A couple of months ago during the Coronavirus pandemic I had a conversation with the Pastor of my church. Among other things, we spoke of salvation and of the so – called “5 Points of Calvinism”. Like almost every other Calvinist I have ever read or heard speak on the subject, I have issues with the “5 Points” and their English acronym “TULIP”.
For starters, “Calvinism” was a historical pejorative used initially by Lutherans, and then later by Arminians, against the established Reformed view of theology. It has nothing substantially to do with the man John Calvin at all, who would not understand, or appreciate, the term. Moreover, “Calvinism” in the original sense, was a whole system of theology: from epistemology to eschatology. Calvinism never had “5 Points”, but simply five answers to the five objections of Arminianism as put forth in the Canons of Dordt.
This inaccuracy notwithstanding, the “5 Points of Calvinism” have shifted from the precise and confessional document of the Canons of Dordt to a 20th Century English slogan under the acronym TULIP. So successful has this been that when you talk about the “5 Points of Calvinism”, people will often think of TULIP, rather than the Canons of Dordt. The problem is that TULIP as an acronym is problematic. Whilst it may be serviceable for what it is, the words used to fit difficult theology into a pronounceable English acronym often do more harm than good. TULIP stands for:
Perseverance of the saints
Many people have an aversion to Calvinism because of some of the misleading terminology expressed in the five points. The caricature to which Calvinism is often subject is usually founded the language used in TULIP. For example, “irresistible grace” seems to give an impression that God drags people, kicking and screaming, against their will. Similarly, “limited atonement” is interpreted to mean that some people who are seeking salvation in Christ are refused it.
In our conversation, my Pastor challenged me to come up with a better summary that better emphasised the centrality of God’s grace in salvation. After all, an alternative (and much superior) nickname for the 5 points of Calvinism is the “Doctrines of Grace”, due to how God’s grace is the true foundation of what they teach. This is my attempt to explain the 5 Points of Grace.
The first of the five points of grace confronts the reality of our sinful human nature. We are not sinners because we sin. Rather, we sin because we are sinners. Our corrupt nature, inherited from Adam (Romans 5:12) is the cause, and not the result, of the sins we commit. The Bible makes it clear that we are born in this condition when it calls us “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3), and that the “intention of man’s heart is evil from His youth” (Genesis 8:21). This condition extends to the heart of every human, as the Psalmist says
“They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
not even one.” (Psalm 14:3)
Yet not only do we have a sinful nature that affects us and keeps us from perfection, the Biblical reality is that it has corrupted us to the very heart. That is not to say that we are as bad or as evil as we could possibly be. God extends to us common grace by way of laws that restrict the evil in men’s hearts, as well as moral consciences. God, by His mercy and grace, restrains all of us – believer or no. He could leave us to our depraved hearts and desires that the Bible says are “deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9), since we are slaves to our sinful nature (Romans 6:20), but out of His grace upholds us even in our sin.
The effect this has on us as people is that we reject God. We “loved the darkness rather than the light because [our] works were evil” (John 3:19) and are, in our nature, hostile to God. As Paul explains succinctly
“For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Romans 8:7 – 8)
Since we, due to our sinful humanity cannot please God, there is no way for us to come to Him of our own accord. We are, therefore, dependent upon God’s grace for salvation. Not only do we need God to help us, we need God to save us. We are dependent upon His grace to act first to reconcile us to Himself. Without His grace, we remain dead. With His grace, we are regenerated; born again. Only then, as people with new hearts and desires, may we come to the Father. Jesus was clear on this point when He said
“No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:44)
When God regenerates us, transforming our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26), we have the spiritual ability to put our faith in Christ. He has no obligation to give us new life. God is free to leave us in our sin. It is only through the free grace of God that He choses to change our hearts our corrupt nature begins its restoration.
A consequence of our corrupt nature is that we are, by birth, children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3). That is, since our very natures are slaves to sin, God’s judgement rests upon all of us. Yet, God does not leave everyone in that state of condemnation. Out of His free grace, He adopts a people in His family as co – heirs of Christ (Romans 8:17).
It is a human temptation, as old as the church itself, to believe that we have made ourselves worthy of God’s adoption. Whether that means that we have to be a particular type of person, or have attained some level of obedience to God’s law, it amounts to the same central idea. It is our natural tendency to think that we have to earn God’s adopting love. It is the very reasoning that Paul often combats in his epistles, and no clearer does he rebut it than in Ephesians
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:4 – 9)
God uses the image of adoption for a reason. Adopted children do not earn the acceptance of their adopting parents. There are no works they must be able to perform beforehand. The adoption is based only on the free gracious provision of the adopting parents.
Our adoption as children of God is not based upon anything that we do, or anything that we are. The is no condition we must first meet. He has no obligation to adopt us as His children. We have done nothing to deserve the adoption as a co – heir with Christ; in fact, our thoughts and actions have left us in greater condemnation. Yet by God’s free grace, He sets His love upon us, in eternity past, to be united to Him by the sacrifice of Christ.
We love Him because He first loved us (1 John 4:10), as underserving and wretched as we are, and has chosen out of the overflowing of His grace to look upon us as holy, forgiven sons and daughters.
The incarnate Son of God has many names given to Him in Scripture. From Old Testament titles such as “Prince of Peace” and “Son of Man” to other titles in the New Testament, such as “Christ” and “Lord”. However, the most common name He is given is the name “Jesus”. As we are told in the Bible, the name Jesus means “God saves” and He was named Jesus because “He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
There is no doubt from that Gospels (not to mention the prophecies of the Old Testament) that this was Jesus’s main purpose is His incarnation on Earth 2000 years ago. He came to save His people from their sins. This tells us two things about God’s grace for the salvation of His people.
First, is that He came to save a specific people. “He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21, emphasis mine). Jesus has a people He can call His own. Nobody is saved accidentally or randomly. No Christian is adopted into God’s covenant family mistakenly. God’s grace in seeking to save the lost (Luke 19:10) was, and is, purposeful. His plan of salvation is for a particular purpose, for a particular people. Out of His mere grace, we, as a Church, have the right to call Christ our own, just as He calls us His own.
The New Testament frequently references the Church as Christ’s bride. The marriage relationship was made and designed to point to the reality of Christ and His Church. It is an illustration of our relationship with Jesus. So, just as all married people have one wife, or husband, to whom they are married, so too Christ has one people, the Church. Just as a man or woman knows whom they will marry and has set their love upon them before they consummate the marriage in the wedding ceremony, so too does Christ know His people, the Church, before our Heavenly wedding in glory. There is no guesswork or uncertainty. God, out of nothing but grace, has given us confidence and surety, that we have been chosen as His from before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4) and that Christ has set His gracious love upon us, before we even knew Him (1 John 4:10,19)!
Secondly, God’s grace in saving us will be effective. “He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21, emphasis mine). Not only are we told that God has assured us that we are saved as a specific people for Christ, but that our salvation is secured as a certainty. In other words, God has not merely made it possible for us to be saved in Christ’s Church; He has actually and really delivered us! God’s grace is an effectual grace. It has not left the job of our salvation unfinished so that we have to make the finishing touches ourselves by our own efforts (including faith that we exercise). Our justification before God was complete on the cross. Whilst we may not experience it until later in time, Christ has already achieved our salvation!
Let Paul explain more fully from the book of Romans,
“[B]ut God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by His blood, much more shall we be saved by Him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life.” (Romans 5:8-10)
Paul shows us here that God saved us while we were yet sinners. Before we had even exercised faith in Him, our salvation was already secure! The language of reconciliation is in the past tense. ‘We were reconciled by the death of His Son’ (v. 10, emphasis). It is not conditional in us in any sense; God’s grace is effective in truly saving us by the blood of Christ.
The first point in this summary of the 5 points of grace established that grace was necessary for our salvation. We are dependent upon God’s grace in order for us to have our natures changed from one that rejects and hates God, to one that is spiritually able to respond to Him and appropriate the benefits of Christ’s blood. The point to be made here, building on the last two points, is that grace is not only necessary, but it is sufficient. That is, not only do we all need grace, but grace is all we need.
We’ve already seen how the Bible shows that man’s nature is corrupt and cannot please or accept God. We are naturally hostile to God. Any effort ours will only serve to further our separation and hostility. In order to come to God for forgiveness and reconciliation, God must be the one initiate a change in our nature and regenerate our hearts. But not simply is God the initiator of our regeneration, He is the author and finisher. He does it all. There is no further work or act that contributes to our regeneration except the Spirit of God who regenerates us by His grace.
The work of the Spirit in the regeneration of man encompasses a complete renovation. Consider what the Bible says that the Holy Spirit does in us, out of grace:
- A New Birth
“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12 – 13)
“Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:5 – 8)
2. A New Heart
“And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:6)
“‘I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. ‘I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.” (Ezekiel 36:26-27)
3. A New Creation
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
“For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.” (Galatians 6:15)
4. A Resurrection
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:4-5a)
“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our trespasses” (Colossians 2:13)
God’s work in the renewal of our nature is comprehensive. In all the above Scripture quotations, God is identified as the one working our regeneration. The stress is always upon what He does in us; we contribute nothing. All can be summed up by Paul’s pithy summary in Titus,
“He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5)
The exercise of faith in the experience of the believer, therefore, is reactionary of what the Spirit has done already for us. He draws us to the Father (John 6:44), He convinces and convicts us of our sin (John 16:8), He teaches us of Christ by His Word (Romans 10:17), regenerates and renews us, making us able to accept and trust in Christ and His work for us. It is entirely of His all-powerful and sufficient grace!
As Christians, we are involved in a spiritual battle. Though are natures are renewed by the Holy Spirit, that does not mean that we are free from sin in our life. Paul grieves over his continued sin in Romans 7, saying
“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:15 – 19)
Although this is our experience as believers, it is only temporary. God has not only secured our salvation from the penalty of sin (justification), He will one day deliver us from the presence of sin (glorification). God has promised us that as surely as we are justified before Him, so too will we be glorified in Heaven. The spiritual battle in which we are engaged will be successful. We cannot lose. God has secured our salvation and will not allow us to be defeated. The grace that He gives in salvation is victorious over sin, death, and the Devil.
A true believer will never be finally lost. Eternal life is our possession now, even if it is not our reality now (John 6:47). God’s grace not only saves us, but it keeps us. He is not only patient and gracious to us when we were rebellious sinners, but He extends that mercy and grace to us as believers, too. Though we may sin, and sin seriously, God will not cast us away. The Holy Spirit that dwells within us is God’s promise to keep us. In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he says
“And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put His seal on us and given us His Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.” (2 Corinthians 1:21 – 22)
The word translated as ‘guarantee’ in the ESV is also translated ‘deposit’, ‘down – payment’, or sometimes ‘earnest’. The image that Paul is using is that of real estate, and other significant financial transactions. Buying a house, for example, often requires a deposit that acts as a guarantee from those which wish the purchase the house. They pay part of the final price immediately to signify their committal to buy the property later. Moreover, if they pull out on their commitment, their deposit is forfeited. It marks a point of ‘no return’ for the buyers.
Paul uses this image of the Spirit of God. He is our deposit, or guarantee, given to us. The gift of the Spirit is the immediate gift He has given us as a sign that He is committed on our complete salvation from sin in eternity. We have a foretaste of that final glorification, even though it is not yet a full reality. Furthermore, the Spirit as our deposit guarantees that God will keep us. As a deposit, the Spirit is making a promise for our final salvation. If that promise is broken, God forfeits His Holy Spirit. For this to happen, there would be rift in the Trinity; God would cease to be God.
In other words, what God is saying us in giving the Holy Spirit as a seal and guarantee is that for God to abandon you and renege on His promise of salvation, He would cease to be God. That is a sure a promise and guarantee that could exist.
Although, at times our spiritual battle seems to be going poorly and sin is threatening to overwhelm us, God has guaranteed our victory. Nothing can possibly remove us from His hand,
“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38 – 39)
He came to save us, and He will not let us go. He is a good shepherd who will not abandon His sheep. Even as redeemed people, we do not deserve with unending patience and mercy that God shows us in keep us in love. It is only by His all-conquering grace will we win final victory over sin.
Whilst this summary of the 5 points of grace is neither comprehensive, nor perfect, they serve to point to the reality that salvation is the Lord’s. He has won it for us, and we may boast in none of it.
“The doctrines of grace stand or fall together, and together they point to one central truth: salvation is all of grace because it is all of God; and because it is all of God, it is all for His glory”James Montgomery Boice