In early April of this year nearly 8,000 folks crowded into the Yum Center in downtown Louisville (my home for the past 24 years) for the bi-annual Together For the Gospel (T4G) Conference. For those who do not know about the conference, it is a preaching conference geared towards pastors with a bent towards Calvinistic and Reformed theology. While the teachers and preachers hold differing convictions on things like baptism, church government, covenant theology and even the gifts of the Holy Spirit they embrace a common confession on the gospel and the sovereignty of God in the work of grace. Though the conference is less than half and hour away for a variety of reasons I had never attended. A couple of things changed my mind (including the fact that I got to go for free—thank you BibleWorks!) and I attended the conference and benefited greatly.
One of the major factors in my going to the conference and evaluating my time at there came from one of my dear old mentors, John, or Johnny, or Johnny C, or JC as he is often called.
I should explain (and I know he would not mind) that Johnny is an old guy, an Old Calvinist, and loves what is called ‘high churchmanship’. Johnny is old school at its finest. You would never find Johnny in jeans. He has never listened to rap or contemporary Christian music. I met him when I was a young man, first through his writings and preaching. I have long considered him a dear friend. I asked Johnny what he thought about conferences like these and whether or not he found profit in them.
He told me that there was much to be excited about to see such conferences abounding in our day. There was a time when few would attend a conference with this kind of emphasis (thirty years ago if 300 men attended a Reformed Conference you were tempted to become postmillennial). He said, “They are, in fact, established institutions of the day, and the crowds who attend them supply plain proof that they are popular. In short, we find ourselves face to face with the undeniable fact, that the (last few years) is an age of an immense amount of public religion.”
I sought to find if he had anything negative to say about some of the means and methods used by these men to promote what they were preaching and to reach people.
This is what he wrote, “Now I am not going to find fault with this. Let no one suppose that for a moment. On the contrary, I thank God for revival of the old apostolic plan of “aggressiveness” in religion, and the evident spread of a desire “by all means to save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).” I was a little take aback when he said that he would have even supported the ‘gospel’ preaching of the old revivals with men like Moody and Sankey.
Johnny then took me to task asking in essence what I was doing with such zeal. He wrote to me, “Anything is better than torpor (I had to look this word up—it means sluggish inactivity), apathy and inaction. If Christ is preached — I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice (Phil. 1:18). Prophets and righteous men in…days gone by… once desired to see these things, and never saw them. If Whitefield and Wesley had been told in their day, that a time would come when people would attend such services (including Anglicans) and take an active part in them — I can hardly think they would have believed it. Rather, I suspect, they would have been tempted to say, like the Samaritan nobleman in Elisha’s time, “if the Lord would make windows in heaven — might this thing be?” (2 Kings 7:2).”
I said, John, surely you have some concerns about these things, don’t you? Being a wise and balanced and gracious man, he did offer this bit of concern.
He wrote to me, “While we are thankful for the increase of public religion — we must never forget that, unless it is accompanied by private religion, it is of no real solid value, and may even produce most mischievous effects. Incessant running after sensational preachers, incessant attendance at hot crowded meetings protracted to late hours, incessant craving after fresh excitement and highly spiced pulpit novelties (note: he was not referring here to T4G particularly) — all this kind of thing is calculated to produce a very unhealthy style of Christianity and, in many cases I am afraid, the end is utter ruin of soul. For, unhappily, those who make public religion everything, are often led away by mere temporary emotions, after some grand display of ecclesiastical oratory, into professing far more than they really feel. After this, they can only be kept up to the mark, which they imagine they have reached, by a constant succession of religious excitements. By and by, as with drug addicts, there comes a time when their dose loses its power, and a feeling of exhaustion and discontent begins to creep over their minds. Too often, I fear, the conclusion of the whole matter is a relapse into utter deadness and unbelief, and a complete return to the world! And all results from having nothing but a public religion! Oh, that people would remember that it was not the wind, or the fire, or the earthquake, which showed Elijah the presence of God, but “the still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12).
With this, Johnny began to wax powerfully and I want to share what he said, “Now I desire to lift up a warning voice on this subject. I want to see no decrease of public religion, remember; but I do want to promote an increase of that religion which is private — private between each man and his God. The root of a plant or tree makes no show above ground. If you dig down to it and examine it, it is a poor, dirty, coarse-looking thing and not nearly so beautiful to the eye as the fruit or leaf or flower. But that despised root, nevertheless, is the true source of all the life, health, vigor and fertility which your eyes see, and without it the plant or tree would soon die. Now private religion is the root of all vital Christianity. Without it — we may make a brave show in the meeting or on the platform, and sing loud, and shed many tears, and have a name to live, and the praise of man. But without it — we have no wedding garment, and are “dead before God”. I tell you plainly, that the times require of us all more attention to our private religion.”
After having this interaction with my friend Johnny, I was rebuked, refreshed, challenged and warned. It’s often that way with Johnny…Johnny Charles Ryle.
All excerpts (with a few tweaks) from Ryle’s, Holiness, chapter 19, The Needs of the Times.