Friday, December 4, 2015

Holiness by JC Ryle

But don't get the abridged version, folks.
I found this book in an op shop in New Zealand and picked it up almost as a matter of course. Even though I'd never read any of JC Ryle's work before, I knew this book was a devotional classic.

First published in 1877, Holiness is a collection of essays on a range of topics loosely centred around the topic of sanctification. It begins with chapters on sin and sanctification, and then goes on to discuss specific examples (such as Moses and Lot), the person of Christ, and the role of the Church.

A book this disparate is a little difficult to review. Let me begin by saying that Holiness justifies its reputation as a classic of Christian living. In some ways, it's a rather basic introduction to some foundational aspects of the Christian life. But in another way, that makes it a must-read for every Christian. Ryle's supreme virtue is his ability to define terms with crystal clarity. He is very careful and very distinct in his wording of various definitions and drawing of various distinctions.

This becomes clear pretty early on, as Ryle lays out the role of works in the Christian life. To most Protestants, the idea of works playing any role in the Christian life is basically crypto-Catholicism. But as Ryle insists, the role of works is an intensely important one--in our sanctification. Justification is the work of God from beginning to end, amen. But "In sanctification our own works are of vast importance, and God bids us fight, and watch, and pray, and strive, and take pains, and labour."

 Ryle's clarity in defining sanctification and showing how it differs to justification enables him then to wax refreshingly eloquent in praise of works, without risking the grace of the Gospel. In a day when the vast body of Christianity doesn't look any different to the world, it's imperative that we recover a high view of the role of works in sanctification.

That's where the book starts, but it then progresses through a lot of other topics, ranging quite widely. I want to mention a few highlights and criticisms.

I really enjoyed the chapters on the person of Christ, especially Ryle's emphasis on Christ's authority and on his sympathy with his people. The person of Christ, and his familiarity with our struggles, is what prevents the God of Christianity from being an impersonal and uncaring force like the pagan Fate or Kismet.

His chapters on the church were also thought-provoking and eye-opening. I appreciated Ryle's definition of evangelicalism, and the comparison he made with sacramentalism, in the chapter on the Visible Church. As always, his definitions were very crisp and clear, and allowed me to see where I think I might disagree with him. According to Ryle, evanglicalism puts the emphasis on the individual and his walk with Christ, while sacramentalism puts the emphasis on the corporate church and membership thereof as the mark of salvation. Ryle argues in favour of evanglicalism as the right way to go about it, but his crisp definition made me doubt for the first time in my life whether I am really an evangelical, since I believe that both the individual and the collective are equally important, the tension between them being resolved in the three unified persons of the Trinity.

This individualistic emphasis may be at the root of another difference I suspect I may have with JC Ryle. Throughout the book, I got the feeling that he was coming to his topic from an amillenial perspective. His emphasis is overwhelmingly upon personal salvation and personal sanctification, to the general exclusion of any consideration of the impact of the Gospel, and the necessity of works, in the salvation and sanctification of corporate entities: families, churches, nations. In that respect, the hope and comfort held out by Ryle's book is of limited use. He gives personal encouragement, chiefly focused upon how great things will be in the next life; and he gives little or no encouragement for the spread of Christ's kingdom in space and time. Salvation is the most precious gift of all, for sure. But I don't believe scripture limits salvation to a personal, otherworldly thing: I believe the effects of salvation have a visible impact upon the world. And so Ryle gives us the need for "working out our salvation", with very little encouragement that the works of our hands will actually be established in the arena of time and space.

While I was sorry not to come away with a vision for holiness that went beyond the personal and the individual to affect the whole of life and culture (I'd recommend George Grant's The Micah Mandate for this), there was still plenty of excellent material in this book. As previously mentioned, Ryle's careful definitions and unabashedly high view of sanctification were a pleasure to read. And the chapter on Lot--a very convicting and eye-opening example of the lure of worldliness--was in itself worth the price of admission. Believe the buzz: this book is a classic that will continue to stand the test of time.

Find Holiness on Amazon or The Book Depository.


Unknown said...

Excellent review, I am currently reading this book and this review has encouraged me to keep chipping away at it.

Suzannah said...

That's great, Aidan! I read it at the rate of about 10 pages per day over a few months, so it wasn't too taxing :). Ryle makes it easier by dividing his chapters into various points so that you have good stopping-places, too!


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