The Doctrines of Grace
by Timothy Cross
One of my earliest memories is that of a family holiday in Holland. I have never been back since, but I can still recall the windmills, novelty clogs, the waterways of Amsterdam, a tour of an Edam cheese factory and the very friendly welcome which the Dutch people gave to us children. Most vividly of all though I can still picture the vast fields of tulips. These seemed like a great sea of red, surging and rippling in the wind.
In 1618 in Holland, the Synod of Dort was convened by the Dutch Reformed Church. The lasting outcome of this Synod was five articles, easily remembered by the acrostic T.U.L.I.P. The articles are known as the ‘Five Points of Calvinism,’ and they give a very succinct summary of the Faith of the Bible. The five letters in the TULIP acrostic stand for:
T - Total Depravity
U - Unconditional Election
L - Limited Atonement
I - Irresistible Calling
P - Perseverance of the Saints
Let us then consider these five points – also known as ‘The Doctrines of Grace’ a little more closely.
1. Total Depravity
‘Total depravity’ gives a biblical diagnosis of the human condition. As descendants of Adam, we are sinners who need to be saved, and ‘total depravity’ refers to our total inability to save ourselves. We are helpless and hopeless apart from God’s saving grace.
Total depravity does not mean that every one is as evil as it is humanly possible to be, but rather that sin has infected and affected us totally: by nature our hearts are dead towards God, so we do not naturally love Him; by nature our minds are ignorant of God – they are spiritually blind – so that we do not naturally know Him; by nature our wills – subject to our sinful nature – are disobedient towards God, so that we do not naturally seek Him or obey His law. Sin then has affected us totally. We need to be saved, but being spiritually dead in our sins, we are unable to save ourselves and reach out to God for mercy.
Total depravity then is the first point of the five points of Calvinism. There is a reason for this. How and where we start determines where we go. Defective views of human sin will lead to a defective view – or non-view – of salvation. We have to dig deep into the dark soil before we can build up high into the light. A correct diagnosis always precedes a correct cure. The biblical diagnosis of the human condition is ‘Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me’ (Psalm 51:5). ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one’ (Romans 3:10-12).
Synod of Dordt - 1618
2. Unconditional Election
Unable to save ourselves, God alone can save. Unconditional election reminds us that the initiative in salvation is God’s, not ours. He is a God of sovereign grace. Before the foundation of the world, the eternal, omniscient God saw all humanity. Out of these, He exercised His divine prerogative, and chose an innumerable number for eternal salvation from their lost, condemned plight. He chose – or elected – these for eternal blessing, and by-passed others. His elect had not yet been born, so their salvation was solely due to God’s unconditional choice of them, not to their own merit or demerit.
Divine election has never been a popular doctrine, as it is such a blow to human pride and self-sufficiency. But the Bible teaches divine election throughout its pages:- ‘He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world …’ (Ephesians 1:4). ‘We know, brethren beloved by God, that He has chosen you’ (1 Thessalonians 1:4). To those who object to God’s divine right of choosing some and not others, the Bible’s reply is ‘let God be God.’ Romans 9:21 asks the rhetorical question ‘Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for beauty and another for menial use?’
3. Limited Atonement
Limited atonement - also known as ‘particular redemption’ teaches that Christ died to procure and secure the salvation of God’s elect - the forgiveness of their sins and their eternal peace with God. Christ died, not for everyone – certainly not for those lost in hell – but for a particular people: God’s elect. His death was thus a purposeful, not a pointless one. His death did not make salvation potential or possible, but rather it actually procured the salvation of God’s elect. Christ’s death then – the central point of the five points in every way – and the redeeming benefits of His death was limited – or confined – to God’s elect. It was not for the world in general, for if so, it would have been for no one in particular. Christ’s death was neither vague nor in vain, for Scripture teaches that Christ’s death was with a view to the actual salvation of a particular people: ‘He was wounded for our transgressions …’ (Isaiah 53:5). ‘He will save His people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21). ‘Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her’ (Ephesians 5:25) et al.
4. Irresistible Calling
Irresistible calling is the next step in the divine plan of salvation, and is both logical and theological. Irresistible calling teaches that those whom God has chosen, and those for whom Christ died to redeem, will most certainly be called to saving faith in Christ in time. God, by His Word and Spirit is active in applying the work of Christ’s atonement to His people. He overcomes all the barriers of human inability, hostility and apathy, and draws them to the foot of the cross and enables them to trust the crucified Saviour for full salvation. Jesus Himself said ‘No one can come to Me unless the Father Who sent Me draws him’ (John 6:44) and ‘All that the Father gives Me (that is, His elect) will come to me’ (John 6:37).
‘Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit whereby convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of God and renewing our wills, He doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the Gospel’ (Shorter Catechism).
5. Perseverance of the Saints
The perseverance of the saints refers to the divine preservation of God’s elect for eternal glory. They will not fall away, as God the Father does not cast out His children. The Bible teaches the eternal security of the Christian. Those chosen by God, redeemed by Christ and sanctified by His Spirit will never be lost but will be kept by God for eternal glory. Salvation is God’s work. It is He Who does the choosing, redeeming, calling, and keeping, and nothing can frustrate, thwart, spoil, or mar omnipotence. ‘In Him, according to the purpose of Him Who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of His will, we who first hoped in Christ have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of His glory’ (Ephesians 1:11,12).
Christians have come to know the Lord Jesus as their Good Shepherd Who gave His life to save them. This Shepherd will never abandon His sheep. He stated ‘My sheep hear My voice, and I known them, and they follow Me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of My hand’ (John 10:27,28).
There, then, are the doctrines of grace – the so-called ‘Five Points of Calvinism.’ With election in eternity past at one end, glorification at the other, and the cross of Christ in the middle, they are an all embracing statement of Christian doctrine: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Calling, and the Perseverance of the Saints. C.H Spurgeon referred to these five points as ‘five great lamps which help to irradiate the cross; or rather, five bright emanations springing from the glorious covenant of our Triune God, illustrating the great doctrine of Jesus crucified.’ He was right. When the five points of Calvinism truly grip the Christian’s heart, our response can only be that of praising and magnifying the grace of God and the God of grace as revealed to us in His inerrant Word:
Amazing grace how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost but now am found
Was blind but now I see
The Lord has promised good to me
His Word my hope secures
He will my Shield and Portion be
As long as life endures
Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail
And mortal life shall cease
I shall possess within the veil
A life of joy and peace.