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The Meaning of TULIP: An Exploration of the Five Points of Calvinism (Part 1 of 5)

Updated: Mar 16, 2023

The previous post discussed the Five Solas of the Reformation in detail. Check out that post here. But when it comes to Reformed theology, the discussion is incomplete without an explanation of the acronym TULIP.

TULIP is an acronym that stands for five doctrines concerning salvation:

Total Depravity

Unconditional Election

Limited Atonement

Irresistible Grace

Perseverance of the Saints

These five points grew out of the Synod of Dort in 1618-19 in the Netherlands, which centered on a debate about God's predestination and man's free will. The five points affirmed by the Synod were a refutation of the teaching of Jacob Arminius. These five points are now known as the five points of Calvinism, the TULIP, and the doctrines of grace.

In this article, we will discuss the first point, Total depravity, and the following points will be discussed in further posts.

Total Depravity

The doctrine of total depravity lays the groundwork for a biblical understanding of salvation. Total depravity refers to the extent of mankind's sinfulness. It affects the total person.

This doesn't mean we are as sinful as we could possibly be, but it means we are touched by sin in every way. It has corrupted our physical bodies, which will die one day. It has corrupted our minds, our emotions, our actions, and even our will. Total depravity means that every aspect of who we are is touched by sin, and it affects the totality of who we are.

How did we become this way? Within the first three chapters of the Bible, we learn that man was created good and innocent, but he fell into sin when he ate the forbidden fruit. The apostle Paul explains that this original sin has affected us all because Adam was our federal head. He was our representative, meaning that we all sinned when he sinned.

“For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” - 1 Corinthians 15:21-22

This is the doctrine of original sin. We are guilty in Adam, but we can't just blame Adam. We commit plenty of sin on our own. But this leads to a question that gets to the heart of the teaching on total depravity.

Why do we sin?

We sin because we are sinners by nature. Not only did we inherit Adam's guilt, but we also inherited his sinful disposition.

We often refer to our sins as mistakes. In actuality, we sin, not by mistake, as if we are always trying to do good and mess up sometimes, but rather we sin on purpose because that is what sinners do. The Bible teaches that we are desperately wicked and run toward sin because it's in our nature. Just as it's the nature of fire to be hot and of lead to be dense, it's the nature of humans to sin.

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” – Jeremiah 17:9

If we are guilty and corrupted by nature, we have a problem when it comes to salvation. Our will is corrupted by sin.

The Chooser

The will can be a confusing concept, so I like to refer to it as our "chooser." We all have a chooser, and we use it to make choices every day. I use my chooser to pick my clothes. I use my chooser to decide whether to eat an apple or a banana. I used my chooser when I asked my wife to marry me. We all have a chooser (a will), and we use it constantly. The problem with our chooser is that it's broken.

Our chooser (our will), like every aspect of who we are, is tainted by sin to the extent that, although we can make all kinds of choices, we will not choose God. Instead, we always choose evil. The Bible is clear in this regard.

“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” – Romans 3:10-11

Therefore, rather than seeking God and choosing God, the Bible teaches that we choose to follow the world and even the devil. We are so incapable of choosing God that the Bible describes us as dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1-3). In other words, our dead spirit's response to God is as lively as a graveyard.

But this raises a question: how can you say people are inherently evil when I see atheists doing good things?

No Neutrality

Nothing in life is neutral. You cannot coast. As they say, you are either going forward or backward. There is no middle ground.

Even when an atheist or anyone without Christ is doing something "good," it is, in actuality, not good. In fact, in God's eyes, it's sin. How can this be?

It comes down to trust. A religious man, a pharisee, went to the temple of God to pray, but his prayer did not clear the temple's roof because he was not trusting in God. Rather he was trusting in himself.

Luke set up the story like this: "He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt." - Luke 18:9

The pharisee wasn't an atheist. He believed in God, but his prayer was sinful because it did not flow from a heart that trusted in God. It flowed from a heart that trusted in itself (Heb. 11:6). And because he trusted in himself, even what appeared to be good turned out to be evil.

"We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment." - Isaiah 64:6

The doctrine of total depravity teaches us that we are not neutral toward God. In fact, we are hostile toward him (Rom. 8:7). Therefore, the "good" person who does not trust God but rather trusts in himself or something else is not actually good. He is contaminated by total depravity, unable, and unwilling to go to Jesus for salvation. There is no neutrality.


Total depravity means that every aspect of who we are is tainted by sin. We are born with Adam's guilt and corruption. We sin because we are sinners by nature, and our will is broken because of sin. We are not neutral toward God; in fact, we are hostile, and we will not choose him. Therefore, we need a Savior to choose us. This is where unconditional election comes in. To learn more about that, see the next post on unconditional election.



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