When it comes to theological pedigree among Protestants, many Christians have been led to believe that the subset of Reformed Theology known as “Calvinism” is the absolute pinnacle of intellectual Biblical-theological thought. If one is serious about theology (rather than folk-religion or “man-made doctrines”), one is a Calvinist, plain and simple. It is the teaching of Scripture and the only faithful expression of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If one is not a Calvinist, it is only because he or she has not embraced a high view of Scripture or not thought through the subject with enough depth or honesty. Non-Calvinists may be saved…but just barely, according to some popular proponents of Calvinsim.
Calvinism has been summed up in various ways over the centuries, but the most popular summarization of its five main tenents (also known, to Calvinists as the “Doctrines of Grace”) is with the acronym “TULIP”:
T = Total Depravity – the idea that because of sin and the fall of humanity in Adam, people are unable to respond on their own to the offer of salvation.
“Man, by his fall into a state of sin, has wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.”
-Westminster Confession (Chapter 9, Paragraph 3)
U = Unconditional Election – the idea that God has chosen before all time the exact and fixed number of people whom He will save, as well as those whom He will allow to be damned, and that His choosing them has absolutely nothing to do with anything in them whatsoever.
“By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death. …These angels and men, thus predestinated, and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished.”
-Westminster Confession (Chapter 3 Paragraphs 3 & 4)
L = Limited Atonement – the idea that none of Jesus’ atoning sacrificial blood was wasted. His death was for those who are elect, not for those who reject the Gospel (this is the one point of Calvinism that even many Calvinists don’t embrace fully).
“God did, from all eternity, decree to justify all the elect, and Christ did, in the fullness of time, die for their sins, and rise again for their justification.”
-Westminster Confession (Chapter 11 Paragraph 4)
I = Irresistible Grace – the idea that since God has chosen before all time to redeem the elect, they are unable to NOT accept the saving grace of the Gospel. God regenerates their will, and thus they invariably choose to respond to His offer through a compatibilist type of freedom.
“All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, He is pleased, in His appointed time, effectually to call, by His Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature to grace and salvation, by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them an heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and, by His almighty power, determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ: yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace.”
-Westminster Confession (Chapter 10 Paragraph 1)
P = Perseverance of the Saints – the idea that since the elect have been chosen, called, regenerated and redeemed by God from all eternity, they will continue in that salvation into eternity. They cannot lose or reject the gift of salvation if they have been truly regenerated and redeemed by God.
“They, whom God has accepted in His Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by His Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved.”
-Westminster Confession (Chapter 17 Paragraph 1)
This is, of course, a VERY cursory overview of the five points of Calvinism, and hundreds of thousands of pages of theological writing have been devoted to explaining and exploring them in more detail. Entire churches, ministries, publiching houses, colleges and seminaries exist in order to expound these five interrelated concepts. And they have done a quite effective job at it–as a resurgence of Calvinism among younger Christians within the past two decades has demonstrated.
Baptist theologian Roger Olson points out how Calvinism came to be the default view among an entire generation of evangelicals:
One reason many young people (and perhaps others) embrace the new Calvinism…is because they are convinced it is the only biblically and intellectually serious theology available. It is all too true, as some Calvinists have argued, that many American evangelical churches are almost totally devoid of theology. …curious young people who are convinced there must be something more to their faith than the folk religion they have been given encounter Calvinism for the first time (usually under the name Reformed theology), they are often impressed and sometimes swept away with it. In my experience this is partly under the influence of extremely passionate sermons delivered by scholarly popularizers of Calvinism who preach at enormous youth conferences (the sermons being podcast for relistening), as if their theology is the only one that truly honors God. I have found that many of the new Calvinists simply are not aware there are any viable alternatives to their newfound doctrinal faith. Through reading books by their favorite pastors and teachers, many of them are convinced that all alternatives— and especially the dreaded “Arminianism”— are man-centered, biblically unsupported, and intellectually weak. (“Against Calvinism” pp. 65-66)
However, there is another version of TULIP that the serious student of theology who desires to faithfully interpret the Inspired Scriptures–but who is not persuaded by the claims of Calvinism about the nature of God–can embrace. It is an alternative to the five points of Calvinism better reflects the views of a broader majority of Christians from all three branches of the historic faith (Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant).
The “TULIP” of non-Calvinism which I would propose as an alternative which better explains the full teaching of Scripture:
T = Total Captivity – the Biblical concept of Sin as a conquering force that has taken humanity captive and enslaves all those who, no matter how much hard they try, cannot break free from its grasp. This is most clearly seen in Romans 5-7, where the freedom provided by Jesus’ death and resurrection is expouded and then the captivity of all those apart from Him who remain “in Adam” long to be free from but are powerless to overcome. However, as I have written about elsewhere, it is a thread that runs through the entirety of Scripture.
Unlike the Calvinist “T”, this understanding of Sin and the Fall of Adam recognizes the fact that throughout Scripture, people are capable of recognizing the difference between right and wrong and can even long for rescue from their plight as humans enslaved to their base sinful desires. However, such rescue cannot happen apart from God’s promise of deliverance and their appropriation of that deliverance through faith.
U = Union with The Elect Messiah – the Biblical concept that “the elect” is first and foremost an Old Testament term used to describe Israel as a whole, and specifically Israel as embodied by its Messiah (the “servant” of Isaiah), rather than individuals predestined for salvation. Examples of this can be found particularly in the words of Isaiah where we read:
Isaiah 42:1 Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth; I have put my spirit upon him: he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles. (KJV)
Isaiah 45:4 For Jacob my servant’s sake, and Israel mine elect, I have even called thee by thy name: I have surnamed thee, though thou hast not known me. (KJV)
Isaiah 65:9 And I will bring forth a seed out of Jacob, and out of Judah an inheritor of my mountains: and mine elect shall inherit it, and my servants shall dwell there. (KJV)
Isaiah 44:1 “But now listen, O Jacob, my servant, Israel, whom I have chosen. 2 This is what the LORD says– he who made you, who formed you in the womb, and who will help you: Do not be afraid, O Jacob, my servant, Jeshurun, whom I have chosen. 3 For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. 4 They will spring up like grass in a meadow, like poplar trees by flowing streams. 5 One will say, ‘I belong to the LORD’; another will call himself by the name of Jacob; still another will write on his hand, ‘The LORD’s,’ and will take the name Israel.”
It is this concept–Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, as the fulfillment and embodiment in Himself of the people as a whole–that one could say is the most radically profound concept in all of New Testament theology. This is how the NT writers can talk about being “in Christ.” Only if Jesus is somehow the embodiment of God’s elect Israel can people be “in” Him. And this is exactly what we find throughout the pages of the NT. As Peter puts it:
1Peter 1:18-22 “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God. Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart.”
This also sheds light on the premiere “Calvinist” passages such as Ephesians 1 and Romans 9–both of which refer entirely to the status of God’s people collectively rather than the destinies of individual believers. As C.K. Barrett puts it:
“Election does not take place … arbitrarily or fortuitously; it takes place always and only in Christ. They are elect who are in him; they who are elect are in him (cf. Gal. 3:29). It is failure to remember this that causes confusion over Paul’s doctrine of election and predestination.”
(cited in Ben Witherington III and Darlene Hyatt, Paul’s Letter to the Romans : A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary p.255)
This is the way the earliest expositors of these passages read them. The Old Testament Hebrew concept of “election” was always communal rather than individual in focus. Thus, Israel as a whole is the elect whose destiny is assured as inheriting the Kingdom of God; but individual Israelites chose whether or not they would belong to this elect community through their acceptance or rejection of Covenant faith.
L = Longing of God – the Biblical concept that God extends the offer of salvation to everyone and the atoning work of Jesus on the Cross is the basis by which anyone is able to be saved. God’s plans are not thwarted by humans freely rejecting His offer of atoning grace in Christ, nor is Jesus’ blood “wasted” if many choose not to receive its salvific effects. Both Old and New Testaments reflect a God who longs for humanity to embrace Him in faith, even though many choose not to. In addition to the pathos-filled words of Ezekiel 18, Hosea 11 and Jesus lament over Jerusalem in Matthew 23, we also see this longing stated succinctly on numerous occasions:
Ezekiel 33:11 “Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?”
1 Timothy 2:3-4 “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”
2 Peter 3:9 “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”
God’s offer of atoning salvation is longingly given to all, regardless of their eventual response to it, and is nowhere said to be specifically restricted to the elect–even though it is only those who choose to accept it and enter into “the elect” community of Messiah who will experience such atonement for themselves.
I = Integrity of the Offer – the Biblical concept that God’s offer of salvation to everyone is genuine and sincere. Thus it has integrity. It is a real offer that can either be accepted or rejected by anyone in response. Does this mean, then, that one’s salvation is ultimately a “work” in which one can “boast”–and thus runs contrary to Ephesian 2‘s claim that salvation is a gift from God? Not at all. As Olson observes:
“Being saved is not a matter of doing a work; it is only a matter of not resisting. When a person decides to allow God’s grace to save, he or she repents and trusts only and completely in Christ. That is a passive act; it could be compared to a drowning person who decides to relax and let his rescuer save him from drowning.”
(Against Calvinism, pp. 171-172)
Former Calvinist Austin Fischer states it more bluntly:
“…what sort of idiot receives a gift and then starts boasting about how he used the muscles in his vocal chords, tongue, and mouth to say, “Yes, I will accept this gift”?”
(Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed, p.79)
One of the most basic assumptions of Calvinism is that responding freely to God’s offer of salvation is in some way a “work” or something in which a person can “boast.” However, such an idea would’ve been quite foreign to the thinking of the Bible’s authors. Acknowledging and responding in faith to God’s salvation is nowhere presented as a “work” in the Hebrew Scriptures, nor is it depicted as something in which a person could take pride and congratulate oneself about.
P = Present Assurance – the Biblical concept that salvation is an ongoing present reality that believers can have assurance of. However, one is not trapped in the Kingdom of God and unable to leave or turn away from grace. The Apostle Paul wrote on more than one occasion about the concern he had that those who had entered into saving Covenant faith with the Messiah would not turn away from him. If such an occurance was not even theoretically possible, it becomes hard to explain Paul’s concern (or that of the author of Hebrews), in the various passages that speak of such turning away:
1Thessalonians 3:5 “For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter might have tempted you and our efforts might have been useless.”
1Timothy 1:18-20 “Timothy, my son, I give you this instruction in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by following them you may fight the good fight, holding on to faith and a good conscience. Some have rejected these and so have shipwrecked their faith. Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme.”
But what of Paul’s confidence in Philippians 1:4-6 that “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion”? Does that not show that the destiny of each individual who accepts the work of Christ in their heart will ultimately be saved forever?
No. Philippians 1:4-6 actually says:
“In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work among y’all (how we in the South would translate the Greek phrase “en humin”) will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
It is speaking of the work Jesus begain among the Philippians through Paul’s ministry. It says nothing about the individual eternal destiny of any particular Philippian Christian who may or may not choose to turn away from the faith and reject God’s saving grace in the end.
So there you have it: a non-Calvinist version of “TULIP.”
Union With the Elect Messiah
Longing of God
Integrity of the Offer
Of course, at the end of the day, every attempt at systematizing and distilling the entire teaching of Scripture into a theological formula will fall short somewhere. God did not see fit to give His people an acronym or bullet-points version of theology. He gave us the full revelation of Himself in Jesus our Messiah, and a faithful record of His dealings with His people on the pages of Scripture. So while the above is my own attempt at offering an alternative summary of what we find taught in Scripture about the doctrines which Calvinism teaches, it is in no way meant to be exhaustive or authoritative. Rather, I offer for those who have been taught that Calvinism’s “TULIP” is the only faithful Biblical evangelical form of theology. It simply is not. Theologian Jerry Walls has keenly observed that no one can claim a theology that is free from mystery; we just choose (I believe genuinely and without being made to do so by God) which set of mysteries we can best live with:
“Notice that both Calvinist and free will theologians ultimately arrive at a point where further explanations are impossible . Both reach the limit of finally inexplicable choice. The free will theologian cannot fully explain why some choose Christ while others do not. The Calvinist cannot tell us why or on what basis God chooses some for salvation and passes others by.”
(cited in Fischer, p.76)
In 2015 I gave a talk at the UGA Wesley Foundation entitled “Calvinism Calmly Considered” where I first proposed this version of TULIP. You can listen to it below via the Disciple Dojo podcast (which you should totally subscribe to!) and the Powerpoint slides I used for it is available for download HERE.