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What is a Reformed Church? (6) The Doctrines of Grace (Introduction to TULIP)

by Pastor Lars Larson, PhD line

(A sermon delivered on November 9, 2008, at the First Baptist Church, Leominster, Massachusetts, USA)


          For some weeks now we have been addressing what it means for us to be a reformed church.  We have shown first that the term “reformed” speaks to the general principles and beliefs that were held by the Protestant Reformers of the 16th and 17th century.  They are five in number, which we have addressed, including Sola scriptura, Sola fide, Sola gratia, Solus Christus, and Soli Deo Gloria.  These five expressions are translated as the following: by Scripture alone, by faith alone, by grace alone, Christ alone, and glory to God alone.  These are the main tenants and principles that were espoused through the Protestant Reformation. 
          But second, the word “reformed” also speaks to a subgroup of the Protestant reformation.  Although there were many various Protestant movements, we identify ourselves principally with the reformed movement that took place in Switzerland under the leadership of John Calvin.  Another name for reformed Christianity is Calvinism.  When we say that we are reformed, we are affirming five doctrines which the Bible teaches regarding God bringing salvation to us.  They are frequently referred to as the doctrines of grace.  These are five in number: (1) the total depravity of man, (2) God’s unconditional election of the lost to be saved, (3) the definite atonement of Jesus’ death for His people, (4) the irresistible grace of God in His calling to salvation, and (5) the final perseverance of the true believers unto their full and final salvation.  It is common to use the acrostic TULIP as an aid to teach and recall these biblical doctrines. "T" stands for total depravity, "U" for unconditional election, "L" for limited atonement, although most prefer to use the term definite atonement, or particular redemption, "I" represents irresistable grace, although many prefer effectual call, and "P" stands for the perseverance of the saints.  And so, in summary, we are Reformed in that we affirm our understanding of the Christian faith with the five solas as well as the five doctrines of grace
            We will now begin to consider the Bible's teaching of the doctrines of grace. Let us begin by reading five verses from John 10, each which supports the doctrines of grace that we will be explaining. 

1. Total depravity -- John 10:26, “But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep.”
2. Unconditional election -- John 10:29, “My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all.”
3. Limited atonement -- John 10:15, “I lay down My life for the sheep.”
4. Irresistible grace -- John 10:27, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.”
5. Perseverance of the saints --  John 10:28, “And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.”

          The doctrines of grace are a summary of basic beliefs which are believed to be taught in the Scriptures which concern matters of salvation.  These teachings have been believed not by all, but by most evangelical Christians since the Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries.  These were the beliefs and teachings of great preachers and missionaries of the past such as John Owen, John Newton, John Bunyan, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, William Carey, Adoniram Judson, Andrew Fuller, Charles Spurgeon, George Mueller, J. C. Ryle, Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield, Augustus Strong, and countless others.  And more recently, these doctrines have been espoused by notables such as Arthur W. Pink, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, J. I. Packer, James Montgomery Boice, R. C. Sproul, John Macarthur, and Alistair Begg
           But it would be a mistake to say that these doctrines have only been believed since the Protestants first began to proclaim the Word of God in the 16th century.  For although these doctrines found expression by the Reformers, these doctrines are taught and illustrated throughout the story of the Bible.  These doctrines were taught and proclaimed by Moses, Samuel, David, and the prophets.  These doctrines were taught by our Lord Jesus and the apostles, and by the apostle Paul.
           But these teachings were recovered by the early Protestants.  As such, the doctrines of grace are reflected in most of the creeds and confessions of faith of the mainline denominations, including the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, the Reformed churches, the Presbyterian Churches of Great Britain and the States.  The majority of the historic Baptist confessions of faith were strongly Calvinistic, including the 1st and 2nd London Confessions, the Philadelphia Confession, and the New Hampshire Confessions of faith. And yet in spite of the wide and universal acknowledgement of the doctrines of grace, the doctrines of grace are a controversial issue.  Often tempers flair when these matters are discussed.  We will explain why this is so as we proceed in our discussion.  I make no apology that we hold to the doctrines of grace--all 5 points.  And although I have never taught them or preached them as a series of messages until this present series, ten years after I arrived to serve our Lord in this place, nevertheless, everything I have taught and do teach and preach is consistent with these doctrines.  The discerning listener would recognize this to be the case.
           I have not always held to all five of these points.  I claimed to have always believed the first and the last points, but even my belief of them was based on an inadequate and errant understanding of what these points teach.  There is much ignorance and confusion regarding these teachings, and there is much misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the implications.  Actually, when I was a younger man, I taught against the doctrines of grace with vehemence.  I say this not with a patronizing spirit as if to say “Now I know better and I will patiently tolerate those who have not arisen to my level of understanding”; rather, I only express that I once taught against these things in order to express the fact that I understand and sympathize with questions, challenges, and objections that are posed to me regarding these matters.  Moreover, I can even understand somewhat, the sense of disgust that wells up in some people when these things are brought up.  Why bring them up?  I believe . . .

            (1)  they accurately describe the teaching of Scripture;
            (2)  their presentation dispels error;
            (3)  an understanding of these things is essential in order to judge the matters rightly;
            (4)  there is a general interest in these things;
            (5)  their presentation humbles the pride of man and exalts the glory of God.

            I.  Historical Background

            A.  Augustine

           Although these five points of Calvinism were not articulated until the early 17th century, one should not think that this was the first time the issues had ever been dealt with this side of the New Testament writings.  Way back in the 5th century issues of election, predestination, sin, grace, faith, free will, were debated.  The two major figures were Augustine and Pelagius.  We spoke of these two men recently.  The churches argued and debated over the nature of Adam’s original sin and whether or not salvation was by grace given due to human merit or solely due to the will of God.  Augustine won the day and his doctrine of predestination held through Roman Catholicism to the Reformation.  But our discussion really begins at the time of the Reformation in the 16th century.

            B.  John Calvin and the Reformation

           The Protestant Reformation was a child of the spirit of humanism and the Renaissance.  The Renaissance was a European cultural movement that spanned the 14th through the 17th centuries.  It was a movement that brought Europe out of the Dark Ages into the Modern age.  It found expression in art, architecture, and educational reform.  The Renaissance brought a new spirit of academic freedom which led to a questioning of dogmatic authority.  There was a great resurgence of interest in learning the classics.  There was a desire to rediscover the civilization of the Greeks and the Romans who were perceived to live in a golden age for civilization.  Studies of the original languages became a dominant interest--Greek, Hebrew, and of course, Latin.  The earliest Reformers, before they were Reformers, had this spirit of inquiry and early on began their studies with these things in mind.  The greatest scholar of the enlightenment was conceded to be Erasmus of Rotterdam.  Of John Calvin, it was said that:

he came strongly under the influence of the humanism that was then affecting the outlook of many teachers in the universities of France and of certain leaders of the Church.  He began to seek enlightened and up-to-date teaching, . . . (Wallace, Calvin,: Geneva and the Reformation, p. 5)

          It was the learning of the ancient languages which set the course for what was to happen.  The early Reformers, including Calvin, began to study that which was of most interest and availability to them--the Scriptures.  And it was through their apprehension of the teaching of Scripture that the Reformation was born.  Calvin said this of the appeal and power of the Holy Scriptures:

For the truth is vindicated in opposition to every doubt, when, unsupported by foreign aid, it has its sole sufficiency in itself.  How peculiarly this property belongs to Scripture appears from this, that no human writings, however skillfully composed, are at all capable of affecting us in a similar way. Read Demosthenes or Cicero, read Plato, Aristotle, or any other of that class: you will, I admit, feel wonderfully allured, pleased, moved, enchanted; but turn from them to the reading of the Sacred Volume, and whether you will or not, it will so affect you, so pierce your heart, so work its way into your very marrow, that, in comparison of the impression so produced, that of orators and philosophers will almost disappear; making it manifest that in the Sacred Volume there is a truth divine, a something which makes it immeasurably superior to all the gifts and graces attainable by man.[1]

           With the acquisition of knowledge of the Scriptures, the early Reformers made efforts to reform the teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church.  The “Church” was terribly corrupt morally and in terrible doctrinal error.  Erasmus sought to bring reform also, but never broke with Rome.  Later he came to renounce the separating Reformers.  But once the Reformers set upon their course, their cause could not be stopped.  The great Reformation principles became set:  the five solas of which we have already spoken.

            Martin Luther first led the Reformation in Germany.  Ulrich Zwingli led reform in Zurich; John Calvin in Geneva.  Calvin was born in 1509.  He experienced a “sudden” conversion in 1533.  It was Calvin who was the great theologian of the Reformation.  He was able to systematize and express in writing the great teachings of Scripture.  His most famous work is his Institutes of the Christian Religion, which he wrote at the age of 26, when he was only 2-3 years after his conversion.  He revised his work in subsequent editions through his life.  By the time he died he had become the dominant voice of the Reformation this side of Luther.  His teachings were the expressions of faith which came to be characterized of the Reformation in general.  He died in 1564.

             But to understand the development of the Doctrines of Grace, one must understand the events that took place due to the influence of another man, Jacob Arminius.

           C.  Jacob Hermann Arminius and the Remonstrants

           Arminius was born in 1560 and died in 1609.  Early on he was a holder to the doctrines of the Reformation.  He pastored a reformed church in Amsterdam for 15 years where his theology began to change.  He was called to be a professor at the University of Leyden where he began to stir up controversy with his teachings when he began to teach publicly his views on predestination.  The result was that his students became divided into two parties.  There were debates and divisions.  One formal disputation was being conducted but stopped short when Arminius died in 1609.       His student followers continued to proclaim Arminius’ views.  These followers of Arminius were called the Remonstrants.  The time came that they formally submitted a challenge to the Dutch government in protest to the official state-church creedal statement.  A Synod was convened at Dort in which the doctrines were considered and rejected by the council in 1618/19.

            D.  The doctrines of Arminianism

           These are the five doctrines that were articulated by the followers of Arminius.[2] 

                        1.  Free Will.  The first point of Arminianism was that man possesses “free will.”  The Reformers acknowledged that man had a will, but agreed with Luther’s thesis in his book, The Bondage of the Will, that it was not free from bondage to Satan.  Arminius believed that the Fall of man was not total, holding that there was enough good left in man for him to will to accept Christ unto Salvation.

                        2.  Conditional Election.  Arminius further taught that election was based upon the foreknowledge of God as to who would believe.  In other words man’s act of faith is the “condition” for his being elected to eternal life; God chose/elected the believer becuase God had foreseen him exercising his “free will” in positive volition towards Christ.

                        3.  Universal Atonement.  Inasmuch as it was their further conviction that God loves everybody, that Christ died for everyone, and that the Father is not willing that any should perish,  Arminius and his followers held that redemption (used casually as a synonym for atonement) was general.  In other words the death of Christ provided grounds for God to save all men.  However, each must exercise his free will to accept Christ.

                        4.  Obstructible Grace.  The Arminians further believed that since God wanted all men to be saved, He sent the Holy Spirit to woo all men to Christ.  However, since man has absolute “free will” he is able to resist God’s will for his life. (The Arminian order being that man exercises his own will first, then he is born again.)  Although the Arminian says he believes that God is omnipotent, he insists that God’s will to save all men can be frustrated by the finite will of man on an individual basis.

                        5.  Falling from Grace.  The fifth point of Arminianism is the logical outcome of the preceding portions of the system.  If man cannot be saved by God unless it is man’s will to be saved, then man cannot continue in salvation unless he continues to will to be saved. In short, a true Christian can lose his salvation.

            E.  The Synod of Dort (1618/19)

           The “Calvinists” wanted to settle this matter and so petitioned the States General of the Netherlands to convene a synod.  This was done and the synod was held at the city of Dort over the course of about 7 months.  Reformed Churches and governments from all over Western Europe were invited to send delegates.  The Dutch churches sent 35 clergymen and “a certain number of elders.”  The States-General was represented by 6 deputies.  In addition some universities sent delegates.  The state-churches of many nations sent representatives, having 27 from Switzerland, England, Scotland, and a number of smaller principalities.  The Remonstrants had 16 representatives to represent and defend the Arminian teachings.
             In the twenty-second session the main business came to the forefront.  The Remonstrants wished to be allowed to debate publicly and challenge openly the positions held by the Reformers.  This was denied them.  They were told to submit their grievances and positions in writing.  There was refusal, challenge, and proposals made.  The Synod offered to respond to questions and challenges posed in writing, but the Remonstrants refused.  Finally, on the 57th session the Remonstrants were asked if they were going to submit to the procedure.  They refused.  The Synod expelled them.  But at this time the Synod felt compelled to answer every issue.  So they continued to convene and considered the doctrines until the 136th session, when they formally made their decision.  They determined the teachings of the Remonstrants were heretical, being contrary to Scripture.  At the same time they issued 5 points which countered the 5 points of Arminius. These are what have come to be known as the 5 points of Calvinism, or the Doctrines of Grace.  From this time onward, evangelicals can be classified as either Calvinistic or Arminian.  Some have tried to argue they are neither, but that is not possible.  One is either for or against these doctrines.  There is no third way.   Some have sought in their ignirance to dismiss Calvinism as only the teaching of a man, in other words, of Calvin. This either reveals ignorance of history or dishonesty respecting history. The five doctrines of grace, or Calvinism, was formulated by the united churches of most of the nations of western Europe, the findings of which were first published 1619, 55 years after Calvin's death. The truth is that Arminianism is the teaching that was formulated by a man, Jacob Arminius, whose teachings were thoroughly examined in the light of the Holy Scriptures, and soundly repudiated and then corrected by the findings of the Synod of Dort.

            II.  Overview of the Five Points

           More specifically, what are these five doctrines of grace?  Usually they are described by the acrostic TULIP, each letter begins the name of each doctrine.

            (1)  The Total depravity of Man--which speaks of man’s sinful condition and need of a Saviour.  J. C. Ryle stated:

There are very few errors and false doctrines of which the beginning may not be traced up to unsound views about the corruption of human nature.  Wrong views of the disease will always bring with them wrong views of the remedy.  Wrong views of the corruption of human nature will always carry with them wrong views of the grand antidote and cure of that corruption.

           This doctrine says that man is beyond self-help due to his sin.  He is more than simply ignorant; he is lost, enslaved to Satan and sin, and will remain so unless Christ sets him free.  It says that man does not have a free will, in the sense that he has the ability to come to God.  He is totally unable to do so.  As Lazarus was dead in the grave and unable to come out until Christ in His power bid him, so it is with every sinner.  We can in no way escape our slavery, our bondage to sin and Satan.  Moreover, because of our sin we do not want to do so if it means leaving our sin behind.  We are like Lot’s wife in that sense; unwilling to come out of condemned Sodom because we loved our life in the place.[3]

            (2)  Unconditional Election--which speaks of God’s purpose in saving a people for Himself out of fallen humanity, having chosen them before creation apart from any condition foreseen in them.  “God is not a respecter of persons.”[4] 

            (3)  Limited Atonement --which speaks of the accomplished redemption of His people which He secured through Christ’s death.  Arminianism teaches that Christ through His death made possible the salvation of everyone, but secured the salvation of no one. Calvinism teaches that Christ secured the atonement for His people. This is also referred to as Definite Atonement.[5]

            (4)  Irresistible Grace --which describes God’s work of bringing salvation to each of His own. God saves every sinner He purposes to save.   This is also referred to Effectual Calling.[6]

            (5)  Perseverance of the Saints--which speaks of the fact that through God’s purpose and power He will keep His own unto salvation.[7]

            III.  General Objections to the 5 Points

            A.  “The teachings of a man, John Calvin, should not be given such weight; rather, teach the Bible.”

            Answer:  First, Because the doctrines of grace are also called the 5 Points of Calvinism, John Calvin is often attacked in order to discredit the teaching.  The problem with this argument is that the 5 points were articulated 50 years after Calvin died by the Synod of Dort in 1619.  Any rejection of the 5 points cannot be made by discrediting Calvin.  Further, we would respond, are all proponents of Calvinism ignorant, brainwashed, duped followers of a man and are unteachable with respect to the Scriptures?  Dozens of scholars convened for dozens of sessions, debating, considering the Biblical teaching about these things.

            B.  “It teaches that God has decreed that most people will go to hell.  This makes God unjust and it also limits the love of God.”

            Answer:  But neither the Bible nor most Calvinists teach this.  Rather, we believe that the Bible teaches that a man will go to hell because of his sin, not because he was not chosen.  The way of salvation has been made available.  If a man chooses to reject it, he is responsible for his rejection.  But further, this does not say that God wants people to go to hell.  He does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked, nor does He enjoy consigning souls to eternal damnation, but He does not shrink back from doing so.  He will utterly conquer and destroy His enemies.  (Cf. Romans 9:14-23)

            C.  “It takes away human responsibility.  It teaches that we are all robots.  Why repent?  Why believe?”

           Answer: No, the Bible teaches that God has chosen to save His people through the means of hearing the gospel, responding in repentance from sin toward God and faith in Jesus Christ (Cf. 2 Thess. 2:13).

            D.  “A man cannot be saved if God doesn’t want him to be saved.”

            Answer: If by this statement one means that a person who wants to be saved cannot if God has not chosen him, the statement is false.  The Scriptures teach that nobody “seeks after God” (Rom. 3:11)  The yearning heart for Christ is the product of God’s work of grace.  God saves everyone who calls upon Him in accordance to what the Bible teaches.

            E.  “The teaching of Calvinism kills the motivation for missions and evangelism.  If God is going to save whom He is going to save, what is the point of’ going’?”

             Answer:  Although there have been hyper-Calvinist churches, they are relatively few in number.  But because there might be the existence of some with error, it does not discredit the whole system.  Besides, history has shown that this charge is not true.  It can be argued from history that some of the greatest missionaries and pastors who have sought to reach souls for Christ were devout Calvinists.

            F. “The teaching of Calvinism is offensive to new believers.”

             Answer: No, in actuality, new believers who have just come through an experience of conviction and know fully the depravity of their own hearts, readily accept the teaching that God was sovereign in their salvation.  A friend of mine who was teaching the doctrines of grace to his Sunday school class was told to stop it by his Baptist pastor.  He gave the above reason.  The response of my friend was fitting:  “The doctrines of grace are not offensive to new Christians; they’re offensive to old preachers.”

            IV.  What is true if the Arminian position is true?

            A.  God is not sovereign, but is subject to man and is often defeated by Satan.

            B.  God is a respecter of persons with regard to whom He saves.  But the Bible declares this is never the case (Cf. Acts 10:34)

            C.  Christ’s death did not accomplish the redemption of anyone, but only made possible the redemption of everyone. 

            D.  It greatly understates the condition of man in sin as set forth in the Scriptures

            E.  Ultimately, salvation is earned by man, merited by his wise, deliberated acceptance of the plan of salvation.  He may boast over others in this.  Ultimately, it gives man a basis of boasting, which is not possible if one’s “gospel” is consistent with biblical teaching (Cf. 1 Cor. 1:27-29)

            F.  It presents God as all-loving, but not all-powerful; He is subject to defeat.

            G.  The Arminian position tends toward a message that is palatable to listeners so that they might respond, thereby failing to proclaim the whole counsel of God.  In contrast, the Calvinist seeks to proclaim the message as it is in truth so that God might bless it to the salvation of souls.


[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, Ch. 8, per. 1.

[2] The exact wording here is taken from Duane Spencer, Tulip, pp. 9, 10:

[3] Cf. John 5:40; 8:43f; Rom. 3:10ff.; Eph. 2:2, 3.

[4] Cf. Rom. 9:11; 1 Cor. 1:26-29.

[5] Cf. Rom. 8:31-33; Eph. 5:25; John 10:15; Heb. 10:11, 12.

[6] Cf. John 6:37; John 6:44.

[7] Cf. Phil. 1:6; Jude 24, 25; 1 Peter 1:4, 5.