Why the Fifth Point Matters

I had lunch recently with a four-point Calvinist. He knew I was a five-pointer and asked why I believed in “Limited Atonement”—the one point of the five with which he disagreed. It was a sincere question, and I appreciated the opportunity to talk about such an important doctrine.

Limited Atonement (the teaching that Jesus died for specific people, not for everyone) is often the hardest to embrace of the so-called “five points of Calvinism.” (The five points, for review, are Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints—helpfully summarized in the mnemonic TULIP.)

My friend had already heard the “whole world” passages explained. Often, debate about Limited Atonement centers on passages like 1 John 2:2, “[Jesus] is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” Five-pointers understand this verse to mean that Jesus died for men, women, and children from all nations of the world—not just for believing Jews like the Apostles. My friend had already heard those explanations, but he still had a hard time accepting that Jesus died for specific individuals rather than for everyone. So I took a moment to explain why I believe all five points stand together, or must all fall if one of them falls.

The first and the last doctrines both refer to the condition of the person God is saving. “Total Depravity” describes my helpless condition as a sinner. “Perseverance of the Saints” describes my helped condition as one who is saved, once the Spirit is present in my life. These first and last points (the “T” and the “P”) describe the condition of the person whom God is saving—as a sinner and as one who is saved.

The center three points—the “U,” “L,” and “I”—describe the roles of the three Persons of the Trinity in my salvation. “Unconditional Election” refers to the fact that God the Father chose certain people on whom to shower his love. “Limited Atonement” holds that Jesus the Son went to the cross for those certain individuals whom the Father had chosen. “Irresistible Grace” describes the work of the Holy Spirit, who unfailingly stirs faith in each one of those whom the Father chose and for whom the Son died. Each of the three center letters of TULIP refer to the redemptive roles fulfilled by the Three Persons of the Trinity, respectively.

This being the case, to be a “four point Calvinist” is to suppose that one Person of the Trinity (the Son) had a different group of people in mind to save than the Father and the Spirit had in view. (It could even lead us to suppose that Jesus has a greater scope of love than the Father or the Spirit.) This is unthinkable. Because the Three Persons are one and of one mind, it is unthinkable to imagine that the Son would have a different target for his redemptive work than the Father and the Spirit have in view in their roles in redemption.

This is why, I told my friend, I believe that all five points are true or none of them are true. Ultimately, the truthfulness of these doctrines is rooted in the many Scriptures that undergird each point. (A good book explaining key texts for each point is this one.) But I’ve found that this simple explanation helps show the coherence and interdependence of the whole pentad.

  • Total Depravitymy condition as a sinner
  • Unconditional ElectionGod the Father’s choice to save specific people
  • Limited AtonementGod the Son’s sacrifice to save those specific people
  • Irresistible GraceGod the Spirit’s carefulness to bring each of those to faith
  • Perseverance of the Saintsmy condition as one saved by the Triune God

4 Comments

  1. Stephen Rhoda February 25, 2011 at 3:46 pm #

    Is it likely, therefore, that four-point-ers will have a different understanding of their four points (T-U-I-P), having declined to hold to the fifth (L)? I agree with your “all or none” assessment, but does this mean that most four-pointers are inconsistent or not even four-pointers? Just curious what you think. Otherwise, thanks for a nice post, Michael. Maybe I can get some discussion going here. -Steve

    • Michael LeFebvre February 25, 2011 at 5:23 pm #

      I think you are correct, Steve. It has often been said that a “four pointer” is really just an inconsistent “five pointer.” Not just for the reasons I’ve noted in this post, but because the whole work of salvation outlined by the five points is organically interdependent in many ways. But it is a common and very human trait that all of us possess, that we are quite able to hold inconsistent convictions within our minds without realizing the inconsistencies. Although there is no inconsistency within the mind of the Triune God (hence the realization that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit must all have the same elect persons at heart in their cooperative works of redemption), we fallible men are quite good at being inconsistent in our belief systems. That is why we all—Calvinists, Arminians, and so on—have to speak with charity and humility about these matters, and ultimately to submit our minds to the Word of God to clear away our inconsistencies and learn the mind of Christ. Thanks for the helpful comment.

  2. John dV March 28, 2012 at 4:11 am #

    I am not saying that there is no truth in what you are trying to tell the world, but perhaps you can demonstrate from SCRIPTURE the reason the ‘L’ is in TULIP! blessings John dV

    • Michael LeFebvre March 28, 2012 at 11:57 am #

      John,

      I generally like to point to Jesus’ prayer in John 17 on that point. He prays for a number of things in that prayer, but one of his reasons for praying is to consecrate himself as a sacrifice before going to the cross the next day. He tells us pretty plainly that he is consecrating himself for particular people, the same ones whom the Father had on his heart in election. For instance, Jesus says about his disciples, “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me… for their sake I consecrate myself…” (John 17:9, 19).

      That is one Scripture on the topic. There is a handy little book called “The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented” by David Steele and a couple other men which gives lots of Scripture for each of the five points. My reason for writing this blog post was not to attempt to give a complete argument for the five points (otherwise, as you note, it would be essential to start with Scripture on ALL five points). But other books offer that full explanation. My goal in this post was simply to point out one, simple (but important) observation: namely, that the three persons of the trinity are of one mind in the work of redemption; they don’t have different groups of people in view. But that is just a helpful observation; proof of these doctrines must, as you rightly say, be grounded in the exegesis of Scripture.

      Hope that helps.

      Michael

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