Let’s Talk About TULIP

Posted on November 13, 2011 by


I think John Calvin might be one of the most controversial figures in church history. In many circles (those branding themselves as “reformed” or even “Calvinist”), Calvin is a monolith. He is a giant of almost titanic proportions, the instigator of “Calvinism”, an all-encompassing system of theology – a way of thinking about God. Calvinism is first and foremost centered around five points, often called the “five points of Calvinism”, and sometimes abbreviated as “TULIP.”

John Calvin had a lot more to say about salvation than the Five Points - Five points which originated sixty years after his death.

In other circles (including some of the Southern/Independent Baptist circles in which I have run), Calvinism and Calvin can almost be used interchangeably with “the devil.” Reactions against Calvin and his teachings range from intellectual to emotional, but they almost always center around the Five Points. And very often it is peoples’ disagreement with one or more of these Five Points that fuels their hatred for Calvin and their general distaste for all things Reformed.

With that introduction, there are two purposes to today’s article: The first is to accurately address the issue of the Five Points. I want to do this not only because they are so central to how people in either camp view the life and ministry of John Calvin, but also because I get asked a lot about the Five Points and where I stand on them. Hopefully this blog article will clear some of that up. Secondly, I’d like to address the issue of “Reformed” theology, what it really means, and what I mean when I tell people that my theology is “Reformed.”

The Five Points: A Little History

To properly understand the Five Points and their significance, we need to understand where they came from and the purpose for which they were intended. First of all – and this is important to understand – the Five Points did not originate with Calvin.

Four years before the death of Calvin (Calvin died in 1564 – Arminius was born in 1560), a man by the name of Jacob Arminius was born. Arminius embraced a system of theology that emphasized the importance of man’s free choice in accepting the grace of God in salvation. Arminius sought to change or reform mainstream protestant thought and in so doing lent his name to a movement – Arminianism. Direct theological descendants of Arminius include John and Charles Wesley and the Methodist movement they started, and the Pentacostal, Foursquare, and Assembly of God churches.

One year after Arminius’ death, his followers published Five articles of the Remonstrants – a list of five points in which the followers of Arminius disagreed with the theology of the Dutch Reformed Church. Their five points were:

  • That God predestines or elects those who will be saved, but He does so based on his foreknowledge of the choice that they will make. This is often referred to as “conditional election.”
  • That the atonement of Jesus Christ on the Cross applies to all mankind, but its benefits are enjoyed only by those who believe. In the wording of the Five Articles: “…Jesus Christ… has obtained for them all, by his death on the cross, redemption, and the forgiveness of sins; yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins, except the believer…” This is often called “universal atonement.” Put another way, all people have had their sins atoned for, but only those who are currently believing are enjoying the benefits.
  • That man is essentially depraved and needs the grace of God to be saved (Calvinists and Arminianists actually agree that there is total depravity, however they disagree on the reasons for and implications of its existence).
  • That men can resist the grace of God, to the point of rejecting and denying all of God’s best efforts to save them.
  • That it might be possible for believers, through “negligence… or becoming devoid of grace,” to lose their salvation if they do not remain in Christ. However, they go on to say that this doctrine, “must be more particularly determined out of the Holy Scriptures before they can teach it with the full persuasion of their minds.” In other words, they weren’t really sure on this point, so they leave it somewhat open-ended.

In 1618 the Dutch Reformed Church met in the town of Dordrecht (in English, Dort) to discuss these objections and come to a consensus on them. This judicial meeting was known as the Synod of Dort and delegations from both sides of the debate met to discuss and debate their theological differences. Ultimately, the Synod of Dort ruled in favor of theology of the Dutch Reformed Church as outlined in the Belgic Confession, finding it to be more in line with Scripture than the Arminian teachings.

What resulted was something called the Canons of Dort – a systematic rejection of Arminianism and a clarification of the Reformed doctrines on each of the items. Later, these items were re-ordered to form the handy acronym “TULIP”. They are:

  • Total depravity (also sometimes called Total Inability) – This is the belief that man is essentially depraved and unable to come to God on his own. While this is something that Calvinists and Arminianists agree upon, the two groups differ regarding its cause and implications.
  • Unconditional election – This is the belief that God did in fact choose those who would be saved, but instead of doing so based on His knowledge of their works later (which the Calvinists identified as essentially works-based salvation), He rather did so according to His own good pleasure.
  • Limited atonement – This one is rather interesting in that it is not something Calvin ever directly taught or addressed. Although this is sometimes presented by Arminianists as teaching that Christ only died for the elect, in reality Calvinists throughout the centuries have taught that “limited” atonement means that Christ’s atonement is limited, not in its sufficiency (i.e., the blood of Jesus Christ was enough to purge the whole world of its sins), but in its efficiency (that is, only those who believe/are elect have had their sins atoned for).
  • Irresistible grace – This is sometimes also called “efficacious grace.” Essentially, it means that God’s convicting pursuit in salvation will ultimately lead to repentance. It is important to note that even the wording of the Canons of Dort seem to imply a recognition of the paradox that exists between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will: “The Holy Spirit… graciously causes the elect sinner to cooperate, to believe, to repent, to come freely and willingly to Christ.”
  • Perseverance of the saints – Sometimes also called the preservation of the saints. This is simply the doctrine that asserts that God is sufficiently sovereign to keep those whom He has called until the end. Those who appear to have fallen away from the faith were either never really in the faith, or they will continue to be pursued by a loving God until they are either restored from their apostasy or taken home.

It’s important to understand that the Five Points were never intended to be a complete codification of a theological system or of all we should believe. Instead, they were intended to be a direct response by the Dutch Reformed Church to the errors they felt would lead the church in a dangerous direction.

What is “Reformed” Anyway?

As Christians, we should never allow the teachings of one man, however great or however wise, to hold sway over us instead of the Word of God. John Calvin was a man who loved Jesus and who sought with all of his heart to understand God’s Word and to apply it to every area of life. Like all of the reformation fathers, Calvin was ultimately an imperfect man. The things he wrote, did, and said must ultimately be measured by the standard of the Word of God.

This brings me to two cautions: First, those who identify themselves as “Calvinists” or “Reformed” should be very careful not to let the Five Points define their theology. They were never intended to be a summation of all we believe. It is out of this kind of thinking that hyper-Calvinism was born (which among other things, teaches that there is no point to evangelism since everyone who will be saved has already been chosen).

Second, for those who have a bad taste in their mouth when they hear Calvin’s name or things associated with it: Don’t let your perceived objection to one or more of the Five Points be the thing that you judge Calvin himself on. And please, don’t let your bad experience with a handful of hyper-Calvinists be the thing that you judge by. Do as you would be done by and judge the man based on his own words and how they line up with Scripture.

Something we need to remember when we say that we have “Reformed” theology is that the spirit of the Reformation was one that followed not the sayings or teachings of men, but the words of Scripture itself. Specifically, I’d like to draw your attention to two of the Five Solas, or core ideas of the Reformation:

  • The Holy Scriptures alone are our final rule for faith and practice. The Bible is the only inspired and authoritative Word of God, and has authority that goes above and beyond the teachings or traditions of men – including pastors and popes and Reformation fathers.
  • Glory goes to God alone – We don’t pray to angels, Mary, or saints. And we don’t worship relics or things that man has pronounced as holy. Doing so accords to imperfect vessels the glory due only to Jesus Christ. I think we can also apply this to hanging our hat on the theology or teachings of great men (or the teachings of their followers) instead of letting Scripture be our guide.

This is why I don’t hesitate to tell people I am theologically “reformed.”  It doesn’t mean I agree with everyone else who calls themselves Reformed (the Reformation Fathers disagreed on a wide variety of topics, including the beliefs we classify generally as “reformed” theology). But it does mean that I acknowledge the authority of the Holy Scriptures over the teachings and traditions of men, be they Calvinist, Arminianist, or Baptist.

Soli Deo Gloria.