Holy Habits Forming the Will

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). According to Woodcock, through the regular practice of habits, the new life is stronger and fuller.

It is apparent that the Puritans had no problem saying that when believers are obedient to God, it makes them capable of greater obedience.[11] These are empowering words for the Christian who seeks to grow in spiritual maturity. Holy habits, by the Spirit's power, have a holy effect upon the will, conforming it to the will of God.

A Believer’s Will Is Conformed to God’s Will

Jeremiah Burroughs is best known for his work on contentment. However, what is little known about Burroughs is that he taught that a believer’s will is conformed to God’s will through the practice of their duties. He pointedly directed,

“A gracious heart is contented by the melting of his will and desires into God’s will and desires; by this means he gets contentment. … It is not by having his own desires satisfied, but by melting his will and desires into God’s will. So that in one sense, he comes to have his desires satisfied though he does not obtain the thing that he desired before. … This is a small degree higher than submitting to the will of God.”[12]

Notably, this contentment comes through practice of duties.[13] Burroughs was saying that as a believer practices their duties, their wills are melted into God’s will so that they want what God wants (Ps. 37:4; Phil. 2:13). Therefore, to submit to the will of God is something quite different than to actually want what God wants—Burroughs notes this difference, too. The point is that Burroughs argued for the dutiful practice that, in turn, brings about contentment. And that contentment is created through a person wanting what God wants.

Thomas Jacombe stated this principle just as directly as Burroughs, so much so that there is an apparent literary dependence between the two as Jacombe was also writing on contentment. He said,

Grace rectifies the will—Thus in causing it to comply with, and yield unto, the will of God. Whenever this supernatural habit is infused into a man, there is a melting of his will into God’s will; so that there is but one and the same will between them.”[14]

What Jacombe did was show that there is a supernatural endowment of the habit that then melts the believer’s will into God’s. The habit is that a believer frequently wants what God wants, thus contentment is attained. Both Burroughs and Jacombe believed that the habit or duty led to the melting of a will to God’s. However, they offered nuances regarding the development of those habits, as Jacombe believed it was God who aligned the will and provided the habit, and Burroughs believed that through the practice of duties, the will was aligned to God’s. Nevertheless, both believed that habits promote conformity of a believer’s will to God’s will.

Thomas Watson said that the profits that come from performing spiritual duties are as follows:

  1. “It enfeebles corruption;”
  2. “it increases grace;”
  3. “it defeats Satan;”
  4. “it strengthens our communion with God;”
  5. “it breeds peace of conscience;”
  6. “it procures answers of mercy;”
  7. “it leaves the heart always in better tune.”[15]

Watson taught that as a believer performed their duties, they were drawn into a greater communion with God. Moreover, this communion is only brought about through the habits of a believer with the working of the Spirit.

Richard Baxter weighs in on the subject of habit and spiritual maturity by saying,

“Keep yourselves to the holy use of all your mercies, and let not the flesh devour them, nor any inordinate appetite fare ever the better for them when you have them, and this will powerfully extinguish the inordinate desire itself... . You are able to do much in this way if you will. If you cannot presently suppress the desire, you may presently resolve to deny the flesh the thing desired, (as David would not drink the water though he longed for it, 2 Sam. xxiii. 15, 17) and you may presently deny it the more of that you have [emphasis added].”[16]

Baxter was arguing that when believers deny an inordinate desire, they suppress and eventually extinguish that desire. He was suggesting that as people denu opportunities for inordinate desires through practice, they actually extinguish the desire by developing a new practice. Thus, a person’s desires are more like God’s through the practice of extinguishing inordinate desires.

Richard Sibbes spoke to this as well:

“As we set about duty, God strengthens the influence he has in us. … God often delights to take advantage of our averseness, that he may manifest his work the more clearly, and that all the glory of the work may be his, as all the strength is his.”[17]

When a believer is obedient, God strengthens them to want to do it more. God uses the faithful obedience of those who do not want to obey to change their desires so they want to obey.

The second way that 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]

In our next and last post, we will learn from Puritans on how habits promote greater Christlikeness.

Greg E. Gifford holds his Ph.D. in Biblical Counseling from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a Master of Arts in Biblical Counseling from The Master’s University in Los Angeles, CA, where he also serves as the Director of Graduate Studies.  Gifford also holds a B.A. in Pastoral Ministry from Baptist Bible College and is a certified counselor with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors. He and his wife, Amber, have two sons.

Related Links

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Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture by David Murray

"Imperfect in This Life" by Jeffery Smith

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"The Biblical Counseling Movement After Adams," reviewed by Winston Smith


[1] James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, 1659-1689, vol. 4, 192. Peter Vinke said, “The fountain must be cleansed before the stream can run pure.” Ibid, vol. 4, 273. His words are echoed by many of the Puritans, including a specific treatment by John Owen, The Mortification of Sin, Chapter 2, I., (2). Cf. the above section entitled, “Regenerate Habits.”

[2] Watson, A Godly Man’s Picture, 237.

[3] Arguably, there could be two more clear distinctions of greater fruit of the Spirit and greater conformity to the image of Christ. However, the researcher contests that those are manifested in the three ways that are being described. Capacity for obedience indicates fruit of the Spirit is manifest in a believer’s life (Cf. James 4:6, “God gives more grace to the humble”) and Christlikeness is to include that conformity to the image of Christ. Furthermore, the Puritans did not use the term spiritual maturity but did frequently use the concepts that comprise spiritual maturity, as will be displayed.

[4] Oliver Heywood, The Works of the Reverend Oliver Heywood, 109. He was speaking primarily in regard to humility, and how growth in humility means God will give more grace from the James 4:6 passage (cf. 109-111).

[5] James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, 1659-1689, vol. 3, 483-484.

[6] Ibid., 483.

[7] James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, 1659-1689, vol. 1, 558-59.

[8] “Good motions, when they are once reduced into act, are thereby, as it were, knit, and brought to more consistency. They are then well past one of their critical periods, where most miscarry, and so are more like to live and continue with you.” James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, 1659-1689, vol. 1, 558.

[9] Thomas Watson, The Beatitudes (Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth, 1660), 134. Interesting, too, is that he believes suffering to be the other means of increasing spiritual appetites (cf. 134-35).

[10] James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, vol. 4, 376. “He that doeth best, knoweth best; for he seeth the actions as they are in themselves and circumstances” (376). Woodcock was preaching for the practice of practical godliness in a believer’s life. Thus, his current comments were under the benefits of duties, Woodcock seeing that “the practice of holy duties clearly commanded is the ready way to have our minds enlightened in the knowledge of principles” (376).

[11] For further study in regard to enabling of a person towards greater spiritual maturity, cf. Jonathan Edwards, A Divine and Supernatural Light in regard to the disposition of a believer towards God being cultivated through practice (Intro.). Also, cf. Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed, 53-54. He talks of God working in the believer as they are obedient. In their obedience, God “strengthens His influence” upon them. Or also cf. Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, where saying that practicing contentment, the soul is fitted to receive mercy and to do service for God (124).

[12] Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, 53. Although not a Puritan, C.S. Lewis agreed with Burroughs by stating, “If the new Self, the new Will, does not come at His own good pleasure to be born in us, we cannot produce Him synthetically. The price of Christ is something, in a way, much easier than moral effort—it is to want Him.” C.S. Lewis, “Three Kinds of People,” in Reflections, 2011, accessed November 2, 2016, http://www.cslewisinstitute.org/webfm_send/893.

[13] Cf. Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, 52.

[14] Nichols, Puritan Sermons, 1659-1689, vol. 2, 581.

[15] Watson, The Godly Man’s Picture, 165-66.

[16] Richard Baxter, A Christian’s Directory (Morgan, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1996), 279. This is the idea of mortification that John Owen argued for in The Mortification of Sin, 9. “Sin will not only be striving, acting, rebelling, troubling, disquieting, but if let alone, if not continually mortified, it will bring forth great, curse, scandalous, soul-destroying sins.” Owen argued that mortification is what would capacitate a person toward future spiritual maturity.

[17] Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed, 53-54. “Hence it is that trust is an obsequious and observing grace, stirring up the soul to a desire of pleasing God in all things, and to fear of displeasing him. … Obedience of faith and obedience of life will go together … .” Richard Sibbes and Grosart, Alexander ed., The Works of Richard Sibbes. In other words, faith stirs our soul to want to please God and faith is cultivated through obedience.

[18] As Burroughs says, “This is a small degree higher than submitting to the will of God.” Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, 53.

Greg Gifford