Introduction to Calvinism: TULIP Defined

51b75d48323d245148I 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.

Prefatory Note
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.

Calvinism Defined
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).


16 thoughts on “Introduction to Calvinism: TULIP Defined

  1. The error of Calvinism begins with its distortion of the nature of man. The Bible presents man as a sinner but in no place does it say that man is unable to believe without him being regenerated first. In fact, the presumption of scripture is that man does have the ability to believe the Gospel and come to faith in Christ. Jesus commanded all men to repent and believe.
    The most grievous error of Calvinism is that it distorts the nature of God, denying that He desires all to come to a knowledge of the truth and be saved.
    Finally it distorts the work of Christ who because of the Father’s love of all men, gave up His life on the cross so that all who believe might have eternal life.
    The Good News is that God has offered the free gift of salvation to all men, making it attainable through faith.
    There is no Good News in Calvinism.

    1. Each of your concerns will be addressed in coming posts. Stay tuned over the next few days to see a fuller explanation of each tenet of Calvinism. But my friend, I cannot believe that you could say there is “no Good News” in any evangelical soteriological system. The fact that God saves sinners, regardless of one’s understanding of its extent, is ALWAYS good news! It is responses like that that I hoped to eliminate in the very post you commented on. I obviously failed. It may do you well to look back over the points of unity among evangelicals I mentioned in this post. I may be wrong but I also feel you have a slight misunderstanding of Calvinism. I hope to alleviate this in the coming days. Pray for me to have the grace and understanding to do so.
      In His great love and grace,

      1. What I find difficult to believe is that you would characterize Calvinism as an evangelical soteriological system. At best, Calvinism is a proselytizing system that denies man has the ability to have any effect on others coming to faith in Christ. You teach that men are saved by being fortunate enough to have been chosen by God to be saved and if you are not fortunate enough to be chosen, there is nothing you can do about it. Calvinism spends much ink, time and paper convincing others of its beliefs.
        Many Calvinists go through life without the assurance of salvation, wondering whether they are really one of the “elect” Even the so called Calvinist theologians admit that some are deceived. Where is the Good News for them?
        As for understanding Calvinism, it is not monolithic in its beliefs, so which Calvinism or reformed.theology do I slightly misunderstand? Is it the one that believes God is glorified in sending the non-elect to hell or perhaps the one who claims all things (including sinful acts of man) are caused by God. Perhaps its the confused Calvinist who cannot reconcile the contradictions his beliefs with scripture and resorts to redefining word such as all and world or when that doesn’t work redefining God as having two minds.
        I was once a Calvinist, having been led astray by the errors of Edwards, Pink, Boice, and Murray. I praise God that after comparing the false teaching of these men and others with what the Bible says, the Holy Spirit showed me the truth. I put away the writings of men and immersed myself in Gods writings.
        I pray that you will do the same.

    2. Wrong, Jack. Scripture makes it clear that the carnal-minded, unsaved man is an ENEMY of God, a spiritual corpse, dead in his sins and trespasses. Such a God-hater has NO desire, on his own, apart from God’s grace, to “come to faith in Christ” — “”faith” being a gift from God and not something the unbeliever gives himself.

      John Lofton

      1. John – this is a typical Calvinist argument lacking any support for total depravity. Perhaps you can post a verse that says Man is an ENEMY of God and is unable to believe without first being regenerated. As for faith being a gift – Nope! Salvation is a gift. Notice this: Ephesians 2:4-9 (HCSB) But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us, made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace! Together with Christ Jesus He also raised us up and seated us in the heavens, so that in the coming ages He might display the immeasurable riches of His grace through ⌊His⌋ kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift— not from works, so that no one can boast. – Dan Wallace, a notable Greek scholar and a CALVINIST says in his book
        Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics that grammatically this passage cannot be interpreted to say that faith is a gift.
        Even more important Ephesians says those who are dead in sin are made alive with the Messiah through faith because of His great love for us. Those who are dead in Christ can respond to Him in faith (ie Come to faith in Christ). Also of note: there is no mention of regeneration.

  2. John, once again you fail to post any scripture saying the “carnal-minded, unsaved man” is an enemy of God – this is not found in the Bible. This however is a red herring. My post is denying Calvinism’s total depravity of man . What Calvinism claims is that an unregenerated man does not have the ability to believe which completely contradicts Eph :4-9.and many other scriptures. There is no scripture that says an unregenerate man lacks the ability to believe. This along with much of Calvinism is a remnant of Augustines Manicheanism – a Persian brand of Gnosticism. Calvin’s whole philosophy is based on medieval paganism that was infiltrating the Church as early as the first century. You would do well to stick to what scripture says and not add or subtract from it.

    1. You are wrong, Jack, when you say you cannot find in the Bible the view that the “carnal-minded, unsaved man” is an enemy of God. Romans 8:7 says: “Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.” And the issue here is not a red herring. You attributing to me words I did not say shows you are either a careless reader of a text or dishonest.

      John Lofton

  3. John, Sorry, you missed my point entirely. I posted “Perhaps you can post a verse that says Man is an ENEMY of God and is unable to believe without first being regenerated.” Your verse states Nothing about man’s inability. I fail to see what you are trying to say. Once again you fail to post anything that says a man who is dead in trespasses and sin does not have the ability to come to Christ in faith as Ephesians 2 says he does. The question is not about the unregenerate’s relationship with God. That’s is clear in Eph 2 . He is separated from God Thats what spiritual death is. So posting other scriptures like Rom 8:6 that deal with the carnal mind being at enmity with God or man being a sinner does not move your position along..It is nothing more than a red herring, It only serves to insert irrelevant facts into the argument. I completely agree that the unregenerate man is a sinner, he is hostile to God and is in rebellion against God but none of these speak to man’s inability to believe that Calvinism’s total depravity claims.

    1. Jack,
      To switch gears in this conversation and simply out of curiosity, what position do you hold with regard to the state or condition of unregenerate man? It is obvious John and I are in the Reformed camp, but which position on the effects of original sin do you feel is most consistent with the Scriptures? Sometimes seeing the other position can help provide better clarity for debate.If man is not completely unable to please God or come to Christ apart from grace, then what effects does sin have on us post-fall and pre-salvation? Truly interested in where you stand. Thanks!

      1. Martha,
        The unregenerate man is in a state of rebellion against God. As Ephesians says he is separated from God because of his sin but his sin has not affected his ability to hear the Gospel and respond in faith. In John 6 Jesus tells us that the Father teaches all men. John 6:45 It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me. – He goes on to teach that He is the bread of life and John 6:50-51 (HCSB) This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that anyone may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread he will live forever. The bread that I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.”
        Scripture is clear that unregenrate man can come to Christ. There is no verse that teaches man lacks the ability to come. Jesus taught the reason some men do not come is because they are unwilling.
        Total depravity is a false teaching of Calvinism,

      2. You have produced NO Scripture, Jack, which shows that an unsaved,unregenerate person, unaided, by himself, on his own, with no grace from God, can “come to Christ.”

        John Lofton

        PS For those interested in this topic, Luther, in his “Bondage Of The Will” demolishes, at length, Jack’s absurd, anti-Biblical view.

      3. Jack,
        In order to gain more clout you are going to have to be more convincing from Scripture. Your explanation revealed nothing. You are just making statements that sound as if they are based solely on philosophical presuppositions or personal opinions/desires. You keep referring to Ephesians 2, but you gloss over what it actually says–that all unregenerates are “dead [Greek: nekrou from nekros, meaning ‘dead,’ as in unable to respond to impulses or stimuli, like a corpse] in sin” (Eph. 2:1-3).

        And you are free to disagree with the doctrines of grace, but to presume and assert that they are heretical is simply ludicrous and intellectually, biblically, and historically dishonest. Even Roger Olson, who despises Calvinism, does not and cannot refer to it as a false teaching. I vehemently disagree with Arminianism, but wouldn’t for one second label it as a heresy because of its affirmation of salvation coming by grace through faith alone in Christ alone. What concerns me with your position is that I do not even see elements of Arminianism in your claim as you mention nothing of prevenient grace. Your position sounds like it has elements of Semi-Pelagianism. Maybe you could clarify, because you give the impression that unregenerate man has the ability within himself apart from grace from God to come to Christ. And if you do in fact believe this, where in Scripture do you find support that there is no grace needed to believe in Christ? If you find it, how does it coincide with John 6:44 “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”?

        [SIDE NOTE]: My name is Mathew, not Martha…just sayin’! 🙂

    2. Your statement, Jack, was that my assertion that the “carnal-minded, unsaved man” is an enemy of God “is not found in the Bible.” I showed you that what I asserted most certainly IS in the Bible. Thus, you were wrong.

      John Lofton

      1. Mathew,
        Sorry for the name confusion. I misread it on your post.
        Glad you saw no Armenian elements in my comments since it is also heretical.
        Sorry you object to the term heretical, but I would recommend that you review the definition.I stand by its use, BTW the definition of heretical has nothing to do with salvation.
        As for me being more scriptural, I posted John 6:50-51 (HCSB) This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that anyone may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread he will live forever. The bread that I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.” – I am curious how the Calvinist redefines the “anyohe” found twice in that verse. Note it says anyone may eat.
        Yes Ephesians does say dead in trespasses and sin, but it says nothing about mans lack of ability.. In fact it lists many things that the SPIRITUALLY dead man can do. Paul explains the meaning. It is being separated from God -being “far away” and “without God”,
        The Bible speaks of grace but never preveniant grace. Preveniant grace is a Calvinist term – used to try to explain Calvinist false teaching.
        So I will offer you the same recommendation you offered me. Staying away from your philosophical presuppositions, show scripture that says the unregenerate man lacks the ability to believe.

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