Five beliefs upheld by Calvinists that don’t undermine the doctrines of grace

Calvinists subscribe to the doctrines of grace. These are typically summed up by the ‘five points of Calvinism’. As a mnemonic device, we use the acronym TULIP:

  1. Total Depravity
  2. Unconditional Election
  3. Limited Atonement
  4. Irresistable Grace
  5. Perseverance of the Saints

Despite how these doctrine of grace are sometimes presented, here are some things that Calvinists still believe.

People can do good things

Total Depravity teaches that everything we do is affected by sin. But we believe in Total Depravity not Utter Depravity. One only has to look around at the world to see many unbelievers helping other people, being kind and doing all sorts of things that we wouldn’t exactly describe as evil. Total Depravity does not deny that people – all of whom bear the imago dei – are capable of great good. It simply teaches that the effects of sin reach into all of our hearts and corrupts all of our human faculties such that nothing we do is unaffected. It means there are no inherently good people by nature because we all inherit the same sinful nature from Adam.

Total Depravity teaches that sin affects every part of a person – body/mind and soul – but it doesn’t teach that we have no potential to ever do good. The image of God remains on us and our consciences, though affected by sin, make us capable of making moral decisions. We also believe that God himself restrains evil which, from a human perspective, works itself out as people doing good.

We can actually please God

Unconditional Election states that God chooses us entirely apart from anything favourable or good he sees in us. God neither chooses us because of anything we have done nor because he looks to the future and sees that we will choose him. He elects us based upon the goodness of his own sovereign will.

Nonetheless, we still believe it is possible to please God. The Bible teaches that ‘without faith it is impossible to please God’. The implication, considering the comment comes after the great roll call of faith in Hebrews, is that with faith it is possible to please God. Although the Lord chooses us despite ourselves, we can nonetheless please him when we act in faith. There is nothing inherently about us that would cause God to choose us but, as his children by faith, it is possible for us to please him. Though all that we do is tainted by sin, we are nonetheless capable – through faith in Christ – of doing that which pleases God.

We do choose Christ

Although Unconditional Election teaches that God chooses us based upon his own sovereign good will, Calvinists do not deny that we choose God. Clearly, our will is involved in our coming to faith. The question is not whether we choose God or not (the Calvinist agrees that we do), it is whether God’s will is primary in our coming to faith.

It is evidently true that all who are real believers in Christ have chosen to follow him. It is clear they have, to quote the old hymn, ‘decided to follow Jesus’. The Calvinist simply notes the words of Jesus himself, ‘no one can come to the Father unless the Father who sent me draws him’ (John 6:44) and ‘no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father’ (John 6:65). We do choose Christ and our will is actually involved in deciding to follow him, but the Father’s will is primary in our decision. Apart from his will and a supernatural drawing of the Spirit, we cannot choose him.

The gospel is for all

Limited Atonement teaches that Christ died for the elect. His death covers the sin of those who put their trust in him by faith. Jesus’ death is sufficient to cover the sin of all people but it only actually covers the sin of those who believe by faith in him. Jesus did not die for every single person in the world, he died for those who were chosen by the Father before the world began and who ultimately put their trust in Christ as saviour.

Nonetheless, the Calvinist believes the gospel is for all people. The call of Christ goes out to all people. We do not believe that we are called to determine the elect and focus our attention solely upon them. We treat everybody as potentially elect. Christ died so that sinners might be saved from every tribe, tongue and nation. We believe the gospel is good news for everybody and we are called to take it to all. The only way we can know who is elect is when they hear the gospel and respond to it in repentance and faith. The Calvinist believe the gospel is good news for all people.

You can fall away

The doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints teaches that true believers will persevere for Christ until the very end of their life (or until Christ returns). It teaches that those who are truly saved will not, and cannot, lose their salvation.

However, that people do fall away is clear. One only has to look at those who have faithfully attended church over the years, and those who appeared to joyfully follow the Lord, suddenly turning away and renouncing him. It is possible for people to fall away from Jesus. The Calvinist, along with everybody else, sees such things.

The teaching is not ‘once saved, always saved’ as if a one-time prayer of repentance means you are certainly saved no matter how far away from Christ you wander. The doctrine is of perseverance. It teaches those who are truly saved will continue with the Lord and cannot fall away. The Calvinist accepts that people do fall away and it is possible for those who appeared to be saved to prove that they never truly were. The Perseverance of the Saints teaches that the elect cannot fall away. But the only surefire evidence of this is when those who profess faith, and worked that faith out in practice, continue to do so until their dying day. It is almost a tautology. Those who cannot lose their faith are the elect who never actually lose their faith.

The Calvinist accepts that people can fall away and ‘lose their salvation’ but they would argue that such people were never truly saved and thus didn’t have any salvation to lose.


  1. It’s important to realize that the reason why unbelievers do things that are seemingly “good” is NOT because they are capable of doing good, but because God has provided a providential hand of restraining grace that keeps them from descending into the fulfillment of what you call “utter depravity”.

    Utter depravity is a fact; left to our own devices we, all of us, would sink to be as bad as we could possibly be, and we would revel in it. A quick glance through Genesis 4 and following confirms this. It’s what Romans 1 describes happening when God “gives [us] over” to our sinful inclinations as a society. The only reason we don’t see more of it is because God has provided a measure of common grace to keep us from killing each other.

    The antidote isn’t to somehow make total depravity not seem so depraved, but to highlight just how bad we are in light of God’s perfect holiness, and then how only the gospel provides the remedy.

  2. Okay sounds good. It’s funny you mention losing the point because I was just thinking that of myself after I typed that long response. Maybe we’re just talking past each other and getting lost in different terminology or really talking about two distinct questions/issues. Looking forward to the next post.

  3. Anthony,

    I think there is probably more agreement here than it may appear. One can sometimes get lost in the fog of these ongoing conversations and, to some degree, lose the point one was originally trying to make (and, forgive me, I sense I am getting to that point now).

    I have a post coming out tomorrow which is a direct quote from Calvin’s institutes with a link to Derek Thomas at Ligonier that is about what I’m saying.

    You will see the first half of Calvin’s comment looks like he is agreeing absolutely with the basic premise ‘unbelievers can do good’ and the second half seems to deny it. That’s because I think the truth is both/and. I agree with you that, in an ultimate sense and as pertains to righteousness, unbelievers can do no good (Calvin states it as not being able to call it properly, or truly, good). But he, nonetheless, acknowledges virtue among unbelievers and calls it a ‘gift of God’.

  4. Thanks Stephen. I think your number here helps so I’ll try to go with that.
    Skipping 1 & 2 since we agree.
    3. I disagree here. If it is not pleasing to God, how is it good according to his standard?
    4. I think that the second half of your statement speaks to what I think is the issue, which is separating the motivation from the act. God takes no pleasure in the act or the individual because both are sinful. The only sense that it could be said God takes pleasure in the act is that it fulfills his ordained will and is pleasing to him only in that a sinful act is used to accomplish his good will.
    5. Sorry for the misunderstanding there, thanks for clarifying. My response here would be the same as to #3.
    6. “Their motivation does, indeed, make their actions 100% sinful. But Paul was in no doubt that the act of the gospel being preached was objectively good.” I believe you are in contradiction here. How can it be 100% sinful yet also be objectively good? I think you are confusing the objective goodness of the gospel itself with the act of preaching the gospel, which can be good or evil depending on motivation. That is, the content is objectively good, but we are not judging content we are judging works of men. With a sinful motivation the work is sinful and not good.
    7. “I believe God’s decree is the final arbiter of goodness and if, in his sovereignty, he causes unbeliever to act rightly, the act is – indeed – good.” My understanding is that before God can decree for an unbeliever to act rightly they must first be born again and do good works in faith. I see the good things people do as having two inseparably linked components: the outward virtue of the act, and the inner motivation of the act. If either is sinful then the whole is sinful, because you cannot separate them, only distinguish them.

    “I do maintain a distinction between the act and the motive. Conversely, we can act wrongly out of the best of motives – I don’t see why the inverse couldn’t be true?” Why is it that we can act wrongly out of the best motives if it isn’t for the fact that we can only distinguish between the inner/outter and not separate them? If we are only distinguishing between the outward act and the motive, then we still have to treat the work as a whole which is condemned based on a failure to either act right outwardly or inwardly in motivation. This is why the converse would not be true, because they are linked. If we separate them (which I believe is the position you are really taking here), then an act can be found to be right if either condition is met. So if the outward act is right then it’s good, or if the inward motivation is right then it is good. Basically I see a good work as having to be qualified by both inner/outter, you argument depends on seeing a good work as qualified by either inner/outer. That poses problems however because you’ve already stated that an act is wrong if the outward component is evil even with good intent.
    8. I would answer this by asking this question: if God directly causes an unbeliever to do an externally good act, but with wrong motivation, doesn’t that impute evil to God because he has directly caused something to be done that is not of faith?
    9. “In short, if God is causing something objectively good to come about (e.g. Cyrus) we can’t deny that the act is good, because God ordained it, but nor can we deny that Cyrus (an unbeliever) did it.” This partly depends on what standard or definition are you using to determine if something is objectively good. The external act? The motivation? Both?

    “The same act cannot be both good and bad and, given scripture calls that particular one good, it is difficult to argue that the Lord simply “permitted” it. If the Lord *caused* Cyrus to do good, then the act itself must be good, even if Cyrus’ motivation was sinful in some way.” I would argue that God did an objectively good thing here, not Cyrus on account of his motivation. Can you reference the verse that says the Lord said Cyrus did good? I can’t seem to find it since there are a lot of places that refer to Cyrus. I think that caused and permitted are more or less synonymous. Examples of this would be in Exodus where it says that God hardened Pharoah’s heart, or in Isaiah 45:7, “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity”. It’s not that God creates darkness, he creates light. Darkness is a byproduct of removing the light, so it could be said he permitted darkness. In other words, his creation of darkness is caused secondarily. The point being that just because God decreed it doesn’t make the act good when it was sinful. It could only be right to say that it was used for good, but still not good in and of itself.

    On a side note, I found a good resource from John Piper that may describe some of this a little better than I can. That’s not to say that just because he more or less is saying the same thing that it’s right, but that I’m at least not totally making it up. Follow the link and go to Section 3.

    Blessings, Anthony

  5. Oops…Looks like I can’t spell. The last letter in GOSPEL is “L” which is Lasting Grace. My apology.

  6. The GOSPEL of GRACE. I heard this acrostic many years ago. Although I like TULIP the word GOSPEL doesn’t offend those who dislike TULIP. G- The Gospel of Grace, O- Omnipotent Grace, S- Sovereign Grace, P- Particular Grace, E- Effectual Grace and E- Everlasting Grace. There you have it: GOSPEL!!!!

  7. You’ve said a lot there, so let’s try and take each bit at a time.

    1. Yes, believers motivated to do good in faith is pleasing to God in an ultimate sense. Clearly we are agreed here.
    2. You state ‘The question of the purity of such works is of no consequence since the motivation is (at least in part) pure and it is done in faith’. Again, what is both Biblical in outcome and offered in faith is pleasing to God. So, yes, we’re in agreement here.
    3. Whilst we agree that ‘works done outside of faith’ are not ultimately pleasing to God, that is to say he is not pleased with the individual doing them because they are not offered in faith, this does not disqualify the act itself from being good.
    4. If we believe in objective morality, by definition, obeying a moral imperative (i.e. a command of God) is fundamentally good, even if the individual obeying God has no heart for him and thus God takes no pleasure in the individual.
    5. You misunderstand my point re the homeless. I agree the perception of the homeless man does not, of itself, make the act good. My point was that his being fed *is* of itself a good act, even if offered by an unbeliever (as per #4) and even if the Lord takes no pleasure in the one doing the deed.
    6. I agree with you re the mixing of sin/goodness in terms of the way the Lord view the individual. That is, to take the 1 Php example, the Lord was obviously not pleased with the individuals preaching for selfish gain. Their motivation does, indeed, make their actions 100% sinful. But Paul was in no doubt that the act of the gospel being preached was objectively good. They were capable of doing what was objectively good despite their sinful motive for doing it, which therefore would have been accounted as sin against them. There is a distinction between how the Lord views the act and how he regards the individual undertaking it.
    7. Given that I believe in objective moral values, I do not believe that something done in faith or towards God is the final arbiter of goodness, no. I believe God’s decree is the final arbiter of goodness and if, in his sovereignty, he causes unbeliever to act rightly, the act is – indeed – good. The motivation of an individual may render it valueless before the Lord, perhaps even sinful in its motivation, but the act is nonetheless good. I do maintain a distinction between the act and the motive. Conversely, we can act wrongly out of the best of motives – I don’t see why the inverse couldn’t be true?
    8. Again, I agree, that God ordains evil merely by permitting it and is not its cause. But I also believe anything good that comes to pass is down to the direct intervention of God. I believe God causes believer and unbeliever alike to do good. The unbeliever may do it from sin but the good remains good and is caused by the Lord himself, just as any good we may do is a result of the Lord working through us as believers. What marks it out as acceptable to him or otherwise is, as you rightly say, its offering in faith. What makes it a good act is the objective reality corresponding to God’s decree and is thus a work of God himself.

    Sorry about final paragraph, written in haste and not easy to follow (apologies). I meant something close to #8. All good emanates from God, whether done by believers or unbelievers. Motivation may be sinful on the part of the actor but the objective goodness of the action itself is determined by its correspondence to God’s expressed command. In short, if God is causing something objectively good to come about (e.g. Cyrus) we can’t deny that the act is good, because God ordained it, but nor can we deny that Cyrus (an unbeliever) did it. The same act cannot be both good and bad and, given scripture calls that particular one good, it is difficult to argue that the Lord simply “permitted” it. If the Lord *caused* Cyrus to do good, then the act itself must be good, even if Cyrus’ motivation was sinful in some way.

  8. A believer motivated by faith to do good works is doing something pleasing to God, because it is in faith to Him and directed toward Him. The question of the purity of such works is of no consequence since the motivation is (at least in part) pure and it is done in faith. Scripture declares these types of works good pleasing to God since both qualifiers (the act be motivated by faith and be biblical) are met, though imperfectly. That implies the inverse to also be true, that “good” works done outside of faith are not truly good since the important qualifier of faith is missing since it is faith that motivates us toward glory to God. Romans 3 supports this.

    As far as the homeless example goes, how they perceive the acts of an unbeliever is irrelevant if God perceives it to be sinful if it was not done to his glory. What I’m saying is that for the unbeliever, the act is not just tainted by sin, and is some sort of mixture of good and evil, but that it is 100% sinful in it’s scope, yet not 100% sinful in degree. Meaning, it’s 100% sinful because it’s not done to the glory of God in faith, but not as sinful as one could act (which would land us in the Utter Depravity side of things).

    When you say that you don’t think the Lord needs to overrule, I’m taking that to mean that you don’t think that the motive of a good work done in relation toward God is the final determining factor of the goodness. If that is the correct understanding of your statement, then I think it fails at the 1st commandment, and also at what Jesus qualifies as the greatest commandment “To love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength”. A sinful motivation is a failure to love him in heart and mind, at best. That makes the whole act sinful.

    What I’m seeing is what may be a false separation of the motivation from the act itself. This is why from a Calvinist perspective, I’m careful to state that God never actually does an evil thing, but only ordains and allows it. Since even if it was for an ultimate good, to actually do the act would impute evil to God even though the motivation was good. So you can’t exactly separate the two.

    Can you explain a little further what you meant in your last paragraph? I think I missed what you’re trying to say there.



  9. Show me the believer with 100% pure motives on anything? We remain stricken by sin too.

    The preaching of the gospel is good, despite the motives. I might feed the homeless to show how loving and caring I am. I don’t think the Lord needs to overrule (any more than he does with any other act of goodness which all originate with him anyway) for the good of the homeless to be fed to be a good (and I’m not sure the homeless would worry about that either). The act is good even if the motive isn’t.

    That means the act of goodness is tainted with the sin of bad motives but the act is still good of itself. It earns no merit with God, he is not pleased by the sinful motive but to dent the act is good is false.

    I think it worth saying you seem to be separating God’s act from the individual at any rate. If God “overrules”, how do you think he does so? Any act of goodness is of God’s sovereign will. God is the author of all good. The person acting doesn’t undermine God’s sovereignty and God’s sovereignty doesn’t undermine the actors will and responsibility. They are both compatible and both involved.

  10. I think it may be somewhat gratuitous to say that Paul is declaring their acts good. It could just as easily be taken to mean that God will use a sinful act (preaching Christ out of envy) to do an objective good (salvation of souls, edification of the saints, etc.). The caveat of course is that the content of the preaching is itself pure. Paul rejoices because either way God in his sovereignty will use the good (Christ preached from goodwill) or the evil (Christ preached from envy) to accomplish his will.

  11. I would throw 1 php 1:15-18 back at you. Paul seems to think the gospel preached is good despite the terrible motives going on.

    Again, total depravity does not teach that people are as bad as they could be. Thus, whilst wrong motives taint any good we do, it doesn’t make an objectively good act bad of itself. It makes the motive sinful rather than the act itself.

  12. Thanks Stephen, those are some good points and I’m inclined to accept what you’re saying, but I’m still stumbling over a couple of things so I would be interested in your response to the following.

    In your examples of the unbeliever refusing to commit adultery and Cyrus the Great, what do you do with the motivations of such “good” actions? Would a sinful motivation for an unbeliever to not commit adultery then make his seemingly good act turn out to not be so good after all? Same with Cyrus. That sort of goes back to my statement that anything not done for the glory of God in faith is really a sinful act since its done for the glory of something else. So even though it may be morally and objectively good on a human level, it is not so from God’s perspective since he also sees the sinful motivation in the human heart.

    I think in the end it’s really the motivational aspect that I tough to get past. How can a “good” act done for the wrong motivation actually be good? To me the distinction between human perception of goodness and God’s goodness solve that.


  13. Thanks for your comment Anthony.

    Whilst you are right, a distinction does need to be made, I’m not convinced it is between God’s perspective and a human perspective. Nor is the distinction a simple objective/subjective one. Rather, it is between ‘good’ as it pertains to meritorious righteousness and justification, and ‘good’ as it pertains to human behaviour.

    Paul in Romans 3 is talking about goodness that earns favour with God. He is expressing the same truth of Is 64:6. That this is what he means is made clear when he speaks about nobody ‘seeking after God’ in the same verse. As Total Depravity states, nobody is inherently good by nature and nobody naturally seeks after God.

    But there is a difference between inherent goodness and objective goodness. There is no denying, for example, the unbeliever who refuses to commit adultery and determines to stay with his wife is doing good. Similarly, those who feed the hungry, care for the poor and all manner of things. These things are most certainly good, and good as defined by the Lord himself. That these things earn no favour with God, do nothing to merit righteousness nor make an individual inherently good, they are nonetheless good of themselves.

    If you want a biblical example of this, consider the good of Cyrus the Great letting the exiles return to Israel. Cyrus was not a believer, and never became one, but was moved by God to do this. Whilst it in no way earned him salvation nor bought favour with God, and though it doesn’t make him an inherently good person, the Bible states this was an objectively good thing done by an unbeliever.

    Total Depravity does not deny that unbelievers can do what is objectively good. Both the imago dei and the restraint of evil by a sovereign God permit this view. We do deny that such acts of goodness render anybody less than totally depraved and that they in any way merit favour with God. But we affirm, nonetheless, these acts are objectively good.

  14. I think I agree with all of this except the first point. Romans 3:12 states, “no one does good, not even one.” I think at this point some distinctions need to be made. From a righteous and holy God’s perspective, no one does good. However, good works done in faith are pleasing to God. That said, on a human level, people can do good all the time, even outside of faith. Any externally “good” thing not done for the glory of God is done for the glory of something else, making it sinful. Just think that maybe this distinction would be helpful in the first point.

  15. … points as well. Too often hyper-Calvinism is presented as Calvinism.

  16. Excellent summing up, especially on total depravity and perseverance of the saints, but on the other

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