Holy Habits Forming the Will
Puritans viewed habits in developing spiritual maturity was through aligning a believer’s will to that of God’s. Through habits, or frequent practice, the Puritans would say that a believer begins to now want what God wants by being regularly conditioned spiritually in frequent obedience to Him. God works through the repetitive obedience of believers to conform their desires to His.
The Puritans spoke, wrote, and preached about the importance of frequent, regular, godly actions, which they termed habits, holy works, labors, duties, heavenly services, or holy efforts. They believed that habits were critical for spiritual maturity. But what did they consider “spiritual maturity,” and how do habits help to that end?
In speaking of “spiritual maturity,” the Puritans always emphasized that this could only be a discussion for those who were in the Spirit. To use the example of Watson, the smoking flax must be blown up by the believer’s efforts—but notably there is a smoking flax with which to begin. This spiritual maturity looks like three primary evidences in the believer’s life, according to the Puritans: (1) greater capacity for future obedience, (2) a believer’s will is conformed to God’s will, and (3) greater Christlikeness. The first two will be covered here, saving the third for another post.
Greater Capacity for Future Obedience
Many of the Puritans believed that habits gave a person the capacity for greater obedience in the future. “In keeping the commandment there is this reward,” said Oliver Heywood, “that every act of obedience doth increase the ability to obey. Every step reneweth strength. Saints go from strength to strength, for the way of the Lord is strength to the upright.”Heywood was stating something very striking: the frequent practice of obedience enables a believer to obey more. Thomas Cole similarly wrote,
“As all graces grow up together in the heart, in an apt disposition to actual exercise, when occasion is given to draw them forth; and as no grace in the heart grows up alone; so no duty thrives in the life alone. One duty borrows strength from another, is bounded within another. As stones in a wall do bear up one another; so a Christian is built up of many living stones, many graces, many duties.”
Duties borrow strength from another. There is a compounding of sorts, according to Cole. The more one does something, the more strength and capacity it gives them to do it again. He later said, “present obedience gives understanding for the future.”
David Clarkson agreed, stating that “the act strengthens that good motion and disposition which leads to it [emphasis added].” Therefore, Clarkson advised to quickly act upon an inclination to a good work, since good works enable for more consistent obedience. In other words, when believers act on a godly inclination, their actions strengthen the desire to do it again.
Thomas Watson also expressed a similar idea:
“There are two things that provoke appetite. Exercise: a man by walking and stirring gets a stomach to his meat. So by the exercise of holy duties the spiritual appetite is increased. ‘Exercise thyself unto Godliness’ … [emphasis added].”
Watson was citing Matthew 5:6, while stating that the exercise of holy duties enables and promotes one to hunger and thirst for righteousness. And through that exercise of duty does the spiritual appetite increase.
Thomas Woodcock’s thoughts on the matter mirrored what Watson, Burroughs, and Clarkson said; he wrote, “Every step a man takes he goeth into a new horizon, and gets a further prospect into truth. Motion is promoted by motion, actions breed habits, habits fortify the powers, the new life grows stronger and fuller of spirit. The yoke of Christ is easier, smoother, and lighter, by often wearing it.” Regular practice or habits, “fortify the powers.” Woodcock was saying what the other Puritans did, that habits promote the ability of greater obedience (a more consistent, godly habitual lifestyle).