A gracEmail reader in California echoes a common inquiry when she asks: “I hate to appear ignorant, but what does T-U-L-I-P stand for in summing up the five theological points of John Calvin and the Reformed tradition?”
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You are not ignorant, dear lady. The spiritual gardeners of your acquaintance have not cultivated this flower but have instead considered it a weed. In fact, “TULIP” is an acronym for five English phrases which came from a debate among early Calvinists, but their essential truths are officially taught also by Lutherans, Anglicans and, to varying degrees, by a wider spectrum of Christians as well. Setting aside caricatures and extreme versions for the meanings most clearly taught in Scripture, the five petals of this “TULIP” are as follows.
“Total depravity” — Humankind’s fall into sin affected every natural capacity. We cannot climb back to God by our own wisdom, will or works. God must take the initiative in saving us, from first to last.
“Unconditional election” — God’s grace began in eternity past when he lovingly chose every person who later would choose him (the “elect”). However, God’s choice was not based on anything he foresaw in them but solely on his own purpose and grace. (Historically, Calvinists affirm that God also decreed the damnation of the non-elect, but I do not believe that Scripture teaches that.)
“Limited atonement” — Jesus’ death actually saved all who finally will live with God forever. These are real people with names and faces, not a theoretical mass of people in general.
“Irresistible grace” — All those for whom Christ died will respond to God’s kindness and grace when they encounter it. God does not force people against their will — his love draws our will joyfully toward himself like a flower to the sun.
“Perseverance of the saints” — God will complete what he started. He guards his own people and they will be faithful to the end.
To the world we truthfully say, “Whoever wishes to do so may come!” And after people have come to Christ, we remind them: “Salvation is from the LORD!” Is there mystery here that we cannot explain? Yes, indeed — as surely as God is God and we are not! To God be all the glory!