The doctrines of grace: An introduction
W. J. Seaton has written, “There is scarcely another word that arouses such suspicion, mistrust, and even animosity among professing Christians as the word Calvinism. And yet much of the zeal that is levelled against this system and those who hold and preach it is most certainly a zeal which is not according to knowledge.”1
As Seaton notes, the most vociferous opponents of Calvinism often do not understand, and grossly misrepresent, what they oppose. Those who understand and hold to the system, on the other hand, see it as a glorious representation of the grace of God. To them, Calvinism represents the great doctrines of grace. As Spurgeon wrote,
We believe in the five great points commonly known as Calvinistic; but we do not regard these five points as being barbed shafts which are to be thrust between the ribs of our fellow-Christians. We look upon them as being five great lamps which help to irradiate the cross; or, rather, five bright emanations springing from the glorious covenant of our Triune God, and illustrating the great doctrine of Jesus crucified.2
As an unabashed Calvinist myself, I want to take some time in the next few posts to examine the five points of Calvinism, but before we get there, it is necessary to do a brief historical survey to understand the situation in which these points were formulated.
The year was 1610; the place, Holland. The Dutch theologian Jakob Hermanszoon had died in October 1609. Harmanszoon, known more familiarly to the English-speaking world by his Anglicised name, Jacobus Arminius, had left behind him a group of followers, known as Arminians, who had formulated his teaching into five man points of doctrine.
Until this point, Dutch churches typically subscribed to the Belgic and Heidelberg Confessions of Faith, both of which were based squarely in Reformation teaching. In an effort to change this, the Armenians presented their five points in the form of a protest—a Remonstrance—to the Dutch Parliament.
The five points of Arminianism
The five points presented to the Parliament can be broadly outlined as follows.
- Freewill (human ability).The Arminians taught that, while drastically affected by the Fall, humans are not entirely incapable of choosing God. Humans have free will to do so. They are able to exercise faith in God in order to receive salvation.
- Conditional election. The Arminians held that God’s election was based on his foreknowledge. God omnisciently foresaw those who would choose him of their own freewill and graciously elected them unto salvation.
- Universal redemption (general atonement). The Arminians believers that Jesus died to save all men, but only potentially. That is, he died to make salvation possible for all. Because of his substitutionary death, God is able to save all men, but he has conditioned that salvation on their willingness to believe.
- Resistible grace. The Arminians claimed that the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration could be limited by human will. In other words, as the Spirit began to work in a person’s life through the gospel, that person’s will could effectively resist the Spirit. He could not give life if the sinner was unwilling to receive it.
- Falling from grace. The Arminians held that, once saved, a person could fall from grace. He could lose his salvation. Since man must take some initiative in receiving salvation in the first place, it was only logical to conclude that he must also exercise some responsibility in retaining his salvation.
The five points of Calvinism
A national synod of the church was called to meet in Dort in 1618 to examine these teachings in the light of Scripture. The Synod of Dort sat for 154 sessions over seven months, and ultimately concluded that the five points of Arminianism were not rooted in Scripture.
Reaffirming the position held by the Reformers, the Synod of Dort countered the Arminians by producing its own five points of doctrine, known today as the five points of Calvinism. John Calvin had died half a century earlier, but his name was taken in opposition to that of Jacobus Arminius. The five points of Calvinism were neatly set forth in the form of an acrostic on the word “tulip.” The points are as follows.
- Total depravity. Man, in his natural state, is completely incapable of choosing God.
- Unconditional election. God’s election of those whom he would save was not based on any merit found in the sinner.
- Limited atonement. Jesus died to secure salvation for the elect, not to make salvation possible for all.
- Irresistible grace. When God determines to save a sinner, the Spirit regenerates that person and provides grace for him that is never resisted.
- Perseverance of the saints. Those whom God saves he keeps. It is impossible to lose one’s salvation.
The five points of Calvinism clearly stand in opposition to the five points of Arminianism. As Seaton has summarised it,
Man is totally unable to save himself on account of the Fall in the Garden of Eden being a total fall. If unable to save himself, then God must save. If God must save, then God must be free to save whom He will. If God has decreed to save whom He will, then it is for those that Christ made atonement on the Cross. If Christ died for them, then the Holy Spirit will effectually call them into that salvation. If salvation then from the beginning has been of God, the end will also be of God and the saints will persevere to eternal joy.3
This summary serves as a starting point for the next few posts. These doctrines form, I believe, “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints,” for which we must “earnestly contend” (Titus 1:3).