Few doctrines are more humbling than those captured in TULIP. Born depraved in mind, heart, and will; chosen not for anything in me; rescued and kept despite daily offenses to my God — these will lay a person low. But they will also lift him up to behold and be healed by a God worthy of the acclamation, “Salvation belongs to the Lord” (Psalm 3:8).
The doctrines of Calvinism have a way of both wounding and healing the human heart. They are sword and balm, stumbling block and safety net, thundercloud and rainbow.
The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) once described Calvinism as a lamb in wolf’s skin: “cruel in the phrases,” but “full of consolation for the suffering individual.” The words unconditional election, for example, can feel rough on the surface; they can seem to snarl and bare their teeth. Yet as countless Christians have discovered, beneath Calvinism’s wolfish exterior is the softness of a lamb.
Some, however, have seen in the phrases of Calvinism not a lamb in wolf’s skin, but just a wolf (or just a lamb). How many have felt Calvinism’s offense (you’re calling me totally depraved?) and missed its comfort? And how many, alternatively, have reached for Calvinism’s comfort (“once saved, always saved”) without receiving its offense?
For some time now, Calvinistic Christians have captured the doctrine of salvation in the acronym TULIP (summarizing the 1619 Canons of Dort):
- Total depravity
- Unconditional election
- Limited atonement
- Irresistible grace
- Perseverance of the saints
These phrases celebrate the saving, sovereign grace of God — the grace that offends and the grace that comforts. But in order to grasp both the offense and the comfort, we may do well to consider what these phrases do not mean, what TULIP never taught us.
Unfortunately, some people’s exposure to Calvinism begins and ends with the phrase total depravity. What do some people hear in those two words? As sinners, we are as fallen as we possibly could be. Nothing we do can be called good or kind or noble in any sense. The most wicked impulses stomp and strain like stallions within, restrained by the thinnest of reins. We are utterly depraved.
No wonder some hear total depravity, imagine their sweet but unbelieving Aunt Susie, and toss TULIP aside. But total depravity was never meant to teach utter depravity. Rather than claiming we are as fallen as we could be, the doctrine simply claims that every part of us is fallen. As the Canons of Dort put it, when our first parents fell,
they brought upon themselves blindness, terrible darkness, futility, and distortion of judgment in their minds; perversity, defiance, and hardness in their hearts and wills; and finally impurity in all their emotions. (III/IV.1, emphasis added)
Paul offers a similar testimony in Ephesians 2:3:
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.
By nature, we carry out (with our wills) the fallen desires of both body and mind. In other words, when sin entered the door of human nature, it made a home in every room. As a result, we are born “dead” to the things of God (Ephesians 2:1), spiritually helpless and unable to turn to him on our own.
Scripture uses stark language to describe human sinfulness: “Every intention of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5); “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9). Yet the image of God remains in fallen humans (Genesis 9:6; James 3:9). Unbelievers are capable of showing “unusual kindness” (Acts 28:2). Pagan poets can pen truth (Acts 17:28).
Even though these acts fall short of pleasing God — since “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23) — they nevertheless reflect the power of God’s common grace to keep the totally depraved from becoming utterly depraved.
Calvinism offers deep, unshakable security for fragile people — but not the kind of security we sometimes imagine. Many of us, for example, assume that for our salvation to rest secure, it must be unconditional. If we must do A, B, or C in order to finally be saved, then it can feel like our little house of faith rests in a land of violent earthquakes.
We may hear the word unconditional in TULIP, therefore, and take a deep breath. Salvation doesn’t require anything of me, we may think. The U of TULIP, however, stands not for unconditional salvation, but for unconditional election — a doctrine Paul articulates in Romans 9:11–12 (among other places). Referencing Jacob and Esau, he writes,
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 — [Rebekah] was told, “The older will serve the younger.”
Notice the distinct lack of conditions in God’s choice to call Jacob rather than Esau. Jacob was not more deserving and Esau less deserving, for God’s election took place before the brothers had done anything “either good or bad.” In the words of Dort, God saw both men lying “in the common misery” (I.7). His choice, therefore, was unconditional.
But apart from election, salvation does indeed include conditions. Justification requires faith (Galatians 2:16). Sanctification requires striving (Philippians 2:12–13). Forgiveness requires forgiving (Matthew 6:14–15). And heaven requires holiness (Hebrews 12:14).
And yet, under the glorious promises of the new covenant, we can still take a deep breath; our house of faith can rest secure.