A review by Jeremy Marshall of J. C. Ryle’s Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots.1
If there was one book any Christian could have – in addition to the Bible, obviously – various candidates would be advanced. Historically, it would have been, in English-speaking countries anyway, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.2 Other books might spring to mind. For me, J. C. Ryle’s Holiness would be a strong challenger. Ryle was the (Victorian era) first ever Bishop of Liverpool, and so in places the book is a little dated. Not many of us have to wrestle with issues around servants, for example! One or two other Victorian shibboleths like temperance also feature occasionally. The picture of Ryle looks just like a Victorian prophet, but surely in 2015 he is hardly relevant to a world of Google and iPads? Just why is it that his books and especially his master work Holiness are so gripping? His books are certainly very distinctive in style. They have short sentences. They never pull punches. They are personal. They are powerful, challenging, meaty, rich in content, and especially very strong on practical application. Many evangelical sermons and books we have today tend to be first rate in their theology, but can on occasion fall short in their application of that theology to the everyday life of the reader. Not Ryle. Application is tough because it’s really the preacher or reader coming down out of the pulpit and saying to the man or women who is hearing the sermon or reading the book, ‘Now, listen, this is what I suggest you should do differently.’ It’s the ‘so what?’ question. In business, for example, people can give you vast amounts of data but without conclusions, application, or things we should do differently. It is all very interesting, but without application it is academically interesting only. The same is true in Christian teaching.
So what sparked Ryle to write Holiness? In his day, the Keswick Movement was going strong. Keswick (an annual Christian conference in the town of Keswick in the English Lake District) as an event today is excellent, but the 19th-century theology coming out of Keswick was dangerous. Its watchword was ‘Let go and let God’. Like all heresies, there is much of truth in this. We can do nothing by ourselves. We do not earn our way to God: faith is his free gift. But, as Ryle points out, ‘Is it wise to think of faith as the one thing needful … that the holiness of [Christians] … is by faith only and not at all by personal exertion?’ (‘No’ is the answer, in case you were wondering.) We seem to have thrown out the baby of sanctification with the bathwater of legalism. This is a common thought of people of other faiths. They think that the Christian view is something like, ‘I am saved, so I can do what I wish’. As Voltaire said ‘God will forgive, that’s his business’. This book is the perfect antidote to that fatal error.
Ryle points out how much the Bible has to say about being holy: the Christian is commanded in many places to become like the Lord Jesus. When our friends and family who are not Christians point out the many things in our life that are wrong – basically hypocrisy, because we say one thing and do another – then the answer is to admit our faults and become holy. Holiness is also important, argues Ryle, because it is the way we do good to others. The description ‘do-gooder’ very sadly has a negative connotation in English, but it is a biblical injunction. Ryle says ‘It makes [the Christian faith] beautiful and draws men to consider it, like a lighthouse seen afar off’. If we don’t have that gravitational pull, if we don’t see people coming to the ‘lighthouse’, then it may well be because we don’t have the ‘light ‘- the holiness.
Ryle then moves on to answer the next question, again a rather obvious one: ‘If we need holiness, how do we get it?’ What are the practical means available? He also sprinkles the book with warnings to the Christian. Lot’s wife, for example, who was very reluctant to leave Sodom when it was being destroyed by God. She was being pulled out by the angels, but lingered. As she fled she was turned into a pillar of salt. She wanted to escape the coming judgment, but she felt the powerful gravitational pull of this life and money and possessions and the cares of this world. As Ryle points out, she is a solemn warning to all Christians of the danger of ‘wanting to have our cake and eat it too’. Or as Ryle says, ‘They [people like Lot’s wife] are neither one thing or another: not quite a thorough going Christian and not quite men of the world’. But Ryle doesn’t leave us there: he brings us to a much more encouraging example, that of the thief on the cross.
If you feel comfortable and relaxed in your faith, if you feel all is well with your Christian life, if you feel you are really a very decent sort of person, then don’t read Ryle; for he will shake you awake, pour cold water on you, slap you round the face and generally prod you into life. Let me give the man himself the last word. This is typical of Ryle:
Believers in the Lord Jesus of every church … I feel much for you. I know your course is hard. I know it is a sore battle you have to fight. I know you are often tempted to say ‘It is of no use’ and to lay down your arms altogether. Cheer up, dear brethren and sisters. Take comfort, I entreat you … Be encouraged to fight on. The time is short. The Lord is at hand. The night is far spent. Millions as weak as you have fought the same fight. Not one of all these millions has finally been led captive by Satan. Mighty are your enemies – but the Captain of your salvation is mightier still … Cheer up. Be not cast down. What though you lose a battle or two? You shall not be cast down. You shall not be destroyed. Watch against sin and sin shall not have dominion against you. Resist the devil and he shall flee from you … You shall find yourselves in the end more than conquerors – you shall overcome.
So for advice on how to ‘overcome’, read Ryle!
BANNER OF TRUTH ONLINE MAGAZINE; Taken with permission from Protestant Truth, July-August 2015.