Tiptoeing Through the TULIP: Calvinism in Brief

Calvinism as a theological system, perhaps surprisingly, dates back prior to John Calvin and the Reformers. As with much of Christian thought, the ideas of election, predestination, etc. were first formalized by Augustine. However after Augustine, the Catholic Church drifted away from his teaching, which was then rediscovered during the Reformation.

So, where do we get TULIP from? Not directly from Calvin. There is even some debate as to whether Calvin would be a 5-point Calvinist himself. But the points of the TULIP were developed in response to Joseph Arminus’s teaching (where Arminianism comes from), by the Dutch Reformed Church at the Synod of Dort. From there, the points were reformulated in English to form the famous TULIP. So what exactly do those five petals mean?

T: Total Depravity
Man is totally depraved in his sin. Because of Adam’s sin we have inherited a sinful nature, which puts us at enmity with God. We do not seek God. We want nothing to do with Him. We are, of our own choice, an enemy of God.

The human heart will never choose to trust Christ apart from divine intervention. Calvinists say this is where humans have free will. All humans freely choose to rebel against God. However, there is no free will to choose God. Our depraved, sinful nature will never do that.

Total depravity does not mean that humans behave as sinfully as they possible can. It does mean that every aspect of the human nature is tainted and harmed by sin and the fall: conscience, heart, mind, emotions, spirit and will.

Every human being, apart from Christ, is impacted by sin and the fall in such a way as to cause them to have no desire to seek God. It is only through the working of God (in the areas of unconditional election and irresistible grace) that any human ever comes to salvation.

U: Unconditional Election
There are two strains of Calvinism here. The first strain, which Calvin held to, is called double-predestination. It simply means that God actively ordains (predestines) those who will go to heaven and those who will go to hell. The second strain, which is more popular today, is single-predestination. It states that God actively chooses those who would be saved, but simply allows those who reject Him to do so for eternity. God is active in one and passive in the other. I will deal mainly with single-predestination as it is the most popular. (Both have consistency problems, which most Calvinists will acknowledge. Double has less logical problems, while single has less moral problems.)

In single-predestination, God, seeing all of humanity choosing to rebel against Him,
sovereignly and graciously chose to redeem some individuals from before the foundation of the earth. This decision was not conditioned on anything else, hence “unconditional election.” It was not based on God knowing which persons would choose Him. It was based totally on God’s will and was completely gracious in that there was no merit on the part of the person chosen.

L: Limited Atonement
This is the doctrine of Calvinism that many find too hard to accept. Most people who define themselves as 4-point Calvinist drop this petal. In fact, there is an entire theological system based on Calvinism without limited atonement called Amyraldism

Limited atonement says that Christ died only for the elect. He did not die for the sins of all of the world because the whole world was not elect and would not accept His offer.

Calvinist argue that only if the atonement is limited does that make Christ our Savior. If the atonement is unlimited, Jesus only opens the possibility for us to be saved. He does not actually save us.

I: Irresistible Grace
For those that are elect, God’s grace is eventually irresistible. If God has chosen you for salvation from before the beginning of time, His grace will win out in your life. Although you, like everyone else, is running away from God, God, in His great mercy, sweeps down and rescues you.

God does show common grace to all humanity. Everyone has natural gifts and abilities that have been given to them by God. Everyone is able to see the wonder of God in creation. That type of displayed grace can, and is, resisted. However, saving grace, given to the elect, cannot be completely resisted.

P: Perseverance of the Saints
If limited atonement is the one doctrine that many Calvinists want to drop, perseverance of the saints is the one doctrine that many non-Calvinists want to accept. It is commonly referred to as “once-saved-always-saved.”

If you are elect and chosen of God, you cannot lose your salvation. It is impossible for God to change His mind about His choosing you. Through His grace, you will persevere until the end. Just as with your initial salvation, it will be through no effort of your own.

Now that we have outlined the general doctrine of Calvinism, we will examine some objections raised by opposing viewpoints. Some objections are more serious than others. Some are based on misconceptions, while others cut right to the heart of Calvinist theology.

Calvinism leads to a de-emphasis on evangelism on missions.
If that is the case, someone should have told George Whitefield, Charles Spurgeon and William Carey. All three men had a Calvinistic understanding of election, yet were passionate about reaching the lost. Nothing within Calvinism precludes a Christian from sharing their faith or participating in the Great Commission by taking the Gospel to their neighbor across the street and their neighbor around the world. In fact, many of those today who are most passionate about reaching the nations with the Gospel are Calvinist in their theology.

However, it would be dishonest to ignore the historical issues of hyper-Calvinism. Hyper-Calvinism is a strain within Calvinism that does ignore the mandates of Scripture to evangelize and reach the nations. But, it would be just as dishonest to equate all Calvinists with hyper-Calvinism. They are not the same.

Election is unfair because picks God some and not others.
Calvinists respond that it is “unfair” that any of us get to go to heaven. They would say that God treats everyone with justice, but it would be impossible to maintain that God treats everyone equally as some humans have more opportunities to hear and respond to the Gospel regardless of which theological system of election you hold.

This rationale will be difficult for the critic to understand. It still seems so arbitrary. Why does God choose this person over that person? Why does it seem as if God is choosing more North Americans than Central Asians right now?

Calvinism elevates God’s will, while devaluing God’s character.
The central point in Calvinism is that God’s will trumps all. It lies above human free will. It is key to ascribing to God all the glory due Him. The critic will charge that while God’s will and His glory are important, they cannot be more important than God’s character and Calvinism seems to impugn that.

The Calvinist will respond that nothing is more loving than God graciously choosing individual for salvation who deserve to be eternally punished. The Arminian will agree and then point to those not chosen and ask, “Does God not love them?”

Again, different Calvinist respond different ways. Hard line Calvinist will agree that God does not love the unelect. Just like with Jacob and Esau. “The elect have I loved. The unelect have I hated.” Most Calvinist would not agree with this assessment, but many would have a hard time explaining how God loves someone when He could have chosen them but did not.

Thomas Talbott, a self-described Reformed Universalist (holds to Calvinistic theology, but believes that God has made all humans elect and therefore saved) challenged popular Calvinist pastor John Piper on this issue and made it personal referencing Piper’s sons.

Talbott said that according to Reformed theology, God asks us to do things that He will not do Himself. God tells us to love our enemies yet He hates His. God tells us and by our instincts we know to love our children, yet God may have not elected them. Does that mean that God might not love our children as much as we do? Piper seemed to agree and essentially say that as much as he loves his sons and would do anything to see their salvation, he, being clay, cannot argue with God, being the Potter.  I cannot bring myself to reach that point. I must trust that God loves and desires the salvation of my two boys infinitely more than I do. To think otherwise is, for me, atrocious.

Calvinism eliminates free will.
There is much debate about this point within Calvinism. Some will agree that the doctrine of election is such that it removes free will from the equation. Others will argue that humans have free will, but that it only becomes free once Christ redeems the individual.

Calvinists argue that Arminians, while they affirm election, redefine it in such a way as it loses all its meaning. The same point about free will can be directed toward Calvinism. Most Calvinists want to affirm the presence of human free will, as it is difficult to say that humans are accountable for sins if they have no free will to choose the sin. However, in most Calvinistic understandings, the concept of free will has been so redefined as it does not really mean free will.

This is one of the major logical objections to Calvinism. This is why some Calvinist essentially bite the bullet and assert that human’s have no free will. This leads some to come to the conclusion as R.C. Sproul Jr. does that God ordains all actions including the sinful ones. God desired the fall of humanity so that He could receive more glory by displaying both His grace and His wrath.

Most Calvinists do not want to hold to this position. They seek to somehow assert both God’s sovereignty and human responsibility/free will because both ideas are presented in Scripture and both seem evident from our experience.

Calvinism repeatedly falls back on “mystery” or the “hidden will” of God when confronted with difficulties in their theological system.
Everyone acknowledges that God, being God and not human, has a sense of mystery about Him. He is above our understanding. Everyone also acknowledges that the idea of salvation is a bit mysterious in itself. The Bible is very clear on some things, but not as clear on others. The doctrines of Calvinism raise a good deal of legitimate questions in the minds of critics. Often times instead of dealing with those questions, it can be easy for a Calvinist to simply say, “We can’t understand the mystery of God,” or “Who are you to question God’s will?”

Those can be legitimate points, but it is often circular reasoning. The critic is not questioning the will of God. The critic is questioning whether the Calvinist has rightly discerned the will of God. That is the question being discussed. You can’t prove you are right by asserting you are right.

Also, when one posits that God has a “hidden will,” one must be very careful to not attempt to explain away things that are obvious in Scripture (revealed will), by appealing to a “will” that is by your own admission “hidden.” The Bible seems very clear about the offer of salvation being presented to all or God loving the whole world and sending Christ to die for the whole world. It will be a difficult case to prove how God’s supposed hidden will trumps His seemingly revealed will in these instances.

Calvinism asserts that grace is irresistible for the elect, yet all of the elect still struggle with sin.
Piper also acknowledges the struggle in this area and, as we just discussed, chalks it up to “hidden will.” He argues that the sin in the life of the believer is somehow part of God’s hidden will. That is the only explanation for why a Christian who have been chosen and has been given God’s irresistible grace does not live a perfect Christian life. If God’s grace were acting on Him, it would prevent Him from engaging in that sin … unless there is some hidden reason for God to want that sin in the life of the believer.

This is an area of Calvinism that I find unfathomable. I have no idea how you can hold as part of your theology of the Christian God the idea that God somehow desires sin in my life. The Calvinist retort is that God will use the sin to bring ultimate glory to Himself and that I should be seeking to live as Christ called me to live because I cannot know the hidden will. That’s my point. If I can’t know it, neither can you and you should not appeal to it to explain a logical hole in your theological system.

Calvinism invalidates the well meant offer of salvation.
Throughout the Bible, God and His representatives (prophets, Jesus, apostles, early Church, etc.) present an offer of salvation to someone. Is that offer a real offer if all of the persons to which it is presented will never choose to accept that salvation? When Peter preached on Pentecost and called on everyone to repent and believe in Christ and be saved, was that offer real if only a certain number of his hearers were elect?

Calvinist intentionally frame the question with the world will. Those who are not elect will never choose to come to Christ. A non-Calvinist may question how much actual distinction is there between will and can. That is, should the statement be, “That person will never come to Christ because they are not elect,” or should it rather be “That person can never come to Christ because they are not elect.”

Regardless of how much of a distinction there is, the objection still remains. The seeming offer of salvation to everyone who hears seems to be a false offer that is not available to all who hear. This is where the normal Calvinist would basically operate against the logic of his theological system. Despite knowing that many in their audience are likely not elect, they preach the Gospel as available to all and trust God with calling His elect.

However, this is also the point where hyper-Calvinist push the system to its logical end. They would argue that it is no use preaching salvation available to all from the pulpit, while whispering under your breathe “but only if you are elect.” Both Arminians and hyper-Calvinists agree on this one point, the Calvinist evangelists is living and preaching in a manner inconsistent with his theological system.

My goal was to be fair for all sides of the discussion, acknowledging that I have questions and objections of my own. Hopefully I have done that. If you feel that I did not accurate portray the Calvinist position, let me know in the comment section. If you have an objection that was not touched on, feel free to leave that as well.

One thing that must be kept in mind when discussing Calvinism today and the other viewpoints later is that regardless of our disagreements we are still on the same side. There is good within Calvinism. Christendom would be poorer if Reformed theology did not exist. Even if there are areas of contention on those topics, important as they may be, I have no problem worship and serving with my Calvinist brothers and sisters in Christ.

Comments are closed.

About Author

Aaron Earls

Christian. Husband. Daddy. Writer. Online editor for Facts & Trends Magazine. Fan of quick wits, magical wardrobes, brave hobbits, time traveling police boxes & Blue Devils.