There is a large, two-sided cart at my local library with a faded laminated sign that reads, “Books, a dollar a bag.” I make it a point to visit that cart every time I stop by in search of the proverbial needle in the haystack, and I am always struck by the number of religious books that are tottering on the verge of oblivion. Some of the titles deserve to be neglected or forgotten, and it would probably do the Church good for them to graduate from the cart to the dumpster. Is Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots by J. C. Ryle one of them?
Much has changed in the 140 years since the enlarged edition of Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots was first published. Has Ryle’s work become outdated? Has its usefulness come to an end? Does it belong on the cart? Do we still need Holiness? I answer with an emphatic “yes”! Before we explore the question of relevance, let us first consider its context and content.
Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots was originally borne out of controversy. In the latter half of the 19th century, evangelicals began embracing new views about the Christian life. Popular holiness teachers—such as William Edwin Boardman, Robert Pearsall Smith, and his wife, Hanna Whitall Smith—urged Christians to embrace a superior form of spiritual life that included a ‘second conversion experience’, ‘full salvation’, and ‘deliverance from all known sin immediately by faith alone’. A series of popular holiness meetings were held in the mid-1870s, which ultimately gave birth to the Keswick Convention.
Many evangelicals were suspicious of this new holiness teaching. To many it appeared to be the old heresy of perfectionism in new garb. At the very least, these new spiritual guides were urging evangelicals to abandon the doctrine of progressive sanctification as taught by the Reformers and Puritans. Refutations began appearing almost immediately in the evangelical press. In 1877, J. C. Ryle published the first edition of Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots, which was enlarged in 1879. It proved to be one of the most extensive critiques of early Keswick spirituality and one of Ryle’s most popular and enduring works.
The enlarged edition of Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots (1879) contains 20 papers, as well as an excellent introduction and a chapter with extracts from Robert Traill and Thomas Brooks. The first seven chapters are the heart of Holiness and form a book within a book. Here Ryle explains “the real nature of holiness, and the temptations and difficulties which all must expect who follow it.” He begins with sin and human corruption (chapter 1), which is the foundation for a proper understanding of holiness. In the next two chapters he treats holiness doctrinally (chapter 2) and practically (chapter 3). In the chapters that follow he argues that the Christian life is, at its very core, a fight (chapter 4); that the cost of following Christ must be counted (chapter 5); and that growth in grace is an essential part of true holiness (chapter 6). He concludes this section with an encouraging and pastorally sensitive treatment of the doctrine of assurance (chapter 7).
These seven chapters are Ryle at his best. He manages to be doctrinal and pastoral, convicting and encouraging, systematic but not abstract. At its core, it’s a biblical argument, but he regularly appeals to Church history (especially the English Puritans) and Church confessions (especially Anglican formularies) to strengthen his position. Above all, Ryle manages to keep the spotlight on Christ and his gospel, even as he encourages self-examination and self-exertion. It’s a phenomenal achievement.
The rest of the book consists of a series of holiness-related sermons that are arranged thematically. The first group (chapters 8–12) is a series of character studies that serve, both positively and negatively, as examples for Christians. Perhaps the most interesting is Christ himself. Ryle explains, “He that would be conformed to Christ’s image, and become a Christ-like man, must be constantly studying Christ himself.” This is the “one secret of eminent holiness.” The Church is the subject of the second and smallest group (chapters 13–14) of sermons. At first glance, this might seem like an odd choice, but Ryle skillfully connects it back to the theme of the book. Real, practical holiness is the leading characteristic of members of the Church triumphant, and members of the Church militant are urged to make spiritual progress.
Jesus is the focal point of the third group of sermons (chapters 15–18). These chapters contain a remarkable blend of Christology, doxology, evangelism, and spiritual instruction. The next to last chapter (chapter 19) is a section unto itself. It’s a diagnostic sermon Ryle preached in 1879 in which he assesses the “wants of the times”. Though times have changed, Ryle’s analysis, for the most part, is as applicable today as it was then. The final chapter (chapter 20), “Christ is All,” concludes the work by extolling the supremacy of King Jesus. Ryle’s justification for this conclusion is worth noting:
Christ is the mainspring both of doctrinal and practical Christianity. A right knowledge of Christ is essential to a right knowledge of sanctification as well as justification. He that follows after holiness will make no progress unless he gives to Christ his rightful place. I began the volume with a plain statement about sin. Let me end it with an equally plain statement about Christ.
The fact that sermons make up the second half of Holiness doesn’t diminish their value or power in the least. The sermon on Lot’s wife, “A Woman to Be Remembered”, is one of the most powerful sermons I’ve ever read. My personal impressions aside, these sermons illustrate and expand on the truths of the previous section, and they give us insight into how Ryle brought them to bear on his congregation. Read in this light, Holiness instructs us in pastoral theology as well as Christian spirituality.
Having considered the origin and substance of the work, let’s return to the question of relevance. Why do we still need Holiness? I would like to suggest three reasons.
First, Holiness is a classic statement of Puritan and evangelical spirituality written in simple, forceful, modern English. A quick perusal of Ryle’s footnotes reveals something of his indebtedness to the English Puritans. Holiness is filled with quotes from Thomas Goodwin, Samuel Rutherford, Richard Sibbes, Thomas Manton, John Flavel, William Gurnall, Thomas Watson, Thomas Brooks, Richard Baxter, and especially John Owen and John Bunyan. The substance is even more telling. The work abounds with Puritan themes, such as the sinfulness of sin and the need to mortify it, the means and marks of growth in grace, and the desirability of assurance and hindrances to its attainment to name a few. Simply put, Ryle’s Holiness is Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress in propositional form.
The spiritual vision of Holiness is evangelical, as well as Puritan. Biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism—the leading characteristics of evangelicalism according to David Bebbington—dominate the book as well. It is difficult to point to a chapter in which these themes don’t take center stage. Ryle’s activism is particularly noteworthy. For example, in chapter three, he argues that Christians must pursue holiness because “it is the most likely way to do good to others”. And again in chapter seven, he argues assurance is to be desired because it makes a Christian an active worker: “None, generally speaking, do so much for Christ on earth as those who enjoy the fullest confidence of a free entrance into heaven, and trust not in their own works, but in the finished work of Christ.” The introspection and navel-gazing that plagued some Puritan authors is entirely absent in this work. Holiness is as much a call to action as it is self-reflection.
The style of the work makes Holiness remarkably accessible to modern readers, who may otherwise struggle with the unabridged, Latinized-English of John Owen or William Romaine. In many respects, style is what separates Holiness from many of the spiritual classics of the 17th and 18th centuries. It also makes Holiness compelling, convicting, and encouraging. As is the case with Ryle’s other works, you quickly get the impression that the author is speaking directly to you. He speaks as an “I” and directly addresses the reader as a “you”. The vague and hazy “we” and “us” pronouns that characterized much Victorian preaching cannot be found in this work. If you read Holiness, expect to be addressed directly, repeatedly.
Second, Holiness is theologically rich and pastorally sensitive. The structure of the book itself bears this out. Chapters one to seven (which comprised the first edition of the work) are essentially a theological treatise on holiness. They are the closest Ryle ever came to writing systematic theology. Chapters 8 to 21, as previously noted, consist of a series of sermons on various aspects of holiness. But don’t let the structure fool you, each chapter is filled with theological precision and pastoral wisdom.
The chapters on “sin”, “sanctification”, and “assurance” bear this out. These chapters are undoubtedly the most theologically sophisticated of the entire book. In them Ryle defines terms, exegetes Scripture, discusses Church formularies, quotes authorities, and refutes other positions. Nevertheless, he never loses sight of the pastoral purposes of the work.
The same is true of the sermons which make up the second half of the work. Because they are sermons Ryle preached to his congregation, they contain more exposition, exhortation, and practical application than the first seven chapters; however, they are by no means devoid of technical theological discussions. Ryle has no problem discussing the full divinity and humanity of Christ, or the nature of the Church, or the nature and work of the Christian ministry when the text calls for it.
In this way, Holiness serves as a model for pastors, teachers, and other Christian workers. Ryle demonstrates that it is possible to be theologically precise and pastorally sensitive at the same time, and he shows you how to do it. It is well worth the time of preachers and teachers to see how he takes the rich theological content that make up the first half of the work and brings it to bear on his congregation in the second.
Finally, Holiness challenges us not to be content with low standards of personal godliness. In his introduction to the enlarged edition of Holiness, Ryle makes the following observation:
I have had a deep conviction for many years that practical holiness and entire self-consecration to God are not sufficiently attended to by modern Christians in this country. Politics, or controversy, or party spirit, or worldliness have eaten out the heart of lively piety in too many of us. The subject of personal godliness has fallen sadly into the background. The standard of living has become painfully low in many quarters. The immense importance of “adorning the doctrine of God our Savior,” and making it lovely and beautiful by our daily habits and tempers, has been far too much overlooked.
Worldly people sometimes complain with reason that “religious” persons, so-called, are not so amiable, and unselfish, and good-natured, as others who make no profession of religion. Yet sanctification, in its place and proportion, is quite as important as justification. Sound Protestant and evangelical doctrine is useless if it is not accompanied by a holy life. It is worse than useless: it does positive harm. It is despised by keen-sighted and shrewd men of the world, as an unreal and hollow thing, and brings religion into contempt.
Are we neglecting the subject of personal godliness? Have we become distracted by politics, controversy, party spirit, and the world? Has our standard of living fallen painfully below the New Testament standard? Have we failed to beautify our profession with our daily habits and tempers? If so, then we still need J. C. Ryle’s Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots.
Bennett Wade Rogers (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a pastor and teacher in Mississippi. He is the author of A Tender Lion: The Life, Ministry, and Message of J. C. Ryle (2019) and has recently edited and introduced a new edition of Ryle’s Simplicity in Preaching: A Few Hints on a Great Subject (2019).