Holiness, J.C. Ryle. Chios Classics (electronic text), 2015 (originally published 1877).
Summary: The classic collection by nineteenth century evangelical Anglican J.C. Ryle emphasizing that growth in Christ-like character (holiness) involves not only faith in Christ’s empowering work but effort in laying hold of that work and that this basic matter is far too often neglected in the church.
J. C. Ryle was an Anglican rector, and eventually bishop of the then-new Diocese of Liverpool. He lived from 1816-1900. Much of his work was among working class people, and it is evident in reading this collection of sermons why he was so popular. Unlike others who cultivated a dense eloquence, Ryle spoke plainly and clearly outlined his points such that anyone giving him their attention could follow. Even his titles were straightforward, the longest of which is only five words (“A Woman to be Remembered”, on Lot’s wife!).
Ryle’s main concern was for the decline in practical holiness in his day. Against the Keswick movement and others who took a type of “let go and let God” approach, Ryle argued that holy character was something assiduously fought for (one of the sermons in this collection is titled “The Fight!”), and that while faith in Christ’s working in one’s life was necessary, so also was effort and exertion.
The title sermon of this collection, “Holiness”, begins with an exposition of the nature of true holiness in one’s life, why such holiness ought to be pursued, and finally how such holiness may be attained, through striving and through dependence upon Christ. In the concluding section he writes:
That great divine, John Owen, the Dean of Christ Church, used to say, more than two hundred years ago, that there were people whose whole religion seemed to consist in going about complaining and telling everyone that they could do nothing of themselves. I am afraid that after two centuries, the same thing might be said with truth of some of Christ’s professing people in this day. I know there are texts in scripture which warrant such complaints. I do not object to them, when they come from men who walk in the steps of the apostle Paul and fight a good fight, as he did, against sin, the devil and the world. But I never like such complaints when I see ground for suspecting, as I often do — that they are only a cloak to cover spiritual laziness, and an excuse for spiritual sloth. If we say with Paul, “O wretched man that I am!” let us also be able to say with him, “I press toward the mark!”
The collection begins with a sermon on the nature of sin (“Sin”) and is followed by one on “Sanctification”, including the diligent use of means, and then the title sermon of “Holiness”. He then follows up on the theme of the struggle in the Christian life with chapters on “The Fight” and “The Cost”. He writes of the marks of “Growth in Grace” being a deepening sense of sin coupled with stronger faith, brighter hope, and growing love and spiritual-mindedness. The sermon on “Assurance” both holds out the reality of confidence in the work of Christ, coupled with the knowledge that one may not experience this and yet belong to Christ.
Then come four sermons around figures in scripture. He looks at Moses as an example of living by faith, Lot as a “beacon” warning us of the example of less than full-hearted obedience and Lot’s wife as “A Woman to be Remembered” because of the privileges she enjoyed, the repudiation of it all in the backward look, and the judgment she experienced. Finally, “Christ’s Greatest Trophy!” concerns the thief on the cross who believed–one of the rare instances I’ve come across of a sermon on this episode.
The next sermons concern the Lordship of Jesus in adversity, (“Ruler of the Waves”), and over the church (“The Church Which Christ Builds” and “Visible Churches Warned”). Sermons fifteen to eighteen focus around our call to love the Lord (“Do You Love Me?”), the sobering reality of life “Without Christ”, how Christ addresses our deepest thirst, and through us addresses the thirst of others (“Thirst Relieved!”). He explores the “Unsearchable Riches” of life in Christ.
His concluding sermons in this collection focus first on the “Needs of the Times”, including the authority of scripture, a clear grasp of Christian doctrine, a pursuit of holiness, and perseverance in private devotion. This sermon does have some sharp words against the Catholicism of his day. The collection concludes on a high note as Ryle explores all the ways “Christ is All”, a wonderful resource for nurturing one’s worship!
Ryle’s frank and straightforward preaching is a breath of fresh air. Read Ryle if you want to learn how to preach plainly. Read him to understand how good shepherds of God’s people afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Read him to examine your own life and to stir you from indifference. Read him to appreciate the marvelous riches one has in Christ. And read him for the practical help he gives in pursuing a “practical” holiness.
A note on editions: All of the most inexpensive editions of Holiness are in electronic form, including that linked to in this post. As a public domain work, it may be found for free or very cheaply online in various e-formats. Amazon also sells print-on-demand editions. Crossway has a more expensive paperback that includes a biography of Ryle by J.I. Packer under the title Faithfulness and Holiness. One should check to see if the edition you are buying has all twenty sermons–some are abridged–and it is worth getting them all!