“The simple question I have is this: If God ordained that someone would do evil, then why does it grieve him when they do evil? And why does he express his desire that they not to evil?”
– Dr. Michael Brown
I am a Christian, a Jew, and a Calvinist (among other things). This was not always the case with regard to Calvinism – I was born Jewish, I became and Christian by God’s grace, and eventually I thought my way into Calvinism.
How did this happen? In truth, I resisted the notion of Calvinism long before I embraced it, and during those years prior I did not have a solid grasp on Calvinism. For many years I, like so many people, misunderstood Calvinism and thought it to be wrapped up in predestination. When I finally learned the truth about the doctrine, I came to see that predestination is not even a part of the teaching when properly understood.
A more accurate understanding of what we call ‘Calvinism,’ would be to call it the doctrine of salvation. Putting it that way, it has far less baggage. At the same time there are lots of other sound biblical doctrines, and a Christian should learn as much about them as possible: The doctrine of original sin; the doctrine of grace; the doctrine of the Trinity; the virgin birth; last things, etc. The doctrine of salvation (Calvinism) is simply one more biblical teaching to comprehend, and it is a blessing to the heart and mind of any believer who gets it.
So what is the doctrine of salvation? It is embodied in the following five points, each of which (like the term ‘Calvinism’ itself) being somewhat poorly named, and better understood with some simple explanation.
T – Total Depravity
U – Unconditional Election
L – Limited Atonement
I – Irresistible Grace
P – Preservation/Perseverance of the Saints
This is the well-known TULIP acronym, but what is not too widely known is that almost every one of these points is abbreviated by phrases which are misleading to modern English speakers, so we often assume they mean things they simply do not. Below, I will briefly explain each one.
A second issue which is not widely understood about these five points, is that they are progressive. In other words, they build on each other, and there is a forward moving flow to the doctrine of salvation. When it is preached well, everyone (even those who do not see themselves as Calvinists) loves it. The key is to present this doctrine in its best light, and allow it to stand on its own merit. Using different language than the traditional wording helps the doctrine come alive.
Starting them with the T – Total Depravity.
The difficulty people have with this point is they think it means total corruption. Total corruption means the person is beyond all hope, and completely irredeemable. But that is not the case with fallen sinners. Rather, we are totally depraved, which means we cannot please God perfectly. It does not mean we are incapable of doing any good in the universe whatsoever, because even the worst people in humanity are capable of doing some (relative) good. But in relation to God’s holiness, we are not beyond all hope (‘corrupt’), but we are entirely incapable of pleasing him perfectly. That is what Total Depravity really means. So we start right there, at square one: You cannot please God perfectly because, as a fallen sinner, you are totally depraved.
U – Unconditional Election
This second point dovetails off the first: Because you are totally incapable of pleasing God perfectly (ie, totally depraved), God has elected to save you with no strings attached. In other words, he is the one who elects to do the saving. And he does it without any conditions.
A side note: The difficulty people have with this point is that predestination now gets in the way. But predestination has nothing to do with doctrine of salvation.[i] As a result, when we moderns hear ‘unconditional election,’ we think it speaks of double-predestination, so that some people have been created for heaven, but others created for hell. This is not what unconditional election is about. Rather, it says God is the one who elects to save, and he does it without any conditions attached.
So far we have is the following:
- You are totally incapable of pleasing God perfectly. Therefore…
- God has elected (out of his own goodness and grace) to save you with no strings attached.
L – Limited Atonement
This is the one people really balk at. At this point many people will say they are 2.5 or 2.75 Calvinists. This is because limited atonement sounds like it’s saying God only died for some people, but not for others. But that is not what this phrase means, and once again it is poorly worded for contemporary English.
In truth, ‘limited atonement,’ would better be phrased as ‘effective calling,’ or ‘effectual atonement.’ It does not mean God only died for some people, and not for others. (That would be far from biblical, and Calvin was smarter than that!)
The idea behind this point is that the crosswork of Jesus will accomplish exactly what God intends it do, no more, no less. In other words, his crosswork will be effective and successful. This is probably the most unfortunately misunderstood point in Calvinism, but when you understand its actual meaning it becomes a blessing. Consider what the doctrine teaches so far:
1) You are incapable of pleasing God perfectly, so 2) God has elected to save you with no strings attached, and now 3) his work on the cross will accomplish exactly what he intends.
I – Irresistible Grace
Just like so many of the other points of the doctrine of salvation, this one also is easy to misunderstand. It sounds (to many people) like it’s saying God will drag you, kicking and screaming if necessary, into heaven, and like his grace is forced on you so it is irresistible. Once again, that is not at all what the doctrine teaches.
Irresistible grace means that, after you have accepted Christ into your heart, all of your urges will be transformed, so that you will want to be with God. Every impulse in your heart will be turned towards heaven, and you will yearn to be there with him, in his kingdom. That is what irresistible grace means: It speaks of the change in your heart, so that you no longer feel at home in this world, but now you feel a homesickness for heaven.
To sum up so far:
1) You are incapable of pleasing God perfectly, so 2) he has elected to save you with no strings attached, and 3) his crosswork will do exactly what he intends, so that 4) when you place your faith in Christ your every urge will be to get home to him.
Lastly, we come to P – Preservation/Perseverance of the Saints.
Preservation and perseverance have a complimentary meaning. On one hand we can say that God will preserve you, now that you are sealed with the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, we can say that you will endure (persevere) to the end, and make it home to your destiny. Either way, the teaching of this fifth point is clear enough. Putting it all together then, the doctrine of salvation (‘Calvinism’ properly understood), is as follows:
1) You are incapable of pleasing God perfectly, so 2) he has elected to save you with no strings attached, and 3) his crosswork will do exactly what he intends, so that 4) when you place your faith in Christ every urge of your heart will be join the Lord in heaven, and 5) God will absolutely positively 100% keep his promise to bring you home to him.
That is true
Calvinism, and that is why I am a ‘Calvinist.’
[i] The issue of predestination muddying the waters can be traced back to those followers of Calvin who arranged his writings with the topic of predestination taking a higher position in his theology than warranted. In point of fact, there is a bad strain of Calvinism which does indeed place predestination in the center of everything, which does harm to the doctrine of salvation. But there are, historically, two ‘fountainheads’ of Calvinistic thought: One from Geneva, and the other from Zurich. It is the Zurich school of thought which argues that double-predestination is an exaggeration of what we can say we know about God’s will. I would consider myself to come from this more balanced Zurich school of thought. Ultimately the doctrine of salvation and the philosophical question of predestination vs freewill are two separate issues, which should not be mixed up. Keeping them distinct makes it possible to understand Calvinism as a biblically accurate doctrine of salvation.