“Holiness is a most beautiful and lovely thing. We drink in strange notions of holiness from our childhood, as if it were a melancholy, morose, sour and unpleasant thing; but there is nothing in it but what is sweet and ravishingly lovely.” So wrote Jonathan Edwards.

Edwards’s observation captures well the conflicting thoughts and feelings about holiness. Some associate it with all that is sour and dour in religion. When others hear the word “holy,” they immediately think of the self-righteous “holier-than-thou” attitude that looks and sounds more like Pharisaism than likeness to Christ.

But Edwards is right. In spite of these “strange notions” that harbor in our hearts, genuine holiness is “sweet and ravishingly lovely.” If that doesn’t put to rest the idea that Puritanism is “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” we don’t know what will.

The Puritans have much to teach us about both the nature, source, and means of holiness.

Nature of Holiness

The Puritans, following Calvin and the Reformers, drew a careful distinction between justification and sanctification. Justification addresses the guilt and penalty of sin and changes our legal status before the divine Judge from “guilty” to “righteous.” Sanctification, on the other hand, tackles the power and pollution of sin, rendering us definitively free from sin’s dominion while progressively purifying us from sin’s defilement and renewing us in God’s image.

The Puritans have much to teach us about both the nature, source, and means of holiness.

Broadly considered, the Puritans defined holiness in terms of: (1) the purification of our natures from the defilement and pollution of sin; (2) the renovation of the whole man (spirit, soul, and body) according to God’s image; (3) conformity to God’s holy character, as expressed in his moral law and exemplified in Jesus’s humanity; and (4) personal obedience to God in the power of the Holy Spirit, expressed in practical piety in every sphere of life—personal living, life in the home, and public life.

Owen provided a thorough analysis of the nature of holiness in Book 4 of PneumatologiaHis definition combines the warp of biblical-theological categories (doctrines of God, Christ, the Spirit, and covenants) with the woof of practical and pastoral theology (cleansing from sin, spiritual renewal, and obedience to God):

Sanctification is an immediate work of the Spirit of God on the souls of believers, purifying and cleansing of their natures from the pollution and uncleanness of sin, renewing in them the image of God, and thereby enabling them, from a spiritual and habitual principle of grace, to yield obedience unto God, according unto the tenor and terms of the new covenant, by virtue of the life and death of Jesus Christ.

Source of Holiness

God’s saving grace, revealed in Jesus, declared in the gospel, applied by the Spirit, and received by faith, is the fountain from which all the streams of holiness flow. The Puritans could emphasize different aspects of God’s work in sanctification, depending on the context and focus of their particular sermons or discourses, but all would’ve agreed with the Shorter Catechism that “sanctification is the work of God’s free grace.”

God’s saving grace, revealed in Jesus, declared in the gospel, applied by the Spirit, and received by faith, is the fountain from which all the streams of holiness flow.

One of the most important Puritan books on sanctification arose from the personal doubts and struggles of Walter Marshall, who experienced years of spiritual conflict in his quest for assurance. Marshall read many of Richard Baxter’s practical treatises on holy living but didn’t find them helpful. He finally found help after confessing his sins and struggles to Thomas Goodwin, his senior by 28 years. After hearing Marshall’s confession, Goodwin pointed out that he had forgotten to confess the greatest of all sins—unbelief. Under Goodwin’s direction, Marshall began to focus on the person and work of Christ. This focus changed the course of his life and ministry, leading him to deeper holiness and true peace of conscience.

Out of this experience, Marshall wrote The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, which was published 12 years after his death, and which John Murray called “the most important book on sanctification ever written.” At the heart of Marshall’s book is the doctrine of the believer’s union with Christ. In 14 “directions,” Marshall argued that sanctification flows from faith in the finished work of Christ and fellowship with him through the power of the Spirit. Though holiness is to be pursued and all the means of grace used to that end, the wellspring of all holy living is Christ’s inexhaustible fullness.

Means of Holiness

This doesn’t mean, however, that there’s no place for using the means of grace, such as self-examination, meditation, and prayer. Marshall encourages the use of all these means, but was concerned that many people didn’t know how to use the means correctly. He writes:

The right use of the means of grace, is a point wherein many are ignorant, that use them with great zeal and diligence; and thereby they not only lose their labour, and the benefit of the means, but also they wrest and pervert them to their own destruction.

This explains why Marshall began his approach to sanctification with first principles and laid the foundation for holy living in the mystery of the believer’s union with Christ. The first step in living a holy life is not our work, but Christ’s. 

The Puritans remind us that grace comes before works. Justification is first, while sanctification follows. Faith precedes the fruits of faith. Their Christ-centered approach to the doctrine of sanctification strengthens our grasp on these truths.

Editors’ note: 

This article is an adapted excerpt from Joel Beeke and Brian Hedge’s book, Thriving in Grace: Twelve Ways the Puritans Fuel Spiritual Growth.