J.C. Ryle’s indispensable: “Holiness”

In my younger years, I fantasized about hosting a Talk/Debate TV show. I had determined then that if ever that should come to pass – I would start each discussion with: “Gentlemen, define your terms.” And only after that was done would we proceed. For if parties do not know what each other means by the words they use, very little progress can be made. And nowhere is this more important than when discussing Biblical and theological topics. It is why Paul in his discourse with the august brain trust at the Areopagus begins by defining what he means by using the word “God” before going one step further. Until they knew what he meant when he referred to God, they would import their own meaning(s) into it, and the Gospel would be lost.

Think about this just in terms of the word “Gospel.” Then find out what Roman Catholics mean by it, or Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and scads of others. Each has very different definitions from the other, and for many, very different definitions from how the Bible defines it. Or the term “Christian.” How many today would defer to something like the descriptors Paul uses for the Thessalonians: “how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” 1 Th 1:9–10. Does that scream “Christian!” to you? It should.

So, “holiness.” The word gets thrown around all the time among Christians, but what we may mean by it might be subject to wide conceptions. For some, it only refers to behavioral conformity to Biblical and perhaps ecclesiastical norms. For others, it has to do with having been set apart for God. Still others may think of it only in terms of God’s own righteousness, and that then imparted or infused or whatever into Believers. But in J. C. Ryle’s book – he strives to use the word as pertains to Believers in one consistent sense: Being conformed to the mind and character of Christ. And he uses it in this sense interchangeably with the word sanctification – which he defines simply as growing in Christ.

As such, this book is not about listing rules which if followed, will make you holy. Nor is it rooted in learning how to keep those rules. It is not about whipping readers into behaviors and performances. Nor is it aimed at helping one achieve some sort of one-time, life transforming experience whereby “ZAP! – Now you’re holy!” It is a book about how we are to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” (Eph. 4:15) The privilege, call and duty of every true believer in Christ Jesus. Hence the full title of the book: “Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties and Roots.”

With the skilled and steady hand of a spiritual surgeon, page after page finds Ryle doing what D. A. Carson says should be 2 key elements in every sermon – wounding, and healing. You will seldom read a book which is simultaneously as convicting or as encouraging as Ryle’s Holiness. I truly think it has no true equal in this regard.

Holiness, may be (in my humble opinion) the single most Gospel-centered, Christ-centered book I’ve ever read. And that is not for one moment to downgrade any of the multitude of profound writings of all my Puritan heroes – nor of any of the great “Doctors” of the Church. Christ has seen to it His Body is richly supplied in this way. And has so throughout history. But there is a unique richness and clarity, focus and singleness of purpose in these chapters that sets it apart into a category of its own.

At the risk of being overly reductionistic, let me cite two aspects of this book that make it so profoundly useful.

  1. While he presses the need for growth in Christ, he hammers over and over the nature of our once-for-all justification and standing before God in Christ. This is essential in his mind to the Believer having a solid foundation under them while they encounter the very real struggles and failures in pursuing Christ.
  2. And he cannot beat this drum enough; but his detailed accounting and stress upon the nature of the Christian life being a perpetual war against the world, and devil, and above all – the influence of indwelling sin – is of the utmost need for genuine growth in Christ. It prevents the Believer from self-condemnation, and from seeking after mythical one-time spiritual experiences that deal with sin once and for all in its inward motions.

On this last point, I cannot say enough myself. How many tender souls in Christ live perpetually suspecting their status before God because they find indwelling sin still so painfully present. And parallel to this is the striving after an imaginary place where I’ll no longer be tempted by X or Y or Z. Forgetting that sin does not die – we die to it. Daily we have to take up that cross. There is no mysterious super-spiritual plane to achieved where we are no longer bothered by such battles. Holiness is a clarion call for the Christian to “gird up your loins,” and to “act like men.”

In Chapter 4, titled “The Fight” a representative and classic portion in Ryle reads thus: “The first thing I have to say is this: “True Christianity is a fight. True Christianity! Let us mind that word “true.” There is a vast quantity of religion current in the world which is not true, genuine Christianity. It passes muster; it satisfies sleepy consciences; but it is not good money. It is not the real thing which was called Christianity eighteen hundred years ago. There are thousands of men and women who go to churches and chapels every Sunday, and call themselves Christians. Their names are in the baptismal register. They are reckoned Christians while they live. They are married with a Christian marriage-service. They mean to be buried as Christians when they die. But you never see any “fight” about their religion! Of spiritual strife, and exertion, and conflict, and self-denial, and watching, and warring, they know literally nothing at all. Such Christianity may satisfy man, and those who say anything against it may be thought very hard and uncharitable; but it certainly is not the Christianity of the Bible. It is not the religion which the Lord Jesus founded, and His Apostles preached. It is not the religion which produces real holiness. True Christianity is “a fight.”

I’m afraid we would be hard pressed to find such words from very many preachers or teachers today. Precious few. And until this truth is firmly in the heart and mind of the Believer – the “fight” will be experienced and processed as something foreign to the “victorious Christian life” rather than an essential feature of it.

I know of no single volume more needed in our day, nor more valuable to the Christian Believer in understanding and living out the Christian life than this one.

It is in my estimation, the finest companion to your Bible in practicality and applied Christian thought and living that you can lay your hands on.

If you read no other book this year, read this one.

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