Book Review - J.C. Ryle Simplicity in Preaching

J.C. Ryle’s Simplicity in Preaching is a short pamphlet, taken from a chapter of The Upper Room (1888), originally given as a lecture. Although this is a short volume, it is extremely important for the subject of preaching. In my opinion, this work of Ryle’s serves as a template for the technique of preaching. The Bishop of Liverpool nearly apologizes for writing another “treatise” (p.1) on preaching. This brief writing was written in the late 19th century, but is immensely helpful in the 21st century. The following will summarize Ryle’s insights on preaching.

As a preface to his “five brief hints” (p. 6), Ryle urges the reader to focus on simplicity by being clear about what is being said in a sermon. A sermon has to be clear in order to be understood. The author surprised me by pointing to Cicero and other ancient philosophers in making the point of understandability. One great quote from the Roman rhetoric, Quintilian was, “’If you do not wish to be understood, you deserve to be neglected.’” (p.4). This is a striking statement that needs to be heeded by any speaker, especially a preacher. Ryle also explains that being clear and therefore, understandable is not easy. It takes hard work. In summarizing this point, it would seem that Ryle would agree that it’s as important what the preacher doesn’t say, as it is what he does say.

The first hint that Ryle gives is having, “a clear view of the subject upon which you are going to preach.” (p.7). This basically means not going off the point of the text. Simplicity comes with preaching the text and preaching the point of the text. It doesn’t do any good to have an idea and find a text to fit that idea. This does damage to the text and to the hearer of the sermon. In addition, Ryle makes the remark of dividing the sermon into points, making it understandable and easy to listen.

Using simple words is a key to simplicity in preaching. Ryle talks about some congregations being impressed with big words of a preacher, but actually not knowing what he said. Using simple words is helpful for the hearer and leads them down the path of understanding the text and what is being preached. Replacing an uncommon word with a common one is the key to preaching simply.

The third hint calls for writing, “a simple style of composition.” (p. 12). Ryle says this is a difficult part of preparation. Stripping the sermon of unnecessary words, phrases and ideas is as important as keeping necessary words, phrases and ideas. However, this is quite difficult, says the Bishop. He points to simple commentaries like Matthew Henry’s (which is still widely used today, even though this was written in the 19th century and Henry’s commentary was written in the 18th century!) It is good to remember that not everyone knows the words that a preacher might know, even if they know their Bible well.

The reason why this little pamphlet is a good template to use today is because Ryle says to use antithetical sayings at the end of points or paragraphs for effect. Good preaching has not changed. Saying things like “’One thief on the cross was saved, that none should despair, and only one, that none should presume.” (p. 14). I have heard this phrase as recently as this year and it was as effective as it would have been in Ryle’s day. This is a very good point that he makes about using a phrase for effect.

One of the surprising parts of this work was when the author called for the more direct use of a personal pronoun. Using, ‘I’ rather than ‘We’ is so helpful for the listener. Ryle talks about the preacher wanting to be more humble by using, ‘We’ instead of ‘I’, but it doesn’t help the hearer. I have heard of the other hints that are given in this writing, but this was a revelation for me. I have been using the wrong pronouns all along and didn’t even know it. ‘I’ and ‘you’ are used to describe the preacher and the congregation or whomever would be listening. This is a great point!

The fifth hint of preaching simply was to use lots of illustrations, pauses and even props to make points and get the hearer’s attention. It should have been obvious to think about this, but Ryle points to Jesus as our example for using illustrations. He says that Jesus used everything around him as illustration to make points in his preaching. The call to, “Study the four Gospels attentively” (p. 15) is an often overlooked, but excellent point. What better example do we have for preaching, than our Lord Jesus Christ.

I’m going to use the illustration of holding up keys and saying something like we wouldn’t need keys if man’s heart was not so sinful. It is really astounding that this illustration works in the 19th century and today. The human heart is no different and that is why this illustration works at any time. Ryle also talked about giving long enough pauses for people to catch up to what the preacher is saying. Perhaps this is where the Holy Spirit will do his best work in His people, during the pauses.

Ryle ends his call to simplicity by saying again that preaching simple is not simple. It takes hard work. It takes knowing your people. It takes brains and strategy to find the most effective illustration. It takes knowing our Bibles thoroughly well.

In conclusion, this is a simple book on preaching simply, but it is the book that every preacher must use in his ministry. J.C. Ryle put a mountain of good advice for preachers into a very small package. It is clearly seen that Ryle was a minister with great experience at the time of this writing. He likely learned from mistakes and corrected them long ago. The surprising thing is that he never injects exactly how he preaches a sermon. He only talks about what he learned from others, like the ancient philosophers, Spurgeon, the puritans and of course, Jesus. This tiny work was incredibly helpful to me and I plan to keep it around whenever I need advice on technique.

Reference: Ryle, J.C. Simplicity in Preaching. The Banner of Truth Trust. Carlisle, PA. 2010.