Yesterday, my twitter feed was flooded with comments about a video floating around online in which Mark Driscoll said, “I don’t hold to the five points of Calvinism. I think it’s garbage…because it’s not biblical.” This statement came in the midst of a sociological rant in which the former pastor of Mars Hill Seattle was pontificating on how different groups view God in relationship to their own experience with their earthly fathers. It was interesting to then see that statement juxtaposed against former statements by Driscoll, in another video, in which he completely contradicted what he now says about Calvin and Calvinism. Without wishing to spend any amount of time unpacking the wide array of problems with what Driscoll is currently saying, I do wish to note a few important historical thoughts about the so-called “Five Points of Calvinism.”
As anyone reading this post probably already knows, the “five points” did not originate with Calvin–neither did he ever speak explicitly of a five point doctrinal system of salvation. John Calvin certainly did not formulate or utilize the acronym T.U.L.I.P. That being said, one will most certainly find the five points (or “doctrines of grace”) pervasively woven into the writings of the great Genevan Reformer. His theology of salvation was thoroughly God-centered, Christ-exalting, man-humbling, grace-oriented, and biblically-saturated. However, the “five points” were explicitly formulated at the Synod of Dort–a Dutch international Synod held at Dordrecht in 1618-1619 in order to address concerns about the rise of Arminianism. This year marks the 400th Anniversary of the Synod and the formulation of the Canons of Dort (i.e. the theological formulation of the “five points”). In commemoration, Robert Godfrey has written a helpful, short introduction to the background of the Synod of Dort, over at Tabletalk Magazine; and, Kevin DeYoung has published a somewhat more developed volume titled Grace Defined and Defended. The latter is valuable in so much as DeYoung orders and summarily explains the various theological Articles (or Canons) produced by the members of the Synod of Dort. Finally, I encourage anyone reading this post to take the time to read through Joel Beeke’s short historical introduction to the background of the Synod of Dort, together with the Articles themselves.
As has already been noted, the acronym T.U.L.I.P. (by which most of us seek to explain the “doctrines of grace”) was not formulated by Calvin. Neither was it formulated by the members of the Synod of Dort. Rather, it is most likely the case that some Dutch Sunday School teacher in the early 20th Century came up with it while wearing Klompen in the Springtime when the tulips come out, in order to help the little Dutchy children remember the doctrine. There is no reference to it prior to the early decades of the 20th Century. Nevertheless, it has proved to be a most helpful nemonic device!
What I wish to do in this post is give a very basis look at the statements in the five Articles of Dort (while utilizing the acronym T.U.L.I.P.), in order to show their biblical foundations and theological precision:
Total Depravity – Scripture teaches us that man is born “dead in sins and trespasses” (Eph. 2:1-4), that every part of man is thoroughly corrupted by our sin nature and our sinful desires. Man, in this condition, is unable to do anything that is spiritually pleasing to God. The Apostle Paul summarizes this when he says, in Romans 3:10-11, “There is none who does good, no not one.” As the Articles (Canons) of Dort state, “All men are conceived in sin, and by nature children of wrath, incapable of saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage thereto, and without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, they are neither able nor willing to return to God, to reform the depravity of their nature, nor to dispose themselves to reformation.”
Unconditional Election – God has, from all eternity, freely chosen a people to redeem out of the fallen human race. Those God has chosen in Christ, before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:3, 11), are no better than other men or women. God did not look down the corridor of time and see something in us that commended us to Him for election. Whomever God has chosen, He has chosen by His own will and for His own glory. After carefully walking through the theology of the fall and the plan of redemption, the Synod wrote,
“Election is the unchangeable purpose of God, whereby, before the foundation of the world, He hath out of mere grace, according to the sovereign good pleasure of His own will, chosen, from the whole human race, which had fallen through their own fault from their primitive state of rectitude into sin and destruction, a certain number of persons to redemption in Christ, whom He from eternity appointed the Mediator and Head of the elect, and the foundation of salvation.
This elect number, though by nature neither better nor more deserving than others, but with them involved in one common misery, God hath decreed to give to Christ, to be saved by Him, and effectually to call and draw them to His communion by His Word and Spirit, to bestow upon them true faith, justification and sanctification; and having powerfully preserved them in the fellowship of His Son, finally, to glorify them for the demonstration of His mercy and for the praise of His glorious grace, as it is written: “According as He hath chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love: having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, wherein He hath made us accepted in the beloved” (Eph. 1:4–6). And elsewhere: “Whom He did predestinate, them He also called: and whom He called, them He also justified: and whom He justified them He also glorified” (Rom. 8:30).”
Limited Atonement – Christ, the Redeemer, laid down His life for the elect as an atoning sacrifice at Calvary (John 10:15, 17). Jesus’ death, though universal in scope (1 John 2:2), is particular in its efficacy (Rom. 5:9). Jesus’ death on the cross was a true atonement for the sins of those for whom He died. Jesus’ death on the cross does not make salvation possible; rather, by his atoning death on the cross, Jesus accomplished salvation for all those for whom he died. The Canons of Dort carefully walk through the progression from the justice of God to the atoning sacrifice of Christ. After first explaining and defending the “free offer of the Gospel” to all men (Article 2.5), they then continue to explain why the atoning death of Jesus is only efficacious for the elect. In Article 8 of this second point, they write,
“This was the sovereign counsel, and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father, that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation: that is, it was the will of God, that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby He confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to Him by the Father; that He should confer upon them faith, which together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, He purchased for them by His death; should purge them from all sin, both original and actual, whether committed before or after believing; and having faithfully preserved them even to the end, should at last bring them free from every spot and blemish to the enjoyment of glory in His own presence forever.”
Irresistible Grace – In the Gospel of John, Jesus taught the inability of the unregenerate to believe in him: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent me draws him (John 6:44). He said this immediately after teaching his disciples the following truth about the efficacy of the grace of God at work in the life of the elect: “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me” (John 6:37). The Articles of Dort note, “When God performs his good pleasure in his elect, or works in them true conversion…He, by the efficacy of the same regenerating Spirit, penetrates into the innermost recesses of man, opens his closed heart, softens his obdurate heart, circumcises his uncircumcised heart, infuses new qualities into his will, makes that which had been dead alive, that which was evil good, that which had been unwilling willing, and from being refractory, obedient.” In Article 13 of the third and fourth section, we read,
“The manner of this operation cannot be fully comprehended by believers in this life. Notwithstanding which, they rest satisfied with knowing and experiencing that by this grace of God they are enabled to believe with the heart, and love their Savior.”
Perseverance of the Saints – In his letter to the Philippians, The Apostle Paul made two important statements about the believers’ continuance in the grace of God in the Gospel. In Phil. 1:6 he wrote, “He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.” Then, in Phil. 2:12-13, he said, “As you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” In the Articles of Dort 5.3, we read the following:
“Those who are converted could not persevere in a state of grace if left to their own strength. But God is faithful, who having conferred grace, mercifully confirms and powerfully preserves them therein, even to the end.”
Then, in Article 12 of this doctrinal section, the members of Dort also explained,
“This certainty of perseverance, however, is so far from exciting in believers a spirit of pride or of rendering them carnally secure, that on the contrary, it is the real source of humility, filial reverence, true piety, patience in every tribulation, fervent prayers, constancy in suffering, and in confessing the truth, and of solid rejoicing in God; so that the consideration of this benefit should serve as an incentive to the serious and constant practice of gratitude and good works, as appears from the testimonies of Scripture and the examples of the saints.”
When we contemplate what Scripture says about the severity of man’s fallen condition, the glory of God’s eternal purpose to redeem a people, the perfection of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, the sweetness of the power of God to bring sinners to Himself, and the assurance of God’s commitment to bring His people to glory by enabling them to persevere to the end, how can we not stand up and shout for joy. Far from being garbage, the five points of Dordrecht are full of the richness of the grace of God in the Gospel.