Many Puritan writers and thinkers have left a great impact on Christianity that can still be seen today. But it wasn’t just the popular figures that left a lasting legacy. The Puritans as a whole helped revive the belief that a Christian should live a righteous life both on the inside and the outside. We take this truth for granted in the church today, but it can be traced back, somewhat recently, to the Puritans. Certainly others held this belief before the Puritans came around in the 16th century, but the way they lived was something entirely different than what the English speaking world had seen in its own people before.
One very practical reason that the Puritans were so concerned with holiness in everyday life was their newfound access to Scripture at that time. Up until the Reformation, the Church of England had kept the Bible out of the hands of the common people by the simple fact that the Scriptures were in a language that nobody knew, Latin. But with the unstoppable tide of the Reformation, the Bible would soon be translated into English and distributed to everyday people. As people began to read the Bible for themselves, they saw that the measure of holiness in a believer’s life was based much more on one’s love for God, love for others, and everyday actions over the observance of sacraments and religious tradition.
This reality was a big reason that the Puritans put such a large emphasis on personal holiness. Verses like 1 Thessalonians 4:7, “For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness,” along with the commands of Scripture fueled this rediscovery of a holy life. An honest reading of Scripture revealed that holiness was a necessary component to the Christian life, and the Puritans sought to live that out.
The danger in having a large emphasis on living a holy life is that it can quickly turn into a works-based religion. The gospel must be at the center of every holiness movement, and the grace of God must be proclaimed so that people don’t default to basing their acceptance on their performance. Thankfully, the preaching of salvation by faith and the grace found in a gospel-centered life were distinctives of Puritan thinking, writing and preaching.
The Puritans also had the belief that the Bible, and the commands within, were there to assist them. Scripture was a help to them, not an unbearable burden. The Puritans were also aware of the Spirit’s role in strengthening the believer to carry out the actions, and imparting wisdom in their thought life. This thinking frees the Christian to do their best to observe the standard of Scripture without turning it into a self-determined religious display.
This insight into the Puritans should leave us with questions of where we are at today. First, do we need to rediscover the importance of personal holiness in the Christian church? Second, are we aware of where true holiness comes from? Our propensity to define our holiness by our outward actions hasn’t changed so we must be vigilant to keep our lives holy in a way that aligns with Scripture.