How to Think about Holy Works

To read part one of this series, click here.

For the Puritans, the path to spiritual maturity required frequent practices and actions. They called these “habits,” but they had other terms to describe the same concept. Sometimes they called these practices “holy efforts,” a term popularized by Thomas Watson and Richard Baxter. Writing of the character of a Christian in his work, A Godly Man’s Picture, Watson said,

“What I have spoken is to encourage faith, not indulge sloth. Do not think God will do our work for us while we sit still. As God will blow up the spark of grace by His Spirit, so we must be blowing it up by holy efforts. … The smoking flax shall not be quenched, but we must blow it up with the breath of our effort [emphasis added].”[26]

Holy Efforts

Watson believed that love was the primary holy effort of man, yet that this love would be accompanied by labor. His illustration of a spark blown into a flame is something that he repeated throughout his work, suggesting that a person must conduct their holy efforts to help sustain their spiritual walk: “we must blow it up with the breath of our effort.”[27] In other words, love alone is not enough for spiritual maturity from what Watson was suggesting; it also takes holy efforts.

Richard Baxter also spoke to the types of efforts that he believed to be important for the pastor, and in these discussions, he showed what he understood about the nature of frequent practice. Baxter argued that the efforts of the pastor were to daily “study their own heart” and to be diligent in ministerial efforts.[28] If these were not regular practices of the pastor, they would (1) starve their hearers, and (2) bring themselves into temptation with their people.[29] Although Baxter did not spend as much time identifying the nature of those holy efforts, he did speak a great deal about how holy efforts can orient a person toward spiritual maturity.[30] Furthermore, he illustrated that he is thinking about a regular practice when speaking of these duties. Yet, both Baxter and Watson used this idea of holy efforts as being essential to the spiritual maturity of a believer.

In addition, Richard Sibbes, Jeremiah Burroughs, and Thomas Mallery would at times refer to this same idea using terms like labor and duties.

Labor and Duties

Richard Sibbes is commonly known for his work on The Bruised Reed. Interestingly, one of the main pieces of counsel that he provided for those struggling with depression is… 

“… (1) to labour to bring these risings of our souls in the obedience of God’s truth and Spirit (2 Cor. 5:5). … It is necessary that God by his word and Spirit should erect a government in our hearts to captivate and order this licentious faculty.”[31]

In fact, Sibbes argued that these duties are what God uses to strengthen the believer who is obedient, even when they are averse to those duties.[32]

Likewise, Thomas Cole urged for the frequent practice of duties.

“Frequent acts beget a habit and frequent acts maintain it. We can never perfect holiness but by a constant tenor in holiness, going on from day-to-day in the practice of it. Some trees—though they bring not forth much fruit, yet that as is [brought forth], is the bigger and fairer. But it is not so in a Christian: the less you are in duty, the more lank and lean are your duties [emphasis added].”[33]

Cole considered that holiness, or spiritual maturity, would come through the discharge of one’s duties and one’s duties are the “day-to-day … practice.”

Jeremiah Burroughs agreed with Sibbes and Cole, employing the use of the term duty to articulate this idea of frequent practice. In regards to contentment, he wrote, “A carnal heart thinks, I must have my wants made up or else it is impossible that I should be content. But a gracious heart says, ‘What is my duty in the circumstances God has put me into? … Let me exert my strength to perform the duties of my present circumstance.’”[34] Burroughs was arguing for duties as a means to contentment, saying again, “You should labor to bring your heart to quiet and contentment by setting your soul to work in the duties of your present condition.”[35]

Burroughs, Sibbes, and Cole were saying the same thing that Edwards, Baxter, Cole, Vinke, and Clarkson said in regards to habits and holy efforts. There is a wide display of evidence to show that the Puritans used different terms to represent the same idea of frequent practice and habits. Further, Thomas Brooks employed the terms holy works and heavenly services to describe the same thing.

Holy Works and Heavenly Services

Thomas Brooks’s most popular work is his lengthy treatment of Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices. Throughout this work he would identify a snare of the devil and then offer the respective biblical avoidance or escape of that snare; the work is very theological, thus his answers are systematic and comprehensive. On many occasions, he, too, refers to the importance of holy and heavenly works. He wrote,

“To look after holy and heavenly works, is the best way to preserve the soul from being deceived and deluded by Satan’s delusions, and by sudden flashes of joy and comfort; holy works being a more sensible and constant pledge of the previous Spirit, begetting and maintaining in the soul more solid, pure, clear, strong, and lasting joy. … Look that you cleave close to holy services; and that you turn not your backs upon religious duties.”[36]

Brooks’s synthesis of all of the remedies was that the best remedy is to “look after holy and heavenly works.” Then, just a few lines further down, he interchanged the use of holy services and religious duties. Brooks, like the other Puritans, spoke, wrote, and preached that this idea of frequent and regular godly practice can be termed habits, holy works, labors, duties, heavenly services, or holy efforts. However, in using these varying terms, the Puritans were all suggesting the same thing: the idea of frequent, consistent action.

As stated at the beginning of this post, the Puritans believed that habits were critical for spiritual maturity. But what did they consider "spiritual maturity," and how do habits help to that end? We will turn our attention to this in our next post. 

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

The Care of Souls by Harold Senkbeil

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

"Imperfect in This Life" by Jeffery Smith

"Is It Abuse?" reviewed by Ben Franks

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


[26] Watson, The Godly Man’s Picture (Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth, 1666), 237-38.

[27] Ibid, 238. Watson even argued that diet was part of the holy duties of a believer: “A godly man holds the bridle of temperance and will not allow his table to be a snare” (170).

[28] Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth, 1656), 62, 112.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Cf. the below section entitled, “Habits in Relation to Spiritual Maturity.”

[31] Richard Sibbes and Grosart, Alexander ed., The Works of Richard Sibbes, 180.

[32] Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed (Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth, 2005), 53. More will be discussed on Sibbes’s perspective of the duties of man and their resultative importance on spiritual maturity in the section below, “Habits In Relation to Spiritual Maturity … .”

[33] James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, 1659-1689, vol. 3, 483-484. His sermon entitled, “How May the well-discharge of our current duty give us assurance of help from God for the well-discharge of all future duties?” is one of the most direct revelations of how a Puritan thought about duties and their place.

[34] Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, 51.

[35] Burroughs, 51-52.

[36] Thomas Brooks, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices (Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth, 2011), 126.

Greg Gifford