In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the Reformed Churches in Holland were fighting for survival. Among many of the political dangers of the day, a minister named Jacobus Arminius was teaching doctrines that had not been taught since the days of Pelagius. The churches were concerned. As these doctrines began to take hold in the churches, the Church determined that a Synod must be held to examine these teachings in the light of scripture. The Synod took place in the town of Dort in the year 1618-1619.
The “Remonstrants”, as the followers of Arminius were called, took issue with five points of Reformed Theology. They “remonstrated” against them – hence the name. They taught that man is not completely depraved, but has the power within himself apart from any divine intervention to choose what is good. They taught that God’s election was was based upon foreseen faith, and other such things.
In response to these teaching, the Synod of Dort formulated to Canons of Dordt, with five heads of doctrine answering the remonstrance of the Remonstrants. All five points of the Remonstrants were condemned as contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ. These Canons are readily available and are still confessed by confessional reformed churches. If the reader is interested, you can find them here.
These five heads of doctrine, as the canon puts it, were later turned into a mostly unfortunate acronym for the education of children. The acronym is TULIP. Total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. Much harm, though, has been done by misunderstanding the teachings of scripture and trying to fit these wondrous and profound truths into a five point acronym.
I would recommend that if you wish to fully examine these doctrines by the light of scripture, that you do so with the teachings of the Canons, rather than the acronyms of pop theology.
Unfortunately, the later history of Reformed Churches showed that we also of the Reformed tradition are totally depraved, and prone to the same illness as the rest of the world. We can become proud, condescending, harsh and argumentative, forgetting our own teachings of God’s unconditional election. Thus, far too often, these five points were turned into intellectual exercises used to hammer unsuspecting Arminians into compliance. We have, not surprisingly, been relatively unsuccessful. I say this with self-deprecating humor, and speak from my own history.
It was with tremendous joy that I recently received a personal devotional from a friend. He was seeking to understand the doctrines of scripture and examine his own soul, using the TULIP acronym. He has given me permission to reprint it here, but would rather stay anonymous.
I am showing this to you to show you that there is no true doctrine that does not stir the soul, condemn the flesh, and exalt us to the throne room of God, where he alone is glorious. May we all examine these things as my friend has, and glorify our wonderful savior, who with his precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sin.
I shall present these meditations in five parts, and it is my prayer that they will be as encouraging, stirring and exalting to you as they were to me. The rest of this blog are the words of my friend, offered without edits.
Total Depravity – It sounds so completely and irreversibly evil, that the average person would obviously not want anything to do with it, let alone be labeled with it. After all, most of us try pretty hard to get along and be kind or civil to those we meet. We don’t feel inclined to run around bashing people’s brains in. Total sounds final….depressingly finished.
I have to step back from the term to understand it. When I back away from all my “wonderful” qualities and contemplate honestly what I am – search for my flaws – if I pray “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” I am asking God to reveal my true nature –to show me my faults. Pondering this and fervently desiring truth will reveal the ugly things that most don’t want to admit.
Sin in the world has corrupted everything – including things we can’t control. Our bodies aren’t perfect. Yes, we can exercise and workout to the point that we have what the world sees as an attractive and fit body. But, we know its flaws. We know the odd little things we try to keep hidden….a little pocket of fat, oddly shaped feet, lack of hair, too much hair, strange pigmentation, intestinal disorders, dandruff, psoriasis, bad breath, constipation…..the list can go on and on. I believe everyone has some physical characteristic that makes them embarrassed or ashamed. We are discontent with the body which is actually “Wonderfully Made”. There is no perfect body. Only Adam and Eve got to try those out.
Our minds suffer from all manner of depravity- the root of which is deprave: to pervert the meaning or intention of something. The intention of our minds in their perfect state, before the fall, wouldn’t have been to be forgetful, lazy and prone to wander. Our minds wouldn’t have wasted time stroking our egos or imagining the variety of warped desires that so easily pop into our heads and to which we gladly succumb. Our minds are weak. We can pretend to understand the things of God and even argue theological points that aren’t completely revealed, convincing ourselves that we have great understanding, while actually creating a god that fits into our tiny little minds……back to that first sin…..we will be as God.
I know that I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor. Hate is a strong word but if we’re honest, we must see how often we use our minds to rationalize a way around God’s law. We often see God standing between us and great pleasure. How can He frown on something that on the surface seems so delightful? He must not understand me. Why do I have to feel so guilty? I’m not a bad person…..I just want to break his laws and suffer no consequences. Yes, I want God to go away. I know I didn’t choose Him. There was no little spark of goodness and sweetness that made me make a decision to join up with those fine Christians. They’re often annoying as hell. No, I didn’t decide. Jesus Christ grabbed my heart with a strong hand and tightened his grip. Sometimes he shakes me out of my stupor with that same grip as if saying, “Hey, where is your brother? where is your sister? where are the poor? Where is the orphan? Where is the widow? Are your children crying? Does your wife need you? Quit thinking about yourself. You are not God.” Yeah, I’m pretty much, totally depraved.
Surely Christ could not have been tempted in all points but without sinning. Could he have been tempted like me? Really? It says so. But, I want to feel alone – as if I’m the only one who ever had to deal with this. Then, I can sin and say no one understands. No one has ever felt like this……not true. That one who died for me knows. He knows. He suffered and died so that I could look at my life, my body, my DNA, my mind, my desires and say, “I am depraved….yep, pretty much totally.” But, I’m not left there. It isn’t complete and irreversible. It’s not final. I am damaged goods which appear perfect before God – washed in the blood of Christ. It is astounding! I can’t even imagine what it would be like for God to see me without sin. I don’t know what that person looks like…..not, yet.