November 18, 2017

J. C. Ryle on Personal Separation

An excerpt from Holiness by J. C. Ryle

The times require of us a higher standard of personal holiness, and an increased attention to practical religion in daily life.

I must honestly declare my conviction that, since the days of the Reformation, there never has been so much profession of religion without practice, so much talking about God without walking with Him, so much hearing God’s words without doing them, as there is in England at this present date. Never were there so many empty tubs and tinkling cymbals! Never was there so much formality and so little reality. The whole tone of men’s minds on what constitutes practical Christianity seems lowered. The old golden standard of the behaviour which becomes a Christian man or woman appears debased and degenerated. You may see scores of religious people (so-called) continually doing things which in days gone by would have been thought utterly inconsistent with vital religion. They see no harm in such things as card-playing, theatre-going, dancing, incessant novel reading and Sunday travelling, and they cannot in the least understand what you mean by objecting to them! The ancient tenderness of conscience about such things seems dying away and becoming extinct, like the dodo; and when you venture to remonstrate with young communicants who indulge in them, they only stare at you as an old-fashioned narrow-minded, fossilized person, and say, ‘Where is the harm?’ In short, laxity of ideas among young men, and ‘fastness’ and levity among young women, are only too common characteristics of the rising generation of Christian professors.

Now in saying all this I would not be mistaken. I disclaim the slightest wish to recommend an ascetic religion. Monasteries, nunneries, complete retirement from the world, and refusal to do our duty in it, all these I hold to be unscriptural and mischievous nostrums. Nor can I ever see my way clear to urging on men an ideal standard of perfection for which I find no warrant in God’s Word, a standard which is unattainable in this life, and hands over the management of the affairs of society to the devil and the wicked. No, I always wish to promote a genial, cheerful, manly religion, such as men may carry everywhere, and yet glorify Christ.

The pathway to a higher standard of holiness, which I commend to the attention of my readers, is a very simple one, so simple that I can fancy many smiling at it with disdain. But, simple as it is, it is a path sadly neglected and overgrown with weeds, and it is high time to direct men into it. We need then to examine more closely our good old friends the Ten Commandments. Beaten out, and properly developed as they were by Bishop Andrews and the Puritans, the two tables of God’s law are a perfect mine of practical religion. I think it an evil sign of our day that many clergymen neglect to have the commandments put up in their new, or restored, churches, and coolly tell you, ‘They are not wanted now’! I believe they never were wanted so much!

We need to examine more closely such portions of our Lord Jesus Christ’s teaching as the sermon on the mount. How rich is that wonderful discourse in food for thought! What a striking sentence that is: ‘Except your righteousness exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter the kingdom of heaven’! (Matthew 5:20.) Alas, that text is rarely used!

Last, but not least, we need to study more closely the latter part of nearly all St Paul’s Epistles to the churches. They are far too much slurred over and neglected. Scores of Bible readers, I am afraid, are well acquainted with the first eleven chapters of the Epistle to the Romans, but know comparatively little of the five last. When Thomas Scott expounded the Epistle to the Ephesians at the old Lock Chapel, he remarked that the congregations became much smaller when he reached the practical part of that blessed book!

Once more I say you may think my recommendations very simple. I do not hesitate to affirm that attention to them would, by God’s blessing, be most useful to Christ’s cause. I believe it would raise the standard of English Christianity, about such matters as home religion, separation from the world, diligence in the discharge of relative duties, unselfishness, good temper and general spiritual-mindedness, to a pitch which it seldom attains now. There is a common complaint in these latter days that there is a want of power in modern Christianity, and that the true church of Christ, the body of which He is the Head, does not shake the world in the nineteenth century as it used to do in former years. Shall I tell you in plain words what is the reason? It is the low tone of life which is so sadly prevalent among professing believers.

We want more men and women who walk with God and before God, like Enoch and Abraham. Though our numbers at this date far exceed those of our evangelical forefathers, I believe we fall far short of them in our standard of Christian practice. Where is the self-denial, the redemption of time, the absence of luxury and self-indulgence, the unmistakable separation from earthly things, the manifest air of being always about our Master’s business, the singleness of eye, the simplicity of home life, the high tone of conversation in society, the patience, the humility, the universal courtesy, which marked so many of our forerunners seventy or eighty years ago? Yes, where is it indeed? We have inherited their principles and we wear their armour, but I fear we have not inherited their practice. The Holy Ghost sees it, and is grieved; and the world sees it, and despises us. The world sees it, and cares little for our testimony. It is life, life — a heavenly, godly, Christ-like life — depend on it, which influences the world. Let us resolve, by God’s blessing, to shake off this reproach. Let us awake to a clear view of what the times require of us in this matter. Let us aim at a much higher standard of practice. Let the time past suffice us to have been content with a half-and-half holiness. For the time to come, let us endeavour to walk with God, to be ‘thorough’ and unmistakable in our daily life, and to silence, if we cannot convert, a sneering world.

Excerpted from J. C. Ryle, Holiness, Chapter 16, “Wants of the Times”

Ryle’s preface to this chapter: This paper contains the substance of a sermon preached at St Margaret’s Church, Ipswich, on 11 June, 1879, on the occasion of an aggregate meeting of evangelical clergymen residing in the Eastern Counties. It is now printed almost entirely as it was preached, with the addition of a few paragraphs on personal holiness, which want of time obliged me to omit.

A few notes from the editor:

  1. We live in an antinomian age. Words such as Ryle’s are mocked by men who insist they are historic fundamentalists.
  2. Principles of holiness find expression in personal convictions that run counter to the trends of the world. These expressions do not look the same in every believer. Some of Ryle’s applications differ from ours. The principles remain. The need for holiness remains. The call to come out from among them remains.
  3. I remain convinced that concerns such as Ryle’s are not merely the disenchantment of age with the exuberance of youth (i.e., it is not merely a ‘generation gap’). Ryle’s concerns are those of a mature believer warning the immature against their immaturity.
  4. Finally, having made the last point, one of the marks of our day is the incredible spiritual immaturity (at best) of most of the professing Christian church. Men and women behave like self-centered self-indulgent children and call it “God-centeredness”. Which god?

Submitted by Don Johnson


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