What are the Five Points of Calvinism?
Less than two generations after John Calvin died, there was an uproar throughout Europe over his theological teachings. At the crux of the battle was a dispute about man’s salvation. Did man have a way to earn his salvation? Or was God in complete control of man’s salvation? Do people choose God? Or does God choose people?
In 1619, in response to those claiming that man could indeed work toward his own salvation, a council of churches met to solidify five essential issues surrounding salvation. These later became known as the “five points of Calvinism” or the “doctrines of grace.” Today, these five points are usually summarized by the acronym TULIP. The five points of TULIP, in order, are total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints.
In this article, we will kick off our series by looking at the five points of Calvinism by examining the first point, total depravity.
What is Total Depravity?
Total depravity is the Reformed teaching that every single person is totally estranged from God. It teaches that humans are all corrupted by sin; no one could ever hope to be in a right relationship with God on their own merit.
Total depravity is often connected to the doctrine of original sin. This doctrine does not refer to the first sin or to the origin of sin. Rather, it teaches that because of Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden of Eden, the entire human race fell. Since then, our nature as human beings has been corrupted by the power of evil.
This does not mean that all people are as evil as they can be. Instead, “total” refers to the “whole” person. Meaning that every part of our existence is affected by sin. Left to ourselves, we can never choose to do good; we can never choose God.
What is the Biblical Basis for Total Depravity?
Throughout the Scriptures, it is plain that apart from God, man is not good (Psalm 14:3, 53:3; Romans 3:12; Ephesians 2:1). The Bible teaches that this “not good” condition is inherited by everyone at birth. King David affirms this in the Psalms, saying, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:1).
The Apostle Paul picks up on this idea in his letters, teaching that in one man—Adam—sin and death entered into the world and spread to all men (Romans 5:12,19; 1 Corinthians 15:21-28). When we are born, we are born with Adam’s corrupted relationship with God.
What are the Implications of Total Depravity?
Before Adam sinned, he was given a world with no death, no sickness, and no estrangement from God. The result of his fall affected everything. It affects our physical health, causing illness and death. It affects our mental and cognitive abilities, making the mind darker and weaker.
Most importantly, it affects our moral willpower. No one is capable of initiating or contributing to their own salvation. People left to themselves are hostile to God and are unable to understand the truth of the Gospel.
This does not mean that apart from God people can’t do seemingly good things. After all, a non-Christian can help an old lady cross the street, but their inward hostility against God and their corrupted nature make even that “good” action depraved in the eyes of God. Because everything in us is affected by sin, we cannot escape sin in anything that we do.
Do the Five Points of Calvinism Teach That We Left in a State of Total Depravity Forever?
There is a way to escape this corruption of our nature. Paul says that in Adam all died, but in Christ, all shall be made alive (1 Corinthians 15:22). Jesus has become the new Adam. In Him, our relationship with God can be restored. In Him, we can be made good.
Some theologians talk about this in terms of “covenantal headship.” That is, under the headship of Adam, we are sinners. Under the headship of Christ, we are righteous. Think about it in terms of umbrellas. Sin and death are pouring down and the umbrella is meant to preserve us from them. Adam’s umbrella no longer has any fabric, only the metal frame. Jesus’s umbrella is perfect and without flaw. Humans, by nature, are beneath the umbrella of Adam, which means we are subject to sin. However, through faith in Jesus Christ, we can be transferred to the umbrella of Jesus, which protects us from our sin and grants us righteousness.
Through this transfer, we are no longer slaves to sin and death but have the opportunity to live a new life in Christ, characterized by a true love for God and a desire for righteousness. This is the essence of salvation, to be transferred from the headship of Adam (the umbrella of sin and death) to the headship of Christ (the umbrella of life).