Calvin on sanctification in Christ

1909 Genevan plaquette

Published in 1537 and while in his late twenties, John Calvin’s Instruction in Faith is a concise presentation of Calvin’s system of theology. It dispenses with the technical debates of the day and simply presents the positive tenets of the Reformed faith. It was written in French for “the common man.” According to the translator’s foreword, “His intention was not to gain the admiration of scholars, but to inspire a simple faith in the people of Geneva. This treatise presented to the common people the essence of his Institutes of 1536″ (8).

I was reading Instruction in Faith over the weekend and came across Calvin’s statement on sanctification, which is the topic du jour in Reformed circles recently. As with each doctrine in this little book, Calvin carefully communicates the substance of the doctrine:

Just as Christ by means of his righteousness intercedes for us with the Father in order that (he being as our guarantor) we may be considered as righteous, so by making us participants in his spirit, he sanctifies us unto all purity and innocence. For the spirit of the Lord has reposed on Christ without measure — the spirit (I say) of wisdom, of intelligence, of counsel, of strength, of knowledge and reverential fear of the Lord — in order that we all may draw from his fullness and receive grace through the grace that has been given to Christ. As a result, those who boast of having the faith of Christ and are completely destitute of sanctification by his spirit deceive themselves. For the Scripture teaches that Christ has been made for us not only righteousness but also sanctification. Hence, we cannot receive through faith his righteousness without embracing at the same time that sanctification, because the Lord in one same alliance, which he has made with us in Christ, promises that he will be propitious toward our iniquities and will write his Law in our hearts (Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:10; 10:16).

Observance of the Law, therefore, is not a work that our power can accomplish, but it is a work of a spiritual power. Through this spiritual power it is brought about that our hearts are cleansed from their corruption and that are softened to obey unto righteousness. Now the function of the Law is for Christians quite different from what it may be without faith; for, when and where the Lord has engraved in our hearts the love for his righteousness, the external teaching of the Law (which before was only charging us with weakness and transgression) is now a lamp to guide our feet, to the end that we may not deviate from the right path. It is now our wisdom through which we are formed, instructed, and encouraged to all integrity; it is our discipline which does not suffer us to be dissolute through evil licentiousness.

[Instruction in Faith, trans. Paul T. Fuhrmann, Westminster Press, 1949, pp. 41-42. The newer edition from WJK Press, 1992, has different pagination. There is also another edition from Banner of Truth with a different translator and title, Truth For All Time.]

The Christian is one who “draws from the fullness” of Christ who is our righteousness before the Father. We have union with Christ through his spirit. Since we share in the same spirit of Christ, we receive both his righteousness and sanctification. This is our “alliance” with Christ.

It is not in our power to obey the law. It is only through our union with Christ and in the power of his spirit that this possibility is open to us. Indeed, the possibility is actual through the softening of our hearts toward obedience. Calvin is clear that this sanctification, realized here and now, is a necessity. But Calvin does not place this demand upon the believer. It is freely given through the same union with Christ that justifies. In a prior chapter, Calvin defines faith as a firm confidence, “the means of which we rest surely in the mercy of God….For thus the definition of faith must be taken from the substance of the promise” (38). Faith is not confidence in one’s sanctification, for that would make oneself the object of faith. It would also make justification contingent upon sanctification, instead of upon the finished work of Christ. As a result, there would be no rest.

But in the repose provided solely by the gospel, we can rejoice in the law. This obedience is a freely given “love for his righteousness” engraved on our hearts. The consummation of this “engraving” is the glorification of our bodies in the new creation, perfecting our desires. Yet, the Christian enjoys intimations of this future glorification here and now, through this love for the righteousness of God. Calvin recognizes that “this regeneration is never accomplished as long as we are in the prison of this mortal body.” Yet, he continues, “it is necessary that the cure of repentance continues until we die” (43).

The “cure of repentance” is a good way to talk about our sanctification. It is never a sanctification that proceeds from a faultless will or disposition. Our actions always require repentance, which is to say that we always require the gospel of justification by faith alone.


Image: 1909 Genevan plaquette commemorating the 350th anniversary of Calvin’s Academy. (source)




  1. Amen brother. Just read this last night –

    ‘..the Word of God calls man (and woman) to identify themselves with the decision it has made about them…. In Jesus Christ, I am revealed to myself as he who in the totality of his existence is received and accepted by Him. I shall then accept this revelation as one accepts revelation in faith: I shall accept it with thankfulness and prayer…But in faith we always have to do with a single event, an individual decision, in which I decide in conformity with the decision of the Word of God’ (Barth. CD.1.2:704-706)

    I am fond of Calvin’s word ‘the law becomes a lamp unto our feet’.

    • Yes, “conformity with the decision of the Word of God” is a nice way to express the act of faith. Calvin would agree.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s