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Reading Classics Together - Holiness ("Assurance")
October 18, 2007
“We know that we are of God.” (1 John 5:19)
Today we come to the final chapter of the first classic we’re reading together. You can read more about this effort here: Reading the Classics Together. Even if you have not participated in this effort, please keep reading. I’m sure there will be something here to benefit you. At the very least read the end to see how you can join in our next effort.
The book’s previous chapters have covered Sin, Sanctification, Holiness, The Fight, The Cost and Growth. The final chapter concerns itself with Assurance—the believer’s privilege of being assured that he is a Christian. This is a doctrine that today, like in Ryle’s day, was too often neglected or, if not that, was the cause of much dispute. It is a doctrine, he is convinced, that has much to do with holiness. He approaches the subject cautiously and humbly, acknowledging that “the road between truth and error is here especially a narrow pass.”
He defines assurance in this way: “A true Christian, a converted man, may reach such a comfortable degree of faith in Christ, that in general he shall feel entirely confident as to the pardon and safety of his soul, shall seldom be troubled with doubts, seldom be distracted with fears, seldom be distressed by anxious questionings and, in short, though vexed by many an inward conflict with sin, shall look forward to death without trembling, and to judgment without dismay. This, I say, is the doctrine of the Bible.”
Ryle follows this outline:
- An assured hope is a scriptural thing
- A believer may never arrive at this assured hope, and yet be saved
- Reasons why an assured hope is exceedingly to be desired
- It provides present comfort
- It tends to make a Christian an active working Christian
- It tends to make a decided Christian
- It tends to make the holiest Christians
- Probable causes why an assured hope is never attained
- A defective view of the doctrine of Justification
- Slothfulness about growth in grace
- An inconsistent walk in life
- If you are not a Christian, learn from the privileges and comforts of a Christian and come to Christ
- If you are a Christian and do not have an assured hope, then resolve today to seek it.
As with one or two of the other chapters in the book, this one was perhaps a bit unexpected. I would not have thought a chapter on assurance would merit a place in such a book. But because Ryle does a superb job of showing the close connection between assurance and holiness and because he proves the importance of this doctrine, I can understand why it was good and necessary to include it.
Ryle is, in his own right, a master of illustration and analogy. Yet at one point he turns to another author to suggest why some true Christians never receive assurance of pardon. “ ‘A letter,’ says an old writer, ‘may be written, which is not sealed; so grace may be written in the heart, yet the Spirit may not set the seal of assurance to it.’” He goes on to speak of a child who is the heir of a great fortune, yet is never made aware of the riches and wealth that are rightfully his. In this way a Christian may never come to know that assurance is his birthright and that he may have full confidence in the validity of his salvation.
But the illustration that most gripped my soul as I read this chapter had to do with the importance of the doctrine of assurance. This is a doctrine that few people regard as having any great importance, but listen to what Ryle says.
Take, for an illustration of this, two English emigrants, and suppose them set down side by side in New Zealand or Australia. Give each of them a piece of land to clear and cultivate. Let the portions allotted to them be the same, both in quantity and quality. Secure that land to them by every needful legal instrument; let it be conveyed as freehold to them and theirs forever; let the conveyance be publicly registered and the property made sure to them by every deed and security that man’s ingenuity can devise.
Suppose then that one of them shall set to work to clear his land and bring it into cultivation and labor at it day after day without intermission or cessation.
Suppose in the meanwhile that the other shall be continually leaving his work and going repeatedly to the public registry to ask whether the land really is his own, whether there is not some mistake, whether after all there is not some flaw in the legal instruments which conveyed it to him.
The one shall never doubt his title but just work diligently on. The other shall hardly ever feel sure of his title and spend half his time in going to Sydney or Melbourne or Auckland with needless inquiries about it.
Which now of these two men will have made most progress in a year’s time? Who will have done the most for his land, got the greatest breadth of soil under tillage, have the best crops to show, be altogether the most prosperous?
Anyone of common sense can answer that question. I need not supply an answer. There can be only one reply. Undivided attention will always attain the greatest success.
Those who dwell secure in their relationship with the Lord, taking confidence not in their own rightness but in the grip of the One who holds them—these people are free to focus on the things that need to be done. Rather than spending much of their time in deep concern that they may not be saved; rather than continually studying the Scripture to discern whether or not God has done His work in their lives, these people are free from the tyranny of uncertainty and are thus free to be active, working Christians. But for reading this chapter, I would not have considered the practical importance and the practical ramifications of getting this doctrine right and having it applied to my soul. That is my “take home” application this week.
Holiness has been a joy to read and has given me much to think about. It is a book I know that I will return to often. I’m grateful that it is more than a classic I can cross of my list—it is a book that is as relevant and as important today as the day Ryle penned it. And it spoke to me as it has spoken to generations of believers before. Thank you for reading it with me!
Now that we’ve finished this book, I guess it’s time to choose another. I think we’ll begin the next reading project in a few weeks and, in all likelihood, will read some John Owen. Stay tuned for more information in the next couple of weeks.
I am interested in hearing what you took away from this chapter. Feel free to post comments below or to write about this on your own blog (and then post a comment linking us to your thoughts). Don’t feel that you need to say anything shocking or profound. Just share what stirred your heart or gave you pause or confused you. I’d also be glad to hear your comments about the book as a whole.