For many who come to a Reformed understanding of the gospel, including me, the Five Points of Calvinism are a common doorway. Its neat categorization of key elements of the gospel is quite enriching. Especially when you are coming from an environment that doesn’t think deeply about doctrine. It provides a straightforward answer to key aspects of the biblical gospel which helps one discern how this differs from much of what is proclaimed today.
Here are the five points:
- Unconditional election
- Total depravity
- Particular redemption (or more commonly, Limited Atonement)
- Irresistible Grace
- Perseverance of the Saints
These themes were framed at a historic conference held in the Netherlands in 1618-1619. They were developed as responses to a series of doctrinal positions (the five points of Arminianism). They are not all the essential points of the gospel. For one, they do not include the sovereignty of God. However, these points clearly imply this and many others. Together, they display the beauty, wisdom and power of God as he works out his salvation in the human life. Right from when God conceived the plan to redeem till the believer enters the new Jerusalem, we see that salvation is of the Lord.
Let’s see what each one tells us about God and his redemption.
Unconditional election is the truth that God chooses people to be saved before the foundation of the world. And this selection is not based on any foreseen act of righteousness or decision in the person. He does not choose anyone because he sees that the person will believe, rather he selects the person and enables them to believe.
The idea pervades scripture. We see it in the call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3) and the distinction between Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25:23; Romans 9:11,12). Even the Israelites were chosen unconditionally by God (Deuteronomy 7:7,8; Amos 3:2).
That distinction is crucial. While many Christians agree that God chooses people and brings them to Christ, they do not grasp the biblical sense that this choosing is unconditional. The person who comes to Christ has been selected before birth. And this is entirely God’s prerogative; it’s not that God saw into the future and realized she would make that decision. Otherwise, the person’s salvation would rest on herself and not on God.
Consider the scriptural witness in the following passages: 1 Kings 19:18; John 15:16; Romans 5:8; Romans 8:29,30; 2 Timothy 2:10; 1 Peter 2:9,10.
God lovingly chooses us and makes us recipients of his salvation.
When one asks: How bad is man’s condition? Popular Christianity believes he is sinful but can turn to God, if only someone convinces him. He needs help, but it is support in doing what he can do himself.
The biblical position is quite different. Scripture recognises man to be dead, spiritually dead. He cannot turn himself to God. In fact, like any dead person, he needs life (Genesis 2:17; John 5:21; Ephesians 2:1-3).
But there is more to this.
The depravity of humans is total in the sense that sin affects every part of them. The intellect, emotions, and will are all corrupted and bear the trait of our sinful condition. None of them functions as perfectly as originally created.
In his classic discussion on this, Loraine Boettner notes:
Man’s fallen nature gives rise to a most obdurate blindness, stupidity, and opposition concerning the things of God. His will is under the control of a darkened understanding, which puts sweet for bitter, and bitter for sweet, good for evil, and evil for good.The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, p. 63
This is not to say that humans are unable to do anything good or commendable. The history of our world is full of great acts, noble deeds, and commendable gestures by people who may not have even heard of Christ. Even Cornelius, the Roman soldier to whom Peter was sent, was reputed to be ‘a devout man who feared God’ (Acts 10:2). And we also (hopefully!) regularly think or act kindly toward others.
However, like the prophet Isaiah would proclaim, ‘all our righteousness are like filthy rags’ (Isaiah 64:6, NKJV). As pleasing, commendable or valuable as they are, every good deed is unacceptable before God. This is because it comes from a heart that is sinful and opposed to God. Everything we think, say, or do is sinful because it is the act of a corrupt nature.
The only way out is to receive a new nature.
When we reflect on the work of redemption, one crucial question we must ask is this: For whom did Christ die? The response we give shapes our understanding of the gospel.
The secular or unbelieving person holds that there is no significance to the death of Jesus. If at all it happened, it was merely an unfortunate case of religious bigotry in a fanatical society. It can teach us a thing or two about courage, tolerance, or love, but nothing more.
A common view among Christians has been that Jesus died to save every single person ever born into the world. His sacrifice was like a provision which becomes effective only when a person responds to the call of the gospel.
But the biblical view considers the atonement as an actual sacrifice for definite objects. Several passages refer to Christ dying for either the church or a definite set of people as against others. For instance: Matthew 20:28; Luke 1:68 (cf. Matthew 1:21); John 17:6,9,10; John 10:14,15; John 11:49-52; John 15:13; Acts 20:28; Ephesians 5:25.
This idea also fits well with what scripture teaches about election. If God has chosen people to be recipients of his salvation from eternity, then it follows that the death of Christ has a definite application to them. Even the faith which the person exercises in Christ is a gift from God that flows from what Christ has done.
Of course, there is no limit to the potency of what Jesus accomplished. If God is to save every single person who ever lived, that same sacrifice would be enough. However, there is a purpose and aim to the atonement. In his sovereign wisdom and will, God has not intended to save every single person who has walked the earth. Many did not even hear of Jesus. Christ died for the very persons chosen by God before the foundation of the world. He atoned for all elected to be saved, and they will unfailingly be saved.
Since God is sovereign over all that he has made, he has authority over humans as well. As scripture notes, even the heart of a king is in God’s hands, and he turns it wherever he wishes (Proverbs 21:1).
This is equally true in salvation.
When God saves a person, he gives him a new heart and transforms his nature. It is like the start of a new life, which is why Jesus spoke of it as being born again (John 3:3). And this change is something that God does in the human soul as the person encounters God’s word and the Holy Spirit works in him. God takes over the person and regenerates him or implants a new controlling influence within. This is an action that the person cannot resist. See Titus 3:5; John 5:21; Colossians 2:13.
It is often assumed that a person gets to ‘make a choice’ for God or decides to become a Christian. Just like we pick out the shoes we want to wear today or what to have for lunch, many believe they also get to choose whether to be saved.
However, conversion is always God’s prerogative. It is God’s call not ours. Even though we have a responsibility to turn to him in repentance and faith, it is a responsibility we are totally unable to fulfil (remember total depravity). And so, unless God helps us by making us spiritually alive and giving us a new heart, we cannot respond.
This is always so in every conversion. The Holy Spirit comes to us and irresistibly makes us ‘born again’.
Perseverance of the Saints
And just as God takes the initiative in regenerating us, he preserves us till the very end (Romans 8:35-39; Philippians 1:6). As God brings his elect to faith in Christ, he upholds them and continues to sanctify them (John 6:47, 51; Romans 6:14; Hebrews 10:14). They also continue in him, not because they are such perfect people, but because God sustains them (John 10:27-29). And as they worship with other Christians, live a life of prayer, regularly feed on God’s word, live out their faith in the world, he makes them holier and more Christlike until they eventually get to be with Christ forever (Ephesians 1:5; 2 Timothy 4:18).
They may fall into sin but are never finally lost. God’s nature has been planted within them, and the Holy Spirit keeps convicting them until they get back in line.
The biblical truth expressed in these five points is the only basis for faith, love, and hope. They present to us a God who is at the centre of the whole thing. Without a scheme as solid as this, one would be left to wander around with a faith that is as uncertain as it is weak. For in the end it all rests on the individual’s will rather than the power of God. And that is such a poor alternative.
Without God’s initiation, how can a dead man stir? Without a sacrifice offered for definite people by a loving saviour, how can one be confident that one’s sins have truly been taken away? Without the ever-present help of the Holy Spirit, how can such fickle creatures as humans remain committed to Christ and his kingdom?
The gospel exalts God and humbles man. It glorifies God as the redeemer and edifies humans as the forgiven. Though dead, his creator reaches down to make him alive and renew him. He makes a sacrifice which is effective and actually takes away his sins. And it does not leave him to his own will, but constantly bears him up through this world into the next.
Thank God for such a salvation!