A Puritanical Notion

How do you view the call to holiness in the Christian life? If you, like me, have grown up in a so-called Christian setting, you might have gathered that the Christian life is about learning to do a bunch of things that you really don’t want to do, and letting go of all the things you would prefer to do. Or if you’re not a Christian, perhaps you’re wondering why you would ever want to go to heaven, if heaven consists mainly of an unending monotone chanting of “Holy, holy, holy!”

We tend to think of holiness in the same way we might think of a kale salad–with a bit of a sigh and a resigned sense of responsibility, because after all, it would be much better for us than that bag of chips or slice of chocolate cake. (If you love kale salad, I apologize for using it in such a derogatory manner here!) So if we’re “being good” we’ll skip the junk food and eat the kale salad, even though we’d rather have the cake.

If that’s how we tend to view holiness, then when we read of someone who says: “Holiness is a most beautiful and lovely thing. [It] is of a sweet, pleasant, charming, lovely, amiable, delightful, serene, calm and still nature,” we might roll our eyes and wonder where they got such a crazy notion. But that is in fact what Jonathan Edwards wrote about holiness.

In the same note, Edwards admitted the reality that is often still the case for us as well: “We drink in strange notions of holiness from our childhood, as if it were a melancholy, morose, sour and unpleasant thing…” In other words: like kale salad. So how could Edwards move from a childhood notion of holiness as morose or unpleasant, and come to see it instead as sweet and lovely and serene?

From what I’m learning about Jonathan Edwards, he viewed holiness as only a divine attribute, and therefore impossible for us as humans to attain. Therefore the only way for Christians to grow in holiness is for us to participate in the holiness of God. But that is in fact what we do! In regeneration, we are united to Christ, and in that union, as I Peter 1:4 says, Jesus “has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature…” Christ is holy, and because we are united to Him, we partake in His holiness. And that holiness is not sour, but sweet; not morose, but delightful.

In C.S. Lewis’ book, The Screwtape Letters, Lewis wryly comments on how the satanic powers have successfully hijacked the word “puritanical” to bend it to their own deceptive schemes. Though it technically means “that which is characteristic of Puritans,” it has come to be synonymous with “strait-laced, stuffy, prudish, prim.” But that is not at all what characterized the Puritans, and certainly not the Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards, as is clear from his depiction of holiness as “sweet and ravishingly lovely.”

May God open the eyes of our hearts to see the beauty of holiness, that we would not merely resign ourselves to it as an unpleasant but necessary thing, but long for it and strive after it (Hebrews 12:14) as a sweet fruit of our union with Christ.

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