Ryle: The Nature of Sanctification

by Jason Moore on January 4, 2011

On the list of my top ten Christian books of all time is Holiness by J.C. Ryle (1816-1900). The book, a collection of twenty papers on the subject of holiness first published in 1879, is pungent, practical, and, after more than a century, still wonderfully readable. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was right: “[Ryle] is preeminently and always scriptural and expository…It is exposition at its very best and highest. It is always clear and logical and invariably leads to a clear enunciation of doctrine. It is strong and virile and entirely free from the sentimentality that is often described as ‘devotional.’”

Chapter 2 on sanctification is one of many great chapters in the book. In the background for this chapter (and for many others) is Ryle’s desire to counter the “higher life” theology popular in revival meetings and Keswick circles at the time. Having no patience for quietist methods of sanctification, Ryle found “let go and let God” theology thoroughly unbiblical and argued strenuously that the life of the believer requires strenuous effort.

Ryle is clear and organized in this chapter. First, he explains the true nature of sanctification. Next, he looks at the visible signs of sanctification. Third, he explores how justification and sanctification are alike and how they are different. Finally, he provides some concluding pastoral reflections. Over the next few days I’ll provide Ryle’s main points, directly quoting from him for the most part. Wherever you see italics, those are in the original (or at least the version I have).

The True Nature of Sanctification

Sanctification, as a New Testament term, refers more to our position in holiness than our progressive growth in holiness. But as a common theological category, sanctification almost always means the latter. That’s how Ryle understands the term.

Sanctification is that inward spiritual work which the Lord Jesus Christ works in a man by the Holy Ghost, when He calls him to be a true believer. He not only washes him from his sins in His own blood, but He also separates him from his natural love of sin and the world, puts a new principle in his heart, and makes him practically godly in life. (p. 19)

With this broad definition in place, Ryle lists twelve further statements on sanctification.

  1. Sanctification, then, is the invariable result of that vital union with Christ which true faith gives to a Christian.
  2. Sanctification, again, is the outcome and inseparable consequence of regeneration.
  3. Sanctification, again, is the only certain evidence of that indwelling of the Holy Spirit which is essential to salvation.
  4. Sanctification, again, is the only sure mark of God’s election.
  5. Sanctification, again, is a thing that will always be seen. (p. 23)
  6. Sanctification, again, is a thing for which every believer is responsible.
  7. Sanctification, again, is a thing which admits of growth and degrees.
  8. Sanctification, again, is a thing which depends greatly on a diligent use of scriptural means.
  9. Sanctification, again, is a thing which does not prevent a man having a great deal of inward spiritual conflict.
  10. Sanctification, again, is a thing which cannot justify a man, and yet it pleases God.
  11. Sanctification, again, is a thing which will be found absolutely necessary as a witness to our character in the great day of judgment.
  12. Sanctification, in the last place, is absolutely necessary, in order to train and prepare us for heaven.

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