Reading for Holiness: an Interactive Summary (Chapter 1: Sin)

by Doug Smith

Continuing the reading along with Tim Challies and company of J. C. Ryle’s Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, & Roots, this week brings us to chapter 1: “Sin” (click here for the discussion at Tim’s blog).

Ryle asserts that a right understanding of holiness must begin with an examination of sin. This is a foundational matter, so the person seeking to build his view of holiness “must dig down very low if he would build high.” He further connects the understanding of holiness and sin when he says, “Wrong views about holiness are generally traceable to wrong views about human corruption.” Man needs to be enlightened about his horrible condition if he is ever to seek an adequate remedy for it. I will rephrase Ryle’s main points about sin into questions and explore them below.

What Is Sin?

1 John 3:4 tells us that “sin is the transgression of the law.” It “consists in doing, saying, thinking, or imagining anything that is not in perfect conformity with the mind and law of God” and can take place “in heart and thought, when there is no visible act of wickedness” as Christ made clear in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:21-28). Sin is not only committing forbidden acts and thoughts but is also omitting required duties. This is what Jesus addresses when He says “Depart from Me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave Me no drink” (Matt. 25:41, 42). In addition, ignorance does not excuse sin. Ryle commends the “deeper study of Leviticus” to those who make the ignorant assertion that there is no sin where we do not “discern it and are conscious of it,” since the Bible addresses sins of ignorance and provision is made for atonement for them (Lev. 4:1-35; 5:14-19; Num. 15:25-29).

Where Does Sin Come From?

Sin does not come from the outside, but from the inside. This addresses a fundamental issue of nature vs. nurture: It is not a man’s environment that makes him bad, but his heart. “It is not the result of bad training in early years. It is not picked up from bad companions and bad examples, as some weak Christians are too fond of saying. No! it is a family disease, which we all inherit from our first parents, Adam and Eve, and with which we are born.” Although created “innocent and righteous” in God’s image, the entry of sin through Adam corrupted his posterity.

Even babies show that sin is inherent and not something they have to be taught. “The fairest babe that has entered life this year, and become the sunbeam of a family, is not, as its mother perhaps fondly calls it, a little ‘angel,’ or a little ‘innocent,’ but a little ‘sinner.’ Alas! as it lies smiling and crowing in its cradle, that little creature carries in its heart the seeds of every kind of wickedness.” This reminds me of the preacher who said that it was an insult to compare a child to a viper. But the viper was the one being insulted, since the child is the one with the sinful nature! Ryle reminds us that observation reveals the child’s “incessant tendency to that which is bad, and a backwardness to that which is good,” which is quickly revealed by “deceit, evil temper, selfishness, self-will, obstinacy, greediness, envy, jealousy, passion – which, if indulged and let alone, will shoot up with painful rapidity.” What honest parent could disagree? For this reason, we must not lay the final blame for the crowd that a wayward child runs with and neglect to recognize that he or she is corrupt at heart.

How Pervasive Is Sin?

“Sin is a disease which pervades and runs through every part of our moral constitution and every faculty of our minds.” It infects “the understanding, the affections, the reasoning powers, the will” and “even the conscience is so blinded that it cannot be depended on as a sure guide, and is likely to lead men wrong as right, unless it is enlightened by the Holy Ghost.”

The pervasiveness of sin is demonstrated in that the same creatures who can build architectural marvels and produce magnificent works of literature can “yet be slave to abominable vices like those described in the first chapter of the Epistle to the Romans.” This may be a mystery to those who deny God’s Word, but to those who know that man is a ruined temple (which still gives “some faint idea of the magnificence of the original design”), that the image of God in him has been defaced and ruined, these things do not come as a surprise. Sin pervades the entire human race and its “power, extent, and universality” proves “the inspiration of Genesis and the Mosaic account of the origin of man.”

Sin even tenaciously clings to those who have been regenerated by God’s Spirit. Although sin no longer dominates a believer in Christ, its roots remain with us until death. “Like the leprosy in the walls of the house, we never get rid of them until the earthly house of this tabernacle is dissolved.” Ryle exclaims, “Mighty indeed must that foe be who even when crucified is still alive! Happy is that believer who understands it, and while he rejoices in Christ Jesus has no confidence in the flesh; and while he says, ‘Thanks be unto God who giveth us the victory’ (1 Cor. 15:57), never forgets to watch and pray lest he fall into temptation!”

What Is God’s View of Sin?

To God, sin is never a trifle. We cannot, in this life, begin to comprehend how hateful and offensive and repulsive sin is to “that holy and perfect One with whom we have to do.” Ryle compares us to blind men who cannot distinguish a masterpiece of art from a village sign, to deaf men who cannot differentiate between a penny whistle and an organ, and to animals who have no concept that their smell disgusts us. Yet this sin is so horrible it deserves eternal punishment and took the blood of the Son of God to satisfy God’s wrath against guilty sinners. Ryle says, “Nothing, I am convinced, will astonish us so much, when we awake in the resurrection day, as the view we shall have of sin, and the retrospect we shall take of our own countless shortcomings and defects.” And when we do realize more fully the magnitude of our sin, there shall be great praise to God for His amazing redemption in Christ.

How Can We Beware of the Deceitfulness of Sin?

Men are prone “to regard sin as less sinful and dangerous than it is in the sight of God,” being ready “to extenuate it, make excuses for it, and minimize its guilt.” How many times have we confessed to a mistake or an error instead of high treason against the King of Heaven? Ryle points out expressions in his day such as “wild,” “thoughtless,” and “loose” that were (and sometimes are) used to smooth over the sinfulness of sin.

He also says that this tendency shows itself in those who “indulge their children in questionable practices” and are blinded to the dangers of the love of money, flirting with temptation, and “sanctioning a low standard of family religion.” What an indictment for our day! How often is the mantra of Christian liberty sounded to the detriment of holiness and love for God and others, being merely a veneer over our selfishness! We want to get as close as we can to those sins that are pleasurable to us without being stained, instead of “making no provision for the flesh” (Rom. 13:14). To only speak of a few examples in the electronic world, children are indulged in their risqué or immoral video games, chat rooms, websites, and participation in virtual reality fantasy worlds (in which many adults are involved as well). Family religion is almost extinct in many circles. Aside from the proverbial nod of the head on Sunday morning, many families of professing Christians give no thought to God throughout the week and in their time together and in the choices they make.

Ryle reminds us that temptation usually does not come to us “in its true colours” but presents itself as something “good and desirable” and so does not seem to be sin. We are to “exhort one another daily, lest any be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13). How many of us have become so desensitized by the exposure to and indulgence of sin in our intake of media and harboring of pet practices and thoughts? Let us beware of the deceitfulness of sin and watch out for this Trojan horse.

Two Implications of the Bible’s Teaching on Sin

  1. We have deep reasons for humiliation and self-abasement.

The Bible’s teaching on sin shows us what we are. We are miserable wretches who need to feel the weight of that neglected, non-sugarcoated word – a wretch like me! “What a mass of infirmity and imperfection cleaves to the very best of us at our very best!” Ryle references Richard Hooker’s “Learned Discourse on Justification” to point out that our sin causes us to see prayer as a burdensome duty rather than a glorious privilege to be desired and appreciated. Ryle also reminds us that those most known for their holy lives, such as Robert Murray M’Cheyne, are those who “have always been the humblest men.”

  1. We ought to be deeply thankful for the glorious gospel of the grace of God.

We should also feel the weight of the amazing grace that does save wretches like us. Our sin is great, but God’s grace is greater. “There is a remedy revealed for man’s need, as wide and broad and deep as man’s disease. 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.”

What Good Will the Teaching of the Bible on Sin Do?

1) It corrects bad theology.

A right view of sin destroys a vague, generic kind of theology which is afraid of precise definition. It makes a real change in belief and life. “People will never set their faces decidedly towards heaven, and live like pilgrims, until they really feel that they are in danger of hell.” By “bring[ing] the law to the front” and “press[ing] it on men’s attention,” as Christ did in the Sermon on the Mount, much good will be done to correct fuzzy, impotent theology. “We may depend on it, men will never come to Jesus, and stay with Jesus, and live for Jesus, unless they really know why they are to come, and what is their need.”

A right view of sin destroys a liberal theology in which “it is thought grand and wise to condemn no opinion whatsoever, and to pronounce all earnest and clever teachers to be trustworthy, however heterogeneous and mutually destructive their opinions may be.” These views that embrace all and criticize none (except views perceived as “narrow, illiberal, old-fashioned,” and obsolete). A right view of sin exposes the emptiness of bad theology.

2) It corrects a misguided view of external ceremonies.

A correct understanding of sin will show us that incense and rituals and labyrinth walking will never give us spiritual benefit. The inward must be dealt with. “A little child is easily quieted and amused with gaudy toys, and dolls, and rattles, so long as it is not hungry; but once let it feel the craving of nature within, and we know that nothing will satisfy it but food. Just so it is with man in the matter of his soul. Music, and flowers, and candles, and incense, and banners, and processions, and beautiful vestments, and confessionals, and man-made ceremonies of a semi-Romish character, may do well enough for him under certain conditions. But once let him ‘awake and arise from the dead’ (Eph. 5:14), and he will not rest content with these things. They will seem to him mere solemn triflings, and a waste of time. Once let him see his sin, and he must see his Saviour.” Those attracted to the renewed interest in ancient ceremonies like those Ryle mentioned would do well to seriously consider the truth about sin.

3) It corrects extreme views on perfection.

While we should certainly “aim high,” a right view of sin deflates us of any misguided expectation of sinlessness in this life. Ryle says, “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” and “likely to depress, discourage, and keep back inquirers after salvation” by giving a false view of the Christian life. A right view of sin exposes the truth that, although we should be growing in grace, we will still struggle with sin in this earthly body.

4) It corrects low views of personal holiness

Sorrowful at the decline of “the daily standard of daily life among professing Christians,” Ryle notes that understanding sin will encourage a higher standard of godliness. He blames the affluence of a society in which the tings “once called luxuries” have become conveniences and necessities. These things have given us more distractions and dulled our awareness to the need of self-denial. Another problem is contentment “with zeal for orthodoxy” to the neglect of “the sober realities of daily practical godliness.” Doctrine and life must be considered inseparable, and remember the sinfulness of sin will help us avoid separating what God always meant to be joined.

Ryle suggests turning to the Puritans for further study on this topic, particularly Owen, Burgess, Manton, and Charnock. He warns us that there is no need to “go back to Egypt, and borrow semi-Romish practices in order to revive our spiritual life. We need not restore the confessional, or return to monasticism or asceticism. Nothing of the kind! We must simply repent and do our first works.” The better we understand the vileness and tenacity of our sin, the more we will be led to draw near to Christ. “Much forgiven, we shall love much.”

Finally, Ryle notes encouraging signs of renewed interest in spirituality but reminds us that if they are to be of lasting value, they must “begin low” to “build high.”

Concluding Thoughts

Once again, Ryle is extremely contemporary. I recently attended an institution in which the charge of “bibliolatry” was leveled against those who took seriously the inspiration and authority and inerrancy of Scripture. In addition “free inquiry” seemed to be elevated above what God’s Word says. There was an inadequate view of sin.

Ryle’s view speaks to permissive parents who allow children to watch anything and spend unmonitored time on the Internet and in chat room. It should convict those who make little or no attempt to lead their families in godliness.

This chapter is also extremely relevant to me. What an antidote to the sin of pride I struggle with is the truth about sin! I have been reminded the need to consider those duties I am omitting and repent and fulfill them. Ryle has reminded me of how inadequate I am in self-examination, and my deficiencies in humility and thanksgiving to God for His grace.

I was most helped by the section on the deceitfulness of sin. I have a decent grasp of what sin is and how God thinks of it. But it’s easy to forget how attractive sin can be and the desensitizing effect it has. I want to be more watchful, so that I am not deceived by sin. I want others, particularly in my local church, to help me on this path, and I want to help them.

I want to be more holy. So, I must labor to better understand what sin is, and how I am affected by it, and the great praise God is due for His salvation from sin.

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.


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