Calvinism is one of the most paradoxical schools of theology. At first, it terrifies us and defies our entire concept of the personality of God; but if we get past this, it unveils a world of love, glory and rest, for calvinism is founded upon two key ideas: the absolute sovereignty of God and the complete impotency of man. To help us better understand calvinism, John Piper produced the useful acronym TULIP: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and the Preservation of the saints. In this post, we’ll take a brief look at each of these.
First, total depravity means that all men are completely sinful by nature, and this idea is prevalent in both the Old and New Testament. As early as Genesis 6, we see that “the Lord saw that man’s wickedness was widespread of the earth and that every scheme of his mind thought of was nothing but evil all the time.” And David, in Psalm 51, says “Indeed, I was guilty when I was born; I was sinful when my mother conceived me.” Paul, quoting the Psalms, tells us that “there is no one righteous, not even one…. There is no one who does what is good, not even one.” He also says, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:10, 12, 23). The consequence of this is the complete inability to reconcile ourselves to God: nothing we do is able to pay the penalty which we incur as a result of our sin (cf. Rom. 3:20, Eph. 2:1-3).
Second, unconditional election means that God predestines (or selects beforehand) those on whom He wishes to bestow grace, based solely on His will and not any merit or quality of those chosen. We see this as far back as Genesis 17: the Lord chose Abraham (who had no special merit) to be the father of a people set apart for Himself. Moving forward, Paul spells out the doctrine of election in Ephesians 2:1-10. For a more detail explanation of election, see this post. One consequence of this doctrine is that the Lord chose some, but not all, people to save (cf. Rom. 9:6-29), and this leads to the third point.
Limited atonement menas that Jesus’ work on the cross, i.e. the atonement, is only applied to the elect. This makes sense, right? If we understand election – which says that the Lord has chosen a people for Himself – then Jesus’ work cannot have been applied to everyone. I think Matthew 7:21-23 is an excellent proof of this doctrine; Jesus is telling His disciples that not everyone who claims the name of Jesus “will enter the kingdom of heaven.” The atonement is not some broad sacrifice offered for all men: it is Jesus Christ’s loving work for His church, the elect of God.
Irresistible grace means just that: God’s grace cannot be resisted. You see, when God calls a sinner to repentance, the call is irresistible; sure, it may appear to be a struggle to us here, but the result has already been established from before the beginning of time. This is a logical consequence of the doctrine of election and the sovereignty of God, and the Scriptural proof comes from John 10:1-5, especially verse 4: “The sheep follow him because they recognize his voice.” It is not a question of whether or not the sheep will follow: it is a question of whose voice they follow – and they only follow the voice of the Good Shepherd. We can also look to the calling of the apostles as evidences of irresistible grace, especially the conversion of Paul.
Finally, the preservation of the saints is God’s work of keeping His people (preserving them) for that glorious day of Christ’s return. That is, our salvation is safe, because it is in God’s hands. Again, this is a result of election: if our salvation was not accomplished or gained by us, then it cannot be lost by us. And there are a couple of key passages in Scripture for this doctrine. The first is Philippians 1:6 – “I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” The second is John 10:25-30, , especially verse 29: “My Father, who has given them [the sheep, believers] to Me, is greater than all. No one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” No one, not even ourselves, is able to take us from our Lord.
These, then, are the five major points of calvinism, though of course this is only a brief description of them. And, as I’m sure you’ve seen, each of these doctrines is intricately beautiful and lovely. They inspire rest and trust in the overwhelmingly all-powerful God of creation, a trust in His love and His sovereignty. And that is the beauty of calvinism. It tells us what we are really like: poor, wretched sinners at the hand of an angry God, and we cannot escape. But God, because of the great love with which He loved us, had mercy on us, through no merit or quality of our own. These doctrines exalt and magnify Christ Jesus, the one who loved us and gave Himself for us.