1 John is clear: we are all sinners and we all sin (1 John 1:8, 10). If we say we have not sinned, we are not real Christians. But 1 John is also clear that if we do not keep God’s commandments, we are not real Christians either (1 John 2:3). So how can this be? Isn’t there an inconsistency here? We can’t be spiritual successes and spiritual failures at the same time.
Calvin understood this seeming inconsistency and provided a wonderfully balanced response. Commenting on 1 John 2:3 and wondering how anyone can be said to know God if the prerequisite for knowing God is keeping his commandments, Calvin replied:
To this I answer, that the Apostle is by no means inconsistent with himself; since before showed that all are guilty before God, he does not understand that those who keep his commandments wholly satisfy the law (no such example can be found in the world), but that they are such as strive, according to the capacity of human infirmity, to form their life in conformity to the will of God. For whenever Scripture speaks of the righteousness of the faithful, it does not exclude remission of sins, but on the contrary begins with it.
In this short paragraph we find much wisdom for navigating the sanctification debates in our own day. Calvin does not want to sidestep the whole point of 1 John 2:3. He acknowledges (as he must in order to be biblical) that obedience is a necessary component of Christian discipleship and of our Christian identity. And how does this fit with the earlier statements about our continuing sinfulness? Notice four points in Calvin’s response.
1. He does not take the language of “keep[ing] his commandments” to be a reference to sinless perfection. The obedience John expects of the Christian is not the obedience of fully satisfying the law of God. We need a category for non-meritorious, flawed, stumbling, but genuine obedience. Through his Son, God is pleased to accept that which is sincere, although accompanied with many imperfections (WCF 16.6).
2. He includes repentance as one aspect of holy living. Walking in the light means not only avoiding the deeds of darkness, but being honest about our sins and running to Christ for forgiveness and cleansing (1 John 1:5-7). Keeping the commandments requires a daily turning from sin and turning to Christ.
3. He is not embarrassed by the language of moral exertion. We must be passionate about pursuing Christlikeness. We must make an effort to be obedient to God’s commands. We should try hard to be holy. The Spirit will not allow us to be negligent, but will enable us to be diligent in stirring up the grace of God within us (WCF 16.3).
4. And yet, even this striving will be marked by weakness. The best we can do is to strive “according to the capacity of human infirmity.” As Calvin says later, while we will not love God perfectly we should nevertheless “aspire to this perfection according to the measure of grace given unto [us].”
Granted, there is much more to be said about sanctification than what Calvin touches upon in a few sentences. But affirming these four points–and not just affirming them in a statement of faith, but preaching them, tweeting them, writing about them, and commending them–would go a long way toward establishing a balanced and biblical approach to Christian discipleship. We strive, we aspire, we obey. We struggle, we sin, we repent. If our doctrine of sanctification does not embrace all this we are out of step with Calvin, out of step with the Reformed tradition, and, most importantly, out of step with the Bible itself.