The Puritans on Habits and Spiritual Maturity

Editor’s note: this is the first in a four-part series and was originally published on the author’s website. Used with permission.

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).

As will be demonstrated, the Puritans had much to say about the role of habits in regard to their cultivating the effects of spiritual maturity. In order to see the effect of frequent practice, though, the reader must understand the Puritan perspective on habits.  After an overview of the perspectives of various Puritans, the researcher will seek to synthesize them in order to show their effects on cultivating spiritual maturity.

A Puritan Understanding of Habits

Regenerate Habits

To begin the conversation about habits, it is important to note that the Puritans had a high view of the need for regeneration within a person in order for them to perform any deeds to the glory of God. This regeneration prepared the ground of habits and also propelled forward the ability for them. Richard Sibbes said, “Hence it is that trust is an obsequious [i.e., obedient to a servile degree] 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 … [emphasis added].”[14] Sibbes suggested that saving propels towards obedience. In addition, Thomas Watson cautions: “It is not how much we do, but how much we love. If a servant does not do his work willingly, and out of love, it is not acceptable. Duties not mingled with love are as burdensome to God as they are to us.”[15] As seen in the warnings of Sibbes and Watson, the Puritans never represent a poor understanding of the need for regeneration in the enabling of a believer to perform habits that cultivate spiritual maturity. Jonathan Edwards’ work, “Divine and Supernatural Light,” likewise reveals this understanding.

Potentially, none of the Puritans spoke to the enabling-effect of regeneration as much as Jonathan Edwards. Edwards believed that at regeneration the very nature of a person’s character is changed: “This light [referring to salvific regeneration], and this only, has its fruit in an universal holiness of life. … But this light, as it reaches the bottom of the heart, and changes the natureso it will effectually dispose to a universal obedience. It shows God as worthy to be obeyed and served [emphasis added].”[16] Edwards thus suggested that a new nature is what takes place at regeneration, making the believer capable of seeing God as “worthy to be obeyed and served” and desirous of obeying God in every aspect of life (i.e., “universally”).

In order to understand the Puritan perspective on habits, one must see that they never believed that these habits could create right standing with God.[17] Rather, 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.

Various Expressions of the Same Idea


The most common way of speaking about frequent actions was, in fact, to use the modern day term habits. Richard Sibbes, Jonathan Edwards, Peter Vinke, John Owen, David Clarkson, and John Gibbon all spoke of the importance and effects of habitual behavior, using the term “habit” to describe this frequent action or practice. Peter Vinke spoke of habits saying:

“Indeed, after conversion and regeneration, nothing increases the habits of grace more than the actings of grace; and in this natural and infused habits do agree: they are both strengthened by acting of them. Whatsoever grace you would have strong and lively in the soul, let it be conscientiously and frequently exercised, and it will become so: this hath many a probatum est [“proof”] amongst the children of God.”[18]

Here, Peter Vinke offered insight into how he viewed habits and their importance. He interchanged “actings/acting” and “frequently exercised” when speaking of habits. The language Vinke used is almost identical to Stephen Charnock’s: “And a frequent exercise of this method [thinking about God] would beget and support a habit of thinking well, and weaken, if not expel, a habit of thinking ill.”[19] The habit, according to Vinke and Charnock is strengthened through the frequent act. And the act enlivens the grace that has enabled that act or weakens the habit, according to Vinke and Charnock, who were not alone in this belief as John Gibbon also agreed.

While preaching on resisting temptation and the nature of true justification, John Gibbon spoke of habits. His argument was that, “for as frequent acts strengthen the habit of sin, so the habit facilitates the acts.”[20] Thomas Neaste said something quite similar: “The best way to strengthen any habit, is to be often repeating its acts. We cannot do any thing better to increase love, than to be often acting love.”[21] Again, the idea of frequent practice is communicated with effects of the habit being displayed, as well. Both told of their understanding of habits as being frequently practiced. What they showed, as did Vinke and Charnock, is that they viewed habits as simply frequent practice.

Still others have argued the same thing, using the term habit to describe frequent practices. David Clarkson said, “Besides, the act strengthens that good motion and disposition which leads to it, and so makes you more ready for another act; and that disposeth to more acts, and those to better; and repeated acts beget a habit; and this, as the philosopher tells us, is μονιμωτερον τι, ‘something that will stay by you’ [emphasis added].”[22] The beginning of a habit, according to Clarkson, is nothing more than frequent practice. He did not comment on the frequency of practice, but only wanted his hearers to understand the importance of the “good motion” and acting upon the good motion while one has the inclinations to do so. 

Vinke, Gibbon, and Clarkson all used the term habit to describe frequent practices or frequent actions, yet there are many more Puritans who employed this term the same;[23] two more are Jonathan Edwards and John Owen. Edwards said, “The degree of religion is rather to be judged of by the fixedness and strength of the habit that is exercised in affection, whereby holy affection is habitual, than by the degree of the present exercise. … No habit or principle in the heart is good, which has no such exercise.”[24] Edwards was equating the exercise of such affections as a habit. John Owen believed that lusts were a “habit or inclination to unrighteousness,” saying that these habits worked as a consistent inclination of the person toward certain ends that were frequently practiced.[25] The idea of frequent practice as being a habit is common within the Puritan understanding of actions. However, there are other ways that Puritans would describe this same idea of frequent action; one, in particular, was the idea of holy efforts.

We will explore the Puritans’ emphasis on “holy efforts” in our next post.

Greg E. Gifford (PhD, SBTS) serves as the Director of Graduate Studies at The Master’s University in Los Angeles, CA. He 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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"Imperfect in This Life" by Jeffery Smith

"Is It Abuse?" reviewed by Ben Franks

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


[1] Biblical counseling has been known as “nouthetic” (i.e. involving Scriptural confrontation), according to Jay Adams in Competent to Counsel (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1970). John Babler provides a concise definition of biblical counseling by saying, “Biblical Counseling is a ministry of the local church whereby transformed believers in Christ (John 3:3-8) who are indwelled, empowered and led by the Holy Spirit (John 14:26) minister the living and active Word of God (Heb. 4:12) to others with the goals of evangelizing the lost and teaching the saved (Matt. 28:18-20).” John Babler, “What Is Biblical Counseling?,” Theological Matters, January 3, 2012, accessed November 17, 2016, Simply put, biblical counseling is discipleship.

[2] Jay Adams, A Theology of Christian Counseling (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973), 163-64.

[3] Jay Adams is not alone in this process of spotting gaps. David Powlison has argued that “it seems to be that the critics of nouthetic counseling have been right in discerning a gap, or at least relative inattention, in our treatment of motivation. … I propose we hear their criticism, in addition to avoiding their alternatives.” David Powlison, The Biblical Counseling Movement (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2010), 246. David Powlison is the primary reason that biblical counseling speaks of heart idols and motivations within the counseling context, publishing an article in 1995 that would shape the language and direction of counseling. David Powlison, “Idols of the Heart and ‘Vanity Fair,’” The Journal of Biblical Counseling 13, no. 2 (1995): 35–50. He said, “Idolatry is by far the most frequently discussed problem in the Scriptures.” Powlison rightly oriented people towards an understanding of idolatry, but also did not emphasize the role of regular action.

[4] I will include in this analysis a discussion of Jonathan Edwards, commonly known as the “last of the Puritans,” though he lived and wrote at least 50 years after the English Puritans. Joel R. Beeke and Randall J. Pederson, Meet the Puritans: With a Guide to Modern Reprints (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006), 193. “Jonathan Edwards, often called America’s greatest theologian and philosopher and the last Puritan, was a powerful force behind the First Great Awakening, as well as a champion of Christian zeal and spirituality” (193).

[5] James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, 1659-1689, vol. 6 (Wheaton, Ill.: R.O. Roberts, 1981). The Puritans addressed everything from the Sabbath, the ways a businessman may preserve godliness, all the way to giving open attacks against Catholicism.

[6] “That habit plays a large part in our every day living, and that the Scripture writers frequently speak about habit, are facts that careful investigation of their writings will confirm” (161). Adams, A Theology of Christian Counseling, 161. Adams goes on to say, “Understanding of biblical teaching about habit is essential for every Christian counselor” (162).

[7] The researcher is aware and intentionally seeking to avoid discussing types of habits. Although the Puritans did address types of duties, such is beyond the scope of this paper. Cf. the following works for some of the types of Puritan duties: William Gouge, Of Domesticall Duties: Eight Treatises (Norwood, N.J.: Walter J. Johnson, 1976) and Thomas Watson, The Duty of Self-Denial and Ten Other Sermons (Morgan, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1675).

[8] Jay Adams said, “Habit—the capacity to learn to respond unconsciously, automatically, and comfortably—is a great blessing.”  Jay Adams, A Theology of Christian Counseling (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), 161. Examples of habits—good, bad, and neutral—are getting dressed, driving a car, going to church, and discerning between good and evil (161-62). John MacArthur believes that a habit is something that starts in the beliefs or mind (1) John MacArthur, “How Can I Overcome a Bad Habit?,” Grace to You, n.d., accessed March 11, 2016, Jerry Bridges said, “Habits are the thoughts and emotional patterns engraved in our minds.”  Jerry Bridges, The Pursuit of Holiness (Colorado Springs, Colo.: Navpress, 2006), 131-32. James Smith argues that habits are made and become what has been traditionally known as dispositions in James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 54.

Secular opinions would not agree entirely with what Adams has stated. See B.R. Andrews, “Habit,” The American Journal of Psychology, vol. XIV (Spring 1903: No 2): 139. Stephen Covey suggest that a habit is “the intersection of knowledge, skill and desire.” The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, 47. “Habit is a mode of mental functioning in which repeated processes are in mind. A habit is one such mode of functioning; and there are as many habits as repeated processes (emphasis added).” And a final definition of habits that is secular comes through Duke researchers David T. Neal, Wendy Wood, and Jeffrey M. Quinn: “Habits: A Repeat Performance,” Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 15 (2004: Issue 4): 199 or William James, Habit (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1914), 49.

[9] Ivan Pavlov argued for associations and reflexes that would suggest this level of automaticity and he would disagree that a habit does not need to occur every time. He wrote extensively on his perspective of habits in his work, Ivan Pavlov, Lectures on Conditioned Reflexes (New York: New York International Publishers, 1928). He is one of the primary thinkers that has encouraged modern scholars to somewhat blur the lines of habit and automaticity.

[10] Cf. “A Brief History of English Puritanism,” in Joel R. Beeke and Randall J. Pederson, Meet the Puritans: With a Guide to Modern Reprints (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006), 3-9. “Puritans should not be limited strictly to radical protestant nonconformists, but rather to a much broader movement of individuals distinguished by a cluster of characteristics that transcends their political, ecclesiastical, and religious differences” (17). These differences are, “[an] individual’s personal conviction that they have been personally saved by God, elected to salvation by a merciful God by no merit of their own; and that, as a consequence of this election, they must lead a life of visible piety, must be a member of a church modeled on the pattern of the New Testament, and must work to make their community and nation a model of Christian society” (18). In Kelly M. Kapic and Randall C. Gleason, eds., The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 2004). Kapic and Gleason believe the term “Puritan” can be fit into a historical and theological paradigm (32). However, the Puritans actually preferred the not-so-modest term, the godly. Part of the reasoning for this is that “Puritan” was used in such a way as to connote strict rigidity rather than great theological purity, as is now almost the common understanding of Puritan. Cf. Encyclopaedia Brittanica, s.v. “Puritanism,” Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 2014.

[11] Merriam-Webster, accessed October 29, 2016,, s.v. “cultivate.” It is important to note that the term cultivate heavily depends on preceding existence, therefore the researcher is not suggesting that cultivate suggests habits that bring spiritual maturity into existence.

[12] A significant clarification and observation is that spiritual maturity can only be cultivated if it is existent. Thus, John Flavel said: “Mortification of our sinful affections and passions [i.e. spiritual maturity] is only half of our sanctification. … Now there are two means or instruments employed in this work. The Spirit, who affects it internally (Rom. 8:13), and Providence, which assists it externally” (99). John Flavel, The Mystery of Providence (Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth, 2002). John Flavel is arguing that mortification takes place with the Spirit driving the vehicle of providence. Providence sets up blockades for a person to continue sinning. These are only things that can be accomplished by the Holy Spirit who indwells believers (Rom. 8:8, 3:10; Gal. 5:18-23; John 15:5). This idea will be further clarified in the section entitled, “Regenerate Habits.”

[13] Oswald Sanders, “What Constitutes Christian Maturity?,” in, In Pursuit of Maturity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 19-25. Oswald wrote prolifically on Christian living, and is employed because of his ability to succinctly state the definition of spiritual maturity and the broad acceptance of his writings. John MacArthur said, “Spiritual growth is simply matching my practice with my position. Now, my position in Christ is perfect: I am complete in Him. I have all things that pertain to life and godliness. I have received all spiritual blessings in the heavenlies. But I need to progress in my practical life in a way that is commensurate with my position.” John MacArthur, “Back to Basics: The ABC’s of Christian Living,” Grace to You, n.d., accessed November 16, 2016, The Puritans did not specifically use the term spiritual maturity, but did employ the concepts that comprise this modern phrase as will be demonstrated.

[14] Richard Sibbes and Grosart, Alexander ed., The Works of Richard Sibbes (Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth, 1862), 224.

[15] Thomas Watson, All Things For Good (Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth, 1663), 88. Thomas Watson agreed with Sibbes in regards to the importance of duties and would argue that, “The life-blood of religion flows through the veins of obedience.” Thomas Watson, “The Good Practitioner” (Sermon,, n.d.), accessed September 8, 2016,

[16] Jonathan Edwards, “A Divine and Supernatural Light” (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1834), 16. He went on to say this light “shows God as worthy to be obeyed and served. It draws forth the heart in a sincere love to God, which is the only principle of a true, gracious, and universal obedience; and it convinces of the reality of those glorious rewards that God has promised to them that obey him” (16). And again, “So this new spiritual sense is not a new faculty of understanding, but it is a new foundation laid in the nature of the soul, for a new kind of exercises of the same faculty of understanding. So that new holy disposition of heart that attends this new sense is not a new faculty of will, but a foundation laid in the nature of the soul, for a new kind of exercises of the same faculty of will.” Jonathan Edwards, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections in Three Parts (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 199 AD), section 3, 266.

[17] In fact, Edward Veal preached a sermon entitled, “Whether the Good Works of Believers be Meritorious of Eternal Salvation—Negatum Est.” In it he argued that, “Eternal life is the gift of God; and therefore is not deserved by our good works. … That therefore eternal life is a gift, none can deny that will not deny the plain words of Scripture; and that then it will follow, that good works to not deserve it, will appear by the opposition that there is between a free gift and a due reward: that which is of grace is not of debt, and that which is of debt is not of grace (Rom. 11:6).” James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, 1659-1689, vol. 4, 192.

Peter Vinke said, “Departing from iniquity hath an influence upon our salvation, though it be not a cause of our salvation. … It is true, good works do not go before justification, but follow after; for being sanctified also when we are justified, ‘we are created unto good works in Christ Jesus’ (Eph. 2:10.) Till we have a being, we cannot act; and till the root be made good, the fruit cannot be good. Amongst the moralists it may still be a rule, Bona agendo, sumus boni; ‘By doing good we become good;’ but this must not be so strictly urged in divinity, where the fountain must be cleansed before the stream can run pure [emphasis added].” James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, 1659-1689, vol. 4, 273.

His words are echoed by many of the Puritans, including a specific treatment by John Owen, The Mortification of Sin (Lexington, K.: N.p., 2013), Chapter 2, I., (2). John Owen says, “Mortification is the work of believers” in Mortification of Sin, 49. Also, he says, “This whole work, which I have described as our duty, is affected, carried on, and accomplished by the power of the Spirit, in all the parts and degrees of it” (135). Oliver Heywood said, “It is the power of the Spirit that must make ordinances effectual; though the gospel be the ministration of the Spirit, yet the choicest truths, promises, sermons, sacraments, will be but a dead letter and law of death to the soul without the Spirit: therefore, you are to wait for the Spirit to breath and blow upon the garden of your souls, that the spices, divine graces, may be nourished, and so may flourish in our hearts and lives.” Oliver Heywood, The Works of the Reverend Oliver Heywood, ed. William Vint (Morgan, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1825), 118.

Finally, Richard Baxter believed that the opposite was true: although he believed a person must be regenerate he also believed that the unregenerate were held captive through sinful habits. He said, “As the Spirit of God is present with the worst, and maketh many holy motions to the souls of the impenitent; but he is a settled powerful agent in the soul of a believer, and so is said to dwell in such, and to possess them, by the habit of holiness and love: even so Satan maketh too frequent motions to the faithful; but he possesseth only the souls of the ungodly by predominant habits of unbelief and sensuality.” In James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, 1659-1689, vol. 3, 261.

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

[19] Ibid, vol. 2, 411.

[20] Ibid, vol. 4, 305-306.

[21] Ibid, vol. 1, 193.

[22] Ibid, 558-59. The effects of the habits to which Clarkson is referring will be addressed in the section, “Habits in Relation to Spiritual Maturity.”

[23] “Our habits of grace cease acting, if God suspends the influence of grace: as we see in Peter’s case; both upon the waters, when he began to sink, till the Lord gave him a hand; and [when he] went-on denying his Master, till the Lord looked upon him, and melted him into tears. (Luke 22:61, 62).” James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, 1659-1689, vol. 3, 134-35. Also cf. volume 1 of Puritan Sermons, 276. Edward Veale said, “In these, I grant, there may need time to unlearn and extirpate those vicious habits they have so long been contracting, and to acquire new ones by a long series of, and accustoming themselves to, better actions (351),” in Puritan Sermons, vol. 4.

[24] Jonathan Edwards, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections in Three Parts, 240. Edwards was suggesting that the frequent practice of affections were really habits, and that the habitual inclinations of those affections are the very nature of religion.

[25] John Owen, The Mortification of Sin, 41. “And a sinful, depraved habit or as in many other things, so in this, differs from all natural or moral habits whatever: for whereas they incline the soul gently and suitably to itself” (42). Owen believed that habits could have the adverse effect of inclining a person away from God, towards themselves. In fact, the mortification of sin in a believer’s life consists primarily of mortifying this continual inclination towards one’s self, according to Owen.

Greg Gifford