Characteristics Of A Holy Life
By J. C. Ryle
"...Holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord" (Heb. 12:14).
Let me try to draw a picture of Biblical holiness, that we may see it clearly before the eyes of our minds.
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.
A holy man will endeavor to shun every known sin, and to keep every known commandment. He will have a decided bent of mind towards God, a hearty desire to do His will, a greater fear of displeasing Him than of displeasing the world, and a love for 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" (Psa. 119:128).
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 was a faithful witness for the truth; that He came not to do His own will; that it was His food and drink to do His Father’s will; that He would continually deny Himself in order to minister to others; that He was meek and patient under undeserved insults; that He thought more of godly poor men, than of kings; 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; that He continued instant in prayer; that He would not let even His nearest relations stand in His way when God’s work was to be done.
All these things, a holy man will try to remember. By them, he will endeavor to shape his course in life. 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 also 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! Much time would be saved, and much sin prevented – if men would oftener ask themselves the question: "What would Jesus have said and done – if He were in my place?"
A holy man will follow after meekness, patience, gentleness, 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 (2 Sam. 16:10), and of Moses when Aaron and Miriam spoke against him (Num. 12:3).
A holy man will follow after temperance and self-denial. He will labor to mortify the desires of his body, to crucify his flesh with his affections and lusts, to curb his passions, 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, and so that day come upon you unawares" (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).
A holy man will follow after love and brotherly kindness. He will endeavor to observe the "golden rule" of doing as he would have men do to him – and speaking as he would have men speak to him. 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. He will strive to adorn his religion by all his outward demeanor, and to make it lovely and beautiful in the eyes of all around him.
Alas, what condemning words are the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, and the Sermon on the Mount – when laid alongside the conduct of many professing Christians!
A holy man will follow after a spirit of mercy and benevolence towards others. He will not stand idle all the day. He will not be content with doing no harm – he will try to do good. He will strive to be useful in his day and generation, and to lessen the spiritual needs and misery around him as far as he can. Such was Dorcas: "full of good works and alms-deeds, which she did" (Acts 9:36) – nor merely purposed and talked about – but did. Such a one was Paul: "I will very gladly spend and be spent for you," he says, "though the more abundantly I love you, the less I be loved" (2 Cor. 12:15).
A holy man will follow after purity of heart. He will dread all immorality, and impurity 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 their own strength – when David can fall?
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! When he became governor at Jerusalem, he could have been supported by the Jews and required money from them for his sustenance. The former governors had done so. There was none to blame him, if he did. But he says, "The former governors that had been before me, were chargeable unto the people, and had taken of them bread and wine, beside forty shekels of silver; yea, even their servants bare rule over the people: but so did not I, because of the fear of God" (Neh. 5:15).
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!" (Gen. 18:27).
And Jacob’s feeling, when he says, "I am unworthy of the least of all Your mercies!" (Gen. 32:10).
And Job’s feeling, when he says, "Behold! I am vile!" (Job 40:4).
And Paul’s feeling, when he says, "I am the chief of sinners!" (1 Tim. 1:15).
Holy John Bradford, that faithful martyr of Christ, would sometimes finish his letters with these words: "A most miserable sinner, John Bradford."
The godly William Grimshaw’s last words, when he lay on his deathbed, were these: "Here goes an unprofitable servant!"
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: "Whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord" (Col. 3:23). "Not slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord" (Rom. 12:11).
Holy people should aim at doing everything well and should be ashamed of allowing themselves to do anything poorly, if they can help it. Like Daniel, they should seek to give no "occasion" against themselves, except concerning the law of their God (Dan. 6:5). They 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. The Lord Jesus puts a searching question to His people when He says, "What do ye more than others?" (Matt. 5:47).
Last – but not least, a holy man will follow after spiritual-mindedness. He will endeavor to set his affections on things above, and to hold things on earth with a very loose hand. He will not neglect the business of the present life; but the first place in his mind and thoughts will be given to eternal realities. 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.
To commune with God in prayer, in the Bible, and in the assembly of His people – these things will be the holy man’s chief enjoyments. 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 follows hard after Thee!" (Psa. 63:8). "Thou art my portion!" (Psa. 119:57).
…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.
And I do boldly and confidently say, that true holiness is a great reality. It is something in a man that can be seen and known and marked and felt by all around him.
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 fragrance cannot be hidden.
…Such are the leading characteristics of practical holiness. Let us examine ourselves and see whether we are acquainted with it. Let us prove our own selves.
…I do not set up myself to be better than other people; and if anyone asks, "What are you, that you write in this way?" I answer, "I am a very poor creature indeed." But I say that I cannot read the Bible without desiring to see many believers more spiritual, more holy, more single-eyed, more heavenly-minded, more whole-hearted, than they are at the present time. I want to see among believers more of a pilgrim spirit, a more decided separation from the world, a conversation more evidently in heaven, a closer walk with God – and therefore I have written as I have.
Is it true, that we need a higher standard of personal holiness in this day? Where is our patience? Where is our zeal? Where is our love? Where are our works? Where is the power of religion to be seen, as it was in times gone by? Where is that unmistakable tone which used to distinguish the saints of old and shake the world? Truly our silver has become dross, our wine mixed with water, and our salt has very little savor. We are all more than half asleep! The night is far spent, and the day is at hand. Let us awake – and sleep no more. Let us open our eyes more widely, than we have done up to this time. "Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us" (Heb. 12:1). "Let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (2 Cor. 7:1). "Did Christ die," says John Owen, "and shall sin live? Was He crucified in the world – and shall our affections to the world be quick and lively? Oh, where is the spirit of Paul, who by the Cross of Christ, was crucified to the world, and the world to him?"
A word of advice. Would you be holy? Would you become a new creature? Then you must begin with Christ. You will do just nothing at all, and make no progress – until you feel your sin and weakness, and flee to Him. He is the root and beginning of all holiness – and the way to be holy, is to come to Him by faith and be joined to Him. Christ is not wisdom and righteousness only to His people – but sanctification also. Men sometimes try to make themselves holy first of all – and sad work they make of it. They toil and labor and turn over many new leaves, and make many changes; and yet, like the woman with the issue of blood, before she came to Christ, they feel "nothing bettered, but rather grew worse" (Mark 5:26). They run in vain and labor in vain, and little wonder – for they are beginning at the wrong end. They are building up a wall of sand; their work runs down – as fast as they throw it up. They are bailing water out of a leaky vessel; the leak gains on them – not they on the leak.
Other foundations of holiness can no man lay, than that which Paul laid – even Christ Jesus. Without Christ we can do nothing (John 15:5). It is a strong but true saying of Robert Traill’s: "Wisdom out of Christ is damning folly; righteousness out of Christ is guilt and condemnation; sanctification out of Christ is filth and sin; redemption out of Christ is bondage and slavery!"
Do you want to attain holiness? Do you feel this day a real hearty desire to be holy? Would you be a partaker of the divine nature? Then go to Christ! Wait for nothing. Wait for nobody. Linger not. Do not think to make yourself ready. Go and say to Him, in the words of that beautiful hymn:
"Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Your Cross I cling;
Naked, flee to You for dress;
Helpless, look to You for grace."
There is not a brick nor a stone laid in the work of our sanctification – until we go to Christ. Holiness is His special gift to His believing people. Holiness is the work He carries on in their hearts by the Spirit whom He puts within them. He is appointed a "Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance" (Acts 5:31) as well as remission of sins. To as many as receive Him, He gives power to become sons of God (John 1:12). Holiness comes not by blood – parents cannot give it to their children; nor of the will of the flesh – man cannot produce it in himself; nor of the will of man – ministers cannot give it to you by baptism. Holiness comes from Christ. It is the result of vital union with Him. It is the fruit of being a living branch of the true Vine. Go then to Christ and say, "Lord, not only save me from the guilt of sin – but send the Spirit, whom You promised, and save me from sin’s power. Make me holy. Teach me to do Your will."
Would you continue holy? Then abide in Christ (John 15:4-5). It pleased the Father that in Him should all fullness dwell – a full supply for all a believer’s needs. He is the Physician to whom you must daily go – if you would keep well. He is the Manna which you must daily eat, and the Rock from which you must daily drink. His arm is the arm on which you must daily lean, as you come up out of the wilderness of this world. You must not only be rooted – you must also be built up in Him.
Paul was a man of God indeed, a holy man, a growing, thriving Christian – and what was the secret of it all? He was one to whom Christ was all in all. He was ever looking unto Jesus (Heb. 12:2). "I can do all things," he says, "through Christ which strengtheneth me" (Phil. 4:13). "I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God" (Gal. 2:20). Let us go and do likewise.
May all who read these pages, know these things by experience – and not by hearsay only! May we all feel the importance of holiness far more than we have ever done yet! May our years be holy years with our souls – and then they will be happy ones! Whether we live – may we live unto the Lord: or whether we die – may we die unto the Lord. And if He comes for us – may we be found in peace, without spot, and blameless!
– Taken from Holiness! by J. C. Ryle.