It is a solemn thing to hear the Word of God saying "Without holiness no man shall see the Lord" (Heb. 12:14). I shall endeavor, by God's help, to examine what true holiness is, and the reason why it is so needful.
First, then, let me try to show what true practical holiness is. A man may go great lengths, and yet never reach true holiness. It is not knowledge-Balaam had that; nor great profession-Judas Iscariot had that; nor doing many things-Herod had that; nor zeal for certain matters in religion-Jehu had that; nor morality and outward respectability of conduct-the young ruler had that; nor taking pleasure in hearing preachers-the Jews in Ezekiel's time had that; yet none of these was holy! These things alone are not holiness.
What then is true practical holiness? Let me 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, when I have said all, that my account is but a poor imperfect outline at the best.
1) Holiness is the habit of being of one mind with God, according as we find His mind described in Scripture. It is the habit of agreeing in God's judgment-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, he is the most holy man.
2) 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-a greater fear of displeasing Him than of displeasing the world, and a love to 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 precepts concerning all things to be right, and I hate every false way" (Ps. 119:128).
3) 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 came not to do His own will-that He was meek and patient under undeserved insults; that He was full of love and compassion to sinners; that He was bold and uncompromising in denouncing sin; that He sought not the praise of men, when He might have had it; that He went about doing good; that He was separate from worldly people.
He will lay to heart the saying of John, "He that saith he abideth in Christ ought himself also so to walk, even as He walked" (1 John 2:6); and the saying of Peter, that "Christ suffered for us leaving us an example that ye should follow His steps" (1 Pet. 2:21). Happy is he who has learned to make Christ his "all," both for salvation and example!
4) A holy man will follow after meekness, longsuffering, gentleness, patience, kind tempers, and government 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 David when Shimei cursed him, and of Moses when Aaron and Miriam spoke against him (2 Sam. 16:10; Num. 12:3).
5) A holy man will follow after temperance and self-denial. He will labor to mortify the desires of his body to restrain his carnal inclinations, lest at any time they break loose. Oh, what a word is that of the Lord Jesus 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 that of the Apostle Paul, "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).
6) A holy man will follow after charity and brotherly kindness. He will be full of affection towards his brethren-towards their bodies, their property, their characters, 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. Alas, what condemning words are the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians, and the Sermon on the Mount, when laid alongside the conduct of many professing Christians!
7) A holy man will follow after a spirit of mercy and benevolence towards others. 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 almsdeeds" (Acts 9:36). Such a one 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).
8) A holy man will follow after purity of heart. He will dread all filthiness and uncleanness of spirit, and seek to avoid all things that might draw him into it. 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? There is many a hint to be gleaned from the ceremonial law. Under it the man who only touched a bone, or a dead body, or a grave, or a diseased person, became at once unclean in the sight of God.
10) A holy man will follow after the fear of God. I do not mean the fear of a slave, who only works because he is afraid of punishment, and would be idle if he did not dread discovery. I mean rather 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!
11) A holy man will follow after humility. He 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 says, "I am dust and ashes," and Jacob's, when he says, "I am less than the least of all Thy mercies," and Paul's, when he says, "I am chief of sinners."
12) A holy man will follow after faithfulness in all the duties and relations in life. He will try, not merely to fill his place as well as others who take no thought for their souls, but even better, because he has higher motives, and more help than they. Those words of Paul should never be forgotten, "Whatever ye do, do it heartily, as unto the Lord" (Col. 3:23). Holy persons should strive to be good husbands and good wives, good parents and good children, good masters and good servants, 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.
13) Last, but not least, a holy man will follow after spiritual mindedness. He 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" (Ps. 63:8).
But I do not say for a moment that holiness shuts out the presence of indwelling sin. No, far from it. It is the greatest misery 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 clogging all his movements, and, as it were, 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.
Neither do I say that holiness comes to ripeness and perfection all at once-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. All must have a beginning. And sanctification in the very best is an imperfect work. The holiest men have many a blemish and defect when weighed in the balance of the sanctuary. Their life 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 (Gal. 5:17).
But still, for all this, 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 press towards it, if they do not reach it. They may not attain to it, but they always aim at it. It is what they strive and labor to be, if it is not what they are. 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."
But this I confidently say, that true holiness is a great reality. 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.
From Holiness, excerpted in Pulpit Helps, August 2000.
J. C. Ryle (1816-1900), the Anglican bishop of Liverpool, was a faithful preacher of God's Word, a prolific writer, and a fearless advocate of biblical principles in the public square.
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