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Getting Ryled About Holiness

ladder-to-heavenThere's a famous short piece by JC Ryle called "Suppose an Unholy Man Went to Heaven." It's only about a thousand words but it's had a wide influence. I've heard it quoted approvingly a number of times.

Ryle begins:

Suppose for a moment that you were allowed to enter heaven without holiness. What would you do? What possible enjoyment could you feel there? To which of all the saints would you join yourself and by whose side would you sit? Their pleasures are not your pleasures, their tastes are not your tastes, their character not your character. How could you possibly be happy, if you had not been holy on earth?

The bishop then spells out the heavenly life in stark contrast to earthly pleasures. Therefore...

heaven would be a miserable place to an unholy man. It cannot be otherwise. People may say, in a vague way, they "hope to go to heaven", but they do not consider what they say... We must be heavenly-minded, and have heavenly tastes, in the life that now is, or else we shall never find ourselves in heaven, in the life to come.

If all this sounds like salvation by works, Ryle has a verse: "Without holiness no man shall see the Lord" (Heb. 12:14).

He repeats the verse again and again - it seems pretty much the foundation of his case. But he ignores the way holiness (or "sanctification" - same word) is used throughout Hebrews - 2:11; 9:13; 10:10; 10:14; 10:29; 13:12.  In virtually every case it's a declared status, won through the sanctifying sacrifice of Christ (e.g. "we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." (Heb 10:10)).

In only one of the verses cited above is sanctification mentioned as an ongoing process - but even then the process is anchored to a definitive salvation:

By one sacrifice Christ has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. (Hebrews 10:14)

It's true we must be holy to see the Lord. It's also true - and the whole book of Hebrews proclaims it - that Christ's sacrifice alone gives us that holiness. Yet Ryle seems to want to locate this saving quality within us.

He understands that folks might protest at this. So he addresses the objection we all feel...

You may say, it is impossible to be so holy and to do our duty in this life at the same time: the thing cannot be done. I answer, "You are mistaken." It can be done. With Christ on your side nothing is impossible.

Did somebody say infused grace? And make no mistake, the thing to be achieved here is heaven itself. If anyone complains at this achievement of glory, Ryle reminds us...

It is in religion as it is in other things, there are no gains without pains. That which costs nothing is worth nothing.

There it is - no pain, no gain. And finally the whole thing is unmasked - it's actually a very worldly way of considering holiness! Religion is like all other things, a costly, painful achievement which we make on our way to heaven. Surely Ryle is not being heavenly-minded enough! Surely he's not considering spiritual things spiritually. In the end, doesn't he prop up the whole enterprise on a carnal foundation? Holiness is like everything else, the achievement of hard work.

It seems to me that Ryle isn't being spiritual enough. Now it's true that Ryle says more in his book "Holiness." And there he stresses that holiness comes in Christ alone and he counsels us to seek it in Christ. But there's also all this stuff as well which, if you ask me, seriously undermines the 'Christ alone' teaching he wants to uphold.

Where does it go wrong?

Well fundamentally, in these teachings, everything important about holiness gets located in us and not in Jesus. And from that foundational error flows a characteristic problem with Ryle's presentation. For Ryle the "holy" trajectory for everything seems to be in and up and later.  'Come in out of the world, lift yourself up into heaven so that later you'll enjoy salvation.' All godly travel is coming in from the nasty world and up into glory, white-knuckling it now because later it'll be worth it.

But if Jesus Christ - the Holy One of Israel - defines holiness for us, we get a very different picture.  Because we are so carnal and unable to work up a holiness of our own, therefore Christ descends with His sanctifying love that reaches outwards and downwards, to be felt now. Holiness is Jesus-shaped. It means being met in our filth now, cleansed, and then swept along with Jesus to extend ourselves out into an unclean world, stooping down to the gutters of this world and in this way experiencing now the life of heaven.

It's really not about preparing ourselves for heaven later - it's about living the heavenly life now: the life of self-forgetful, neighbour-loving, cheek-turning, enemy-forgiving love.  That's holiness. It's Christ's own life which He has given us in the gospel. It's ours to live now - not as some qualification for heaven later.

So then, be holy! But define holiness Christianly - i.e. according to Christ.

Be holy! But let Christ's holiness thrust you outside the camp (Heb 13:12-13)

Be holy! But realise it's Christ's gift, once for all, not your continual achievement.

Be holy! But know that the point is to live Christ's life now, not to earn His blessing later.

Be holy! But don't be so carnal as to think it's the ladder to heaven.

Be holy! But make sure it's Spiritual holiness - the gift of Christ's Spirit to you - the very life of heaven to be enjoyed here and now on earth.

Be holy because Jesus your Lord is holy. And right now you're in Him.

8 thoughts on “Getting Ryled About Holiness

  1. Maria

    Holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord Heb.12:14. Recommend J.C. Ryle's book 'Holiness' chapter 3 gives a full and thorough explanation on this subject which ultimately leads you to trust in Christ only.

  2. Glen

    Hi Maria,

    Yes the ending of chapter 3 of "Holiness" is a much needed heralding of "Christ alone." But I do think that some of his other comments in that same chapter undermine it. When he asks "How does the account stand between our souls and God?" and then turn us to our works in order to answer the question, I think that undermines the 'Christ alone' emphasis he clearly wants. Similarly when he says "The only safe evidence that we are one with Christ, and Christ in us — is holy life" he will make us trust in our works, even though he claims repeatedly to want us to trust in Christ alone.

    He says much that's helpful in that chapter but the criticisms above still stand I think.

  3. Maria

    belated thank you Glen, for taking the time to reply... on the subject of J.C.Ryle's 'Holiness' chapter, and yes I think I do see where you are coming from, and I admit that some of his other comments in the same chapter can be very confusing, but then the whole subject of faith versus works has always been problematic to me, you can go round and round in circles. It can drive you nuts in the end...J.C.Ryle one of my favourite old time authors but...there is so much in it...and I guess I sometimes need to read more carefully.
    am reminded of Ecclesiastes 12.12 the Scripture about 'too much reading....
    ' And further, my son, be admonished by these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is wearisome to the flesh.'

  4. Brian Midmore

    This is a can of worms that throws us back into the reformation controversies. Isnt Ryle merely repeating the reformed idea that works are the fruit of justification, and therefore to know for sure that we are justified we must be sanctified to some extent. 'He who practices righteousness is righteous'. 1 Jn 3.7. This is Calvin's distinctio sed non separatio principle. Although justification is distinct from sanctification it is not separate from it. Also although justification is monergistic sanctification is synergistic i.e it requires our decision to repent etc. This might be construed by the more Lutheran as works justification. You are right in your critique of Ryle's 'be holy to get to heaven in the end' approach. We are to be holy to bring a piece of God's kingdom into the here and now. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

  5. Maria

    YES...this approach to the can of worms so very much better, thank you.

    "We are to be holy to bring a piece of God’s kingdom into the here and now. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

  6. Glen

    It's absolutely essential to distinguish but not separate justification and (what's come to be known as) sanctification. But Calvin was insistent that saving faith was an assured knowledge of the benevolence of God in Christ - i.e. that assurance was a part of *faith*. Assurance therefore comes in the same place that salvation comes - in Christ alone. Later Puritans consciously rejected Calvin here and separated assurance from faith. At that point the door is open to the Ryles of this world to focus our search for assurance on *ourselves* and our degree of 'sanctification.'

    Indeed holiness is the heavenly life come down

  7. Brian Midmore

    In Heb 12.14 Christians are exhorted to pursue holiness so might we not conclude that this is referring to sanctification, to a realised actual holiness that is expressed in works. Does not Heb 10.14 say that he has justified (made holy positionally) those who are being sanctified (made holy in practise). I suppose now the issues are now much of me is involved in sanctification' this sanctification necessary for salvation.
    Ryle if I am correct says quite a bit to 1) and yes to 2). I suppose this could end up as works righteousness if you weren't careful. Nonetheless sanctification is needed for salvation since it is those who are justified that God sanctifies and sanctification to some extent does require our cooperation with God. If we don't cooperate with God as he sanctifies us we effectively fall from grace as did the man in 1 Cor 5. This man justification was in jeopardy because he would not be sanctified.

  8. Glen

    Hi Brian, cooperation with God has certainly come to be the dominant association we have with sanctification today. But Scripturally it's not so. See even within Hebrews - 2:11; 9:13; 10:10; 10:29; 13:12. Just four verses before 10:14 we have an emphatic perfect passive (have been made holy) with a "once for all" to boot! Then in 10:14 it's still a passive, but this time in the present tense (nb: translating Greek present tenses can involve a slight overtranslation if we bring out continuous action when that's not always the thought in Greek). The KJV just has 'them that are sanctified' in 10:14. However we think of the present tense, the passive *voice* is important!

    Whatever kind of sanctification is tied to salvation we should affirm that it is entirely "of the LORD".

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