Recently I began reading J.C. Ryle’s Holiness and wrote a brief introduction to who Ryle is. You can read that by clicking here. In the first chapter of Holiness, Ryle begins the book by dealing with the topic of sin — specifically, the sinfulness of sin. He begins here because, he says, “He that wishes to attain right views about Christian holiness, must began by examining the vast and solemn subject of sin” (1). Further, he says:
“The plain truth is that a right knowledge of sin lies at the root of all saving Christianity. Without it such doctrines as justification, conversion, sanctification, are ‘words and names’ which convey no meaning to the mind. The first thing, therefore, that God does when he makes anyone a new creature in Christ is to send light into his heart, and show him that he is a guilty sinner” (1)
So he begins the book by looking at sin and making sure the reader has a “right view” about the sinfulness of sin. To do so, he splits the chapter into 5 sections.
I. The Definition of Sin
Before you can have a right view of sin and rightly understand holiness, you must be able to define what it is you are talking about. Ryle offers the following definition:
“Sin, in short, is that vast moral disease which affects the whole human race, of every rank, and class, and name, and nation, and people, and tongue; a disease from which there never was but one born of woman that was free [except Jesus] … Furthermore, ‘a sin,’ to speak more particularly, consists in doing, saying, thinking, or imagining, anything that is not in perfect conformity with the mind and law of God” (2).
He goes on to say, “The slightest outward or inward departure from absolute mathematical parallelism with God’s revealed will and character constitutes a sin, and at once makes us guilty in God’s sight” (2). As a math guy, I love that analogy — “The slightest outward or inward departure from absolute mathematical parallelism.” What a beautiful, and damning, way to put it. Surely, there is not a man alive, nor a man that has lived, apart from Christ, that would claim to have reached such a conformity with God’s revealed will and character. As such, we all stand guilty in His sight.
II. The Origin and Source of Sin
After defining sin, Ryle proceeds to discuss from where sin came. He discusses original sin with Adam and Eve, and how all of humanity, because of the original fall, is born in sin. In classic Ryle form, he puts this truth in simple yet shocking language:
“The fairest babe that has entered life this year, and become the sunbeam of a family, is not, as its mother perhaps fondly calls it, a little ‘angel’, or a little ‘innocent’, but a little ‘sinner’. Alas! as it lies smiling and crowing in its cradle, that little creature carries in its heart the seeds of every kind of wickedness!” (4).
I remember seeing the truth of this in our son when he was young. At the ripe old age of three months, as I was sitting there rocking him and feeding him, he jerks his head away with attitude and defiance. In that little child, barely 12 weeks old, you could see the effects of original sin in him. It is a humbling yet true reality that each of us, from the moment of birth, is born in this world depraved by sin.
III. The Extent of Sin
What does sin affect? How far is its reach? Ryle answers:
“Sin is a disease which pervades and runs through every part of our moral constitution and every faculty of our minds. The understanding, the affections, the reasoning powers, the will, are all more or less infected. Even the conscience is so blinded that it cannot be depended on as a sure guide, and is as likely to lead men wrong as right, unless it is enlightened by the Holy Ghost. In short, ‘from the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness’ about us (Isaiah 1:6). The disease may be veiled under a thin covering of courtesy, politeness, good manners, and outward decorum; but it lies deep down in the constitution” (5).
Ryle make it clear that sin has affected every single aspect of the human person. In fact, it is affected even the creation itself. Sin knows no bounds in its reach and effect in this world. Even in the remotest parts of the world, where no modern technology or contact with the outside world exists, sin is there. Speaking of this scenario, Ryle says, “If the inhabitants have known nothing else, they have always known how to sin!” (6).
Ryle closes the section with this thought: “For my part, I know no stronger proof of the inspiration of Genesis and the Mosaic account of the origin of man, than the power, extent, and universality of sin” (6). Sin’s extent is far-reaching and all-encompassing in this world.
IV. The Guilt, Vileness, and Offensiveness of Sin
Ryle made a very interesting point in this chapter — That because we are born in sin, and do not know and cannot conceive of a world apart from sin, we can never truly understand the vileness and offensiveness of it. Rather, only God, in His perfect holiness, can truly know how hideous sin is. Speaking on this, and comparing us to God, Ryle notes: “We, on the other hand — poor blind creatures, here today and gone tomorrow, born in sin, surrounded by sinners, living in a constant atmosphere of weakness, infirmity, and imperfection — can form none but the most inadequate conceptions of the hideousness of evil” (8).
Though we cannot personally and experientially know the full hideousness of evil, we can be convinced of what Scripture says, and constantly remind ourselves of the vileness of sin as seen in God’s Word. Ryle says:
“But let us nevertheless settle it firmly in our minds that sin is ‘the abominable thing that God hateth’ — that God ‘is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity, and cannot look upon that which is evil’ — that the least transgression of God’s law makes us ‘guilty of all’ — that ‘the soul that sinneth shall die’ — that ‘the wages of sin is death’ — that god shall ‘judge the secrets of men’ — that there is a worm that never dies, and a fire that is not quenched — that ‘the wicked shall be turned into hell’ — and ‘shall go away into everlasting punishment’ — and that ‘nothing that defiles shall in any wise enter heaven’ (Jer 44:4; Hab 1:13; James 2:10; Ezek 18:4; Rom 6:23; Rom 2:16; Mark 9:44; Ps 9:17; Matt 25:46; Rev 21:27)” (8)
And one more:
“Nothing, I am convinced, will astonish us so much, when we awake in the resurrection day, as the view we shall have of sin, and the retrospect we shall take of our own countless shortcomings and defects. Never till the hour when Christ comes the second time shall we fully realize the ‘sinfulness of sin’ (9).
V. The Deceitfulness of Sin.
Finally, Ryle ends his chapter on sin by looking at the deceitfulness of sin. Sin does not show us its full deceitfulness as it seeks to tempt us to choose sin over God. It does not show us its true colors. Satan, his demons, and our sinful flesh are quite crafty and deceitful in drawing us away from the revealed will and character of God. Ryle makes the point with this lengthy, but very helpful, quote:
“It is a point of most serious importance, and I venture to think it does not receive the attention which it deserves. You may see this deceitfulness in the wonderful proneness of men to regard sin as less sinful and dangerous than it is in the sight of God; and in their readiness to extenuate it, make excuses for it, and minimize its guilt — ‘It is but a little one! God is merciful! God is not extreme to mark what is done amiss! We mean well! … You may see it in the long string of smooth words and phrases which men have coined in order to designate things which God calls downright wicked and ruinous to the soul … You may see it in the tendency even of believers to indulge their children in questionable practices, and to blind their own eyes to the inevitable result of the love of money, of tampering with temptation, and sanctioning a low standard of family religion. I fear we do not sufficiently realize the extreme subtlety of our soul’s disease. We are too apt to forget that temptations to sin will rarely present itself to us in its true colors, saying, ‘I am your deadly enemy, and I want to ruin you forever in hell.’ Oh, no! Sin comes at us like Judas, with a kiss; and like Joab, with an outstretched hand and flattering words … Sin rarely seems sin at first beginnings. Let us then watch and pray, lest we fall into temptation. We may give wickedness smooth names, but we cannot alter its nature and character in the sight of God” (9-10).
I pray that the quotes above have been helpful to you in understanding the sinfulness of sin as you think about living a life of holiness and obedience to God. As Ryle says: “We must begin low, if we would build high. I am convinced that the first step toward attaining a higher standard of holiness is to realize more fully the amazing sinfulness of sin” (19). If you have found these quotes helpful, I would encourage you to purchase a copy of Ryle’s Holiness and work through its contents for yourself. Even in the chapter on sin, what I’ve included here is only a small taste of the riches found in that book. To close, I will leave you with this quote by Ryle:
“We must simply repent and do our first works. We must return to first principles. We must go back to ‘the old paths’. We must sit down humbly in the presence of God, look the whole subject in the face, examine clearly what the Lord Jesus calls sin, and what the Lord Jesus calls ‘doing his will’. We must then try to realize that it is terribly possible to live a carless, easy-going, half-worldly life, and yet at the same time to maintain Evangelical principles and call ourselves Evangelical people! Once let us see that sin is far viler, ad far nearer to us, and sticks more closely to us that we supposed, and we shall be led, I trust and believe, to get nearer to Christ. Once drawn nearer to Christ, we shall drink more deeply out of his fulness, and learn more thoroughly to ‘live the life of faith’ in him, as St Paul did. Once taught to live the life of faith in Jesus, and abiding in him, we shall bear more fruit, shall find ourselves more strong for duty, more patient in trial, more watchful over our poor weak hearts, and more like our Master in all our little daily ways” (18).
All quotes above come from J.C. Ryle, Holiness, published by Banner of Truth in 2014.