A Birdseye Look at the Doctrines of Grace
Several questions might be helpful in order to gauge our thinking about the broad concept of the doctrine of God’s grace. Are the following statements true or false?
1. All men are basically good.
2. Men have the capacity to cooperate with God in order to be saved.
3. God gives common grace to all men.
4. Regarding salvation, election is God’s part while faith is man’s part.
5. All men possess a certain degree of faith.
6. Faith is a gift from God.
7. Faith logically precedes regeneration.
8.“But you are not of my sheep because you do not believe”is a correct quotation of John 10:26 (NASV).
9. Foreknowledge is the concept that God knows everything in advance.
10. God chooses certain men to be saved on the basis of foresight that they will believe.
11. Men do not possess a free will.
12. Men are free moral agents.
13. Christ’s death did not actually accomplish anything except to make salvation possible for all men.
14. “But you do not believe because you are not of my sheep”is a correct quotation of John 10:26 (NASV).
15. In rare instances it is possible for certain men to lose their salvation.
16. Men are saved by the act of the human will.
17. God predetermined the means to the end as well as the end itself.
18. There will always be geographical locations around the world where many men are seeking God.
19. The Bible is the final criterion for truth.
20. The gospel of grace is unreasonable.
Many Christians and churches subscribe to what is commonly called the “doctrines of grace.” In the particular area of salvation, this is sometimes better known as Calvinism.
This system of theological thinking begins with a basic understanding of God’s sovereign agency over all things and events in the world, especially in the affairs of men. Unlike all forms of Arminianism, this perspective of life is God-centered rather than man-centered.
In matters of salvation, these doctrines of grace are sometimes popularly referred to as the five points of Calvinism, often known by the acrostic “TULIP.” The five points are Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and the Perseverance of the Saints.
The historical derivation of these five points can be traced to 1610 when the followers of Jacobus Arminius, a Dutch seminary professor who had recently died, drew up five articles of faith based on his teachings. These “Remonstrances,” as they were called, were presented to the Dutch Parliament with the request that they replace the Belgic Confession and Heidelburg Catechism. These statements were:
1. Man possesses a free will and is capable of choosing spiritual good.
2. God’s election of those who will be saved is conditioned on his foresight of their faith.
3. Christ’s death provided salvation for all men who have ever lived.
4. Man can ultimately reject the gospel against God’s will.
5. Believers can fall from grace and lose their salvation.
Subsequently, the national Synod of the church was convened in Dort in 1618 to examine these teachings. On May 9, 1619, after 154 sessions, the 84 members of the council declared the Remonstrances heretical. In addition, a five-point Scriptural rebuttal was formulated which later became known as the “Five Points of Calvinism,” named after the French theologian John Calvin, who lived during the Reformation of the previous century (1509-1564).
The Five Solas of the Reformation
It is no surprise that those who embrace these teachings, usually called Calvinists, stress the great doctrines of the Bible that were rediscovered during the Protestant Reformation. In 1517, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther nailed his now famous 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. These propositional protests of certain practices and teachings of the Catholic Church ultimately led to a schism in the Church and the formation of “Protestant” churches. At issue were matters such as the sale of indulgences for the forgiveness of sins, the legitimacy of the papacy, teachings regarding Mary, how a person is justified before God, and other concerns. The core issue was a question of authority. Is the Bible alone the criterion for truth or do church tradition and teaching and the Pope carry equal authority?
Five mottos were developed as an outgrowth of this dispute and the passion to return to biblical belief and practice. These Latin mottos are called the five “solas.”
Soli Deo Gloria,meaning “To God alone be glory.” All creation exists for God’s glory. God and God alone is worthy of glory and honor.
Sola Fide,meaning “Faith alone.” Justification is by faith alone plus nothing, and such saving faith is the gift of God.
Sola Gratia,meaning “Grace alone.” Salvation is a product of grace without any consideration of good works or personal merit.
Solus Christus,meaning “Christ alone.” Salvation comes exclusively through the person and work of Christ.
Sola Scriptura,meaning “Scripture alone.” The Bible is the sole authority for faith and practice. It is the sufficient and inspired Word of God.
At the foundation of the doctrines of grace is the biblical concept of God’s absolute sovereignty. Failure to understand this teaching usually leads people into the ditch when sorting out the issues of salvation. Simply put, sovereignty means that God does whatever He wants and is answerable to no one but Himself. He does what pleases Him. Further, He is in absolute and total control of all created things in the universe, including the created order as well as all events of history. There are no surprises for God. He is always in complete control of everything – people and happenings – whether good or evil.
This truth exalts the supremacy of God over all things, including the human will. We believe that the God of the Bible is absolutely sovereign and the supreme Lord of heaven and earth. He does whatever He pleases and nothing or no one can thwart or in the least alter His purposes. We hold to absolute predestination – that God has a comprehensive plan that He set in place before creation and time, and that this plan includes all things large or small, general or particular, international or individual, whether in heaven or on earth, so that everything that happens is a product of His pre-appointment either through immediate or remote means. Even the workings of the devil himself are fulfilling God’s plan.
Paul clearly taught the rule of God over the universe. Ephesians 1:11 says,
“… also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will.” 1
The psalmist certainly understood this. Consider Psalm 115:3: “But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases.” Or Psalm 135:5-6: “For I know that the LORD is great, And that our Lord is above all gods. Whatever the LORD pleases, He does, In heaven and in earth, in the seas and alls deeps.”
Job came to this perspective as well. He said to God, “I know that Thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of Thine can be thwarted” (Job 42:2).
Nebuchadnezzar learned this lesson the hard way. After a period of madness imposed by God, the king acknowledged, “And all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing. But He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, ‘What hast Thou done?’ ” (Daniel 4:35).
We might ask why – why is God in such absolute control of all things? Or, to put it differently, why do the things over which God exerts control exist? The answer proves to be quite simple: everything is for His glory. “Worthy art Thou, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for Thou didst create all things, and because of Thy will they existed and were created” (Revelation 4:11).
We cannot help it if men react negatively to these great Bible truths. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the so-called Prince of Preachers, is reported to have said, “I have known men to bite their lip and grind their teeth in rage when I have been preaching the sovereignty of God … the doctrinaires of today will allow a God, but He must not be King.”2
Summary of the Five Core Truths
These five foundational doctrines, commonly known as the five points of Calvinism, are more fully explained elsewhere.3
Total Depravity. This doctrine does not mean that men are as bad as they can possibly be; it is not their sinfulness that is total. It means that the effects of The Fall on the nature of man extend to and permeate every aspect, dimension, and function of his being – body, soul, and spirit. Man is fallen in the totality of his personhood. Before The Fall, Adam’s heart was free, that is, willing and able to choose good over evil in the spiritual realm. Since The Fall, the hearts of unregenerate men are “deceitful and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9).Though they have retained the faculty of “choice,” their wills are not truly free because they are enslaved to hearts that are no longer willing, and are therefore unable, to choose God or the spiritually good over self and sin. Thus this doctrine might better be called Total Inability. The unregenerate man is dead, blind, and deaf to the things of God. His will is not merely weakened and in need of the Spirit’s assistance; it is dead to God and in need of new birth. Men are incapable of pleasing God because they are incapable of true faith. Saving faith is a gift of God bestowed through life-giving regeneration.
Some significant Scriptures supporting this doctrine are:
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.”
Ephesians 2:1: “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins…”
John 1:13: “… who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”
Unconditional Election. No one becomes a child of God unless God has chosen him for salvation. God chose some from among the mass of humanity to receive the gift of salvation. This choice occurred before the world was created. This choice was not based on anything foreseen in them or about them – not their good works, obedience, character, potential, nor even their faith. Rather, His choice rested solely in His sovereign will without human condition. Thus God’s choice of the sinner before the beginning of time is the ultimate cause of any sinner’s salvation.
Some significant Scriptures are:
Ephesians 1:4-5, 11: “…just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should 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…also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will.”
2 Thessalonians 2:13: “But we should always give thanks to God for, brethren beloved by the Lord, because god has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in truth.”
Limited Atonement. The substitutionary death of Christ was not universal in either its effectiveness or its design. Its design was to provide an actual payment to God for the sin-debt of the elect. In other words, the death of Christ was never intended by God to redeem any except those He chose to save before the foundation of the world. Therefore, its effectiveness extends no further than the elect. No saving benefit of the death of Christ comes to any but the elect. Salvation is not universal because the atonement was not universal. Salvation is limited to the elect because the atonement was limited to the elect. When Christ died, He died in the place of certain specified sinners – those previously chosen by God. This same death not only rendered to God a sufficient and effective payment for the sins of the elect, but purchased everything necessary for their final salvation: their regeneration, faith, repentance, justification, sanctification, and glorification. Thus, perhaps a better description of the doctrine of limited atonement would be Particular Redemption. On the other hand, there are non-salvation benefits that accrue to the non-elect as the teaching of common grace attests. In this sense, God “loves the world.”
Some significant Scriptures:
Matthew 20:28: “…just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.”
Romans 9:13: “Just as it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’ ”
Irresistible Grace. The Holy Spirit extends to certain persons an inward call to salvation that inevitably brings them to Christ. This is distinct from the general external invitation to salvation made to men without distinction. As men hear the gospel proclaimed, they can, and usually do, reject it because they would not believe. On the contrary, when the Holy Spirit inwardlyadds His saving call to a sinner’s heart, He irresistibly woos and draws the sinner to Christ. The gospel cannot be rejected in such cases. This call always results in conversion because it bestows regeneration and faith. The Spirit is not limited in this by man’s will, nor is He dependent on his cooperation for success. The Holy Spirit graciously causes these people to freely cooperate, to freely believe and repent, and to freely and willingly come to Christ. Why does the Holy Spirit inwardly call only some people? Because only some have been chosen to receive this divine and miraculous ministry of the Holy Spirit, and because only some have had their redemption accomplished by Christ. Irresistible grace guarantees that salvation will come to all who have been chosen by God, and in a way that guarantees that no man can boast. Thus this doctrine is sometimes called Efficacious Grace.
Some significant Scriptures:
John 6:37: “All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.”
John 17:2: “…to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life.”
John 10:16: “And I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they shall hear My voice; and they shall become one flock with one shepherd.”
Perseverance of the Saints. Those whom God has chosen and whom Christ has redeemed and whom the Spirit has regenerated unto life are eternally saved. Just as God is the deciding factor in all aspects of bringing them to faith, so God has pledged Himself to protect them and bring them safely through life. Therefore believers enjoy a sure hope. Nothing, including Satan or their own sin, can cause them to forfeit heaven. Furthermore, the power of God produces in them a persevering faith and obedience so that they will never fall from grace. Regeneration is a permanent change of heart. Sonship is a permanent relationship. This does not mean that a person can make a profession of faith, live like the unsaved as a habit of life, and still be genuinely saved. The perseverance of the saints goes beyond any mechanical and one dimensional distortion of “eternal security.” It not only guarantees the eternal security of the elect; it also guarantees that they shall persevere throughout life by living as trusting and obedient followers of Christ. Their faith is maintained by the power of God. Some call this “Lordship Salvation.” Genuine believers “work out” their salvation because God is in them fulfilling His pledge and promises by causing them “to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13).
Some significant Scriptures:
Romans 8:38-39: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
John 10:27-28: “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of My hand.”
John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
How do these great truths manifest themselves in the life of the church? Because practice does flow from belief, our desire is to engage in practice that is consistent with what we believe the Bible teaches.
- We believe that regeneration is a sovereign act of God through the Holy Spirit who gives life to the elect at the time appointed by God. It is not the result of any human decision, action, or prayer; rather true faith must be the cause of their decision, action, or prayer.
- At the foundational level, there is no answer to the question, “What can a person do to be born again?” There is no answer because the question itself assumes that there is something a human being can do to become “born again.” Regeneration enables a person to do what he would not do before: repent and believe the gospel. Faith is a gift of God bestowed with regeneration. Conversion, however,is the act of a man who, once regenerated, now turns to God from sin and the vanities of his former life. This must be done by conscious and intentional decision. So, although we do not believe in decisional regeneration, we must call men to Christ as part of the presentation of the gospel. We must plead with them to put their unreserved trust in the work of Christ for the salvation of their souls. We do not ask them to walk an aisle, sign a card, or pray any certain magical prayer. We must invite them to come not to the front of a church or to an “altar,” but to Christ. Repentance and faith are spiritual acts of the heart as a man calls upon the Lord for salvation.
- We are compelled by the Pauline model to teach the “whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:27). Therefore, we cannot consider these great and difficult doctrines of grace to be the special province of the spiritually mature. They are for the edification of all believers. We must therefore actually and unashamedly declare them in the various teaching venues of the church.
- We must fully embrace the twin truths of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Our lack of understanding or our inability to reconcile these difficult truths is no warrant to jettison or reinterpret one or the other. We must joyously live with tensions: God grants faith, yet men must believe. God foreordained everything, yet we must pray. Not all men are chosen by God, yet we must give the gospel indiscriminately. We must avoid wasteful curiosity about what God has not revealed, yet we must diligently search and study the Scriptures. God is the ultimate cause of all things, yet men are held accountable for sin. We must embrace Biblical predestination, yet avoid fatalism. Men make choices as free moral agents, yet they do not exercise free will. The gospel of grace is not reasonable, yet God is just. Not one single person deserves divine mercy, yet an innumerable host is saved. Even though God has not chosen all, the gospel is a genuine offer to all who hear it. A man who is not capable of choosing Christ is nonetheless held responsible for not choosing Christ.
- In all things, and especially in matters of salvation, God can do and does whatever He pleases and is not compelled to give us a reason for his decisions. So, there is no answer to the question, “Why does God not bestow the same blessings on all people?” That is why these matters are called Sovereign Grace.
These marvelous truths called the doctrines of God’s grace are not the innovations of men. They are the authoritative teachings of the Bible. Further, they are not new to the experience of the church, having been taught for centuries by the church fathers. Nor are they the unusual distinctive of one group of churches. Sovereign Grace has been clearly declared since the days of the Reformation whether through the Westminster Confession (Presbyterian), the Canons of Dort (Reformed), the Thirty-nine Articles (Episcopalian), the London Confession (Baptist), the Savoy Declaration (Congregational), or the Heidelburg Catechism (Dutch).
The bottom line is this: Sovereign Grace insists that God be God and man be man.
© Copyright. Joseph Flatt. 2014. All rights reserved. May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source.
1 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from the New American Standard Bible (Tennessee: Holman Bible Publishers, 1998).
2 W J Seaton, The Five Points of Calvinism (Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1984) p. 23.
3 Descriptions of the five points are modified from a paper entitled “The Sovereignty of God,” author and date unknown.