The Five Points of Calvinism – Defining the Doctrines of Grace
What are the Five Points of Calvinism and what do these doctrines teach us about salvation?
Known as both the Doctrines of Grace and the Five Points of Calvinism, these doctrines are named for the distinct theological stances taken by the reformer John Calvin (who didn’t use this term himself). The Five Points of Calvinism are: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and the Perseverance of the Saints.
You have likely come across the acrostic T.U.L.I.P. as a memory aid for these doctrinal positions. Below is a brief description of the doctrines represented by each letter:
Due to sin all of mankind is completely sinful, or depraved. Every part of fallen man is corrupted by sin. He is a creature that incapable of obeying the law of God. We see in Romans 3:10 that no one is righteous, and in Romans 3:23 that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” So much for the common belief that mankind is basically good! Understanding that we are completely sinful, or totally depraved, is an essential part of fully appreciating God’s grace in rescuing sinners from the punishment that we deserve.
This depravity affects every part of the human experience and spiritually we are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). This doctrine does not teach that each man is as wicked as he could be. The fact that everyone isn’t an anarchist or a psychopath doesn’t negate this doctrine. Instead, what is being taught is that our depravity is total in reference to our complete rebellion against God (Psalm 14:1-3) and our inability to do good (Romans 8:7-8) – apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, of course.
Also known as “sovereign election,” this is the teaching that God’s rescuing of sinners is entirely due to His own will and good pleasure (Ephesians 1:5). Salvation is not brought about in any way by our actions or decisions. Remember, Scripture teaches that we are spiritually dead. Because of this we cannot and will not turn towards God on our own. Instead, it is God who elects believers to salvation (Romans 8:28-30). He does this based solely on His grace and not our works (2 Timothy 1:9).
Believers were chosen by God “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:3-6). This further emphasizes our inability to earn salvation by our works, since election predates our very existence. The Bible teaches that those who place their faith in Christ are those whom He has elected unto salvation (Acts 13:48). Jesus said, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him” (John 6:44. See also John 6:65).
The Bible is clear that it is God who saves and that He does so according to His grace, not on the condition of our works or foreseen response to this grace. It is in this sense that election is unconditional.
A Note on Election
The idea of election may be new to you. As we have seen, we are spiritually dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1) and depraved, unable and unwilling to choose God (Romans 3:10-11). Furthermore, the Bible says that belief is due to God’s sovereign election from before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:3-6) and is not contingent on our actions (Titus 3:5). Salvation is a work of God in us from start to finish.
This theological stance is found throughout Scripture. Jesus came to save “His people” from sins (Matthew 1:29), and laid down His life down for the sheep, which represents believers (John 10:11). Furthermore, He taught that the Son of Man came “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28. See also Matthew 26:28 and Hebrews 9:28).
Limited atonement can be a difficult doctrine, and one that should be handled with care. It is likely the most controversial (and misunderstood) aspect of Reformed Theology, so this section is a bit longer than the others. Atonement refers to the forgiveness of our sins by means of Jesus’ sinless life and sacrificial death. Christ atoned, or paid for, our sins on the cross (1 Peter 3:18). So far, so good; this much is agreed upon by just about everyone who would consider themselves to be Christian.
Calvinism is distinctive in that it teaches Jesus’ death on the cross did not merely make salvation possible for those who choose to receive it, but that it made salvation definite for those who have been elected by God. For this reason, many prefer to refer to this doctrine as Definite Atonement, as there is nothing limited about the power or effectiveness of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. His sacrifice is completely sufficient to save sinners, but it is made definite only for those who God has chosen.
When looking at this doctrine, it’s important to note that all theological frameworks “limit” the atonement in some respect (aside from Universalism, which falsely teaches that all will be saved). Either Jesus’ death was intended for absolutely everyone but is unable to save any but those who respond in faith (limited in its effectiveness), or His death was completely effective in atoning for the sins of those whom it was intended for (and so the atonement is limited in its intended recipients). Stated another way, either Christ’s atoning death was meant for the salvation of all but is limited in its ability to accomplish this, or the intent of the atonement was ‘limited’ to fully redeeming all of God’s elect.
The latter is the Reformed position as articulated by Calvinism. This view is reflected in Acts 13:48 where we see that “as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” Believers are those who were appointed to eternal life by God.
No one can be saved unless they are first drawn by God (John 6:44). Irresistible Grace does not teach that God’s calling cannot be resisted for a period of time, but that this resistance will ultimately be overcome. For this reason, a better term may be Effectual Grace, signaling that God’s intentions will have their intended effect on a person’s life. We cannot thwart the will of God to save us.
In short, this is the belief that all who are called by God to believe in Jesus will be saved. In John 6:37 Christ states, “All that the Father gives me will come to me,” and in 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.” God’s sovereign election is not contingent on our response; those who are called by Him will ultimately obtain justification and glorification (Romans 8:28-30).
PERSEVERANCE OF THE SAINTS
If you have been justified before God you cannot lose your salvation. Once a person is truly saved, this salvation is eternally secure. In speaking about his sheep, Jesus taught that “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 10:28-29).
Rather than having to hold on to our salvation, the Bible teaches that when a person believes in Christ, they immediately obtain an eternal life (John 5:24; 6:47) that cannot be lost (John 10:27-28; Romans 8:31-39). Those who do appear to permanently fall away from the faith were never true believers (1 John 2:19).
Since we all struggle with sin, we can take comfort in this doctrine. As John MacArthur has stated, “If you could lose your salvation, you would.”
The Five Points of Calvinism, or Doctrines of Grace, are merely summaries of what the Bible teaches about salvation. We do not revere these doctrines because they were taught by John Calvin, but because they are found in Scripture.
These five points also serve as a helpful introduction to the beliefs of Reformed Theology. Although some of these doctrines can seem difficult at first, I would encourage you to continue to look into these truths. As believers, our main concern should be conforming our theology to what the Scripture teaches. It is my conviction that Reformed Theology best captures the truth of God’s Word in these and many other areas.
Calvinism has its footing not in the Reformation of the 1500s, but in the very pages of Scripture. Tweet that
I close with a quote from C.H. Spurgeon, a powerful preacher, passionate evangelist, and committed Calvinist:
I have my own private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the Gospel and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the Gospel if we do not preach justification by faith, without works; nor unless we preach the sovereignty of God in His dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor can I comprehend a Gospel which lets saints fall away after they are called and suffers the children of God to be burned in the fires of damnation after having once believed in Jesus. Such a Gospel I abhor.
Here are some ways you can learn more about the Doctrines of Grace:
What is Reformed Theology: A Video Series from R.C. Sproul
Sessions 7-12 cover the Five Points of Calvinism
What’s So Great About the Doctrines of Grace?
By Richard D. Phillips