One of the great aims of the believer is to become “holy as God is holy” (1 Peter 1:16). So while we proclaim a “gospel of grace” (Ac. 20:24) and celebrate freedom in Christ (Gal. 5:1), we realize we were saved for a glorious purpose. We were not rescued from hell simply to bask in sin and lawlessness. We were, as Paul says, “created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph. 2:10).
Yet how do we take tangible steps toward this goal? Holiness can feel so abstract, so unattainable, that I fear many Christians never really take pains to achieve it. Over a century ago, the Lord gave us tremendous help through J.C. Ryle’s classic work Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots.
Interestingly, Ryle begins his book on holiness by discussing sin. “He must dig down very low if he would build high…Wrong views about holiness are generally traceable to wrong views about human corruption” (p. 1). From there, Ryle devotes his early chapters to the nature of sanctification and holiness, the fight for holiness, its cost, and the need for growth.
The middle chapters of the book focus on several fascinating character studies. Moses, Lot, Lot’s wife, and the thief on the cross serve as examples and warnings toward holiness.
The latter chapters (12-20) deal with a variety of topics. Ryle discusses Christ’s power, His promise to build the church, and His restoration of Peter, among other things. These chapters are solid expositions, though more loosely tied to the main thesis of the book. Ryle closes with a fitting reminder that Christ is all. “Christ is the mainspring both of doctrinal and practical Christianity…He that follows after holiness will make no progress unless he gives to Christ His rightful place” (p. 300).
I found this book a tremendous blessing. Though written in the late 19th century, Ryle communicates in a style that is both eloquent and earthy; both poetic and practical. Every page was full of encouraging and convicting truth. As I read it slowly, marked its pages, and saturated myself in it, I found it affecting my thoughts and prayer life and giving me a greater hunger and thirst for righteousness.
For Christians just beginning to learn about holiness, I would recommend first reading Jerry Bridges’ book The Pursuit of Holiness. It is much shorter and more contemporary. But Ryle definitely belongs on the Christian bookshelf and is worthy of multiple readings. What a difference it would make if every Christian in our church fed on such edifying material.