Yesterday, I heard of a pastor who was fired from his church because he confessed to believing in the doctrines of grace. The “doctrines of grace” is another way of saying “Calvinism” as opposed to Arminianism.
You have probably heard of the five points of Calvinism, or TULIP: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. John Calvin himself did not create the TULIP acronym or even coin the terms it represents. The Canons of Dort are actually where the points come from.
The Canons of Dort were themselves a reaction to the growing influence of Arminianism upon the church in the Netherlands. Arminians had produced a document called the Remonstrance where they set forth five points of their theology concerning salvation and the interplay of nature and grace. In response to the Remonstrance, the churches who held to the doctrines of grace produced the Canons of Dort. Each point of the Canons was a response to a point of the Remonstrance.
The 1689 London Baptist Confession is firmly in line with the Canons of Dort, the doctrines of grace, and Calvinism. These doctrines have a direct lineage to the early church. The points of the Remonstrance also have a direct lineage, but it is to semi-Pelagianism, a heresy condemned in A.D. 529 at the Council of Orange. If you have been taught about God’s “prevenient” grace, such as at the Emmaus Walk, then you have been taught semi-Pelagianism.
The Confession begins,
“The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word; by which also, and by the administration of baptism and the Lord's supper, prayer, and other means appointed of God, it is increased and strengthened.”
Here we see the definitions of both unconditional election and irresistible grace, the “U” and “I” of TULIP. It is election that enables saving faith. Before the intervention of the Spirit, we are God’s enemies. The apostle Paul says quite clearly, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled shall we be saved by his life” (Romans 5:10).
Faith is a grace; it is a gift. We do not cooperate with grace to reach salvation. Grace is not God “wooing” us to salvation. Grace is a work of the Spirit. If we make it anything else, we become participants in our salvation.That simply flies in the face of the Scriptural witness.
Paul writes that we “were dead in the trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). Bringing the dead to life is a work of God, not a cooperative effort. Men and women in their fallen state do not seek to acknowledge God (Romans 1:28). To say that God extends grace as an invitation is simply foreign to Scripture. When God calls dead bones to life, they come to life.
That is not to say that there is no response from the one who has been newly made alive. That, of course, is belief. But the bone of contention is whether or not the call of God to be made alive takes effect with or without the accepting of that grace by the person.
How does this call of God appear? Does it just fly through the air? Does God send a lightning bolt to your heart and make you saved? No; God has always used means to bring about salvation.
Those means are remarkable in that their effect is the saving of souls. They are unremarkable is the sense that they are things like preaching and communion. Paul writes again, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Romans 10:14).
God works through his word. By hearing, we believe. The call of God goes out and takes effect in the hearts of men and women through the proclamation of the gospel through the words of Scripture. Preaching is simply explaining the meaning of the text at hand. It may not always be that Christ is the immediate application of any certain passage (such as a particular Proverb), but the preacher must show how this passage finds its ultimate fulfillment in Christ.
Once faith takes root in the believer, faith is sustained by the work of the Spirit, as well. The means the Spirit uses to sustain faith are initially baptism and then communion. Baptism is the initiation rite into the faith. It publicly confesses that Jesus is Lord, that you have died to your sin, and that you will be raised to new life in the age to come. Communion is the ongoing reminder that Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice, made with his body and blood, continue to be all that is necessary for salvation.
The men who reacted against the Remonstrance were brave men who were ready to speak against an ancient system of belief that had been condemned as soon as it sprouted up again. They did not try to reconcile such bile with the Bible. Arminianism, or semi-Pelagianism, is only a hair’s breadth difference from Roman Catholicism, which teaches that grace simply perfects nature, not that we need a new nature. We must be vigilant and discerning when it comes to first-order matters such as these.