The Trouble with TULIP

In his engaging book Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport, Richard Mouw recalls that in the movie Hardcore, Jake tries to explain to Niki, a young woman of the streets, what he believes. He uses the acrostic familiar to Christians in Reformed churches: TULIP.

Mouw asks the question: “What do the Canons of Dort mean for people who hang around in the Las Vegas airport?” He wonders if there’s any way to explain “the five points of Calvinism” to the uninitiated. He makes a good stab at it, but concludes Jake should have talked about Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 1 rather than TULIP.

Asking the question “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” is a very good place to start a conversation about the Christian faith. However, it may be that the TULIP device is the problem, rather than the doctrine of grace it tries to summarize. Using TULIP may contribute to misunderstanding and confusion. People tend to hear things we don’t intend to communicate and, in fact, don’t believe:

Total Depravity. This sounds like we think all people are as bad as they can possibly be. But our listeners know some pretty good people, folks who are probably better than some church people they know.

Unconditional Election. When they hear this, people often jump immediately to the question of why some people are not chosen.

Limited Atonement. This seems to imply Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was limited in its power to save.

Irresistible Grace. The phrase brings to mind the picture of God dragging people to heaven, kicking and screaming, against their will.

Perseverance of the Saints. This makes it sound like once people are saved, it’s up to them to stay saved. They must persevere.

Perhaps a better acronym would help Jake communicate the good news to Niki. He could use FAITH, for example:

Fallen Humanity. In the Las Vegas airport Niki acknowledges that she thinks of herself as “screwed up.” A point of connection with people everywhere is that they recognize things are “not the way they are supposed to be,” as Cornelius Plantinga states so well in his award-winning book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Eerdmans, 1995). Internally, personally, all people sense they are “not right”—not at peace, not whole, not everything they could be. Externally, we’re all surrounded by evidence that the world is not right. It’s filled with crime and hunger and bloodshed.

Why is it that things are not as they should be? The Bible says the problem is sin: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). The “fall” into disobedience of Adam and Eve, the parents of the human race, has affected each person and the world we live in. Niki, Jake, all of us are fallen from a right relationship with God, with others, with ourselves, with our environment.

What’s worse, our fall is so radical we’re unable to restore ourselves, no matter how good we are. As the apostle Paul puts it: “You were dead in your transgressions and sins” (Eph. 2:1). Ask a dead person to help you plant a tree, and he will not be able to hear you, let alone get up and help. According to the Bible, we’re all spiritually dead. This does not make us utterly depraved, but it does make us completely helpless.

Jake could have empathized with Niki’s brokenness. The “F” in FAITH makes our common plight clear. The rest of the letters make God’s solution to our problem abundantly clear as well.

Adopted by God. People understand adoption. They admire it. (When they hear about an adoption, they don’t first stop to ask about all the orphans not chosen.) A child, a baby, is in need of a parent. With a heart full of love, someone brings that child home to cherish and raise, to make him or her a part of the family.

That’s just what God does for the lost, fallen, and wandering people of this world. God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will” (Eph. 1:4-5, NRSV).

Adopted children do not do anything to merit their adoption. They are selected by the adopting parents. Likewise, we do not (indeed, cannot) take the initiative in being chosen by God. We are dependant on God’s electing love. We can, however, respond to God’s choosing by choosing to love God in return.

It was not in the Las Vegas airport but in the Amsterdam airport. I’d been talking with a man about the good news that God was redeeming his people and, through them, his world from the consequences of the fall into sin. As we separated to go to our respective flights, he hurried back to me. “One more quick question. What do you think about God’s sovereignty versus human free will?” That question often comes up: who chooses whom? If God initiates the adoption, what is our part? I replied, “When you got married, did you choose your wife, or did she choose you?” He pondered. “I guess we chose each other!” He brightened. “Thanks!” And off he ran. I suspect there was an initiator in that relationship, but they chose each other. In relationship with God, we choose each other too—but God is always the initiator.

Back in the Las Vegas airport, Jake could have held before Niki the possibility of being adopted by God.

Intentional Atonement. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus did for us what we are unable to do for ourselves. Because we are fallen—tainted with sin—we cannot offer ourselves as a pure, blameless sacrifice needed to atone (pay the price) for our sin. But because Jesus was without sin, he could be such a sacrifice. And he was. His death on the cross paid the price for “the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

Jesus “resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51) to “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21), to pay the death penalty we deserved. Jesus said, “No one takes [my life] from me; but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18). And the apostle John writes, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

Perhaps Jake could have asked Niki if she thought Jesus died for her. Perhaps he could have highlighted in a Bible these words for her: “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37).

Transformed by the Holy Spirit. The intentional atonement Jesus accomplished on the cross now needs to be applied to us. This is the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. God does not work against our will. Rather, God loves us and draws us to himself. The Holy Spirit opens our sin-darkened eyes and sin-stopped ears, enabling us to see and hear the good news that we have been saved from sin (John 9:35-41). The Holy Spirit replaces our rebellious, stony hearts with warm, receptive hearts (Ezek. 36:26). He opens our hearts to receive the things of God (Acts 16:14). He gives us the gift of faith, enabling us to believe (Eph. 2:8-10). The Holy Spirit renews us so that we desire God and God’s will (John 3:1-8).

Do you desire God and the things of God? That’s the Holy Spirit at work in your life. Salvation is God’s gracious work—outside and inside. New Christians intuitively recognize this work of the Spirit. They say such things as: “When God opened my eyes . . .” “Then God changed my heart . . .” “God drew me to him. . . .”

Maybe Niki’s question about what Jake believes is an indication that the Holy Spirit is at work in her too.

Held by God. The joyous conclusion of all this is that we are held eternally secure in the good hands of God. Because we are in God’s grip, we cannot lose our salvation. Jesus says,

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one (John 10:27-30).

No one, not even Satan himself, can snatch us out of God’s hands. The apostle Paul puts it this way:

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:38-39).

Some Christians today do not experience the peace and joy that Jesus Christ brings because they’re afraid they can lose their salvation. They think their salvation depends on their faith; they’re afraid that a lapse in their faith will cause them to fall out of God’s hand.

But the Bible teaches that our eternal security does not depend on our hanging on to God, but on God hanging on to us. Picture a father and his son holding hands, walking along a treacherous path. If the child is holding on to his father’s hand and lets go, he can fall. If the father is holding securely on to his child’s hand, the child is safe. It’s not the perseverance of the saints that gives us this assurance of salvation, but the preservation of God. Salvation is completely God’s work. We can rest secure in God’s loving grip.

Might Niki be looking for some security in life? Some joy? Some peace?

The five points of Calvinism may not be the place to start a conversation about spiritual things. They may not make the best “witnessing tool.” But understanding them can help us in our witness. Perhaps if we considered a new acronym, Calvinism would sound more like “doctrines of grace” and “truths that transform” to the ears of the uninitiated.  ¦  

We Recommend . . .

Jim Osterhouse’s book F.A.I.T.H. Unfolded. It explains in further detail the basic doctrines of the Reformed faith in words that seekers can understand. The book is useful for small groups and is also condensed in pamphlet form. Both are available from Faith Alive Christian Resources: www.FaithAliveResources.org, 1-800-333-8300.

Discussion
  1. Have you used the acronym TULIP to explain your faith to someone? How was it received?
  2. What do you think of Jim’s explanation of FAITH? What did you find particularly helpful?
  3. Do you have friends or family who are not Christians? How does this article help you in relating to them?
  4. What part does your church play in helping people become aware of God’s electing love?
  5. Do you fear losing your salvation? Why? What gives you assurance?

About the Author

Rev. Jim Osterhouse heads the Missional Leader Development team for Christian Reformed Home Missions. He is a member of Calvary Christian Reformed Church, Holland, Mich.

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