The most common way Calvinist doctrines are expressed is through the acronym " TULIP." It is important to note that this acronym is by no means exhaustive. Reformed Protestants believe many more things than those which are expressed by TULIP. TULIP, far from being a thorough expression of the Reformed belief-system, is simply an easy-to-remember presentation of the five major doctrines that distinguish Calvinists from the other Protestant sects.
TULIP stands for the following doctrinal beliefs:
Perseverance of the Saints
Total depravity is perhaps the most misunderstood of the five-points of Calvinism. Like most people who first hear the phrase "total depravity," my mind conjured up an image of a hardened criminal sitting on death row, awaiting his execution. I imagined a man so calloused by evil and sin that his every action was laden with evil intent and desire. Although this is how total depravity is commonly understood, it is quite inaccurate. Contrary to what the title might suggest, total depravity is not the belief that fallen human beings are as sinful as they possibly can be (a belief that would perhaps better be titled: utter depravity). Total depravity should be understood in terms of the "radical corruption" of human nature, or the " total inability" of the will to choose the good. A Calvinist believes that the effects of original sin are so great that man no longer has the ability to choose the good. He is bound to sin. He loves evil and darkness. He hates Truth and the Light. The Westminster Confession of Faith states that we have " wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto" (9.3).
Catholic Response: For a Calvinist to be truly consistent with this belief, he has to believe than even babies who die at birth are necessarily doomed to hell because of the depraved condition of their soul. It doesn't matter that they, themselves, never had the opportunity to commit any sins. All that matters is the fact that they are born radically corrupt. While many Calvinist squirm at this point and argue that God "makes exceptions" when it comes to those who die before the age of reason, they are still faced with the true gravity of their theology. It is impossible for God to punish someone unjustly. How, therefore, could God fully damn the soul of a stillborn child for sins he/she didn't commit? Such a position is indeed repulsive and contrary to the character of God.
In paragraph 405m the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that original sin is a "deprivation of original holiness and justice." However, it notes that "human nature has not been totally corrupted" (emphasis added). Original sin is the result of Adam and Eve's act of rebellion. We are un-graced because of the fall. We lack the sanctifying grace that we originally possessed. But we are not totally depraved. Because of Adam and Eve's sin, we lack our original status as covenantal family members with God (original justice). We have fallen from that original position of grace. We are now "dis-graced creatures." We have fallen from our filial position in God's covenantal family. We now transmit human life apart from the divine life for which human life was created. We impart a fallen nature to our children. However, we do not transmit Adam and Eve's personal sin. God does not look upon a newborn baby and see Adam and Eve's specific/personal sin. We are all implicated in Adam's sin, but we don't receive Adam's sin. We receive a wounded nature that is deprived of grace and inclined towards evil (concupiscence), but we do not receive a totally depraved nature. Thus, as the Catechism states, original sin is sin "contracted and not committed." We are born into a "state [of sin] and not an act" (#404).
Unconditional election is connected to the "Reformed view" of Predestination, and it builds upon their belief in total depravity. Because mankind is so radically corrupt, so thoroughly sinful, and so diametrically opposed to all things good (especially the ultimate Good: God Himself), man cannot even take the first step towards saving grace. In his book, Grace Unknown, noted Calvinist theologian R.C. Sproul presents the Reformed view of election as follows: "From all eternity God decided to save some members of the human race and to let the rest of the human race perish" (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997, p. 141). Thus, the reason why some people "choose" to embrace God is because God chose them first. God's choice is " unconditional." His sovereign choice is not at all dependent upon any inherent good or merit he sees within us. A Calvinist would vehemently disagree with the belief that God merely "foreknows" who will come to saving faith, and thus bases His choice upon human decision. God isn't a celestial Santa Clause who looks down the corridor of time to see who's been "naughty or nice." He chooses us not because He sees any particular value or worth in some that is lacking in others. Rather it is only because of the mystery of His sovereign will that He chooses some and not others.
Catholic Response: Many Catholics are shocked when they discover that the Church actually permits one to hold a view similar to the Calvinist view. While the Church by no means enforces it as dogma, this is a legitimate doctrinal option for an orthodox Catholic. Generally speaking, those within the Church who embrace this view of predestination are called Thomists (i.e. people who follow the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas). The Thomists argue that God's love is the cause of all goodness, and thus no one would be better equipped to choose God (the "Ultimate Good") unless he were more loved by God. God's love infuses and creates goodness in things. Granted, God gives grace to all ("sufficient grace"), but to certain people He gives an "extra-measure" of grace that infallibly produces results ("efficacious grace"). I cannot (in-and-of myself) muster up enough "goodness" to embrace God. His special love and grace are necessary even in my initial decision to choose Him. Contrary to what one might think, it isn't a matter of God's efficacious grace or human free-will. Rather, it is a matter of God's efficacious grace and human free-will. It is only in and through God's grace that we can truly be free. Again, the Church does not teach that one must adhere to this view, but it is important to note that it is a legitimate option with the Church. (For an extensive treatment of this topic, I recommend that one read Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange's excellent book entitled Predestination (Rockford: Tan Books & Publishers, Inc., 1999)).
Limited atonement is the perhaps the most controversial of the "five-points of Calvinism." Limited atonement refers to the belief that Christ's death on the cross was only designed for those whom He had chosen to save (i.e. He only died for the predestined "elect"). Not surprisingly, this doctrinal affirmation has been the source of much controversy within Protestant circles. Many people feel that it undervalues the efficacy of Christ's death on the cross.
It is important to understand, however, that Calvinists are not questioning the infinite value of Christ's death. They agree that Christ's death is sufficient for all, and that it could theoretically atone for the sins of each and every person. What they don't believe is that Christ's death is efficient for all, and that it actually saves each and every person. They believe that because He has chosen a limited number of people to be saved. He will only die for that limited number of people. The argument runs something like this: 1) the purpose of Christ's death was to save people, 2) God only chose a set number of people to be saved, therefore 3) Christ only died for those whom He had chosen to save (the elect).
Catholic Response: Scripturally, the Calvinist position is difficult to hold. 1 Timothy 2:6 states that Christ "gave himself as a ransom for all." 2 Corinthians 5:15 says that Christ "has died for all." 1 John 2:2 says that Jesus is "the expiation for our sins, and not of ours only but also for the sins of the whole world." In light of these and many other passages in Scripture, the Calvinist understanding of limited atonement quickly crumbles. The Bible is emphatic about the fact that Christ's died for all men. The Catechism states that the Church "following the apostles, teaches that Christ died for all men without exception: 'There is not, never has been, and never will be a single human being for whom Christ did not suffer '" (#605).
While we must affirm the universality of Christ's death on the cross, it is interesting to note that there is a sense in which Christ's atonement is limited. While Christ died for the sins of all men, it is quite obvious that not all men have, in fact, received the full benefits of Christ's death (or else all men would be saved). Rather, Catholics believe that while Christ went to the cross with the intention of making salvation possible for all men, He did not, therefore, necessarily make salvation actual for all men (this would be the heresy of universalism). The salvific effect of the atonement is limited by those who receive (and those who do not receive) the benefits of Christ's saving death on the cross.
Irresistible grace can be summed up in the brief statement that " regeneration precedes (saving) faith." That is, Christ regenerates fallen human beings - making them spiritually alive - and gives them both the ability and the irrevocable desire to embrace Him. No one can resist God's efficacious call. It is impossible for someone to be regenerated by God and not embrace Him. Why? Well, building on the previous three "TULIP points," the Calvinist believes that regeneration so opens up the eyes of the sinner that he will not be able to refuse God's call. The offer of salvation is just so beautiful and attractive that no man will be able to reject it. A Calvinist does not believe that God drags people into heaven, kicking and screaming. Once a person is regenerated, there is nothing that could possibly prevent him from embracing His Savior. He enters the gates of heaven with inexpressible joy because that's the only place where his heart can find true rest and contentment.
Catholic Response: One of the crucial differences that exist between Catholics and Calvinists is their understanding of when and how regeneration occurs. For a Catholic, regeneration - spiritual re-birth - occurs at baptism. For the Calvinist, baptism is important, but it does not necessarily have regenerative powers: it is possible for someone to be baptized and not be regenerate (and vice versa).
It is interesting to note, however, that a Catholic does not have to disagree with the Calvinists about the existence of grace that is " irresistible" or "efficacious." As noted earlier, too many people reduce the issue to a matter of human free-will or divine grace, when it is really a matter of human free-will and divine grace. God is a God of love, and His love produces "irresistible" results in us: His chosen sons and daughters.
P is the final letter in the Calvinist's five-point TULIP, and it stands for perseverance of the saints. Perseverance of the saints is the belief that once God has begun a saving work within the life of a Christian, He will not let that person (ultimately) fall from grace. Sin and temptation are still very real in the lives of God's children, but it is impossible for a true Christian to renounce his faith. A Calvinist emphatically rejects the idea of mortal sin. Any person who is 1) truly chosen/elected by God, 2) truly saved by Christ's death on the cross, and 3) truly drawn to our Lord, will not forsake his salvation. He can't lose his salvation, nor will he want to. A Calvinist will admit that there are a lot of people who go through a " conversion experience" and later appear to fall-away from their faith. A Calvinist can only shrug when confronted with these unfortunate instances and say that the person was never truly saved in the first place.
Catholic Response: One of the most jaw-dropping verses for me as a Protestant was 1 John 5:16-17: "If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal." (emphasis added). How more obvious could the Biblical writer be about the existence of "mortal" sins? While all sins are evil and harmful to the sinner, there are sins which are fatal to the spiritual health of one's soul. It's a Biblical fact: some people do fall from grace. This is something that we have all seen experienced. Rather than causing us to despair, however, this should drive us to our knees in earnest prayer, asking our Lord to ever and always strengthen us in our battle with sin and temptation.