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J.C. Ryle: “Are You Holy?”

August 22, 2015

As we can certainly see from current events, the need to be holy is as great as ever for the Church, and we must always be asking ourselves how we can seek holiness.  Bishop J.C. Ryle had a knack for asking tough questions, and his “Are You Holy?” can be very helpful in our self evaluation.  This repost, a portion of “Are You Holy?”, deals with what sort of persons are those whom God calls holy?


Holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.” —HEBREWS xii. 14.

Beloved Friends and Brethren,

I offer you this text as a subject for self-inquiry; and I invite you this day to think over the question before your eyes, “Are you holy?”

It is a question that can never be out of season. The wise man tells us, “There is a time to weep, and a time to laugh, a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (Eccles. iii. 4, 7); but there is no time, no, not a day, in which a man ought not to be holy.  Brethren, are you?

It is a question that concerns all ranks and conditions of men.  Some are rich, and some are poor,—some learned and some unlearned,—some masters, and some servants; but there is no rank or condition in life in which a man ought not to be holy.  Brethren, are you?

I ask to be heard today about this question. How stands the account between your souls and God?  Stay a little, I beseech you, while I reason with you about holiness.  I believe I might have chosen a subject more popular and pleasant.  I am sure I might have found one more easy to handle.  But I feel deeply I could not have chosen one more important and more profitable to your souls.  It is a solemn thing to hear God saying, “Without holiness no man shall see the Lord.” (Heb. xii. 14.)

I shall endeavour, by God’s help, to set before you what true holiness is, the reasons why it is so needful, and the way in which alone it can be attained.  The Lord grant you may all see and feel the importance of the subject, and lay down this paper, when you have read it, wiser and better men.

I.  First, then, let me try to show you what true holiness is,—what sort of persons are those whom God calls holy?

A man may go great lengths, and yet never reach true holiness.  It is not knowledge,—Balaam had that; nor great profession,—Judas Iscariot had that; nor doing many things,—Herod had that; nor zeal for certain matters in religion,—Jehu had that; nor morality and outward respectability of conduct,—the young ruler had that; nor taking pleasure in hearing preachers,—the Jews in Ezekiel’s time had that; nor keeping company with godly people,—Joab and Gehazi and Demas had that. Yet none of these were holy.  These things alone are not holiness. A man may have any one of them, and yet never see the Lord.

What then is true holiness?  It is a hard question to answer.  I do not mean that I find a want of matter on the subject. But I fear lest I should give a defective view of holiness, and not say all that ought to be said; or lest I should speak things about it that ought not to be spoken, and so do harm. Suffer me, however, to say a few words that may help to clear your minds.  Remember only, when I have said all, that my account is but a poor imperfect outline at the best.

Holiness is the habit of being of one mind with God, according as we find His mind described in Scripture.  It is the habit of agreeing in God’s judgment,—hating what He hates,—loving what He loves,—and measuring everything in this world by the standard of His Word.  He who most entirely agrees with God, he is the most holy man.

A holy man will endeavour to shun every known sin, and to keep every known commandment. He will have a decided bent of mind towards God,—a hearty desire to do His will,—a greater fear of displeasing Him than of displeasing the world, and a love to all His ways.  He will feel what Paul felt when he said, “I delight in the law of God after the inward man” (Rom. vii. 22), and what David felt when he said, “I esteem all Thy precepts concerning all things to be right, and I hate every false way.” (Psalm cxix. 128.)

A holy man will strive to be like our Lord Jesus Christ; to have the mind that was in Him, and to be conformed to His image.  It will be his aim to bear with and forgive others, even as Christ forgave us,—to be unselfish, even as Christ pleased not Himself,—to walk in love, even as Christ loved us,—to be lowly-minded and humble, even as Christ made Himself of no reputation and humbled Himself.  He will remember that Christ was a faithful witness for the truth,—that He came not to do His own will,—that it was His meat and drink to do His Father’s will,—that He would stoop to any work in order to minister to others,—that He was meek and patient under undeserved insults,—that He thought more of godly poor men than of kings,—that He was full of love and compassion to sinners,—that He was bold and uncompromising in denouncing sin,—that He sought not the praise of men, when He might have had it,—that He went about doing good, that He was separate from worldly people,—that He continued instant in prayer,— that He would not let even His nearest relations stand in His way when God’s work was to be done.  These things a holy man will try to remember.  By them he will endeavour to shape his course in life.  He will lay to heart the saying of John, “He that saith he abideth in Christ ought himself also to walk, even as He walked.” (1 John ii. 6.) And the saying of Peter, that “Christ suffered for us, leaving us an example that ye should follow His steps.” (1 Peter. ii. 21.)  Much time would be saved, and much sin prevented, if men would oftener ask themselves the question, “What would Christ have said and done, if He were in my place?”

But time would fail me, if I were to mention all the things which go to make up holiness of character.  Still I must ask you to bear with me while I name a few things which come uppermost in my thoughts. The days we live in make me anxious that there should be no mistake upon this subject.  How can we know whether we are holy, unless we have a clear view of what holiness takes in?

A holy man will follow after meekness, long suffering, gentleness, kind temper, government of his tongue.  He will bear much, forbear much, overlook much, and be slow to talk of standing on his rights.  You see a bright example of this in the behaviour of David when Shimei cursed him,—and of Moses when Aaron and Miriam spake against him.

A holy man will follow after temperance and self-denial. He will labour to mortify the desire of his body; to crucify his flesh with its affections and lusts; to curb his passions; to restrain his carnal inclinations, lest at any time they break loose.  Oh, what a word is that of the Lord Jesus to the Apostles, “Take heed to Yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting and drunkenness, and cares of this life.” (Luke xxi. 34.)  And that of the Apostle Paul, “I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection, lest that by any means when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.”  (1 Cor. ix, 27.)

A holy man will follow after charity and brotherly-kindness. He will endeavour to observe the golden rule, of doing as he would have men do to him, and speaking as he would have men speak to him.  He will be full of affection towards his brethren,—their bodies, their property, their Characters, their feelings, their souls.  “He that loveth another,” says Paul, “hath fulfilled the law.” (Rom. xiii. 8.)  He will abhor all lying, slandering, backbiting, cheating, dishonesty, and unfair dealing, even in the least things. The shekel and cubit of the sanctuary were larger than those in common use.  Alas, what condemning words are the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians, and the Sermon on the Mount, when laid alongside the conduct of many professing Christians!

A holy man will follow after a spirit of mercy and benevolence towards others. He will not stand all the day idle.  He will not be content with doing no harm, he will try to do good.  He will strive to be useful in his day and generation, and to lessen the spiritual wants and misery around him, as far as he can.  Such was Dorcas, full of good works and alms deeds, which she did,—not merely purposed and talked about, but did. Such an one was Paul, “I will very gladly spend and be spent for you,” he says,—”though the more abundantly I love you the less I be loved.” (2 Cor. xii. 15.)

A holy man will follow after purity of heart. He will dread all filthiness and uncleanness of spirit, and seek to avoid all things that might draw him into it. He knows his own heart is like tinder, and will diligently keep clear of the sparks of temptation.  Who shall dare to talk of strength when David can fall?  There is many a hint to be gleaned from the ceremonial law.  Under it the man who only touched a bone, or a dead body, or a grave, or a diseased person, became at once unclean in the sight of God.  And these things were emblems and figures.  Few Christians are ever too watchful and too particular about this point.

A holy man will follow after the fire of God. I do not mean the fear of a slave, who only works because he is afraid of punishment, and would be idle if he did not dread discovery.  I mean rather the fear of a child, who wishes to live and move as if he was always before his father’s face because he loves him. What a noble example Nehemiah gives us of this!  When he became Governor at Jerusalem he might have been chargeable to the Jews, and required of them money for his support.  The former Governors had done so. There was none to blame him if he did.  But he says, “So did not I, because of the fear of God.” (Nehem. v.15.)

A holy man will follow after humility. He will desire in lowliness of mind to esteem all others better than himself.  He will see more evil in his own heart than in any other in the world. He will understand something of Abrahams feeling, when he says, “I am dust and ashes,” and Jacob’s, when he says, “I am less than the least of all Thy mercies,” and Job’s, when he says, “I am vile,” and Paul’s, when he says, “I am chief of sinners.” Holy Bradford, that faithful martyr of Christ, would sometimes finish his letters with these words,” A most miserable sinner, John Bradford.” Good old Mr. Grimshawe’s last words, when he lay on his deathbed, were these, “Here goes an unprofitable servant.”

A holy man will follow after faithfulness in all the duties and relations in life. He will try, not merely to fill his place as well as others, but even better, because he has higher motives, and more help than they. Those words of Paul should never be forgotten, “Whatever ye do, do it heartily as unto the Lord,”— “Not slothful in business, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord.”  Holy persons should aim at doing everything well, and should be ashamed of allowing themselves to do anything ill, if they can help it.  Like Daniel, they should seek to give no occasion against themselves, except as concerning the law of their God.  They should strive to be good husbands and good wives, good parents and good children; good masters and good servants, good neighbours, good friends, and good subjects.  Holiness is worth little indeed, if it does not bear this kind of fruit.  The Lord Jesus puts a searching question to His people, when He says, “What do ye more than others?”

Last, but not least, a holy man will follow after spiritual mindedness. He will endeavour to set his affections entirely on things above, and to hold things on earth with a very loose hand.  He will not neglect the business of the life that now is, but the first place in his mind and thoughts will be given to the life to come.  He will aim to live like one whose treasure is in heaven, and to pass through this world like a stranger and pilgrim travelling to his home. To commune with God in prayer, in the Bible, and in the assembly of His people,—these things will be the holy man’s chiefest enjoyments. He will value every thing, and place, and company, just in proportion as it draws him nearer to God. He will enter into something of David’s feeling, when he says, “My soul followeth hard after Thee.”— “Thou art my portion.” (Psalm lxiii. 8; cxix. 57.)

Such is the outline of holiness which I set before you; such is the character which those who are called holy follow after.

But here let me say, I trust no man will misunderstand me.  I am not without fear that my meaning will be mistaken, and the description I have given of holiness will discourage some tender conscience.  I would not willingly make one righteous heart sad, or throw a stumbling-block in any believer’s way.

I do not tell you for a moment that holiness shuts out the presence of indwelling sin.  No! far from it.  It is the greatest misery of a holy man that he carries about with him a body of death,—that often when he would do good evil is present with him; that the old man is clogging all his movements, and, as it were, trying to draw him back at every step he takes.  But it is the excellence of a holy man that he is not at peace with indwelling sin, as others are.  He hates it, mourns over it, and longs to be free from its company. The work of sanctification within him is like the wall of Jerusalem, the building goes forward, “even in troublous times.” (Dan. ix. 25.)

Neither do I tell you that holiness comes to ripeness and perfection all at once, or that these graces I have touched on must be found in full bloom and vigour before you can call a man holy.  No! far from it.  Sanctification is always a progressive work. Some men’s graces are in the blade, some in the ear, and some are like full corn in the ear. All must have a beginning. We must never despise the day of small things.  And sanctification in the very best is an imperfect work. The history of the brightest saints that ever lived will contain many a “but,” and “howbeit,” and “not withstanding,” before you reach the end.  The gold will never be without some dross,— the light will never shine without some clouds, until we reach the heavenly Jerusalem.  The sun himself hath spots upon his face. The holiest men have many a blemish and defect when weighed in the balance of the sanctuary. Their life is a continual warfare with sin, the world, and the devil; and sometimes you will see them not overcoming, but overcome.  The flesh is ever lusting against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh, and in many things they offend all.

But still, for all this, I am sure that to have such a character as I have faintly drawn, is the heart’s desire and prayer of all true Christians.  They press towards it, if they do not reach it. They may not attain to it, but they always aim at it.  It is what they fain would be, if it is not what they are.

And this I do mean to say, that true holiness is a great reality.  It is something in a man that can be seen, and known, and marked, and felt by all around him.  It is light: if it exists it will show itself.  lt.. is salt: if it exists its savour will be perceived.  It is a precious ointment: if it exists, its presence cannot be hid.

I am sure the little I know of my own heart makes me ready to make allowance for much backsliding, for much occasional deadness.  I know a road may lead from one point to another, and yet have many a winding and turn; and a man may be truly holy, and yet be drawn aside by many an infirmity.  Gold is not the less gold because mingled with alloy, nor light the less light because faint and dim, nor grace the less grace because young and weak.  But after every allowance, I cannot see how any man deserves to be called holy, who wilfully allows himself in sins, and is not humbled and ashamed because of them.  I dare not call any one holy who makes a habit of wilfully neglecting known duties, and wilfully doing what he knows God has commanded him not to do. Well says Owen, “I do not understand how a man can be a true believer unto whom sin is not the greatest burden, sorrow, and trouble.”

Brethren, such is holiness.  Examine yourselves whether you are acquainted with it.  Prove your own selves.

Are we in the Church today, a century or more after Bishop Ryle’s lifetime, acquainted with holiness?  Do we know people who hunger and thirst after righteousness?  Are we such people?

Tomorrow I will post what Bishop Ryle says about why holiness is so important.

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 22, 2015 5:19 am

    Thank you. Very timely and very helpful. Larry

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