Christian Holiness in The Reformers

CT610 Christian Holiness in Historical Perspective

January 11st 2008

Seminar 4 Christian Holiness in The Reformers

By Danilo Carvalho


We cannot talk about reform if we do not start with Justification by Faith, which is the foundation of the entire Reformation, “the article by which the Church stand or falls.”[1] It is the main doctrines which Martin Luther, John Calvin and other reformers use to started against heresies and bring the church back to Paul’s understanding of salvation as a gift of God.

We begin with the study of Luther’s view of Christian Holiness and compare his understanding with John Calvin, seeing their agreement or differences in opinions in the presentation.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther was a monk, theologian and church reformer. He is considered a father of Protestantism. He was a leader of the great Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. He was born at Eisleben, Germany 10 November, 1483; died at Eisleben, 18 February, 1546.

Justification by Faith Alone

Sola Fide ‘Justification by Faith Alone.’ This was the main doctrine in Luther’s thought, it is so important that Luther came to say that “is the article by which the church stands or falls.” Reflecting seriously on his spiritual life he started a profound study of the Bible, especially Paul’s letters, where he discovered that, our salvation depended solely upon God’s grace through the faith. Toon noted that, “Luther believed doctrine and personal experience cannot be separated. Justification by faith arose as a clear concept in his mind after a long and painful search for a gracious God who would accept him as he was rather than condemn him for his sins.”[2] Reflecting rigorously the meaning of the righteousness of God, ‘for therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it written, the just shall live by faith.’ (Roman 1:17) brought to him understanding.

The Righteousness of God

For centuries the Church had taught that the righteousness of God was God’s active, personal righteousness or justice by which He punishes the unrighteous sinner.

After deeply studying of the Bible and “meditating night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by his faith’.”[3] Luther, after his meditation, noted that the end of the verse from Roman 1:17 was not talking about the passive righteousness that God demands, but the passive righteousness that He freely gives to those who believe the Gospel.

Alien (Christ) righteousness and our proper righteousness

How did Luther understand a Christian righteousness? For Luther there are two kinds of righteousness: “the first is alien (Christ) righteousness that is the righteousness of another, instilled from without. This is the righteousness of Christ by which he justifies through faith…The second kind of righteousness is our proper righteousness, not because we alone work it, but because we work with that first and alien righteousness.”[4] For Luther Christ righteousness “is given to men in baptism and whenever they are truly repentant. Therefore a man can with confidence boast in Christ and say: ‘Mine are Christ’s living, doing, and speaking, his suffering and dying, mine as much as if I had lived, done, spoken, suffered, and died as he did’.”[5] The sinner is justified (declared righteous) by God through faith in the work and death of Jesus, not by our work or keeping of the Law. Put another way, the sinner is justified by receiving (faith) rather than achieving (works). Luther also says that we are saved by the alien righteousness of Christ, not by a righteousness of our own doing.

In the light of Luther’s thought the second kind of righteousness, our proper righteousness, is “in slaying the flesh and crucifying the desires with respect to the self, and also consists in love to one’s neighbour and also in meekness and fear toward God.”[6]

Justified but Sinful

As we see above, through faith in Christ all the believers are declared righteous by God based entirely on the work of Christ alone. We are now called to live out our lives in light of our justification. We are declared holy in Christ, now we are called to live in accordance with this new identity. No sin should remain in those who trust in God. For Luther the righteousness of Christ “is primary; it is the basis, the cause, the source of all our own actual righteousness given in place of the original righteousness lost in Adam.” [7] Luther noted that, “What God does when we accept or take the forgiveness and justification offered to us is to declare us, personally, righteous. It is not that we have any righteousness of our own. Rather, Christ’s righteousness is granted to us, imputed to us. We are declared righteous in Him.”[8] Luther also noted that imputation of the alien righteousness “is not instilled all at once, but it begins, makes progress, and it is finally perfected at the end through death.”[9] Toon noted that, “For we perceive that a man is justified is not yet a righteous man, but is in the very movement or journey towards righteousness. And our justification is not yet complete,… it is still under construction.”[10]

In the following statement Luther affirms that a justified believer can be righteous and simultaneously a sinner, “simul justus et peccator[11] which appears to be a contradiction. For example, Toon suggests that it is probably correct to point out the apparent contradiction of a justified Christian being simultaneously sinful and righteous. “With reference to Christ he is righteous; but with reference to his fallen nature he is always sinful. Yet this apparent contradiction does not imply a static situation.”[12]

Original Sin

Like Augustine, Luther believed that humanity brings both the guilt for Adam’s sin and the disease of that sin as it was passed on through imputation. The image of God that Adam had borne in his soul was replaced, as Pelikan said, by ‘the image of the devil.’[13] Noble quoting Paul Basset wrote “The original sin in a man is like his beard, which though shaved off today so that a man is very smooth around his mouth, yet grows again by tomorrow morning. As long as a man lives, such growth of hair and beard does not stop. In just this way, original sin remains in us exercises itself as long as we live, but we must resist it and always be cutting off its hair.”[14] Like Augustine he believed original sin is forgiven in baptism. Noble quoting Luther said “Original sin is certainly forgiven in baptism; but not in such a manner that it no longer exists. Rather in such a manner that God no longer imputes it to us.”[15]

On Christian Liberty

Luther’s understanding of Christian liberty is summarized in the following quotation,

A Christian man is the most lord of all, and subject to none, a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all. Although these statements seem contradictory, yet, when they are found to fit together, they would serve our purpose. They are both the statements of Paul himself, who says: ‘For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all’ (1 Cor. 9: 19), and: ‘Owe no man anything, except to love one another.’ (Rom. 13: 8.) Love by its very nature is ready to serve and be subject to him who is loved. So Christ, although he was Lord of all, was ‘born of a woman; born under the law’ (Gal.4:14) and therefore was at the same time a free man and a servant, ‘in the form of God’ and ‘of a servant’ (Phil. 2:6-7). Because of this diversity of nature the Scriptures assert contradictory things concerning the same man, since these two men in the same man contradict each other, ‘for the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh’ (Gal. 5:17). [16]

Luther’s doctrine of Christian liberty is centred in the Word of God. For Luther the Word is the gospel of God concerning his Son, who was made flesh, suffered, rose from the dead, and was glorified through the Spirit who sanctifies.

The freedom of love

In Luther’s view, a man must be righteous before he does any good work. “Good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works; evil works do not make a wicked man, but a wicked man does evil works.”[17] In that understanding we can see justification must precede righteousness. For Luther faith alone suffices for salvation, I need nothing except faith exercising the power and dominion of its own liberty, and this faith is truly active through love. Each believers shall follow the example of Christ (Phil. 2:16) who limits himself out of love and ‘subject to all’. Luther condemned those who turn the freedom of faith into ‘an occasion for the flesh’, thinking that all things are allowed and caring no more for things prescribed in laws and traditions that could be the very essence of our faith.[18]

Christian Perfection

Luther reflected the Augustinian position that sin remains in humanity until death, and therefore spiritual perfection is impossible in this life. Flew noted that for Luther “the state of perfection is to have a lively faith, to be a despiser of death, life, glory and all the world, and to live in growing love as the servant of all men.” [19] Perfection for Luther is the perfection of faith. However, Bassett suggest that “Luther is quite clear God imputes to the believer entire sanctification, Christian Holiness.”[20]

John Calvin (1509 – 1564)

John Calvin was a French theologian and like Luther a guiding spirit in the Protestant Reformation which became a part of Western civilization. He was born at Noyon, in Picardy France, on the 10th of July 1509. In his, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin sought to articulate Biblical theology in a sensible way, following the articles of the Apostles’ Creed. He described justification by faith as the “hinge on which all true religions turns”.[21]

Justification by faith versus works

Like in Luther’s, justification has an important place in Calvin’s doctrine. For Calvin justification “is the principal ground on which religion must be supported, so it requires greater care and attention.”[22] In the following statement we can see how Calvin understood justification,

A man is said to be justified in the sight of God when in the judgment of God he is deemed righteous and is accepted on account of his righteousness. He is justified who is regarded not as a sinner, but as righteous,… as an innocent man, when charged before …is removed from the catalogue of sinners, he has God as the witness and assertor of his righteousness. In the same manner, a man will be said to be justified by works, if in his life there can be found a purity and holiness which merits an attestation of righteousness at the throne of God, or if by the perfection of his works he can answer and satisfy the divine justice. On the contrary, a man will be justified by faith when, excluded from the righteousness of works, he by faith lays hold of the righteousness of Christ and clothed in it appears in the sight of God not as a sinner, but as righteous. Thus we simply interpret justification as the acceptance with which God receives us into His favour as if we were righteous. And we say that this justification consists in the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. [23]

Repentance or regeneration

For Calvin,

Repentance consists of two parts, mortification and quickening. By mortification they mean, grief of soul and terror, produced by a conviction of sin and a sense of the divine judgement. He also is sincerely dissatisfied with himself, confesses that he is lost and undone, and wish he were different from what he is. By quickening they mean, the comfort which is produce by faith, as when a man prostrated by a consciousness of sin and smitten with the fear of God, afterwards beholding his goodness, and the mercy, grace and salvation obtained through Christ, look up, beings to breath, takes courage, and passes, as it were, from death unto life. Both of this we obtain by union with Christ. By repentance I understand regeneration the only aim of which is to form in us anew the image of God, which was sullied, and all but effaced by the transgression of Adam.[24]

Calvin defined repentance as the “true turning of our life to God, a turning that arises from a pure and earnest fear of him; and it consists in the mortification of our flesh and of the old man, and in the vivification of the Spirit”[25] For mortification Calvin refers to our consciousness of sin, ceasing to do evil, renouncing the world and casting off the ‘old man’. By vivification is putting on the ‘new man’ walking in the Spirit, with “the desire to live in a holy and devoted manner, a desire arising from rebirth.”[26]

Original Sin

Calvin, like Luther, understood original sin from Augustine’s idea. Calvin understood Original Sin as a hereditary corruption and depravity of all humanity. “This is the hereditary corruption to which early Christian writers gave the name of Original Sin, meaning by the term the depravation of a nature formerly good and pure.”[27] Calvin did not disagree with this definition however he said I want “only to adduce the one which seems to me most accordant with truth. Original Sin, then, may be defined as hereditary corruption and depravity of our nature, extending to all the parts of the soul, which first makes us obnoxious to the wrath of God, and then produces in us works which in Scripture are termed works of the flesh.”[28] Because of Adam’s disobedience the whole human race became guilty in the face of God. For him original sin is something real in the human being. Noble says, “Calvin analyses the original act of sin in Genesis 3. It begins with infidelity (disbelieving the word of God), proceeds through pride and ambition together with ingratitude, and issues in rebellions disobedience giving free rein to lust.”[29]

Righteousness or Sanctification

In Calvin’s view our righteousness is not from ourselves, it is from God’s righteousness, as result of favour of God. “Calvin sees no life-style for the Christian as finally valid except the Christlike life. For Calvin recognition of sinfulness is a necessary step and continuing necessity in our sanctification ‘where there is no recognition of continuing sinfulness, there is no sanctification’. Failure to recognize our continuing sinfulness is failure to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our faculties.”[30]

In his commentary to the Epistle to the Romans Calvin said; “he proves, by testimony of David that righteousness is imputed without works because he declares the man to be blessed ‘whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered’ and ‘unto whom the lord imputeth not iniquity’” (Romans 4:6; Psalms 32:1,2).[31]

Bassett writes that, “Calvin is very clear to insist upon the sanctification on life. He insists, in fact, upon entire sanctification. But for him entire sanctification includes a recognition that we are not all that God would have us to be. It entails recognition that we continue in our sinfulness, but that we are striving by the grace of God to be more and more Christlike as our lives pass”[32]

For Calvin Holiness is the goal of life. Holiness brings about a genuine moral transformation and this transformation is not complete in this life. For him it “is not moral transformation that brings holiness, rather it is holiness that brings moral transformation”[33]

Christian Perfection

Different from Luther, Calvin wrote about Christian Perfection as meaning a wholehearted response to the grace of God. Wallace states,

Calvin describes in various terms the perfection at which we have to aim. The perfection of God consists in His ‘free and pure kindness’ in overcoming the malice and ingratitude of men. Our aim must be, therefore, to respond fittingly in our own humble sphere to this perfect grace in which God has presented Himself to us. It is obvious that, for Calvin Christian perfection is perfection of faith, for God can ask no more of us than to add faith to His promises and to make them the foundation of our life and salvation. This perfection will express itself in wholehearted self-denial, in conforming ourselves to the will of God when it goes against the judgment of our mind and desires of our own heart, and in bearing the yoke of affliction without rebellion when it pleases God to send us troubles of various kinds. For Calvin such perfection is unattainable in this life, we must strive towards it. We are never truly wholehearted in our response to Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit is never able to occupy the whole of us. For Calvin the perfect Christian man is he who, conscious of his sin and misery had learned to live by grace.[34]

Calvin believes the elect are called to lead a holy life and produce fruits worthy of repentance, namely, “piety toward God, charity toward man and in the whole life, holiness and purity.”[35]


Before my conclusions I want mention Calvin’s doctrine of election, which Calvin defines “predestination as, God’s decree, by which He compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others”[36] However its importance I will not develop in this presentation.

Conclusion and brief summary

Calvin shared Martin Luther’s belief in the Bible as the unique rule for a life of faith and the doctrine of justification by faith alone. For both Christians never achieve sinless perfection in this life. Both defend that, sanctification and justification is the work of God. For Calvin, recognition of sinfulness is a necessary step and continuing necessity in our sanctification, we are not all that God would have us to be. For Luther there is no justification without sanctification, they may exist separated in the abstract, but in life they are never separated. For Calvin justification and sanctification, which we perceive to be united together in Christ, are inseparable. For Luther there are two kind of righteousness ‘alien righteousness’ and our proper righteousness. For Calvin our Holiness brings about a genuine moral transformation and this transformation is not complete in this life. For Luther our proper righteousness is slaying the flesh and crucifying the desires with respect to the self, and also consist in love to one’s neighbour and also in meekness and fear toward God. For Luther faith is only possible through the grace of God, and is a result of God’s grace.

[1] Peter, Toon. Justification and Sanctification, 55

[2] Toon, Justification and Sanctification 56

[3] Toon, Justification and Sanctification 56

[4] Luther’s works, Career of the Reformer, p297,299

[5] Luther’s Works p297

[6] Luther’s Works, 299

[7] Luther’s Works, 298, 299

[8] Bassett at all, Exploring Christian Holiness, vol. 2, 157, 158

[9] Luther’s Works, 299

[10] Toon, Justification and Sanctification, 58, 59

[11] Robert W. Godfrey, Reformation Sketches, 28

[12] Toon, Justification and Sanctification 59

[13] Jaroslav, Pelikan. The Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300-1700), 142

[14] A. Noble. European Explorations in Christian Holiness: Doctrine of Original Sin in the Evangelical Reformers, 70

[15] Noble. European Explorations in Christian Holiness, 71

[16] Luther’s Works 31:344

[17] Luther’s Works 31: 361

[18] Luther’s Works 31:372

[19] R. Newton Flew. The Idea of Perfection in Christian Theology. 245

[20] Basset and Greathouse, 164.

[21] Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, volume 2, 47

[22] Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion, volume 2,

[23] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, volume 2, 37, 38

[24] Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, volume 1, 3:

[25] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, volume 1, 3:597

[26] Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, volume1, 3:595

[27] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, volume 1, 214

[28] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, volume 1, 217

[29] Nobel, European Exploration in Christian Holiness, 82

[30] Bassett and Greathouse, Exploring Christian Holiness, volume 2, 175

[31] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, volume II, 38-

[32] Bassett and Greathouse, Exploring Christian Holiness, volume 2, 175

[33] Bassett and Greathouse, Exploring Christian Holiness, volume 2, 177

[34] Wallace Ronald S. Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life, 321, 322, 323

[35] Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion, volume II

[36] Calvin Institutes of Christian Religion. III, 21, 5


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