Holiness, JC Ryle, Part 2
She Must Dig Down Low If She Wants To Build High
Chapter 1 is an astonishing chapter. When I first read it, many years ago, I was struck by how much more sinful I was than I realised, "The slightest outward or inward departure from absolute mathematical parallelism with God's revealed will and character constitutes a sin, and at once makes us guilty in God's sight." I think it was the first time I’d heard of sins of omission as well as deliberate sins - that made me feel doubly bad. And I have to admit it made me terrified to read the rest of the book. What I didn't realise then was that "the best way out is always through." (Robert Frost)
Back then my faith suffered because of a lack of assurance. And, ironically, my lack of assurance came from a lack of holiness. Had I kept reading the book I may have been encouraged to take hold of Ryle's strong push to do something about it and make progress in having a closer walk with God. Instead I skimmed the chapters and saw one ahead about Lot's wife. I knew she got turned into a pillar of salt. I put the book down, discouraged and fled from it. I wasn't confident to continue peering in at myself.
Twelve years later, I'm so encouraged that God has hung on to me. I am making bumpy progress, failing lots, but trying again. I'm so glad I understand that I am a debtor to mercy and grace, that I don’t have the personal resources to grow without Christ’s spirit at work in me. I'm so glad I got to know Jesus better. And I'm so glad I'm braver than I was then and that in God’s perfect timing this book has once again ended up in my hands. Let me tell you though,12 years might have passed, but this chapter still packs a wallop!
“A man may smile and smile, and be a villain.”
There is so much truth about the human condition in this chapter and the truth can hurt. It’s not just breaking God’s law in practise that counts as sin, God weighs the heart. Jesus explains this in the Sermon on the Mount when he tells his listeners that anyone who looks lustfully at a woman has committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:21-28). (The same goes for a woman looking lustfully at a man.) God’s standards are high. And our heart - without God shining a light into it by the power of the Holy Spirit and beginning a new spiritual life in us - is very sick indeed.
Personally, I think that the doctrine of original sin is a really convincing aspect of the truth of the Bible. If you know your own heart you have to acknowledge there’s a lot of darkness there. The ninth article of the Church in Ryle’s day declared that as the offspring of Adam we are very far gone from original righteousness, inclined to evil and facing death and God’s just judgement.
A Temple In Ruins
And yet, there’s light as well - we are capable of so much! Ordinary people are capable of extraordinary kindness. On a grander scale humans achieve incredible things in every field of endeavor. Ryle reaches for a prime architectural example, Karnak in Luxor, Egypt.
I’ve spent time at Karnak. I have sat in the shade of its giant columns, my head covered with a scarf, resting from the heat (and the problems of modern Egyptian life) marvelling, as all visitors do, at how small we are. Pharaohs walked the earth here and they left their mark. It truly is awe-inspiring. It’s also a great example of the complexity of man’s talent and our fallen state. This beautiful temple complex was erected to worship gods, goddesses, birds and beasts, not the living God of the Bible. It’s a short mental skip from Karnak to our own city skyline, our own homes, our own hearts. Who is being worshipped there? Who do you worship?
This complexity is summed up beautifully when Ryle writes: We can acknowledge that man has all the marks of a majestic temple about him - a temple in which God once dwelt, but a temple which is now in utter ruins - a temple in which a shattered window here, and a doorway there, and a column there, still gives some faint idea of the magnificence of the original design, but a temple which from end to end has lost its glory and fallen from its high estate. (p.30)
How did it come to this? The answer is found very early on in the Bible in the third chapter of Genesis. Just like you and I, the first humans thought they knew better than God. The consequences were disastrous. Not just for themselves but for the whole of humanity. Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden. The closeness they had with God was lost. And all the problems of sin now entangled them and their descendants.
How can we ever get the closeness we had - sharing God’s garden - back? How can we ever become free of the entanglements and consequences of sin? Is it a vain hope? The very same chapter of the Bible also brings a new phrase, “the serpent crusher” into view. There is hope. There is a fixer: The man, Jesus Christ. God promises “that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”. (John 3:16)
Dross Mixed In With The Gold
After faith, however, comes the reality of living the Christian life. Even after people become Christians, sin still clings powerfully and Ryle talks about this. His phrase, “there is much dross mixed in with the gold” is a good one. (Dross is the worthless stuff clinging to the gold after you heat it.) I have found his clear teaching on what we should expect of the Christian once they are no longer under the dominion of sin enormously helpful as it’s an area I spent many years lost in. I felt that because I made no real progress (in my opinion) repenting of my sins that I was not really a Christian and so was terrified of going to hell. I would sit in Bible Study choking back tears wondering what other people had that made them so sure they were right with God. A proper understanding of grace for one. A proper understanding of sin for another. Both of which help us to humbly live up to the potential God wants for us as Christians. (This is an area that takes some careful thinking about. If you'd like to read more, Phillip Jensen has written helpfully on the topic here: http://www.phillipjensen.com/articles/sin-in-the-life-of-a-believer/)
The Glorious Gospel Of The Grace of God
All of this should make us enormously thankful for the glorious Gospel of the grace of God, embodied in the man, Jesus. This is the only remedy for the family disease we all have. It is lifelong surgery, begun at the moment of conversion, performed ongoingly by the Holy Spirit under God’s timing and direction. My husband said that reading this chapter, “Made my salvation seem incredible! Because I knew what I was being saved from.” May you be encouraged in your walk with God to have him shine a light in your heart and continue his saving work there.
About this month’s contributor, Katie Stringer
Katie is a lover of books, baking and beaches. She grew up in Sydney’s eastern suburbs and though she now lives in the inner west, wears her Bronte speedo with pride at all inner west pools. Katie studied factual and creative writing at the University of New South Wales and loves nothing better than filling up blank books and writing on the margins of novels. Before having children Katie combined teaching English as a foreign language with freelance writing. She is married to Andrew and they have three children. They love being a part of the Leichhardt community and serving together at All Souls, Leichhardt.