The Puritans and Spiritual Dryness: The Issue of Holiness
When we think of holiness, we might think of stoic ancient monks chanting their prayers without a hint of joy and being strict in their self-discipline. Perhaps many of us think of the Puritans themselves and how seriously they took their personal devotion to God.
Perhaps this is why many believers struggle with the idea of holiness - that we are called to be holy - and find in this command a level of personal piety we cannot attain. This can easily lead to a sense of melancholy and hopelessness about the Christian life. The standard seems impossible.
“Be holy for I am holy, says the LORD” (see Lev. 11:44–45, 19:2, 20:7, 26, 21:8; Deut. 23:14; 1 Peter 1:15–16) There is no shortage of commands in Scripture to be holy. This is not simply an Old Covenant command, but Peter reminds us of this ongoing command in the New Covenant as well.
How did Puritans battle spiritual dryness with this standard of holiness looming over their heads? How did holiness drive them toward God and bring vitality to their spiritual life?
The Puritan Theology of Holiness
Jonathan Edwards said, “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.”
For Edwards, holiness is something joyful and to be desired. He uses adjectives like, “beautiful,” “sweet” and “ravishingly lovely.” He uses these words because all these descriptions are true of God’s character.
Thomas Brooks echoes this sentiment when he says, “Real holiness is the only way to happiness. All men must be holy on earth, or they shall never see the beatifical vision, they shall never reach to a glorious fruition of God in heaven.”
Again, Joel Beeke says, “Holiness is the happy state wherewith Christians can enjoy God.”
Puritans (and those in Puritan thought) had the idea of holiness unlike our modern ideology. For the Puritans, holiness and joy go together.
Called to Joy
As much as believers are called to be holy, believers are also called to be joyful.
Psalm 16:11 says, “You will make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand there are pleasures forevermore.” The presence of the thrice-holy God is also in whose presence is “fullness of joy.”
We also see this in Psalm 21:6, “For you make him most blessed forever; you make him joyful with gladness in your presence.” God is a joyful God. His presence is full of joy.
God calls all believers to be joyful people. While there are seasons of spiritual dryness, lack of feeling towards God, and spiritual depression, a believer will not stay there. This call to holiness is also a call to be joyful in the work of Christ.
This standard of holiness is fully met for us in the life, death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. While there are standards by which Christians are commanded to live, these standards are not meant to make believers right before God. Our standing before God is already accomplished. Rather, our holiness is a result of our status as perfectly righteous in God’s sight – a status we did not earn but one that was freely given to us.
There is joy in pursuing holiness when we focus on the gospel of Christ and not our works. When the standard for ourselves seems impossible, leading to spiritual dryness and depression, we can rest knowing the work has already been accomplished and that in the presence of our Lord there is fullness of joy and holiness. What a blessed thrice-holy and joyful God we serve.
Brittany Proffitt lives in Dallas and is a writer and content manager for So We Speak.