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  • Writer's pictureTim Hemingway

Holiness by JC Ryle

If you want to be a serious Christian it's a good idea to read serious books. Serious Christian books challenge the indifference out of us. Ryle, it would seem, recognised in his congregation a lot of professing Christians 'pootiling', as Deb likes to say about middle lane drivers, through their Christian lives. He saw lethargy in his people where he found urgency in the bible. He saw drifting in the pews where he found drive in the scriptures. And that discrepancy seemingly influenced his preaching emphasis.

With that discrepancy before him, he preached in order to awaken his people to their real and present danger which is why this book, although founded on bible at every turn, is fundamentally relational. His aim is to prick the conscience of every believer to run the race marked out for them with perseverance, and to cause the believing reader to see the essential need for Christian holiness.

What is interesting is that what Ryle saw as needed in his day, is exactly what is needed now in the church. In Ryle's day the prominence of church-going must have seen every village and town church occupied with mixed congregations of worshippers - some worshipping in vain; some in Spirit and Truth. All convinced of their eternal security, but some duped by their outward religion.

Today, our problem is not church going so much as it is easy believism. Ryle's book is no less useful for our current day than it was for his own. In his introduction he writes:

"Yet sanctification, in its place and proportion, 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."

As church attendance and Christian interest waned in the 20th century in the UK, the churches seemingly sought to reach the lost by providing services with a distinctly gospel emphasis. The aim being to invite and persuade as many as possible to come under the sound of gospel preaching on a weekly basis. It was a noble and good emphasis, but perhaps one of its negative effects was to make a generation of Christians so familiar with justification by faith alone and the rehearsal of the gospel message that it served to understate the need for Christian growth in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. It seems that today more and more Christians are happy to rest on their profession with no inclination to expect or desire to see upward trajectories in holiness and sanctification.

"It is terribly possible to live a careless, easy-going, half worldly life, and yet at the same time to maintain evangelical principles and call ourselves evangelical people!"

Ryle's book is therefore as relevant as ever, it would seem.

In his first 3 chapters he deals with the biblical categories of sin, sanctification, and holiness. And then in chapters 4-7 he moves onto the effects of these in terms of a spiritual fight, a temporal cost, spiritual growth, and spiritual assurance. The majority of the last 12 chapters are practical examples which serve to illustrate his points.

But overall, it's the first 7 chapters that really cement the biblical truth that God is looking for the evidence of saving faith in his people. Ryle deals plainly with the scriptures that demonstrate the urgency with which the Apostles write about sanctification, never denying the pervasive biblical truth that none who are truly saved can ever be lost. For example he says:

"I do not mean that he can grow in safety, acceptance with God or security...I hold firmly that our election, calling and standing in Christ admit of no degrees, increase or diminution...When I speak of growth in grace I only mean increase in the degree, size, strength, vigour and power of the graces which the Holy Spirit plants in a believer's heart."

For Ryle, being so saturated in scripture - as is clear from his writing, he simply cannot gloss over the abundance of texts that warn, admonish, and flash danger signals at the professing believer; urging him or her to be holy even as their Father in heaven is holy, or else wonder if they really are what they say they are. Indeed his chapter on assurance masterfully demonstrates how the pursuit of holiness serves the believer's sense of eternal security by evidencing the work of the Spirit in the soul of the believer.

Overall, the first 7 chapters are so integral to the Christian life that they are chapters worthy of the christian's repeated attention. Each is eminently stand-alone and could be easily picked up as a short lesson on the subject at any time. I certainly hope that I will remember this treasure trove, and return time and again when the temptation rises to live a 'half-worldly life' and forget the warnings of scripture to a weary pilgrim like me.


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