JC Ryle’s book called “Holiness” is one of the most highly regarded books on the topic of sanctification. So much of what is being written that is helpful on sanctification find common reliance on the biblical teachings put forth by Ryle in this classic volume. Kevin DeYoung, Charles Bridges and Bryan Chappell (whose books are all worth getting and reading) refer back to Ryle time and time again. Ryle, it seems, wrote with much clarity and with the usual doxological tone that we have come to respect from Reformed ministers and their work.
I would like to summarize the main thoughts of the book as I go through it. That way, the material will be accessible to those whom it might not be at this time. Kevin DeYoung has done this for me and I would like to do it for you guys, the reader. Just like Kevin, I want to point you to read Ryle’s book for yourself. There is no substitute for reading the original. Read with your Bible open, just as Ryle would want. He has nothing to hide and will show what he says from the text of sacred Scripture. The book points us again and again to Christ who first is our righteousness and then out of the same free grace allows us to walk in feeble faithfulness to God.
Today we will look at Ryle’s preface to the volume. Carl Trueman often remarks about how important it is to understand the contexts in which these great works of Christian history were written in. Ryle lived from 1816 to 1900, a period where revivalism and “religious excitement” were all the rage. There was a seeming peculiar interest in spiritual things during this era. The fervor matched that of the First Great Awakening, however, the Second Great Awakening lacked in the substance and faithfulness that characterized the first. Long gone were the towering theologians such as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield and the Wesley brothers. Theology had been superseded by method, “affections” replaced by carnal emotion.
This is the context in which Ryle writes. He gives his thesis early on saying, “Above all, I hope they will help to bring forward the grand truth that union with Christ is the root of holiness, and will show young believers what immense encouragement Jesus Christ holds out to all who strive to be holy.” Ryle’s aim is evangelical; namely, that the gospel of Christ (along with its immense implications) might shine brightly by the Spirit in the hearts of believers by faith. Contra Wesleyan holiness, Ryle refocuses the believer to the finished work of Christ and draws motivation for holiness from what has been done and not what there is left to do. Ryle sees the enablement to pursue holiness as a great gift of God to the believer. We all were once subjected to futility, willingly exchanging the truth about God for a lie and have all gloried in the created rather than the Creator, the infinite and worthy. As a result, our foolish hearts were darkened. By in Christ we have redemption and justification by trusting in the work of Christ done objectively in history for us. But these objective truths serve to power the engine of subjective, non-justifying good deeds and piety.
At the time Ryle wrote, many were interested in what was called a “higher life.” This stream of thought is often referred to as Keswick theology. The phrase “let go and let God” came from such teaching. Many would gather for such “higher life” or “consecration” meetings where emotional affectation was on full display. However, the lasting effect of such meetings was only shell and not substance. They seemed to do much good, Ryle observed but still he had to ask, “But is the good deal, deeply rooted, solid, lasting?” In other words, Ryle saw that these “excitements” translated little into actual holiness of life.
Ryle wondered if the attendees of these meetings were noticeably different from the world, not when they were together as a group but when they scattered back to their daily lives. How real was the fruit? He wrote: Do those who attend these meetings become more holy, meek, unselfish, good-tempered, self-denying and Christlike at home?” Ryle posits that genuine religious affections should drive us to Christlikeness. One might be very enthusiastic when the music is loud and the lights are down, but how do they treat their wife? Their children? Their neighbor?
Sympathy characterizes Ryle’s introduction. He aches for true holiness to be valued, for God to be highly treasured instead of experience being an end in itself. Tenderly, he seeks to be charitable in judgement and asks for his readers to return the favor. No doubt, in Ryle’s mind, were those in these meetings well-intentioned. But good intentions does not a faithful ministry make. Early on, Ryle models a “broken-hearted orthodoxy.” Ryle is hurt by these errors, as the gospel of Christ and its sanctifying power are neglected. He is concerned not for his own namesake but God’s. Ryle states at the end of the preface that for him to write in unnecessarily harsh tones would serve to undermine the very point of his book. Ryle writes, not to prove himself holier than thou, but to point to the holiness of God in the gospel. He aims to encourage the genuine believer than obedience (however weak and imperfect) is possible and that the holier we are the happier in Christ we will be.
This book has been excellent so far (even just the preface). May we always look to truth about God to drive our feelings and affections for God. And may these affections effect our demeanor, our speech and our conduct. All the while we look to Christ who is our only righteousness before God the Father.