Greg Gifford

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.[18]

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.”[4]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.”[5]
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.”[6]
David Clarkson agreed, stating that “the act strengthens that good motion and disposition which leads to it [emphasis added].”[7] Therefore, Clarkson advised to quickly act upon an inclination to a good work, since good works enable for more consistent obedience.[8] 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].”[9]
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.”[10] 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).
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The Puritans on Habits and Spiritual Maturity

The Puritans believed that regeneration enables the believer toward obedience in all areas of life, and motivated them to obedience and good works. It is only from this understanding that the Puritan perspective of habits can truly be discerned.

In the history of the church, and particularly counseling within the church, there has been a house, of sorts, that is being constructed. Faithful, competent men and women are slowly building the house of biblical counseling on a solid foundation.[1] One of these men—Jay Adams—spoke to some of the load-bearing walls within this house, and one in particular:
Few, if any, recent theologians have discussed the relationship of habit to behavior. Their efforts have been expended on important questions having to do with Adam’s sin, the effects of sin upon the nature of his descendants, and the process by which sin has been transmitted to his posterity. These are all vital questions…But so is the matter of habit—especially for counseling.[2]
Jay Adams did not create biblical counseling, but he is perhaps the father of biblical counseling as it is modernly known. Yet he asserted that no “recent theologians” have dealt with the important issue of habits as a load-bearing wall within the house of biblical counseling.[3]
This raises a question: What historical theologians did discuss the relationship of habits to behavior? And what did they say? In this series, I’d like to answer this question from the perspective of English Puritanism.[4] The Puritans are to be noted for a distinctly theological approach in most of their writings and sermons, which informed the way they addressed issues from national sins to the place of penance.[5] Regarding habits, the Puritans had much to say, which this study summarizes as follows:
The Puritans believed that habits were a means of cultivating spiritual maturity in the believer by giving a believer a greater capacity for future obedience, by uniting a believer’s will to God’s, and by conforming a believer to the image of Christ. 
To demonstrate this, we will survey the way the Puritans spoke of habits, synthesizing their voices to a singular definition, and developing an understanding of their view of habits in relationship to spiritual maturity. At the end of this synthesis, the reader will have a better understanding of habits and their relationship to supporting the house of biblical counseling within a historical perspective. Most importantly, the reader will be emboldened to speak more of habits in counseling and, perhaps, see that an emphasis on regular action is a necessary part of spiritual maturity.[6]
Scope and Delineation
The scope of this paper is to keep within the confines of Puritan thinking in regard to habits and the role those habits play in spiritual maturity.[7] There are many who have written before and after the Puritans about habits, but the emphasis is given to these men due to their special attention and theological treatment of such issues. Thus, a quick definition of terms is warranted for sake of clarity.
Definition of Terms
The term habit is used by the Puritans in many ways, all suggesting the same thing. In this paper, habit simply means a learned, automatic, or frequent action. There are varying facets of this definition, but by and large, it simply encapsulates the scope of varying opinions on habits.[8] It should be noted that a habit does not need to occur on every possible occasion; however, the researcher is using this term in its common usage, which implies a consistent, regular action.[9]
The term Puritan, although originally a pejorative term, was coined to describe the group of Englishmen who wanted to purify the Church of England from the practices of Catholicism.[10]  These men lived, preached, and wrote between the 17th and 18th centuries, with the passing of the North American Jonathan Edwards in 1758 seen by many as the end of the Puritan era.
The term cultivate is used in the sense that spiritual maturity is existent within a person and that spiritual maturity is being developed or advanced.[11] Cultivate is commonly seen as an agricultural term that insinuates a plant is already existent, but that it is fed, nourished, and grown by further means of nutrition. This common understanding is the way in which the researcher seeks to employ this meaning, and the idea of spiritual maturity as being existent is a primary component of the researcher’s delineation.[12]
Oswald Sanders states the matter succinctly: “Viewed from another angle, spiritual maturity is simply Christlikeness. We are as mature as we are like Christ, and no more. He was the only fully mature man. His character was complete, well-balanced, and perfectly integrated. All His qualities and capacities were perfectly attuned to the will of His Father, and this is the model, the standard God has set for us.”[13] This common understanding of spiritual maturity will be developed in regards to the capacity of a believer to obey, the conformity of a believer’s will to God’s will, and overall greater Christlikeness in the believer (cf. Eph. 4:12-16).
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