/ Gentle Reformation

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 Depravity — _my 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
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