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2. Reformation Sunday: Why the Five Points Matter (Various Scriptures)

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November 5, 2017

“Why would the pastor want to preach on the five points of Calvinism? Is he trying to stir up controversy?” No, my aim is not to be controversial, but to clarify some important but frequently misrepresented and misunderstood truths about salvation that the Reformation recovered.

While understanding the five points is not essential for salvation, these truths are important for your spiritual life. They will deepen your understanding of God and His grace; man as sinful; salvation being for God’s glory alone; Christ’s work on the cross; the new birth; assurance of salvation; and, evangelism. Many godly giants of the faith have proclaimed these doctrines of grace, including the Reformers, most of the Puritans, Jonathan Edwards, C. H. Spurgeon, George Muller, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and many others.

The view that opposes Calvinism is called Arminianism (after Jacob Arminius). Spurgeon humorously pointed out that by nature we’re all born as Arminians (C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography, The Early Years [Banner of Truth], 1:164), so God has to open our eyes to these truths. Usually, it’s a process. My aim is to help you along in that process. Spurgeon (ibid. 1:168) calls these truths, “the essence of the Bible,” “the gospel, and nothing else.”

In my case, I came to understand four of the five points long before I ever read a page of Calvin or any Reformed theologian. As a college student, I used to wrestle with Romans 9, where Paul states (v. 16), “So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.” Finally, I realized that I wasn’t wrestling with Paul. By resisting God’s sovereignty in salvation as plainly and repeatedly revealed in Scripture, I was fighting against God Himself! At that point, I submitted to God’s Word. But I didn’t come to understand the fifth point, so-called “limited atonement,” until the mid-1990’s when I read John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ [Banner of Truth]. (More on that later.)

Calvin himself did not delineate these five points. He died in 1564. In the early 1600’s, Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) and his followers disagreed with some of the main teachings of the Reformers. They came up with five points to state their views. Reformed scholars at the Synod of Dort (1618-1619) rebutted these points by coming up with what are now called the five points of Calvinism. They are summarized by the acronym TULIP: Total depravity; Unconditional election; Limited atonement; Irresistible grace; and, Perseverance of the saints. Those titles don’t accurately describe these doctrines and have led to a lot of misunderstanding (Piper, Five Points [Christian Focus], p. 13). But, since they’re an easy way to remember the points, I’ll use them here.

But you still may wonder, “Why speak on these points since they are so controversial?” The fact that they are controversial is no reason to avoid them. The Bible has many difficult, controversial truths. The question is, are these doctrines in the Bible? If they are, then we need to understand them for our spiritual good (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Since books have been written on these points, I can’t go in depth or answer all objections. But here’s why they matter:

The five points of Calvinism matter because they help you glorify God by better understanding His great salvation.

J. I. Packer (Introduction to Owen, Death of Death, p. 6) says that the one point of Calvinism is that God saves sinners; sinners do not save themselves in any sense at all. If you were partly responsible for your salvation, then you can share in the glory. If God did it all, He gets all the glory. So salvation is totally of the Lord. That is the main issue.

1. Total depravity: By nature, all people are born in sin, enslaved to sin, hostile toward God, unwilling and unable to repent and believe in Christ.

Some mistakenly think that “total depravity” means that people are as evil as they possibly could be. Thankfully, that’s not true! Total depravity refers to the impact of sin on every part of every person: our intellect, emotions, and will are sinful by nature. Because of Adam’s fall into sin, all people (except for Jesus) have been born sinners, alienated from God. As sinners, no one is willing or able to come to Christ apart from God’s intervention. The will of sinners is free to act according to its sinful nature, but it is not free to choose and follow Jesus Christ apart from the new birth. As Charles Wesley put it (“And Can it Be?”) we were “fast bound in sin and nature’s night.” We were enslaved to sin, spiritually blind and dead (all biblical metaphors that picture inability).

Ephesians 2:1-3 asserts: “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.”

Later (Eph. 4:17), Paul asserts that unbelievers are “darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart.” Being dead in sins, darkened in understanding, and hard of heart picture the total spiritual inability of the natural man.

Paul also explains (1 Cor. 2:14): “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” “Cannot” means inability. He repeats (2 Cor. 4:3-4): “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Blind people are incapable of seeing the glory of Christ in the gospel.

Paul also describes those outside of Christ (Rom. 8:7-8): “… the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” He is again asserting the inability of fallen sinners to please God. Since saving faith pleases God, apart from God’s gracious intervention, no sinner is able to believe in Christ.

Jesus taught the same thing. He told Nicodemus (John 3:1-8) that his religious piety would not get him into God’s kingdom. He needed to be born again by the Holy Spirit. Just as a baby cannot will himself to be born, so a sinner can’t will himself to be born again. Jesus said to the Jews who were challenging Him (John 8:43): “Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word.” He added that the reason they could not hear His word was that they were of their father the devil. They needed to be born of God. Many of Jesus’ miracles, such as healing the lame, opening the ears of the deaf and the eyes of the blind, and raising the dead are spiritual pictures of the helpless condition of sinners. They need God’s mighty power to save them.

Arminians claim that because of what they call “prevenient grace,” God has given all people the ability to believe in Christ. Otherwise, they argue, it is absurd to tell unbelievers to believe in Jesus if they are incapable of believing. While that argument sounds logical, it is not biblical, because as we’ve seen, the Bible repeatedly teaches the unwillingness and inability of sinners to repent and believe in Christ. And yet Scripture repeatedly exhorts sinners to repent and believe. Also, there are no solid verses to support the idea of prevenient grace (see Thomas Schreiner, Still Sovereign [Baker], pp. 229-246).

If you accept total depravity as true, then the other four points necessarily follow:

2. Unconditional election: By His grace alone, apart from any foreseen faith, before the foundation of the world God chose to save many, but not all, for His glory.

The common misunderstanding here is, “If God chose who would be saved, then we’re just robots. We don’t have any free will.” But “free will” is a misnomer. None of us are totally free. We didn’t choose our family or when or where to be born. We didn’t choose our DNA or gender. We didn’t choose to be born sinners. As I said, sinners are free to act in line with their nature, but they’re not free to choose Jesus Christ. They are slaves to sin (Rom. 6:17) and they love their sin (John 3:19-20). Unless God intervenes to open their blind eyes and deliver them from the power of sin, no one could or would come to Christ for salvation. He has to take the initiative in our salvation.

Scripture is clear that He graciously took this initiative before the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8). Paul states (Eph. 1:4-5), “just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will ….” Or (Rom. 8:29-30), “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.”

Arminians pounce on “foreknew,” asserting that God predestined those whom He knew in advance would believe. I deal with this at more length in my sermon on Romans 8:29. But here I can only point out that the theology behind the Arminian view robs God of His sovereignty and gives it to sinful people. God’s eternal plan would be contingent on which sinners decide to choose Christ. So rather than creating the universe and devising the plan of salvation for His glory, God just saw how the parade of history would go and jumped in front of the parade. He was relieved to see that a rebel like Saul of Tarsus would decide to believe, but He didn’t graciously choose to save Paul before Paul was born. Read the account of Paul’s salvation and see if that interpretation fits!

A second reason to reject the Arminian view of foreknowledge is the biblical usage of the word. When God is the subject, to foreknow means to choose or determine beforehand, often with the sense of choosing before to enter into a relationship (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 532). Obviously, God foreknows everything because He is omniscient. But He foreknows His people in the sense of choosing to enter a special relationship with them (Rom. 11:2; Amos 3:2; Jer. 1:5; Acts 2:23; 1 Pet. 1:20). Geoffrey Bromiley explains (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology [Baker], p. 420), “What [God] knows, he does not know merely as information. He is no mere spectator. What he foreknows he ordains. He wills it.” As Paul puts it (Eph. 1:11), we were “predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will.”

Some object, “If God didn’t choose everyone for salvation, then He doesn’t love everyone. And the Bible says that He is not willing that any should perish.” But the Bible is clear that God chose Israel as His people (Deut. 7:6). That means that before Christ He didn’t choose any other people on earth. And since the time of Christ, there have been many peoples who have lived and died with no gospel witness. Does that mean that God predestined some to go to hell? The Bible is clear that if anyone is saved, it is because God chose to save him. But if anyone goes to hell, it is because of his willful sin. For reasons we do not know, God permits many nations to go their own ways (Acts 14:16). He will be perfectly just when He judges them. No one will be judged unfairly (Matt. 11:20-27).

3. Limited atonement: Christ’s death paid the penalty of sin to secure salvation for all whom the Father had given Him.

As I said, this was the last point that I came to understand. It does not mean that we should limit the offer of the gospel to the elect (we don’t know who the elect are before they believe). Also, as many have pointed out, everyone limits the atonement in some way. The Arminian limits the effectiveness of Christ’s death: It didn’t actually save anyone, but only made salvation possible for those who choose to believe. The Calvinist limits the intent of the atonement as being only for the elect, but affirms that it is absolutely effective for them.

“Limited atonement” could better be called “particular redemption.” The real issue is the purpose for Christ’s death. Did He die to make salvation possible for all, but certain for none? Or, did He die to “save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21)? Did He die on the cross even for those who will finally reject Him and be condemned? Or, did He give Himself for His church, which He purposed to save (Eph. 5:25)? Revelation 5:9 pictures the redeemed in heaven singing, “Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” He didn’t purchase all people, but rather some from every people.

John Owen (The Death of Death, pp. 61-62) clarified and convinced me of this truth with his argument that Christ did not only aim for our salvation when He died, but He died in our place actually to secure our redemption. He fully paid our penalty so that we do not have to pay. Owen presents three options: Either God imposed His wrath and Christ paid the penalty for all the sins of everyone, in which case everyone will be saved. But this contradicts Scripture, which teaches that some will be lost. Or Christ died for some sins of everyone, the sin of unbelief being excepted. But where does the Bible teach this? And, how would unbelief be atoned for? This leaves a third option: Christ died to pay the penalty for all the sins of some people, namely, the elect, whom the Father gave to the Son before the foundation of the world.

Practically, this means that when Christ died, it wasn’t an impersonal, blanket plan for whoever may believe. Rather, He died specifically for you as His chosen child. He went into the orphanage, picked you out, and paid the price to make you His child.

Thus you were helplessly, hopelessly lost in sin. But God graciously chose you in Christ before the foundation of the world. Christ came and died to pay the penalty of sin that you owed.

4. Irresistible grace: Through the working of His Spirit, God infallibly draws to Himself all whom He has chosen to save.

This could better be called, “effectual calling.” It doesn’t mean that sinners are dragged to Christ kicking and screaming against their own will. Clearly, some sinners resist the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51; Eph. 4:30; 1 Thess. 5:19). Rather, it means that the Holy Spirit effectually makes those He chooses to save gladly willing to come to Christ.

Jesus taught this (John 6:37): “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.” He did not say, “I hope that all the Father gives to me will decide to come to Me, but it’s their choice.” He stated that they will come to Him because the Father had already given them to Him. He added (John 6:44), “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.” When some of His disciples stumbled over this and turned away, He didn’t soften it, but rather reinforced it (John 6:65): “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.” But if the Father grants it and draws that person, he will definitely come to Jesus for salvation.

Does this mean that a person has no choice in the matter? No, you must gladly decide to follow Jesus (as we sometimes sing), but you never would have decided to follow Jesus if God did not first graciously open your blind eyes and draw you to the beauty of Christ crucified for your sins. As His sovereign gift, He revealed to you the treasure of all that Jesus is. As a result, you joyously sold everything you had so that you could buy the field with that treasure (Matt. 13:44). The reason you chose to trust in Christ is that the Spirit first softened your hard heart to draw you to trust in Christ. Finally,

5. Perseverance of the saints: All whom God has chosen for salvation and saved by His grace will persevere unto eternal life.

Some teach that if a person prayed the sinner’s prayer or went forward at an altar call and professed faith in Christ, he is eternally secure, even if there’s no subsequent evidence of repentance or new life. But that’s not true. Genuine saving faith results in a life of godliness. The perseverance of the saints means, as Jesus promised (John 6:39-40; 10:27-30), that He will not lose any whom the Father has given to Him. On His part, He keeps us. On our part, perseverance in faith and obedience is the evidence that we’re truly saved.

I’ve had many Christian parents tell me, “I know that my child is going to heaven because when he was ten, he made a decision for Christ.” So even though he’s into drugs and immorality now and wants nothing to do with God, they think he’s saved because he made that decision. But the question is, did God change his heart through the new birth? Did he become a lover of God and His Word? Did he repent of his sins and seek to grow in obedience out of love for the Savior?

Granted, some true believers backslide for a time, but if the Holy Spirit lives in them, they can’t be happy in their sins. They can’t persist in unbelief and disobedience. As John explains (1 John 3:9-10): “No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.” Perseverance in faith and obedience is the evidence that a person is one of God’s elect (2 Pet. 1:10-11).


In this one message, I cannot answer all of your questions or objections. But I assure you that there are solid biblical answers to those questions! The Arminian view that is common in American evangelicalism has a truncated view of God and an inflated view of man. It is based on human logic, but is not in submission to what God’s Word repeatedly asserts. Historically, Arminianism is dangerous because it has led to theological liberalism and Unitarianism. The current Open Theism teaching, which denies that God knows or controls the future, is a logical outworking of Arminianism.

Understanding these truths will deepen your understanding of how sinful you were when God rescued you; how amazingly gracious God is; and how great His love for you is as seen in sending His own Son to die to save you. It will give you a deeper love for God. You will glorify Him more as you see that He saved you by His grace alone (Rom. 11:33-36). You will have hope that what He began in you, He will perfect (Phil. 1:6). You will be encouraged to evangelize, knowing that God will save His elect through the proclamation of the gospel (Acts 13:48; 18:9-10; 2 Tim. 2:10).

So I encourage you to go deeper in these truths! For a short, easy to understand treatment, John Piper’s Five Points [Christian Focus] is a good place to start. James Boice & Philip Ryken, The Doctrines of Grace [Crossway], and David Steele, Curtis Thomas, and Lance Quinn, The Five Points of Calvinism [P&R], are also helpful. The five points of Calvinism matter because they will help you glorify God alone by better understanding His great salvation.

Application Questions

  1. Discuss with some friends how each of these five points should affect your walk with Christ.
  2. A critic says, “If God could save everyone but chose only to save some, He is unloving toward the rest.” Your response?
  3. Some say that these five points are just a theological debate that has no practical value. Agree/disagree? Why?
  4. Some who argue against the first four points yet argue that a Christian cannot lose his salvation. Why is this inconsistent?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2017, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Assurance, Character of God, Election, Predestination, Soteriology (Salvation)

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