As you know, I am, along with a group of readers, attempting to work my way through some great Christian classics. Today we have arrived at the third chapter of J.C. Ryle’s Holiness. You can read more about this effort here: Reading the Classics Together. Even if you are not participating, please keep reading. I’m sure there will be something here to benefit you. Four weeks ago we began our eight-week study of this book by looking at the Introduction to the book, and then progressed to the first chapter which dealt with Sin and then the second chapter that dealt with Sanctification. This week we move on to the third chapter, the subject of which is Holiness.
The chapter begins with a simple but profound question. In previous chapters we’ve learned about sin and sanctification and on that basis and reflecting on Hebrews 12:14 (“Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”) Ryle now asks, “Are we holy? Shall we see the Lord?” He begins to move holiness from the realm of theology to the realm of personal application. “In this hurrying, bustling world, let us stand still for a few minutes and consider the matter of holiness.”
As with all of these chapters, Ryle follows a clear outline. There are three sections: The Nature of True Holiness, The Importance of Practical Holiness and Application.
- The Nature of True Practical Holiness
- Holiness is the habit of being of one mind with God
- Holiness endeavors to shun every known sin and to keep every known commandment
- Holiness strives to follow the example of Christ
- Holiness cultivates the passive graces of meekness, longsuffering, gentleness, patience, kindness, and self-control
- Holiness pursues temperance and self-denial
- Holiness practices love and brotherly kindness
- Holiness practices mercy and benevolence towards others
- Holiness is exemplified in purity of heart
- Holiness follows after the fear of God
- Holiness follows after humility
- Holiness follows after faithfulness in the duties of life
- Holiness follows after spiritual mindedness
- Importance of Practical Holiness
- God commands it in Scripture
- Holiness is the purpose for which Christ came into the world
- Holiness is the only sound evidence of saving faith
- Holiness is the only evidence of love for Christ
- Holiness is the only sound evidence of being sons of God
- Holiness is most likely way to contribute to the good of others
- Holiness produces present comfort
- Holiness prepares us for heaven
- A Word of Advice – If you want to be holy…
- Begin with Christ
- Go to Christ
- Abide in Christ
This chapter offered a lot of content and gave me a lot to think about. I find the chapters in this book are just long enough that I can begin to have trouble adequately digesting them. If they were much longer I think I’d have to break them into chunks that are more easily digestible. The combination of the density and the length can make for tough going!
After discussing the nature of practical holiness, Ryle, always the pastor, pauses to ensure the reader knows that holiness does not shut out the presence on indwelling sin. Holiness is our goal and our motivation, but it is a goal we can never fully attain in this life. I was encouraged to read “some men’s graces are in the blade, some in the ear, and some are like full corn in the ear.” It is good to see all holiness in a continuum where the most godly men are on the same inclined plane as even the newest Christian–they are just further along the slope. Ryle provided this metaphor in the introduction and I’m glad that he paused here to ensure the reader does not become overly discouraged by his lack of holiness. While I appreciated that encouragement, I also appreciated the challenge that “it is the excellence of a holy man that he is not at peace with indwelling sin, as others are. He hates it, mourns over it, and longs to be free from its company.” A mark of holiness is the desire to attain more holiness and to put sin to death. Though we know that we will never be entirely free from sin in this life, at the same time we strive towards that impossible goal, seeking to join with the Spirit in destroying sin’s power over us. Encouragement and challenge side-by-side are a powerful force for change. I need to remember this.
Shortly after this, Ryle says that holiness is the only sound evidence that we are children of God. I think every parent has moments of shock or incredulity as we see our children begin to mimic our words, our habits, our priorities. The other day my son was talking on the phone while pacing in circles around the house. As he spoke to his grandmother he walked from the kitchen, through the dining room and living room, up the hall and back into the kitchen in endless circles. Aileen laughed, knowing that he has somehow inherited this habit from me. His habit is evidence that he is a member of this family–that he is my son. As Ryle says, “children in this world world are generally like their parents.” The degree may vary from person-to-person, but it is rare that there is no kind of family likeness. This is as true of the family of God. If God is our Father, we must begin to imitate Him and to resemble Him. “We must show by our lives the family we belong to.”
A third thing that stood out to me was a simple one and one I should have thought of long ago, I think. Ryle asks, “Do you think you feel the importance of holiness as much as you should?” He then says “how apt we are to overlook the doctrine of growth in grace, and that we do not sufficiently consider how very far a person may go in a profession of religion, and yet have no grace, and be dead in God’s sight after all.” He mentions Judas and says, “When the Lord warned them that one would betray Him, no one said, ‘Is it Judas?'” And that is exactly the case, isn’t it? Not one of the disciples stood up and said, “It’s going to be Judas! I haven’t seen the evidence of holiness in his life! It must be him!” No, Judas seemed to fit in quite well even though he was never saved. While it may be that he did a very good job of playing the part, it seems more likely that the disciples simply were not thinking in these categories and were not looking for evidence of holiness in their own lives or in the loves of each other.
So this walk I’m putting the book down knowing that without holiness I cannot see the Lord and am seeking to be deliberate about evidences of holiness in my life. I need to pause often to ask, “Am I holy?” And at the same time I need to seek evidence of holiness in the lives of other Christians, encouraging them were I see this, and perhaps lovingly exhorting them where I do not.
We’ll continue the book next Thursday (September 27) with the fourth chapter (“The Fight”). If you are interested in joining in, please do. There is still time to purchase the book or to read it online. See this discussion (Read the Classics Together – Holiness) for information.
And now it’s your turn. 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.
A friend sent along some study questions he once prepared while leading some men in his church through this book and this question stood out to me. It’s worth thinking about and perhaps someone would like to take a stab at an answer: “If holiness is so great, not equal in every man, and, to some degree, contingent on our own works, why then does it produce such a deep humility rather than encourage pride?”