John Calvin: Aiming for the Perfection God Commands

The following excerpt is taken from

Institutes of The Christian Religion:

Calvin’s Own Essentials’ Edition

by John Calvin

 Translated from the 1541 French Edition by Robert White
Copyright Robert White 2014
Published by The Banner of Truth Trust

The volume may be ordered directly from Banner of Truth HERE.


Something should be said at this point to those who, having only the name of Christ, wish nevertheless to be known as Christians. How bold they are to glory in his holy name, seeing that none enjoy his friendship save those who rightly know him through the gospel!

Paul, for his part, declares that a right knowledge of Christ is given only to those who have learned to put off the old man, consumed as he is by unruly appetites, and who instead have put on Christ (Ephesians 4:20-24). Clearly, when such people claim to know Christ, their claim is false. In the process they do him much wrong, however persuasively they prattle on about him. For the gospel is teaching intended not for the tongue but for life. Unlike other disciplines it involves more than just the mind and memory: it must take full possession of the soul and must have its seat and home deep in the heart. Otherwise it is not really taken in.  So let these people cease to shame God by boasting of what they are not, or else let them prove themselves to be disciples of Christ.

In the matter of religion, we have so far given priority to what is taught, since that is the beginning of our salvation. But to bear fruit and to be profitable, what is taught must lodge in the heart and demonstrate its power in our lives. More than that, it must transform us so that its nature becomes ours. If the philosophers are right to be angry with those who claim to practice their art – which they call ‘the mistress of life’ – and who nevertheless turn it into verbose sophistry, how much more should we detest those babblers whose mouth is full of gospel talk, but who spurn it in their lives! For its influence ought to penetrate our inmost heart and take root in our soul a hundred thousand times more powerfully than all the philosophers’ admonitions, which in comparison are so very weak.

I do not require the Christian’s conduct to match the gospel standard of purity and perfection. Although that is something we should desire and should try hard to achieve, I do not insist so strictly and severely that evangelical perfection be attained before I acknowledge a man to be a Christian. On that basis every soul on earth would be excluded from the church, for there is no one, whatever progress he has made, who does not come well short of the mark. Most people indeed have hardly advanced one step, yet they are not to be rejected on that account.

What then? Our sights should naturally be set on the goal of aiming for the perfection which God commands. All our actions should be directed to that end. That, I say, should be our steadfast aim, for it is quite wrong of us to pick and choose where God is concerned, accepting part of what his word commands and omitting all the rest just as we please. What he invariably commends as of first importance is integrity, by which he means absolute simplicity of heart which must be free of all pretence and with no hint of double-mindedness. But as long as we live in this earthly prison none of us is strong or keen enough to hurry on as briskly as we ought. And since most of us are so weak and feeble that we shuffle and stumble along, making little headway as we go, let us each proceed as our limited power allows, and let us keep to the path we have begun. However haltingly we travel, each day will see us gaining a little ground. So let us continue on, making diligent progress in the way of the Lord, and let us not lose heart if we have only a little to show for it. For although our success might be less than we would wish, all is not lost when today surpasses yesterday. Only let us fix our gaze clearly and directly on our goal, trying hard to reach our objective, not fooling ourselves with vain flattery or excusing our own vices. We should always strive to improve from day to day, until we obtain that supreme goodness which we should seek as long as we live and which we will finally gain when, freed from the weakness of our flesh, we are made fully to share in it – that is, when God receives us into fellowship with himself.


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