The doctrines summarized by the acronym “TULIP” have become to many the hallmark doctrines of the Reformed faith, even called the “Five Points of Calvinism” by some. In reality, this acronym is rarely heard in Reformed churches or found in Reformed literature. To the Reformed, Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints are not the core of Christianity, nor even the core soteriology of Christianity, but rather five doctrinal clarifications produced by the Synod of Dordt in response to a group of Dutch ministers questioning important suppositions of the Heidelberg Catechism. While they are indeed very important truths, they do not eclipse the total system of doctrine as received in the Reformed Confessions.
But, as pervasive as this caricature of the Reformed Faith is, even more troubling is that these doctrines themselves are often presented as but poor caricatures of the actual Canons produced at Dordt—even by many who claim to profess them. I have thought it helpful here to write a few quick reminders of what TULIP is not, historically speaking.
Total Depravity does not mean that believers cannot do righteous deeds, cannot please God, cannot grow in righteousness, that all sins are equal, or that some saints are not more righteous than others. Isaiah 64:6, “all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags,” is not a statement about a Christian’s good works, but is rather about wicked unbelievers hypocritically offering sacrifices to God. The truth is, when “we keep His commandments,” we are doing “those things that are pleasing in His sight” (1 Jn. 3:22) and the offering up of our bodies is so far from “filthy,” that it is called “holy” and “acceptable to God” (Rom. 12:1). Not only are we believers not on a flat line of perpetual filthy offerings to God throughout our lives, we are to give thanks always to God that by His grace we continue to grow in faith and love (2 Thess. 1:3).
And last, there are indeed greater and lesser sins, more and less wicked people, and degrees of righteousness. Christ Himself speaks of righteous laws that must be kept, but also distinguishes “weightier matters of the Law” (Matt. 23:23). The entire book of Proverbs distinguishes the fool from the righteous based upon their deeds, and we see throughout the New Testament varying rewards promised based upon works done in righteousness (e.g., Matt. 25:14-30; 1 Cor. 3:8-13; Rev. 22:12). On the opposite side, there are also clearly degrees of wickedness. Christ, e.g., speaks of greater punishment for those who have been given much (Lk. 12:48), and the Apostle Paul describes a downward spiral of sin, God in His wrath giving sinful rebels over to ever increasing wickedness as an expression of His wrath (Rom. 1:18-32).
My sense is that flattening the moral quality of every deed of man, treating them all as equally filthy, is at bottom a sinister way for our flesh to convince us to ignore the scriptures’ admonitions to live righteously; I mean, all our righteous deeds are as filthy rags anyhow, right? God forbid. Rather,
we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Eph. 2:10)
For this reason we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you…that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. (Col. 1:9-10)
Unconditional Election does not mean that God does not use means; in fact, He rather exclusively does. There is no Biblical evidence that it is even conceivable to have a class of elect who never hear the message of the Gospel, who do not choose to believe it, and who have no participation in the means of grace—including the Sacraments.
[T]he same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. For “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? […] faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. (Rom. 10:12-15, 16)
Just think, in order to bring salvation to a lone traveler from Ethiopia, God miraculously translated a preacher to him, to both explicate the Gospel from the Scripture and perform the introductory Sacrament of Baptism (Acts 8:26-40)! God did not just regenerate him alone in his chariot on the way to Ethiopia, leaving him outside the Church and unsanctified by the Sacrament, simply because he was elect without conditions.
It must also be made clear, in light of some popular unbiblical covenant theologies, that Unconditional Election does not equate to, mean, nor imply unconditional New Covenant membership. Though it is only upon Christ’s merits that we stand in the New (or even Old) Covenant, the Covenant itself is by no means unconditional. One must believe, repent, be baptized, and continue in these all the days of our lives, never turning back or abandoning the Faith. Again, these are consequent conditions—Christ’s merits alone justifying—but they are nevertheless true conditions. Just observe the following:
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?”
Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:37-39)
For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries. Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. And again, “The Lord will judge His people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Heb. 10:26-31)
And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight—if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard[…]. (Col. 1:21-23)
Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted. And do not become idolaters as were some of them. As it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.” Nor let us commit sexual immorality, as some of them did, and in one day twenty-three thousand fell; nor let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed by serpents; nor complain, as some of them also complained, and were destroyed by the destroyer. Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.
Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. (1 Cor. 10:6-11)
God’s election is entirely according to the mystery of His own will, in no way depending upon the will or works of men, foreknown or otherwise. But salvation is nonetheless always via means in the Scripture, and by means of real, and therefore conditional, covenants. These categories must never be conflated.
Limited Atonement does not mean that a specific quantity of sins for a specific quantity of people were laid on Christ on the cross. As Charles Hodge has written,
[A]s no limit can be placed to the dignity of the Eternal Son of God who offered Himself for our sins, so no limit can be assigned to the meritorious value of his work. It is a gross misrepresentation of the Augustinian doctrine to say that it teaches that Christ suffered so much for so many; that He would have suffered more had more been included in the purpose of salvation. This is not the doctrine of any Church on earth, and never has been. (Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology: The Complete Three Volumes [Kindle Locations 21792-21806]. GLH Publishing.)
Christ bore the Substance of Man on the Cross, not a specific quantity of subsistences, a specific quantity of men, or a specific quantity of sins. This is not the mechanism of the Atonement. On the contrary, Jesus
was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone. […]Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil. (Heb. 2:9, 14)
Christ died for the sins of all men by bearing the human nature of all men and “tasting death for every man (παντὸς, “the whole”); as such
He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world. (1 Jn. 2:2)
The Heidelberg Catechism states this unequivocally: “He bore, in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race,” (HC 37); Calvin is also explicit: “Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world, and is offered through God’s benignity indiscriminately to all” (Commentary on Romans 5:18). The flesh of mankind was punished in Christ, who bore the curse in His own body, and is in Himself the Resurrection and the Life. Therefore, the central Biblical doctrine of salvation is union with Christ, “which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). As we confess from the Catechism:
Are all men, then, saved by Christ as they have perished in Adam?
No, only those who by true faith are engrafted into Him and receive all His benefits. (HC Q&A 20)
Access to forgiveness of sins and imputed righteousness is only through intimate, vital, flesh and blood, soul and spirit, union with Christ; and all who are united to Him by faith receive the same “paid in full” verdict. There is no salvific benefit accrued to any human being outside of the person of Christ—there is no action at a distance in the Atonement.
Now, before this historic doctrine is accused of Amyraldianism or Hypothetical Universalism, we must be clear: though the extent of the Christ’s Atonement was not limited, the intent of His Atonement was indeed limited. The Reformers understood clearly the Biblical order of decrees. God first elected a people unto salvation and then determined the means of this salvation to be by union with the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and session of the Son of God. When Christ laid down His life as the lamb taking away the sins of the world, it was for His sheep.
(For further study, see “The Extent of the Atonement in Heidelberg Catechism: “…the sin of the whole human race…,” as well as the helpful series, “The All Sufficient Christ”.)
Irresistable Grace does not mean that grace per se cannot be resisted. Stephen upbraids the Jews, “You always resist the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:51); and Paul the Galatians,
You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. (Gal. 5:4)
The fact is, many share in many blessings of the Spirit and benefit from the work of Christ to some measure that are not therefore elect or regenerate. We see this expressed in the well-known warning from the author of the Hebrews:
[I]t is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.” (Heb. 6:4-6)
And, as we read earlier, men may be found insulting, or outraging “the Spirit of Grace” (Heb. 10:30). Calvin’s Commentary on Hebrews 6 is quite instructive on this point:
But here arises a new question, how can it be that he who has once made such a progress should afterwards fall away? For God, it may be said, calls none effectually but the elect, and Paul testifies that they are really his sons who are led by his Spirit, (Romans 8:14) and he teaches us, that it is a sure pledge of adoption when Christ makes us partakers of his Spirit. The elect are also beyond the danger of finally falling away; for the Father who gave them to be preserved by Christ his Son is greater than all, and Christ promises to watch over them all so that none may perish. To all this I answer, That God indeed favors none but the elect alone with the Spirit of regeneration, and that by this they are distinguished from the reprobate; for they are renewed after his image and receive the earnest of the Spirit in hope of the future inheritance, and by the same Spirit the Gospel is sealed in their hearts. But I cannot admit that all this is any reason why he should not grant the reprobate also some taste of his grace, why he should not irradiate their minds with some sparks of his light, why he should not give them some perception of his goodness, and in some sort engrave his word on their hearts. Otherwise, where would be the temporal faith mentioned by Mark 4:17? There is therefore some knowledge even in the reprobate, which afterwards vanishes away, either because it did not strike roots sufficiently deep, or because it withers, being choked up.
Perseverance of the Saints does not mean that if one confesses the Faith he will be saved no matter what follows. We have already reviewed a few of the dozens of passages warning against falling away, and they must be taken seriously. There is a persistent tendency to take “Perseverance of the Saints” to mean that when a person is once found in the correct mental disposition, viz., having a “certain knowledge” and a “hearty trust”, that by mere virtue of this subjective disposition, he is guaranteed eternal security. If this were so, what then would be the meaning of Mark 4:17, as Calvin asks above? Two of the four soils are said to have believed, but then lost their faith. The true meaning of this doctrine is better exemplified in these words of Christ:
And the Lord said, “Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren.” (Luke 22:31-32)
The perseverance of a believer is not due to a subjective state of heart and mind that, once achieved, guarantees future glorification, come what may. The perseverance of a believer is the preserving power and faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is He that will lose none that come to Him, given by His Father, but will assuredly raise them up at the last (Jn. 6:39). It is He that intercedes on our behalf, just as He did for Peter (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25; 1 Jn. 2:1). It is not in ourselves that we find this hope and assurance of future glory, but in daily looking to and relying upon our faithful Covenant Partner to preserve and keep us to the end.
Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, who also will do it. (1 Thess. 5:23-24)
Our faithful Lord will keep His people as faithful Covenant partners. This is the Perseverance of the Saints.
(For more, please see, “A Short on Perseverance & Assurance in the Canons of Dort.”)