Ryle and Conversion and Works

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Recently I came across some things Bp J. C. Ryle said about conversion, which many will take to imply that all evangelicals must look for a single moment of heart conversion. Here, however, I would warn against drawing this kind of line. As a high-church evangelical, and more importantly as a classical Protestant, I have no more interest in dechurching those who have no such discernible experience than I have in dechurching churches that lack episcopal polity. A more critical reading of Ryle, I hope, will lead to more cautious claims regarding what holy Scripture does and does not definitively say.

Ryle, in his tract on conversion (HT: J. C. Ryle Quotes), says that all conversion must bear visible fruit:

I admit fully that the manner of the Spirit’s working is invisible. It is like the wind. It is like the attractive power of the magnet. It is like the influence of the moon upon the tides. There is something about it far beyond the reach of a person’s eyes or understanding. But while I admit this decidedly, I maintain no less decidedly that the effects of the Spirit’s work in conversion will always be seen. Those effects may be weak and feeble at first; to the natural man they may hardly be visible, and not understood. But effects there always will be; some fruit will always be seen where there is true conversion. Where no effect can be seen, there you may be sure there is no grace. Where no visible fruit can be found, there you may be sure is no conversion.

Biblically there can be no doubt of the general principle that the Spirit’s invisible work of life must have effects, however small, in the world outside. Faith without works, says St James, is dead. He who will be saved will be converted: he will be (as Ryle gives the synonyms) renewed, transformed, created anew, raised from the dead, illuminated, taken from death to life, born again. The unconverted man is damned indeed.

Nevertheless, I do think Ryle tempts us to pry too much into the human heart through the evidence of works, too much into the forum of conscience via the forum of man. His words are ambiguously silent on who exactly is the one seeing the fruit of true conversion: ‘Where no effect can be seen, there you may be sure there is no grace. Where no visible fruit can be found, there you may be sure is no conversion.’ If he means that God witnesses works as well as his own will, I agree; but if he’s encouraging mortal men to consider others unconverted till they can see works corresponding to conversion, I demur. Such ideas encourage Christians to gather with others of ‘the godly’ and distinguish themselves from the rest of the visible Church. Here it is that, though supportive of fervent piety, I am no Puritan, and here it is that I look ‘high and dry’ in churchmanship, and here it is that I differ sharply from contemporary evangelicalism.

For I deny that we can here judge who is and who isn’t a regenerate Christian, and I further assert that we should not attempt to do so. Not only does it disturb the peace of the Church to make conventicles of the Truly Converted, but it also belittles God’s promises in baptism by speaking where we should hold our peace. Not content with the over-curiosity of the experimental predestinarians who felt themselves the godly, others must improve upon this impiety by judging others non-Christians who are truly part of the baptismal covenant. To have accepted this all as necessary, we are all Baptists now. This is not mere Christianity: this is evangelicalism narrowed to Baptistic principles.

Him who is baptized we may justly presume and call a Christian, but this we must do without complacency, for many who are baptized fall away from the faith they profess when they fail to believe for themselves the gospel offered and pledged to them in their baptisms. The key, I think, is not to divide true believer from hypocrite, and elect from reprobate – this work belongs to God’s word, not to human judges – but rather to call all to penitent faith. Such tract titles as ‘Dr. Trapp vindicated from the Imputation of being a Christian’, while clever, are suspect theologically and, no doubt, unhelpful pastorally. To the pagan one should preach the word to Gentiles, and to the Christian one should say, ‘In the covenant of your baptism you will have life, if you will believe and love Christ.’ The one we urge to be buried and raised with Christ in baptism, and the other to know himself already covenantally buried and raised into the Name of Christ, in which through faith he will bear the fruit of the Spirit.

That conversion naturally must result in good works is part of the same idea as the following proposition articulated by John Davenant in his defence of the Protestant doctrine of justification:

Good works are necessary for retaining and preserving a state of justification, not as causes, which by themselves effect or merit this preservation, but as means or conditions, without which God will not [i.e. is not willing to] preserve in men the grace of justification.

Statements such as this, however, have nothing to do with speculation about particular persons, and I believe it’s in this tradition that Ryle’s statement most usefully stands. The point is not to look for works but to obey God, knowing that obedience, though not a cause of justification, is necessary to its continuance, as God’s demonstration of his own justice.

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