Six lessons on holiness from Thomas Watson

If you want to take the business of holiness seriously (and you should), read the works of any notable Puritan writer. These 17th-century Christians understood that living God’s way is not a burden but the path to true and lasting pleasure. Thomas Watson has been particularly helpful in urging me towards godliness. I read his book The Godly Man’s Picture after it was recommended by Tim Challies in his ‘Reading Classics Together’ series. As Challies rightly points out, it’s applicable to any Christian regardless of gender. Here are a few of the lessons Watson taught me in his exhortation and guide to holiness.

1. Holiness produces joy

He who has only a painted holiness shall have only a painted happiness. (p. 17)

Watson addresses hypocrites who seek glory by appearing godly, but inwardly are full of corruption. There is no assurance or joy in this kind of life—it will be of no benefit to us when we stand at the judgement seat of God. Joy comes from genuine holiness worked into our bones by the Holy Spirit. He makes us more like our Saviour Jesus Christ who died for us, and gives assurance that our salvation is genuine.

2. Holiness takes intentionality

Look at the saints’ characteristics here, and never leave off till you have got them stamped upon your own soul. This is the grand business which should swallow up your time and thoughts. (p. 8)

You won’t drift into holiness. Like most important things in life, our sanctification takes time, planning and preparation. Do you face an on-going temptation to gossip? How will you plan to speak works of love and truth instead? Perhaps you could memorize Ephesians 4:29: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear”. Or you could pray specifically and daily against temptation. We should give more thought to holiness than any other plans we make, even for our career, personal life, or finances.

3. Holiness will never be reached in this life

A child of God laments hidden wickedness; he has more evil in him than he knows of. There are those windings in his heart which he cannot trace—an unknown world of sin. (p. 56)

Early in our Christian walk we may have a vague understanding of our sinfulness—perceived fuzzily, like a badly tuned radio—but as we mature it starts coming in loud and crystal clear. This is disappointing if we expect to reach perfection this side of heaven. But there is reason to rejoice. Not in sin, of course, but in the Spirit’s work in our hearts to reveal how desperately we need Jesus. In our weakness we are driven to the Cross where our Saviour died, taking on even the sins we’re not aware of. We find new strength, for “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6).

4. Holiness comes from God working through his Word

As a man would carry an antidote about him when he comes near an infected place, so a godly man carries the Word in his heart as a spiritual antidote to preserve him from the infection of sin. (p. 62)

So often I am content to read the Bible in the morning and consider my duty done. I have seen spending time in the Word as something to be ticked off my list rather than a glorious blessing from God. He knows every suffering we will face, every temptation that will sneak up on us today, and he promises that his Word will be sufficient to carry us through it. We cannot expect to live a holy life if we don’t allow it to work in our hearts. And this is not achieved by simply reading—I have found it immensely helpful to memorize Scripture, so the Spirit can bring it to my mind in times of trial or temptation. The Word is the weapon God gives us to fight against sin; let’s take it everywhere we go.

5. Holiness requires us to think rightly about sin

If men would step aside a little out of the noise and hurry of business, and spend only half-an-hour every day thinking about their souls and eternity, it would produce a wonderful alteration in them! (p. 207)

Have you thought deeply about your sin lately? Often churches will have a time of confession and repentance in their services, an important thing to do as a community—but I am lacklustre about doing this on my own. We are miserable when we fail to realize the depth of our sin. When we think we’re doing okay, all suffering will seem undeserved. When we don’t think about the severity of our sin, our eyes wander from the cross and there is no impetus to pursue godliness.

6. Holiness does not save us—only Christ does

It is not our holding God—but his holding us—which preserves us. A little boat tied fast to a rock is safe, and so are we, when we are tied to the “rock of ages”. (p. 215)

There are many benefits to holiness, but it cannot bring us salvation. You must make every effort to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you” (Phil 2:12-13). By his grace he makes us more like Jesus Christ, but we can never reach the standard of holiness God requires of us. The only reason we have eternal life is because Jesus, who lived a perfect life of obedience, died and took on our sin.

Since reading The Godly Man’s Picture I’ve realised how undisciplined my thoughts are. It’s much easier to control my actions than what goes on in my mind—and there’s little accountability when others can’t see my sin. I’ve had to be intentional about stopping thought patterns that lead to anxiety, discontentment, and pride. It’s been frustrating and humbling as I’ve failed time and time again. But my good shepherd has led me into pastures of peace that I would never have known if I’d kept wilfully sinning. Along with Watson I’ve tasted delight on the painful road of holiness and found it worth all the toil. As he writes in the book’s closing pages: “The soul is swiftest in duty when it is carried on the wings of joy” (p. 251).

By Cassie Watson

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