Ryle On Holiness

I have written about holiness before, and I have written about J.C. Ryle before, but so impressed am I about the man and his writings, that I must revisit these topics again. The English evangelical has left us a great legacy, and more contemporary Christians need to be aware of this great man.

John Charles Ryle was born in 1816 into a nominally Christian home. His father was a banker, and he expected to go into the family business. But God had other plans. While completing his studies at Oxford in 1837, he was soundly converted upon hearing a simple reading of Ephesians 2:8 at a church service.

He said of his conversion experience, “Nothing to this day appeared to me so clear and distinct as my own sinfulness, Christ’s presence, the value of the Bible, the absolute necessity of coming out of the world, and the need of being born again.”

His father’s banking business collapsed in 1841, so later that year he became an ordained minister in the Church of England. Being an evangelical in the established church was not easy, but his passion for God and love for his people saw him established in powerful and effective ministry.

After two years as curate in Exbury, he moved to Winchester, and then Suffolk. After nearly four decades of service there, he became Bishop of Liverpool in 1880. He served this position for the last two decades of his life, and passed into glory in 1900.

One of his clergy said at his funeral that “few men in the nineteenth century did so much for God, for truth, and for righteousness among the English-speaking race, and in the world, as our late Bishop.”

I have kept this biographical sketch deliberately brief, so I can concentrate on one thing, his important 1877 volume, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots. There are numerous reprints available, including the 2007 Hendrickson paperback which I have.

Quoting from this invaluable book is really my excuse for writing this article. I simply wish to highlight some of the great godly wisdom found here. Indeed, the best way to present this book to you is simply to offer tempting extracts from it, in the hope that readers will go out and get a copy, and read the entire volume. Here then are some classic quotations from Ryle’s Holiness:

“Wrong views about holiness are generally traceable to wrong views about human corruption. . . . If a man does not realize the dangerous nature of his soul’s diseases, you cannot wonder if he is content with false or imperfect remedies.”

“A scriptural view of sin is one of the best antidotes to that vague, dim, misty, hazy kind of theology which is so painfully current in the present age”

“We must not merely have a Christian name, and Christian knowledge, we must have a Christian character also. We must be saints on earth, if ever we mean to be saints in heaven. God has said it, and He will not go back: ‘Without holiness no man shall see the Lord’.”

“Tell me not of your justification, unless you have also some marks of sanctification. Boast not of Christ’s work for you, unless you can show us the Spirit’s work in you.”

“I cannot read the Bible without desiring to see many believers more spiritual, more holy, more single-eyed, more heavenly-minded, more wholehearted than they are.”

“He that would understand the nature of true holiness must know that the Christian is ‘a man of war.’ If we would be holy we must fight.”

“True Christianity is ‘a fight’. The true Christian is called to be a soldier, and must behave as such from the day of his conversion to the day of his death. He is not meant to live a life of religious ease, indolence, and security.”

“Whether we are churchmen or not, one thing is certain—this Christian warfare is a great reality and a subject of vast importance. It is not a matter like church government and ceremonial, about which men may differ, and yet reach heaven at last. Necessity is laid upon us. We must fight. There are no promises in the Lord Jesus Christ’s epistles to the seven churches, except to those who ‘overcome.’ Where there is grace there will be conflict. The believer is a soldier. There is no holiness without a warfare. Saved souls will always be found to have fought a fight.

“It is a fight of absolute necessity. Let us not think that in this war we can remain neutral and sit still. Such a line of action may be possible in the strife of nations, but it is utterly impossible in that conflict which concerns the soul. The boasted policy of non–interference, the ‘masterly inactivity’ which pleases so many statesmen, the plan of keeping quiet and letting things alone—all this will never do in the Christian warfare. Here at any rate no one can escape serving under the plea that he is ‘a man of peace.’ To be at peace with the world, the flesh and the devil, is to be at enmity with God and in the broad way that leads to destruction. We have no choice or option. We must either fight or be lost.”

“All true saints are soldiers.”

“A religion that costs nothing is worth nothing! A cheap Christianity without a cross will prove in the end a useless Christianity without a crown.”

“We can never have too much humility, too much faith in Christ, too much holiness, too much spirituality of mind, too much charity, too much zeal in doing good to others.”

“In serving pleasure and money it is easy to go too far. But in following the things which make up true religion, and in serving Christ there can be no extreme.”

“There is a common, worldly kind of Christianity in this day, which many have, and think they have enough – a cheap Christianity which offends nobody, and is worth nothing. I am not speaking of religion of this kind. But if you really are in earnest about your soul-if your religion is something more than a mere fashionable Sunday cloak-if you are determined to live by the Bible-if you are resolved to be a New Testament Christian, then, I repeat, you will soon find you must carry a cross. You must endure hard things, you must suffer on behalf of your soul, as Moses did, or you cannot be saved.”

“The visible Churches have their times of prosperity and seasons of peace, but never has there been a time of peace for the true Church. Its conflict is perpetual. Its battle never ends. Warfare with the powers of hell is the experience of every individual member of the true Church. Each has to fight. What are the lives of all the saints, but records of battles?”

“Let me warn all careless members of Churches to beware lest they trifle their souls into hell. You live on year after year as if there was no battle to be fought with sin, the world, and the devil. You pass through life a smiling, laughing, gentlemanlike or lady-like person, and behave as if there was no devil, no heaven, and no hell.”

“Surely, no man with his eyes open can fail to see that the Christianity of the New Testament is something far higher and deeper than the Christianity of most professing Christians. The formal, easy-going, do-little thing which most people call religion, is evidently not the religion of the Lord Jesus.”

“Of all sights in the Church of Christ, I know none more painful to my own eyes than a Christian contented and satisfied with a little grace, a little repentance, a little faith, a little knowledge, a little charity, and a little holiness. I do beseech and entreat every believing soul that reads this tract not to be that kind of man. If you have any desires after usefulness – if you have any wishes to promote your Lord’s glory – if you have any longings after much inward peace – be not content with a little religion.”

So I beseech you brethren, go out and get a copy of Holiness and be richly challenged and blessed. (It is available in Australia at Koorong books.)

[1388 words]

8 Replies to “Ryle On Holiness”

  1. A wonderful book – Ryle was a godly and gifted preacher. I found it more to be a collection of sermons looking at the topic in a number of different ways, particularly with the purpose of encouraging, rebuking and instructing the reader.

    However, I did not find it to be a systematic address of the topic of holiness, which I think is also important.

    I might then recommend A. W. Pink’s ‘The Doctrine of Sanctification’ as important supplementary reading to this volume 🙂

    Isaac Overton, ACT

  2. Does anyone know of any good evangelical books on holiness that are not overtly Calvinist – i.e. in the tradition of John Wesley, William Booth, etc.?
    Grant Vandervalk

  3. Thanks John

    Yes, his hundreds of tracts were translated into many different languages, and by 1900 there were over 12 million of these tracts circulating worldwide. Thanks for the links.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  4. Thanks Bill. It sounds like a book to look out for. Very interesting emphasis on spiritual warfare mixed with holiness. I was reading Joel 2 the other day. It’s a really glorious chapter in the context of the previous one on a supernaturally empowered, disciplined, obedient and unified army which literally takes on the enemy with a vengeance, on the thundered command of the Lord of Hosts.
    The concept that every Christian must be engaged in warfare is not always preached from pulpits today. Thank God for the prophetic voice.
    Dee Graf

  5. Bill, I’m no expert, but I fancy you misrepresent Evangelical or Low Church Christianity in the Established [always capital E] Church in the first half of the 19th century (“Being an evangelical in the established church was not easy”). While the Catholic Revival or Oxford Movement is much better known, the contemporary Evangelical Revival was powerful and important, and very influential in government and the governing/landed classes. Actually, by the end of the century, its was the Anglo Catholics (or Ritualists, as they had become) who were in a parlous situation: Parliament legislated against any use of ritual in the C of E, and some of the leaders actually went to jail.
    Ryle – yes, great man. So often, Holiness sounds as though it refers to our present situation. We do need reminding of people like him; so, good article.
    John Thomas, UK

  6. Thanks Bill for bringing to light J.C Ryles, I have just purchased three of his books, including the one you have recommended.
    Jeffrey Carl

    Thanks John for those links too.

    Jeffrey Carl

  7. I have just been reading J.C.Ryle’s book, The Thoughts For Young Men. What inspired writing. I must say that this a must read book for all ages. Even those of us who are middle aged and older will find wisdom, and the regrets of youthful sins.
    Young men, young men, I wish you did but know the comfort of a conscience not burdened with a long list of youthful sins. These are the wounds that pierce the deepest….Be merciful to yourselves. Seek the Lord early, and so you will be spared many a bitter tear.
    A truth that many will only learn later in life, only then to suffer the consequences of misspent youth.

    Where are the teachers like him in our churches today?

    Jeffrey Carl

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