By Pastor Charlie Parish
“Faith in Christ is the root of all holiness.” -J.C. Ryle
These comments in his introduction caused a pause in my reading. I am currently preaching through the book of James at Christ City Church. And upon reading this statement, I immediately thought of James 2:14.
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” James 2:14.
Every Christian is to show fruits that manifest themselves through works. Are we then saved by our works? Absolutely not. We are saved by grace alone, not works, lest no man may boast (Ephesians 2:8). So why does James equate faith with works in the salvation equation?
Because true faith is not a profession of the lips, but rather it is a heart that has been supernaturally transformed by God. Wherein once a man was lost in his sins and a hater of God, now through Christ regenerating the old heart of stone into a new heart of flesh, man becomes totally new. Kingdom works are no longer a burden, but they are now the new desire of God making sinful man into a new creation. Good works will naturally flow from a person who has been truly saved by the grace of God.
Works are not required for salvation. But works are proof of true saving faith.
Early in James chapter 1, James had already begun to lay out what some of these works look liked in the life of a believer. As James said in chapter 2, if we say we have true faith, then our lives will be marked by attributes that he is writing about. One of these works that is manifest in the life of a true Christian is holiness.
“Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” James 1:21.
If we say we have faith then the call to holiness will not be a burden, but a delight. If we truly grasp the extreme depravity of our natural state before God, and the price Christ paid for our sins upon the cross, then we will gladly fall to our knees in thankfulness, setting our eyes upon the goal of Christlikeness. His commands will be, as David said, ‘honey on our lips’ (Psalm 119:103).
Ryle asks the question, “Is our faith achieve without personal exertion?” Absolutely not. The apostle Paul describes our faith as one that we strive for.
“For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” 1 Timothy 4:10.
Any athlete strives towards the crown of victory. Not because someone is making him but because the passion of his heart is winning. His work, his training is not burdensome, but rather it is a joy. The more rigorous his training, the stronger he becomes. And the stronger he becomes, the closer to victory he gets.
In the same manner, for the true believer, we fight against the pull of our sinful flesh. Although we are made anew in Christ and have been given a new heart, that heart of flesh is still trapped within a body of flesh. And so the heart and the flesh wage war. And this war will continue until we are called home by the Lord. Yet even in this struggle, for the Christian, the heart, empowered by Christ, is strong enough to overpower the desires of our flesh.
As we live out our Christian lives in pursuit of holiness, we will no doubt stumble and occasionally fall along the way. But when we stumble and when we fall, it will break our hearts. The true Christian will fall into sin, but he is unable to stay in that sin given his new heart. For his greatest desire is now Christlikeness. It is a life that is striving after the holiness of God.
I think of this pursuit of holiness in terms of a new born baby. When a baby begins to grow, eventually it starts trying to walk. Walking is the desire of the baby’s heart. Because he sees his father walking, and desperately wants to be like him. The child begins to take steps, albeit he is unable to do it perfectly. The toddler stumbles and at times falls.
This was the pattern of all four of our boys. They would begin to take steps towards me, and then stumble and fall. And in watching this play out, I never once saw any of our boys begin to laugh when they fell. They were heartbroken. They began to cry at their failure. And each time, I would pick them up and set them back on their feet, because I knew the desire of their heart was to walk without stumbling. Then I was softly whisper to them, “Keep walking.”
As they grew in maturity, their falls grew less and less. But even as a man who has been walking for decades, I still am prone to stumble and fall over obstacles in my way. And whenever I fall as a grown man, it angers me. It causes embarrassment and at times shame. When I stumble, I don’t coddle the object that I tripped over. Instead, I identify it and cast it as far away from my path as possible, so I will not stumble again.
The pursuit of holiness is no different. No man, save Christ, has ever or will ever walk perfectly. We will stumble and fall. But for a Christian, falling leads to deep repentance. Because we see how our Heavenly Father walks, and our deepest desire is to walk like Him.
Ryle addresses the question of Christ dwelling in us. There is no doubt, as Ryle states in his intro, that their is a mysterious union between the believer and Christ. However, Ryle presses the point that we must be very careful in how we articulate this, lest we ignore the work of the Holy Spirit. God the Father and the Son now dwell within the heart of a new believer through the working of the Spirit.
“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.” John 14:16-17.
Even this sending of the helper which is the Spirit of God is not a work of man, but of God. Notice in the verse above that man cannot receive the Spirit of God through natural ways of ‘asking Jesus into his heart’ or ‘praying a sinners prayer.’ And it is because man without Christ neither sees God rightly or even desires to know Him. As Romans 3 says, “No one seeks God…No one understands God.”
Paul speaks of the depravity of man in his natural state apart from Christ. It is God who must act first. It is through the hearing of the proclaimed word of God that our Lord has chosen to work His mysterious will in awakening the dead hearts of men and bringing them to new life. If a man chooses to live a life that is holy and pleasing to God, it is only because God has acted first in his heart. Regeneration and salvation are gifts from God, not requests from man. And therefore, even though a man may live a holy life, it is God who gets the credit for the good produced in his life, not the man.
In closing his introductory remarks, Ryle asks the question, “Is it wise to teach believers that they ought not to think so much of fighting and struggling, but ought rather to yield themselves to God and be passive in the hands of Christ?”
Basically asking, “Since the Spirit of God now dwells in me, should I now cease to fight against sin and merely rest in my salvation?” “Are we now free from obedience to the law of God since we are saved not by works of the law but by grace?” “Does grace nullify obedience to the law?”
To answer this question, Ryle defers to the words of the Apostle Paul.
“What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means! Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” I am using an example from everyday life because of your human limitations. Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness.” Romans 6:15-19.
Paul dives into a deep and foundational truth. When it comes to the topic of the freedom of man, no man is ever truly free. Outside of Christ, we are not free, but rather we are enslaved to sin. Sin is our master, and we obey sin due to the cravings of our dead heart. We strive and plow the field of self gratification through the works of sin. And in our spiritually dead state, we do these dark works not because we feel we have to, but because we love the darkness.
But in Christ, we have been set free from the bondage of sin. And now given our new heart, we are slaves to a new master who is righteousness. Just as we once offered our bodies as slaves to sin, we now willingly and thankfully submit our lives to the pursuit of holiness. When God opens the eyes of a man who was once a slave to sin, he begins to see more joy in the law of God than in the sins he once walked in.
The irony of the law of God is that was never meant to damper the hearts of men, but rather it was designed by our Lord to lead us into greater joy. Our hearts were wired by our creator to find unending joy in obedience to His law. God’s demand for our obedience to His law is for His glory and our greater good. The pursuit of holiness is a door that leads to abundant life that cannot be found in anything under the sun. This is precisely why Ryle says that faith in Christ is the root of our holiness. Because if we truly know Christ, and we have real saving faith, then we will see the pursuit of holiness not as burden but rather as a joyous journey! This pursuit marks the life of one that has been truly saved by His grace.