The acronym TULIP is used widely to describe the essence of Calvinism and Reformed Theology:
Total Depravity (also known as Total Inability and Original Sin)
Limited Atonement (also known as Particular Atonement)
Perseverance of the Saints (also known as Once Saved Always Saved)
The TULIP acronym portrays a pretty blossom, but its artificiality betrays a lack of delicacy and fragrance of a real living flower. This would please critics of Calvinism who have judged Calvinism to be dark and distasteful, much like barren soil unfit for spiritual cultivation, which, not surprisingly, could only produce an artificial ‘flower’. Calvinism has been used as a term of abuse. Calvinists, like the early Christians have also been accused of causing social tyranny and cultural oppression. Hence, the celebrated American journalist, H.L. Mencken famously placed Calvinism next to Cannibalism in his “cabinet of horror”!
The essence of Calvinism described by TULIP comes across as an abstract construct that is driven by cold and remorseless logic. It was no accident that Calvinists prefer to use the phrase “marrow of Calvinism” rather than the “essence of Calvinism” since “marrow” describes the inner substance of the bone that produces blood cells, and hence typifies strength and vitality.
Calvinism as a Practical Spiritual Discipline
A good start to address these widespread prejudice and stereotypical distortions of Calvinism would be to highlight the comprehensive vision and dynamic spirituality of Calvinism which has bequeathed the world a lasting legacy in free and public education (Harvard, Yale and Princeton Universities were founded by Calvinists). Calvinists were at the forefront of political activism fighting for local government and representative government. [Robert Knudsen, John Calvin: His Influence in the Western World, ed. W Stanford Reid (Zondervan, 1982), and Douglas Kelly, The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World: The Influence of Calvin on Five Governments from the 16th Through 18th Centuries (Presbyterian and Reformed 1992).]
Calvinism may be perceived as an austere and abstract system. However, in reality, it is a faith that insists on “experimental religion” and personal spiritual disciplines. For example, Puritans like Isaac Ambrose and John Owen offer Christians practical suggestions on how to cultivate spiritual discipline between the extremes – outward rituals of official Catholicism and inward mysticism of the medieval asceticism. Their Puritan/Calvinistic spirituality maintains a critical balance between subjective prayer and objective reading of Scripture, as it is a loving and grateful response to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Isaac Ambrose’s prayer to God in his Media (1657) captures the Calvinist ardent longing and love for God,
[God], let me see the beauties and glorious excellencies, and by this means blow my love into a pure flame . . . O kindle, inflame, and enlarge my love that it may rest largely in thee . . . I may abundantly love thee, and do not only come much but come often into me, and let my spirit often be one spirit with thee, in communicative and fruitive unions, for such often unions with thy Spirit, will make my spirit more spiritual, and the more spiritual she is, the more will she love thee . . . by an heavenly excess, transport me into an heavenly love, that I may embrace Christ who is the Lord from Heaven with a love like himself – Isaac Ambrose, Media (1657), 234.
Calvinism as a God-Centered Faith
The centrality of God and its defining role in shaping Calvinistic faith is all too apparent. For the Calvinist, all life must be lived in the face of God, coram Deo. “The Calvinist is the man who has seen God, and having seen his glory, is filled on the one hand, with a sense of his own unworthiness to stand in God’s sight as a creature, and much more as a sinner, and on the other hand, with an adoring wonder that nevertheless this God is a god who receives sinners.” [B.B Warfield, Calvin and Augustine (Presbyterian & Reformed, 1956), p. 491.]
The sense of awe and reverence for God fills the whole horizon of feeling and thoughts of the Calvinist. The Holy Spirit reveals the unmatched and unmerited generosity of God’s sovereign grace revealed in the Son and elicits the intense longing of the glory of God. Admittedly, many Calvinists have tended to display less outward exuberance (which need not be equated with joy), but their experience of inner joy arising from gratitude to God is palpable, notwithstanding their calm countenance. As Maurice Roberts exclaims in “Before the Omnipotent’s Throne”, Tabletalk (Nov. 1992), p. 17.
“The realization that God has chosen an individual to life and glory, though he was not a whit better than others, leads the mature Christian to cherish the most ecstatic feelings of gratitude to our heavenly father. With an upturned face the adoring believer confesses to heaven that apart, from eternally given grace, he would never have believed in Christ, nor even have wished to believe. Then, lowering his gaze and covering his streaming eyes, the grateful Christian exclaims, “My Father and my God! To Thee alone be everlasting glory for such unmerited grace!” [Quoted in Joel Beeke. Living for God’s glory: An Introduction to Calvinism (Reformation Trust 2008), p. 45.]
Calvinism properly understood, emphasizes Christian faith as a personal and joyful response in gratitude to God’s sovereign and saving grace. Hence, the opening question in the Shorter Catechism:
Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
It is therefore unfortunate if Calvinism is reduced to the acronym TULIP. First, the acronym is an adaptation of Calvinistic disputation and refutation of the Five Point/Remonstrant of Arminianism taught in Holland in the 17th century. As such, it would be a mistake to adopt a polemical statement forged in the heat of a specific theological dispute to represent the essence of Calvinism. Indeed, the slogan, “Five Points of Calvinism” did not exist until the 20th century and became more widely used only in the last 50 years. Second, while it is acknowledged that subsequent Calvinistic theologians wrote in continuity and in agreement with the Canons of Dort, nevertheless they would have balked at the idea of their doctrinal beliefs being reduced to the Five Points, much as many Christians would balk at the idea of Christianity being reduced to nothing but the Nicene Creed.
Constructive and Positive Formulation of Calvinism: “SUPER”
An accurate and fair summary of Calvinism goes beyond polemics and offers a positive and constructive formulation of its vision of faith and practice. I offer a positive formulation that builds on cues taken from Roger Nicole and Greg Forster:
1) Sovereign Initiative: God is sovereign in his unconditional love as he takes the initiative to save sinners. There could be no human merit, whether past, present or future which determines the divine choice. Scripture testifies that God “chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.” (Eph. 1: 4)
2) Universal-Pervasive Corruption: Divine initiative is necessary because of pervasive corruption of human nature. This does not mean that man is as wicked as he can be. It is rather the fact that no department of human life is immune from the depravity of sin. As the Westminster Confession of faith says, “By this sin they fell from their original righteousness and communion, with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body (WCF 6.2). More importantly, apart from divine aid, there could be no reversal from the destructive consequences of sin. Saving grace is indispensable. Indeed, the good news for rejoicing is that God has done only what he can do in delivering us from pervasive corruption and evil.
Note: The word “wholly” used in the Westminster Confession means “all throughout, pervasive”. In contrast, “totally” implies “completely, utterly”. For this reason, I have substituted the phrase “Total Depravity” with the phrase “Universal-Pervasive Corruption.” John Calvin urges that we acknowledge that goodness may also be found among unbelievers,
In every age there have been persons who, guided by nature, have striven toward virtue throughout life…even if many lapses can be noted in their moral conduct. For they have by the very zeal of their honesty given proof that there was some purity in their nature…[they] only excelled in remarkable deeds, but conducted themselves most honorably throughout life. But here it ought to occur to us that amid this corruption of nature there is some place for God’s grace; not such grace as to cleanse it, but to restrain it inwardly (2.3.3) [John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Trans. Ford Battles (Westminster Press, 1960), p. 292.
3) Purposeful and Definite Atonement: Christ’s atoning work is effective in its purpose. (a) Christ’s death secures salvation for whom it is intended, and is not frustrated by the wicked will of men who resist him and reject his grace. (b) Christ death is definite and particular. God loves you personally when Christ died and rose again to save you. Warfield explains the why atonement must be purposeful and definite:
[The Calvinist] contends that the particularism which attaches to the issue of the saving process, must, just because it is God and God alone who saves, belong also to the process itself… he who saves men, and as he saves them by immediate operations on their hearts, and as his saving grace is his almighty power effecting salvation, men owe in each and every case their actual salvation, and not merely their general opportunity to be saved, to him. And therefore, to him and to him alone belongs in each instance all the glory, which none can share with him…The precise issue which divides the universalists and the particularists is, accordingly, just whether the saving grace of God, in which alone is salvation, actually saves. Does its presence mean salvation, or may it be present, and yet salvation fail? [B.B. Warfield, The Plan of Salvation (Eerdmans, 1984), pp. 22-23.]
4) Effectual Grace: God loves us irresistibly. God’s grace is invincible as the Holy Spirit always succeeds without needing man’s cooperation when he applies salvation to man. The Holy Spirit graciously causes the elect sinner to believe, to repent and to accept Christ willingly. His grace does not need to overwhelm our will since we gladly obey God, because the “new birth” in the Holy Spirit is a radical, supernatural transformation that brings joyful obedience. “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (Ezekiel 36:26-27).
5) Resolute-Perseverance of His Saints: Believers will not drop out from their faith because they are kept unto ultimate salvation by the grace and power of God, not because the saints are faithful by their own personal strength and consistency, but because God’s purpose is constant and his love for his saints is unbreakable. The assurance of perseverance of the saints who are kept by the power of God does not mean passivity for the believer. The believer perseveres precisely because the assurance of God’s sufficient grace spurs him to remain resolute and obedient in all trials and to rejoice in all circumstances. “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:2). Note that the believer who trusts in God’s persevering grace works out his salvation and not works for his salvation.
Calvinism as a joyful vision of God’s supremacy and sovereignty
To conclude, I am proposing that we complement the historically significant acronym TULIP with SUPER. SUPER Calvinism commends faith in the supremacy and sovereignty, fullness and finality of God’s salvation that is taught in Scripture. SUPER points to the Calvinist’s sense of wonder, awe and joy at the absolute sovereignty of God. In the words of Warfield,
[The Calvinist] has caught sight of the ineffable Vision…God in nature, God in history, God in grace. Everywhere he sees God in His mighty stepping, everywhere he feels the working of His mighty arm, the throbbing of His mighty heart…The Calvinist is the man who sees God behind all phenomena and in all that occurs recognizes the hand of God, working out His will; who makes the attitude of the soul to God in prayer its permanent attitude in all its life activities; [he] casts himself on the grace of God alone, excluding every trace of dependence on self from the whole work of his salvation. [Warfield, Calvin and Augustine, pp. 503, 492.]
Joel Beeke. Living for God’s glory: An Introduction to Calvinism (Reformation Trust 2008).
Greg Forster, The Joy of Calvinism: Knowing God’s Personal, Unconditional, Irresistible, Unbreakable Love (Crossway, 2012).
Roger Nicole, “Calvinism: the Five Points” in Standing Forth: The Collected Writings of Roger Nicole (Mentor, 2002), pp. 429-436.
R.C. Sproul, What is Reformed Theology? Understanding the Basics (Baker Books, 1997).
B.B Warfield. Calvin and Augustine (Presbyterian & Reformed, 1956).