What is Calvinism? Calvinists believe that the most consistent expression of grace is summed up in the so-called “doctrines of grace,” more commonly known as TULIP: total depravity, unconditional election, limited/definite atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. The basic thrust behind the doctrines of grace is this: from the beginning, through the middle, and to the end, the work of saving sinners belongs to God alone, to the praise of his glorious grace. An examination of the five points is now in order.
1. Total Depravity
Humanity is enslaved to sin. Jesus says the natural man “must be born again” (John 3:7) and “whoever does not believe is condemned already (John 3:18). He says, “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44; cf. 6:65) and “everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34).
Man must be born again because he is “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). No one is morally neutral; those who do not believe abide now under the condemnation of God. Man has no ability to come to God apart from the Father’s invincible work of drawing. There is no such thing as a truly “free will,” a will that is separated from the desires of the heart. All men are naturally enslaved to sin, having no freedom or power or desire to turn to God.
All people have become “fools, exchanging the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man” (Romans 1:22-23) and “none [are] righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Romans 3:10-11). Elsewhere, “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7-8). Further, “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4); “the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14).
Idolatry, exchanging God’s glory for another kind of glory, is at the heart of all natural human activity after the Fall and apart from Christ: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). There exists no “seeker-sensitive” people or churches: “No one seeks for God” (Romans 3:11). The natural man has no ability, no free will, to please God or submit to his law. This is partly because Satan has blinded the minds of unbelievers from seeing the glory of Christ, and ultimately because “people love the darkness rather than the light because their works are evil” (John 3:19).
The natural man after the Fall is totally depraved. He is completely unable to turn to God in faith and repentance. The natural man loves sin and hates the holy God (Romans 1:30). Everything this man does is sin since his actions do not proceed from a heart of faith (Romans 14:23) with the aim of glorifying God (1 Corinthians 10:31). Man is utterly powerless to redeem himself. How, then, can this situation be remedied?
2. Unconditional Election
This situation does not deserve to be remedied. It would be completely just and right for God to leave sinners in this helpless state, for we are rebels against the sovereign King. And since the King has decided that the punishment for rebellion is death (Romans 6:23), it is completely within the King’s right to kill every single one of us, showing no mercy or grace whatsoever. Such was the case when God destroyed the whole world by flood in Genesis 6, sparing only Noah and his family.
Nevertheless, out of his sovereign freedom and for the praise of his glorious grace, God has decided to redeem a specific people from the sinful mass of humanity. His choice to elect certain individuals and pass over others is due to nothing more than the good pleasure of his will. Paul says that God “saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Timothy 1:9). God’s choice to elect some sinners to salvation is completely of grace. That is, election is not based upon anything in us, but rather is based solely on God’s grace. That’s Paul’s point in the text. Election cannot be based upon our foreseen faith or any good work we might do since man is totally depraved, unable to believe or do any good work or to please God in any way at all.
Paul argues, “those whom He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son…And those whom He predestined He also called…justified…[and] glorified” (Romans 8:29-30). Elsewhere: “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world…In love He predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:4-5). Finally, “has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?” (Romans 9:21-22).
The Bible is clear: God’s free choice of some to salvation and to leave others under just condemnation stems from his will alone (cf. Romans 9:11). How, then, can we be assured of God’s initial saving work?
3. Definite Atonement
God’s sovereign purpose in election will come to pass because He has given his Son to die on a cross as a propitiation for the sins of his elect people. Jesus’ death does not merely make men savable; it actually saves those for whom it was intended. There was a specific purpose and people in mind when Jesus went to the cross.
Paul says, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will He not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). This is a clear indication that Jesus’ death was not intended for all people, but specifically for those who will receive all things from the gracious hand of the Father. It would be meaningless to say that people in hell who suffer under the eternal wrath of God have been graciously given all things in Christ. We know that this text clearly teaches definite atonement.
The Good Shepherd says, “I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:15) and then goes on to say to a different group: “You do not believe because you are not among my sheep” (John 10:26). Coupled with Paul’s statement that Christ gave himself for the church (Ephesians 5:25), we see Jesus’ death is only intended and effectual for the elect. How, then, is the work of Jesus applied to the elect?
4. Irresistible Grace
Man is totally depraved and cannot apply the work of Christ to himself. Thus, the Holy Spirit is the one who is needed to overcome the rebellion of sinners whenever He sees fit, replacing hearts of stone with hearts of flesh (cf. Ezekiel 36:25-27).
Man must be born again (John 3:7), and the Spirit is the agent of this work (John 3:8). “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all” (John 6:63). So the Spirit takes the work accomplished perfectly by Jesus and grants new life to the elect on the basis of Christ’s work alone. “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3).
Faith comes from the Spirit: “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8); “It has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Philippians 1:29); “Because of [God] you are in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1:30); “We always thank God…since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus” (Colossians 1:3-4).
How, then, can we be assured of our final salvation?
5. Perseverance of the Saints
The triune God will not fail to accomplish his purposes. Those whom He predestined, He called, justified, and glorified (Romans 8:30). The same group of people who are predestined, are also glorified. Jesus says he came “down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that He has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:38-39). Jesus will not fail.
In Jude: “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen” (vv. 24-25).
Calvinists take seriously the Bible’s teaching on human fallenness and the work of God in salvation. We are utterly fallen and unable to turn to God. The triune God, from first to last, is the author of our salvation. Indeed, “Salvation belongs to the LORD” (Jonah 2:9)! Therefore, “let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:31).
Thanks for reading. Have any additional thoughts? Leave a comment below if you feel so inclined.