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J.C. Ryle’s Holiness: The Introduction


J.C. Ryle is a new favorite author of mine this year, after I heard his name in connection with Spurgeon and Horatius Bonar at Barry Horner’s Future Israel site. Ryle is very readable and straightforward — and very quotable with many great statements of biblical truth. Like Spurgeon, he upheld great Calvinist understanding including justification by faith, yet Ryle brought out more teaching in the area of practical Christian living and sanctification. I’ve now read through his “Coming Events and Present Duties” collection and Practical Religion. Next is Holiness, a book I’ve also heard of from some recent blogs.

The Pyromaniacs blog recently looked at the error of the Keswick movement (“Deeper Life” and “Let Go and Let God”), and noted J.C. Ryle’s “Holiness” as the great publication that refutes the passive attitude. Now that I’ve read Ryle’s introduction, I have a much clearer understanding of the error, which goes to show that nothing is really all that new. The Pentecostal movement may have officially begun in 1900 at Azusa Street, but its roots and influence go further back to the 1870s with ideas about a “second conversion” and perfection in this life.

John MacArthur gave a good summary of J.C. Ryle’s Holiness and the Keswick movement, in this message:

I started reading again this week J.C. Ryle’s book on holiness and just going through it again which is always a wonderful experience for one’s soul. And what prompted that book was the…in his era, the nineteenth century, what prompted that book was the growing influence of the Keswick Movement in England which was the “Let go and let God” movement. You just kind of sit down and God takes over and you don’t do anything. . . .

Well that rankled J.C. Ryle to the bone, I promise you. Because he viewed the Christian life in a biblical way, it was a warfare. It was a boxing match. It was a wrestling match. It was an agonizing race. And he wrote the book on holiness to shut down that false kind of idea that you are to relax and somehow let God do everything for you. So it is a race. That’s the event. And we’re in it for life.

As always, Ryle is insightful and helpful. His introduction especially makes the distinction between justification and sanctification:

Justifying faith is a grace that “works not,” but simply trusts, rests, and leans on Christ. ( Romans 4:5.) Sanctifying faith is a grace of which the very life is action: it “works by love,” and, like a main-spring, moves the whole inward man. ( Galatians 5:6.). . . .
It is thoroughly Scriptural and right to say “faith alone justifies.” But it is not equally Scriptural and right to say “faith alone sanctifies.” The saying requires very large qualification. Let one fact suffice. We are frequently told that a man is “justified by faith without the works of the law,” by St. Paul. But not once are we told that we are “sanctified by faith without the deeds of the law.” On the contrary, we are expressly told by St. James that the faith whereby we are visibly and demonstratively justified before man, is a faith which “if it has not works is dead, being alone.”
. . .
But the plain truth is, that men will persist in confounding two things that differ–that is, justification and sanctification. In justification the word to address to man is believe–only believe; in sanctification the word must be “watch, pray, and fight.” What God has divided let us not mingle and confuse.

Another part of the introduction sounds like it could just as well have been written in modern times:

True holiness, we surely ought to remember, does not consist merely of inward sensations and impressions. It is much more then tears, and sighs, and bodily excitement, and a quickened pulse, and a passionate feeling of attachment to our favorite preachers and our own religious party, and a readiness to quarrel with everyone who does not agree with us. It is something of “the image of Christ.” which can be seen and observed by others in our private life, and habits, and character, and doings. (Romans 8:29.)

Though Ryle does not “name names” of those in the early Keswick movement, the Pyromaniacs blog referenced above mentions several specific teachers (some from J.C. Ryle’s era, and into the 20th century), some of which are familiar to Christian readers today: Andrew Murray, Hannah Whitall Smith, H. C. G. Moule, F. B. Meyer, Frances Ridley Havergal, “and many others.” J.C. Ryle here follows the common practice of the New Testament writers, who generally did not cite negative points against the error, rather presenting the positive aspects of what correct doctrine includes. Yet it is also interesting to note, with S. Lewis Johnson in his 1 Timothy study, that in some cases the apostle Paul did “name names” such as “Hymenaeus and Alexander” and “Hymenaeus and Philetus” (1 Timothy 1: 20, 2 Timothy 2:17 )  — so both approaches can be used, teaching right doctrine and mentioning the names of those promoting error.

Finally, J.C. Ryle makes another good point concerning how those promoting one doctrinal idea against another should at least show (Christian practical living again) proper respect to the view they oppose. Here he specifically addresses the interpretation of Romans 7, but the words certainly apply to other doctrinal matters (as for example, those who ridicule the idea of premillennialism and future for ethnic Israel, views held by J.C. Ryle and many other of the best minds of the last few centuries):

If we cannot agree with men, we need not speak of their views with discourtesy and contempt. An opinion which is backed and supported by such men as the best Reformers and Puritans may not carry conviction to all minds in the nineteenth century, but at any rate it would be well to speak of it with respect.

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  1. Julius
    August 11, 2015 at 5:20 am

    I would like to make a correction to your text on Hannah Whital Smith. She was a good quaker author whose book “Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life” is available in CCEL to download – she was holding to an orthodox Christianity. It was actually her husband Robert Pearsall Smith who was an advocate and preacher of higher life and who has in most part inspired Ryle to write his masterpiece on Holiness. J.I.Packer has wrote a wonderful preface for this book and he there explained that Ryle wrote against “Pearsall-Smithism.”

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