The Puritans on Habits and Christlikeness

For the previous post in this four-part series, part 1, part 2, part 3.

Perhaps the most general Puritan principle on habits was their effects in promoting Christlikeness. The Puritans appealed to this in both a positive and a negative sense: the working of duties as being Christlike, and characteristics of Christlikeness developing through habits.

Peter Vinke argued for both the positive effects and negative aspects of habits in forming Christlikeness. He said, “Holiness is indispensably necessary unto all justified persons. Departing from iniquity is the duty of all that name the name of Christ. … Departing from iniquity (the aforementioned duty) hath an influence upon our salvation, though it be not a cause of our salvation [emphasis added].”[58] He went on to say that this duty of departing from iniquity promotes Christlikeness in the believer’s life.[59] Without the duty of departing from iniquity, there would be no room for greater Christlike activity, according to Vinke, yet, “Whatsoever grace you would have strong and lively in the soul, let it be conscientiously and frequently exercised.”[60]

Arguing from the negative perspective, Edward Veale noted the potential danger in the pull of ungodly habits toward un-Christlikeness: “Men are naturally backward to good, but much more when habituated to evil. For the more inclined they are to evil, the more averse they are to good; and the more accustomed they are to sin, the more inclined they are to it.”[61] Habits can pull away Christiains from Christlikeness while pulling them towards evil.

Edward Vincent took a nuanced perspective in that he believed the very act of a holy duty was an act of Christlikeness. So far, Veale and Vinke addressed the results of the duty but Vincent pointed out something distinct, yet very similar: “Christ is to be followed in his manner of performing holy duties. Never was he negligent in an ordinance. His ‘cries’ were ‘strong,’ his ‘tears’ many (Heb. 5:7). And how does he wrestle with his heavenly Father!”[62] Being like Christ is actually performing the holy duties themselves! Not only did the Puritans believe that the holy duties have a result of Christlikeness, but in their performance there is Christlikeness.

John Owen is renown for his writing, The Mortification of Sin, in which he greatly deals with duties and their effects on spiritual maturityIn this work, Owen called mortification the duty of every believer.[63] This duty has a result and reward for believers, according to Owen, that “‘you shall live’. … Now perhaps the words may not only intend eternal life, but also the spiritual life in Christ, which here we have.”[64] Owen was offering throughout this work that the duty of mortification of sin affects the spiritual life in Christ. What is little known of Owen is that he preached a sermon addressing popery and preservations against it. In it he proclaimed:

“As God made us without ourselves, so Christ redeemed us; but what he doeth in us, he doeth also by us; what he works in a way of grace, we work in a way of duty. And our duty herein consists, as in the continual exercise of all gracious habits, renewing, changing, and transforming the soul into the likeness of Christ, (for he which hopes to see Him ‘purifieth himself as He is pure,’) so also in universal, permanent, uninterrupted mortification unto the end, whereof we shall speak afterwards.”[65]

Owen was clear in that he recognized that God works in believers toward greater Christlikeness as they perform their duties and habits, especially the duty of mortification.

Two other Puritans—Jeremiah Burroughs and Thomas Watson—again weighed in on this aspect of the effects of habits. They spoke of Christlike characteristics rather than using the term Christlikeness. Burroughs wrote in reference to the way to gain contentment and Watson of purity.[66] The way of growing in Christlikeness, particularly godly contentment, is by doing the duty of one’s present circumstances, according to Burroughs. Or, for Watson, greater Christlikeness comes about in the regular practice of spending time with those who are Christlike.[67] But he also said in his sermon entitled, “The Good Practitioner,” that, “Scripture knows no other way to happiness, but by practice.”[68] Watson was not arguing for a momentary emotion of happiness, but was interchanging blessedness as a result of obedience. Both Watson and Burroughs believed that characteristics of Christ were developed through duties. Thus, to be more like Christ necessitated regular practice.

As has been demonstrated, the Puritans by-and-large believed that habits help promote the capacity to obey, the will of a believer being conformed to God’s, and the promotion of greater Christlikeness in a believer. All of that to say that historically the habits of believers have been of great significance within the Puritan perspective regarding to spiritual maturity. Therefore, when Jay Adams mentioned that no recent theologians have talked of the importance of habits, he was right. However, historical theologians have dealt much with holy habits and spiritual growth.

Conclusion and Synthesis

Yes, the house of biblical counseling is somewhat new, but its foundations and load-bearing walls are not. What Jay Adams noted about the historical development of counseling regarding habits has not changed in the thirty-seven years since he wrote. Yet the Puritans long before believed that habits are what cultivate the spiritual maturity of believers and keep sturdy homes. As has been shown, 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. The implications of this are vast, but a few special highlights are warranted.

Historically, the actions of believers were considered as very directional in regard to their spiritual maturity. This means that if a person were to spend time with corrupt company, shop inordinately, or give themselves ample opportunity to sin—all things the Puritans spoke of—such would erode at their spiritual maturity.[69] Counseling has to deal with the regular practices of counselees.  What are they doing? Because their behavior is shaping their spiritual maturity! The Puritans talked much about habits and their relationship to spiritual maturity, but in the thirty-seven years since Jay Adams gave his observations, nobody has published a resource on habits for biblical counseling—not one.

The final implication the researcher must state is that if one tries to lay sheet-rock in place of this load-bearing wall of habits through ignorance or intentionality, such counseling will hinder the facilitation of building and upholding spiritual maturity. The Puritans taught this. Therefore, their Biblical and historical perspective is invaluable to the conversation about biblical counseling in the history of the church. Habits do cultivate spiritual maturity. As Oliver Heywood said:

“Rest not satisfied with a bare outside of duties, or a trudging in the common road or round of formality. If you look not beyond ordinances in the use thereof, you will get no more treasure than a merchant whose ship sails to the Downs, and quickly returns again. He that would be rich must use duties as a bridge or boat to bring his soul to God, and as a chariot to bring God to his soul.”[70]

This series of posts is used by permission from the author’s original website article.

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.

[59] “Our regeneration, or being born again, which the gospel insists so much upon, is in being made like unto God. ‘Partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Pet. 1:4), enabled to love what he loves, and to have what he hates, and to be conformed unto him in all things; so that God and regenerate ones have but one will. Thus they are said to be ‘created’ again ‘unto good works’ (Eph. 2:10).” James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, vol. 4, 276. Richard Baxter argued in the negative for habits, as well. He said, “The principle help against sinful anger is, in the right habituating of the soul, that you live as under the government of God, with the sense of his authority still upon your hearts and in the sense of that mercy that hath forgiven you, and forbeareth you, and under the power of his healing and assisting grace, and in the life of charity to God and man [emphasis added.” Richard Baxter, A Christian’s Directory, 284-85.

[60] James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, 1659-1689, vol. 4, 273. 

[61] Ibid, 354. John Sheffield said, “But a third, or more frequent relapse [in regards to giving in to sin], is like the putting of an arm out of joint, again and again; [which] not being well bound and looked-to in time, becomes habitually loose, and never keeps the place. So it is here: crebrous [sic] and frequent acts of sin beget an habit and custom in sin; and then as soon may ‘the Ethiopian change his skin, and the leopard his spots,’ as one ‘accustomed to do evil,’ ever learn to do well (Jer. xiii. 23)” in Puritan Sermons, vol. 1, 79.

[62] James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, vol. 4, 444.

[63] John Owen, The Mortification of Sin, 3, 9. Also see Owen’s sermon entitled, “How May We Bring our Hearts to Bear Reproofs?” in which he said, “Take heed of cherishing habitually such disorders, vices, and distempers of mind, as are contrary unto this duty, and will frustrate the design of it.” James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, 1659-1689, vol. 2, 613.

[64] Ibid., 7. “The vigour, and power, and comfort of our spiritual life depends on the mortification of the deeds of the flesh.”

[65] James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, 1659-1689, vol. 3, 245.

[66] Burroughs said, “ … I know nothing more effective for quieting a Christian soul and getting contentment than this, setting your heart to work in the duties in the immediate circumstances that you are now in, and taking heed of your thoughts about other conditions as a mere temptation.” Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, 51-52.

Thomas Brooks also argues that Christ reveals himself as motivation to believers in their struggle to be obedient. Thomas Brooks, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, 118. Thus, obedience both fuels greater Christlikeness and Christ is the motivator for future obedience, but Christ reveals Himself to the believer who is obedient.

Thomas Watson also said, “If you would be pure [i.e., have greater Christlikeness] walk with them that are pure.” Thomas Watson, The Beatitudes, 195.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Thomas Watson, “The Good Practitioner” (Sermon,, n.d.), accessed September 8, 2016, “Obedience is rather an evidence of blessedness, than a cause of blessedness.” This blessedness is a characteristic of believers according to Christ (Matt. 5:3-11).

[69] Cf. Thomas Brooks, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, 66-67, 99 and Richard Baxter, A Christian’s Directory, 279.

[70] Oliver Heywood, The Works of the Reverend Oliver Heywood, 115.



Greg Gifford