A Defense of the Doctrines of Grace from Evangelical History

The doctrines of grace, otherwise known as the five points of Calvinism, are popularly known by the infamous TULIP acronym: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints.  By way of brief definitions: total depravity is the biblical teaching that man, since he is dead in sin, is incapable of doing that which is pleasing to God, including repent or believe; unconditional election is the biblical teaching that God the Father chose to save certain sinners from before the foundation of the world, not according to anything in them but solely according to His purpose and grace; limited atonement is the biblical teaching that the death of Christ actually saves those for whom it was intended, namely, the elect of God the Father; irresistible grace is the biblical teaching that the Holy Spirit’s power to save cannot be ultimately thwarted by sinners, but rather that He is able to overcome their rebellion whenever He pleases so that those sinners willingly turn and believe in Christ; and finally, perseverance of the saints is the biblical teaching that the elect of God, those for whom Christ died, those who the Holy Spirit has converted, will not finally fall away from God’s saving grace, but will persevere to the end in faith and obedience because God Himself will preserve them to the end.  By way of brief summary: the doctrines of grace teach that from the beginning, in the middle, and to the end, our salvation is all of God’s glorious grace.  Indeed, the doctrines of grace really mean nothing more than that “salvation belongs to the LORD” (Jonah 2:9).

I would like to provide a defense of the doctrines of grace under these headings:

  1. History: The doctrines of grace have been embraced, defended, proclaimed, and celebrated by Protestant and evangelical theologians for over five hundred years.
  2. Theology: The doctrines of grace serve as a safeguard to both the nature of God and the nature of grace.
  3. Holy Scripture: The doctrines of grace arise from the text of the Bible when we consider not only individual passages but also the whole scope of God’s Word.

Let us consider each of these headings in turn.

First, allow me to defend the doctrines of grace from the history of Protestantism and evangelicalism.  As Protestants and evangelicals, we all must acknowledge the fact that the teachings of the church, not only now but historically as well, play an important role and have a certain amount of authority in our lives.  The Bible is the final rule for our life and for our faith, but that same Bible tells us that “Christ gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:11-12, emphasis added).  Christ gives teachers to his people to help them understand the Bible and the Christian faith.  And when we consider the fact that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against” Christ’s church, as he tells us in Matthew 16:18, we can conclude not only that the church has always existed in some form since Christ’s ascension, but also that there have always been faithful teachers in the history of the church.

As Protestants and evangelicals, we have a rich history of faithful teachers in our theological tradition, especially when it comes to teaching the doctrines of grace.  The reason that we are called “Protestants” and “evangelicals” is because we, in the line of our theological forebearers, “protest” against the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly with reference to the issues of biblical authority and justification, issues which have direct relevance to the euangelion, the gospel itself.  As “evangelicals” we have a strong history of embracing, defending, proclaiming, and celebrating the good news of God’s free grace given to sinners in Christ.  Such faithful teachers, theologians, and pastors as Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Martin Lloyd-Jones, R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur, and John Piper have spent their lives proclaiming these wonderful, comforting, God-exalting, grace-magnifying truths.  And thousands of faithful men whose names we do not know have done the same throughout the history of the church.

During the 16th Century, for example, Protestants in the British Isles (called Anglicans) and Protestants on the European continent (called the Reformed) produced confessions of faith which celebrated the glory of God’s grace in the salvation of His sinful people.  The Anglican confession, known as the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion and finalized in 1571, is thoroughly Calvinistic: Articles 9 and 10 deal with original sin and man’s inability to do that which is pleasing to God; Article 17 deals with predestination and election.

The Protestant Reformed Christians in the Netherlands adopted the Belgic Confession of Faith, which was finalized in 1561, in the face of intense persecution suffered at the hands of Roman Catholics.   Articles 14 and 15 of the Confession deal with the fall of man into sin, our subsequent moral inability to do what is pleasing to God, and then original sin.  Article 16 deals with God’s eternal purpose in predestination, choosing to save certain sinners from the fallen mass of humanity.  And Article 21 deals with the atonement of Christ, how it is an actual atonement for the people of God, washing away our sins and making us perfect forever.

Furthermore, a national synod of the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands, which included delegates of churches from eight other countries, met at Dordrecht in 1618 through 1619.  This synod, known as the Synod of Dordt, convened in order to answer theological challenges presented by a heretical group known as the Remonstrants.  The Remonstrants challenged the God-centered understanding of salvation held by the Reformed churches and instead argued for a man-centered approach: sinners contribute to their salvation in the sense that they supply God with the conditions He needs in order to save them.  Salvation, according to the Remonstrants, is a cooperative process between sinners and God.  In effect, they believed that salvation belongs not only to the Lord, but also to fallen sinners in a significant way.  By the grace of God, the delegates at the Synod of Dordt thoroughly rejected the teaching of the Remonstrance movement, along with its man-centered emphasis regarding salvation, producing as their answer the Canons of Dordt.  The Canons set forth the heart and soul of the biblical teaching concerning our salvation: from beginning to end, salvation is all of grace.

Perhaps the most famous of all the Protestant confessions is the Westminster Confession of Faith.  Finalized in 1647, the Westminster Confession is the clearest and most comprehensive statement of what Protestants and evangelicals believe.  Chapter 3 deals with God’s eternal decree of all that would take place in creation, including the salvation of certain sinners for the glory of God’s holy name.  Chapter 5 deals with God’s absolute providence over all creation, by which He directs everything in accordance with His eternal decree.  Chapters 6 and 9 deal with the fall of man into sin and our moral inability to accomplish that which is pleasing to God.  Chapter 10 deals with effectual calling, or irresistible grace, the biblical teaching that God’s saving grace is capable of overcoming our rebellious hearts whenever God sees fit.  Chapter 17 deals with God’s ability to preserve His people and ensure that we persevere in faith and obedience to the very end, never finally falling away from His saving grace.

Congregationalists and Baptists have also produced historic confessions of faith which affirm the doctrines of grace.  The Savoy Declaration, finalized in 1658, and the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, finalized in 1689, for example, serve as prime examples of this.  These confessions are based largely upon the earlier Westminster Confession, and this fact further demonstrates just how established the doctrines of grace are in the history of Protestant and evangelical theology.

What all of this means is that the doctrines of grace have been confessed historically by Protestants of all kinds: Anglicans, the Reformed, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists.  But this is not merely a historical reality only; rather, it is also a contemporary one.  In present-day terms, there exists a healthy collection of Anglican, Reformed, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches who believe and confess the doctrines of grace.  There are also numerous non-denominational churches, like those who are a part of the Acts 29 church planting network, who do the same.  There are many evangelical leaders and scholars who embrace the doctrines of grace, including Albert Mohler, Mark Noll, and J.I. Packer.  There are numerous Christian musicians and filmmakers who celebrate the doctrines of grace: Shai Linne, Citizens, Wolves at the Gate, and Les Lanphere, to name just a few.  In fact, Les Lanphere’s movie, called Calvinist, documents the resurgence and growth of the New Calvinism movement in the United States over the last decade.  Needless to say, the doctrines of grace, far from being an obscure or outdated set of teachings, are as popular and prominent as ever.

There is a long history in the Protestant and evangelical tradition of embracing, defending, proclaiming, and celebrating the doctrines of grace.  In fact, a robust argument could be made that the doctrines of grace are definitional of Protestantism and evangelicalism.  That is to say, what it means to be Protestant, what it means to be evangelical, is that we embrace, defend, proclaim, and celebrate God’s freedom and power to give grace to us in Christ, cleansing us of our sins and destroying our idols so that we glorify and enjoy Him forever.  After all, the Protestant Reformation occurred so that we might safeguard the purity of the gospel of God’s free, sovereign grace given to His people in Christ.  While this heading has been admittedly brief, I expect that it is nevertheless clear and compelling: the doctrines of grace have an indispensable place, both historically and now, in Protestant and evangelical theology.

Thanks for reading.  Have a question or comment?  Leave it below.

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