John Donne’s poetry and sermons speak to the deepest part of the distraught sole. His own struggles and passion take on life and, especially, take on life within the reader. Through his poems, the reader, “meet[s] a turbulent soul, grieving over his sins, questions his faith, pondering his mortality, wrestling with God, striving for humility–and in the end soaring with thankfulness and praise”. While some scholars argue that Donne merely shifted his youthful desire for women to a mature desire for God, others have argued that Donne’s poetry is incarnational. Donne’s relationship with God was heart-centered rather than mind-centered. Every word, aptly and specifically chosen, inspires his audience. Donne’s charisma and passion are contagious; one is changed by the seed of Love planted deep within the heart.

Donne, historically considered one of the Caroline Divines, stands out amongst his peers: he is a man who is broken, conscious of the power of sin (even in the life after conversion), and completely aware of his need for the cross. Thus, Donne’s main goal is to proclaim the Cross and so affect his listeners and readers from the inside out. Donne, fervently, passionately, and eloquently points to the Cross and proclaims what Jesus Christ has done. Donne’s approach to ‘holiness’ (or ‘sanctification’) is not through an outright addressing of actions, but, rather, through the proclamation of Christ crucified, while relying on the Holy Spirit to work within the heart of the believer. Through his poems and his sermons, there is a very prominent thread: the broken man who draws nearer and nearer to the Cross and grows in his awareness of his need for the Cross. For Donne, it seems, this is sanctification.

Let us look at “Holy Sonnet No. 14” (which you may remember from here):

Batter my heart, three-personed God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new
I, like an usurpt town to’another due,
Labor to’admit you , but oh, to no end,
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly’I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you’enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Photo by Josiah Miller

“Batter my heart, three-personed God” An exceptional line invoking an image of a desperate person aware of the sickness in their heart. “Hardness of heart” is one of the chief reasons (along with Pride) for disobedience (as frequently referenced in the Old Testament).

The image of the fleshy heart, the soft heart, the “battered” heart, would bring to mind fertile soil fit for the Love of God to take root and to grow, where the New Covenant would place its seal (ref. “circumcision of the heart” Deut. 30: 6, and Rom. 2:29). Our hearts are hardened and they need to be ‘battered’ and softened. Donne continues by confessing a bound reason (“is captive d, and proves weak or untrue”) and will (“betrothed unto your enemy”) and begs, pleads not for freedom but for a different imprisonment (imagine Luther’s image of the “Two Riders”) by Christ (“take me to you, imprison me,”). Donne closes with physically passionate words: “for I/Except you’enthrallme, never shall be free,/Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me”. Donne’s language would seem more appropriate between two lovers (reminiscent of Song of Songs); however, Donne’s understanding of the power of the Cross and the Love of God is akin to the power and love between two lovers. Jesus enthralls and ravishes us. Donne desires to be made into a real and true lover of Jesus by Jesus loving him; as he draws nearer to the Cross he is more aware of his need, his desperate need for Jesus.

Looking at “A Hymn to God the Father” we can see another example of Donne’s understanding of sanctification:

Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which is my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive those sins through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When thou has done, thou has not done,
For I have more.
Wilt thou forgive that sin by which I’ve won.
Others to sin? And made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
When thou has done thou has not done,
For I have more.
I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear buy thy self, that at my death thy Sun
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And having done that, Thou has done,
I have no more.

Photo by Josiah Miller

Donne describes not only a beautiful understanding of forgiveness, but the helplessness of the human will and ability to get it right, to move beyond any sin.  Sanctification is not something “we do” but something that happens to us. Donne paints a clear picture in this poem: he is riddled with sin and is so till his dying day; his only hope lies in the faithfulness of God’s promises in and through the Cross. In this hope is sanctification.


Donne’s words tug at your broken heart, make you aware of your parched soul, and cause you to feel the weariness in your bones; simultaneously, he breathes life back into your lungs, brings you to the base of the cross, and, lifting your head up he points and passionately urges, “Look. Have faith, have hope, have life. He’s won.”