The following excerpt, which serves as a summary of the five points of Calvinism, is taken from The Doctrines of Grace by James Montgomery Boice and Philip Graham Ryken.1
The doctrines of grace—these words are shorthand for five distinct Bible teachings that were linked together in response to the theology that developed in Holland in the late sixteenth century. This theology was associated with the name of Jacob Arminius. . . . The Synod of Dort (1618-1619) was called to respond to the theological deviations from the Arminians, and from it came The Canons of the Synod of Dort, containing the classical summation of the five doctrines known today as TULIP, or “The Five Points of Calvinism.”
TULIP is an acrostic, the letters of which stand for the doctrines that were most in dispute: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and the Perseverance of the saints.
The Five Points of Calvinism
Calvinism insists that salvation is by grace from the beginning to end. Salvation is a gift, in every sense of the word—God’s gift for undeserving sinners who cannot be redeemed apart from God’s saving grace. The gift is given to those to whom God chooses to give it; and although it is offered to everyone, it is not given to everyone. When God does choose to grant this gift, however, he effectively places it in the hands of this child; and once it is received, it can never be lost, stolen, or damaged. Truly, it is the gift that keeps on giving!
These gracious principles were defined and defended in The Canons of the Synod of Dort. As mentioned previously, an international team of theologians met at Dort to consider the Arminian position. Their deliberations resulted in a series of carefully worded doctrinal propositions that represented a century of mature theological and practical reflection on the great truths of the Reformation. In short, the Synod concluded that the decrees of election and reprobation were based on God’s sovereign choice rather than on foreseen faith or unbelief; that although Christ’s death was sufficient for all, it was efficient only for the elect; that humanity was totally corrupted by the Fall, and thus unable to choose salvation prior to regeneration; that God’s grace is effective to convert the unbeliever; and that God so preserves believers that they can never totally fall from grace. These five basic points can be organized as follows.
Total depravity. The words “total depravity” are not the best way of speaking about the doctrine of utterly pervasive sin, or man’s inability in spiritual things, because they suggest that we are all as bad as we can be and that everyone is equally sinful. This is not true, of course. Some sin more than others and will suffer greater punishment in hell for their sins. As theologian John Gerstner used to say, we are not as bad as we could be, because in each of us there is infinite room for deprovement!
Rather than signifying that the unregenerate person is wholly evil in everything he does, total depravity teaches that nothing he does is ever completely good. Sin has pervaded every part of our physical, mental, and emotional makeup so that there is nothing about us that remains untouched by sin. In the interests of accuracy, therefore, it is better to speak of radical depravity, comprehensive iniquity, or the pervasiveness of sin. Our motives are never entirely pure, and thus to one extent or another all our actions are corrupted by evil desires. This corruption invades every aspect of our being, so that nothing we are or do is completely free from sin.
In this sad and pervasively sinful state we have no inclination to seek God, and therefore cannot seek him or even respond to the gospel when it is presented to us. In our unregenerate state, we do not have free will so far as “believing on” or “receiving” Jesus Christ as Savior is concerned. In fact, such is our slavery to sin that we cannot understand our need of Christ until God first gives us spiritual understanding. Even faith must come as a gift, because prior to the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit our depravity renders us impotent to cooperate with God’s saving grace.
Unconditional election. If the condition of the human race is as bad as the biblical doctrine of depravity indicates, then salvation must originate with God. It must be a work of the triune God, accomplished and applied by him without any assistance on our part. Since we are never going to seek him, he is going to have to reach out to us and save us (if, in fact, we are not saved). And this is what God does. The first step in this reaching out is God’s determination to do it, which is what the word election refers to. It means that what happens in an individual’s salvation is determined by the prior decision of God, who established the decrees of salvation in Christ before the world began. “Unconditional” indicates that this decision is made apart from anything God might foresee in the sinful creature. If election were based on anything that the sinner might be or do, the ultimately salvation would depend on human merit. But in order to prove that salvation is all of grace, election is a loving act of God’s sovereign will. Faith in Christ is not the cause of election but one of its results.
Limited atonement. Of the five doctrines summarized by the TULIP acrostic, the most difficult for people to understand and accept is limited atonement. Part of the problem is the terminology itself, because here the words are really misleading. “Limited” atonement suggests that somehow the death of Christ did not do all that could do or ought to do, that it was ineffective in some way. That is not what the doctrine of limited atonement is meant to affirm, however. What Reformed people want to say by these words is that the atonement had a specific object in view, namely, the salvation of those whom the Father had given the Son before the foundation of the world, and that it was effective in saving those persons. Thus it would be better to call this doctrine definite atonement, or particular redemption.
Particular redemption signifies that the death of Christ has saving efficacy for the elect, and for the elect only. Christ made satisfaction for sin when he died on the Cross, offering himself as the perfect substitute for God’s chosen people. Therefore, according to the plan of salvation Christ’s death atoned for the sins of the elect but not for the sins of those who never come to him in faith.
Irresistible grace. Somehow the benefits of the atonement must be applied to the elect. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, whose inward operation enables sinners to repent and believe in Christ. In addition to the outward call of the gospel made to everyone, the Holy Spirit issues an inward call. This inward calling is made only to the elect and inevitably draws them to faith in Christ. Because God is sovereign in their salvation, it is not possible for them permanently or effectively to reject this effectual calling. God’s grace is irresistible and invincible; the Spirit never fails to accomplish his saving purpose in the mind, the heart, and the will of God’s chosen people. This is how the Westminster Confession of Faith describes the Spirit’s gracious, efficacious work: “All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by his Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God; taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by his almighty power determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ; yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace” (Chap. 10, Sec. 1).
The perseverance of the saints. Sometimes this doctrine is called the doctrine of “eternal security.” It has two parts: 1) that God perseveres with his people, and 2) that because God perseveres with his people, they also persevere. The saints are simply the people of God, those whom God considers holy through the work of his Son. The perseverance of the saints really is the preservation of the saints, for their perseverance depends on God’s persevering grace. It is the faithfulness of Christ, rather than the faithfulness of the Christian, that brings the saints to glory.
Each of these five doctrines makes a unique contribution to our understanding of God’s grace. Each can be analysed separately and also defended separately. However, these five doctrines are logically and theologically interrelated. They all serve to emphasize the grace of God in salvation. Warfield wrote,
Now these Five Points form an organic unity, a single body of truth. They are based on two presuppositions that Scripture abundantly supports. The first presupposition is the complete impotence of man, and the second is God’s complete sovereignty in grace. Everything else follows. The meeting place of these two foundation truths is the heart of the Gospel, for it follows that if man is totally depraved, the grace of God in saving him must be of necessity be sovereign. Otherwise, man will inevitably refuse it in his depravity, and will remain unredeemed.2
The doctrines of grace stand or fall together, and together they point to one central truth: salvation is all of grace because it is all of God; and because it is all of God, it is all for his glory.
To fully appreciate the glory of God in the doctrines of grace, it helps to recognize the role of each person in the Trinity of the Five Points of Calvinism. Election is the choice of God the Father. The atonement is the sacrifice of God the Son. The grace that draws us to Christ and enables us to persevere to the very end is the work of God the Holy Spirit. Thus salvation is all God’s work from beginning to end—the coordinated work of the triune God—as it must be, if we are to be saved. Consider: if we are actually dead in our sins (radical depravity), then only God could choose us in Christ (unconditional election), only Christ could atone for our sins (particular redemption), and only the Spirit could draw us to Christ (efficacious grace) and preserve us in him (persevering grace). Therefore, all praise and glory belong to God alone: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever!” (Rom. 11:36).