When considering sanctification and holiness, it is easy to slip into a kind of legalistic moralism that awards merit to our works. In the following paragraph, Ryle puts that error in its place.
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 no 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).
—J. C. Ryle, Holiness (Banner of Truth, 2014), 55.
If all that is true, why bother? Why should we care about holiness if it earns us nothing, and will never be good enough, anyway? Ryle replies,
Why does the Apostle say, ‘Without it no man shall see the Lord’? Let me set out in order a few reasons.
(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’ (Matt. 5:20). ‘Be ye perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect’ (Matt. 5:48). Paul tells the Thessalonians, ‘This is the will of God, even your sanctification’ (1 Thess. 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 Peter 1:15, 16). . . .
(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’ (Titus 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.’ Are they predestinated?—it is ‘to be conformed to the image of God’s Son.’ Are they chosen?—it is ‘that they may be holy.’ Are they called?—is it ‘with a holy calling.’ Are they afflicted?—it is that they may be ‘partakers of holiness.’ 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 (1 Peter 1:2; Rom. 8:29; Eph. 1:4; Heb. 12:10).
(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 there is such a thing as a dead faith . . . (James 2:17). True saving faith is a very different kind of thing. True faith will always show itself by its fruits . . .
(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.’—‘He that hath my commandments and keepeth them, he it is that loveth Me.’—‘If a man love Me he will keep my words.’—‘Ye are my friends if ye do whatsoever I command you’ (John 14:15, 21, 23; 15:14). . . .
(e) We must be holy, because this is the only sound evidence that we are true children of God. . . . The Lord Jesus says, ‘If ye were Abraham’s children ye would do the works of Abraham.’—‘If God were your Father ye would love Me’ (John 8:39, 42). . . . ‘As many as are led by the Spirit of God, they,’ and they only, ‘are the sons of God’ (Rom. 8:14). . . . ‘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.’
(f) We must be holy, because this is the most likely way to do good to others. . . . I believe there is far more harm done by unholy and inconsistent Christians than we are aware of. . . . ‘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 half-pence, when they have an opportunity. Now, if religious persons can do such things, I do not see what good there is in religion.’ . . .
(g) We must be holy, because our present comfort depends much upon it. . . . ‘Hereby we do know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments.’—‘Hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts’ (1 John 2:3; 3:19).
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