Forgotten Pages #1: Ryle on Regeneration

I’ve often lamented that we are not much of a reading generation. Truth be known, preachers and theologians in almost every generation have lamented the same. One can’t help but wonder if there is not some scheme of the Enemy of our souls overall at work in that. Seeing that God saw fit to give us His Word in written form, a general lack of being a “reading people” would seem a universal and undetected attack on the souls of humankind, to keep us ignorant of God’s great revelation to us in the Bible. Compound this with mountains of unprofitable reading fodder, and then the advent of extreme visual media in our day – and you have a potent formula for spiritual ignorance. This, seems to be in general. But when that infection remains prominent in the lives and habits of those professing saving faith in Christ – it takes on particular significance.

Those who will not read (notice I said “will not”, not “cannot”) do the utmost harm to their own growth in Christ; first in neglect of His breathed-out revelation to us, and then in the neglect of the amazing repository of those who gifted by grace throughout the ages continued to write for the edification of Christ’s blood-bought ones.

One such giant among those who has left us much in opening God’s Word and its truths to us in ages past is J. C. Ryle. Ryle, the 19th century Anglican and 1st Bishop of Liverpool. Originally intending to be a Parliamentarian, God altered his course to enter upon the ministry which continues to serve God’s Church to this day.

Now there are few Evangelicals today who have Ryle on their shelves, and fewer still who have read him at any length. But as the failure to recognize gold doesn’t diminish its actual value, so the Gospel truths this man of God was gifted to communicate are no less valuable because so few have read them. Because this is so, for the next little bit, I intend to offer up some delicious servings from Ryle’s rich pantry by way of feeding them to you in smaller bites. All this with the hope that both your hearts and minds in Christ will be fed, your appetites whetted to search out more, and the Gospel truths examined to rejoice your souls and cause you to delight in your Savior Jesus Christ all the more.

Thus below is today’s installment. We’ll be working through a paper of Ryle’s on the subject of Regeneration. And I’ve no doubt it will be well worth your while. I’ll do my best to keep each day’s selection to under 1000 words, and make slight alterations to make it clearer where needed.


Ryle: THE subject of Regeneration is a most important one at any time. Those words of our Lord Jesus Christ to Nicodemus are very solemn: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3.) The world has gone through many changes since those words were spoken. Eighteen hundred years have passed away. Empires and kingdoms have risen and fallen. Great men and wise men have lived, labored, written, and died. But there stands the rule of the Lord Jesus unaltered and unchanged. And there it will stand, till heaven and earth will pass away: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

But the subject is one which is peculiarly important to [any claiming to be Christians] in the present day. Things have happened of late years which have drawn special attention to it. Men’s minds are full of it, and men’s eyes are fixed on it. Regeneration has been discussed in newspapers. Regeneration has been talked of in private society. Regeneration has been argued about in courts of law. Surely it is a time when every true [Christian] should examine himself upon the subject, and make sure that his views are sound. It is a time when we should not halt between two opinions. We should try to know what we hold. We should be ready to give a reason for our belief. When truth is assailed, those who love truth should grasp it more firmly than over.
I propose in this paper to attempt three things:—

  1. What regeneration, or being born again, means.
  2. The show the necessity of regeneration.
  3. To point out the marks and evidences of regeneration.

If I can make these three points clear, I believe I shall have done my readers a great service.

I. Let me then, first of all, explain what Regeneration or being born again means.
Regeneration means, that change of heart and nature which a man goes through when he becomes a true Christian.

I think there can be no question that there is an immense difference among those who profess and call themselves Christians. Beyond all dispute there are always two classes in the outward Church: the class of those who are Christians in name and form only, and the class of those who are Christians in deed and in truth. All were not Israel who were called Israel, and all are not Christians who are called Christians. “In the visible Church,” says an Article of the Church of England, “the evil be ever mingled with the good.”

Some, as the Thirty-nine Articles say, are “wicked and void of a lively faith;” others, as another Article says, “are made like the image of God’s only-begotten Son Jesus Christ, and walk religiously in good works. Some worship God as a mere form, and some in spirit and in truth. Some give their hearts to God, and some give them to the world. Some believe the Bible, and live as if they believed it: others do not. Some feel their sins and mourn over them: others do not. Some love Christ, trust in Him, and serve Him: others do not. In short, as Scripture says, some walk in the narrow way, some in the broad; some are the good fish of the Gospel net, some are the bad; some are the wheat in Christ’s field, and some are the tares.

I think no man with his eyes open can fail to see all this, both in the Bible, and in the world around him. Whatever he may think about the subject I am writing of, he cannot possibly deny that this difference exists.

Now what is the explanation of the difference? I answer unhesitatingly, Regeneration, or being born again. I answer that true Christians are what they are, because they are regenerate, and formal Christians are what they are, because they are not regenerate. The heart of the Christian in deed, has been changed. The heart of the Christian in name only, has not been changed. The change of heart makes the whole difference.

This change of heart is spoken of continually in the Bible, under various emblems and figures.
Ezekiel calls it “a taking away the stony heart, and giving an heart of flesh;”—“a giving a new heart, and putting within us a new spirit.” (Ezek. 11:19; 36:26.)
The Apostle John sometimes calls it being “born of God,”—sometimes being “born again,”—sometimes being “born of the Spirit.” (John 1:13; 3:3, 6.)
The Apostle Peter, in the Acts, calls it “repenting and being converted.” (Acts 3:19.)
The Epistle to the Romans speaks of it as a “being alive from the dead.” (Rom. 6:13.)
The Second Epistle to the Corinthians calls it “being a new creature: old things have passed away, and all things become new.” (2 Cor. 5:17.)
The Epistle to the Ephesians speaks of it as a resurrection together with Christ: “You hath He quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1); as “a putting off the old man, which is corrupt,—being renewed in the spirit of our mind,—and putting on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.” (Eph. 4:22, 24.)
The Epistle to the Colossians calls it “a putting off the old man with his deeds; and putting on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of Him that created him.” (Col. 3:9, 10.)
The Epistle to Titus calls it “the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost.” (Titus 3:5.)
The first Epistle of Peter speaks of it as “a being called out of darkness into God’s marvellous light.” (1 Peter 2:9.) And the second Epistle, as “being made partakers of the Divine nature.” (2 Peter 1:4.)
The First Epistle of John calls it “a passing from death to life.” (1 John 3:14.)

All these expressions come to the same thing in the end. They are all the same truth, only viewed from different sides. And all have one and the same meaning. They describe a great radical change of heart and nature,—a thorough alteration and transformation of the whole inner man,—a participation in the resurrection life of Christ; or, to borrow the words of the Church of England Catechism, “A death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness.”

This change of heart in a true Christian is thorough and complete, so complete, that no word could be chosen more fitting to express it than the word “Regeneration,” or “new birth.” Doubtless it is no outward, bodily alteration, but undoubtedly it is an entire alteration of the inner man. It adds no new faculties to a man’s mind, but it certainly gives an entirely new bent and bias to all his old ones. His will is so new, his tastes so new, his opinions so new, his views of sin, the world, the Bible, and Christ so new, that he is to all intents and purposes a new man. The change seems to bring a new being into existence. It may well be called being “born again.”

J. C. Ryle, Knots Untied: Being Plain Statements on Disputed Points in Religion (London: William Hunt and Company, 1885), 110–113.

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