Salvation isn’t a 99% to 1% split between God’s participation and ours. It is entirely the work of the Lord and all the glory belongs to Him. Today, Barry Cooper explains what is at stake in the so-called "five points of Calvinism."
Do you like acronyms? I love acronyms. Those handy aids to memory that help you remember lists of things you wouldn’t otherwise remember. I can even remember one from when I started to learn the piano at the age of 10: “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge.” I’ve no idea of the significance of that phrase, because I gave up piano before I got to grade 2. But I do know that the first letters of Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge—EGBDF—are very important. I also know that having now said the word fudge three times, I’d quite like to have some fudge.
Here’s another acronym: TULIP. T-U-L-I-P. Someone came up with it around the beginning of the twentieth century as a way of remembering the five distinguishing marks or points of Calvinism.
These five points arose because of a theological controversy in the early seventeenth century. Some were starting to follow the teachings of a Dutch theologian called Jacobus Arminius, and these Arminians set out five places in which they disagreed with Calvinist teaching. So, in an attempt to resolve the confusion, a meeting was convened in 1618 in the Dutch city of Dort—and they called it the Synod of Dort. The result was the so-called five points of Calvinism—an answer to five criticisms offered by the Arminian theologians.
First, there’s total depravity—the T in TULIP.
Arminians argue that although human beings are depraved and corrupt, they have—in themselves—the ability to put their trust in God, given the general divine assistance God gives to everybody. That divine assistance enables, but doesn’t ensure, a person’s acceptance of salvation.
By contrast, Calvinism says although people are not as bad as they could possibly be, nevertheless our depravity affects every part of us to some extent. That’s why it’s called total depravity. This depravity means that a person has no power in themselves to put their trust in God. God must first change their hearts so that they willingly (and necessarily) believe in Christ.
Then there’s the U in TULIP: unconditional election.
Arminius argued that God predestines people to salvation based on foreseeing those who would believe in Him.
Calvin taught that God predestines people to salvation based purely and unconditionally on His own sovereign choice. Nothing that people do and nothing in them makes God choose them.
The L in TULIP stands for limited atonement.
Arminians say that Christ’s death is sufficient for all, and we apply that atonement to ourselves by our act of putting our faith in Christ. It is not effective to save people until they believe, and some of those for whom Christ died never benefit from the atonement because they never believe.
Calvinism says that while Christ’s death is of limitless value, He actually atoned only for His elect people. He died only for specific individuals and only for their specific transgressions, not for everyone without exception. This death is effective for all those whom Christ intended to save by it. Consequently, all those for whom Christ died will certainly believe and inherit eternal life.
I stands for irresistible grace.
The Arminian would say that God’s saving grace is something a person must say yes or no to, and it’s only when a person chooses to accept that grace that God responds by bringing about the renewal of their heart. This saving grace is ultimately resistible—a person whom God wants to save can ultimately reject this saving grace. In other words, God sometimes fails to save some of those He wants to save.
The Calvinist would say that God’s saving grace precedes our yes and is ultimately irresistible. It is God’s saving grace alone that enables and necessarily brings about a person’s faith, and the renewal of a person’s heart, in the first place. And although some of God’s chosen people may for a time resist the call to faith and repentance, God never fails to save those He wants to save.
Finally, the P in TULIP stands for perseverance of the saints.
Arminius taught that although God works to preserve His people, He does not keep some from losing their salvation.
Calvin, by contrast, taught that no one who is truly born of God can ever be lost. As Paul says in Philippians, “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
So, having explained what TULIP stands for, it’s worth asking the question, What’s at stake here? Why did these theologians think it was vital to wrestle with Scripture to establish the way that God works, particularly in regard to salvation?
Because the glory of God is at stake. If the ultimate decisive factor in salvation is not God but us—even if it’s 99 percent God and 1 percent us—then it makes God contingent on His creatures. It elevates us and demeans Him. On the other hand, the doctrines summarized in the five points of Calvinism magnify God’s glory. You and I—if we are believers in Christ—have that belief because God put it there and not because we put it there ourselves. Salvation isn’t a 99 percent/1 percent split. It is 100 percent the work of God.
And actually, I wouldn’t have it any other way. If ultimately it’s down to me, then how can I have any confidence I’ll persevere to the end? If I’m the one who takes Christ’s hand, I can just as easily untake it.
Similarly, as I pray for those I love who don’t know Christ, what good is it for me to ask God to save them if He will not ultimately overcome their resistance to Him—if, in the final analysis, a person’s own whim can thwart the overtures of God Himself?
The five points of TULIP help us to see what Scripture reveals: that even when we’re running hard in the other direction, there is One with the irresistible power to reach us, to save us absolutely and finally from His wrath.