Have you ever hear the phrase, ‘he’s a Calvinist’. Or, maybe, somewhat the opposite, ‘I’m no 5-point Calvinist’. But what does that mean?
What it is, it seems, is maybe the longest-running controversy in Christian Theology – all surrounding the tenants of salvation. You can read the historical background of this controversy in my article here, but suffice it to say, this is not new. Simply put, the bone of contention is whether salvation is an exclusive sovereign work of God, or whether man’s free will initiates salvation, with God ratifying that choice.
John Calvin, a French theologian who lived in the early 1500s, had his theology of salvation solidified at the Synod of Dort (1618-1619), in the Belgic Confession and explained in the acronym TULIP in which he essentially taught election and predestination.
Jacob Arminius a Dutch theologian who lived in the late 1500s disagreed with the teachings of Calvin. He taught that Christ died for all, not just the elect, that individuals can resist God’s grace and could even lose their salvation.
I believe it is important that believers not let history and affiliation divide us. Like Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 1:10-17 – we are not of Appolos or of Cephas or of Calvin, for that matter, but we “are to proclaim the gospel“. We are also as 2 Timothy 2:15 advises, “study to show ourselves approved“. This is one of the more important topics to understand and to have a solid position.
Now, let’s look at TULIP and see what it means.
T – Total Depravity
It is pretty clear, as stated in Ephesians 2:1 that the natural man is “dead in their trespasses“.
The question, however, is what can a dead man do to be saved? It would seem that only an outside source could cause that to happen. This outside source, as taught biblically, is the sovereignty of God?
Jesus answers this question when speaking to Nicodemus and states in John 3:8 “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
U – Unconditional Election
This is really two points: God chooses some for salvation, and that choice is not based on anything we do as a precondition.
We can all generally agree that there is nothing we can do to earn or merit salvation – Ephesians 2:8-9 is clear “and not of yourself”.
But the God choosing part seems harder to swallow – it is, however, scattered all over the Bible. Acts 13:48 for example states “all who were appointed for eternal life, believed“.
L – Limited Atonement
This, also, is really two points: Christ’s payment was limited to those whom He elected, and His death on the cross was the actual payment or atonement for our sins.
Let’s address the second and easier truth first. Hebrews 7:27 states “He sacrificed for their sins once for all“. Christ died on the cross at Calvary as a substitution and propitiation or payment, for our sins – once for all. That’s settled!
But, did Christ die only for His elect, or did He die for all of mankind?
In a sense, believing that Christ died for everyone would not water down salvation. Certainly, God has the capacity to pay for the sins of all of mankind.
One could conclude that John 10:11 whereas “He laid down His life for His sheep” would prove that he died only for the elect. But God certainly has the ability to die for everyone.
And, whether you believed in election or not, He certainly through his powers of omniscience knew who in future history would be saved and who would not be saved.
To conclude, it wouldn’t really make any difference except one would have to wonder why God would waste His precious blood on those He either didn’t elect or through omniscience knew would deny Him anyway.
But that’s the point. If you don’t believe in election, you almost have to believe that Christ died for all because, in a sense, if one believed that salvation is an issue of free will, only time will tell who will be saved.
You still have the issue of God’s omniscience though…
It should be noted, that many believe in four of the five points of Calvinism and this particular point is usually the issue of disagreement. The verse used to justify this is John 2:2 which states “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” Again, you can argue this any way you would like, from my point of view, either position does not impugn the truths of salvation through election.
I – Irresistible Grace
The bible nicely wraps up this point in John 6:37, and this simple verse proves three salvation truths – God elects, those elected will accept salvation, and once saved always saved – “all the father gives me will come to me…and I will lose none“.
Here is where you will often hear the “robot” objection. That is, if we don’t have a choice, in other words, we are irresistibly drawn to salvation and it is not of our own free will, are we not just robots?
God states to the Apostles in John 15:16 “you did not choose me, but I chose you…”. To carry the robot objection out logically, we would have to conclude that the twelve apostles were actually the 12 robots? Additionally, where God chose Israel, now we have a robot nation, and Moses, Mary, Abraham, etcetera, all were chosen, and as a result – are all robots? The robot’s argument quickly falls apart.
There is a point, obviously, where an individual’s assent comes into play for salvation, but it is not what activates a spiritually dead in trespasses individual to accept salvation. The initial activation is all the sovereignty of God – that is, His election.
Additionally, it should be understood that the Bible specifically states that salvation is not through man’s free will. John 1:13 states that we are “children of God born…not of human decision…but of God”. Romans 9:16 similarly concludes that salvation “does not depend on human desire but on God’s mercy”.
P – Preservation of the Saints
Once saved, always saved. This point was covered simply in John 6:37 “I will lose none“.
To elaborate, one other verse that nicely illustrates the entire salvation concept, from election to glorification, is Romans 8:30 “And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”
Election is presented all over the Bible and yet it continues to be a difficult tenant for so many believers. This is regrettable, as it clearly taught, and is in fact, is the sovereign choice of God the Father.
It is important to study and accept God’s word, even the difficult passages. Equally, it is incumbent upon us to not reject the truth simply because we don’t fully understand it. As Isaiah 55:8-9 says, “God’s ways are above our ways…”.
Finally, and critically, we “are to proclaim the gospel” to everyone, for we have no idea who is elected, until after they are truly saved.