Over the years I’ve found it helpful to read devotional books along with my daily reading of Scripture. By “devotional” I am not referring to books that focus on the emotional aspects of the Christian faith at the expense of clear thinking and theological substance. For whatever reason, the term “devotional” when used with reference to books or Bible reading has become synonymous with superficiality and doctrinal indifference. This trend is unfortunate because Scripture (and church history) shows that the height of our affections soar in proportion to the depth of our understanding of biblical truth. For me, “devotional” does not preclude doctrine, it demands it.
But there must be something more than just doctrine. An author must be able to expose the reader’s heart with penetrating insight and razor-sharp application of God’s Word . From his own personal experience with God in the Scripture, a truly devotional writer will take what he has learned and use it to lay his readers in the dust before God in closed-mouth repentance. But he won’t leave his readers in the dust. He will also draw from solid gospel truth to bring the believer to a place of deeper joy and greater assurance in Jesus. He will provide his readers will useful knowledge for daily Christian living, encouragement amidst trials, and warnings for the sake of perseverance.
J. C. Ryle is such a writer. For over two years I read slowly his devotional classic Holiness: It’s Nature, Hinderances, Difficulties, and Roots and benefitted–no exaggeration–from every page. Below are the 23 gems I mined from Ryle’s quarry. There are many more treasures we could examine, but these were my favorites. I have given each quote on a subject heading so you can choose which ones to read in their entirety. Read and profit. (The page numbers below correspond with the Charles Nolan Publishers edition, 2001. This edition is pictured above.)
1. On How to use Language in Debate
“In the face of such a fact as this, I must enter my protest against the sneering, taunting, contemptuous language which has been frequently used of late by some of the advocates of what I must call the Arminian view of the seventh of Romans, in speaking of the opinions of their opponents. To say the least, such languages is unseemly, and only defeats its own end. A cause which is defended by such language is deservedly suspicious. Truth needs no such weapons. If we cannot agree with men, we need not speak of their views with discourtesy and contempt” (XXIII).
2. Assurance Amidst Warfare
“Nothing makes the anxieties of warfare sit so lightly on a man as the assurance of Christ’s love and continual protection. Nothing enables him to bear the fatigue of watching, struggling, and wrestling against sin, like the indwelling confidence that Christ is on his side and success is sure” (71).
3. Praying for and Increase in Faith
“Would any one fight the fight of the Christian soldier successfully and prosperously? Let him pray for a continual increase of faith. Let him abide in Christ, get closer to Christ, tighten his hold on Christ, every day that he lives. Let his daily prayer be that of the disciples—‘Lord, increase my faith’ (Luke 17:5). Watch jealously over your faith, if you have any. It is the citadel of the Christian character, on which the safety of the whole fortress depends. It is the point which Satan loves to assail. All lies at his mercy if faith is overthrown. Here, if we love life, we must especially stand on our guard” (73).
4. Encouragement to Persevere
“I dare say you often feel your heart faith, and are solely tempted to give up in despair. Your enemies seem so many, your besetting sins so strong, your friends so few, the way so steep and narrow, you hardly know what to do. But still I say, persevere and press on” (98).
5. Growing in Grace
“When I speak of a man ‘growing in grace’ I mean simply this—that his sense of sin is becoming deeper, his faith stronger, his hope brighter, his love more extensive, his spiritual mindedness more marked” (101).
6. The Need for Spiritual Growth
“The Christian who is always at a standstill, to all appearances the same man, with the same little faults, and weaknesses, and besetting sins, and petty infirmities, is seldom the Christian who does much good” (104).
7. Marks of Growth in Grace
“Another mark of ‘growth in grace’ is increased spirituality of taste and mind. The man whose soul is ‘growing’ takes more interest in spiritual things every year. He does not neglect his duty in the world. He discharges faithfully, diligently, and conscientiously every relation of life, whether at home or abroad. But the things he loves best are spiritual things. The ways, the fashions, and amusements, and recreations of the world have a continually decreasing place in his heart. He does not condemn them as downright sinful, nor say that those who have anything to do with them are going to hell. He only feels that they have a constantly diminishing hold on his own affections, and gradually seem smaller and more trifling in his eyes. Spiritual companions, spiritual occupations, spiritual conversation, appear of ever-increasing value to him” (107).
8. Love as a Mark of Growth in Grace
“His love will show itself actively for others, to be good-natured to everybody, to be generous, sympathizing, thoughtful, tender-hearted, and considerate. It will show itself passively in a growing disposition to be meek and patient toward all men, to put up with provocation and not stand upon rights, to bear and forbear much rather than quarrel. A growing soul will try to put the best construction on other people’s conduct, and to believe all things and hope all things, even to the end” (108).
9. Don’t Compare Yourself with Others
“Let us never measure our religion by that of others, and think we are doing enough if we have gone beyond our neighbors” (117).
10. The Need for Trials
“It is a melancholy fact that constant temporal prosperity, as a general rule, is injurious to a believer’s soul. We cannot stand it. Sickness and losses, and crosses, and anxieties, and disappointments seem absolutely needful to keep us humble, watchful, and spiritual-minded” (118).
11. Hope in the Finished work of Christ Alone Leads to Productivity
“None, generally speaking, do so much for Christ on earth as those who enjoy the fullest confidence of a free entrance into heaven, and trust not in their own works, but in the finished work of Christ” (135).
12. Lack of Assurance Keeps one Indecisive
“That a child of God ought to act in a certain decided way, they quite feel; but the grand question is, ‘Are they children of God themselves?” If they only feel they were so, they would go straightforward, and take a decided line. But not feeling sure about it, their conscience is forever hesitating and coming to a deadlock. The devil whispers, ‘Perhaps after all you are only a hypocrite: what right have you to take a decided course? Wait till you are really a Christian.’ I believe we have here one chief reson why so many in this day are inconsistent, trimming, unsatisfactory, and half-hearted in their conduct about the world. Their faith fails. They feel no assurance that they are Christ’s, and so feel a hesitancy about breaking with the world” (138).
13. Costly Salvation
“Do you wish your soul to be saved? Then remember, you must choose whom you will serve. You cannot serve God and mammon. You cannot be on two sides at once. You cannot be a friend of Christ and a friend of the world at the same time. You must come out from the children of this world, and be separate; you must put up with much ridicule, trouble, and opposition, or you will be lost forever. You must be willing to think and to do things which the world considers foolish, and to hold opinions which are only held by a few. It will cost you something. The stream is strong, and you have to stem it. The way is narrow and steep, and it is no use saying it is not. But, depend on it, there can be no saving religion without sacrifices and self-denial” (172).
14. Return to Your First Love
“Perhaps at one time you did run well. But you have left your first love—you have never felt the same comfort since, and you never will till you return to your first works (Rev 2:5).
15. True Christianity
“But to walk closely with God—to be really spiritually minded—to behave like strangers and pilgrims—to be distinct from the world in employment of time, in conversation, in amusements, in dress—to bear a faithful witness for Christ in all places—to leave a savor of our Master in every society—to be prayerful, humble, unselfish, good-tempered, quiet, easily pleased, charitable, patient, meek—to be jealously afraid of all manner of sin, and tremblingly alive to our danger from the world—these, these are still rare things! They are not common among those who are called true Christians, and, worst of all, the absence of them is not felt or bewailed as it should be” (192).
16. Beware of Cherishing Secret Sins
“Are you secretly cherishing some besetting sin? Alas, many are! They go far in a profession of religion; they do many things that are right, and are very like the people of God. But there is always some darling evil habit, which they cannot tear from their heart. Hidden worldliness, or covetousness, or lust, sticks to them like their skin. They are willing to see all their idols broken, but this one” (215).
17. Perfection in This Life is Never Possible
“The plain truth is that there is no literal and absolute perfection among true Christians, so long as they are in the body. The best and brightest of God’s saints is but a poor mixed being. Converted, renewed, and sanctified though he be, he is still compassed with infirmity” (243).
18. Grace in Judging Other Believers
“There are flaws in some of the finest diamonds in the world; and yet they do not prevent their being rated at a priceless value. Away with this morbid squeamishness, which makes us reading to excommunicate a man if he only has a few faults! Let us be more quick to see grace, and more slow to see imperfection! Let us know that, if we cannot allow there is grace where there is corruption, we shall find not grace in the world” (246).
19. Dealing with new Believers and Backsliders
“Deal gently with young beginners. Do not expect them to know everything and understand everything all at once. Take them by the hand. Lead them on and encourage them. Believe all things, and hope all things, rather than make that heart sad which God would not have made sad. Deal gently with backsliders. Do not turn your back on them as if their case is hopeless. Use every lawful means to restore them to their former place” (253).
20. The Grace of Christ
“You see no beauty in any action that you do. All seems imperfect, blemished, and defiled. You are often sick at heart of your own shortcomings. You often feel that your whole life is one great arrear, and that every day is either a blank or a blot. But know no that Jesus can sees some beauty in everything that you do from a conscientious desire to please Him. His eye can discern excellence in the least thing which is a fruit of His own Spirit. He can pick out the grains of gold from amidst the dross of your performances, and sift it into his bottle. Your endeavors to do good to others, however feeble, are written in His book of remembrance. The least cup of cold water given in His name shall not lose its reward. He does not forget your work and labour of love, however little the world may regard it” (280).
21. Faith before Love
“Love cannot usurp the office of faith. It cannot justify. It does not join the soul to Christ. It cannot bring peace to the conscience. But where there is real justifying faith in Christ, there will always be heart-love to Christ” (291).
22. Where is True Christianity these Days?
“Where is the self-denial, the redemption of the time, the absence of luxury and self-indulgence, the unmistakable separation from earthly things, the manifest air of being always about our Master’s business, the singleness of eye, the simplicity of home life, the high tone of conversation in society, the patience, the humility, the universal courtesy, which marked so many of our forerunners seventy or eighty years ago” (363)?
23. Look to Christ
“Look less at yourself and more at Christ, and you will find besetting sins dropping off and leaving you, and your eyes enlightened more and more every day (Heb. 12:2; 2 Cor 3:18)” (380).