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The Puritan View of Holiness

The Puritans wrote a great deal about how to live a sanctified life. Little of what they preached and wrote contains anything unique or strange, measured by their doctrinal heritage. What is special about the Puritan view of holiness is its fullness and balance, rather than its distinctive shape.

The Puritan classic definition of sanctification is well known; we find it in The Westminster Shorter Catechism, questions 35 and 36:

”What is Sanctification? Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God and are enabled more and more to die unto sin and live unto righteousness.

”What are the benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption and sanctification? The benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption and sanctification are:

  • assurance of God’s love
  • peace of conscience
  • joy in the Holy Ghost
  • increase of grace
  • and perseverance therein to the end.”

From these two questions it is obvious that sanctification in the Puritan mind encompasses all Christian living—the entire process of being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. It is a process which begins at the moment of the new birth, and presses on throughout the entire life of the believer until his last breath. The Puritans wanted to see people growing up into strong assurance of God’s love, great peace of conscience, and authentic joy in the Holy Spirit. They said that the way to receive these blessings is through Spirit-worked sanctification. They advised their people: If you don’t seek sanctification, you not only dishonor God, but you also impoverish your own spiritual life.

What did they actually mean by sanctification? Here are four elements in the Puritan view.

Universal and moral renewal
First, sanctification for the Puritans is a divine work of renewal, involving a radical change of character. It springs from a regenerated heart, which is something deeper than any psychoanalyst or counselor could ever reach. God works in the heart, and out of the change of heart comes a new character.

This work of renewal is (using Puritan language) universal. This means that it touches and affects every area of the person’s entire life. Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 4:4-5 that everything is to be sanctified—every sphere of life.

Holiness is an inward thing that must fill our heart, our core being, and it is an outward thing that must spill over into every detail of our lives. 1 Thessalonians 5:23 says, “And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Many Puritans preached on that text. Sanctification is to be universal.

But sanctification is also moral, said the Puritans. By this they meant that it would produce moral fruits, the very fruits we read of in Galatians 5—love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance. Had you asked a Puritan—what really do these fruits mean when you combine them all together?—he would have said that they represent the moral profile of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.

That is what the Spirit is doing in sanctification. He is patterning the believer after the profile of Christ. He is reproducing Christ’s qualities in the lives of His own people. God’s people are those in whom the “Christ nature” (the sum total of all that His human life was) finds new, albeit imperfect, expression. That is the Puritan concept of sanctification.

True repentance
Second, sanctification for the Puritans consists of repentance and righteousness—the two-sided activity of turning from sin to obedience. Repentance, said the Puritans, is turning from sin, and it is a lifelong activity. We must repent every day of our lives, and as we do so, we must also turn to righteousness.

Repentance, they said, is a work of faith. Without the Holy Spirit there is no repentance. The Puritan concept of repentance goes much deeper than mere remorse, or than saying, “I am sorry.” The Puritan idea of repentance certainly starts with remorse, but it goes deeper into an essential change of life. Repentance is an actual turning. It is a hating the things I loved before, and a loving the things I hated before.

Repentance involves mortification, said the Puritans, and vivification. By mortification they meant putting the sword through sin; killing sin; putting sin to death, as the apostle says in Romans 6. By vivification they meant coming alive to righteousness, and giving ourselves more and more to practice and exhibit the fruit of the Spirit.

A holy war
Third, Puritan sanctification is progressive, operating through conflict. The Puritans said conflict is inescapable in sanctification, because indwelling sin remains in the Christian, to his great sorrow. It engages him in great warfare and many battles. Indwelling sin works from the inside, the Puritans said, while the world exerts ungodly pressure from the outside. The devil, who plays the role of ring- leader, wants to take those outside pressures and use them along with the internal pressure to regain lost territory. So, although a person conquered by the Holy Spirit seeks to expand and gain the territory of sanctification universally in his life, the devil together with the world and the indwelling old nature, form a front-line of battle in the soul. A holy war is raging.

That is why Bunyan called his book, The Holy War. Sanctification involves conflict with myself, with my flesh, with the world, and with Satan. If a Christian is not battling with sin, the Puritans would say that person should question whether he is a Christian at all.

One Puritan painted this picture. He said that to be a Christian is to walk a narrow, straight path. On both sides of the path there are hedges. Behind those hedges Satan has all the powers of evil at his disposal. He uses his army of demons, and even our internal inconsistencies, and our proneness to fall into backsliding. He uses all these things as arrows, and every step we take along the spiritual pilgrimage he shoots through and over the hedge, aiming at our feet, our heart, our hands, and our eyes. Every step of the way is a battle.

Accepting a struggle
Thomas Watson said the way to heaven is “sweating work.” There is a battle raging, but the work of sanctification, happily, will advance. Sanctification is not stagnant. The Puritans employed Paul’s words of 2 Corinthians 3:18, that we will be changed from one glory to another if we walk in the Spirit. So the true Christian is one who accepts that there will be conflict, but at the same time rests in the truth that the ultimate victory is his. He may lose many skirmishes, but the war will be won, because he is in Christ. The Holy Spirit will lead him, and he will increasingly advance.

However, there is a snag, said the Puritans, because the Christian will often not be able to see any progress in himself. One Puritan said that a woman who dusts her furniture may think she has cleaned away all the dust, until the sunlight shines into her room revealing all the remaining dust. So the more the Sun of righteousness shines in our hearts, even though we may be growing in holiness (and others may see it), we shall see increasingly the motives of our heart.

The important question is not—”Do I view myself as growing more and more holy?” but—”When I look back in my life, say three or five years ago, does Christ mean more to me today than He did then? And do I think less of myself today than I did then? Is Christ increasing and am I decreasing? Am I growing in appreciation of Christ, and in self-depreciation?” This is the Puritan way of examining ourselves with regard to holiness.

Another Puritan way of evaluating progress in holiness is to ask how we are currently battling with temptation. If we are not battling the forces pressing in upon our flesh, we are backsliding. In order, therefore, to make progress the believer must pray at the throne of grace: “Help me to be strong today, Lord. Help me to be pure today. Help me to do righteousness today.” This is the constant desire of the Christian who is making progress in sanctification.

The inner, private person
Fourth, Puritan sanctification is imperfect though invincible. In this life it is never complete. Our reach will always exceed our grasp. Many people do not understand the Puritans at this point. They think that they are introspective, or that they lead us into legalistic bondage, and even into spiritual depression. This is not true.

The Puritans certainly had a very profound concept of sin and of righteousness, while many of their modern detractors have a dreadfully low concept of sin and righteousness. The Puritans felt the imperfection of their sanctification, precisely because they had God’s standard of righteousness before them. They did not compare themselves with their neighbor, but with God’s holy law. Righteousness for the Puritan was motivational in character. What lives inside of you is important. What you do and say reflects who you are within.

One Puritan said, what a man is in private, that is what a man really is in the sight of God. They would want us to ask ourselves: What do you think about? What motivates you? Are you really motivated by love to God? Are you motivated by Samaritanship to others, loving them, doing good to them, and laying out yourselves for their benefit and spiritual welfare? This is the heart of a Puritan righteousness. With this high concept of holiness they naturally felt deeply their imperfections. Perhaps this is nowhere more vividly expressed than in the Westminster Larger Catechism’s questions and answers on the ten commandments. Read them if you will and notice how precise they are, how they probe the heart and how they insist you must love God and your neighbor as yourself.

When, therefore, you read about how Puritans bemoaned themselves, and when you see in their diaries how they grieved over their own wretchedness, remember they are comparing themselves to the perfect God and to His holy law. They were men and women who truly felt Paul’s groaning: “I delight in the law of God after the inward man . . . O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me?” They felt their need to flee to Christ every day to be washed afresh. And that is the root of all genuine holiness. Such holiness is invincible. It will never die, but will one day be perfected in and with Christ forever.

This article was adapted from an address given by Dr. Beeke at the Metropolitan Tabernacle School of Theology in 1998, and printed in Sword & Trowel.