Book Review—Faithfulness and Holiness

by Dr. Sam Horn

Packer, J. I. Faithfulness and Holiness. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2002. Hardcover, 256 pages. $17.99

PurchaseCrossway, CBD, Amazon

ISBNs: 1581343582 / 9781581343588

LCCN: BX5199.R9P33

DCN: 283/.092 B 21

Subjects: Holiness; J. C. Ryle (1816-1900)

James I. Packer is currently a professor of theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. He has authored the classic bestseller Knowing God as well as a number of other titles. Most recently, he served as General Editor for the English Standard Version Bible, published by Crossway Bibles. (Author information gathered from www.gnpcb.org.)

Some years ago, I received a copy of J.C. Ryle’s work Holiness as a gift. To my shame, it sat unread on my shelf until some months ago. One paragraph of his introduction written in 1879 convinced me that his message is still timely.

The older I grow the more I am convinced that real practical Holiness does not receive the attention it deserves, and that there is a most painfully low standard of living among many high professors of religion in the land. But, at the same time, I am increasingly convinced that the zealous efforts of some well-meaning persons to promote a higher standard of spiritual life are often not “according to knowledge,” and are really calculated to do more harm than good.

Although Ryle wrote over a century ago, his comments on holiness and sanctification provide clarification, correction, and biblical instruction on a topic that is presently much debated among believers. A new edition of Ryle’s book, titled Faithfulness and Holiness: The Witness of J. C. Ryle, released by Crossway Books, contains both the original text and an extended (almost 90 pages long) biographical segment of his life and ministry. The introduction contains a section explaining the value of Ryle’s book that is worth repeating here.

These seven chapters were meant to be read as a set, restoring biblical breadth and depth to evangelical minds that had been swept away by fashionable holiness teaching that was actually extreme, shallow, biblically incorrect, and a hindrance to growth in grace. Ryle’s response was not to cross swords with its exponents, but to lay out afresh, biblically, systematically, and in practical terms, the true fundamentals of Christian sanctity, with constant appeal to Puritan and other pundits who had trodden this path before him.

Perhaps the best way to understand Ryle is to let him speak for himself on selected topics that serve as heads for his book. For example, he laments the lack of personal holiness among the professing believers in his day in the opening segment of his book.

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 Saviour” (Titus 2:10), and making it lovely and beautiful by our daily habits and tempers, has been far too much overlooked.

Ryle believed that a discourse on holiness needed to begin with a study of what Scripture says about sin.

He that wishes to attain right views about Christian holiness, must begin by examining the vast and solemn subject of sin… .Wrong views about holiness are generally traceable to wrong views about human corruption. I make no apology for beginning this volume of papers about holiness by making some plain statements about sin. The plain truth is that a right knowledge of sin lies at the root of all saving Christianity. Without it such doctrines as justification, conversion, sanctification, are “words and names” which convey no meaning to the mind.

After reminding the reader of man’s total depravity, Ryle proceeded in the next section to address the importance of sanctification in a believer’s life. He differentiated sanctification from justification and taught sanctification as a daily process beginning at the moment of salvation. In light of the modern discussions related to sanctification, Ryle’s comments are relevant.

It is a subject which is peculiarly seasonable in the present day. Strange doctrines have risen up of late upon the whole subject of sanctification. Some appear to confound it with justification. Others fritter it away to nothing, under the pretense of zeal for free grace, and practically neglect it altogether. Others are so much afraid of “works” being made a part of justification, that they can hardly find any place at all for “works” in their religion. Others set up a wrong standard of sanctification before their eyes, and failing to attain it, waste their lives in repeated secessions from church to church, chapel to chapel, and sect to sect, in vain hope that they will find what they want. In a day like this, a calm examination of the subjected, as a great leading doctrine of the Gospel, may be of great use to our souls.

In another section, Ryle stressed the cost of living a holy life in the midst of an unholy world. He urged his readers to take up the fight and wage daily war against the world, the flesh, and the devil in whatever arenas these enemies were encountered.

Let us take care that our own personal religion is real, genuine, and true. The saddest symptom about many so-called Christians is the utter absence of anything like conflict and fight in their Christianity. They eat, they drink, they dress, they work, they amuse themselves, they get money, they spend money, they go through a scanty round of formal religious services once or twice every week. But the great spiritual warfare—its watchings and strugglings, its agonies and anxieties, its battles and contests—all of this they appear to know nothing at all. Let us take care that this case is not our own.

One of the most helpful sections in the book is Ryle’s observations about “assurance” in the Christian life. He distinguished between faith that saves because of its object no matter how frail that faith may be and a strong and confident faith accompanied by assurance. One may be saved and have no assurance, but one can’t be saved apart from faith in spite of any false assurance he might possess. For Ryle, sanctification and growth in holiness are essential evidences that saving faith has happened and thereby serve to aid in producing assurance in the heart of believers. This assurance is something to be sought after and pursued heartily by the believer. Although Ryle clearly acknowledged that even the strongest believers would at times face doubts, this was clearly not to be their ongoing state nor were they to be content to remain thus.

Believe me, believe me, assurance is worth the seeking. You forsake your own mercies when you rest content without it. The things I speak are for your peace. If it is good to be sure in earthly things, how much better to be sure in heavenly things! Your salvation is a fixed and certain thing. God knows it. Why should not you seek to know it too? There is nothing unscriptural in this. Paul never saw the Book of Life, and yet Paul says, “I know and am persuaded.”

Ryle’s message is both challenging and refreshing. It is the sort of book to be read slowly and repeatedly, and his message is as timely for us as it was for the original readers. His approach would do a great deal to restore a biblical perspective regarding the need to live holy and consecrated lives before the world.

Dr. Sam HornDr. Sam Horn is pastor/teacher at Brookside Baptist Church (Brookfield, WI). He received a B.A. in Bible, M.A. in Bible, and Ph.D. in New Testament Interpretation from Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC). In 1996, Dr. Horn joined the administration of Northland Baptist Bible College (Dunbar, WI) and serves as vice president for ministerial training. While at BJU, he served as faculty member and director of extended education. He is an experienced pastor, conference speaker, and board member of several Christian organizations. He and his wife, Beth, have two children. This article is reprinted by permission of Brookside Baptist Church.
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