Solas, TULIP, and other summaries

Teachers often help students to learn things by giving them a list of words or letters that is easy to remember. For instance, you may remember the names of the five Great Lakes using the acronym “HOMES”. Similar learning tools exist for Christian doctrine. They can be useful for remembering key points and for guiding your thoughts. In this article I discuss a few examples.

The Five Solas

During the Reformation, the Protestant churches emphasized that our salvation comes from God alone. They rejected human traditions in theology, and denied that our good works play a role in our salvation. This Protestant understanding was summarized in three short statements, three “Solas”; later, two more were added.

Sola Scriptura“Scripture alone”The Bible is the only ultimate authority for determining Christian doctrine. No human tradition may be given that status.
Sola gratia“by grace alone”We are saved because of God’s grace alone. We do not contribute to our salvation in any way.
Sola fide“by faith alone”We are saved only in the way of faith in Jesus Christ. While good works belong to a Christian life, they are not how we are saved.
Solus Christus“Christ alone”Jesus Christ is the one who saves, the one in whom we believe, the one to whom we pray. Angels, Mary, or other saints are not our saviours.
Soli Deo gloria“to God alone be glory”In all of our salvation, all glory must be given to God; not to ourselves, our good works, the church, or anyone else.

Especially the original three statements—sola Scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide—are helpful to remember the key points of the Reformation. But it is important to understand the context. For instance, “sola Scripture” does not mean that we should reject the use of confessions in the church; and “sola fide” does not mean that there is no need for good works in the Christian life.

Sin, salvation, service

The Heidelberg Catechism divides its teaching material into three parts. They can be remembered as

  • sin
  • salvation
  • service

As Christians, we must understand that we are born with sin, and therefore need to be saved. Our salvation has come in the person of Jesus Christ, and all that he has done. Because we have been saved, we ought to show thankfulness to God, as we serve him in our whole life.

It is very useful to keep these three aspects in mind. When people have a skewed view of the Christian faith, it is often because they forget about one of these three. If you forget about sin, you can become arrogant and unloving. If you forget about salvation, you can become moralistic, depressed about your own failures and critical toward others. If you forget about service, you easily end up separating your faith from your everyday life.

But be careful: sin, salvation, service are not three stages in the Christian life. For instance, sin will remain with us until our death, and service is the calling of every Christian, even those who are new to the faith.


The acronym TULIP was developed about a century ago to summarize the main points in the Canons of Dort. They stand for the following:

Total depravityCoD III/IVEverything unregenerate people are, think, and do is tainted by sin. Therefore we cannot contribute anything to our salvation.
Unconditional electionCoD IGod has chosen those he will save, not on the basis of any quality in the people, but only based on his own free will.
Limited atonementCoD IIThe work of Jesus Christ was designed to save precisely those whom God has chosen.
Irresistible graceCoD III/IVWhen people come to faith, it is because the Holy Spirit has changed their hearts. This work of regeneration is purely God’s work, and does not depend on a free choice of the person.
Perseverance of the saintsCoD VIf God has chosen someone to be saved, he will give them everything they need to remain faithful. In that sense, you cannot lose your salvation.

These five items are sometimes called the Five Points of Calvinism, or the Five Doctrines of Grace.

We should be very careful with TULIP. In have met many over-zealous “Calvinists” who think that these five points are the heart of the gospel; and sometimes they misunderstand the precise teaching of the church on these points, and turn them into harsh statements that do not fit well with the way the Bible speaks.

TULIP is not a summary of the gospel. The Canons of Dort were written because some aspects of the gospel were challenged. Even the synod that wrote the Canons called it “an explanation of some points of doctrine.” While these points are important, they are not the heart of the matter. We make a big mistake, for instance, if we think God’s election to be more foundational for our faith than Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Practically, when speaking to others about our faith, we should speak about the work of Jesus listed in the Apostles’ creed, and point out the aspects of sin, salvation, and service; but TULIP must be saved for later, because it is not the heart of our faith.

Also, many have rightly criticized the words used for the TULIP acronym. They are easily misunderstood. For instance, “total depravity” does not mean that everything unbelievers do is 100% wrong. “Limited atonement” does not mean that Jesus’ sacrifice may only be offered to people we think to be elect. “Irresistible grace” does not mean that people do not often resist the activity of the Holy Spirit in their lives. And “perseverance of the saints” does not deny that we should “work our our salvation with fear and trembling”, as Paul says in Eph. 2.

All in all, TULIP is not a great teaching tool. Those who are new to the faith should study more important things first, and especially get to know the Lord Jesus and the power of his Spirit. When it becomes necessary to address the harder questions, for instance about election and the role of our free will in believing, I would encourage anyone to read the Canons of Dort themselves, instead of relying on a five-letter summary. Some things cannot be done in abbreviations!

Creation, fall, redemption, glorification

The Bible tells us the story of the world: God made the world good. But the good creation of God became subject to the curse of sin. Through the work of Jesus, believers are restored to peace with God, and that changes their lives and (to some extent) the world around them. Ultimately, at the return of Jesus, everything will be brought to glory. We can summarize this story as

  • creation
  • fall
  • redemption
  • glorification

This list of four is especially popular in the “Neo-Kuyperian” movement. There are several Christian scholars who think about history, science, literature, and so on from this perspective. See for instance Al Wolters, Creation Regained and Alvin Plantinga, Engaging God’s World.

As always, you have to be careful with this list. The four “stages” of world history are not completely separate. God’s creating work continues, in a way, as he provides for all his creatures. The fall repeats itself, in a way, whenever people rebel and sin against God. The glorification of believers begins, in a way, already in this life. It is especially important to realize that the world is redeemed only where people believe in Jesus. Still, it is a useful summary to guide our thinking about the world in which we live.

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