Part 3 of Holiness by J.C Ryle
Sometimes a meditation on a word or phrase can really alter the way we see it. Since our new minister arrived he’s spent time each week unpacking our ‘vision’ phrase. It’s not anything new, it’s written on the newcomer and prayer card that we handle each week. It existed before he came, but he’s been dusting it off for us. As it comes up on the overhead each Sunday and he explains it, the word disciple and the phrase ‘make disciples for Jesus’ has been plunged into a pool of fresh water for me. It’s shiny and new, and full of meaning. When I hear it now, it makes me thankful someone made me a disciple of Jesus and renews my desire to make more. This book has done the same thing for me with the word holy. Holy is now for me a sparkling word.
What does ‘holy’ mean?
Before reading this book I hadn’t seen ‘holy’ in such golden letters. It sounds old fashioned and hard to attain. Something that might describe an important religious person, or a sacred object. But is there more to it than that? The Bible tells us the source of holiness is God. Perfectly good, free from sin, undefiled. About Jesus it is written, “He comitted no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” (1 Peter 2:22) God the Father is holy. Jesus His Son, is holy.
What does ‘holiness’ look like for us humans? At its simplest it is belonging to God - the Holy one! When you unpack what that means for us today, being holy involves turning your back on your old ways of sin and living for yourself and instead living for the one who has washed you clean by the blood of His Son. It is a calling. Leviticus 20:26 says, “You are to be holy to me because I, The Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.” and again 1 Peter 1:16 says, “Be holy, because I am holy.”
How do we follow God’s calling to ‘Be holy’?
Being holy involves having a Godly character and life. Fortunately unlike making another resolution we are likely to break, God is actively at work in the believer’s life to help you to be holy. The word used to describe the holiness process in the life of a believer is sanctification.
What is Sanctification?
The best definition I’ve heard is Phillip Jensen’s, who once described sanctification as the process of turning to God, degree by degree, until we are face to face. As he gave this definition he held out his right hand, as though he were holding a ball, and rotated it slowly until it met his face. It’s a very helpful picture of the process. God is the one doing the turning. But are we involved in the process at all? Ryle says, yes, very much so. God didn’t make robots, he made humans with all our capacity for trust, love, failure, faithlessness, struggle and success.
This can seem a confusing process when we are so often taught that Jesus paid it all. That we don’t bring anything but empty hands. However, our hearts, minds and actions are very important to God. Sanctification does not earn our salvation but is part of the process on the road to heaven as we work out our salvation with fear and trembling. (Philippians 2:12) Ryle writes, “Sanctification is the actual making a man inwardly righteous, though it may be in a very feeble degree...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.” (p.59.)
The Surprising Difference Between Sanctification and Justification
Sanctification is different to justification and it is worth spending a moment to ponder this.
I’d always thought that they were strangely in competition with each other rather than being complimentary teachings. In a nutshell the work of justification (being made right with God) is over and done with by Jesus’s atoning death on the cross the day we turn to Him in faith. When we fall on our knees and repent and ask Jesus to come into our lives justification is made before God by Jesus’ blood and it is finished. That very day sanctification begins. Robert Traill, a seventeenth century Puritan, wrote:
Sanctification is the forming and the framing of the new creature; it is the implanting and engraving the image of Christ upon the poor soul. It is what the Apostle breathed after - ‘That Christ might be formed in them’ (Galations 4:19); That they might ‘bear the image of the heavenly’ (1 Corinithians 15:49) (p. 393)
You don’t become so much a freshly minted Christian the day you put your trust in Christ as the minting process begins that very day, to be carried on to completion the rest of your Christian life, until you reach heaven - where finally, it will be perfected. Ryle writes, “Justification gives us our title to heaven, and boldness to enter in. Sanctification gives us our meetness for heaven, and prepares us to enjoy it when we dwell there.” (p.60)
How does knowing this change everything?
We need to reclaim the word ‘holiness’ and not see it as a stuffy Christian jargon word but as a word in shining golden letters that describes our God and the business of all who belong to Him. It’s the work we’ve been saved to do as we train for the life to come. Our holiness is also connected to our happiness. It should fill us with joy and hope, and right fear, because without holiness we will not see the Lord, (Hebrews 12:14).
So how can we be intentional about Holiness?
If Ryle were a diary lover (I am a diary lover) these are the stickers he would print for you: read, pray, church, watch.
Firstly, Ryle tells his readers who identify as Christian very plainly to read the Bible every day. To meditate on God’s word, to be diligent about private prayers and to take time to examine ourselves. In other words, he is advocating you set aside a quiet time every day to read and pray. “The man who does not take pains about these things must never expect to grow. Here are the roots of true Christianity.” (p.127)
Secondly, we need to be careful in the use of public means of grace. We need to show up to the church that we belong to each Sunday. Even better with a servant heart. (There is a fantastic mini book review on Equip Bookclub of Tony Payne’s How To Walk Into Church http://equipbooks.blogspot.com.au/2015/05/equip-shorts-tony-payne-how-to-walk.html, it’s next on my reading list!)
Thirdly, we need to be watchful about our conduct in the little matters of everyday life. God is a God of small things too. And he wants his Christians to be good all the way through. Like a good apple. No rotten spots. “We must aim to have a Christianity which, like the sap of a tree, runs through every twig and leaf of our character, and sanctifies all.” (p.129)
Some final thoughts
It’s been said, ‘A single moment of understanding can flood a whole life with meaning’. I can’t stop thinking about Ryle’s teaching on justification and sanctification. The clarity is enriching my life. The book of James doesn’t seem odd. Praying for my children in the morning, that God would create in them a pure heart (Psalm 51:10 ) and that He would let the purity of their heart show in their actions, makes sense. Singing songs in church is richer.
Most importantly God’s call to be holy is not a call to drudgery. God’s ways are ways of pleasantness. They are filled with life, and health and peace.
I leave you with these beautiful words:
“As a general rule, in the long run of life, it will be found true that “sanctified”people are the happiest people on earth. They have solid comforts which the world can neither give nor take away."
About this month’s contributor, Katie Stringer
Katie is a lover of books, baking and beaches. She grew up in Sydney’s eastern suburbs and though she now lives in the inner west, wears her Bronte speedo with pride at all inner west pools. Katie studied factual and creative writing at the University of New South Wales and loves nothing better than filling up blank books and writing on the margins of novels. Before having children Katie combined teaching English as a foreign language with freelance writing. She is married to Andrew and they have three children. They love being a part of the Leichhardt community and serving together at All Souls, Leichhardt.