Practical Holiness

by J. C. Ryle

I shall endeavor, by God's help, to examine what true holiness is, and the reason why it is so needful. I shall also try to point out the only way in which holiness can be attained. So let me try to show what sort of persons God calls holy.

True holiness is not knowledge—Balaam had that. Nor is it great profession—Judas Iscariot had that. Nor is it doing many things—Herod had that. Nor is it zeal for certain matters in religion—Jehu had that. Nor is it morality and outward respectability of conduct—the young ruler had that. Again, it is not taking pleasure in hearing preachers—the Jews in Ezekiel's time had that. Nor is it keeping company with godly people—Joab and Gehazi and Demas had that. Yet none of these was 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 practical holiness? It is a hard question to answer, because I fear lest I should give a defective view of holiness, and not say all that ought to be said; or say things about it that ought not to be said, and so do harm. Let me, however, try to draw a picture of holiness, that we may see it clearly before the eyes of our minds. Only let it never be forgotten that my account is but a poor imperfect outline at best.

I. Holiness is the habit of being of one mind with God, as we find His mind described in Scripture. It is the habit of agreeing in God's judgement—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 is the most holy man.

II. A holy man will endeavor to shun every known sin, and to keep every known commandment. He will have a hearty desire to do God's will. He will have a greater fear of displeasing Him than of displeasing the world, and a love for all His ways. He will feel what Paul felt when he said, "I delight in the law of God after the inward man" (Rom. 7:22), and what David felt when he said, "I esteem all Thy preceptsand I hate every false way" (Ps. 119:128).

III. A holy man will strive to be like our Lord Jesus Christ. He will not only live the life of faith in Him, and draw from Him all his daily peace and strength, but he will also labor to have the mind that was in Him, and to be "conformed to His image" (Rom. 8:29). 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 would continually deny Himself in order to minister to others and that He was meek and patient under undeserved insults. He will remember that He was full of love and compassion to sinners, but bold and uncompromising in denouncing sin. He will remember that Christ sought not the praise of men, and that He went about doing good—and 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. He will lay to heart 1 John 2:6: "He that saith he abideth in Christ ought himself also so to walk, even as He walked"; and that "Christ suffered for us, leaving us an example that ye should follow His steps" (1 Pet. 2:21).

IV. A holy man will follow after meekness, long-suffering, gentleness, patience, kindness, and control of his tongue. He will bear much, forbear much, overlook much, and be slow to talk of standing on his rights. We see a bright example of this in the behavior of Moses when Aaron and Miriam spoke against him (Num. 12:2ff).

V. A holy man will follow after temperance and self-denial. He will labor to mortify the desires of his body; to crucify his flesh with his affections and lusts, lest at any time they break loose. Recall the Lord Jesus' words 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 21:34); and the Apostle Paul's warning: "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. 9:27).

VI. A holy man will endeavor 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—towards their bodies, their property, their character, their feelings, their souls. "He that loveth another," says Paul, "hath fulfilled the law" (Rom. 13:8). He will abhor all lying, slandering, backbiting, cheating, dishonesty, and unfair dealing, even in the least things. He will strive to make his religion lovely and beautiful in the eyes of all around him.

VII. A holy man will try to do only 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" (Acts 9:36). So too was Paul: "I will very gladly spend and be spent for you, though the more abundantly I love you the less I be loved" (2 Cor. 12:15).

VIII. A holy man will dread all filthiness and uncleanness of spirit. 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? Few Christians are ever too watchful and too particular about this point.

IX. A holy man will follow after the fear of God—I mean 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 for his support. But he said, "So did not I, because of the fear of God" (Neh. 5:15).

X. A holy man 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 Abraham's feeling, when he said, "I am dust and ashes," and Jacob's, when he said, "I am less than the least of all Thy mercies," and Paul's, when he said, "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."

XI. A holy man will follow after faithfulness in all the duties and relations in life. Those words of Paul should never be forgotten: "Whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as unto the Lord," and again, "Not slothful in business, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord" (Col. 3:23; Rom. 12:11). Holy persons should strive to be good husbands and good wives, good neighbors, good friends, good subjects, good in private and good in public, good in the place of business, and good by their firesides. Holiness is worth little indeed, if it does not bear this kind of fruit. The Lord Jesus put a searching question to His people, when He said, "What do ye more than others?" (Matt. 5:47).

XII. Finally, a holy man will endeavor 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 traveling to his home. 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" (Ps. 63:8; 119:57).

Such are the main features of a holy man.

But I fear lest 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 say for a moment that holiness shuts out the presence of indwelling sin. It is the greatest mystery 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 trying to draw him back at every step he takes (Rom. 7:21).

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. 9:25).

Neither do I say that that these graces I have touched on must be found in full bloom and vigor 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. And sanctification in the very best is an imperfect work. The life of the holiest men 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" (Gal. 5:17; James 3:2). 

Nevertheless, 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 may not attain to it, but they always aim at it.

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

I know a man may be truly holy and yet be drawn aside by many an infirmity. Gold is not the less gold because it is mingled with alloy. But after every allowance, I cannot see how any man deserves to be called "holy" who willfully allows himself in sins, and is not humbled and ashamed because of them. I dare not call anyone "holy" who makes a habit of willfully neglecting known duties, and willfully 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."

Such are the leading characteristics of practical holiness. Let us examine ourselves and see whether we are acquainted with it. Let us prove our own selves.

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About the author
John Charles Ryle was born in 1816 in Macclesfield, England. The son of a wealthy banker, he was educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford. He was spiritually awakened in 1838 on hearing Ephesians 2 read in church. He was appointed bishop of Liverpool on Disraeli's recommendation in 1880. C. H. Spurgeon called him "the best man in the Church of England." He upheld the Reformation doctrine of grace, as found in the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church, and he recommended the English Reformers, Puritans, and eighteenth-century evangelicals as models for both doctrine and devotion. More than 12 million of his tracts were sold in over a dozen languages during his lifetime. Their influence on popular Christianity, like that of Spurgeon's sermons, was incalculable. He died in 1900.

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