Against Calvinism 4 – the TULIP system

Mere Calvinism


In the third chapter of Roger Olson’s book, Against Calvinism, he describes what he dubs “mere” or “garden variety Calvinism” (38). His guides are primarily Loraine Boettner,  R. C. Sproul, John Piper and Paul Helm, whom he finds consistent with the teaching of Calvin himself in regard to the meticulous sovereignty of God – “nothing at all can happen that is not foreordained and rendered certain by God” (39). God is also “absolutely controlling regarding who will and who will not be saved,” a belief that was described particularly clearly at the Synod of Dort (1618/19), and which was identified by the acrostic TULIP in the 19th century, to help people remember the so-called “five points of Calvinism” (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints).

The Synod of Dort was summoned in response to a protest against common Calvinist ideas by a group who came to be called the “Remonstrants.” Their Remonstrance was rejected by the Synod of Dort and the “five points” are commonly thought to identify the key beliefs denied by the Remonstrants. But all extant versions of the Remonstrance affirmed total depravity, and some left perseverance open, while others deemed it wrong.

Roger finds the doctrine of total depravity consistent with Calvin’s own teaching and notes that it is this utter incapability of sinners even to desire God which leads Calvinists to “argue that no one can be saved without unconditional election and irresistible grace” (43).

In regard to unconditional election, Roger describes the difference of opinion among Calvinists as to whether God’s predestination is double (some to salvation, some to condemnation) or single (some to salvation, while leaving the rest in their deserved damnation). Even a double predestinationist like R. C. Sproul, however, explains that election and reprobation are not equally ultimate; whereas “God positively puts faith in the hearts of the elect,” he does not “create unbelief in the hearts of the reprobate” (45). But Roger doubts that this difference is significant since both are unconditional, and the distinction “does not seem to lessen the awfulness of reprobation” (45). The critical feature of the Calvinistic doctrine of election is that God’s choice is not conditioned on anything in the creature; it is purely of mercy and grace. Critics charge that Calvinists overlook the dark side of this doctrine, “that God could save everyone . . . but does not” (46). To the explanation of God’s rationale which is offered by Boettner and some other Calvinists (that God is glorified in the manifestation of his justice), Roger asks whether the cross of Jesus would not have sufficed to manifest God’s justice and hatred toward sin.

Roger observes that limited atonement is the one point “contested by many self-identified Calvinists” but that “many high Calvinists argue it cannot be dropped without doing violence to the whole Calvinist scheme of salvation” (47). He also posits that “all Calvinists accept the ‘penal substitution theory’ of the atonement.” Although many non-Calvinists also affirm this doctrine, Calvinists typically argue that if this doctrine is affirmed together with universal atonement it leads to universalism. Five point Calvinists affirm that the death of Jesus was sufficient for the salvation of all people but that it was intended by God only for the elect, and it is therefore only efficient for them. It actually accomplishes their salvation. Boettner and Piper would posit that Christ died “for all,”  in the sense that the cross benefits everyone in some way, but Roger plans to explain the shortcomings of this view in chapter 6.

Concerning the doctrine of irresistible grace, Roger explains that Calvinists do not thereby mean that God coerces sinners. “The Holy Spirit does not overwhelm and force the person to repent and believe; rather, the Holy Spirit transforms the person’s heart so that he or she wants to repent and believe” (50). Boettner, for instance states that “the elect are so influenced by divine power that their coming is an act of voluntary choice” (51). Though Calvin doesn’t use this term, he “clearly did teach the concept” (51). Calvinists distinguish between the “outward call,” given in the preaching of the gospel, and the “inward call,” by which the Holy Spirit regenerates a person, so that regeneration precedes conversion, though the saved person is usually not aware of its operation.

The affirmation of perseverance of the saints is less controversial because it is also believed by many non-Calvinists. Roger does not find the doctrine objectionable “because it does not touch on the central issue of disagreement: the character of God” (53). For Calvinists, however, the reason true believers persevere to the end is that God preserves them so that their faithfulness is entirely God’s work. Roger opines that most Baptists, especially in the South, hold to this fifth point, “under the phrase ‘eternal security,” by contrast with “Free Will Baptists” who oppose this tenet of Calvinism as well as the others.

Disagreements within Calvinism

Following the exposition of the five points of Calvinist soteriology, Roger identifies points of disagreement among Calvinists themselves. First, as previously noted, there are “four point” Calvinists who affirm the universal atonement confessed by Arminians. He cites A. H. Strong, Millard Erickson, and James Daane. Second, he describes differences concerning the logical order of the decrees, whether God decreed the election and reprobation of persons in light of the fall (infralapsarianism) or prior to, and not in light of, it (supralapsarianism). The Synod of Dort agreed to allow both views. The third area of disagreement is “whether God only ‘permits’ sin and evil or actually in some sense brings it about” (57). Sproul, Paul Helm, and Boettner are cited for their insistence that, though God specifically permits evil actions to take place, God is not the “author of sin” because only “the circumstances are ordained, but the evil is permitted” (Helm’s terminology). As representatives of a theology which affirms God’s authorship of sin, Roger cites Vincent Cheung (a blogger), John Frame and John Piper. Roger agrees with Calvinists whom he understands to be saying that “the typical Calvinist view of sovereignty requires confession of God as author of sin and evil” (60).

The fourth area of in-house disagreement has to do with the debate over “hyper-Calvinism,” in which Herman Hoeksema (whose position was identified by others as “hyper” when he was expelled from the CRC) argued that gospel proclamation is not a well-meant offer of salvation to everyone because God desires only the salvation of the elect. Roger himself agrees with Daane that Hoeksema’s position was a logical concomitant of the belief in unconditional election.

 Roger’s objections to TULIP

It is Roger’s conviction that “the Calvinism that affirms most or all of TULIP directly contradicts that God is love” (61). He is opposed “to any and every belief system that includes the ‘U,” the ‘L,’ and the ‘I’ in TULIP,” and he agrees with five point Calvinists that it would be inconsistent to leave the “L” out. He also believes that double predestination is a necessary correlate of unconditional election, so that the objectionability of a decree of reprobation is inescapable within Calvinism. “Only a moral monster would refuse to save persons when salvation is absolutely unconditional and solely an act of God that does not depend on free will” (62).

The Arminian (and other) alternatives

What Roger hopes to do in this book is to offer people a viable alternative to the robust theology that is appealing to so many people whose churches “have simply abdicated their responsibility to teach basic Christian beliefs” (65).  He offers a theology that affirms the total depravity of sinners, who could never be saved without God’s prevening grace which is given to everyone, enabling them to respond, but not irresistibly drawing them. He offers a doctrine of election that is corporate rather than individual, of predestination conditioned upon the faith that God foreknows, of a “good and loving God who truly desires the salvation of all people” (67). He is troubled by the charges by Calvinists who equate Arminianism with the heresy of semi-Pelagianism. In addition to the Arminianism that Roger commends, he recommends that people examine revisionist Calvinism, Lutheranism and Anabaptist theology. Any of these would be preferable to the moral reprehensibility of Calvinism.

Personal Reflections


As a five point Calvinist myself, I think that Roger has generally represented the theology accurately in this chapter. Most of his work here has been expositional, so extensive interaction with his objections will await his arguments in the following chapters. At this point, however, I will make a few observations for which opportunity may not arise later.

I concur with Roger that the belief in “eternal security” is a thoroughly inadequate justification for considering oneself a “Calvinist.” In fact, the doctrine of eternal security does not even qualify as “one point” Calvinism because the “once saved, always saved” doctrine affirmed by eternal securists is a far cry from the robust Calvinist insistence that one must persevere to the end in order to be saved, even though that is paired with a confidence that God will keep his children faithful. Genuine Calvinism provides no easy assurance.

I also agree that “four point” Calvinism is incoherent. In the three middle points of TULIP, we find the economy of the Trinity in salvation summed up – the Father elects, the Son redeems, and the Holy Spirit efficaciously applies the Son’s work. To assert that the Father has chosen particular people from before he created the world and that the Holy Spirit effects salvation in the hearts and lives of these people, but then to suggest that the Son died with the intention of saving everyone (not just those whom the Father gave to him [Jn 17:9]) seriously disrupts the unity of purpose within the Trinity.


Roger observes (53) that Lutherans, though they “generally agree with monergism” reject the doctrine of perseverance. It is worth noting something which Roger does not mention. This follows from the fact that Lutherans, like Thomists, followed Augustine’s understanding of the object of election. Calvinists believe that God’s unconditional election is to justifying faith, hence God keeps in faith all those whom he justifies. Augustine, by contrast, believed that election is to persevering faith. This means that many who are justified by faith are not elect and therefore they do not persevere. It is easy to see why Augustine took this route and why Aquinas and Luther followed him. All of them believed water baptism to be regenerative and justifying . But, rightly, none of them could affirm a theology in which all of the baptized were certain to be finally saved. By contrast, in Calvin’s doctrine of baptism, it is not justifying. So Calvin could affirm that election is to justifying faith without asserting the final salvation of all whom the church baptizes, but Augustine, Thomas and Luther found their way out of the dilemma by making persevering faith rather than justifying faith the object of sovereign election.


I don’t think that Roger grasps adequately what is going on in Calvinistic discussions of divine permission. He describes diversity among Calvinists regarding “whether God only ‘permits’ sin and evil or actually in some sense brings it about” (57-60). I doubt that such a disagreement exists because I think that there is widespread agreement with what Paul Helm most concisely states (p. 58). “God ordains all those circumstances which are necessary for the performance by a person of a particular morally evil action,” but “God does not himself perform that action, nor could he.” Nevertheless, God “permits the action to take place. He does not prevent it to stop it. So in circumstances ordained by God someone does an evil action; the circumstances are ordained, but the evil is permitted.” This is a subject that Roger will take up at greater length later in the book, so I’ll leave there my own contention that Roger misunderstands what Calvinists are saying. He mistakes the Calvinist protest against “mere permission,” which is simply a way of emphasizing that God is not passive in regard to the evils he permits, he does this intentionally, though his intention is realized by his deliberately not preventing what he could stop if he willed. I think that the citation of John Frame as differing from Helm (59) is misleading. I have not read the interview with Justin Taylor that Roger cites, but in Frame’s discussion of divine permission with regard to evil (The Doctrine of God, 177-82), I hear him making exactly the point that Helm and other Calvinists have made, in their distinguishing the efficacy of divine permission from the “mere permission” that Arminians affirm.

The critical difference is that, in the Calvinist framework, God’s permission is specific. By contrast, Arminians only affirm a general permission. In choosing to give moral creatures libertarian freedom and not to control the outcome of their actions (except in the rare instances when the redemptive program required this), God permitted everything that occurs, in general. I find it misleading, therefore, when I hear Arminians speak about God’s permission with regard to specific events in their lives, as though God chose specifically to allow those events to occur rather to prevent them.


Roger agrees with Boettner that there is no significant difference between double and single predestination (44). Respectfully, I disagree with them both, though I feel the force of their contention. I recognize that the result is the same: God is completely in control, some are saved and some are condemned. But I affirm single predestination because I think that it gets to that end differently and that the difference matters. In the case of double predestination, all humans are in a neutral position, from that neutral ground some are sent to eternal life with God and others to eternity in hell. That is not the picture I see in Scripture. There, I find humans not in a neutral position but in the position of willfully rebellious sinners. All of them deserve God’s condemnation, and no one could fault God if they were left to their just and self-chosen end. (After all, no provision is made for the reconciliation of fallen angels, so far as we are told.)

In amazing grace, however, God does not give all sinners what they deserve, but he chooses many (I have reasons to hope most of the human race) as objects of his undeserved love. These two acts are not simply unequal, as Sproul carefully insists (45). They are acts of a completely different  nature, and the election of God’s grace is so totally undeserved and so surprising that we gasp in amazement. This is not to say that I am unaware of the “scandal of election” (to use Berkouwer’s phrase), but I see no active choice on God’s part to allow justice to take its course in the judgment of willful sinners. I see no “decree of reprobation” in Scripture. Roger mentions that Sproul cites the reference in Romans 9 with regard to Jacob and Esau. But that is not about eternal election, it is about historical election and, as John Frame has nicely pointed out, there is no indication in Scripture that either Esau or Ishmael were not eternally elect (The Doctrine of God, 333).

Roger misconstrues the Calvinist affirmation that God does everything for his own glory, both creation and redemption. Roger asks: “Does God need the world to glory himself? Or is creation rather the result of the overflowing trinitarian love of God” (57). This is a false dichotomy. God does not need the world. He would have been God had he never chosen to create or to redeem fallen creatures. But in his wisdom he has chosen to glorify himself in this particular way. The point is that nothing he does is for the glory of anyone else, which would be an act of inconceivable idolatry. Yet, given the centrality of love in the divine being, it does not surprise us that God should have chosen to expand the expression of his love beyond himself, creating humans in his image and adopting many of them as his own children, heirs together with the eternal Son. So creation is consistent with God’s loving nature, but it is not necessitated by it God’s nature.

Roger complains that Calvinist critics of Arminianism often leave out the voluntary nature of divine self-limitation and the role of prevenient grace in conversion. He writes: “if anyone comes to Christ with repentance and faith it is only because they are enabled by God’s “prevenient grace” (66-67). Here I think Roger misses the point that I made in my last post (Part 3). Conversion can not, as Roger claims, be only because of prevenient grace, in the Arminian construct. If such were the case, everyone would be saved because everyone has that prevening gracious enablement. But that grace, though necessary, is not sufficient. Something more is needed for repentance and faith to occur, and that something more is not provided, according to Arminian theology, by God. If it were, God would be making the differential choice that is anathema to Arminian theology.

Points to Ponder

I do not know why God decided not to save everyone. I see no injustice in his decision, but I can’t easily see how it is that God would not have been equally well (or better?) glorified if he had saved the whole human race. Roger quotes Boettner’s proposal that “the condemnation of the non-elect is designed primarily” as “an eternal manifestation of the justice of God.” But then Roger asks a good question: “Was not the cross of Jesus Christ a sufficient manifestation of God’s justice and hatred toward sin?” (46).

I can conceive of no greater manifestation of both God’s justice and his mercy than the outpouring of his wrath upon the eternal Son made sin for us, as the means by which he could be just and yet justify the great host of sinners whom he so graciously saves. But I hear, in Boettner’s statement, an echo of Paul’s ruminations on a related question in Romans :19-24. Apparently, Paul had often been asked the question about the culpability of those whose unbelief is because they were not chosen to salvation. He anticipates it from his readers: “You will say to me then, ‘Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” (9:19).

I hear Paul saying that he doesn’t know for sure, the “why?” of God’s decision not to save the entire human race. He cites God’s prerogative to do as he wills with his creatures. But then Paul ventures a “what if?”, and the line he takes is similar to the one Boettner takes in regard to reprobation. The “riches of [God’s] glory for the objects of mercy” are more clearly seen against the background of the manifestation of his justice regarding “objects of wrath.”

I can still see a helpful line of approach in Paul’s own speculation, but I am left with a great mystery. No one will be more pleased than I should I discover that I had misunderstood Scripture and that God has, after all, determined to save the entire race. This is a hope available only to monergists, but it necessarily entails post-mortem salvation, a hell that is purgatorial, and I don’t see this in Scripture.

Perhaps the “sufficiency” of Christ’s death to manifest the just wrath of sin against God is not the point here. Might it be that the reverse direction is the better way for us to proceed? Seeing willful sinners receiving what we too deserved, we understand better the magnitude of what Jesus bore in our stead, and our eternal praise of the Lamb slain for our sins is more fully informed.

Earlier posts in the series: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

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26 Responses to Against Calvinism 4 – the TULIP system

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