We in the Reformed community talk incessantly about the Five Points of Calvinism like there is no tomorrow (from here on referred to simply as the Five Points). I’m even doing that in this blog post in fact. This is not without good reason, but I believe the Five Points themselves, if not kept in proper focus upon the One for whom they are meant to exalt can themselves become a distraction from the end goal: the glory and exaltation of God through Christ in the Gospel of His grace to sinners.
If you want a good summary of the Five Points of Calvinism, here it is: the exaltation of the glory of God’s grace (hence why they have also been called the Doctrines of Grace). The Five Points are all Christocentric, that is Christ-centered, as John Hendryx has gone to great lengths to show in recent days in an article he’s written, and any one point that is denied breaks the entire cohesiveness of their final point collectively: the exaltation of the glory of God’s grace. If this is not kept in mind, we ourselves who claim the name Calvinist can become distracted by debating the finer points of a doctrine (for the sake of intellectual pride) without focusing one tidbit upon the One for whom they are meant to point: Christ and Him alone.
The sole point and purpose of their articulation is to focus our eyes, doctrinally speaking, upon the work of Christ to redeem us that we may find all our joy and satisfaction in Him alone and finally see how great His love really is toward us. All blessings, from conversion, to faith, to sanctification, to being mercifully blessed with enjoying an excellent glass of Pinot noir or a fat Chipotle burrito … all these and so much more are blood-bought gifts purchased in the cross. However, the Five Points central focus, aim and goal is to look upon God’s effective work in Christ to save His people, bring us to Himself in effective power and keep us so that we may not fall away into eternal destruction. Herein lies true love, that God in Christ would give His life for His bride effectively, not potentially.
I want to spend some time showing (as best as possible, by God’s grace) how each of the Five Points lift up and exalt the work of Christ, though not necessarily following the traditional TULIP acrostic. This is not necessarily a Scriptural defense of the Five Points, that can be found here: http://www.westerfunk.net/theology/calvinism/ . This is simply a defense of showing how each point exalts the work of Christ to save us.
Understanding the heart of man, from what Scripture tells us, is an absolutely necessary component to seeing the glory and perfections of Christ for what they truly are. For until you rightly compare yourself against the majesty of God, you will not see Him in the manner Scripture presents Him. We see from what the Lord has taught us in Scripture that in ourselves, we are lost, blind, and as Ephesians 2:1 says, we are dead in trespasses and sins. Dead. Not sick, not even on the verge of death, not floating out in an ocean of sin hanging on for dear life. We are dead, and our souls (as well as our bodies), as God promised to Adam before he sinned, have surely died.
However, Total Depravity does not mean that we are as bad as we possibly could be. It means that in relation to God (the only One we should be comparing ourselves to in the first place), our corruption and sinfulness is total, meaning, it extends to every single fiber of our being, inside and out. Our spirits, our emotions, our desires, our minds, our thinking, our bodies, our wills, our souls, our hearts, all facets of our being have been corrupted. This can easily be summed up in but one verse in Romans 3:10, “None is righteous, no not one.” There is not one square inch of our being that has not been affected by sin. To see the greatness and glory of God, we must start here with man’s fatal corruptions, otherwise, we will not see ourselves aright when comparing ourselves to His glory and majesty. His glory will make no sense unless we see that in ourselves we are depraved, even the do-gooder attempting to earn their salvation in the church pew. And even moreso, we will not see how desperately it is that we need the work of Christ to effectively save us. We are lost. This point makes that emphatically clear and expounds further upon what that means.
So we see here that the point of Total Depravity is not merely to talk bad about ourselves for the sake of talking bad about ourselves in order to stir up some kind of false humility. “Oh look at how awful and terrible I am, woe is me,” which just amounts to self-righteousness and self-centeredness, you know, idolatry. Rather, the end point of Total Depravity is to show us how lost we really and truly are so that in comparing ourselves to the majesty and glory of Christ, we fall on our faces in mourning at how filthy and disgusting we are and lift Him up as perfect, high, righteous, holy, and exalted. Without a proper, truthful understanding of yourself, how can you possibly see how great is His glory? You will definitely not respect it and fear it as you ought. Most of all, you will not see the extent Christ had to go to achieve our salvation.
Having seen the wicked state of our hearts, that there is not one person, save Christ alone, who has done one good deed that is pure, without sin and righteous in the eyes of the Lord without some ulterior motive at the root (whether it’s being known and seen by others or whatever), we now turn to God’s power to save. Irresistible Grace is not saying that unbelievers or even believers do not at times resist the Holy Spirit or grieve Him with our deeds. Scripture is heavily laden with a plethora of texts’ that demonstrate that we all grieve the Holy Spirit with our wicked deeds and actions, even as believers. Remember, keep in mind that the Five Points is about the saving work of Christ, exalting His grace.
Irresistible Grace is about God’s effective work to save us. Following on the heals of Total Depravity in the sequence in which we experience them in salvation, Irresistible Grace says that when God so chooses, He can and does make His grace effective in the rebelliously dead sinners soul, and doesn’t merely sit around and wait for us to fix our own problems and come to Him. And knowing that even our wills and desires are enslaved to sin, we see that God’s Irresistible Grace actually comes in underneath, behind and before our wills and affections and breathes new life into them so that we cannot help but choose Christ. Irresistible Grace is not saying that God works in us against our wills, for that is contradictory to even speak that way. Rather He comes in and regenerates our desire and wills that are blackened and darkened because of sin. Our desires are the seat of our wills and we will what we desire most. The first effect then of the work of God’s Spirit to save us is to actually regenerate and change our desires. Upon doing so, we then willingly choose that which we desire most, because our desires have been liberated from darkness to now desire Christ for who He is.
So we see in this point that Irresistible Grace highlights the power and strength of God’s arm to save through the work of Christ by explaining that not only does He rescue those who come to Him, but even before we come to Him in faith, it is He who effectively changes our hearts, desires and wills to come to Him in the first place, that we may infallibly (by His power in us) rest upon Him alone for salvation through faith alone. This point shows that it is God who grants our faith in the first place, who gives eyes to see Him, ears to hear Him, and hearts that willingly submit to and trust in Him alone. Through this point then, Christ alone receives all the glory His grace in our conversion by making His work on the cross effective in us by the work of His Holy Spirit. Not only does He grant mercy to those who come to Him, but He even grants our coming to Him in the very beginning. What an amazing gift to exalt and praise Him for!
Limited Atonement (or Effective Atonement or Particular Redemption).
From the outset, this term is highly confusing and misleading. I prefer other terms in its place, even if it messes up the TULIP acrostic, because who cares about that? Many I have talked with either infer or assume we are saying that Christ’s blood isn’t of infinite value potentially for all people. I want to affirm here that Christ’s blood is of infinite value and could save an infinite number of lost souls. Historic Calvinists have always said that. There is no limit on the value or power of it.
So what is it about then? As John Piper and Bethlehem Baptist Church’s statement on Calvinism says, it answers the two following questions, “For whom did Christ die,” and, “What did Christ actually achieve on the cross for those for whom He died?” These are vitally important questions.
I’m going to quote from that statement on this point: “If you say that [Christ] died for every human being in the same way, then you have to define the nature of the atonement very differently than you would if you believed that Christ only died for those who actually believe.” Why is that so? Because if Christ died in the same way for every single person in all of the world for all time, why is it some wind up still going to hell? That’s a big problem. If Christ really and effectually died for everyone in the exact same way, why are not all saved? Ever been asked that by an unbeliever and not known how to answer? I’ve heard it a few times. Most of the responses believers give is that, “Well, because they didn’t believe.” But as J.I. Packer has insightfully noted, is unbelief itself not one of the sins for which Christ died effectively? I believe it is, as I would hope everyone would affirm. Then we have an issue here because maybe it is that most of American Christianity has an ingrained presupposition that Christ died in the same way for every single person, instead of seeing Christ’s work as particular to His bride, His people. John Owen, as stated in a summed up, paraphrased quote by Jon Dansby, really hits the nail on the head with this: “If Christ died for all in the same way, and faith itself is not a blood bought gift of the cross, then those who are in heaven have no more to thank Christ for than those who are in hell.”
However, instead of focusing upon the negative implications of the atonement (i.e. who hasn’t been purchased, which who can know such a thing anyway, except God Himself?), the intention and end point of Limited Atonement is to highlight the effectiveness of Christ’s work specifically to God’s people. This point highlights His love, in that He made an effective purchase for sinners at the cross. If we affirm that we are dead in sins, need to be raised from spiritual death by God’s Irresistible Grace that man in no way can or does cooperate with (i.e. a dead man does not participate in his own resurrection, save Christ), then we come to see that Irresistible Grace was actually purchased on the cross for His people. Or to go even further, we see that our faith itself was purchased on the cross. Or one step further even, we see that the cross actually and effectively justified and reconciled us to God. The atonment is not merely made for all as a potential sacrifice, it is made for His people effectively. Christ saved His people at the cross, bore their sins, took their wrath, and bought for them everything necessary to get them saved, including regeneration and faith.
To sum up, Christ’s atoning work is sufficient for the entire world. Historic Calvinists (as opposed to some wayward groups) have (and should) always affirm that. There is no limit on its power and effectiveness. However, Christ’s atoning work is efficient or effectual for God’s people whom He’s foreordained to eternal life (the next point, Unconditional Election). So Limited Atonement exalts the glory of the grace of Christ by showing that He didn’t merely lob His atoning sacrifice out there for whoever can raise themselves from spiritual death and get themselves into its benefits. Rather, we see that it highlights that our very spiritual resurrection, our new birth came to us as a blood-bought gift. Praise God He didn’t just make us savable, but He actually saved us at the cross! This is something worth rejoicing in and giving Christ all the glory!
Having seen that it is Christ who brings dead souls to life by His death and resurrection, in their place (apart from the sinners’ involvement in this process), who breaths faith into the soul where there was only unbelief, who gives eyes to see and ears to hear, it must be seen then that God Himself had to make a choice to effectively raise the dead sinners soul. The electing grace of God is always connected with His redeeming grace in Christ. Election is never to be looked at outside of the means He chose to accomplish the salvation of His people: the death and resurrection of Christ. The question remains then, when did God make this choice to save us? In addition, upon what basis did He choose us?
Ephesians 1:4 makes clear that He chose us, that is those who believe in Christ, from before the foundation of the world. Now up front, I want to say that even many Arminians will affirm this point. But the real issue lies in the basis upon which He chose us. Arminians say He chose us before the foundation of the world based upon our foreseen faith. We affirm though that God chose us unconditionally, that is, not based upon anything within the sinner, even foreseen faith, let alone any good deeds. In fact, as has been demonstrated in the above points, it is God’s very grace that effects our faith to begin with. But still, we ask, upon what basis did He choose us? Why was I chosen for salvation, to be granted faith? The answer simply lies in God Himself. He chose to save us simply because He loved us. That’s as far we can go in the Scriptures. God is free to save whom He pleases. As Paul makes clear in the arguments of Romans 9, this is at the heart what it means for God to be God. “I mercy whom I mercy, and I harden whom I harden.” He saves whom He pleases for His own reasons, for His own glory.
The glory and greatness of God’s Unconditional Election is that it gives us absolutely no reason to boast before God, because it is He and He alone who chose to raise us and give us faith. He chose us to believe through the death and resurrection of Christ in power. Therefore, if He chose us, all grounds for boasting are entirely removed. All we can reply to God with is, “Praise You for having mercy on my soul!” Is this not the very heart of our praise songs to God? Unconditional Election strips us of all reasons to say we were better or wiser or smarter or more spiritual or that we produced our own faith while “that unbeliever” over there didn’t. No one will boast like this before Christ in heaven, for it is He who gave you faith to begin with. How then can we possibly boast in anything at all?
The end point of this point then exalts the glory of Christ because we see He could have chosen to leave us in our sin, pass over us, and thus, because of our sin which we are held accountable for, would have justly gone to hell. Herein lies the greatness of God’s mercy, that He would choose to have mercy on us at all! Pertaining to God’s mercy we should not be asking, why doesn’t He have mercy on all? The real thing we should ask is, why would He have mercy on anyone to begin with? Exalt the glory of God for His grace to us in Christ that He chose to bring us to life from the dead when all we deserved was an eternity of His wrath!
Perseverance (Preservation) of the Saints.
Because we know God will save His people, we know that those who are truly born of God will never fall away by abandoning the faith. Why is this? Because as Philippians 1:6 says, “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Here are the two statements in this verse that give us assurance that God will not let us go and slip into apostasy: 1) He began a good work in us, that is, He raised us from death to life through the work of Christ (as stated in the former points above); 2) Therefore, He will bring it to completion. No one who is brought to life by the power of Christ will ever turn away from Him. He won’t let it happen, for He will keep us alive and persevering.
His people may lapse and fall into grave sin that is greatly injurious to themselves and others, but they will never abandon Jesus. If someone does abandon their confession and turn away into great sin and hardened unbelief, this means their confession was null void at the very beginning, that it was not genuine, God-wrought faith to start with. John asserts in 1 John 2:19 that, “They (former professors of the faith) went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”
God’s people will persevere to the end in faith, not on account of their own working and toiling apart from Christ, but rather because of His power to cause them to persevere. On this point though, I believe it to be more Christ-exalting to speak about our Preservation in the faith by the power of Christ instead of our Perseverance, for it highlights His work in us to save us and keep us until the day we die. He will not let one of His sheep go. How comforting is that!?
This point stands to show that our sanctification and our continuing in the faith is in no way separated from Christ’s work to save us and change us. He who purchased us at the cross will not let us go, but will continue to exert His power in us so that we continue believing in Him. Therefore He receives all the glory for bringing us to Himself, from start to finish.
It is my hope that in going through each of the Five Points and bringing their focus upon the work of Christ, that you will see the greatness of Christ’s work. We can get hung up in the details of each point and miss the broader picture of their original intent: Christ. The Five Points are supremely Christ-centered and God-exalting for they show how lost we really are, the lengths Christ had to go, and the greatness of His grace to save lost sinners. Praise God He doesn’t just sit around and wait for us to fix ourselves and get ourselves to the “hospital”. He actually found us dead in a gutter and breathed life into our souls where there was none. For how else could we have been saved in the first place, unless He raised us from the dead? And if we’re raised from the dead, certainly He will keep us by His power.
Lift up the glory of Christ in your heart in seeing how amazing grace really and truly is. That is the end point of all of these points to begin with.