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New Horizons

Tulips or Roses?

Iain D. Campbell

Tulips or Roses?

Iain D. Campbell

Most readers will be aware that the acrostic TULIP has been used to describe the so-called "five points of Calvinism": Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and the Perseverance of the saints.

Calvinism, of course, is a wide subject, and even if we were to confine ourselves to Calvin's Institutes, we would have to include many, many more "points." Calvin had much to say, for example, about the nature of general revelation, the person of Christ, the sacraments, and the nature of civil government, none of which is reflected in the "five points." However, as far as the nature of the gospel is concerned, these famous five phrases do draw our attention to cardinal and central issues: the effects of sin, God's unconditioned and unmerited election of his people, the work of Christ for us, the work of the Holy Spirit in us, and the power of God in enabling us to live the Christian life.

All of this serves to remind us that salvation is not provided mechanically for us as a result of religious procedures, but by the Holy Spirit working in the lives of individuals. Calvin's whole theology was a movement back to Scripture, to the sufficiency of the work of Jesus, and the application of redemption by the work of the Holy Spirit. To this extent, Calvin's was a thoroughgoing theology of grace.

Flower Power

The TULIP acrostic reflects the fact that in Holland, in 1618-1619, an important gathering of Reformed scholars took place. The Synod of Dort met by invitation of the Dutch government to deal specifically with problems that had arisen over the nature of God's sovereignty. In the sixteenth century, John Calvin had taught that God's grace in men's experience was directly related to a previous, gracious, and sovereign election. This had been countered by Jacobus Arminius, who died in 1610. Arminianism came to teach that election followed grace, and was dependent on the free choice of man.

In 1610 the followers of Arminius published their "Remonstrance," in which cardinal points of Calvinism were questioned. The Remonstrants grounded God's election in his foresight of faith, taught that Christ died for the salvation of all men, said that grace could be resisted, and declared that perseverance was not necessarily guaranteed to all. The Canons of Dort repudiated these positions and bequeathed to the Reformed church a specific view on the issues. The tulip-clad fields of Holland provided the Reformed church with the acrostic which has helped many to recall the central theses of Calvinism.

A Different Bunch

A recent book, however, has suggested that a Reformed theology of grace requires an alternative acrostic, not because the Canons of Dort were wrong, but because the five points of Calvinism are open to misinterpretation. The book, Amazing Grace, has been written by a leading Reformation scholar, Dr. Timothy George. His Theology of the Reformers is an extremely helpful volume. Dr. George, who is Dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, has produced his latest work as the 2001 Doctrine Study for the Southern Baptist Convention. He is concerned to bring the mainstream Baptist churches to a deeper appreciation of sovereign grace, but is also concerned to note that we are no longer in the seventeenth century, and therefore that the conclusions of Dort require reformulation. He suggests different flowers, and wants us to pick roses instead of tulips. His formulation is shown on the chart on the next page.

Dr. George has renamed each of the five points; his acrostic also requires a different order to the five points, which may or may not be significant. He has a concern to emphasize sovereign grace; he has an evangelistic concern; he has a desire to avoid legalism and antinomianism; he wishes to make the theology of the Reformation relevant for today. But are his roses an improvement on our tulips?

A Bed of Roses?

Dr. George suggests that "total depravity" is not the best way to express the damage sin has caused in our lives, because God's image in man has not been totally defaced. Men have fallen, but are not as wicked as they might be. His suggestion is that we speak instead of "radical depravity," which highlights that sin has its roots in our hearts, and leaves us condemned before God.

However, the Bible's own teaching is that our hearts are "deceitful above all things and desperately wicked" (Jer. 17:9 kjv), and that as a consequence all our thoughts, words, and actions are compromised. The reason we are not as wicked as we might be is that God restrains the sin of man so that, ultimately, God will have the glory of his creation (Ps. 76:10). While Dr. George does not wish to minimize sin, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that he has minimized its effects. To put it another way, the work of salvation is radical, but it is also total—our whole persons are affected. Grace washes sin from the heart, governs the will, and at last frees the body from corruption. Depravity is certainly radical; but because its roots are in us, it becomes total.

For unconditional election, Dr. George wants to read "sovereign election." Before we look at the meaning of this, it is significant, I think, that his revision requires the points of election and grace to be reversed. But his main concern is that the traditional formulation suggests that God elects sinners without reference to what Christ has done, and without reference to a response on the part of sinners to the gospel. The problem is that arguably both the cross of Christ and the response of men to the gospel are the consequence, rather than the cause, of God's sovereign planning of salvation in eternity. Election is certainly sovereign, and is conditioned by the nature of the God who elects; but in relation to the world and all that takes place in it, election remains absolutely unconditional.

Instead of irresistible grace, Dr. George wants to speak of "overcoming grace," which he equates with effectual calling. Grace, he says, can be, and inevitably is, resisted. The pleadings of the preacher, the free offer of the gospel—all these can be resisted. That is true, but grace is not what is on offer in the gospel. Christ is on offer, and we remain morally responsible for what we do with him. The reality is that we will always resist Christ unless God's grace works in our souls; and the reality is that we can never resist grace, because its working in our hearts leads us to seek the Lord and follow him.

For perseverance, read "eternal life." Those who have eternal life, Jesus says, shall never perish. Yet those who have it stray and sin and backslide. Their Christian life is not a linear progression; they mount to heaven and go down to the depths. Yet, while that is true, saints do persevere. They persevere because where God begins a good work in them, he carries it on (Phil. 1:6). Dr. George is concerned that the "once saved, always saved" slogan can lead to complacency about obedience, or even misery in backsliding.

But true discipleship means that backsliding cannot prevent us from going forward to glory. Jesus keeps us even when we lose sight of him. And true disciples recognize their sin and long to be obedient. If I have eternal life, I will never lose it. My efforts do not contribute to that assurance, and nor does my sin rob me of it. Eternal security does mean that the saints will persevere, and those who persevere to the end will be saved (Mark 13:13).

For limited atonement, we are encouraged to read "singular redemption." Dr. George suggests that the third point of our Calvinism is the most controversial in the church, the least prominent in Scripture, and, by implication, a hindrance to evangelism. However, the lack of prominence of a doctrine in Scripture is no signal of its unimportance; it is only a signal of how careful we should be in its use. Dr. George himself quotes verses like Acts 20:28 and Ephesians 5:25, which clearly show that the number for whom Christ died is limited. And while other verses of Scripture show that there are universal aspects to his work on the cross, no part of Scripture sees or suggests any inconsistency between a limited, definite atonement and the free offer of the gospel.

Of course, the foregoing paragraphs themselves demonstrate the validity of one of Dr. George's main points: the five points of Calvinism need explanation and clarification. But the problem is not one of historical context. The problem is older than Dort—it goes right back to Eden: it is the need for special revelation to show us the provision of salvation, and the need for grace to show us our need to trust personally in Christ.

The Pick of the Bunch

There is much of value that we can glean from Timothy George's latest work, not least the emphasis on sovereign grace, so much needed in the modern church. His concern for reformulation also reflects a healthy desire to communicate the gospel in a way that is relevant and meaningful.

But I am not prepared to abandon my tulips for Dr. George's roses. Perhaps, like the chocolate version, these roses will "grow on you." But I suspect that the reformulation suggested in this work will mean that churches will become broadly evangelical and less distinctly Reformed in their emphasis. And I am just a little bit afraid that while I may find the fragrance of Christ and his evangel in the scent of the roses as much as in the tulips, the hidden thorns on the rose stems may hinder my appreciation of God's sovereign and gracious work in the salvation of sinners.

The author is the pastor of Back Free Church in Back, Scotland. This article was first published in The Monthly Record of the Free Church of Scotland, March 2001. Used with permission. Reprinted from New Horizons, July 2001.

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