I want to give you over the next few days a view into the Reformed understanding of salvation using the acronym TULIP. I desire to do this because there are few theological systems misunderstood and caricatured more harshly than Calvinism. Over the coming days I hope to provide a short, helpful resource to help increase understanding, appreciation, and even love for a joy-producing understanding of God’s sovereign grace in saving sinners. If you or your friends do not know much about Calvinism, these posts are for you.
As an introduction to this series, I will begin by giving a brief exposition of TULIP and what Reformed Christians believe about salvation.
Firstly, let me assert from the start that Calvinists are not anti-Christian! I cannot believe I have to write this, but it is a necessity that is indicative of the lack of teaching in our churches and the biblical and extreme theological illiteracy in our “gotta have it now” culture. If someone tells you they are Reformed (Calvinist), do not embarrass yourself by telling them you will pray for them because you do not think they are Christians! Being Calvinist or Reformed does not mean you are not a Christian. Likewise, being Arminian does not mean you are not a Christian. The only thing that makes you a Christian is your faith in the work of Jesus Christ on your behalf, not your understanding of how that salvation plays out! I wish for the sake of unity we could abolish these terms altogether, however they are necessary for discussion. Arminians and Calvinists are united, yet opposite. They have everything in common and nothing in common. If you do not consider yourself Reformed (Calvinist; these terms are interchangeable), you will still find that you agree with Calvinists on a number of soteriological issues, such as:
– Salvation is a gift from God alone
– Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ Jesus alone to the glory of God alone (i.e. the solas are the root of every Christians understanding of salvation; we only branch out differently)
– Salvation is not a result of works
And if you are Baptist, most of you will agree with at least two points of Calvinism (total depravity and perseverance of the saints). So, most Baptists are two-fifths Calvinist without even knowing it. In other words, do not condemn a position that you partially agree with. And as a Baptist, this post is primarily to my fellow Baptists, but is equally applicable to any Christian denomination.
But what does it mean to be a Calvinist? What is Calvinism?
According to Wayne Grudem, a Reformed Baptist who holds to this system and presents it as accurately as I have seen, Calvinism (Reformed tradition or doctrines of grace) is:
A theological tradition named after the sixteenth-century French reformer John Calvin (1509-64) that emphasizes the sovereignty of God in all things, man’s inability to do spiritual good before God, and the glory of God as the highest end of all that occurs (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 1237).
Though Calvin is given credit for this system, he did not develop TULIP and some say that he didn’t even hold to every aspect of what has become known as Calvinism (a name at which I believe he would shudder). John Calvin is a joy to read (I am currently reading his Institutes of the Christian Religion) and a man to model, both as a Christian and a pastor. He loved and cared for his flock as much as any pastor ever has. And he was jealous for the glory of God in ways I can only dream to imitate. You would do well to read a biography or two on Calvin. Calvinism is often systematized by the acronym TULIP which expresses the tenets of this theological tradition. Depending on how you look at it, this acronym could be helpful or harmful. For the sake of familiarity and for ease, I will be speaking in the terms the acronym uses. I believe it to be helpful, despite the negative connotation that surrounds it. So, if you take issue with TULIP, bear with me in patience and try to think through what each point teaches rather than allowing the title of the point(s) to trip you up. The elements of this theological system are found in this acronym:
T – Total Depravity
Man’s total lack of spiritual good and inability to do good before God (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 1256)
Grudem expresses this doctrine in further, more vibrant terms:
It is not just that some parts of us are sinful and others are pure. Rather, every part of our being is affected by sin–our intellects, our emotions and desire, our hearts (the center of our desires and decision-making processes), our goals and motives, and even our physical bodies (Ibid, 497).
Basically, every man is born in sin (Psalm 51) and are dead in their sin, unable to positively “move” toward God. Apart from effectual, saving grace, all people are unable to respond to God in faith because of our deadness in sin. If left in this state, we remain guilty of our sin because of the first Adam. Our only hope is a second Adam (Jesus Christ).
U – Unconditional Election
An act of God before creation in which he chooses some people to be saved, not on account of any foreseen merit in them, but only because of his sovereign good pleasure (Ibid, 670).
Thomas Schreiner puts it even clearer terms:
“God in eternity past, freely chooses specific individuals whom he will save (Eph. 1:4) and…his choice is not based on their foreseen faith or effort
In unconditional election, God chooses to save some sinners from their plight while passing over the rest of mankind, leaving them in their sin to suffer the due punishment. Election is therefore all of grace. The only thing that moved God to elect a sinful race to eternal life in the Son before the foundation of the world was his grace.
L – Limited Atonement
Christ’s death actually paid for the sins of those whom he knew would ultimately be saved. A preferable term for this view is ‘particular redemption’ in that the power of the atonement is not limited, but rather it is fully effective for particular people (Ibid, 1247).
This is the most controversial petal in this already controversial flower. In fact, there are many who consider themselves to be 4-point Calvinists. However, I believe that if you affirm the other four, logically, you should believe in Limited Atonement or Particular Redemption, but that is for a later post. Basically, particular redemption is a perspective of the atonement that discusses its extent. For whom did Christ die? The doctrines of grace teach that Jesus Christ died to effectually redeem those whom God has unconditionally elected. This is not to say that Jesus did not die for the “world” in some sense (this will be probed later), but it is to say that those for whom Jesus died, he died in an effective way.
I – Irresistible Grace
A term that refers to the fact that God effectively calls people and also gives them regeneration, both of which guarantee that we will respond in saving faith. This term is subject to misunderstanding since it seems to imply that people do not make a voluntary, willing choice in responding to the gospel (Ibid, 1246).
This doctrine directly follows total depravity. Since we are dead in our sins, God effectually calls those whom he has unconditionally elected to himself through regeneration by the Spirit. He gives life to dead sinners and all he calls will respond. This does not mean that he drags people kicking and screaming into heaven nor does it mean that anyone falls begging and pleading into hell. It means that those whom God calls will respond in faith as a result of the regenerating work of the Spirit. Faith, therefore, is a seen to be gift of God originally foreign to us.
P – Perseverance of the Saints
The doctrine that all those who are truly ‘born again’ will be kept by God’s power and will persevere as Christians until the end of their lives, and that only those who persevere until the end have truly been ‘born again’ (Ibid, 1251).
Ironically, while many Baptists will deny unconditional election, limited atonement (particular redemption), and irresistible grace (effectual calling), nearly all Baptists gladly endorse and champion this aspect of Calvinism into their theology of salvation. “Once saved always saved” is the endearing term so often given to this doctrine by Baptists. It teaches that there is eternal security for those who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ by his grace and through their faith in the Beloved. This doctrine does not cheapen grace or teach that a person can willingly, intentionally, and continually live a life of sin. Someone who is truly “born again” will exhibit fruits of the Spirit and produce works of holiness and godliness since faith without works is dead. Whether a Christian holds to this doctrine or not, I would dare say that every Christian wants to affirm this doctrine. Of all the petals on this theological flower, the P (perseverance of the saints) smells the sweetest among Baptist as it is the least controversial.
I have just given a very brief sketch of the doctrines of grace with the sole purpose of informing and enlightening those of you who may be unaware of what Calvinists actually believe. When someone tells you they are Reformed, maybe now you will have more knowledge into what they mean by that phrase. I hope you have seen that Calvinists are not heretics or evil anti-Christians. Good Calvinists are Christ-followers first, not Calvin-followers. I even believe that John Calvin himself would be appalled that so many align themselves with him instead of the Savior he loved, adored, and lived to glorify. Nevertheless, Calvinism is a viable theological system and a helpful way of understanding salvation. It is not the only way, but I believe it to be the most God-honoring way. And that is the point and my prayer: That you would grow in greater knowledge of and love for God as you search the Scriptures and meditate on the riches of Christ in his salvation of sinners, which will lead to further obedience to the King and more intense proclamation of his message. Over the next few days, I pray that you would be given an accurate depiction of a very helpful and biblical theology of salvation. And know this: No matter where you land on the spectrum–Arminianism, Calvinism, or somewhere in between–let us rejoice in those primary doctrines that unite us as one body under Christ, our Chief Shepherd, and conclude that regardless of how we view the application of Christ’s work, our salvation in him is
- By Grace Alone
- Through Faith Alone
- In Christ Alone
- To the Glory of God Alone
May our theology always lead us into reverent and glorious doxology. And may he be praised forever and ever. Amen.
For from him and through him and to him are all things.To him be glory forever. Amen (Romans 11:36).