What It Means To Be Reformed (4): CALVINISTIC

Previous article in this series: March 15, 2015, p. 269.

Introduction

What it means to be Reformed, as we have seen so far, is to believe heartily the biblical doctrine of the covenant, to confess that truth openly, and to live it with greatest joy. Covenant! This is Reformed. And Christian.

In this 90th anniversary year of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America (1925-2015), we are reflecting on the heritage God has given to us as a Reformed denomination. There are many things that we could say about the PRCA but, being Reformed Christians, what we want most to say is that we love, defend, and embrace covenant theology.

In the previous two editorials, we explained the doctrine of the covenant: God’s living bond of friendship and life between Him and His elect people in Jesus Christ—embracing also their children—established and sealed with inviolable promises. We also saw four very direct and important implications of this teaching: for worship, for the Sabbath, for believer’s children and, emphatically, for Christian marriage.

Calvinism

The next of the five “Cs”—Calvinism— is not an implication of the doctrine of the covenant. It is the biblical way of understanding the truth of the covenant. The biblical truth of the covenant is known when the covenant is understood Calvinistically. That is, the wonderful love-relationship between God and His people is established and maintained by sovereign grace. Understood in its most elemental form, Calvinism (in its doctrine of salvation) is the teaching that salvation is by sovereign, irresistible, unconditional, efficacious grace—if you will forgive the four redundancies. Grace is grace, as water is wet. But because errors have crept into the teaching of grace, redundancies sadly are necessary to emphasize that grace is truly grace. But it is almost like saying that “water is powerful wet stuff.”

The Protestant Reformed Churches have expressed this Calvinistic view of the covenant in this way: First, the covenant is established and maintained by God with His elect and with them alone, unconditionally. Second, if God establishes His covenant with an elect believer, he will remain a friend of God everlastingly. That is, God “will not sever His covenant-bonds” (a versification of Psalm 105), and believers cannot sever them.1 By this manner of phrasing it, the PRC is determined to confess God’s covenant in harmony with the truths known as Calvinism.

The Five Points of Calvinism

To most Christians, Calvinism is defined by five essential doctrines. These doctrines are sometimes called the “doctrines of grace,” more often the “Five Points of Calvinism.” As I will show next time, to be Calvinistic is to embrace much more than the “Five Points,” but one may not claim to be Calvinist without embracing these five points, even though vigorous but vain efforts are often made to do just that.2 To be Calvinist is to believe and confess Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and the Preservation (or Perseverance) of the Saints. These five points are often remembered by the acronym TULIP.

Applied to the doctrine of the covenant, these five points can be put in this way.

Total Depravity: Those with whom God lives in loving fellowship have nothing in themselves to merit His love—they are, by nature, fully and completely depraved, “so corrupt” that they are “incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 8). That is, God’s love for His friends is not earned or deserved, for when God looked down from heaven upon the children of men to see if there were any that did seek God… there was not one (Ps. 14:2, 3). By Adam’s fall into sin, man forfeited all his excellent gifts and “entailed on himself blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity, and perverseness of judgment, became wicked, rebellious, and obdurate in heart and will, and impure in his affections” (Canons 3/4:1).

The overall Scripture is consistent with the clear teaching of Romans 7:18 and Romans 8:7: “I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing.” Natural man cannot do good and has no desire to do good. He is “dead in sin and in bondage thereto” (Canons 3/4:3). In the estimation of God, no works done by an unbeliever are good. For a work to be good in God’s eyes, its source must be faith, its motive love, and its goal God’s glory (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 32). And with regard to the “natural light” an unbeliever yet has, he is not able to use it rightly “even in things natural and civil” (Canons 3/4:4). Those whom God chooses to befriend have nothing in them that deserves it.

Unconditional Election: Viewing the mass of fallen humanity in eternity, God graciously chose some of them to make them the bride of His Son, and predestined their eternal state to be glory in His heavenly home (Canons I:7). The reason for choosing some and not others was not that He foresaw that these would distinguish themselves to be worthy of His love and favor. So we see that the doctrine of total depravity sets the stage for the teaching of Unconditional Election. The election of God’s beloved friends and bride must be unconditional (Canons I:9). It was a determination to give unworthy sinners to Christ (Eph. 1:1, 4, 10; Eph. 2:10), to be saved by Him, to make them holy (Eph. 1:4) by the worth and power of “the beloved” (Eph. 1:6). So when Romans 8:29 teaches that God predestined those whom God “foreknew,” this is not to be understood to mean that God foreknew something about them. The text does not say that. Rather, God knew them; that is, He loved them. That is real, biblical knowledge (see Gen. 4:1, 25; Amos 3:2; Matt. 7:23; II Tim. 2:19). God chose His covenant friends unconditionally.

Limited Atonement: For these elect and for these alone God sent Jesus Christ to make atonement. “It was the will of God that Christ… should…redeem…all those, and those only, who were…chosen to salvation” (Canons II:8). Christ laid down His life “for his sheep” (John 10:11, 15). God sent His Son to save “His people” (Matt. 1:21), to redeem His elect friends. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). There are those who are not His sheep (John 10:25-28). Jesus did not die for them.

Thus, the “all” for whom Christ gave His life a ransom (I Tim. 2:6) is not every man who ever lived. And the “all” whom God wills to be saved (I Tim 2:4) is not every man head-for-head (any more than the “all men” in Luke 21:17 means every man head-for-head). The “all men” expressions in the New Testament usually mean all kinds of men—a way of speaking sorely needed for the new but immature Jewish Christians, who wrongly supposed only one kind of man could be saved—a Jew. And the “world” that God loves (John 3:16), is not every man who ever lived, but the world viewed organically.3 Even the “any” in the phrase “the Lord…is not willing that any should perish” (II Pet. 3:9) is not a reference to every man, but to God’s elect, the “us” in the earlier part of the verse. Christ’s death, and God’s will to save through that death, are both restricted, or limited, to those whom God has chosen unconditionally to be saved. God’s purpose in Christ’s death “proceeds from everlasting love towards the elect” (Canons II:9).

Especially here—both with the definite and limited nature of the atonement as well as with the limited intent of the atonement—so many are offended. Because of their unwillingness to accept this point, many call themselves Four Point Calvinists (a contradiction in terms, like “a four-sided pentagon” or a “goalie-less hockey team”). Especially here Calvinism must be inflexible.

In the end, we maintain the Calvinistic teaching of Limited Atonement, not merely because some or even many texts prove it, but because of the entire biblical witness to the sovereignty of God in covenant salvation.

Irresistible Grace teaches that God comes sweetly but powerfully to His chosen but lifeless friends and gives them life. The grace that brings them out of darkness into light, from the grave into life, is such a power that it cannot be resisted. When God determines to accomplish His good pleasure in a man, he can only surrender. When God calls, none can refuse, any more than Lazarus could have determined to stay in the grave when Jesus said, “Come forth!” Because grace is power (I Cor. 15:10), when God comes to men He “powerfully illuminates their minds,…opens the closed and softens the hardened heart,…infuses new qualities into the will…[and] renders [that will] good, obedient, and pliable” (Canons 3/4:11). Not that any object of His grace wants to resist, for God makes them “willing in the day of his power” (Ps. 110:3).

Preservation of the Saints: In these redeemed elect, God “preserves… the incorruptible seed of regeneration from perishing.” And though we at times fall and fall deeply, God “certainly and effectually renews [us] to repentance” and will not allow us “totally [to] fall from faith and grace” (Canons V:7, 8). Jesus’ friends “shall never perish” (John 10:28). He is faithful to His promises. God’s “counsel cannot be changed, nor His promise fail, neither can the call according to His purpose be revoked…” (Canons V:8).

“Once saved always saved” may be one way to express this fifth point, but that may tend to a flippant attitude. When God’s grace preserves His friends, it works in them perseverance in holy living. No one can separate us from the love of God in Christ. None can pluck us out of the Father’s hand, indeed. But because of grace God’s people actively persevere in faith and holiness. Although no one is dragged, kicking and screaming, to heaven, neither does anyone come to glory without a struggle to live in holy obedience to his Father.

The Five Points are “Reformed”

It is surprising to me that so many Calvinists would defend the Five Points by appealing everywhere, it seems, except to their real and authoritative source—the Canons of Dordt.4 No one may defend the Five Points by appealing merely to Calvin; just as no one may try to undermine one of the Five Points by quoting Calvin. The authoritative definition and explanation of the “doctrines of grace,” for Reformed Christians, is the officially adopted creed called the Canons of Dordt.

There is sometimes discussion as to the source of the acronym “TULIP.” Some have pointed out that reference to the phrase “Five Points of Calvinism” can be found only as far back as the early 1900s. Thus, the Five Points are said to be a novelty. But a Reformed Christian has very little interest in the origin of the acronym. He knows that, although these teachings are indeed what Calvin himself taught, the origin of the “Five Points” as five distinct but inseparable expressions of biblical truth is the “Great Synod,” the Synod of Dordrecht. This international gathering of Reformed churches, meeting in the Netherlands in 1618 and 1619 to defend Reformed truth against the heresy of the Arminians, adopted the “Canons of Dordt.” These canons (a set of binding rules or standards) were laid out in five major “heads,” in the order U-L-T-I-P.

If a man is Reformed, he will know and understand the doctrines explained in this beautiful creed. Even if, in the providence of God, some Reformed Christians or churches have not officially embraced this creed—as our Presbyterian brothers or our German friends—they will still express assent to the truths contained in the Canons, and heartily agree with the errors rejected by the fathers of Dordt.

We are happy to call these five doctrines of grace “The Five Points of Calvinism.” They are certainly the doctrines of John Calvin. To be more historically accurate, we might better call them the “Five Points of Dordt.”

More than the Five Points

But Calvinism is much more than the Five Points, even as being Reformed is far more than the doctrines of grace. Properly understood, Calvinism is a particular way of worship, a unique form of church government, an antithetical (holy) way of life, and more. We will have something to say about all these in the later articles in this series. But before we go on to the “Implications” of Calvinism, some important things must be said about Calvinism’s “solas” as they apply to the doctrine of a gracious covenant. April 15, God willing.


1 The covenant can be “broken” in the sense of “violated,” but man can never sever the bond that God creates when He creates that bond.

2 For two recent examples of this, see Kenneth J. Stewart, 10 Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011); and Oliver D. Crisp, Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014).

3 As Arthur W. Pink so clearly shows in the appendix of his The Sovereignty of God.

4 Yet this is what happened in the recent book of essays, by various authors, in honor of R.C. Sproul, After Darkness, Light: Distinctives of Reformed Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003). An otherwise promising book according to its title and chapter headings—the five points of Calvinism and the five “solas” of the Reformation are the topics—the book is written with scarcely a mention of the Reformed creeds, much less the Canons. The one happy exception is W. Robert Godfrey’s “Unconditional Election.”