In the 19th Century, J. C. Ryle, the great preacher and Bishop of Liverpool, preached a sermon on Hebrews 12:14: “Pursue holiness, without which no one shall see the Lord.” This verse suggests a question to us all: are we holy? This is a question that should concern every Christian in the Lord’s army, no matter their age, rank or serial number. Holiness is not knowledge of Scripture. It is not activity. It is not outward respectability. It is not even keeping company with Godly people. It is not church attendance. These things alone are not holiness.
Ryle’s sermon on holiness is one of 21 sermons in what is probably his most well-known book entitled, simply, Holiness. The book is about the nature and necessity of holy living. Ryle had become concerned about the state of so many Christians in his own day. Then, like now, some Christians easily get confused about what holiness is and what it is not. Ryle says “Where there is no sanctification of life, there is no real faith in Christ.” For Ryle, sound doctrine was useless if not accompanied by a holy life. “Satan knows well the power of true holiness, and the immense injury which increased attention to it will do to his kingdom.” Evangelicalism today would do well to heed what Ryle says.
What is holiness? As Ryle suggests, “Holiness is the habit of being of one mind with God.” Holiness is endeavoring “to shun every known sin and keep every known commandment.” Holiness is striving to be like our Lord Jesus. Holiness is being filled with the Holy Spirit and producing the fruit of the Spirit such as love, joy, peace, patience, longsuffering, self-control and the like. In short, holiness is walking in step with the Holy Spirit who produces holy thinking and holy living in and through us. Holiness comes to those who abide in Christ. We could do with more reflection as Christians on what it means to be holy. Peter says, “As He which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of behavior because it is written, ‘Be ye holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15, 16).
In his introduction to the book, Ryle lists 7 “Cautions for the Times on the Subject of Holiness.” They are worth repeating.
Is it wise to proclaim in so bald, naked, and unqualified a way as many do, that the holiness of converted people is by faith only, and not at all by personal exertion? I doubt it.
Is it wise to make so little as some appear to do, comparatively, of the many practical exhortations to holiness in daily life which are to be found in the Sermon on the Mount, and in the latter part of most of St. Paul’s epistles? I doubt it.
Is it wise to use vague language about perfection, and to press on Christians a standard of holiness, as attainable in this world for which there is no warrant to be shown either in Scripture or experience? I doubt it.
Is it wise to assert so positively and violently, as many do, that the seventh chapter of the Epistle to the Romans does not describe the experience of the advanced saint, but the experience of the unregenerate man, or the weak and unestablished believer? I doubt it.
Is it wise to use the language which is often used in the present day about the doctrine of “Christ in us”? I doubt it. Is not this doctrine often exalted to a position which it does not occupy in Scripture?
Is it wise to draw such a deep, wide, and distinct line of separation between conversion and consecration, or the higher life, so called, as many do draw in the present day? I doubt it.
Is it wise to teach believers that they ought not to think so much of fighting and struggling against sin, but ought rather to “yield themselves to God,” and be passive in the hands of Christ? I doubt it.
Some of what Ryle says will rankle some of us, but we need to hear him regardless.
There are really only two questions we should spend a Christian lifetime answering:
How can I be holy; how holy can I be?