Ryle’s second chapter on sanctification has been a huge encouragement to me in my discipleship with Christ. As someone who for years now has wrestled with the concept of the role of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life, I have found Ryle’s guidance to be fairly even-handed and biblical. Personally, understanding how God sanctifies and empowers his people has been an extremely confusing path for me. I have been praying with friends in a room only to find them start shaking on the ground and speaking in tongues. On the other hand, I have had other friends denounce particular stories and coldly declare that the Holy Spirit does not act anymore like it once did in the book of Acts. In both cases, it was difficult to find a good response for me.
While I do not intend for this post to be a theological assessment of the discussions between charismatic and cessasionist camps, what I do want to discuss is how I think Ryle’s chapter benefits what is at the root of the discussion: How does the Holy Spirit interact with believers to accomplish God’s overall goal of conforming his children into the image of his Son (Rom. 8:29)?
Ryle’s answer to this question I think takes into balance the tension of our life here and now. We live in this world but are citizens of Heaven. His treatment of the Scriptures emphasizes a real life on earth where we are responsible for pursuing spiritual development but understand that it is truly God who does this work and prepares us for the life to come. He says, “Let us make sure work of our own condition, and never rest till we feel and know that we are ‘sanctified’ ourselves…Where are we now? What are we doing? Are we sanctified or not? If not, the fault is our own.” To me, this distinction is so important because it pushes the believer to always press on in spiritual growth; we cannot stop in our pursuit of being more like Christ until our last breath. Sanctification and growth is not a singular event. Although it does occur in small (or sometimes larger) singular events, there is always another step to take in being more like our Lord Jesus. It is important not to confuse justification with sanctification.
While he says that we need are responsible to pursue spiritual activities, this charge is tempered with the realization of who we are: sinful humans. “At our best we shall find in ourselves daily cause for humiliation, and discover that we are needy debtors to mercy and grace every hour . . . Our absolute perfection is yet to come, and the expectation of it is one reason why we should long for Heaven.” There are many days I get so discouraged with who I am in the core of my being- a sinful man being made more like Christ. But we should also be reminded that it is God who works in us to make us more like Christ for this life and for the life to come. He says, “We need the work of the Holy Spirit as well as the work of Christ; we need renewal of the heart as well as the atoning blood; we need to be sanctified as well as to be justified. It is common to hear people saying on their deathbeds, ‘I only want the Lord to forgive me my sins, and take me to rest.’ But those who say such things forget that the rest of heaven would be utterly useless if we had not heart to enjoy it! What could an unsanctified man do in heaven, if by any chance he got there?”
Ryle’s assessment of sanctification reminds me to pursue holiness and the sanctified life, but it is God who achieves these things in my inner man. Although I do and will continue to struggle with sin for the rest of my life, the purpose for pursuing holiness and sanctification is to bear fruit now to the glory of God and prepare me for the life to come. Thanks be to God for his kindness to us!