HOLINESS

Excerpted and edited from John Charles Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots
(Evangelical Press, 1979 [first printed 1879])
Part 2 of 2


“Holiness, Without Which No Man Shall See the Lord.”
(Hebrews 12:14)


The Importance of Practical Holiness


Can holiness save us? Can holiness put away sin, cover iniquities, make satisfaction for transgressions, pay our debt to God? No, not a whit. God forbid that I should ever say so. Holiness can do none of these things. The brightest saints are all “unprofitable servants.” Our purest works are not better than filthy rags when tried by the light of God’s holy Law. The white robe, which Jesus offers and faith puts on, must be our only righteousness, the name of Christ our only confidence, the Lamb’s book of life our only title to heaven. With all our holiness we are no better than sinners. Our best things are stained and tainted with imperfection. They are all more or less incomplete, wrong in the motive or defective in the performance. By the deeds of the law shall no child of Adam ever be justified. “By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph 2:8, 9).


Why then is holiness so important? Why does the Apostle say, “Without [it] no man shall see the Lord”? Let me set out in order a few reasons.


Holiness is Commanded

a. For one thing, we must be holy, because the voice of God in Scripture plainly commands it. The Lord Jesus says to His people, “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:20). “Be ye… perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Mt 5:48). Paul tells the Thessalonians, “This is the will of God, even your sanctification” (1 Thes 4:3). And Peter says, “As he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy”(1 Pet 1:15, 16). “In this,” says Leighton, “law and gospel agree.”


Holiness is a Grand End of our Redemption

b. We must be holy, because this is one grand end and purpose for which Christ came into the world. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “He died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again” (2 Cor 5:15); and to the Ephesians, “Christ… loved the church, and gave himself for it, That he might sanctify and cleanse it” (Eph 5:25, 26); and to Titus, “[He] gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (Tit 2:14). In short, to talk of men being saved from the guilt of sin, without being at the same time saved from its dominion in their hearts, is to contradict the witness of all Scripture. Are believers said to be elect? It is “through sanctification of the Spirit” (1 Pet 1:2). Are they predestinated? It is “to be conformed to the image of [God’s] Son” (Rom 8:29). Are they chosen? It is “that [they may] be holy” (Eph 1:4). Are they called? It is “with an holy calling” (2 Tim 1:9). Are they afflicted? It is that they may be “partakers of holiness” (Heb 12:10). Jesus is a complete Saviour. He does not merely take away the guilt of a believer’s sin; He does more—He breaks its power.


Holiness is Evidence of Saving Faith

c. We must be holy, because this is the only sound evidence that we have a saving faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.… James warns us that there is such a thing as a dead faith, a faith which goes no further than the profession of the lips and has no influence on a man’s character (Jas 2:17). True saving faith is a very different kind of thing. True faith will always show itself by its fruits; it will sanctify, it will work by love, it will overcome the world, it will purify the heart. I know that people are fond of talking about deathbed evidences. They will rest on words spoken in the hours of fear and pain and weakness, as if they might take comfort in them about the friends they lose. But I am afraid in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, such evidences are not to be depended on. I suspect that, with rare exceptions, men die just as they have lived. The only safe evidence that we are one with Christ, and Christ in us, is holy life. They that live unto the Lord are generally the only people who die in the Lord. If we would die the death of the righteous, let us not rest in slothful desires only; let us seek to live His life. It is a true saying of Traill’s: “That man’s state is naught, and his faith unsound, that finds not his hopes of glory purifying to his heart and life.”


Holiness is Proof of True Love for the Lord

d. We must be holy, because this is the only proof that we love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. This is a point on which He has spoken most plainly, in the fourteenth and fifteenth chapters of John: “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (14:15). “He that hath my commandments and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me” (14:21). “If a man love me he will keep my words” (14:23). “Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you” (15:14). Plainer words than these it would be difficult to find, and woe to those who neglect them! Surely that man must be in an unhealthy state of soul, who can think of all that Jesus suffered, and yet cling to those sins for which that suffering was undergone. It was sin that wove the crown of thorns; it was sin that pierced our Lord’s hands and feet and side; it was sin that brought Him to Gethsemane and Calvary, to the cross and to the grave. Cold must our hearts be if we do not hate sin and labour to get rid of it, though we may have to cut off the right hand and pluck out the right eye in doing it.


Holiness is Evidence of New Birth

e. We must be holy, because this is the only sound evidence that we are true children of God. Children in this world are generally like their parents. Some, doubtless, are more so and some less; but it is seldom indeed that you cannot trace a kind of family likeness. And it is much the same with the children of God. The Lord Jesus says, “If ye were Abraham’s children, ye would do the works of Abraham” (Jn 8:39). “If God were your Father, ye would love me” (Jn 8:42). If men have no likeness to the Father in heaven, it is vain to talk of their being His “sons.” If we know nothing of holiness, we may flatter ourselves as we please; but we have not got the Holy Spirit dwelling in us; we are dead and must be brought to life again; we are lost and must be found. “As many as are led by the Spirit of God, they,” and they only, “are the sons of God” (Rom 8:14). We must show by our lives the family we belong to. We must let men see by our good conversation that we are indeed the children of the Holy One, or our sonship is but an empty name. “Say not,” says Gurnall, “that thou hast royal blood in thy veins, and art born of God, except thou canst prove thy pedigree by daring to be holy.”


Holiness does Good by an Excellent Testimony

f. We must be holy, because this is the most likely way to do good to others. We cannot live to ourselves only in this world. Our lives will always be doing either good or harm to those who see them. They are a silent sermon which all can read. It is sad indeed when they are a sermon for the devil’s cause, and not for God’s. I believe that far more is done for Christ’s kingdom by the holy living of believers than we are at all aware of. There is a reality about such living which makes men feel and obliges them to think. It carries a weight and influence with it, which nothing else can give. It makes religion beautiful and draws men to consider it, like a lighthouse seen afar off. The day of judgment will prove that many besides husbands have been won “without the word” but by a holy life (1 Pet 3:1). You may talk to persons about the doctrines of the gospel, and few will listen, and still fewer understand. But your life is an argument that none can escape. There is a meaning about holiness which not even the most unlearned can help taking in. They may not understand justification, but they can understand charity.


I believe there is far more harm done by unholy and inconsistent Christians than we are at all aware of. Such men are among Satan’s best allies. They pull down by their lives what ministers build with their lips. They cause the chariot wheels of the gospel to drive heavily. They supply the children of this world with a never-ending excuse for remaining as they are. “I cannot see the use of so much religion,” said an irreligious tradesman not long ago, “I observe that some of my customers are always talking about the gospel and faith and election and the blessed promises and so forth, and yet these very people think nothing of cheating me of pence and halfpence when they have an opportunity. Now, if religious persons can do such things, I do not see what good there is in religion.” I grieve to be obliged to write such things, but I fear that Christ’s name is too often blasphemed because of the lives of Christians. Let us take heed lest the blood of souls should be required at our hands. From murder of souls by inconsistency and loose walking, good Lord, deliver us! Oh, for the sake of others, if for no other reason, let us strive to be holy!


Holiness is Essential to our Comfort in this Life

g. We must be holy, because our present comfort depends much upon it. We are sadly apt to forget that there is a close connection between sin and sorrow, holiness and happiness, sanctification and consolation. God has so wisely ordered it, that our well-being and our well-doing are linked together. He has mercifully provided that even in this world it shall be man’s interest to be holy. Our justification is not by works, our calling and election are not according to our works; but it is vain for anyone to suppose that he will have a lively sense of his justification, or an assurance of his calling, so long as he neglects good works or does not strive to live a holy life. “Hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments” (1 Jn 2:3). “Hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts” (1 Jn 3:19). A believer may as soon expect to feel the sun’s rays upon a dark and cloudy day, as to feel strong consolation in Christ while he does not follow Him fully. When the disciples forsook the Lord and fled, they escaped danger; but they were miserable and sad. When, shortly after, they confessed Him boldly before men, they were cast into prison and beaten; but we are told, “They [rejoiced] that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name” (Acts 5:41). Oh, for our own sakes, if there were no other reason, let us strive to be holy! He that follows Jesus most fully will always follow Him most comfortably.


Holiness Prepares us for Heaven

h. Lastly, we must be holy, because without holiness on earth we will never be prepared to enjoy heaven. Heaven is a holy place. The Lord of heaven is a holy Being. The angels are holy creatures. Holiness is written on everything in heaven. The book of Revelation says expressly, “There shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie” (Rev 21:27).


How will we ever be at home and happy in heaven if we die unholy? Death works no change. The grave makes no alteration. Each will rise again with the same character in which he breathed his last. Where will our place be if we are strangers to holiness now?


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?


Now
 perhaps you love the company of the light and the careless, the worldly-minded and the covetous, the reveller and the pleasure-seeker, the ungodly and the profane. There will be none such in heaven.


Now
 perhaps you think the saints of God too strict and particular and serious. You rather avoid them. You have no delight in their society. There will be no other company in heaven.


Now
 perhaps you think praying and Scripture reading and psalm singing dull and melancholy and stupid work, a thing to be tolerated now and then, but not enjoyed. You reckon the Sabbath a burden and a weariness; you could not possibly spend more than a small part of it in worshipping God. But remember, heaven is a never-ending Sabbath. The inhabitants thereof rest not day or night, saying, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty,” and singing the praise of the Lamb. How could an unholy man find pleasure in occupation such as this?


Do you think that such a one would delight to meet David and Paul and John, after a life spent in doing the very things they spoke against? Would he take sweet counsel with them and find that he and they had much in common? Do you think, above all, that he would rejoice to meet Jesus, the crucified One, face to face, after cleaving to the sins for which He died, after loving His enemies and despising His friends? Would he stand before Him with confidence and join in the cry, “This is our God;… we have waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice in his salvation” (Isa 25:9)? Do you not think rather that the tongue of an unholy man would cleave to the roof of his mouth with shame, and his only desire would be to be cast out? He would feel a stranger in a land he did not know, a black sheep amid Christ’s holy flock. The voice of cherubim and seraphim, the song of angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven would be a language he could not understand. The very air would seem an air he could not breathe.


I do not know what others may think, but to me it does seem clear that heaven would be a miserable place to an unholy man. It cannot be otherwise. People may say in a vague way they “hope to go to heaven,” but they do not consider what they say. There must be a certain “[meetness for] the inheritance of the saints in light” (Col 1:12). Our hearts must be somewhat in tune. To reach the holiday of glory, we must pass through the training school of grace. We must be heavenly-minded and have heavenly tastes in the life that now is, or else we will never find ourselves in heaven in the life to come.


How to be Holy?


And now, before I go any further, let me say a few words by way of application.


The most pertinent question to ask is this: “Are you holy?” Listen, I pray you, to the question I put to you this day. Do you know anything of the holiness of which I have been speaking?


I do not ask whether you attend your church regularly, whether you have been baptised and received the Lord’s Supper, whether you have the name of Christian. I ask something more than all this: are you holy, or are you not?


I do not ask whether you approve of holiness in others, whether you like to read the lives of holy people and to talk of holy things and to have on your table holy books, whether you mean to be holy and hope you will be holy some day. I ask something further: are you yourself holy this very day, or are you not?


And why do I ask so straitly and press the question so strongly? I do it because the Scripture says, “Without [holiness] no man shall see the Lord.” It is written, it is not my fancy; it is the Bible, not my private opinion; it is the word of God, not of man: “Without [holiness] no man shall see the Lord” (Heb 12:14).


Alas, what searching, sifting words are these! What thoughts come across my mind as I write them down! I look at the world and see the greater part of it lying in wickedness. I look at professing Christians and see the vast majority having nothing of Christianity but the name. I turn to the Bible, and I hear the Spirit saying, “Without holiness no man shall see the Lord.”


Surely it is a text that ought to make us consider our ways and search our hearts. Surely it should raise within us solemn thoughts and send us to prayer.


You may try to put me off by saying you feel much and think much about these things: far more than many suppose. I answer, “This is not the point. The poor lost souls in hell do as much as this. The great question is not what you think,and what you feel, but what you do.”


You may say, it was never meant that all Christians should be holy and that holiness, such as I have described, is only for great saints and people of uncommon gifts. I answer, “I cannot see that in Scripture. I read that every manwho hath hope in Christ purifieth himself (1 Jn 3:3).” “Without holiness no manshall see the Lord.”


You may say, it is impossible to be so holy and to do our duty in this life at the same time: the thing cannot be done. I answer, “You are mistaken.” It can be done. With Christ on your side, nothing is impossible. It has been done by many. David and Obadiah and Daniel and the servants of Nero’s household are all examples that go to prove it.


You may say, if you were so holy you would be unlike other people. I answer, “I know it well. It is just what you ought to be. Christ’s true servants always were unlike the world around them—a separate nation, a peculiar people, and you must be so too, if you would be saved!”


You may say, at this rate very few will be saved. I answer, “I know it. It is precisely what we are told in the sermon on the mount.” The Lord Jesus said so eighteen hundred years ago. “Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Mt 7:14). Few will be saved because few will take the trouble to seek salvation. Men will not deny themselves the pleasures of sin and their own way for a little season. They turn their backs on an “inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away” (1 Pet 1:4). “Ye will not come to me,” says Jesus, “that ye might have life” (Jn 5:40).


You may say, these are hard sayings; the way is very narrow. I answer, “I know it. So says the sermon on the mount.” The Lord Jesus said so eighteen hundred years ago. He always said that men must take up the cross daily and that they must be ready to cut off hand or foot, if they would be His disciples. It is in religion, as it is in other things, there are no gains without pains. That which costs nothing is worth nothing.


Whatever we may think fit to say, we must be holy if we would see the Lord. Where is our Christianity if we are not? We must not merely have a Christian name and Christian knowledge; we must have a Christian character also. We must be saints on earth if ever we mean to be saints in heaven. God has said it, and He will not go back: “Without holiness no man shall see the Lord.” “The pope’s calendar,” says Jenkyn, “only makes saints of the dead, but Scripture requires sanctity in the living.” “Let not men deceive themselves,” says Owen, “sanctification is a qualification indispensably necessary unto those who will be under the conduct of the Lord Christ unto salvation. He leads none to heaven but whom He sanctifies on the earth. This living Head will not admit of dead members.”


Surely we need not wonder that Scripture says, “Ye must be born again” (Jn 3:7). Surely it is clear as noonday that many professing Christians need a complete change, new hearts, new natures, if ever they are to be saved. Old things must pass away; they must become new creatures. “Without holiness no man,” be he who he may, “no man shall see the Lord.”


Let me speak a little to believers. I ask you this question, “Do you think you feel the importance of holiness as much as you should?”


I admit I fear the temper of the times about this subject. I doubt exceedingly whether it holds that place which it deserves in the thoughts and attention of some of the Lord’s people. I would humbly suggest that we are apt to overlook the doctrine of growth in grace and that we do not sufficiently consider how very far a person may go in a profession of religion, and yet have no grace and be dead in God’s sight after all. I believe that Judas Iscariot seemed very like the other Apostles. When the Lord warned them that one would betray Him, no one said, “Is it Judas?” We had better think more about the churches of Sardis and Laodicea than we do.…


I would say it with all reverence, but say it I must: I sometimes fear if Christ were on earth now, there are not a few who would think His preaching legal; and if Paul were writing his Epistles, there are those who would think he had better not write the latter part of most of them as he did. But let us remember that the Lord Jesus did speak the sermon on the mount and that the Epistle to the Ephesians contains six chapters and not four. I grieve to feel obliged to speak in this way, but I am sure there is a cause.…


Is it not true that we need a higher standard of personal holiness in this day? Where is our patience? Where is our zeal? Where is our love? Where are our works? Where is the power of religion to be seen, as it was in times gone by? Where is that unmistakable tone which used to distinguish the saints of old and shake the world? Truly our silver has become dross, our wine mixed with water, and our salt has very little savour. We are all more than half asleep. The night is far spent, and the day is at hand. Let us awake and sleep no more. Let us open our eyes more widely than we have done up to this time. “Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us” (Heb 12:1). “Let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of flesh and spirit, and perfect holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor 7:1). “Did Christ die,” says Owen, “and shall sin live? Was He crucified in the world, and shall our affections to the world be quick and lively? Oh, where is the spirit of him, who by the cross of Christ was crucified to the world, and the world to him?”


Conclusion


Would you be holy? Would you become a new creature? Then you must begin with Christ. You will do just nothing at all and make no progress till you feel your sin and weakness and flee to Him. He is the root and beginning of all holiness, and the way to be holy is to come to Him by faith and be joined to Him. Christ is not wisdom and righteousness only to His people, but sanctification also. Men sometimes try to make themselves holy first of all, and sad work they make of it. They toil and labour and turn over many new leaves and make many changes; and yet, like the woman with the issue of blood, before she came to Christ, they feel “nothing bettered, but rather grew worse” (Mk 5:26). They run in vain and labour in vain, and little wonder; for they are beginning at the wrong end. They are building up a wall of sand; their work runs down as fast as they throw it up. They are baling water out of a leaky vessel; the leak gains on them, not they on the leak. Other foundation of holiness can no man lay than that which Paul laid, even Christ Jesus. Without Christ we can do nothing (Jn 15:5). It is a strong but true saying of Traill’s: “Wisdom out of Christ is damning folly; righteousness out of Christ is guilt and condemnation; sanctification out of Christ is filth and sin; redemption out of Christ is bondage and slavery.”


Do you want to attain holiness? Do you feel this day a real hearty desire to be holy? Would you be a partaker of the divine nature? Then go to Christ. Wait for nothing. Wait for nobody. Linger not. Think not to make yourself ready. Go to Him as you are.


There is not a brick nor a stone laid in the work of our sanctification till we go to Christ. Holiness is His special gift to His believing people. Holiness is the work He carries on in their hearts by the Spirit whom He puts within them. He is appointed a “Prince and a Saviour… to give repentance” (Acts 5:31), as well as remission of sins. To as many as receive Him, He gives power to become sons of God (Jn 1:12, 13). Holiness comes not of blood: parents cannot give it to their children; nor yet of the will of the flesh: man cannot produce it in himself; nor yet of the will of man: ministers cannot give it to you by baptism. Holiness comes from Christ. It is the result of vital union with Him. It is the fruit of being a living branch of the true Vine. Go then to Christ and say, “Lord, not only save me from the guilt of sin, but send the Spirit, whom Thou didst promise, and save me from its power. Make me holy. Teach me to do Thy will.”


Would you continue holy? Then abide in Christ (Jn 15:4, 5). It pleased the Father that in Him should all fullness dwell, a full supply for all a believer’s wants. He is the Physician to whom you must daily go if you would keep well. He is the Manna which you must daily eat and the Rock of which you must daily drink. His arm is the arm on which you must daily lean as you come up out of the wilderness of this world. You must not only be rooted, you must also be built up in Him. Paul was a man of God indeed, a holy man, a growing thriving Christian, and what was the secret of it all? He was one to whom Christ was all in all. He was ever looking unto Jesus (Heb 12:2). “I can do all things,” he says, “through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Phil 4:13). “I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live, I live by the faith of the Son of God” (Gal 2:20). Let us go and do likewise.


—J.J. Lim