Perfect Christians or Imaginary Saints?

As I committed to reading through Calvin’s Institutes with a friend, in honour of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, I thought it would be worth jotting down some bits that I found particularly interesting. Here’s the quote for today:

Indeed, I see what sort of saints we imagine with our foolish superstition; the heavenly angels can scarcely compare with them in purity! But this goes against both Scripture and the evidence of experience. I further say that there will be no one hereafter who will reach the goal of true perfection without sloughing off the weight of the body.

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 2, 7.5

You would have heard the phrase “Nobody’s perfect”—usually said by a person after doing something they knew was wrong. And you’d probably agree to the fact that no one is just from experience. You’d probably realise if you had met someone who was morally perfect.

But something that God asks us to do is to follow his commandments. So the question is: Would God ask us to do something that we had no hope of doing? There were people in Calvin’s day (and earlier) who were saying, of course, God doesn’t ask more than what we can do. Therefore, we must be able to fulfil the law! Otherwise, God would be evil for asking us to obtain a moral perfection that we could never reach!

And here you see where this quote from Calvin comes in. He tears to shreds the idea that we could obtain such moral perfection, insisting that no one can reach perfection in this life—that such people are imaginary saints and a foolish superstition!

But does that mean that God’s asking us to do something he knows we can’t do? No, Calvin actually continues on to address this. God could, if he wanted to, make us perfect to “angelic purity”, but that is certainly not how he reveals himself in the Bible. In fact, he goes on to say: “…it is ill-advised to pit God’s might against his truth.” So it’s not that God can’t make us morally perfect in this life, but that he doesn’t choose to operate that way.

Why? I won’t presume to speak for God, but if I had to hazard a guess, I would probably point to the wonderful dependence we have on Jesus. If we were able to become perfect in this life, I’m fairly certain all it would evoke would be jealousy in others—and likely self-righteousness in us (thus making us un-perfect again).

At any rate, realising our own imperfections should drive us back to God. Depend on him, pray to him and live for him. And on the last day, his work in us will be complete!


Malcolm Purdey is a Christian, husband, father, student minister and science nerd. He completed a PhD in Chemistry and worked as a research scientist before making the jump into ministry in early 2017. He has been married for 5 years and has two daughters aged 3 and 1.

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