TULIP: All or Nothing

Why must the whole TULIP be accepted and not picked apart as each person chooses or desires? Let John MacArthur answer our question. In the book, The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented, written by David N. Steele, Curtis C. Thomas, and S. Lance Quinn, Calvinist pastor John MacArthur states the following in his Afterword:
Scripture speaks with absolute, unmistakable clarity on these vital issues: (1) Sinners are utterly helpless to redeem themselves or to contribute anything meritorious toward their own salvation (Rom. 8:7-8). (2) God is sovereign in the exercise of His saving will (Eph. 1:4-5). (3) Christ died as a substitute who bore the full weight of God's wrath on behalf of His people, and His atoning work alone is efficacious for their salvation (Isa. 53:5). (4) God's saving purpose cannot be thwarted (John 6:37), meaning none of Christ's true sheep will ever be lost (John 10:27-29). That is because (5) God assures the perseverance of His [unconditionally] elect (Jude 1:24; Phil. 1:6; 1 Peter 1:5).1
As do many other Calvinists, MacArthur tragically subscribes to a naïve realist approach to hermeneutics and epistemology. "Scripture speaks with absolute, unmistakable clarity on these vital issues" relating to TULIP Calvinism? Really? If Scripture were so absolutely and unmistakably clear on these issues, then all believers would agree. Moreover, the believers of the first four centuries throughout Church history, prior to St Augustine in the early fifth century, would have recognized these "clear" truths and promoted them. That they did not should speak volumes to Calvinists. But I digress.

TULIP works as a soteriological wheel for Calvinism, with each letter of the acronym acting as a necessary and essential spoke. Because fallen human beings are Totally depraved, totally incapable of believing in Christ, due to their state of "deadness," God has Unconditionally pre-selected to bring unto faith and salvation those particular persons He (arbitrarily) chose -- Christ having died substitutionally for them alone, thus providing a Limited atonement; and the Spirit of God Irresistibly regenerating these particular persons, and granting them faith to believe, by which action God the Father will justify them, the Godhead constantly Preserves them, or necessarily, determinately, irresistibly causes them to persevere.

Each petal of the TULIP, each spoke of this Calvinist wheel, works in tandem with the other, meaning that the absence of even one petal, or one spoke, could weaken or cause the system to fail. If depraved people can trust in Christ for salvation merely by prevenient grace, at their own grace-induced choosing, then unconditional election is unwarranted, as is limited atonement, irresistible grace, and necessary perseverance. If, however, a depraved person cannot believe in Christ apart from God's act of regeneration, also known as irresistible grace, which MacArthur himself has confessed to reject, then God must choose whom to give this grace to, apply Christ's atonement solely to them, and render certain their perseverance.

As an aside, I find strange MacArthur's framing Irresistible Grace above in terms of perseverance, "(4) God's saving purpose cannot be thwarted (John 6:37), meaning none of Christ's true sheep will ever be lost (John 10:27-29)." Still, there is much in MacArthur's statement with which classical Arminians and Wesleyan-Arminians agree entirely!

  • Sinners are utterly helpless to redeem themselves or to contribute anything meritorious toward their own salvation (Rom. 8:7-8). [We agree entirely.]
  • God is sovereign in the exercise of His saving will (Eph. 1:4-5). [We agree entirely.]
  • Christ died as a substitute who bore the full weight of God's wrath on behalf of His people, and His atoning work alone is efficacious for their salvation (Isa. 53:5). [We agree entirely.]
  • God's saving purpose cannot be thwarted (John 6:37). [We agree entirely.]

Yes, sinners are utterly helpless to redeem themselves or to contribute anything meritorious toward their own salvation, but this truth in no sense warrants an unconditional election, a limited atonement in intent, irresistible grace (or the notion that regeneration precedes faith), or even perseverance of the saints. If we remember St Paul's admonition that faith in Christ is not considered a meritorious work (Rom. 4:4, 5), then we can dispense with any baseless argument from Calvinists suggesting that, in classical Arminianism, faith is counted as a merit, a work, or is a return to Rome.2



Yes, God is sovereign in the exercise of His saving will, and He has, as Scripture plainly states, elected to save those who believe -- not unconditionally, but conditioned on the basis of faith in Christ. (cf. John 3:15, 16, 36; 4:14; 5:24, 40; 6:47; 6:50-58; 20:31; Rom 3:21-30; 4:3-5; 4:9, 11, 13, 16; 4:20-24; 5:1, 2; 9:30-33; 10:4; 10:9-13; 1 Cor 1:21; 15:1-2; Gal 2:15-16; 3:2-9; 3:11; 3:14, 22, 24; 3:26-28; Eph 1:13; 2:8; Phil 3:9; Heb 3:6, 14; 3:18-19; 4:2-3; 6:12; 1 John 2:23-25; 5:10-13, 20). God does not save unbelievers, and has not elected unbelievers unto salvation. (Mark 1:15; Luke 8:12; John 1:12; 3:16; Acts 16:31; Rom. 1:16-17; 3:22; 6:8; 10:9-10; 1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 3:22; Eph. 1:19; 1 Tim. 1:16; Heb. 7:25; 11:6; 1 John 5:13)

Yes, Christ died as a substitute who bore the full weight of God's wrath on behalf of His people, and His atoning work alone is efficacious for their salvation (Isa. 53:5). But this truth in no sense implies that Christ died for the elect alone, as no one can reconcile "the world" (Jonn 3:16; 2 Cor. 5:14, 15) and "the whole world" (1 John 2:2) with "strictly the elect." Yes, God's saving purpose cannot be thwarted (John 6:37), but who, exactly, argues that, when God regenerates the believer, the believer can (or would even think or desire to) thwart that purpose?

However, if one defends the notion that total depravity necessitates regeneration preceding faith (i.e., irresistible grace), thus also necessitating the other petals of Calvinism's flower, then the system should be embraced in full, and not in part, in order to maintain some semblance of theological consistency. Dispensing with indefensible notions such as three-point and two-point Calvinism, we state that, while classical Arminians are grateful for four-point Calvinists who see in Scripture an atonement proffered for all, we are right to confess that such Calvinists are being inconsistent within their own soteriological framework.

For example, what purpose could God possibly maintain in providing an atonement for those whom He has not unconditionally pre-selected unto faith and salvation? If He has no intention of saving them, then an atonement provided for them is not merely gratuitous, but is actually cruel. In essence, in real language, this suggests a God who provided the means of what lost human beings need most but refused to let them anywhere near that means. How this solves any inherent problems that Calvinism itself creates regarding the character of God and His grace toward the creatures He created in His image is beyond our understanding.

I do not want to speak for the Calvinist community, however, and there are a plethora of voices remonstrating any semblance of four-point Calvinism. These Calvinists agree with us that five-point Calvinism is true Calvinism and any sort of Calvinism that does not incorporate all five points does not truly understand or rightly represent Calvinism.

R.C. Sproul, for example, emphatically states: "There are a host of folks who call themselves four-point Calvinist because they can't swallow the doctrine of limited atonement. Sometimes they say, 'I'm not a Calvinist and I'm not an Arminian, I'm a Calminian.' I think that a four-point Calvinist is an Arminian."3 Of course, classical Arminians and Wesleyans disagree. Anyone who espouses unconditional election is, clearly, not an Arminian. Such a person may be a confused Calvinist, even an inconsistent Calvinist, but in no sense an Arminian.

When Sproul encountered what he believed to be a genuine four-point Calvinist theologian, the discovery was shocking for each man, as the theologian actually espoused Limited Atonement without realizing it. Alas, Dr. Sproul was right, in that five-point Calvinism is a well-oiled and consistent machine demanding to be accepted in full and not in part; and, if an individual cannot rightly see or understand the doctrine of Limited Atonement, then perhaps he or she ought to rethink the entire system.

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1 David N. Steele, Curtis C. Thomas, and S. Lance Quinn, The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented, second edition (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2004), 139.

2 R.C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006), 24-25.

3 R.C. Sproul, The Truth of the Cross (Lake Mary: Reformation Trust Publising, 2007), 140.

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ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.