Why every seminary student should read J. C. Ryle’s Holiness
I first encountered J. C. Ryle’s Holiness during my M.Div. studies. I was taking a class on sanctification and students were offered extra credit for reading and reviewing that book, which was written by some Anglican bishop I had never heard of.
One afternoon, I picked the book up on the way to the gym and started reading it in the car before my workout. I was hooked immediately. I stayed in the car reading for more than an hour. When I finally made it into the gym, the book came with me, and I continued to read while walking on the treadmill. I had to stop when I reached the third chapter. Ryle asked a question I had never considered:
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 down? Their pleasures are not your pleasures, their tastes not your tastes, their character not your character. How could you possibly be happy, if you had not been holy on earth?
I was floored–I had never thought of holiness in these terms. Though Bishop Ryle ruined my workout twice in one day, I put down Holiness days later, having been repeatedly challenged, encouraged, and convicted, with a greater resolve to pursue holiness. That, perhaps, is the single greatest reason I would encourage every seminary student to read Ryle’s Holiness. But it is not the only reason. Here are three main reasons this book is necessary reading:
1. Holiness is a classic statement of Puritan and evangelical spirituality written in simple, forceful, and 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 Pilgrim’s Progress stated propositionally.
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.
“None, generally speaking, do so much for Christ on earth as those who enjoy the fullest confidence of a free entrance into heaven. . .”
The style of the work makes Holiness remarkably accessible to modern readers, who may otherwise struggle with the unabridged, Latinized English of a 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’s” and “us’s” that characterized much Victorian preaching cannot be found in this work. If you read Holiness, expect to be addressed directly, repeatedly.
2. 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 a theological treatise on holiness. They are the closest Ryle ever came to writing systematic theology. Chapters eight to 21 (which were added in the enlargement of 1879) 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 looses 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.
“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.”
In this way, Holiness serves as a model for pastors, missionaries, 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 young 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.
3. Holiness is a great entry point into the works of J. C. Ryle.
Ryle was a remarkably versatile minister and author, which makes him a delight to study. And Holiness, as much as any other single work, reveals something of this versatility.
First, in introduces you to Ryle the controversialist. Although this is often missed, Holiness was originally response to the early holiness teaching of the Keswick movement, espoused by William Edwin Boardman, Robert Pearsall Smith, and his wife, Hannah Whithall Smith. Boardman and the Smiths were urging Christians to embrace a higher form of spiritual life, which included a second conversion experience, full salvation, and freedom from all known sin, immediately, by faith alone. Holiness was Ryle’s defense of the traditional doctrine of progressive sanctification.
Second, Holiness introduces you to Ryle the theologian. More specifically, it introduces you to Ryle, theologian of the Christian life. As previously mentioned, you will find plenty of Puritan and evangelical theology in this work. You will also find plenty of Protestant, Reformed, and Anglican theology as well. Holiness provides the reader with an excellent glimpse into Ryle’s theological DNA.
Finally, Holiness introduces you to Ryle the preacher. After the enlargement of 1879, more than half the book was originally a sermon (the same is true of most of the chapters of Ryle’s more popular books). The sermons are interesting in their own right. Ryle was regarded as one of the most popular preachers of his day. These sermons should give you an idea why. They are simple and direct, Christ-centered and cross-centered, insightful and practical. Ryle regarded preaching to be his “chief work” as a minister, and here you can find him doing what he did best.
Take up and read
Hopefully, I have piqued your interest in J. C. Ryle and Holiness. If you haven’t read it, I urge you to do so. If you have, I urge you to read it again. It will be well worth your time. After Holiness, consider reading Practical Religion; Ryle intended the two to be read together. In the words of their author, they “throw some light on what every believer ought to be, to do, and expect.”
Ben Rogers is a Ph.D. candidate in church history at SBTS. His dissertation is on J. C. Ryle and his place within Victorian Anglicanism. He pastors New Home Baptist Church in Mendenhall, MS. Ben and his wife, Christie, have two sons. You can contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org