Sovereign Ruler of the skies.
Ever gracious, ever wise;
All my times are in thy hand,
All events at thy command.
His decree who formed the earth
Fixed my first and second birth;
Parents, native place, and time,
All appointed were by him.
He that formed me in the womb,
He shall guide me to the tomb:
All my times shall ever be
Ordered by his wise decree.
Times of sickness; times of health;
Times of poverty and wealth;
Times of trial and of grief;
Times of triumph and relief;
Times the tempter’s power to prove;
Times to taste the Savior’s love;
All must come, and last, and end,
As shall please my heavenly Friend.
Plagues and deaths around me fly
Till he bids, cannot die;
Not a single shaft can hit,
Till the God of love sees fit. Amen.
This lovely hymn was written by John Ryland Jr. and this week it has come alive to me as when I first heard it in the late 1980s. As an older brother, I have been walking with a group of young men that I am mentoring and we recently embarked on understanding who our God really is. This led us to the studying of the attributes of God and in the process to this lovely hymn. One of the attributes of God that we have looked at is the sovereignty of God and sovereign grace. But one may ask. What is sovereign grace?
Well, my few reflections based on scripture are these. Sovereign grace combines two of God’s attributes, His sovereignty and His graciousness. Both of these characteristics of God are so vast that many volumes have been written about each. Briefly though, sovereign grace is the melding of the two into a thrilling truth that gives us a glimpse into the mind and heart of our great God. The sovereignty of God means that He has total control of all things past, present and future. Nothing happens that is out of His knowledge and control. All things are either caused by Him or allowed by Him for His own purposes and through His perfect will and timing (Romans 11:36; 1 Cor 8:6). He is the only absolute and omnipotent ruler of the universe and is sovereign in creation, providence and redemption.
The grace of God is His unmerited favor toward those who have not earned it. There are numerous examples of God’s grace in the Bible, both to His people and those who rejected Him. Mary found grace in the eyes of the Lord who bestowed upon her the privilege of bearing the Savior of mankind (Luke 1:28). She may have been a godly young woman, but nothing she could have done would have made her worthy of such a blessing. She was the recipient of God’s grace. The Apostle Paul admitted that he was a servant of God by His grace and it was by that grace that he labored effectively for the cause of Christ (1 Cor 15:10). As Christians we, too, benefit from God’s grace. “For by grace are you saved through faith” (Eph 2:8). Our very salvation and position in Christ is due to His grace through the faith that He gives us ( Heb 12:2). Even those who hate God receive His grace in every breath He allows them to take and through His common grace to all creation: “For He makes His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mat 5:45). Even the atheist enjoys the effects of God’s grace through His beautiful creation and His provision of the resources necessary for food, clothing and housing. God doesn’t owe these things to us, but He provides them to exhibit His grace.
About the Hymn writer – JOHN RYLAND, Jr (1753 – 1825). I found this biography a better summary of this man than I can attempt to do. So here is the biography of John Ryland as written by James Culross, from Founders and Pioneers of Modern Missions, 1899.
The Ryland Family
The Rylands, so honorably distinguished in Baptist history, were of a good yeoman family in the county of Gloucester. The name may have been connected with the now extinct village of Ryeland in that county. One of the family lived at Hinton-on-the-green, a few miles distant from Ryeland, and was a member of the ancient Baptist church at Alcester. His son Joseph lived near Stowe-on-the-wold.
John Collett Ryland
His son, John Collett Ryland, born at Bourton-on-the-water, in 1723, claimed kindred through his mother, with the famous humanist, Dean Colet, founder of St. Paul’s School. Before his conversion he was very gay-fond of dress and card playing. But he was awakened in the spring of 1741 and baptised October 2nd in the same year by Benjamin Beddom. After a course of study in Bristol Academy under Bernard Foskett, he settled in Warwick as pastor of the Baptist church, deriving his main support from a boarding school which he established and conducted with great ability. He was a man of marked originality, strong-willed, plainspoken, very generous, and, according to Robert Hall, “of a careless intrepidity of temper.” In 1759 he removed to Northampton, transferring his boarding school thither, and acting as pastor of the College Lane church, which prospered greatly under his ministry. The meeting-house had to be twice enlarged to accommodate the increasing congregation, and the light of the Gospel was introduced into more than twenty of the surrounding villages that lay in almost heathen darkness. In the course of his ministry he published many treatises, larger and smaller, on educational and religious subjects. An extract or two will show the man: “An ignorant mind is a poor famished being, and for want of proper food must be always ranging from vanity to vanity, amongst the frivolous objects of fancy and appetite; and when these are all cut off by adversity, such a mind must turn in and devour itself with rage and despair.” “What is true honour but a noble and generous scorn of acting wrong, and a firm purpose of doing everything just, worthy, and good ? Honour is an emanation of virtue.” “If the methods of good education were faithfully pursued for seven years to come, it would have a more powerful effect upon the morals of the people than the united force of the twelve venerable judges, or a standing army of a hundred thousand men.” “Bigotry is the spirit of persecution without the power; persecution is no other than bigotry armed with force and the sword, and carrying its ill-will into act.” Robert Hall, speaking of him as a preacher, says: “Perfectly natural, unstudied, unexpected, there were often passages in his sermons sublime and terrible as the overflowing lava of a burning mountain. . . . He governed the spirits of men with a kind of absolute sway, but while he agitated most powerfully the passions of others, as a tempest of wind the mountain grove, he had always the command of his own.”
John Ryland, Jr.
His son John was born at Warwick, 29 January, 1753. He was unusually precocious, with a somewhat hasty temper, and keen sensibilities. Before he was twelve Years of age he had read Genesis in Hebrew five times through, and he had read the Greek Testament at a still earlier age. He was acquainted with Virgil and Horace, and had read Rollin’s Ancient History from beginning to end. His father, though proud of the boy, kept him in strict, perhaps stern subjection. The early promise was amply fulfilled. He became a fine linguist, was widely read, and was well acquainted with the science of his time. As he grew up he became more and more fond of reading. His chief delight was in history and poetry rather than in philosophy or romance. Select pieces which pleased him he was in the habit of transcribing and preserving. Some religious books he took special delight in, such as Bunyan’s ” Holy War” and De Foe’s “Family Instructor” with its irresistible realism. There is a time in the life of a lad when the mind seems to take a sudden bound, and when he is said to be at the. winning or the losing. That time came early in Ryland’s case. He often had yearning after God and resolutions to live another life, but they all seemed evanescent. When between thirteen and fourteen, in connection with a little religious association among his father’s boarders, described as an early instance of a Christian Endeavour Society, he entered on an experience which issued in simple submission and surrender to Jesus Christ. It could not have been supposed by anyone who knew how he had been trained that he was destitute of a speculative acquaintance with evangelical truth, but he now began to be more deeply concerned about it than he had been before, and “endeavoured to apply for mercy by earnest prayer.” The months that followed were marked by what was to him terrible distress of mind, with occasional gleams of sunshine. His diary gives a vivid and minute account of his inward history and the fluctuations of feeling. In reading the Bible a text would encourage him, and by and by the feelings of joy and hope that had been excited would seem delusive. He read ” Alleine’s Alarm,” “Baxter’s Call,” Bunyan’s ” Grace Abounding,” and similar books. At one time he seems to be rejoicing in God; and then he deplores that all his interest in the Gospel is dying out; then strong and dreadful convictions of sin would overwhelm him, and drive him almost to despair. He was baptised, along with two of his father’s pupils and Mr. Joseph Dent, his future brother-in-law, and received into the church in his fourteenth year.
He began to preach before he was seventeen. For some years he assisted in the school, but in 1781 he was associated with his father as co-pastor, and filled the office alone when his father removed to the neighbourhood of London, in 1786. His ministry in Northampton was eminently gracious and useful. Like his father he did not confine his labours to the congregation in College Lane, but extended them to the whole county and even beyond. He lacked his father’s originality and daring, and was characterised rather by sound sense, persuasiveness, deep sincerity, and Scriptural teaching, than by any elements that make for popularity. The effect of his preaching was greatly heightened by the veneration with which his character was regarded by all. He was just the man to co-operate with Carey, Fuller, and Sutcliff when the missionary movement began. At the formation of the Society Ryland’s name heads the list of original subscribers – John Ryland, Northampton, ?2 2s -and is placed first in the Committee of five then appointed. Ryland threw himself heart and soul into the enterprise and kept up a very affectionate correspondence with his old friend Carey to the close of his life.
Move to Bristol
When the first news from the missionaries came home, Ryland had removed to Bristol. No sooner had he read his letter from Carey than at once he sent for Dr. Bogue and Mr. Stephen, who happened to be in Bristol, calling them to rejoice with him. They joined in giving thanks to God. Then Bogue and Stephen, calling on Mr. Hey, a leading citizen, the three took the first steps toward the formation of the London Missionary Society, which has since achieved such triumphs in all quarters of the world. Thus Ryland was privileged to have part in forming two of the noblest societies of modern times. Bristol College, then the only institution for ministerial education in the denomination had been left without a president by the death of Caleb Evans the previous year, and now the eyes. of the whole country turned to Ryland as the fittest man to ‘be his successor. After prolonged correspondence he consented, and in the close of 1793 removed to Bristol to be pastor of the Broadmead Church and president of the college. The diploma of D.D. was conferred upon him in September, 1792, by Brown University, Rhode Island, U.S.A. The same learned body had constituted him M.A. in 1773. He was the same man in Bristol that he had been in Northampton, as indefatigable in Christian work, and held in as profound esteem for unselfishness, uprightness, and graciousness of spirit. If he was remarkable for any one thing more than another, it was the rare grace of forgetting himself in doing the work that lay to hand. ” His readiness,” says Hall, ” to take the lowest place could only be exceeded by the eagerness of all who knew him to assign him the highest; and this was the only competition which the distinctions of life ever cost him.” He lived at a time of keen controversy, but shared nothing of the too common bitterness and striving for victory. I have read many of his private letters and memoranda, some of them relating to matters of painful dispute, and have been struck by the self-restraint they manifest, and the spirit of fairness and charity pervading them. What he was to the college William Rhodes, of Damerham, one of his most distinguished students, whose memory Dr. Stanford has immortalised, may tell: ” No tutor could be more loved and revered: none could more highly deserve it. The sentiment indulged towards him by us all, and that most deeply by the most pious and cultivated of our number, was a deep and affectionate veneration for his character, together with gratitude for the tenderness and fidelity with which he performed his various duties among us. His whole behaviour impressed us with the most serious and delightful conviction that he not only did his utmost to promote our mental advancement and watched over our progress with benignant complacency, but that our improvement in piety was an object of fervent solicitude to his holy and devotional mind.”
In Bristol he retained all his missionary enthusiasm, and his exertions in behalf of the missionary cause were of the most strenuous and indefatigable kind. His counsel in all matters of perplexity in the great undertaking was of great value from the singleness of mind which always characterised it. No doubt the missionary ardour which still distinguishes Bristol, both in the college and in the general Christian community is largely due to Ryland’s Influence – as it is to-day to that of Dr. Glover. When Fuller died in 1815, the office of secretary of the Missionary Committee was forced upon him, in addition to his varied and onerous duties. The fitness of the appointment was universally recognised. He was one of the “three mighty men” who had fought the battle of the Mission when the odds against it were at the greatest; and he sympathised with the men in India to the full and understood them and was understood by them. The Rev. James Hinton, of Oxford, was afterwards appointed joint-secretary.
As his seventieth year drew near his strength began to fail and he was compelled to diminish his exertions. On the 30th of December, 1824, the day after he had completed his seventy first year, he preached for the last time. The subject of discourse was Psalm lxxxvi. 5: “Thou, Lord, art good and ready to forgive, and plenteous in mercy to all them that call upon Thee.” He lingered on for a few months, and fell asleep, calmly and hopefully, on 25th May, 1825. His last words were: “No more pain.”His immense and methodical industry may be estimated by the journeys he took, by his diligence as a pastor, by the productions of his pen, and by the marginalia in the vast number of books he read. The estimate formed of him by men like Hall and Foster gives him a front rank among the best men of his time. Rhodes of Damerham says: “With all the regard and admiration in which he was held by those who knew him, and by many who had no personal intercourse with him, it does not appear to me that the strong and luminous character of his mind, or the wide and varied range of his knowledge were, in general, sufficiently appreciated. Nor is it to be wondered at his piety was so conspicuous that his other qualities and attainments were hardly thought of by any one while in his society, or in the contemplation of his character. His mental endowments and attainments were eclipsed by the brightness of the sanctity which pervaded them.” For many years he conducted an extensive correspondence with distinguished men, both at home and abroad. One of the most delightful parts of it was his correspondence with missionaries – particularly with his old friend, Dr. Carey. Very touching are Carey’s words when he heard of Ryland’s death: “There are now in England very few ministers with whom I was acquainted. Fuller, Sutcliff, Pearce, Fawcett, and Ryland, besides many others whom I knew, are gone to glory. My family connection also, those excepted who were children when I left England or have since that time been born, are all gone, two sisters only excepted. Wherever I look in England, I see a vast blank; and were I ever to revisit that dear country I should have an entirely new set of friendships to form. As it respected my late very dear brother Ryland, he has left the world and is gone to glory, I hope to meet him there, and with him in ‘transporting joy recount the labours of our feet.’ I must mourn and struggle with difficulties some time longer.”