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Reading Classics Together – Holiness (Sin)

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“Mighty indeed must that foe be who even when crucified is still alive!”

Today those of us who have embarked on a project to read some Christian classics together are going to be looking at the first chapter of J.C. Ryle’s Holiness. You can read more about this effort here: Reading the Classics Together. Last week we began our eight-week study of this book by looking at the Introduction to the book. This week we move on to the first chapter.

It seems a mite strange that a book dealing with holiness would begin with a look at the very opposite of holiness. The title of this post is telling: “Holiness (Sin).” It is like a book dealing with the art of Van Gogh beginning with an examination of the art of Challies or a book dealing with the music of Bach beginning with the music of William Hung. But Ryle makes a compelling argument that this is the place to begin. “The plain truth is that a right knowledge of sin lies at the root of all saving Christianity.” If we do not get sin right, we have no hope of getting holiness right.


The chapter follows this basic outline:

  1. What is sin?
    1. Definition – a vast moral disease which affects the whole human race. “A sin consists in doing, saying, thinking, or imaging, anything that is not in perfect conformity with the mind and law of God.”
    2. Origin – the natural corruption flowing from the Fall. “The sinfulness of man does not begin from without, but from within.”
    3. Extent – pervading all men and all parts of a man. “The understanding, the affections, the reasoning powers, the will, are all more or less infected.”
    4. Guilt – we can’t know how bad it is but we approach the truest estimation in the Cross. “I do not think, in the nature of things, that mortal man can at all realize the exceeding sinfulness of sin in the sight of that holy and perfect One with whom we have to do.”
    5. Deceitfulness – sin pretends to be a small and light thing. “You may see this deceitfulness in the wonderful proneness of men to regard sin as less sinful and dangerous than it is in the sight of God and in their readiness to extenuate it, make excuses for it and minimize its guilt.”
  2. Sin seen like this, should make us:
    1. Humble ourselves. “What a mass of infirmity and imperfection cleaves to the very best of us at our very best!”
    2. Thank God for the gospel. “We need not be afraid to look at sin, and study its nature, origin, power, extent, and vileness, if we only look at the same time at the Almighty medicine provided for us in the salvation that is in Jesus Christ.”
  3. A thorough understanding of the sinfulness of sin provides the antidote to:
    1. Vague Theology. “People will never set their faces decidedly towards heaven, and live like pilgrims, until they really feel that they are in danger of hell.”
    2. Liberal Theology. “I know nothing to likely to counteract this modern plague as constant clear statements about the nature, reality, vileness, power, and guilt of sin.”
    3. Ceremonial Christianity. “When that wonderful part of our constitution called conscience is really awake and alive, I find it hard to believe that sensuous ceremonial Christianity will thoroughly satisfy us.”
    4. Perfectionism. “if men really mean to tell us that here in this world a believer can attain to entire freedom from sin, live for years in unbroken and uninterrupted communion with God, and feel for months together not so much as one evil thought, I must honestly say that such an opinion appears to me very unscriptural.”
    5. Low views of personal holiness. “There has been of late years a lower standard of personal holiness among believers than there used to be in the days of our fathers. The whole result is that the Spirit is grieved and the matter calls for much humiliation and searching of heart.”


There were several areas that jumped out at me this week. Last week I discussed how relevant the book seems to our day, even though it was written long ago. This chapter only affirmed its relevance. Liberalism, perfectionism, a low value on personal holiness: all are evident in our day as much as they must have been in Ryle’s. It is good to read the classics and to see that they speak even today.

There were a couple of quotes that I highlighted (and wanted to highlight again and again). Yesterday I congratulated my friend Stephen Altrogge on the birth of his first child. Today I wanted to send him this (but perhaps I’ll wait a day or two). I’m know that he knows this, but it is good to reaffirm this truth often:

The fairest child, who has entered life this year and become the sunbeam of a family, is not, as his mother perhaps fondly calls him, a little “angel” or a little “innocent,” but a little “sinner.” Alas! As that infant boy or girl lies smiling and crowing in its cradle, that little creature carries in its heart the seeds of every kind of wickedness! Only watch it carefully, as it grows in stature and its mind develops, and you will soon detect in it an incessant tendency to that which is bad, and a backwardness to that which is good. You will see in it the buds and germs of deceit, evil temper, selfishness, self–will, obstinacy, greediness, envy, jealousy, passion, which, if indulged and let alone, will shoot up with painful rapidity. Who taught the child these things? Where did he learn them? The Bible alone can answer these questions! Of all the foolish things that parents say about their children there is none worse than the common saying: “My son has a good heart at the bottom. He is not what he ought to be, but he has fallen into bad hands. Public schools are bad places. The tutors neglect the boys. Yet he has a good heart at the bottom.” The truth, unhappily, is diametrically the other way. The first cause of all sin lies in the natural corruption of the boy’s own heart, and not in public schools.

So often theology we know to be true is overcome by our emotional attachment to our children. Theology we would extend to others is discarded when we look at our children. This is particularly true in the case of depravity. But Ryle will not let this happen.

I also greatly enjoyed Ryle’s thoughts about original sin providing the only workable solution to the extent of human depravity. I’ve been reading God is Not Great, the anti-religion screed by Christopher Hitchens and he offers a slightly different take on depravity. “Evolution has meant that our prefrontal lobes are too small, our adrenal glands are too big, and our reproductive organs apparently designed by committee; a recipe which, along or in combination, is very certain to lead to some unhappiness and disorder.” When men consider the most fundamental truth of human nature and do so without God, this is the best they can do. Prefrontal lobes are too small, adrenal glands are too big, and reproductive organs are badly designed. These factors combine to explain all of the terror and warfare and evil that exists. What nonsense! Men may scoff at the account of Adam’s sin, but what else can explain the widespread problem? And what else can even begin to suggest a solution. Ryle gets it right. “And we say that nothing solves the complicated problem of man’s condition but the doctrine of original or birth–sin and the crushing effects of the Fall.” And again, “I know no stronger proof of the inspiration of Genesis and the Mosaic account of the origin of man, than the power, extent, and universality of sin.”

Finally, I loved his hopeful expectation when looking to the future. “Nothing, I am convinced, will astonish us so much, when we awake in the resurrection day, as the view we will have of sin and the retrospect we will take of our own countless shortcomings and defects. Never until the hour when Christ comes the second time will we fully realize the ‘sinfulness of sin.’ Well might George Whitefield say, ‘The anthem in heaven will be: What has God wrought!’” Oh, how I look forward to seeing the full measure of the greatness of the Savior and the mercy of God. And what better way to understand this, than to regard His purity in contrast to my imperfections. And this, of course, is exactly what Ryle has attempted to do in this first chapter. Now that we have considered our sin, we are able to move forward to the solution to that sin and to its eradication, both now in part, and in eternity in full.

I walk away from the book this week with a greater appreciation of my sin and a better appreciation of how I cannot even begin to understand just how awful my sin appears to such a holy God. Yet I trust that as I see more of the holiness of God I will see more of my own sin and then begin to understand, just a little clearer, how great a Savior it took to bring about forgiveness for a man like me. The anthem, indeed, must be “What has God wrought!”

Next Time

We’ll continue the book next Thursday (September 13) with the second chapter (“Sanctification”). 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 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.

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