Written by: Ryle, J.C. Posted on: 04/09/2003
For more than a century, J. C. Ryle was best known for his clear and
lively writings on practical and spiritual themes. His great aim in all
his ministry was to encourage strong and serious Christian living. But
Ryle was not naive in his understanding of how this should be done. He
recognized that, as a pastor of the flock of God, he had a responsibility
to guard Christ's sheep and to warn them whenever he saw approaching
dangers. His penetrating comments are as wise and relevant today as they
were when he first wrote them. His sermons and other writings have been
consistently recognized, and their usefulness and impact have continued
to the present day, even in the outdated English of the author's own day.
Why then should expositions already so successful and of such stature and
proven usefulness require adaptation, revision, rewrite or even editing?
The answer is obvious. To increase its usefulness to today's reader the
language in which it was originally written needs updating.
Though his sermons have served other generations well, just as they came
from the pen of the author in the nineteenth century, they still could be
lost to present and future generations simply because, to them, the
language is neither readily nor fully understandable.
My goal, however, has not been to reduce the original writing to the
vernacular of our day. It is designed primarily for you who desire to
read and study comfortably and at ease in the language of our time. Only
obviously archaic terminology and passages obscured by expressions not
totally familiar in our day have been revised. However, neither Ryle's
meaning nor intent have been tampered with.
All Scripture references are taken from the HOLY BIBLE: NEW INTERNATIONAL
VERSION (C) 1978 by the New York Bible Society, used by permission of
Zondervan Bible Publishers.
J. C. Ryle
"Disciples should always pray and not give up" (Luke 18:1).
"I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer" (1 Timothy 2:8).
Prayer is the most important subject in practical religion. All other
subjects are second to it. Reading the Bible, listening to sermons,
attending public worship, going to the Lord's Table--all these are very
important matters. But none of them are so important as private prayer.
I propose in this paper to offer seven clear reasons why I use such
strong language about prayer. I draw to these reasons the attention of
every thinking man into whose hands this paper may fall. I venture to
assert with confidence that they deserve serious consideration.
I. In the first place, "Prayer is absolutely necessary to a man's
I say what is absolutely necessary and I say so with caution. I am not
speaking now of infants and the retarded. I remember that where little
is given, there little will be required. I speak especially of those who
call themselves Christians, in a land like our own. And of such I say no
man or woman can expect to be saved who does not pray.
I hold salvation by grace as strongly as any one. I would gladly offer a
free and full pardon to the greatest sinner that ever lived. I would not
hesitate to stand by his dying bed, and say, "Believe in the Lord Jesus,
and you will be saved." But that a man can have salvation without
"asking" for it, I cannot see in the Bible. That a man will receive
pardon of his sins, who will not so much as lift up his heart inwardly,
and say, "Lord Jesus, give it to me," this I cannot find. I can find
that nobody will be saved by his prayers, but I cannot find that without
prayer anybody will be saved.
It is not absolutely necessary to salvation that a man should "read" the
Bible. A man may have no learning, or be blind, and yet have Christ in
his heart. It is not absolutely necessary that a man should "hear" the
public preaching of the Gospel [though he must receive the Word by some
means]. He may live where the Gospel is not preached publicly, or he may
be bedridden, or deaf. But the same thing cannot be said about prayer.
It is absolutely necessary to salvation that a man should "pray."
There is no royal road either to health or learning. Princes and kings,
poor men and peasants, all alike must attend to the wants of their own
bodies and their own minds. No man can eat, drink, or sleep by proxy.
No man can get the alphabet learned for him by another. All these are
things which everybody must do for himself, or they will not be done at
Just as it is with the mind and body, so it is with the soul. There are
certain things absolutely necessary to the soul's health and well-being.
Each one must attend to these things for himself. Each must repent for
himself. Each must submit to Christ for himself. And for himself each
one must speak to God and pray. You must do it for yourself, for nobody
else can do it for you.
How can we expect to be saved by an "unknown" God? And how can we know
God without prayer? We know nothing of men and women in this world,
unless we speak with them. We cannot know God in Christ, unless we speak
to Him in prayer. If we wish to be with Him in heaven, we must be His
friends on earth. If we wish to be His friends on earth, "we must pray."
There will be many at Christ's right hand in the last day. The saints
gathered from North and South, and East and West, will be "a great
multitude that no one could count" (Revelation 7:9). The song of victory
that will burst from their months, when their redemption is finally
complete, will be a glorious song indeed. It will be far above the
noise of many waters, and of mighty thunders. But there will be no
discord in that song, They that sing, will sing with one heart as well as
one voice. Their experience will be one and the same. All will have
believed. All will have been washed in the blood of Christ. All will
have been born again. All will have prayed. Yes, we must pray on earth,
or we will never praise in heaven. We must go through the school of
prayer, or we will never be fit for the celebration of praise. In short,
to be prayerless is to be without God--without Christ--without grace
--without hope--and without heaven. It is to be on the road to hell.
II. In the second place, "a habit of prayer is one of the surest marks
of a true Christian."
All the children of God on earth are alike in this respect. From the
moment there is any life and reality in their religion, they pray. Just
as the first sign of life in an infant when born into the world, is the
act of breathing, so the first act of men and women when they are born
again, is "praying."
This is one of the common marks of all the elect of God: "They always
pray and do not give up" (Luke 18:1). The Holy Spirit, who makes them
new creatures, works in them the feeling of adoption, and makes them cry,
"Abba, Father" (Romans 8:15). The Lord Jesus, when He saves them, gives
them a voice and a tongue, and says to them, "Be silent no more." God
has no speechless children. It is as much a part of their new nature to
pray, as it is of a child to cry. They see their need of mercy and
grace. They feel their emptiness and weakness. They cannot do otherwise
than they do. They "must" pray.
I have looked carefully over the lives of God's saints in the Bible. I
cannot find one of whose history much is told us, from Genesis to
Revelation, who was not a man of prayer. I find it mentioned as a
characteristic of the godly, that "they call on the Father," that "they
call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ." I find it recorded as a
characteristic of the wicked, that "they do not call upon the Lord."
(1 Peter 1:17; 1 Corinthians 1:2; Psalm 14:4).
I have read the lives of many great Christians who have been on earth
since the Bible days. Some of them, I see, were rich, and some poor.
Some were educated, and some uneducated. They came from various
denominations and some were Independents. Some loved a very structured
worship service, and some liked it rather informal. But one thing, I
see, they all had in common. The have all been "men of prayer."
I study the reports of missionaries in our own times. I see with joy
that heathen men and women are receiving the Gospel in various parts of
the globe. There are conversions in Africa, in New Zealand, and in
America. The people converted are naturally unlike one another in every
respect. But one striking thing I observe at all the missionary
stations--the converted people "always pray."
I do not deny that a man may pray without heart, and without sincerity.
I do not for a moment pretend to say, that the mere fact of a person
praying proves everything about his soul. As in every other part of
religion, so also in this, there is plenty of deception and hypocrisy.
But this I do say--that not praying, is a clear proof that a man is not
yet a true Christian. He cannot really feel for his sins. He cannot
love God. He cannot feel himself in debt to God. He cannot long after
holiness. He cannot desire heaven. He has yet to be born again. He has
yet to be made a new creature. He may boast confidently of election,
grace, faith, hope, and knowledge, and deceive ignorant people. But you
may rest assured it is all vain talk "if he does not pray."
And furthermore, I say, that of all the evidences of the real work of the
Spirit, a habit of hearty private prayer is one of the most satisfactory
that can be named. A man may preach from false motives. A man may write
books, and make fine speeches, and seem diligent in good works, and yet
be a Judas Iscariot. But a man seldom goes into his closet, and pours
out his soul before God in secret, unless he is serious. The Lord
Himself has set His stamp on prayer as the best proof of true conversion.
When He sent Ananias to Saul in Damascus, He gave him no other evidence
of his change of heart than this, "he is praying" (Acts 9:11)
I know that much may go on in a man's mind before he is brought to pray.
He may have many convictions, desires, wishes, feelings, intentions,
resolutions, hopes, and fears. But all these things are very uncertain
proofs. They are to be found in ungodly people, and often come to
nothing. In many cases they are not more lasting than "the morning mist,
and the early dew that disappears" (Hosea 6:4). A real hearty prayer,
flowing from a broken and repentant spirit, is worth all these things put
I know that the elect of God are chosen to salvation from all eternity.
I do not forget that the Holy Spirit, who calls them in due time, in many
instances leads them by very slow degrees to an awareness of Christ. But
the eye of man can only judge by what it sees. I cannot call any one
justified until he believes. I dare not say that any one believes until
he prays. I cannot understand a silent and speechless faith. The first
act of faith will be to speak to God. Faith is to the soul what life is
to the body. Prayer is to faith what breath is to life. How can a man
live and not breathe is past my comprehension, and how a man can believe
and not pray is past my comprehension too.
Let no one be surprised if he hears ministers of the Gospel dwelling a
lot on the importance of prayer. This is the point we want to bring you
to--we want to know that you pray. Your views of doctrine may be
correct. Your love of evangelical religion may be warm and unmistakable.
But still this may be nothing more than head knowledge and party spirit.
The great point is this--whether you can speak "to" God as well as speak
III. In the third place, "there is no part of religion so neglected as
We live in days abounding in religious profession. There are more places
of public worship now than there ever were before. There are more
persons attending them than there ever have been since we became a
nation. And yet in spite of all this public religion, I believe there is
a vast neglect of private prayer.
I would not have said that a few years ago. I once thought, in my
ignorance, that most people said their prayers, and many people prayed.
I have lived to think differently. I have come to the conclusion that
the great majority of professing Christians do not pray at all.
I know that this sounds very shocking and will startle many. But I am
convinced that prayer is just one of those things which is thought to be
"a private matter," and like many "private matters" it is shamefully
neglected. It is "everybody's duty;" and, as it often happens in such
cases, it is a business carried on by very few. It is one of those
private transactions between God and our souls which no eye sees, and
therefore one which there is every temptation to pass over and leave
I believe that thousands "never say a word of prayer at all." They eat;
they drink; they sleep; they rise; they go forward to their work; they
return to their homes; they breathe God's air; they see God's sun; they
walk on God's earth; they enjoy God's mercies; they have dying bodies;
they have judgment and eternity before them. But they "never speak to
God!" They live like the animals that perish; they behave like creatures
without souls; they have no words to say to Him in whose hand is their
life, and breath, and all things, and from whose mouth they must one day
receive their everlasting sentence. How dreadful this seems! But if the
secrets of men were only known, how common!
I believe that there are tens of thousands "whose prayers are nothing but
a mere form--a set of words repeated by rote, without a thought about
their meaning." Some say over a few hasty sentences picked up in the
nursery when they were children. Many, even of those who use good forms,
mutter their prayers over after they have got into bed, or scramble over
them while they wash or dress in the morning. Men may think what they
please, but they can count on the fact that in the sight of God "this is
not praying." Words said without heart are as utterly useless to our
souls as the drum-beating of the poor heathen before their idols. Where
there is no heart, the lips may move and the tongue wag, but there is
nothing that God listens to--there is "no prayer." Saul, I have no
doubt, said many a long prayer before the Lord met him on the way to
Damascus. But it was not till his heart was broken that the Lord said,
"He is praying."
Does this surprise any reader? Listen to me and I will show you that I
am not speaking as I do without reason. Do you think that my assertions
are extravagant and unwarranted? Give me your attention, and I will soon
show you that I am only telling you the truth.
Have you forgotten that it is "not natural" to any one to pray? The
carnal mind has a hatred towards God. The desire of man's heart is to
get far away from God, and to have nothing to do with Him. His feeling
toward Him is not love but fear. Why then should a man pray when he has
no real sense of sin, no real feeling of spiritual needs--no thorough
belief in unseen things--no desire after holiness and heaven? Of all
these things the vast majority of men know and feel nothing. The
multitude are traveling on the wide road. I cannot forget this.
Therefore I say boldly, I believe that few people pray.
Have you forgotten that it is "not fashionable" to pray? It is just one
of the things that many would be rather ashamed to admit is their
practice. There are hundreds who would sooner storm a beach in battle
than confess publicly that they make it a habit to pray. There are
thousands who, if obligated by chance to sleep in the same room with a
stranger, would lie down in bed without a prayer. To ride a horse well,
to shoot well, to dress well, to go to balls and concerts, and theaters,
to be thought clever and congenial--all this is fashionable, but not to
pray. I cannot forget this. I cannot think a habit is common which so
many seem ashamed to admit. I believe that few pray.
Have you forgotten "the lives that many live?" Can we really suppose that
people are praying, against sin night and day, when we see them plunging
right into it? Can we suppose they pray against the world, when they
are entirely absorbed and taken up with its pursuits? Can we think they
really ask God for grace to serve Him, when they do not show the
slightest desire to serve Him at all? Oh, no! It is clear as daylight
that the great majority of men either ask nothing of God, or "do not mean
what they say" when they do ask--which is just the same thing. Praying
and sinning will never live together in the same heart. Prayer will
consume sin, or sin will choke prayer. I cannot forget this. I look at
men's lives. I believe that few pray.
Have you forgotten "the deaths that many die?" How many, when they draw
near death, seem like entire strangers to God. Not only are they sadly
ignorant of His Gospel, but sadly devoid of the power of speaking to Him.
There is a terrible awkwardness, and shyness, and newness, and coldness,
in their endeavors to approach Him. They seem to be taking up a new
thing. They appear as if they wanted an introduction to God, and as if
they had never talked with Him before. I remember having heard of a lady
who was anxious to have a minister to visit her in her last illness. She
desired that he would pray with her. He asked her what he should pray
for. She did not know and could not tell. She was utterly unable to
name any one thing which she wished him to ask God for her soul. All she
seemed to want was the form of a minister's prayers. I can quite
understand this. Death beds are great revealers of secrets. I cannot
forget what I have seen of sick and dying people. This also leads me to
believe that few pray.
IV. In the fourth place, "prayer is that act in religion in which there
is the greatest encouragement."
There is everything on God's part to make prayer easy, if men will only
attempt it. "Everything is now ready" on His side (Luke 14:17). Every
objection is anticipated. Every difficulty is provided for. The
crooked places are made straight, and the rough places are made smooth.
There is no excuse left for the prayerless man.
There is a way by which any man, however sinful and unworthy, may draw
near to God the Father. Jesus Christ has opened that way by the
sacrifice He made for us upon the cross. The holiness and justice of God
need not frighten sinners and keep them back. Only let them cry to God
in the name of Jesus--only let them plead the atoning blood of Jesus--and
they will find God on a throne of grace, willing and ready to hear. The
name of Jesus is a never-failing passport to our prayers. In that name a
man may draw near to God with boldness, and ask with confidence. God has
pledged to hear him. Think of this. Is this not encouragement?
There is "an advocate" and intercessor always waiting to present the
prayers of those who will employ Him. That advocate is Jesus Christ. He
mingles our prayers with the incense of His own almighty intercession.
So mingled they go up as a sweet savor before the throne of God. Poor as
they are in themselves, they are mighty and powerful in the hand of our
High Priest and elder brother. The banknote without a signature at the
bottom is nothing but a worthless piece of paper. A few strokes of a pen
confer on it all its value. The prayer of a poor child of Adam is a
feeble thing in itself, but once endorsed by the hand of the Lord Jesus
it accomplishes much. There once was an officer in the city of Rome who
was appointed to have his doors always open, in order to receive any
Roman citizen who applied to him for help. In the same way, the ear of
the Lord Jesus is ever open to the cry of all who want mercy and grace.
It is His business to help them. Their prayer is His delight. Think of
this. Is this not encouragement?
There is "the Holy Spirit" always ready to help our weakness in prayer.
It is one part of His special functions to assist us in our endeavors to
speak to God. We need not be cast down and distressed by the fear of not
knowing what to say. The Spirit will give us words if we will only seek
His aid. He will supply us with "thoughts that breathe and words that
burn." The prayers of the Lord's people are the inspiration of the
Lord's Spirit--the work of the Holy Spirit who dwells within them as the
Spirit of grace and supplications. Surely the Lord's people may well
hope to be heard. It is not that they merely pray, but the Holy Spirit
pleading in them (Romans 8:26). Think of this. Is this encouragement?
There are surpassing "promises" to those who pray. What did the Lord
Jesus mean when He spoke such words as these, "Ask and it will be given
to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.
For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who
knocks, the door will be opened" (Matthew 7:7-8). "If you believe, you
will receive whatever you ask for in prayer" (Matthew 21:22). "I will do
whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the
Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it" (John
14:13-14). What did the Lord mean when He spoke the parables of the
friend at midnight and the insistent widow? (Luke 11:5; 18:1). Think
over these passages. If this is not encouragement to pray then words
have no meaning at all.
There are wonderful "examples" in Scripture of the power of prayer.
Nothing seems to be too great, too hard, or too difficult for prayer to
do. It has obtained things that seemed impossible and out of reach. It
has won victories over fire, air, earth, and water. Prayer opened the
Red Sea. Prayer brought water from the rock and bread from heaven.
Prayer made the sun stand still. Prayer brought fire from the sky on
Elijah's sacrifice. Prayer turned the counsel of Ahithophel into
foolishness. Prayer overthrew the army of Sennacherib. Well said Mary
Queen of Scots, "I fear John Knox's prayers more than an army of ten
thousand men." Prayer has healed the sick. Prayer has raised the dead.
Prayer has procured the conversion of souls. "The child of many
prayers," said an old Christian to Augustine's mother, "will never
perish." Prayer, pains, and faith can do anything. Nothing seems
impossible when a man has the Spirit of adoption. "Leave me alone," is
the remarkable saying of God to Moses, when Moses was about to intercede
for the children of Israel. (Exodus 32:10). The Chaldee version has it
"Stop praying." So long as Abraham asked mercy for Sodom, the Lord went
on giving. He never ceased to give till Abraham ceased to pray. Think
of this. Is this not encouragement?
What more can a man want to lead him to take any step in religion than
the things I have just told him about prayer? What more could be done to
make the path to the mercy-seat easy, and to remove all occasions of
stumbling from the sinner's way? Surely if the devils in hell had such a
door set open before them they would leap for gladness, and make the very
pit ring with joy.
But where will the man hide his head at last who neglects such glorious
encouragements. What can be possibly said for the man who dies without
prayer? God forbid that any reader of this paper should be that man.
V. In the fifth place, "diligence in prayer is the secret of eminent
Without question there is a vast difference among true Christians. There
is an immense gap between the greatest and the weakest in the army of
They are all fighting the same good fight--but how much more valiantly
some fight than others! They are all doing the Lord's work--but how much
more some do than others! They are all light in the Lord--but how much
more brightly some shine than others! They are all running the same
race--but how much faster some run than others! They all love the same
Lord and Savior--but how much more some love Him than others! I ask any
true Christian whether this is not the case. Are these things not so?
There are some of the Lord's people who seem "never able to advance and
grow" from the time of their conversion. They are born again, but they
remain babies all their lives. They are learners in Christ's school, but
they never seem to get beyond A B C. They have got inside the fold, but
there they lie down and go no further. Year after year you see in them
the same old habitual sins. You hear from them the same old experience.
You note in them the same need of spiritual appetite--the same
squeamishness about anything but the milk of the Word, and the same
dislike of the strong meat of the Bible-the same childishness--the same
feebleness--the same trivialness of mind--the same narrowness of
heart--the same want of interest in anything beyond their own little
circle, which you noted ten years ago. They are indeed pilgrims, but
they are like the Gibeonites pilgrims of old; their bread is always dry
and moldy--their shoes always old and split, and their garments always
ripped and torn (Joshua 9:4-5). I say this with sorrow and grief. But I
ask any real Christian, "Is it not true?"
There are others of the Lord's people who seem to be "always growing."
They grow like the grass after rain. They increase like Israel in Egypt.
They press on like Gideon--though sometimes "exhausted yet keeping up the
pursuit" (Judges 8:4). They are ever adding to grace, and faith to
faith, and strength to strength. Every time you meet them their hearts
seem larger, and their spiritual stature bigger, taller, and stronger.
Every year they appear to see more, and know more, and believe more, and
feel more in their religion. They not only have good works to prove the
reality of their faith, but they are "zealous" of them. They not only do
well, but they are "unwearied" in well-doing (Titus 2:14; Galatians 6:9).
They attempt great things, and they do great things. When they fail they
try again, and when they fall they are soon up again. And all this time
they think of themselves poor unprofitable servants, and fancy they do
nothing at all! These are those who make religion lovely and beautiful
in the eyes of all. They obtain praise even from the unconverted, and
win golden opinions even from the selfish men of the world. These are
those whom it does one good to see, to be with, and to hear. When you
meet them, you could believe that, like Moses, they had just come out
from the presence of God. When you part with them you feel warmed by
their company, as if your soul had been near a fire, I know such people
are rare. I only ask, "Is it not true?"
Now, how can we account for the difference which I have just described?
What is the reason that some believers are so much brighter and holier
than others? I believe the difference in nineteen cases out of twenty,
arises from different habits of private prayer. I believe that those who
are not eminently holy pray "little," and those who are eminently holy
I dare say this opinion will startle some readers. I have little doubt
that many look on eminent holiness as a kind of special gift, which none
but a few must pretend to aim at. They admire it at a distance, in
books: they think it beautiful when they see an example near themselves.
But as to its being a thing within the reach of any but a very few, such
a notion never seems to enter their minds. In short, they consider it a
kind of monopoly granted to a few favored believers, but certainly not to
Now I believe that this is a most dangerous mistake. I believe that
spiritual, as well as natural greatness depends far more on the use of
means within everybody's reach, than on anything else. Of course I do
not say we have a right to expect a miraculous grant of intellectual
gifts. But I do say this, that when a man is born again by Jesus Christ,
whether he will be exceptionally holy or not depends mainly on his own
diligence in the use of God's appointed means. And I confidently assert
that the principal means by which most believers have become great in
the Church of Jesus Christ is the habit of "diligent private prayer."
Look through the lives of the brightest and best of God's servants,
whether in the Bible or not. See what is written of Moses, and David,
and Daniel, and Paul. Note what is recorded about Luther and the
Reformers. Observe what is related of the private devotions of
Whitfield, and M'Cheyne. Tell me of one of all the godly fellowship of
saints and martyrs, who has not had this mark most prominently--he was a
"man of prayer." Oh, depend on it, prayer is power!
Prayer obtains fresh and continued outpourings of the Spirit. He alone
begins the work of grace in a man's heart: He
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