Back in December 2012, Pastor Tony Phelps briefly discussed (here) a quote by J.C. Ryle, commenting on Luke 7:35-50, that he claims supports the idea that justification has “priority…in our sanctification.” Now, I’m not sure what he means by this, but given the quote I suppose he means something like this: Sanctification is the result of the preaching, teaching and personal contemplation on justification by faith. Stated differently, Christians should be less concerned with their “performance” and more concerned with their status as justified in Christ. Expanding and deepening one’s perspective on the reality and status of justification in Christ is the means of sanctification.
The context of the Ryle quote seems to suggest, however, that Ryle is more interested in the order in salvation, not so much the means and cause. In the context, writes: “Forgiveness must go before sanctification. We shall do nothing until we are reconciled to God.” And this explains what he means by “We must work from life, and not for life.” But I do admit that a small portion of Ryle’s statements seems, at first glance, to support his contention. However, if Pastor Phelps is correct about Ryle’s intended meaning, then Ryle clearly contradicts himself in his book Holiness, as the following quotes show (all quotes from the Introduction).
As to the phrase “holiness of faith,” I find it nowhere in the New Testament. Without controversy, in the matter of our justification before God, faith in Christ is the one thing needful. All that simply believe are justified. Righteousness is imputed “to him that worketh not but believeth.” ( Romans 4:5.) It is thoroughly Scriptural and right to say “faith alone justifies.” But it is not equally Scriptural and right to say “faith alone sanctifies.” The saying requires very large qualification. Let one fact suffice. We are frequently told that a man is “justified by faith without the works of the law,” by St. Paul. But not once are we told that we are “sanctified by faith without the deeds of the law.” On the contrary, we are expressly told by St. James that the faith whereby we are visibly and demonstratively justified before man, is a faith which “if it hath not works is dead, being alone.” * ( James 2:17.)
That faith in Christ is the root of all holiness; that the first step toward a holy life is to believe on Christ; that until we believe we have not a joy of holiness; that union with Christ by faith is the secret of both beginning to be holy and continuing holy; that the life that we live in the flesh, we must live by the faith of the Son of God; that faith purifies the heart; that faith is the victory which overcome the world; that by faith the elders obtained a good report– all these are truths which no well-instructed Christians will ever think of denying. But surely the Scriptures teach us that in following holiness the true Christian needs personal exertion and work as well as faith. The very same Apostle who says in one place, “The life that I live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God,” says in another place, “I fight–I run–I keep under my body;” and in other places, “Let us cleanse ourselves–let us labour, let us lay aside every weight.” ( Galatians 2:20; 1 Corinthians 9:26; 2 Corinthians 7:1; Hebrews 4:11; Hebrews 12:1.) Moreover, the Scriptures nowhere teach us that faith sanctifies us in the same sense, and in the same manner, that faith justifies us! Justifying faith is a grace that “worketh not,” but simply trusts, rests, and leans on Christ. ( Romans 4:5.)
Again it would be easy to show that the doctrine of sanctification without personal exertion, by simply “yielding ourselves to God,” is precisely the doctrine of the antinomian fanatics in the seventeenth century (to whom I have referred already, described in Rutherford’s Spiritual Antichrist), and that the tendency of it is evil in the extreme.–Again, it would be easy to show that the doctrine is utterly subversive of the whole teaching of such tried and approved books as Pilgrim’s Progress, and that if we receive it we cannot do better then put Bunyan’s old book in the fire! If Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress simply yielded himself to God, and never fought, or struggled, or wrestled, I have read the famous allegory in vain. But the plain truth is, that men will persist in confounding two things that differ–that is, justification and sanctification. In justification the word to address to man is believe–only believe; in sanctification the word must be “watch, pray, and fight.” What God has divided let us not mingle and confuse.
In these sentences, Ryle is clearly arguing that dwelling and striving to expand and deepen one’s perspective on his justification by faith is not a sufficient condition for sanctification. It might be a necessary condition, which accounts for Pastor Phelps quote, but it is clearly not a sufficient condition for sanctification. Nor is Ryle simply calling for Christians to strive for good works; he is calling for them to actively strive toward progression in their sanctification. Christians, according to Ryle, are to be active in perfecting holiness, for without holiness no man shall see the Lord.