain simplicity in preaching, you must use plenty of anecdotes and illustrations. You must regard illustrations as windows through which light is let in upon your subject. Upon this point a great deal might be said, but the limits of a small treatise oblige me to touch it very briefly.

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Theology Thursday - Against Saying "We" in Preaching

J.C. Ryle continues dispensing some advice for preachers:1

The fourth hint I will give is this: If you wish to preach simply—use a DIRECT style. What do I mean by this? I mean the practice and custom of saying “I” and “you.”

When a man takes up this style of preaching, he is often told that he is conceited and egotistical. The result is that many preachers are never direct—and always think it very humble and modest and becoming to say “we.” But I remember good Bishop Villiers saying that “we” was a word kings and corporations should use, and they alone—but that parish clergymen should always talk of “I” and “you.” I endorse that saying with all my heart.

I declare I never can understand what the famous pulpit “we” means. Does the preacher who all through his sermon keeps saying “we” mean himself and the bishop? or himself and the Church? or himself and the congregation? or himself and the early Fathers? or himself and the Reformers? or himself and all the wise men in the world? or, after all, does he only mean myself, plain “John Smith” or “Thomas Jones”?

If he only means himself, what earthly reason can he give for using the plural number, and not saying simply and plainly “I”? When he visits his parishioners, or sits by a sick-bed, or catechises his school, or orders bread at the baker’s, or meat at the butcher’s—he does not say “we,” but “I.” Why, then, I should like to know, can he not say “I” in the pulpit?

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Theology Thursday - J.C. Ryle on Simple Preaching

Ryle, the great Anglican bishop, offers some more advice for preachers:1

The third hint I would offer, if you wish to attain simplicity in preaching, is this—Take care to aim at a SIMPLE style of composition. I will try to illustrate what I mean.

If you take up the sermons preached by that great and wonderful man Dr. Chalmers, you can hardly fail to see what an enormous number of lines you meet with without coming to a full stop. This I regard as a great mistake. It may suit Scotland, but it will never do for England. If you would attain a simple style of composition, beware of writing many lines without coming to a pause, and so allowing the minds of your hearers to take breath.

Beware of colons and semicolons. Stick to commas and full stops, and take care to write as if you were asthmatical or short of breath. Never write or speak very long sentences or long paragraphs. Use stops frequently, and start again—and the oftener you do this, the more likely you are to attain a simple style of composition. Enormous sentences full of colons, semicolons, and parentheses, with paragraphs of two or three pages’ length, are utterly fatal to simplicity.

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Theology Thursday ... on Friday: J.C. Ryle on Preaching (Part 3)

Preachers should use simple words. J.C. Ryle explains why:1

The second hint I would give is this—Try to use in all your sermons, as far as you can—simple WORDS. In saying this, however, I must explain myself. When I talk of simple words, I do not mean words of only one syllable, or words which are purely Saxon. I cannot in this matter agree with Archbishop Whately. I think he goes too far in his recommendation of Saxon, though there is much truth in what he says about it. I rather prefer the saying of that wise old heathen Cicero, when he said, that orators should try to use words which are “in daily common use” among the people.

Whether the words are Saxon or not—or of two or three syllables. It does not matter so long as they are words commonly used and understood by the people. Only, whatever you do, beware of what the poor shrewdly call “dictionary” words, that is, of words which are abstract, or scientific, or pedantic, or complicated, or vague, or very long. They may seem very fine, and sound very grand, but they are rarely of any use. The most powerful and forcible words, as a rule, are very short.

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Theology Thursday - J.C. Ryle On Preaching (Part 2)

Ryle, the great Anglican Bishop, continues his advice on preaching for younger ministers:1

My first hint is this—If you want to attain simplicity in preaching, take care that you have a clear view of the subject upon which you are going to preach. I ask your special attention to this. Of all the five hints I am about to give, this is the most important.

Mind, then, when your text is chosen, that you understand it and see right through it; that you know precisely what you want to prove, what you want to teach, what you want to establish, and what you want people’s minds to carry away. If you yourself begin in a fog, you may depend upon it you will leave your people in darkness.

Cicero, one of the greatest ancient orators, said long ago, “No one can possibly speak clearly and eloquently about a subject which he does not understand”—and I am satisfied that he spoke the truth. Archbishop Whately was a very shrewd observer of human nature, and he said rightly of a vast number of preachers, that “they aimed at nothing, and they hit nothing. Like men landing on an unknown island, and setting out on a journey of exploration, they set out in ignorance, and traveled on in ignorance all the day long.”

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Theology Thursday - J.C. Ryle on Preaching

In 1882, J.C. Ryle published a little booklet entitled Simplicity in Preaching. In this excerpt, he makes some introductory remarks to preachers about how to preach clear and accurate sermons:1

King Solomon says, in the book of Ecclesiastes, “Of making many books there is no end” (12:12). There are few subjects about which that saying is more true than that of preaching. The volumes which have been written in order to show ministers how to preach are enough to make a small library. In sending forth one more little treatise, I only propose to touch one branch of the subject.

I do not pretend to consider what should be the substance and matter of a sermon. I purposely leave alone such points as “gravity, unction, liveliness, warmth,” and the like, or the comparative merits of written or extemporaneous sermons. I wish to confine myself to one point, which receives far less attention than it deserves. That point is simplicity in language and style.

I ought to be able to tell my readers something about “simplicity,” if experience will give any help. I began preaching forty-five years ago, when I first took orders in a poor rural parish, and a great portion of my ministerial life has been spent in preaching to laborers and farmers. I know the enormous difficulty of preaching to such hearers, of making them understand one’s meaning, and securing their attention.

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