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Book Review: Faithfulness and Holiness by J.I. Packer

I love books by, as we affectionately call them in my house, “old dead guys.” There is a certain quality to the work of countless men allows them to endure through the centuries. J.C. Ryle, who lived from 1816 to 1900, is one of these men. His works, like Holiness, A Call to Prayer, and Practical Religion continue to be favorites of many, challenging readers to examine themselves and grow in their faith. Among his admirers is noted theologian J. I. Packer who aims to introduce readers to Ryle in Faithfulness and Holiness: The Witness of J. C. Ryle.

The large (6’3” tall) Anglican bishop, with his affection for the Puritans and commitment to the historic evangelical fundamentals, was a staunch opponent to the creep into theological liberalism within the Anglican Church. Though some found him to be not unlike a bull in a china shop, Packer describes Ryle as “a single-minded Christian communicator of profound biblical, theological, and pastoral wisdom, a man and minister of giant personal stature and electric force of utterance that sympathetic readers still feel” (p. 11).

Packer’s biographical survey definitely backs up this claim by highlighting 12 aspects of Ryle’s character and ministry. In these chapters, Ryle’s affection for the Puritans, high view of Scripture and great love of the gospel shine forth, as does Packer’s admiration. Perhaps the best example is found in the following passage:

Nobody in Ryle’s time idealized pastoral ministry as the work of the wounded healer, in the manner so common today, and Ryle himself would have dismissed the idea as improperly shifting interest from the message to the messenger. Nonetheless, one may guess that Ryle’s expositions of Christ-centered, cross-focused, covenant-oriented comfort and encouragement in the face of trouble and disappointment would have been less solid and strong had Ryle’s own heart not needed to taste the power of this message so often, and at so deep a level. (p. 25)

Painfully familiar with poverty and a widower twice over, Ryle suffered enormous tragedies in his personal life. Yet God used it for His glory and to benefit others through Ryle’s ministry.

As much as I appreciated Packer’s survey in part one of Faithfulness and Holiness, it only gives you enough to whet your appetite to learn more about Ryle. As much as I love learning from men like Ryle, it’s equally fascinating to learn about them, too. I want to see how their doctrine plays out in their lives, to understand what experiences shaped their identities. The 87 pages of this book devoted to this pursuit are just enough to get you hooked (which means that shopping for good biographies of Ryle is in order), and as long as you don’t go into this book expecting a full-fledged biography, you won’t be disappointed.

Part two of Faithfulness and Holiness reprints the first edition of Ryle’s best-known work, Holiness. This inclusion makes this book a must-read. Indeed, it actually caused me to stop and read the book over the course of three months. Ryle’s insights into what it means to be holy, to be set apart for Christ and His service, are powerful as he looks at everything from sin to the necessity of biblical assurance of salvation. Ryle reminds us that this is a doctrine that is sorely misunderstood, as many claim that having an assurance of faith leads one to sit on their hands. Ryle corrects this view, writing that assurance “tends to make a Christian an active working Christian.”

A believer who lacks an assured hope, will spend much of his time in inward searchings of heart about his own state. Like a nervous, hypochondriacal person, he will be full of his own ailments, his own doubtings and questionings, his own conflicts and corruptions. In short, you will often find he is so taken up with his internal warfare that he has little leisure for other things, and little time to work for God. (p. 215)

Because a believer who has an assured hope is free from these distractions, he is “able to give an undivided attention to the work of the Lord, and so in the long run do more.” This ideal of having a biblical view of assurance is something that we should strive for as we wrestle with what the Scriptures say on these matters and grow in our faith.

Faithfulness and Holiness is an inspiring and profound introduction to the life and ministry of J.C. Ryle. I would highly encourage reading this book to any reader—especially a newer believer—who desires to dip his or her toe into the depths of Ryle’s work. I trust it will offer you great encouragement and inspire much appreciation for Ryle and the call to holiness.

Title: Faithfulness and Holiness: The Witness of J. C. Ryle
Author: J. I. Packer
Publisher: Crossway (2002 [2011 trade paperback edition])

A complimentary copy of this book was provided for review purposes by the publisher.

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