What do tulips, the love of God, and a centuries-old understanding of salvation have in common? They are all reflected in what has come to be known as the five points of Calvinism.
How are these things interconnected? The word tulip forms an acrostic that summarizes a particular understanding of salvation that has at its center the love of God. Let’s see how this works.
T stands for total depravity, which describes how sin affects human beings. But to understand this, we have to start before sin entered the world. Our triune God from all eternity has existed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, equal in power and glory, enjoying a never-beginning and never-ending relationship of holy love. This holy love motivated God’s free decision to create the universe and to create man and woman in His own image to love Him and each other. However, Adam chose to reject our Creator, and, through Adam’s disobedience, humanity fell into sin (Gen. 3; Rom. 5:12–21). Total depravity says that sin has so twisted us that apart from grace, we love other things more than we love God. Our minds, our bodies, our affections, our spirits—every part of us has been affected by sin, and of our own accord, we cannot escape this predicament. God has not stopped loving His creation, however (John 3:16). And in His love, He restrains sin, keeping us from being as bad as we possibly could be. Thus, even those who do not know Christ can do things that are outwardly good. They can be good neighbors, love their children, and so on. However, outside of grace, none of us does these things with the right motivation to love and glorify God.
U stands for unconditional election, which is part of God’s solution to our total depravity. The fall into sin, of course, did not surprise God. He knows the end from the beginning and has ordained history as part of the outworking of His plan and purposes for all things (Isa. 46:8–11; Eph. 1:11). The Lord would have been just to keep us in our state of sin and estrangement from Him, but He decided to set His special love on His people, choosing to redeem them and restore to them their status as God’s children. Unconditional election is God’s loving choice of specific sinners for salvation without respect to any good in them(Rom. 9:1–29). His saving love for us is not conditioned on our intelligence, our looks, our kindness, our social status, or anything else. He loves His people not because they are less sinful than others. Every descendant of Adam and Eve (except for Christ) is a sinner. Unconditional election says that God chooses to save some people and to pass over others. He has a love for some people that He does not have for others. If you are a Christian, it is because in eternity past, long before you were born, God chose to love you with His saving love. He did not choose you because you were better than others. He did not choose you because He knew you would choose Him if He gave you the chance. He simply chose to love you, and since His love is not conditioned on anything in you, He will never stop loving you.
L stands for limited atonement, which describes God’s intent behind the death of Christ in providing salvation. The question is, Did Christ intend to atone for the sins of all people who have ever lived, or did He intend to atone for the sins of the elect only? Another way of putting it: Did God love people generally, without reference at all to them as individuals, and send Christ to die to provide a possibility of salvation? Or did God love specific individuals, sending His Son to die for them specifically, perfectly atoning for their sin such that the death of Christ actually guarantees the salvation of a particular people?
Limited atonement is necessitated by God’s justice. If sin has been atoned for, it has been judged and God no longer holds it against us. But unbelief is a sin, so if Christ died for all sinners, how could God hold unbelief against anyone? Christ atoned for it, after all. But God sends unbelievers to hell, and if their sin has been atoned for, this is unjust. He is holding sin against them that cannot be held against them because Christ atoned for it.
Limited atonement is also taught explicitly in Scripture. Under the old covenant, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest of Israel offered an atoning sacrifice only for the people of Israel, not for everyone on the planet (Lev. 16). In the new covenant, Jesus tells us that He lays His life down for His sheep and only for His sheep (John 10:1–18). Some people are not His sheep but are goats. Jesus died not for the goats but for the sheep—His people. We should note that some people have objected to limited atonement because of texts such as 1 John 2:2, which says Jesus is the propitiation not for our sins only but “for the sins of the whole world.” Yet, that text is not talking about the intent of the atonement; rather, it refers to the way of salvation more generally. God has provided only one way of salvation—through Christ (John 14:6). If anyone in the world is going to be saved, it is going to be through Him. There is no other way. The point of 1 John 2:2 is that Christ is the only atonement that can save anyone, not that He has atoned for the sins of every individual.
I stands for irresistible grace, which refers to God’s loving power in salvation. Essentially, it says that if God loves you and wants you in His family, He is going to get you. He loves you so much that He will ensure that you come to faith, and He is powerful enough to guarantee your faith. So often in life, we see people we love going down the wrong path and we cannot convince them to turn from it. We are powerless to ensure that they make the right choice. God’s love is powerful enough to ensure that we make the right choice. He can overcome all resistance we might offer and He never fails to persuade the elect to trust in Him. Certainly, we may resist Christ for a time. We might reject the gospel for years before we believe it. That’s why it might be better to speak of finally irresistible grace or of effectual grace. Yet, when all is said and done, God will bring all of His children to faith.
You can probably see how this is required by unconditional election. If God chooses some for salvation and this will cannot be thwarted, then His grace must be finally irresistible. It must be effectual to bring us to faith. But we also find evidence for it in texts such as John 6:37–40, where we are told that everyone given to Christ by the Father for salvation actually comes to Him. Ephesians 2:1–10 also tells us that God makes people who are dead in sin alive. Resurrection requires an effectual power because dead people cannot respond in faith. God must act effectually to give us new hearts before we believe because we cannot cooperate with Him while dead in sin. Other texts that point to God’s finally irresistible grace include Genesis 12:1–3, where God commands Abram to go up out of Ur and the patriarch does not at all hesitate to leave. God decreed it and it happens.
In sum, irresistible grace preserves the truth that God is not just all-loving but He is all-powerful. His love is strong enough to guarantee the salvation of all those He wants to save. His love for His people is omnipotent.
Perseverance of the Saints
P refers to the perseverance of the saints, which teaches God’s permanent saving love for His people. The Lord never stops loving His people with a saving, effectual love; consequently, all those who have truly believed in Him will not finally fall away from faith. True believers in Christ might seem to abandon Him for a time, but if they have truly believed in Him, they will always come back to Him. Those who profess faith but then fall away finally never actually believed in Christ in the first place. They go out from us because they were never truly of us (1 John 2:19).
Again, other theological points such as unconditional election require perseverance. If God chooses to save the elect, the elect must persevere. We also find the teaching explicitly stated in Scripture. Christ says that no one can snatch us out of the Father’s hand (John 10:28). “No one” includes even us—even we cannot snatch ourselves out of His hand. Romans 8:28–30 says that everyone whom God justifies He also glorifies. Since justification comes by faith alone (Rom. 4), if God glorifies all whom He justifies, He glorifies all who come to saving faith. In short, God loves us too much to let us fall out of His grace. He simply will not let us.
As you can see, TULIP, or the five points of Calvinism, summarizes God’s work of salvation, and it highlights the omnipotent love of God. Christians can rest assured that if they believe, it is because of the work of God, and that work cannot fail because His love cannot fail.
This article is part of the What Is TULIP? collection.