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Reading Classics Together - Holiness (Introduction)

The Introduction to J.C. Ryle’s Holiness

This is the first of what I hope will be many opportunities to read the classics together. You can read more about this effort here: Reading the Classics Together. Today we start into an 8-week study of J.C. Ryle’s Holiness. Written in 1879, this book has stood the test of time and is considered one of the best works on practical holiness. At just eight chapters, it seemed like a great place to begin in our quest to read some Christian classics together.

I hope this will be a collaborative effort, meaning that we will read the book through the week and then discuss it together right here on Thursdays. I believe some seventy or eighty people expressed interest in reading it, so I trust many of you did so and will have your own thoughts to contribute. I will provide a brief overview and then post a few thoughts of my own. The comments section is available for discussion.

Summary

In the Introduction Ryle provides a defense for writing this book. He saw a lot of interest in the subject of holiness, but “had a deep conviction … that practical holiness and entire self-consecration to God are not sufficiently attended to by modern Christians in this country.” Ryle felt as if he had to defend the doctrine of sanctification, assuring the reader that it is “quite as important as justification. Sound Protestant and Evangelical doctrine is useless if it is not accompanied by a holy life. It is worse than useless; it does positive harm.” Tragically, at his time and in ours, any movement towards personal holiness can be “damaged by crude, disproportioned, and one-sided statements.” Satan hates holiness and will do all in his power to stop and destroy it.

As he surveyed the subject of holiness and the reaction to it, Ryle felt deep concern and expressed this in the form of seven questions to the reader, questions that together form the heart of this chapter:

  1. Is it wise to speak of faith as the one thing needful, and the only thing required, as many seem to do now-a-days in handling the doctrine of sanctification? Is it wise to proclaim … that the holiness of converted people is by faith alone, and not at all by personal exertion?
  2. I ask, in the second place, whether it is wise to make so little as some appear to do, comparatively, of the many practical exhortations to holiness in daily life which are to be found in the Sermon on the Mount, and in the latter part of most of St. Paul’s epistles?
  3. I ask in the third place, whether it is wise to use vague language about perfection, and to press on Christians a standard of holiness, as attainable in this world for which there is no warrant to be shown either in Scripture or experience?
  4. In the fourth place, is it wise to assert so positively and violently, as many do, that the seventh chapter of the Epistle to the Romans does not describe the experience of the advanced saint, but the experience of the unregenerate man, or of the weak and unestablished believer?
  5. In the fifth place, is it wise to use the language which is often used in the present day about the doctrine of “Christ in us”? I doubt it. Is not this doctrine often exalted to a position which it does not occupy in Scripture? I am afraid that it is.
  6. In the sixth place, is it wise to draw such a deep, wide, and distinct line of separation between conversion and consecration, or the higher life, so called, as many do draw in the present day?
  7. In the seventh and last place, is it wise to teach believers that they ought not to think so much of fighting and struggling against sin, but ought rather to “yield themselves to God,” and be passive in the hands of Christ?

He wrapped up (reluctantly, it seems) by providing a brief glimpse of the state of the church and the importance of recovering holiness.

Discussion

Like any true classic, this book has stood the test of time because it deals with issues that are always relevant. Many books come and go because they discuss issues that soon pass away. But in the introduction we see that the concerns of Ryle’s day match the concerns of our own. There may have been different emphases and a different cultural setting, but it is clear that his concerns at the close of the 19th century are very similar to ours at the dawn of the 21st. Consider Ryle’s seven questions:

The first question may not be asked in those terms today simply because so many people within churches have no real sense of the doctrine of justification by faith. But reading the Christian books you might encounter in your local bookstore will show that very few discuss the Christian life as difficult and laborious. Rather, they discuss a life of constant victory where sin and Satan melt before us. Rarely do they discuss just how difficult it is to overcome sin and how this life is a constant battle with evil. They promise an abundant life, but with no abundance of labor.

The second question can be answered in a way that is similar to the first. Look at the books and teaching that arises from contemporary Christianity and you will soon see that there is little time given to true personal holiness. There may be lip service to it, but there is little of the particulars, the nitty-gritty details of how we are to destroy sin in our lives. We are given generalities, but few specifics; we are told to whitewash the tombs but without removing the scent of death.

The third and sixth questions seem to me to deal with very similar issues and ones that still exist today. Great harm has been done by those claiming that there are different “levels” of the Christian life and that we are to strain to be like those who have reached a state of perfection (or even of near-perfection). This teaching exists in the fringes of the charismatic movement but also in more conservative circles. Ryle’s illustration of Christians occupying varied positions along an inclined plane is a good one, for it shows that all Christians exist in a sinful world and that they can never fully rid themselves of its influence. What an encouragement it is to know that even the greatest Christian exists on the same plane as we do, the only difference being his effort in attaining sanctification and God’s subsequent blessing upon his life.

The fourth question confused me just a little bit, but I believe he is pointing to some kind of antinomianism or lawlessness that must have existed at that time. Clearly people were using Romans 7 to defend sinful and lawless practices.

The fifth question discusses the doctrine of “Christ in us” that was clearly denying the importance of the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian. People were ascribing to the Son the work of the Spirit. While it is more common today to make the opposite error, focusing almost undue attention upon the Spirit, I can see shadows of the “Christ in us” teaching even now. I think, for example, of those who discuss “being Jesus” to others or those who do not understand that it is the Spirit who does the work of sanctification within us.

The final question discusses a kind of passivity towards holiness that certainly exists in our day. Too many people believe that becoming more godly is not a battle, but simply a process of leaning on Christ and expecting him to change us. But the testimony of Scripture is clear—we are to exert ourselves in pursuing holiness; we are to strive after it.

I say all of this to express confidence that Ryle’s book is relevant to us today, not only because it claims to simply provide what Scripture says on the subject of holiness, but because Ryle was writing it as a reaction to trends we see even today. He could as easily be describing 2007 when he writes:

There is an amazing ignorance of Scriptures among many, and a consequent want of established, solid religion. In no other way can I account for the ease with which people are, like children, “tossed to and fro, and carried about by every wind of doctrine.” ( Ephesians 4:14.) There is an Athenian love of novelty abroad, and a morbid distaste for anything old and regular, and in the beaten path of our forefathers. Thousands will crowd to hear a new voice and a new doctrine, without considering for a moment whether what they hear is true.—There is an incessant craving after any teaching which is sensational, and exciting, and rousing to the feelings.—There is an unhealthy appetite for a sort of spasmodic and hysterical Christianity. The religious life of many is little better then spiritual dram-drinking, and the “meek and quiet spirit” which St. Peter commends is clean forgotten. ( 1 Peter 3:4.) Crowds, and crying, and hot rooms, and high-flown singing, and an incessant rousing of the emotions, are the only things which many care for.—Inability to distinguish differences in doctrine is spreading far and wide, and so long as the preacher is “clever” and “earnest,” hundreds seem to think it must be all right, and call you dreadfully “narrow and uncharitable” if you hint that he is unsound!

I think my primary take-away through reading this portion of the book is not so much a point of theology (as I’m sure it will be in subsequent chapters) as it is a sense of how the history of the church is cyclical. The same problems arise time and again; sin continues to manifest itself in the same way from generation to generation. This shows to me the value of turning to the old masters, men like Ryle, to show how they faced these problems in their day and to see how the gospel was the remedy, even then.

Next Time

We’ll continue the book next Thursday (September 6) with the first chapter (“Sin”). If you are interested in joining in, please do. There is still lots of time to purchase the book or to read it online. See this discussion (Read the Classics Together - Holiness) for information.

Your Turn

I am interested in hearing what you took away from the Introduction. I realize that we have not yet struck at the heart of the book, but I am sure you benefited even from reading the Introduction. 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).