by Doug Smith
I am reading along with Tim Challies and company as they go through a chapter each week in J. C. Ryle’s classic, Holiness (click here for more details, and click here for his post on the introduction). He has recommended the use of the 2002 Crossway edition, but the one I have was published by Charles Nolan Publishers in 2001 (the preceding link is to a hardcover, but there is also a paperback edition) and is a reprint of the revised and enlarged edition of 1879 (whereas he is recommending the original seven chapters, which are the first seven of the revised and enlarged edition). I mention all that to indicate that I don’t know if the “Introduction” is the same in content between the original and revised editions or not. Due to the fact that I am quoting only from one chapter each week, I will not bother to cite page numbers in this series. The British spelling (particularly the “-our” ending of words we normally end with “-or”) was in the edition from which I quote. My desire and intention is to summarize my reading each week and interact with it a bit, particularly in an attempt to apply it to contemporary issues and my own life as I am able. So, here goes what is hopefully the first of a series of rather long weekly blog articles.
INTRODUCING THE INTRODUCTION
John Charles Ryle (1816-1900) was a solid evangelical leader committed to the faith and practice of the Bible who unashamedly acknowledged his sympathy and contentment with the theology of the Puritans. He served in the Church of England in the 19th century. He wrote the papers that comprise Holiness because he was grieved “that practical holiness and entire self-consecration to God are not sufficiently attended to by modern Christians in this country.” He was speaking of England in the late 1800s. His opinion, were he living in England today, would likely be much more forceful and negative. Were he in contemporary America, he would also be quite disappointed.
J. C. Ryle draws a conclusion that is overlooked all too often: “Sound Protestant and evangelical doctrine is useless if it is not accompanied by a holy life.” He quotes from Titus 2:10, which speaks of Christians “adorning the doctrine of God our Savior.” This is particularly relevant for those of us engaged in theological studies, as well as all Christians who are learning the teachings of the Bible. This was John L. Dagg’s point in his 1857 Manual of Theology when he observed that the purpose of the knowledge of God is not to build our intellect but to make us holy. We must not make an idol of the knowledge of God, but must seek to understand doctrine so that we can live more godly lives. I’ve heard it said that we are often “educated beyond our obedience.” Those of us who profess to believe the Bible should live like we believe the Bible. Those of us who claim to be Christians should have lives that make it evident that we are truly following Jesus.
Holiness and sanctification are synonymous. Ryle is talking about the believer’s growth in godliness and conformity to the image of Christ. The author sees the doctrine of sanctification as having suffered the same satanic opposition given to the doctrine of justification, “confusing men’s minds.” Therefore, Ryle’s book is an effort to set forth the truth of God in its clarity on this important doctrine. In his introduction, he gives seven cautions, which he phrased in the negative. I will paraphrase them as the points that he seeks to make with them and enumerate them below.
CAUTION 1: Remember that while justification is by faith alone, sanctification is by the believer’s faith and active obedience.
Ryle writes that “in following holiness the true Christian needs personal exertion and work as well as faith.” While we are justified before God only by faith alone apart from works, the Scriptures nowhere teach that we are sanctified by faith alone, but by a faith that works. He points to James, who writes “that the faith whereby we are visibly and demonstratively justified before man is a faith which ‘if it hath not works is dead, being alone’ (Jas. 2:17).”
CAUTION 2: Remember the seriousness of God’s call to live holy lives.
We must not ignore the commands of God’s Word to practice godliness even in the little things of daily living. “Everyone who professes to be a believer” should seek “a life of daily self-consecration and daily communion with God” but for this to be meaningful, one must get beyond “generalities about holy living” and flesh out the “details and particular ingredients of which holiness is composed in daily life.” Holiness is to result in changed lives, which evidence themselves in particular ways: “Our tongues, our tempers, our natural passions and inclinations; our conduct as parents and children, masters and servants, husbands and wives, rulers and subjects, our dress, our employment of time, our behaviour in business, and demeanour in sickness and health, in riches and in poverty” must be demonstrate godliness. He warns against locating true holiness in “inward sensations and impressions” and reminds us that “it is something of ‘the image of Christ’ which can be seen and observed by others in our private life, our habits, and character, and doings (Rom. 8:29).”
In other words, holiness affects whether we keep our promises, cheat on our taxes, fritter away our time with trivialities, or work hard. We will reflect Christ in the mundane details of our daily lives, in our relationships with others, and in our reactions to prosperity and trials in direct proportion to the degree that we are sanctified.
CAUTION 3: Remember to avoid language that implies that believers can attain sinless perfection in this life.
God calls us to maturity. He calls us to perfection. But can we completely shed our sin while in this body of death?
While God does call us to “‘perfect holiness in the fear of God,’ to ‘go on to perfection,'” and “to ‘be perfect,'” in such places as 2 Corinthians 7:1, Hebrews 6:1, and 2 Corinthians 13:11, we are nowhere given the warrant to expect to accomplish “literal perfection” or “a complete and entire freedom from sin, in thought, or word” in this world. Those who have lived the most godly lives are those who have been most humbly and keenly aware of their sin and “countless defects and shortcomings.” Ryle gives this rebuke: “When a man can talk coolly of the possibility of ‘living without sin’ while in the body, and can actually say that he has ‘never had an evil thought for three months,’ I can only say that in my opinion he is a very ignorant Christian!”
Ryle objects to the doctrine of sinless perfection in this life, pointing out that it “does no good, but does immense harm.” It is repulsive to non-Christians who know it is false. It causes some Christians to despair, as they are devastated by an impossible goal. It is the basis of others’ thinking themselves more holy than they are and so becoming proud. “In short, it is a dangerous delusion.”
CAUTION 4: Remember that the struggle with sin described in Romans chapter 7 is the experience of a mature believer.
Contrary to the Wesleys and others, Ryle maintains that “the best commentators in every era of the Church have almost invariably applied the seventh chapter of Romans to advanced believers.” He is convinced, along with those commentators, that Paul was speaking of his own experience with remaining sin that indwelt him. And if Paul still struggled with sin, you and I must not despair. Although “the good that [we] would do [we] do not: but the evil which [we] would not, that [we] do” (Rom. 7:19), we have hope that Christ will one day deliver us “from the body of this death” (Rom. 7:24-25).
CAUTION 5: Remember to be careful in using Biblical terminology that you do not divest it of its true meaning.
Ryle specifically addresses the use of the phrase “Christ in us.” While Scripture does speak of a sense in which Christ is in us, Scripture makes clear that He is only in us by His Spirit. Ryle cautions people against a use of this Biblical phrase that divests its words of its Biblical meaning: “I do not say that the expression ‘Christ in us’ is unscriptural. But I do say that I see great danger of giving an extravagant and unscriptural importance to the idea contained in the expression; and I do fear that many use it nowadays without exactly knowing what they mean, and unwittingly, perhaps, dishonour the mighty work of the Holy Ghost.” He warns of fanatics who used the “Christ in us” phrase to justify ungodly living and the abdication of personal responsibility.
We must beware mantras and trite mottos and make sure that we know what we mean (and clarify it to others, when necessary or prudent), especially when we use phrases and words from the Bible. Theological liberals have often affirmed Biblical terminology in order to hide their true beliefs. Some dissent from man-made creeds and confessions on the ground that the Bible is their creed, only to disguise their rejection of its truth while using its words to gain a hearing with others. Many people are comfortable with ambiguities in religion, so that varying groups can affirm the same words while meaning different things. Such a case is a façade of unity, and masks fundamental disagreements. It is far better to have an honest display of contrary ideas than to use terms to designate things they were never meant to convey.
CAUTION 6: Remember that the Word of God speaks of only two – not three – classes of people: converted and unconverted.
Obviously, Ryle would disavow the “carnal Christian” theory. This idea is that some saved persons may continue to live unholy lives and be indistinguishable from non-believers all their days. He argues in opposition to those who say that consecration may come at some point after conversion that “if [a professing Christian] was not consecrated to God in the very day that he was converted and born again, I do not know what conversion means.”
Ryle concedes that, among converted and unconverted people, “there are, doubtless, various measures of sin and of grace,” but that there are still only two “great divisions of mankind” into which one necessarily falls. He affirms the continual need for growth in grace but denies that there is a “sudden, mysterious transition of a believer into a state of blessedness and entire consecration, at one mighty bound.” He admits to “have almost suspected” that some believers who consider themselves to have been consecrated at some point after conversion had at that point actually been “in reality converted for the first time!”
In addition to rejecting the “carnal Christian theory,” Ryle would also deny the notion of “the Second Blessing” and some teachings of those holding to a higher life/deeper life theology of sanctification. But in his rejection of a two-tier Christianity, he does not forget to point us to the Scripture’s teaching that we must be “going forward,” growing in godliness and “dedicating and consecrating [ourselves] more, in spirit, soul, and body, to Christ” and that, in this life, we can always be more holy.
CAUTION 7: Remember that the yielding of ourselves to God is not a passive activity, but a means to actively fighting and resisting sin.
Speaking of the usage of the words “yield yourselves” in Romans 6:13-19, he observes of the word yield that it “will not bear the sense of ‘placing ourselves passively in the hands of another'” but that its “sense is rather that of actively ‘presenting’ ourselves for use, employment, and service. (See Rom. 12:1)”
He writes, “The account of ‘the armour of God’ in the sixth chapter of Ephesians, one might think, settles the question.” He also mentions that Christian’s experience in Pilgrim’s Progress is nonsensical apart from the understanding that the Christian life is an active battle.
What would Ryle think of the popular cliché, “Let go and let God?” If understood as a call to passivity, he would see it as poor advice. While we certainly should trust God, that is no excuse to remain passive in our struggle with the world, the flesh, and the devil. He brings us back to the distinction between justification and sanctification: “In justification the word to be addressed to man is ‘believe’ – only believe; in sanctification the word must be ‘watch, pray, and fight.'”
CONCLUDING THE INTRODUCTION
Ryle closes his introduction by detailing some additional concerns. He is bothered by the “amazing ignorance of Scripture among many, and a consequent want of established, solid religion.” Their instability is evidenced by their being “carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14), “love of novelty,” and “morbid distaste for anything old and regular, and in the beaten path of our forefathers.” He laments the “incessant craving after any teaching which is sensational, and exciting, and rousing to the feelings.”
For the most part, the seductions of his age do not sound much different from those of today: “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!”
Ryle’s words come terribly close to home in today’s situation. Many believers have multiple Bibles but little Bible knowledge. People are often more concerned with popularity, novelty, and entertainment than faithfulness to the Scriptures. Excitement and emotion is often confused with true spirituality to the neglect of the renewing of the mind (Rom. 12:2) and the study of Biblical doctrine. Being judgmental is the chief sin of the age. Supposedly, sincerity trumps truth in matters of faith. Because of these things, we also have much reason to be concerned, much to pray for and much to fight for against in the prevailing state of professing Christians.
Yet, in his concerns, Ryle saw some hope in a renewed interest in holiness. But he wanted to admonish carefulness in disseminating and defining ideas in these matters. He wrote, “I must express a hope that my younger brethren who have taken up new views of holiness will beware of multiplying causeless divisions” and pleaded that those who wanted to go further than he had in teaching on sanctification “to take care where they tread” and “explain very clearly and distinctly what they mean.”
The final warning of the introduction especially caught my eye:
“Finally, I must deprecate, and I do it in love, the use of uncouth and newfangled terms and phrases in teaching sanctification. I plead that a movement in favour of holiness cannot be advanced by new-coined phraseology, or by disproportioned and one-sided statements, or by overstraining and isolating particular texts, or by exalting one truth at the expense of another, or by allegorizing and accommodating texts, and squeezing out of them meanings which the Holy Ghost never put in them, or by speaking contemptuously and bitterly of those who do not entirely see things with our eyes, and do not work exactly in our ways. These things do not make for peace; they rather repel many and keep them at a distance. The cause of true sanctification is not helped, but hindered, by such weapons as these. A movement in aid of holiness which produces strife and dispute among God’s children is somewhat suspicious. For Christ’s sake, and in the name of truth and charity, let us endeavour to follow after peace as well as holiness.”
I immediately thought of John Piper’s term “Christian Hedonism” after reading the words above. Hedonism is often associated in the modern mind with those who live for pleasure in a godless sense. Piper’s terminology has been viewed as unhelpful or even heretical by some. He is not ignorant of Ryle’s warning. In his fourth appendix (“Why Call It Christian Hedonism?”) on pages 287-290 of Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1996), Piper opens with these words: “I am aware that calling this philosophy of life ‘Christian Hedonism’ runs the risk of ignoring Bishop Ryle’s counsel against ‘the use of uncouth and new-fangled terms and phrases in teaching sanctification.'” Now, I am not ready to say that Ryle’s words above definitely indict Piper, although I can hardly see how Ryle would be thrilled with speaking of “Christian Hedonism.” In the appendix mentioned above, Piper defends the term “Christian Hedonism” on the ground that hedonism means “living for pleasure,” that his employment of the word is within the parameters of its general usage, that others have used it in similar ways, that it has a shock value, that Jesus used shocking word when he compared himself to a thief coming in the night and commended the shrewdness of the dishonest steward, and that the adjective Christian sufficiently clarifies the point that this is no ordinary hedonism he writes about.
I am not enough of an expert on the original languages and not yet studied enough in my knowledge of the Scriptures to know for sure whether Piper is misusing texts to make his point. I don’t think he is, but I do wonder if his focus on joy in God (a legitimate Biblical theme) and everything else that makes up “Christian Hedonism” might not cause him to read into the text at times. (Although, if Piper is guilty of this, it is not as blatant, in my opinion, as Rick Warren’s use of Today’s English Version or the Good News Bible in quoting Isaiah 26:3 to substantiate his “Purpose-Driven®” terminology: “You, LORD, give perfect peace to those who keep their purpose firm and put their trust in you.” The TEV is a paraphrase, not a reliable or reputable translation of Scripture. In the comparison I did, I found no other version of Scripture that used the word purpose in this verse except the 1587 Geneva, which used it not as man’s purpose but as God’s purpose: “By an assured purpose wilt thou preserve perfect peace, because they trusted in thee.”). And I don’t see Piper trying to speak “contemptuously and bitterly” of those who disagree with him, although he can be forceful and fiery. Let me make it clear that Piper’s writings and sermons have been a blessing to me. They have helped me greater appreciate the glory of God and rejoice more in God. I have been encouraged to see his defense of justification by faith alone on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, not on the basis of our works (Counted Righteous in Christ). I have been encouraged to see him make clear that sanctification is something we must actively pursue, trusting God for “future grace” but actively fighting sin. But I do wonder if his “Christian Hedonism” terminology has caused more people to unnecessarily stumble over his basic point that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him,” a point that he has convinced me is the teaching of Scripture. If it creates division and is unhelpful, it should be discarded. If it is only employed for shock value, it should be jettisoned. But I believe Piper’s motives are right; he wants people to treasure God above all else. While the term has not been a stumbling block to me, I can see how it could possibly be so to others. However, I honestly do not know if it is a helpful term or not.
So, what have I gained from this introduction to J. C. Ryle’s Holiness? Holiness is serious business. We must pursue it if we are truly followers of Christ. While faith alone justifies us, sanctification requires us to work out that trust in God. We must be active in obeying, fighting and struggling against our sin. We will not achieve sinless perfection, but we need to be moving forward and becoming stronger and more mature and increasingly reflecting the image of Christ with greater clarity. While all converted people are consecrated, we must seek to be more consecrated and more holy. We must be careful in the use and definition of our terminology and strive to help others as we share the truth about holiness and seek to be holy ourselves. Ryle motivates me to desire the increase of sanctification in my life. As we undertake this study, may God use Ryle’s work in those of us reading it to make us not merely more knowledgeable about holiness but more sanctified in the particulars of our lives, that we may have changed lives that reflect the glory of God in Christ.
Ryle quotes are from J. C. Ryle, Holiness (Moscow, ID: Charles Nolan Publishers, 2001). Holiness was first published in 1877 with a revised and enlarged edition appearing in 1879.