Simplicity is much coveted these days. Minimalists have it half right: Less is necessarily more, but it is only so if that simplicity leads to a deeper complexity. We simplify a thing only so that that object can be understood in a deeper way, not so that it loses all its intricacies and mysteries. A possible misconception is that Naturalism makes the world more beautiful because it makes it simpler. Indeed it makes our lives simpler; it makes them so simple that they lose all meaning. It simplifies life out of existence. By way of discrediting even the mere possibility of the Supernatural, our world becomes nothing more than nature: the survival of the fittest. Naturalism lets in no space for emotion, feeling, thinking or love. And love is perhaps the simplest of emotions, yet can it not be more complex and confusing than anything else our world has to offer? Supernaturalism like love, is the necessary antidote to the dry Naturalism of our culture. They go hand in hand, and nowhere will one find the complex simplicity of love better displayed than in the gospel of Christianity. This gospel lies at the beginning, middle, and end of JC Ryle’s Book Holiness.
I began reading Ryle’s great work about a month ago, and I still have not finished its entirety. A paragraph of the book gives one enough to chew on for about a week. Nevertheless, I decided to read through the chapters included in the first “abridged”¹ version of the book, skipping some of the others, so I could post something, as it has been awhile since I’ve done so. Overall, the enlarged version is what Ryle says in his preface “half new”. He adds 11 chapters to this new volume but doesn’t add anything (to my knowledge) to the original chapters. However, my conclusion is that one could very well get on just fine in the shorter version, though the enlarge version definitely has its benefits. The benefits began as bothersome redundancies before they were seen to be brilliant reminders.
One quick grievance would be the “preachyness” of the work. Ryle was a preacher, and consequently the work reads very much like a sermon. I don’t believe I have ever read a writer who uses more exclamation marks than JC Ryle. The exclamation point is the least of all punctuation marks. The sentence with an exclamation point is the obnoxious kid in the back of the classroom who, for whatever reason, has to have attention: everyone ignores him, so he acts up constantly saying “look at me! look at me!”² The reader of Ryle, however, is not getting what he would get out of GK Chesterton or CS Lewis. He is not taking us to a different planet but back to our own. We are not exactly talking about anything too complex, but instead the simplicity becomes complex the deeper we dig. And if we are digging in the same spot, it is likely we will dig up some of the same dirt — that is, we repeat ourselves.
As any repetitiveness can be a negative to some degree, it can also be a positive. On the one hand, the reader may grow weary of Ryle’s constant call for repentance and need in a savior, his constant hammering with us that we are sinners, that justification is by faith alone but that sanctification requires we work hard. It is certainly unnecessary; it is certainly everything. The gospel is redundant: a broken record that happens to sound beautiful to some and horrible to others. Thus, when Ryle speaks of sin in the first chapter, he preaches the gospel from the point of view that we’re all sinners. When he dialogues on sanctification in chapter 2, he describes what our “role” is in the gospel. When he speaks on holiness in chapter 3 he focuses on our goal in the gospel. It is a splendid slap in the face to remember daily, moment by moment, that you are a worthless sinner who can only change by the grace of a savior who was hanged on a tree.
The book seems to shift after chapter 3 as Ryle speaks on three issues that are central to our strive for holiness: “The Fight,” “The Cost,” and “Growth”. In the first three chapters he lays the theological foundation, in the next three he begins speaking about how we practically work out that theology in our life: by spiritual warfare with the knowledge that there will be a cost all the while resting on the promise that you will grow, if even so slightly. The last three chapters are centrally focused on Christ, and it is specifically Chapter 8 (or 15 in the enlarged version) that moved me the most.
A disposition to love somebody is one of the commonest feelings which God has implanted in human nature.
Love is the peculiar feeling that everyone understands and yet no one actually understands. Naturalism does a poor job explaining it away, for love makes everything far more difficult that it ever had to be. It complicates life far more than simplifies, though it still retains a type of simplicity. Oddly enough a thorough understanding of love is almost more likely to make one a worse lover. For a love for Christ is something that a three year old can comprehend and an aged theologian can still be mining for truth and failing at miserably, but three year old children love well despite their inability to comprehend. Subsequently, when we apply love to the Supernatural, it becomes even more complex. To love the unseen (to love anything) is impractical and naturally a waste of time if there is no “unseen” world. But the gospel demands we get outside of the natural box and take a look at our supernatural world around us. It demands at the very core of all things that we love Christ: Christ the God and Christ the man.
Ryle heavily stresses our need to do two things: become thoroughly knowledgeable in the gospels and to remember that though he was God, Christ was fully human, as fully human as the person sitting across from you. His first point is that “It is well to be acquainted with all the doctrines and principles of Christianity [in the epistles]. It is better to be acquainted with Christ himself [in the gospels].” Reading the gospels thoroughly and seeing God as a human who had all the difficulties we have but without sin is refreshing in that we replace a conception of Jesus and all he may stand for with a person.
Nothing, surely, is so likely to prepare us for that heaven where Christ’s personal presence will be all, and that glory where we shall meet Christ face to face, as to realize communion with Christ, as an actual living person here on earth. There is all the difference in the world between an idea and a person.
An idea cannot be loved. An idea can be studied, known, appreciated, worshiped even, but not loved on a personal level. The simple life is to love Christ. The difficult, impossible life is to love Christ with your all — mind, heart and soul. Ryle gives eight ways in which we show love for others. He says they are simple, and they are. But as I ventured through the list, I time and again began to think how little I do these things for Christ. Then I remembered, that though the simple life is to love, the hardest and most complex life is to love. This is simplicity in all its glory. As we first simplify our lives can we began to pull out its complexities, absurdities and beauties. As we seek to simply love Christ as a friend will we see the complexity, absurdity and beauty of loving Christ as a God.
¹I’m not sure abridged is necessarily the right word. The first work is a full work, the second is one with additions two years later in 1879.
²My point is that a sentence of value should be earth-shattering enough that it doesn’t need to try to attract attention to itself. No one laughs at the person who pleads for people to laugh at him. And usually when that person finds himself at a party, the party is lacking because he takes all the attention from the truly funny people: the ones who say their joke as if they are facts and don’t expect anyone to laugh at them. The sentence with an exclamation point jumps out of the paragraph and puts down all his brethren in his vain pride and constant seeking for approval. Well-worded sentences need no added attention, for they are hard-hitting enough as they are. The issue with the exclamation mark is that it requires the reader to stop and reread the sentence all over again. A sentence three lines long read in a dull, methodical way only to be met by all the wonderful fierceness of an exclamation point at the end only means that I was not reading the sentence correctly, and now I have to go back and feign enthusiasm. In the end, we find that the writer goes from conversing with us to yelling at us, and I for one believe there’s more power in conversing than yelling.