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Did John Calvin Teach Christian Perfection (or Entire Sanctification)?

The answer surprised me.

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The Reformed tradition in general, and Calvinists in particular, are known for their criticism of the Wesleyan-Methodist understanding of Christian perfection. Classical Wesleyans are committed to the language, of course, because it's comes from the Bible; for example, "whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected" (1 John 2:4 ESV: cf. Matthew 5:48). Wesley desired to be "a man of one book." Consequently, he endeavored to take seriously the way scripture uses the language of perfection. See Wesley's A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. Wesley's doctrine of Christian perfection (or entire sanctification) has since become the object of criticism from the traditions that trace their roots to Geneva reformer John Calvin. You can imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that Calvin himself was willing to employ the language of perfection in relation to the Christian life. Consider Calvin in his own words.

John Calvin Quotes on Christian Perfection

From "The Character of the Faithful" published in The Mystery of Godliness and Other Sermons:

Let us therefore be modest, sober, just, and holy; and so live that sin may no more reign among us.
Let us therefore endeavor to govern ourselves in such a manner as the world may see there is true holiness in us: let us implore God to separate us from from all the pollutions of this world, that we may be brought up in His house, and governed by His Holy Spirit.
...let us come and submit ourselves to Him who is appointed our head; knowing there is no other way for us to be kept in obedience to God, and to live according to His will, only to be united to our Lord Jesus Christ: for then we are strengthened by the outpouring of the Holy Ghost, which is the fountain of all holiness, of all righteousness, and of all perfection.
We must be purged from all our sins, and so ruled by the Holy Spirit that the world may perceive we are united to Him, and drawn from temporal to spiritual things. May we so fight against the vanities of our flesh, and all wicked affections, that we seek nothing but to fashion ourselves more and more to the image of our God, and to be owned as children and heirs of the heavenly inheritance.

Pay attention to this

  • Language about sin - Notice the exhortation that believers should live such that sin does not reign in them and that believers should be purged of all sin. Similarly, John Wesley was fond of saying: "Sin remains, but it does not reign." This was a key aspect of the way he framed entire sanctification.

  • Language about holiness - Calvin also exhorts believers to all holiness and true holiness. The comprehensive scope of holiness resonates deeply with Wesley's articulation of entire sanctification.

  • Language about perfection - To my surprise, Calvin even exhorted believers to so live according to the will of Christ that Holy Spirit would produce all perfection. This surprised me because of the general (and sometimes avid) resistance to using the language of perfection in relation to the Christian life on the part of those who identify themselves as Calvinists.

I was (pleasantly) surprised to find how much Calvin sounds like Wesley in this sermon.


Dr. Matt O’Reilly (Ph.D., Gloucestershire) is Lead Pastor of Christ Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Director of Research at Wesley Biblical Seminary, and a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians. A two-time recipient of the John Stott Award for Pastoral Engagement, he is the author of Paul and the Resurrected Body: Social Identity and Ethical Practice, The Letters to the Thessalonians, and Bless the Nations: A Devotional for Short-Term Missions. Connect at and follow @mporeilly.

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