John Calvin on the Holiness of Life

from Oct 11, 2013 Category: Articles

Holiness consists in conformity to Christ. Calvin writes, “Because the Father has reconciled us to Himself in Christ, therefore He commands us to be conformed to Christ as to our pattern.” Indeed, he continues, “Unless we ardently and prayerfully devote ourselves to Christ’s righteousness we do not only faithlessly revolt from our Creator, but we also abjure Him as our Savior.”

This is strong language. The word ardently conveys the idea of eager zealousness, or as we might say today, “going all out” or “giving 100 percent.” The word abjure means “to renounce strongly,” as in Peter’s third denial of the Lord when “he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, ‘I do not know the man’” (Matt. 26:74).

Calvin leaves no room for a middle ground. Either we ardently pursue the example of Christ or else we strongly renounce Him by our conduct and lifestyle. How different this standard is from the attitude of so many of today’s Christians, who are quite casual or halfhearted in their pursuit of Christlikeness. But from Calvin’s matter-of-fact writing style, it is clear that he regards a zealous pursuit of holiness as the normal Christian life.

Such an ardent pursuit of Christlikeness requires a strong motivation. To find it, Calvin appeals to the blessings of God:

  • God has revealed Himself as a Father; therefore, we should behave as His children. Christ has purified us through His blood; therefore, we should not become defiled by fresh pollution.
  • Christ has united us to His body as His members; therefore, we should not disgrace Him by any blemish.
  • Christ has ascended to heaven; therefore, we should leave our carnal desires behind and lift our hearts upward to Him.
  • The Holy Spirit has dedicated us as temples of God; therefore, we should exert ourselves not to profane His sanctuary, but to display His glory.
  • Both our soul and body are destined to inherit an incorruptible and never-fading crown; therefore, we should keep them pure and undefiled.

For Calvin, there is no such thing as the so-called “carnal Christian.” Rather, he writes, “The apostle denies that anyone actually knows Christ who has not learned to put off the old man, corrupt with deceitful lusts, and to put on Christ.” And again, “[The gospel] will be unprofitable if it does not change our heart, pervade our manners, and transform us into new creatures.” He continues: “Perfection must be the final mark at which we aim, and the goal for which we strive. It is not lawful for you to make a compromise with God, to try to fulfill part of your duties and to omit others at your own pleasure.”

At the same time, Calvin guards against setting too high a standard for other believers. He writes, “We should not insist on absolute perfection of the gospel in our fellow Christians, however much we may strive for it ourselves.” To use a contemporary expression, we should be tough on ourselves and tender with others. Unfortunately, the opposite is too often true. We expect a lot from others while excusing ourselves.

While urgently pressing the importance of our diligent pursuit of holiness, Calvin is realistic about our meager attainments. He acknowledges that the vast majority of Christians make only slight progress. But this is not to excuse us. Rather, he writes, “Let us not cease to do the utmost; that we may incessantly go forward in the way of the Lord; and let us not despair because of the smallness of our accomplishment.”

An excerpt from John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology by Burk Parsons.