Segment 3 | The Canons of Dort

The Calvinist response was five heads of doctrine to squarely controvert the five articles of Arminianism. These five points established in the Canons of Dort eventually were reformulated into the mnemonic five-letter acrostic TULIP. We don’t know when TULIP first was used, but it could have been as early as 1905, when the Rev. Cleland Boyd McAfee referred to TULIP in a lecture before the Presbyterian Union, which met in Newark, New Jersey. William H. Vail in 1913 stated:

“Some eight years ago I had the privilege of hearing a popular lecture by Dr. McAfee, of Brooklyn, upon the Five Points of Calvinism, given before the Presbyterian Union of Newark, New Jersey, which was most interesting as well as instructive. To aid the mind in remembering the Five Points, Dr. McAfee made use of the word Tulip, which, possessing five letters, lends itself nicely to the subject in hand, especially as it ends with the letter P, as will be seen later.” (“The Five Points of Calvinism Historically Considered,” The New Outlook, vol. 104 (1913), p. 394)

From there, the earliest clear reference to the TULIP is in a 1932 book by Loraine Boettner, an American Reformed theologian:

“The Five Points may be more easily remembered if they are associated with the word T-U-L-I-P; T, Total Inability; U, Unconditional Election; L, Limited Atonement; I, Irresistible (Efficacious) Grace; and P, Perseverance of the Saints.” (The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, Lorain Boettner, p. 60)

It’s highly suggested to read the Canons of Dort if the reader hasn’t already, to get the most benefit from this article. The canons aren’t a very long read, at only about 20 total pages. Dr. Nick Needham, a Reformed scholar, reflects on the outcome of the Synod:

“Here the Canons of Dort were crafted, re-affirming an Augustinian perspective on the disputed points, although in moderate language — the Canons are far from being an anti-Arminian rant. Here was a new gold standard of orthodoxy for the Reformed faith concerning the proper understanding of God’s grace in salvation. The five points of Calvinism derive from the Canons and the earlier Counter-Remonstrance. It should be noted, however, that these five points are by no means a summary of Calvinism as a whole; they summarize only its understanding of grace in response to the Arminian challenge. There is much more to the Reformed faith than the five points.” (“Overview of the Seventeenth Century,” Tabletalk, April 2017)

Dr. Beeke agrees:

“Though these points do not embrace the full scope of Calvinism and are better regarded as Calvinism’s five answers to the five errors of Arminianism, they certainly lie at the heart of the Reformed faith, particularly Reformed soteriology, for they flow out of the principle of absolute divine sovereignty. They may be summarized as follows: (1) Unconditional election and faith are sovereign gifts of God. (2) While the death of Christ is abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world, its saving efficacy is limited to the elect. (3,4) All are so totally depraved and corrupted by sin that they cannot effect any part of their salvation; in sovereign grace God irresistibly calls and regenerates the elect to newness of life. (5) Those thus saved God graciously preserves so that they persevere until the end, even though they may be troubled by many infirmities as they seek to make their calling and election sure.
Simply stated, we may say that the subject matter of the Canons is: sovereign grace conceived, sovereign grace merited, sovereign grace needed and applied, and sovereign grace preserved.” (The Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible, introduction to The Canons of Dort, p. 2007)

The Synod’s findings eventually led to these points (though they’re not in the canons in this order):

1. Total Depravity or Total Inability: Because of the fall, man is unable of himself to savingly believe the gospel. The sinner is dead, blind, and deaf to the things of God; his heart is deceitful and desperately corrupt. His will is not free, it is in bondage to his evil nature, therefore, he will not — indeed he cannot — choose good over evil in the spiritual realm. Consequently, it takes much more than the Spirit’s assistance to bring a sinner to Christ — it takes regeneration by which the Spirit makes the sinner alive and gives him a new nature. Faith is not something man contributes to salvation but is itself a part of God’s gift of salvation — it is God’s gift to the sinner, not the sinner’s gift to God.

2. Unconditional Election: God’s choice of certain individuals unto salvation before the foundation of the world rested solely in His own sovereign will. His choice of particular sinners was not based on any foreseen response or obedience on their part, such as faith, repentance, etc. On the contrary, God gives faith and repentance to each individual whom He selected. These acts are the result, not the cause God’s choice. Election therefore was not determined by or conditioned upon any virtuous quality or act foreseen in man. Those whom God sovereignly elected He brings through the power of the Spirit to a willing acceptance of Christ. Thus God’s choice of the sinner, not the sinner’s choice of Christ, is the ultimate cause of salvation.

3. Limited Atonement or Particular Redemption: Christ’s redeeming work was intended to save the elect only and actually secured salvation for them. His death was a substitutionary endurance of the penalty of sin in the place of certain specified sinners. In addition to putting away the sins of His people, Christ’s redemption secured everything necessary for their salvation, including faith which unites them to Him. The gift of faith is infallibly applied by the Spirit to all for whom Christ died, therefore guaranteeing their salvation.

4. Irresistible Grace or the Efficacious Call of the Spirit: In addition to the outward general call to salvation which is made to everyone who hears the gospel, the Holy Spirit extends to the elect a special inward call that inevitably brings them to salvation. The external call (which is made to all without distinction) can be, and often is, rejected; whereas the internal call (which is made only to the elect) cannot be rejected; it always results in conversion. By means of this special call the Spirit irresistibly draws sinners to Christ. He is not limited in His work of applying salvation by man’s will, nor is He dependent upon man’s cooperation for success. The Spirit graciously causes the elect sinner to cooperate, to believe, to repent, to come freely and willingly to Christ. God’s grace, therefore, is invincible; it never fails to result in the salvation of those to whom it is extended.

5. Perseverance of the Saints: All who are chosen by God, redeemed by Christ, and given faith by the Spirit are eternally saved. They are kept in faith by the power of Almighty God and thus persevere to the end.

According to the Bible, salvation is accomplished by the omnipotence of God in three Persons. The Father chose His people, the Son died for them, accomplishing the Father’s work, and the Holy Spirit applies that work, making Christ’s death and resurrection effective by bringing the elect to faith and repentance, thereby causing them to willingly obey the gospel. The entire saving event, consisting of election, justification, sanctification, redemption and regeneration, is the work of God and occurs by grace alone. Thus God, not man, determines who will salvifically receive the gift of eternal life.

This monergistic view of salvation, that is, salvation is unilaterally initiated and achieved by God, was reaffirmed at the conclusion of the Synod of Dort as the doctrine of salvation contained in the Holy Scriptures.

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church history, epistemology, Reformation, soteriology