INTRODUCTION

This is the first of two weeks we will spend defining what we mean when we say FPC is a part of the “Reformed” tradition of Protestantism.

The 16th Century Protestant Reformation birthed three large theological traditions: Anabaptists (called the “Radical Reformation” because they rejected the role of the state in the church, were pacifists, and condemned infant baptism), Lutherans (heirs of Luther’s legacy), and the Reformed (heirs of John Calvin’s legacy). Reformed folk are thus often called “Calvinists.”

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John Calvin

Christian people rarely assign the label “Calvinist” dispassionately—it’s given either as the lowest sort of insult or the highest sort of praise. Many I’ve encountered associate “Calvinism” with “those who don’t believe in free will” or “those who don’t evangelize” or “the frozen Chosen.” Thus I (and our church) take on the label with a degree of fear and trembling, recognizing that some damage control goes along with so doing.

Let me say first that being “Reformed” entails more than “Calvinism.” As I’ll explain below, “Calvinism” refers to our understanding of the Bible’s teaching on how we are saved. “Reformed” includes “Calvinism” but is broader, referring to a way of reading the Bible through the lens of God’s covenants with humanity and a belief in the basic unity of the Old and New Testaments (among other emphases). The Reformed tradition offers wisdom and insights useful to all Christians, and I hate that a visceral response to “Calvinism” turns so many away from mining its treasures.

It’s important to note that embracing the particulars of our theology is not a requirement of membership in our church. All that is required to become a full, communing member is a credible profession of faith in Christ Jesus. Officers in our church vow their adherence to the particulars of our doctrine, but none other. Of course, because we believe that the particulars of our doctrine faithfully reflect the teaching of Scripture, we teach and disciple according to it. Nevertheless, we have plenty of non-Reformed members who serve and use their gifts as members of our church.

SOME HISTORY

John Calvin didn’t formulate the Five Points of Calvinism. He didn’t even know he was starting an “-ism”! “Calvinism” and its Five Points were a response to the teaching of a Dutch minister named Joseph Arminius, who lived a generation after Calvin. Arminius questioned the Reformed church’s teaching on predestination and election. Disciples of Arminius formulated his teaching into Five Points of belief: 1) Human Free Will, 2) Conditional Election, 3) Universal Atonement, 4) Resistible Grace, and 5) Falling from Grace.

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Jacob Arminius

The Dutch Church summoned pastors and theologians from throughout Europe to the Synod of Dort (1618), to study and issue a verdict on the Arminians’ (as they ere now called) Five Points. The Synod of Dort formulated what we know as the Five Points of Calvinism as a response to these: 1) Total Depravity, 2) Unconditional Election, 3) Limited Atonement, 4) Irresistible Grace, and 5) Perseverance of the Saints. Handily, the first letters of these points formed the acronym TULIP, which also was the official flower of the Dutch!

THE FIVE POINTS OF CALVINISM

  1. Total Depravity. All human beings are sinful in every part of their being, totally unable to love and obey God on their own.

In our natural state we are not merely sick—we are dead! (Ephesians 2:1-3) And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

This applies not just to the notoriously sinful but to all human beings: (Romans 3:11-12) “None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

This doctrine doesn’t teach that all people are as evil as they might be. Even non-Christians can be kind, love others, and make good decisions. The point of the doctrine is we are unable to do ultimate good, as it relates to our Creator. Ultimate good is good done to the glory of God, motivated by love for God. By nature, with hearts inherited from Adam, we hate our Creator. We resent his claim of our authority over us. Thus our will is incapable of choosing to love and obey him.

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Put on your cloak and topcoat, we’re going to the Synod of Dort! (1618)

  1. Unconditional Election “Election” refers to God’s choice in eternity past that certain people would be saved. It’s impossible to take the Bible seriously and not deal with its teaching on election.

(Ephesians 1:3-6)  Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.

So pervasive is the Bible’s teaching of election and predestination that even Arminians acknowledged it. The subject of debate then became, upon what condition does God elect people for salvation? Arminians claimed God’s election is based upon his foreknowledge of those who would make the choice to accept Christ. (I come from a family whose theological tradition took the Bible seriously and yet recoiled against Calvinism, so I can say from personal knowledge that many make sense of election this way.)

As satisfying as election-based-on-the-condition-of-faith seems as a resolution to the conundrum, it stands against the testimony of Scripture.

(2 Timothy 1:9) God saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.

(Romans 9:10-13) And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

(John 15:16) You did not choose me, but I chose you…”

This is why Calvinists assert that our election is unconditional.

Someone might ask, “But what about faith? Do we not exercise faith to be saved?” Yes, but we understand that the response of faith is an outworking of an eternal plan.

Check out this explanation for why some responded to the apostles’ teaching with faith and others with rejection: (Acts 13:48) And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.

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Dutch Tulips. How pretty!

  1. Limited Atonement.Christ died for his chosen people in particular, not all humanity in general. “Particular” is a better adjective, since “limited” seems to imply a weakness in Christ’s sacrifice. Many verses teach the particularity of Christ’s atonement:

(John 10:14-15) I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 

(Mark 10:45) For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

(Matthew 1:21) She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.

The doctrine of Limited Atonement has the effect of exalting Christ’s atonement, demonstrating that the price paid on the cross wasn’t hypothetical but real. He died not for sins as an idea, but my sins, your sins. If he died for everyone’s sins and then God judges some for their sins, we have a case what in the courts is called “double jeopardy.” Because Christ died for my sins particularly I can have assurance that there is now and forever no condemnation for me. Christ on the cross actually and particularly received the punishment due me for my sin.

  1. Irresistible Grace: See how the points are connecting logically. Those whom God chose unconditionally, for whose sins he sent his Son to die—those he surely and irresistibly calls to faith in due time.

(Ephesians 2:4-5) But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— One who was dead and has been made alive cannot continue in a state of death!

John 10:25-26  The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. Necessarily, those who are his sheep hear his voice, know him, and follow him.

We need to say that we are not teaching that God does violence to our will, forcing us to come to faith. Rather, irresistibly he changes our will so that it is our joy to believe. Further, we are not saying that true believers do not for a time resist God’s call, only that they cannot resist his call ultimately.

  1. Perseverance of the Saints: Those who are chosen unconditional before the foundation of world, for whose sins Christ died, who in the Lord’s time are irresistibly called, will persevere in faith until the end of their lives. This doctrine might better be called preservation of the saints, for ultimately it is not we who keep ourselves but God who keeps us.

(John 10:28-29) I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.

(John 6:39) And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.

(Romans 8:38-39) For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This doctrine is similar to the teaching of “eternal security” or “once-saved-always-saved”, yet there is a nuance in Reformed theology’s “perseverance” that distinguishes it from broader evangelicalism’s “eternal security.”

Often “eternal security” teaches the believer to base his assurance of salvation on the memory of his spiritual conversion. The thinking goes, if you truly accepted Christ and can recall the moment, God promises to let you into heaven no matter what happens after that moment. “Perseverance” roots assurance not in the person’s experience of conversion, but God’s eternal purpose, revealed in a person’s life in distinguishable fruit (faith in Christ, true repentance for sin, spiritual and moral growth). In this way, the ongoing fruit of repentance and faith in our lives is means by which we “make our calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10).

The problem is that many use “eternal security” to justify a marginal Christianity and cheap grace: “Well, I accepted Christ as a kid, so I know I’m going to heaven, even though I live however I want, never seek the Lord through prayer and the Word, and don’t desire the fellowship of believers.” The doctrine of perseverance works deep assurance in the true believer while simultaneously divesting the marginal of a false hope.

As a final word, let me say that this does not render our choices, as Christians, inconsequential. You still will reap what you sow, in this life and the next. God will surely preserve all of his people, but some will only be saved “as one escaping through the flames” (1 Cor. 3:15). Rosaria Butterfield said it right:

“You cannot lose your salvation, but you can lose everything else.”

 

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