As I continue to reflect on the nature of pastoral ministry, ministry in the North American evangelical church, and questions of ministry integrity, I find myself returning often to the topic of holiness. Even writing the word holiness makes me feel a little bit “old school.” However, if I hold the tension of that uncomfortable feeling for a bit, I cannot help but think we may need to be a little “old school” right now on this issue.
So, I turned to a voice from an earlier time, J. C. Ryle, whose classic book Holiness has been highly regarded for years, with pastors like J. I. Packer and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones urging Christians to read it. Let me share a brief excerpt from his introduction to this book, which, I believe, puts some perspective on where we stand today in North American Christianity.
I’ve had a deep conviction for many years that practical holiness and entire self-consciousness 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. 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. Worldly people sometimes complain with reason that “religious” persons, so-called, are not so amiable, and unselfish, and good-natured, as others who make no profession of religion. Yet sanctification, in its place in proportion, is quite as important as justification. Sound Protestant and evangelical doctrine is useless if it is not accompanied by a holy life. It is worse than useless: it does positive harm. It is despised by keen-sighted and shrewd men of the world, as an unreal and hollow thing, and brings religion into contempt. It is my firm impression that we want a thorough revival about scriptural holiness, and I am deeply thankful that attention is being directed to the point.
As Ryle continues his introduction, he outlines a series of issues related to holiness, some of which apply to our own day and some of which seem more bound to his own time. It is, however, his first point that I find particularly relevant to our own context. In the midst of our heavy emphasis on grace in North American Christianity, we have at times veered off into various versions of antinomianism, where there is no place – or at least disregard – for God’s law and obedience. As with the work of Dallas Willard, sometimes simplified in the writings of John Ortberg, we find Ryle grappling with the tension between faith and work, between earning God’s favor and application of effort to honor God. On the subject of holiness, he writes:
That faith in Christ is the root of all holiness; that the first step towards a holy life is to believe on Christ; that until we believe we have not a jot of holiness; that union with Christ by faith is the secret of both beginning to be holy and continuing holy; that the life that we live in the flesh, we must live by the faith of the Son of God; that faith purifies the heart; that faith is the victory which overcomes the world; that by faith the elders obtain a good report – all these are truths which no well-instructed Christian will ever think of denying. But surely the Scriptures teach us that in following holiness the true Christian needs personal exertion and work as well as faith….Justifying faith is a grace that “worketh not,” but simply trusts, rests, and leans on Christ (Rom. 4:5). Sanctifying faith is a grace of which the very life is action: it “worketh by love,” and, like a mainspring, moves the whole inward man (Gal. 5:6).
What Ryle emphasizes, and we rightly need to recover, is the emphatic coupling of justifying grace with sanctifying grace. We need to recover the truth that our unearned salvation by grace through faith in Christ overflows into a holy life strenuously lived as worship unto the Lord through obedience. I cannot help but think that one of the things we most need to recover today in North American Christianity is holiness.