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White Horse Inn: Conversational Theology

Getting Past the TULIP

Just as Luther’s followers preferred to be called “evangelicals” but were labeled “Lutherans” by Rome, around 1558 Lutherans coined the term “Calvinist” for those who held Calvin’s view of the Supper over against both Zwingli and Luther. Despite self-chosen labels such as “evangelical” and “Reformed” (preferred because the aim was always to reform the catholic church rather than start a new one), “Calvinism” unfortunately stuck as a popular nickname.

No Central Dogma

Contrary to popular misconception, Calvin did not in fact differ from the average Augustinian theologian, either in the substance or the importance of his doctrine of predestination. As for the content of the teaching, Calvin’s view of predestination was the traditional Augustinian view, affirmed even by Thomas Aquinas. Luther’s mentor, Johann von Staupitz, wrote a treatise (On Eternal Predestination) defending all of the doctrines known later as the “five points.” As for centrality in Calvin’s preaching, one looks in vain for predestination in his Geneva Catechism. Just as Luther’s strong defense of predestination in The Bondage of the Will was provoked by Erasmus’s Freedom of the Will, Calvin’s lengthy discussions of the subject were responses to critics. As important as predestination was in the thinking of the Reformers, it was not a central dogma from which all other doctrines were developed. In fact, the Belgic Confession devotes one long sentence (in English translation at least) to election, while its only mention in the Heidelberg Catechism is under “the holy catholic church” as “a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith.”

As we have seen in this issue, even what we know as the “five points of Calvinism” emerged as a response to internal challenges. Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) and his followers mounted a campaign against the Reformed consensus. The Arminian Articles of Remonstrance affirmed total depravity, but rejected unconditional election and particular redemption. The articles also made regeneration dependent on human decision and affirmed the possibility of losing salvation.

In response, the Reformed Church called the Synod of Dort (1618-19). Not only a national synod, it included representatives from the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, and other Reformed bodies in Hungary, Poland, Switzerland, and elsewhere. (Even the Patriarch of Constantinople, Cyril Lucaris, made the Canons of Dort part of the Orthodox Church’s confession, although he was assassinated and Orthodoxy subsequently condemned Calvinism.)

The result was a clear statement of Reformed unity on the doctrines of sin and grace, known as the Canons of the Synod of Dort—or the Five Articles against the Remonstrants. Each canon states the Reformed view positively and then repudiates the corresponding Arminian error. The Canons of Dort are part of the Reformed confession, and its substance was incorporated into the Westminster Confession and Catechisms in the mid-seventeenth century.


The clever “TULIP” acronym (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, perseverance of the saints) seems to have first appeared early in the twentieth century in the United States, and its aptness can be challenged. Since the Reformed view teaches that Christ actually saved all for whom he died (rather than merely making salvation possible), “limited atonement” is not the best term. Furthermore, the Canons of Dort labor the point that our will is not coerced or forced, so “irresistible grace” is not as good as the traditional terms such as “effectual calling” and “regeneration.” But it’s hard to find a good flower for a more accurate acronym.

It’s always better to read a confession than to reduce it to a clever device. One finds in the Canons of Dort an abundant appeal to specific scriptural passages—not merely proof-texting, but demonstrating how dependent the argument itself is upon the passages selected. These five points do not summarize the whole teaching of Reformed theology, but they certainly are essential to its faith and practice.

Summarizing Dort
First Head of Doctrine: Divine Election and Reprobation

All share in Adam’s guilt and corruption, and God would be just to leave all to perish in their sins. Nevertheless, God sent his Son to save all who believe and sends messengers with his gospel. That many do believe is credited solely to God’s grace in Christ and by his Spirit, through the gospel, in granting faith. Unbelievers have only themselves to blame. God decreed to grant faith from all eternity and in time actively softens the hearts of his elect and inclines them to trust in Christ, “while He leaves the non-elect in His just judgment to their own wickedness and obduracy.”

Election is unconditional, based only on God’s free mercy, not on anything in or foreseen in sinners. (Indeed, what would he have foreseen apart from his gift?) To this end, the Father “appointed [Christ] the Mediator and Head of the elect and the foundation of salvation,” and in due course calls, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies them. The elect are chosen out of the same mass of condemned sinners as the rest, out of sheer grace. So election and reprobation are free, but not arbitrary; those whom God chooses in his Son are as deserving of condemnation. This doctrine is not to encourage our “inquisitively prying into the secret and deep things of God,” much less a careless or carnal security, but to assure us of the certain foundation of God’s promise in the gospel. This truth should be explored by Scripture alone, “without vainly attempting to investigate the secret ways of the Most High (Acts 20:27; Rom. 11:33, 34; 12:3; Heb 6:17, 18).”

While the Triune God actively saves the elect, “others are passed by in the eternal decree,” left to their own misery. In this reprobation, God is simply acting as the just Judge who could have left all sinners to their own destruction. Weak believers should by no means struggle over whether they are reprobate but should receive the means of grace, “since a merciful God has promised that he will not quench the smoking flax, nor break the bruised reed.” In Article 17 we read that since Scripture teaches “that the children of believers are holy, not by nature, but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they together with the parents are comprehended, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom it pleases God to call out of this life in their infancy (Gen. 17:7; Acts 2:39; 1 Cor. 7:14).”

Dort rejects the view that Scripture is silent or unclear on the question, much less that God’s electing grace is conditioned on our obedience or even faith, which itself is a gift. “For by this injurious error the pleasure of God and the merits of Christ are made of none effect, and men are drawn away by useless questions from the truth of gracious justification.” Also rejected is the Roman Catholic and Arminian belief that it is presumptuous to claim assurance of being elect, since all who trust in Christ are assured of their election.

Second Head of Doctrine: The Death of Christ and the Redemption of Men Thereby

The focus of this Head is on the efficacy of Christ’s work, which not only makes redemption possible but actually accomplishes it. According to these articles, God’s justice requires satisfaction. “Since, therefore, we are unable to make that satisfaction in our own persons, or to deliver ourselves from the wrath of God, He has been pleased of His infinite mercy to give His only begotten Son for our Surety, who was made sin, and became a curse for us and in our stead, that He might make satisfaction to divine justice on our behalf.” As God and human in one person, Christ alone is sufficient for all. His death “is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.” (This echoes a traditional medieval slogan: Christ’s death was “sufficient for the world, efficient for the elect alone.”) “Moreover, the promise of the gospel is that whosoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Sufficient for all, the gospel is not just proclaimed to the elect (as if we knew who they were), but “to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously, and without distinction.”

Just as the Father chose many (not all) to be saved and calls these to his Son by his Spirit, justifying, renewing, and keeping them to the end, Scripture also declares that the purpose of Christ’s death was to save his people entrusted to him before the foundation of the world. The gates of hell will not prevail against the church, therefore, since it is anchored in election and its “foundation was laid in the blood of Christ.”

Consequently, the synod rejected the errors of those who teach that the Father sent the Son on no certain mission, but merely to make salvation possible for all, and “that it was not the purpose of the death of Christ that He should confirm the new covenant of grace through His blood, but only that He should acquire for the Father the mere right to establish with man such a covenant as he might please, whether of grace or of works.” This targeted especially the Arminian “moral government” theory, taught by Hugo Grotius, according to which Christ’s death was merely the basis on which God could offer salvation on easier terms than full satisfaction of his justice. Also rejected is the view “that Christ by His satisfaction merited neither salvation itself for anyone, nor faith,” but “only the authority…to deal again with man and to prescribe new conditions, as He might desire, obedience to which, however, depended on the free will of man.” This is merely to “bring again out of hell the Pelagian error.” To drive in the last nail against this Arminian (and Socinian) position, the synod repudiated those who deny that Christ actually merited justification and all saving blessings by his perfect obedience to the whole law, and who instead teach that “God, having revoked the demand of perfect obedience,” now “regards faith itself and the obedience of faith, although imperfect, as the perfect obedience of the law, and does esteem it worthy of the reward of eternal life through grace.” Also rejected is the view that Christ’s death only saves by our act of “appropriating it,” rather than by its own efficacy.

Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine: The Corruption of Man, His Conversion to God, and the Manner Thereof

Treating original sin and regeneration in the same chapter, the articles affirm that human beings were created good and that man fell “by his own free will,” corrupting his excellent gifts. We became like Adam not by imitation, but by inheriting his guilt and corruption. Conceived in sin, dead and helpless, we cannot regenerate ourselves or even dispose ourselves to reformation. There are still remnants of a natural knowledge of God and civic morality, but this never rises to true faith and righteousness.

[God’s law] reveals the greatness of sin, and more and more convinces man thereof, yet, as it neither points out a remedy nor imparts strength to extricate [us] from this misery, but, being weak through the flesh, leaves the transgressor under the curse, man cannot by this law obtain saving grace. What, therefore, neither the light of nature nor the law could do, that God performs by the operation of the Holy Spirit through the word or ministry of reconciliation; which is the glad tidings concerning the Messiah, by means whereof it has pleased God to save such as believe, as well under the Old as under the New Testament.

In converting sinners to Christ, God “not only causes the gospel to be externally preached to them,” but also effectually regenerates his elect through that Word. Hence, regeneration is a spiritual resurrection from death. The will is not merely influenced by the Spirit and the pleadings of the gospel, but is liberated to unfailingly embrace Christ.

Like Christ’s redeeming work, then, faith is not merely offered but is actually conferred, by sheer grace and without any obligation to grant it. Nevertheless, this “grace of regeneration does not treat men as senseless stocks and blocks, nor take away their will and its properties, or do violence thereto; but it spiritually quickens, heals, corrects, and at the same time sweetly and powerfully bends it, that where carnal rebellion and resistance formerly prevailed, a ready and sincere spiritual obedience begins to reign; in which the true and spiritual restoration and freedom of our will consist.”

The Rejection of Errors points out that we are born dead in sin, not merely weak or sick. Also rejected is the idea that we can ascend from the use of common (natural) virtues—free will and inward graces to saving grace—and that God’s regenerating grace is merely “a gentle advising” or wooing that depends on our free choice, and not a spiritual resurrection. Finally, the synod rejected the belief “that grace and free will are partial causes which together work the beginning of conversion”—which is commonly identified as “synergism.”

Fifth Head of Doctrine: Perseverance of the Saints

All of the elect, redeemed by the Son and called to Christ by the Spirit, are kept to the end, even though “the daily sins of infirmity and blemishes cleave even to the best works of the saints.” This causes us not to despair but “to flee for refuge to Christ crucified” and from that safe place to mortification of our sins and vivification in Christ. No one could persevere in grace “if left to their own strength,” but salvation depends on God’s faithfulness from beginning to end. Even “enormous sins,” such as those exhibited by David and Peter, cannot overturn God’s electing, redeeming, and regenerating work in Christ—although they disturb the conscience and our sense of God’s favor. God never lets us go “so far as to lose the grace of adoption and forfeit the state of justification, or to commit the sin unto death or against the Holy Spirit.”

The foundation of this confidence is the Trinity, “since [the Father’s] counsel cannot be changed nor His promise fail; neither can the call according to His purpose be revoked, nor the merit, intercession, and preservation of Christ be rendered ineffectual, nor the sealing of the Holy Spirit be frustrated or obliterated.”

Believers are assured of this salvation not by any private experience, but by the promise of the gospel to which the Spirit testifies inwardly. They indeed “struggle with various carnal doubts,” and temptations beat away at “this full assurance of faith and certainty of persevering. But God, who is the Father of all consolation, does not suffer them to be tempted above what they are able.” This certainty, grounded in God’s promise, above and beyond our experience, doesn’t lead to pride or carnal security but is “an incentive to the serious and constant practice of gratitude and good works.” The means by which God strengthens our confidence in Christ are the preaching of the gospel and the sacraments.

Rejected first is the error that this perseverance is “a condition of the new covenant,” dependent on our free will and obedience rather than “a fruit of election, or a gift of God gained by the death of Christ.” Also denied is the belief that God gives sufficient grace to persevere if only we cooperate with his grace, or that any of those regenerated and justified can lose their salvation or commit the unpardonable sin. The synod also rejected the view that the temporary “faith” of those who fall away (like the seed that falls on rocky soil) is the same as that true faith God gives to his elect. Finally, the canons reject the idea that anyone for whom Christ intercedes can be lost.

In its conclusion Dort faces squarely perennial caricatures. These doctrines of grace do not lead to license or to a view of an arbitrary deity. Dort denies “that in the same manner in which the election is the foundation and cause of faith and good works, reprobation is the cause of unbelief and impiety.” In fact, this “the Reformed Churches not only do not acknowledge, but even detest with their whole soul.”

The statement concludes with a caution to remain within the bounds of Scripture on these matters and a final prayer:

May Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who, seated at the Father’s right hand, gives gifts to men, sanctify us in the truth; bring to the truth those who err; shut the mouths of the calumniators of sound doctrine, and endue the faithful ministers of his Word with the Spirit of wisdom and discretion, that all their discourses may tend to the glory of God, and the edification of those who hear them. Amen.

Michael S. Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation.