Building by Example


Evangelical in his doctrine and steadfast in his convictions, J. C. Ryle (1816-1900) was a prolific writer and faithful pastor. In 1880 he became the first Bishop of Liverpool at the age of 64. Regarded as the leader of the Evangelical group in the Church of England, he was noted both for the robust advocacy of his views and for the gracious warmth of his personal relations. His successor as bishop described him as “that man of granite, with the heart of a child.”

Yet his 38 years of parish ministry had taught Ryle much about human nature, not least its propensity to pretense. In this extract from his tract The Duties of Parents, Ryle warns mothers and fathers to remember the powerful influence of their own example.

Instruction, and advice, and commands will profit little, unless they are backed up by the pattern of your own life. Your children will never believe you are in earnest, and really wish them to obey you, so long as your actions contradict your counsel. Archbishop Tillotson made a wise remark when he said, “To give children good instruction, and a bad example, is but beckoning to them with the head to show them the way to heaven; while we take them by the hand and lead them in the way to hell!”

. . . [W]e are always influencing those around us, in one way or another, either for good or for evil, either for God or for sin.—They see our ways, they mark our conduct, they observe our behaviour, and what they see us practise, that they may fairly suppose we think right. And never, I believe, does example tell so powerfully as it does in the case of parents and children . . .1

Be an example of reverence for the Word of God, reverence in prayer, reverence for means of grace, reverence for the Lord’s Day.—Be an example in words, in temper, in diligence, in temperance, in faith, in charity, in kindness, in humility. Think not your children will practise what they do not see you do . . .

Children are very quick observers; very quick in seeing through some kinds of hypocrisy, very quick in finding out what you really think and feel, very quick in adopting all your ways and opinions. You will often find as the father is, so is the son . . .

They will seldom learn habits which they see you despise, or walk in paths in which you do not walk yourself. He that preaches to his children what he does not practise, is working a work that never goes forward. It is like the fabled web of Penelope of old, who wove all day, and unwove all night. Even so, the parent who tries to train without setting a good example is building with one hand, and pulling down with the other.2


J. C. Ryle, “The Duties of Parents,” in The Upper Room (1888; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1990), 311-312.

Ibid., 312-313.

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