j02893461This is a highly complex topic, so I shall give a summary followed by resources where you can find more information.  This is principally an overview for non-Calvinists who would like to know more about what Calvinists believe.  If you haven’t already done so, you might wish to read my earlier entry, Calvin’s beliefs for the non-Calvinist, beforehand. 

Calvinists developed five solas (‘alone’, from Latin) which summarise the principles of their faith and road to salvation.  These are also known as Doctrines of Grace.  More recently, they have been rearranged in an easy-to-remember acronym, TULIP. 

Why did the Calvinists decide to use ‘sola’ and not ‘solo’?  Students of Latin will recognise that ‘sola’ is in the ablative case and not the nominative.  Therefore, using ‘solo’ would imply standing alone from God.  ‘Sola’ implies that each of these doctrines is an instrument of God by which He reveals Himself to us so that we may obtain salvation through faith in Christ.  

The solas, or Doctrines of Grace, are as follows:

  • Sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone): The Bible is the only inspired and authoritative Word of God.  It needs no interpretation and can be clearly understood by all.  (N.B.: Until Vatican II, Catholics were discouraged from reading the Bible on their own, in case they misinterpreted it.  Even today, the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions rely on Apostolic Tradition for scriptural interpretation and understanding.)  Calvinists consider this to be the formal principle, or the source and norm of the material principle of sola fide. 
  • Sola Fide (by Faith alone): Sola Fide means that there is a communication of Christ’s merits to sinners. It is not a declaration of an individual’s sinlessness. Furthermore, one’s good works are not enough for salvation;  one must also have faith. Sola Fide is the material principle, or cause, of the Reformation as it was the foremost doctrinal issue for Calvin, Luther and other Reformers.  It is believed by Calvinists, Lutherans, Anglicans — and Catholics.  However, where the Reformers and the Catholics differ is on the means by which one is justified.  Catholics believe that good works go hand in hand with faith to lead a sinner towards salvation.  The Reformers believed that righteous works are the product of and evidence of faith alone.  This is what Protestants believe today.
  • Sola Gratia (by Grace alone): Divine grace comes to man unearned, or gratuitously, from God.  Catholics believe that man must earn this grace.  Protestants believe that man has no influence on meriting God’s grace or gaining more of it.  Calvinists refer to monergism when discussing this principle, i.e. God acts alone (‘mono’).  On the other hand, Catholics believe in synergism, that man must work with God to earn heavenly grace.  It should be pointed out that Lutherans believe that Sola Gratia works with gratia universalis (God’s will of the salvation of all people).
  • Solus Christus / Solo Christo (through / by Christ alone):  This principle rejects all intermediators between Christ and man.  In other words, it rejects the notion of popes via apostolic succession, Marian devotions, etc.
  • Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God alone):  Salvation is accomplished only through God’s will and action.  This means that Jesus’ crucifixion was the ultimate act of atonement.  The crucifixion also brought us faith, which the Holy Spirit instils in us.  Calvinists believe that Catholic saints and popes do not deserve the glory they see Catholics accord them.  God is responsible for all good works, therefore we owe Him, and Him alone, glory.  

Calvinists speak of ‘four-point’ or ‘three-and-a-half-point’ theologians and ministers.  This refers to the number of solas they adhere to.  A true Calvinist adheres to all five, whereas  Lutherans, for example, adhere to three: Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide and Sola Gratia.

Today, the Reformed churches use an acronym with Sunday School students and adults wishing to convert.  It is known as TULIP and summarises the above solas:

  • Total Depravity: Because of original sin, man is incapable of doing good.  Hence, he is in a state of total depravity.  Therefore, God gives the gift of faith to the sinner.  What good the sinner does comes from God through the Holy Spirit.
  • Unconditional Election: God chooses the elect through His own will.  His selection is not based on man’s faith or repentance.  He brings the Elect to Him through the power of the Holy Spirit.  The sinner cannot bring himself to be chosen by God.
  • Limited Atonement: Christ’s death on the Cross was a substitute for the elect having to suffer the penalty of sin themselves.  Christ’s crucifixion accomplishes everything that needs to be done in order for the elect to be saved.  
  • Irresistible Grace: Everyone who hears the Gospel receives a call to God.  However, the elect receive a special call, through which the Spirit draws sinners to Christ.  The elect follow this call without resistance, or irresistably.  The Spirit causes the elect to do everything necessary to come to Christ. As salvation is inevitable for the elect, this means that God’s grace is invincible.
  • Perseverance / Preservation of the Saints: The elect are chosen by God, redeemed by Christ and given faith by the Spirit.  They are always saved.  They are kept in faith by the power of Almighty God and persevere to the end.  Even though they fall prey to temptation and may commit grievous sin, they will never be lost to Christ. By contrast, those who profess belief then fall away from God were never part of the elect in the first place and, as such, were never in grace. 

The conclusion to draw from these tenets of Calvinism are that we can accomplish nothing without God, for we are incapable of doing so.  Whilst Calvinists cannot be sure they are among the elect, there are indications in their daily lives that might help to give them an answer.  Here is an interesting essay on the subject called True and False Assurance, by Thomas Brooks.

For further information, please see the following resources which will take time to read and understand:

Special call-out to five-point Calvinists: please feel free to comment on the above.  Thanks in advance!